Book review: A More Radical Gospel, by Gerhard O. Forde


I’ve just finished reading A More Radical Gospel, a collection of essays and lectures by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005).

The essays set out elements of Forde’s vision of “radical Lutheranism”: that is, a Lutheranism that centres its ministry and identity on the proclamation of the gospel as unconditional promise, while sitting relatively lightly to historic Lutheran doctrinal formulations such as the Formula of Concord. Appropriately, the book ends with a set of sermons, allowing Forde to conclude with the direct proclamation of the gospel that is such a critical concept in his theology.

Forde is a stimulating thinker and writer, and I found these essays thought-provoking, often exciting, and (mostly) spiritually energising. What I find most helpful in Forde: his emphasis on the gospel as a first-to-second-person proclamation (“I absolve you”, “I baptise you”); what Forde calls “primary discourse” (“speaking for God”), as contrasted with the “secondary discourse” (“speaking about God”) of systematic theology, exegesis, and so on. This comes through particularly strongly in his sections on eschatology, authority and ecumenism.

Criticisms? The biggest is that I really can’t get my head round his theology of the atonement. As I understand it, Forde argues that it’s not that Jesus died to satisfy God’s justice, demonstrate God’s love or win a victory over evil. Rather, God wanted to forgive humanity unconditionally, we didn’t want it, and so we killed Jesus to keep intact our conditional, law-based approach; only for God then to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

I like Forde’s emphasis on the “brute facts” of the crucifixion, of reaching an understanding of what the cross means “from below” before we go on to ask what it means “from above”. However, I don’t think he even does justice to the event considered “from below” – do the Gospels really present Jesus’ death simply as a refusal by his hearers to accept unconditional forgiveness? – which makes Forde’s argument about its meaning “from above” feel unconvincing. In the end, one is left wondering how necessary or central the cross is to the gospel, if understood in Forde’s terms. It also seems to leave a lot of biblical data unaccounted for.

To end on a more positive (though still controversial note), I liked Forde’s approach to ecumenism: above all his emphasis on the church’s identity (and hence its true, albeit hidden unity) being found in the activity of the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as gospel; an activity which is not confined to any one denomination or tradition. This involves setting aside a confessional Lutheran insistence on full doctrinal agreement as a precondition for altar fellowship (which I know some reading this will disagree with strongly); but it also allows for a distinctly Lutheran approach to ecumenical dialogue, rather than seeking bland compromise formulas in which “every cat is grey”.

After the fold, I’ve posted the brief summary notes I wrote on each essay to aid my own recollection. They may not make much sense without the full text, but hopefully they will whet your appetite to check out more of what Forde is saying in these essays. You can also get a flavour from the quotations I’ve posted on my Tumblr.

Eschatology: The Last Word First 

  • Radical Lutheranism: Lutheranism should find its identity in the religious landscape by doubling down in proclaiming the gospel in all its radical unconditionality, a proclamation that takes seriously both justification by faith and the bondage of the will. Not that these will always be the content of our preaching, but that they inform and undergird the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
  • The Apocalyptic No and the Eschatological Yes: grace as an eschatological breaking-in of the new, not an ontological infusing of power into an old being.
  • Lex semper accusat? The Reformation perspective – that the law always accuses, and that the gospel is the end of the law – paradoxically frees us up to have a positive view of the law in the civil/political/ethical sphere, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to assist us in taking care of this world.

Legal and Evangelical Authority

  • Authority in the Church: The Lutheran Reformation: “The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the highest exercise of authority in the church”; “scripture interprets itself” means that the Word acts upon us rather than sitting as a passive object of our subjective interpretation.
  • Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres: Reflections on the Question of Scripture and Tradition: Sola scriptura can only be understood properly in the light of the sui ipsius interpres, that the Word acts on the hearer rather than vice versa. Only this can resolve the dilemma between the supposed need for an infallible interpreter on the one hand, and individualistic subjectivism on the other.
  • The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Luther: Never mind what the modern world should make of Luther: what would Luther make of the modern world? He’d decry its lack of distinction between human judgment and divine judgment, reducing everything to the former and ignoring the latter; and its superficiality as regards sin, death and the devil.

Atonement and Justification: Christ Unbound

  • Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ: Why is the death of Jesus necessary? Understanding Jesus’ death “from below”: he was killed for proclaiming an unconditional forgiveness and mercy that we do not want (“…and you would not,” Matthew 23:37). Understanding it “from above”: God cannot have mercy on us “in the abstract”. Christ’s death satisfies God’s desire to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, because it creates believers, and thus “actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete.” [I found this Forde’s argument in this essay quite hard to follow, tbh]
  • Loser Takes All: The Victory of Christ: We want to turn the story of Jesus and his cross into the story of a “winner”; but the story of Jesus is the story of someone determining to follow the path of being a loser in a world of winners. The resurrection is not God snatching victory from defeat, but his vindication of Jesus’ following the loser’s path.
  • In Our Place: Forde engages with a feminist critique which accuses all theories of atonement as valorising suffering (“divine child abuse paraded as salvific”); he agrees with some aspects of the critique, but emphasises that any understanding of the cross in terms of its moral purpose is mistaken, and leads to an “us vs them” mentality (“had we been there, it would all have come out differently”). Rather, Christ’s death is a “happy exchange”: he takes our place and gives us his.
  • Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?: We don’t progress morally in the Christian life, our lives approximating more and more closely to the righteousness imputed to us in Christ; rather, imputation is an eschatological breaking-in of the new world, and this attack on sin from without is then worked out more and more fully in our lives.
  • Luther’s “Ethics”: stop thinking ad modum Aristotelis (“in the manner of Aristotle,” in which the fundamental human story is one of ethical development aided by grace), start thinking ad modum scripturae (“in the manner of scripture,” in which grace alone determines our relationship with God): “good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works.”

Unecclesiological Ecumenism 

  • The Meaning of Satis Est: Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession is not a “counsel of despair”, an attempt to patch together a minimal definition of unity in a splintering church. It’s a redefinition of the church in a manner consonant with justification by faith. Hence the church is defined by its activities of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, not by any human rites, ceremonies, institutions or offices; and hence its unity is an invisible object of faith, not a visible institutional or ceremonial unity.
  • Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much? Ecumenism, for Lutherans, should not be a matter of “political correctness” or “ecclesial correctness”, but of confessional integrity: contributing our distinct understanding of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, rather than either working to concoct bland compromise statements in which “every cat is grey” and for the sake of which legitimate theological questions and concerns get steamrollered in the name of “repressive tolerance”. Let’s recognise one another as Christians and as churches on the basis of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, and then discuss our theological differences.
  • The Catholic Impasse: Reflections on Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Today: Lutherans and Catholics need to stop papering over the cracks in ecumenical discussion and acknowledge that fundamental differences remain between them. Postliberal Lutheran theology rejects both ecclesiastical infallibilism and biblical infallibilism in place of the living, present-tense gospel declaration. This is what roots it in catholic tradition, since the paradigmatic expressions of that proclamation are the concrete, catholic practices of preaching, absolution and the sacraments; Lutherans are not (contrary to widespread Catholic belief) “subjectivists” preaching an unmediated gospel.

A brief introduction to Augsburg Evangelicalism

Luther's roseCan you be Lutheran without being Lutheran?

In a country whose Lutheran churches are few, small and struggling, that is far from an academic question (though not, mercifully, one which currently faces me personally).

A few years ago, Chris Atwood coined the term “Augsburg Evangelical” to describe the essence of Lutheran faith and practice. He summarised it in the following five principles:

  • Justification by faith alone.
  • Baptismal regeneration.
  • The real and substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.
  • A relative indifference to polity as defining the being of the church.
  • Scripture as the only binding norm of faith and practice.

There is nothing about any of these that should necessarily be restricted to “the Lutheran church”, and indeed most other churches share at least some of these principles. And yet, as Chris went on to observe, we still find in practice that:

every congregation which affirms [all] these five also affirms the whole kit and kaboodle of the Lutheran tradition, from the Book of Concord to Law and Gospel sermons to Waltherian congregationalism to Reformation Sundays to Concordia Press to beer.

Other ways of presenting these “five points of Augsburg Evangelicalism” have been suggested, as set out in this post in 2010. For example, ROSES (as an echo of Calvinism’s TULIP):

  • Regeneration through Grace in Baptism (sola gratia): God initiates faith.
  • Only through faith (sola fide): only faith justifies Man.
  • Scriptural authority (sola scriptura): teaches Gospel and Law.
  • Economic church polities towards needs: polities are chosen according to practical needs.
  • Substantial real presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion: nurtures a believer and deepens the union between Man and God.

Or the following, more lighthearted effort (which, as someone pointed out at the time, manages to capture all six characteristics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church…):

  • Faith alone justifies
  • Unique presence in the supper
  • Baptismal regeneration
  • Authority of scripture
  • Rejection of polity norms

That said, however you define (or mnemonicise) it, this still feels a rather static – and, in some respects, rather negative – definition. In another post, I attempted to define the central dynamic (“engine-room”) of Lutheranism, based on Articles IV, V and VI of the Augsburg Confession:

IV. Concerning Justification

Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. […]

V. Concerning the Office of Preaching

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe. […]

VI. Concerning the New Obedience

It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God. […]

Each of these is critical, but it is Article V that is the linchpin. Justification is not by faith in an abstract gospel, but in the gospel as proclaimed to us in the word and sacraments (see also Romans 10:14-15); and that same faith, given to us by the Holy Spirit through the word and sacraments, produces good works as its fruit.

Again, there is nothing that would seem necessarily “Lutheran” about all that, and yet that specific dynamic – and in particular the way in which the role of preaching and the sacraments is understood – is one I’ve rarely found articulated so clearly outside a Lutheran context. Which is a shame, because I remain convinced it’s an understanding that would be beneficial to Christians from all traditions, without their also having to sign up for potluck lunches, sitting down to sing hymns, etc.

So, the reason for this post is simply to draw together those previous strands from my blogging, and to start 2015 making another small attempt to commend to Christians from other traditions these insights of “Augsburg Evangelicalism”, in the hope that it may be of use to some – even if Augsburg Evangelicalism and Lutheranism are likely to remain inextricably bound together for the foreseeable future.

Further reading

Selected blog posts on this topic from the past few years:

The best books to read on all this (though they are presentations of “Lutheranism” rather than “Augsburg Evangelicalism” as such):

Edit: or you could just spare yourself all of the above, and read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this tweet from Pr Alex Klages. Wisdom! Let us attend!

Reckoning and not reckoning

Icons of Abraham and DavidIt’s worth labouring the point that we saw Steven Paulson making in my previous post: that the cross of Christ saves us through a “communication of attributes” in which Christ takes upon himself the attributes of sinful human beings (sin and death) and communicates to us his attributes of righteousness and eternal life.

Paulson argues that this makes Luther’s doctrine of justification distinct from all others. In particular, for Luther, justification is neither “inherent” or “imparted” nor, more surprisingly, “forensic”:

To people operating in the scheme of the law it always seems that two options are possible when it comes to how God reckons or imputes righteousness to faith. One is to say that sinners must become righteous in themselves – as judged by the law – before God can rightly declare them just. This could either be done straight-way by works, or by a mystical participation in that which is “above” the sinner; that is, in God’s own being. The other is to say that sinners can be declared righteous, forensically as in a court of law – though they are not actually righteous in themselves. A debtor deserves punishment, but if a generous patron paid the debt it may be right for a judge to let a criminal go free. In either case, the key is that the law remains the form of righteousness.

Perhaps Luther, and a handful of others, are the only theologians ever to reject both of these options. (Lutheran Theology, p.124)

For Luther, it’s not simply that Christ has met the standard for righteousness before the law, and that we can then benefit from this “legal” righteousness of Christ according to some abstract scheme:

For the Lutherans, Christ is the only righteousness, and his righteousness is preached by a word of promise that says, “Your sins are forgiven.” How? “On my account (propter Christum).” Hearing this word makes faith, and this faith is reckoned or imputed as righteous, though there is no righteousness there by any measure of law – including the presence of love as caritas. (p.129)

Christ’s declaration that I am forgiven and righteous on his account – despite all appearances to the contrary – is no mere “fiction”, any more than is Christ’s declaration, of a piece of bread, that “this is my body”; again, despite all appearances to the contrary. For Lutherans, St Thomas Aquinas’ words (as translated by Hopkins) not only express perfectly our doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, but our doctrine of justification:

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

This “reckoning” of righteousness has two parts, which St Paul describes in Romans 4:1-8. First is the reckoning that Abraham experienced: the reckoning of righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3). Second is the reckoning that David experienced: the not reckoning of sin (Psalm 32:1-2, Romans 4:7-8):

This reckoning and not reckoning is precisely the application of the communicatio idiomatum of Christ’s two natures, in which Christ takes your sin upon himself, and in its place puts his forgiveness – which is life now and eternal life to come. When Christ takes sin he no longer “imputes” it; indeed, he takes it out of you (exputes it). Then he reckons, or creates faith as righteousness since that faith trusts his promise of forgiveness just as Abraham trusted God’s promise to him of the Seed – and this trust in the promise is reckoned as righteousness by God, period. (p.131)

One small way in which this can be brought down to earth for us in concrete terms. The other day, the appointed psalm for the evening was Psalm 18, which includes the following verses

The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his ordinances were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.
Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

Singing such things can be a challenge for us: “What ‘righteousness’?” we may feel; “What ‘cleanness of my hands’?” But this is to look at things in “the scheme of the law”. Shocking though it may feel to us, the “communication of attributes” between us and Christ means we can make those words our own, just as much as Christ as made our sins his own on the cross.

Communication and the cross of Christ

Christ on the Cross, by Hans Holbein the YoungerHow does the crucifixion of Christ save us?

Steven Paulson addresses this question in a densely-argued chapter of his book Lutheran Theology (see previous post). He begins by distinguishing the argument he is about to make from “theories of atonement,” which (he argues) try to fit the cross of Christ into the “legal scheme” of desert and punishment:

According to the legal scheme, sin is either a lack (debt) that must be compensated before the law can be satisfied (fulfilled), or sin is crime that must be punished. When Christ himself is pushed into the legal scheme its practitioners demand Christ make a payment for debt, absorb punishment, or provide compensation to those deprived of their goods (like the devil, the law, or even God himself) if he is going to serve as a true mediator between God and sinners. (p.91)

It is true, Paulson continues, that “Christ pays debt, suffers punishment, and pays ransom to the old lords of this world,” but he does so to destroy the legal scheme, not to vindicate it, and to create “an entirely new kingdom where the law has no service to render, no claim to make, and no more accusations against sinners.”

How does this happen? First we need to look at the two things that happen to redeem and reconcile sinners:

First, Christ became flesh and died once and for the cross, never to be repeated. Second, the preacher delivers the benefit of the cross by declaring the promise of forgiveness to sinners on account of that cross – repeatedly. […] There is a communication that occurred first in Christ’s own person between Creator and creature, divine and human, that reverberates through the preacher to communicate God-in-flesh to his forgiven sinners, including them in the new, free, life of God’s favour. (p.94)

This concept of “communication” between God and sinners is fundamental to Paulson’s argument, and takes him into the very depths of the incarnation itself: in particular, the communicatio idiomatum, the “communication of attributes,” that lies at the heart of Lutheran Christology (and which is drawn, as Martin Chemnitz sought to demonstrate, in the teachings of church fathers such as “Athanasius, Nazianzus, and especially Cyril”).

What is the communicatio idiomatum? Paulson summarises it as follows:

The communicatio idiomatum holds that there are characteristics or identifying features of the essence of a human creature on one hand (like being born, sleeping, crying, sinning, and dying), and of God’s essence on the other (like having no beginning, not sleeping, not crying, not sinning, not dying). Accordingly, Creatures are segregated from their Creator by these opposite “attributes” […] But in Christ incarnate, there is a new communication that effects exchange between creatures and Creator – expressed verbally in the scandalous language in which Luther luxuriated, such as: “God was born of Mary and lay in a manger,” and “the human Jesus created the world, and rules as Lord of the new kingdom.” (p.97)

More specifically, the communicatio idiomatum allowed Luther to insist that “the Son of God truly is crucified for us, that is, this person who is God” – in contrast to other Reformation figures such as Zwingli, for whom such language was anathema, and who insisted that only the “human nature” of Christ could actually suffer and die.

So the communication of attributes between the divine and human natures of Christ allows us to make such shocking statements as that found in a 17th century hymn quoted by Paulson: “O great dread / God himself is dead! / He died upon the cross…” But it also provides a basis for the “communication” between Christ and sinners that secures our redemption. On the cross, Christ assumes the sins of the whole world, taking them into his own body “actually, historically, physically” (see 1 Peter 2:24). As Paulson says:

[Jesus] is not assuming abstract, bookkeeping, non-historical, or impersonal sins. When Scripture says he takes the sin of the world, it means that eventually he gets round to taking your own personal sins. (p.106)

Paulson concludes his argument (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface in this post) with the following:

The sins of the world were laid on Christ; we communicated them to Christ by means of rejection of his words; what he communicates in return to sinners is unlike anything we have known: it is grace that is free and that creates a new world out of nothing – the law and sin are left behind forever because they have created nothing. […] The communication of attributes in the cross ceases the old segregation of the wrathful God and sinners. (pp.111f.)

Thus what are, under the law, impossibly separate are brought together in the gospel thanks to this “communication of attributes”: God and human nature in Christ; Christ and sinners on the cross; and (to bring this down, concretely, to earth) bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.

Justifying God

Luther preaching Christ and him crucifiedI’ve now taken delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology (see previous post), and so far it’s proving as remarkable as I’d hoped. Quite mind-blowing at times, in fact.

One of Paulson’s themes (as we saw in my previous post) is the centrality of preaching. Paulson argues that Luther set out, not to reform the church, but to reform preaching. The gospel, for Luther, is a preached gospel, so that life can be divided into two periods: the period “before the preacher”, lived under the law, and the period “after the preacher”, when we have heard the promise of the gospel that frees us from the law.

This is vital to understanding “justification by faith”, as Paulson sets out in his second chapter. Luther’s understanding of justification hinged on Romans 1:17 (adapted here to mirror Paulson’s translation):

For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who by faith is righteous will live.’

Luther had hated the phrase “the righteousness of God,” because it had been presented to him as an abstract, philosophical standard towards which he was to strive. The turning point for Luther was his discovery that Paul used the phrase as a promise, a concrete promise in the declaration of which – the preaching of which – God gives his own self to sinners.

So we see that faith is not something introspective, not a turning within to ask what I “think” of the “idea” of Christ and the gospel. Rather, it is the result of hearing the external, concrete proclamation of Christ. Paulson emphasises this by turning to a second OT quotation in Romans, Paul’s quoting of Psalm 51:4 in Romans 3:4:

So that you may be justified in your words.

In other words, when the gospel promises are declared to us and we respond in faith, not only are we justified by God, but God is justified by us: indeed, for Paulson, our justifying of God, our acknowledging him as righteous and trustworthy, is precisely the faith that justifies us. As Paulson writes:

Trusting a promise from God is the justification God seeks for himself, and he intends upon getting this justification come hell or high water so that stories of God’s arrival to sinners make the great tales of Scripture (Abraham, David, Mary) and our lives like Augustine’s Confessions. (p.55)

Thus Luther found “a gracious God”:

…hiding in the word of promise delivered by a preacher in the real word of penance: Te absolvo! I forgive you. That word is not a sign pointing somewhere else for its truth, but is the power of the Holy Spirit to create out of nothing. Luther had discovered what he called promissio, by which God creates a new person in a new world with faith that hears the promise for me – and trusts it. In doing so the believer justifies God in his words and has a gracious God. (p.58)

The problem, as Paulson goes on to observe, is that subsequent Protestants (including many Lutherans) have forgotten the importance of the preached word, the word in which God is justified. Instead, they have turned faith into “an act of self-reflection”; a psychological experience; an inner, existential act; a seeking of “the Christ within”; and so on. None of these things can give us the joy of knowing God as righteous and gracious, because God is justified only in his words.

Paulson concludes:

…for Luther at least, faith does not trust in its own power to believe. It takes leave of itself by hearing the promise from the preacher and justifying God for saying it. […] In Christ’s story faith and word are properly fit. Faith alone justifies; faith comes by hearing the promise of Christ: “I forgive you.” (p.60)

Steven Paulson: Doing Lutheranism

Lutheran Theology, by Steven PaulsonI’m currently awaiting delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology, from T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. In the meantime, this review from Themelios by Orrey McFarland has been whetting my appetite.

First, the structure of Paulson’s book. This follows the example of Philip Melanchthon and others in using Romans as a template, reflecting Paulson’s understanding of Lutheran theology as “unfinished business [of] commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.” McFarland says that:

The arrangement is straightforward, but gives a certain vibrancy to the flow of Paulson’s argument as he attempts to present Lutheran theology and navigate Paul’s letter in a coherent manner as the same task.

But for McFarland, what makes Paulson’s book special isn’t its structure, but “his single-minded insistence on a number of themes important in the Lutheran tradition,” three of which McFarland summarises as follows.

1. Justification by faith alone and the right distinction between law and gospel

For Paulson, “The key to any theology, especially done the Lutheran way, is to ask what role the law plays in its system.” Paulson emphasises two “uses” of the law: its “alien use” to “preserve and sustain life in the old Aeon until the preacher arrives,” and its “proper use” in which law “magnifies sin and exterminates any possibility for salvation other than Christ”:

Paulson seeks throughout the book to point out the error of believers when they allow law and works to play any role in salvation by smuggling a “Legal Scheme” into the gospel. While avoiding and arguing against antinomianism, Paulson’s mission is to expound the “Lutheran passion on earth” (p. 5)—distinguishing between law and gospel.

I’ll be interested to see, though, how Paulson addresses the “third use” of the law.

2. The role of the preacher and the Word 

McFarland quotes Paulson as saying that “Luther’s great discovery [was] that preaching has always and only been the thing that makes faith, and so justifies.” McFarland continues:

preachers announce the two-fold Word of God, which, in distinction to human words that merely signify, actually kills and recreates sinners. Preaching reveals Christ and makes a hidden God no longer hidden. […] “Faith is created by a promise that comes externally, as an alien word” (p. 119)—externally through a preacher by the will of God.

For me, this aspect of Lutheranism – its sacramental view of the Word in which the Word is a means by which God “actually kills and recreates sinners” through human preaching (rather than preachers merely giving us information about how to be killed and recreated) – is critical; the “engine-room” of Lutheran spirituality, as I’ve written before.

3. Luther and the history of Lutheranism 

Paulson doesn’t seek to define Lutheranism over-against Catholic or Reformed theology. Instead, he turns most of his criticisms on the Lutheran tradition itself, which he sees as an attempt to “tame Luther” by taming “the wild animal of the end of the law”:

Paulson breaks up the history of Lutheran thought into four “episodes” (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical), with Luther representing the “literal” stage and the other three trying to figure out what to do with him; but the main solution is to readmit the law into God’s salvific act in Christ. Consequently, past Luther, no thinker is safe from Paulson’s critique.

Again, as anyone who’s ever noticed my occasionally, slightly sour references to “Actually Existing Lutheranism” will be unsurprised to hear, this may be music to my ears: certainly the gulf between what Lutheranism could (and should) be, and what it often ends up as (especially in its worship) has been a constant frustration to me over the years. It’s still possible, though, that I may end up, like McFarland, wondering whether Paulson has gone a little too far: “the reader is left wondering which Lutherans, if any, can be trusted beyond Luther and Paulson.” Ouch.


McFarland concludes with further praise for Paulson’s book:

Paulson sets about the task of explaining Lutheran theology not by rigidly moving from historical point A to theological point B, but by engaging with Paul and Luther and seeking to show the deeper logic behind why Lutherans believe what they do. And given Paulson’s high view of preaching, it is no surprise that this book reads as proclamation—very dense proclamation, of course. The result is engaging writing that will benefit the student, lay person, and scholar. Readers of any category could not ask for much more.

Except, in my case, a slightly more rapid delivery of my copy…