LQ provides annual book reviews as a resource for you
Book Reviews are one of Lutheran Quarterly's greatest strengths. New LQ book reviews are regularly added to this page. You can also find Book Reviews by year by hovering over the top menu Book Review item above and selecting the year you wish to view. A handful of previously featured reviews are available below.
The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors. By John W. Compton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 399 pp.
Lutherans make nary an appearance in this book which covers social justice advocacy amongst United States Protestants in the twentieth century. But this is a must-read book for anyone interested in how church, culture, and politics intersect, how denominations numerically grow or shrink, the status of the clergy in the wider public, and Christian engagement with economic inequity, racial injustice, or environmental matters. Compton, a political scientist at Chapman University, masterfully documents his research. In a word, he shows how American Protestantism, as it came to be dominated by Evangelicalism, ceased supporting social reform and instead began to resist it.
Compton contends that throughout much of the twentieth-century, mainline Protestantism led its members to “engage in apparently emphatic or otherwise costly forms of political behavior” precisely because it held a high standing amongst its members (5). Mainliners enjoyed high social status due to the fact that mainline Protestantism assisted people in economic upward mobility by publicly validating its members as upright citizens. Along with other progressives, mainline Protestants worked for and succeeded in the eradication of child labor in factories, the quest for reasonable workplace regulations, the construction of a social safety net, and support for civil rights laws (3). Even the forebears of contemporary Evangelicals often supported progressive causes. For instance, early twentieth-century Fundamentalists, like William Jennings Bryan, were critics of big business and friends of organized labor.
But the groundwork for many on the right was laid in the mid-twentieth-century by men like the oil baron J. Howard Pew who worked to undermine the economic agendas of the Federal Council of Churches which advocated that wealth be redistributed to as to help the poor. For people like Pew, strong unions, price controls, and the minimum wage resulted in producing more human suffering rather than less (107).
For Compton, mainline Protestantism’s greatest accomplishment was assisting in pressing for the 1964 Civil Rights Act (196). But not long thereafter, by the late 1960s, all mainline Protestant churches began to experience decline. He attributes this to a widespread weakening of religious authority, a loss in the social status of the clergy. This loss worked in tandem with the rise of a more individualized religiosity which helped Evangelicals, who championed a private spirituality and “family values,” be more successful in the religious marketplace. Specifically, two factors undercut the hold of the mainline on society. First, the work force sought people educated for more technological or service-related jobs and relied less on a church’s testimony about moral character. Informal social networks were less important as stepping stones to upward mobility. Second, an unprecedented surge in residential mobility resulted in people relocating to the sunbelt which historically had a lower level of religious commitment (11). Baby boomers increasingly could live life without the church (206-7). A majority of Evangelicals valued religion as a support for their lifestyles but not as a means to help the poor. There were exceptions, of course. For instance, Carl Henry was disturbed not only by the sexual revolution but also by pollution, economic inequality, and militarism. However, a progressive agenda was not to prevail.
I suspect that Lutherans play little role in the plotline outlined here because the majority of Lutherans in this country, accustoming themselves in this time period to becoming American, were not on the center stage of religious or political life. No doubt, the ELCA has tried to make up for lost time, but, for good or ill, has suffered the same results with membership loss as other mainline groups.
This book is a valuable read not only for church leaders, whether pastors or denominational judicatories, but also historians and sociologists.
Reviewed by Mark Mattes
Grand View University, Des Moines, Iowa.
Edited by Stephen Hultgren, Stephen Pietsch, and Jeffrey Silcock. Adelaide, Austrailia: ATF Press, 2019. Reviewed by Mark Mattes
A collection of fourteen essays by international and ecumenical scholars, this volume is the result of a summer 2016 conference on Luther’s theology, sponsored by Australian Lutheran College in Adelaide, Australia. The essays are of high scholarly caliber. It is, unfortunately, not possible to elaborate on each one. Many essays also display a commitment to good pastoral practices.
Theodor Dieter reexamines the Ninety-Five Theses in light of his recent ecumenical discussions with Roman Catholic scholars. After reading Dieter, it is clear that the theses should not be seen through the lens of later Protestant polemics but instead as a debate over the nature of “penalties” in connection with indulgencies. The scholastics assumed two approaches to penalties, a punitive one which imposes works of prayer, fasting and alms on the penitent, completing what sinners owe God, and a medicinal one which seeks to prevent the offender from committing the same sin again. Dieter notes that “Luther reduces punishment to the medicinal function alone . . .. This is the consequence of denying that there is a divine righteousness that requires a punishment for every sin. . ..” (18). In Dieter’s estimation, Luther “is so focused on the medicinal aspect of penalties that the notion of a punitive function simply has no place and makes no sense.” Following his mentor Staupitz, Luther held that God’s commandments must be read in light of the “Savior’s wounds,” thereby making the “formerly bitter word ‘penitence’ a sweet word,” calling for a ‘change in our affects and love’” (22).
Mark Thompson presents the significance of the Leipzig Disputation (1519) and notes that the conflict over the primacy of the pope had “never before in the history of Christianity” occurred “in this magnitude” (47). Roman Catholic scholar Franz Posset argues that Luther was dependent upon the thinking of Bernard of Clairvaux. The tradition stemming from Bernard was focused on the crucified Jesus Christ as embracing sinners as evidenced in the Augustinian Friary in Nuremberg’s painting of Bernard himself as embraced by the Crucified (55).
Jeff Silcock evenhandedly explores the controversial question of the degree to which Luther’s early “theology of the cross,” grounded in monastic Augustinian “humility piety,” continued to influence the mature Luther. He contrasts the Heidelberg Disputation with Luther’s April 16, 1530 sermon at Coburg Castle in which Luther no longer advocates an “exemplarist Christology” in which the “way of salvation entails conforming ourselves to Christ in his suffering by carrying our cross in faithful discipleship” but instead Christ’s suffering on our behalf is clearly distinguished from the suffering of faithful discipleship (89). For the later Luther, the cross refers to the trials that disciples undergo in their faithful witness but such trials do not contribute to justification but only sanctification (90).
Risto Saarinen presents Luther’s theology of “giving and the gift.” Developing the thinking of Bo Kristian Holm, Saarinen notes that
when Luther realizes he can only renounce himself up to a certain point and not beyond he can leave exaggerated humility behind and begin to trust in God alone. Due to this new trust, he can affirm the world and maybe even himself in some sense. The mature Luther thus replaces exaggerated humility with a confidence in God and a more positive view of human reception (157).
Stephen Pietsch writes on a pastoral approach to those who are suicidal, appealing to Luther’s consolatory letter to Jonas von Stockhausen (1532). Wisely, Pietsch notes that “Pastoral care, as Luther sees it, is only honest and effective if it can strengthen and uphold people to endure suffering, drawing on the strengthening power of the external word, the Spirit’s comfort, spoken and enacted incarnationally by and through others” (120-121). Andrew Pfeiffer sees the Small Catechism as a resource for cross-cultural mission. He not only examines the impact of the Catechism in New Guinea, but also how the Australian Lutheran Church has packaged it as an alternative to “cultural achievement,” that is, cultural demands prevalent in Australian society (215-216). Finally, Thomas Kothmann’s essay on Luther’s approach to pedagogy notes that like us Luther honored developmental psychology, conceding “that the child has a different status than the adult” (243).
All in all, in spite of a saturation of Luther resources surrounding the year 2017, this collection is most welcome.
Mark Mattes, Grand View University, Des Moines, Iowa
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018. Volume One 399 pp. Volume Two 527 pp. Reviewed by Mark Mattes
Horton, Professor at Westminster Seminary, California, offers in these two volumes over 900 pages of some of the most important research done on the doctrine of justification from a Protestant perspective in the last several decades. Horton tackles the two most vocal objections to justification by grace alone through faith alone today: in the first volume, Radical Orthodoxy, the school established by John Milbank, and, in the second, the New Perspective on Paul. Both Radical Orthodoxy and the New Perspective on Paul see the classical doctrine of justification (as articulated by the magisterial Reformers) as unfaithful. For the former, the church is an ark saving humans from modern secularism while for the latter Paul was not concerned with delivering people from God’s wrath but instead incorporating Gentiles into the Jewish covenant community. Horton ably dismantles each views’ critiques of traditional Protestant views of justification, all the while upholding anything worthwhile that may arise in each perspective.
The first volume shows that the view of justification as a forensic declaration acquitting sinners due to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness was not an invention of Luther’s but instead a view found in the church fathers, voiced, for example, in the Epistle to Diognetus (I:39), Chrysostom (I:83), and Augustine (I:98). The villain undermining the truth of justification as forensic was Origen of Alexandria, reiterated later by the Pseudo-Dionysius, who schematized justification as a process of ever greater mimetic participation in the divine.
Given Radical Orthodoxy’s approval of Aquinas, Horton gives significant space to the Angelic Doctor. Horton argues that in spite of its appropriation of the Aristotelian views of movement (motus) (I:101), Aquinas’s version of justification, advocating a theory of infused grace which restores the proper order of the higher soul over the lower (I:101), is no semi-Pelagian stance. Instead, it is a defense against the heresy. After all, for Aquinas, salvation is not a result of human effort but instead is God’s work, since God moves the will and whole soul to the good (I:111). True, Aquinas undermines the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer all for the sake of affirming the interior efficacy of grace to transform the soul. But this in no way undermines the assertion that it is God’s mercy assisting the believer from beginning to end. No doubt, for Aquinas, grace is a “medicinal substance,” a formal cause where grace shapes believers’ habits to do good works (I:117), where the “movement” of faith is not perfect unless it is quickened by charity (I:121). Aquinas’ view is to be contrasted with that of John Duns Scotus who tends to pit God’s agency against human agency, since human agency is viewed less as participation in God and more as another agent over against God. Against Radical Orthodoxy, Horton sees greater parallels between Aquinas and Luther than between Scotus and Luther.
An important truth for the Reformers is that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness can serve as the basis for participation in God, that is, union with Christ, so important for both Luther and Calvin (I:212). The key difference between the classical Reformers and medieval thinkers is that union with God was the goal for medieval thinkers while it is the source for the magisterial reformers (I:255). At any rate, the Radical Orthodox criticism that sees Protestants as assuming that a human being’s agency is to be pitted against God’s is challenged. It simply is not the case that for the Reformers human agency is no longer “suspended” in God. Nor do the classical reformers posit a distinction of a “natural end” grounded in “pure nature” which is distinct from humanity’s ultimate “supernatural” end, as did Francisco Suárez. Indeed, for the Reformers, God does not merely act upon or above humans in fictitious decrees but instead within them to effectually bring about their conformity to Christ (I:178). No doubt, those following Gerhard Forde or Johann von Hofmann would disown Horton’s stance on Christ’s active obedience as necessary for human justification as a “legal scheme.” Nevertheless, for Horton, God’s law is only honored if justification includes the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to sinners. In Horton’s logic, justification thereby is no arbitrary decision (I:205). All Lutherans however would not be apt to follow Horton’s enfolding of law and gospel into a Calvinist-inspired “federal theology,” which distinguishes an original “covenant of works” for Adam and a “covenant of grace” for believers through Christ.
The second volume explicates justification through exegesis. It primarily focuses on various theories of “covenantal nomism,” traced back to E. P. Sanders, which argued that Second Temple Judaism believed that one became a member of God’s covenant through grace but one stayed true to this covenant through keeping the law (II:97). This theory believes that forgiveness from God was obtainable through repentance and that works were boundary markers distinguishing but also excluding Jews from Gentiles (II:31). In this perspective, Judaism offered a “robust” doctrine of grace, the key problem for Jews was not the question, “How will I go to heaven,” but instead, “When will the Exile be over?” (II:22) Paul thus was not establishing any individualistic view of salvation but instead interpreted Israel to have a wider mission, one inclusive of Gentiles.
Horton marshals evidence that the Judaism at the time of Jesus was far less grace-oriented than most New Perspective thinkers are willing to admit. He points out inconsistencies of the New Perspective’s re-telling of the faith. He takes Sanders’ contention that the slightest nomism vitiates the gospel (II:124) and runs with it. He notes that ultimately, for many ancient Jews, salvation depended on perfect obedience to the law (II:66), and so was, in Christian terms, Pelagian to one degree or another. Judaism was prone to legalism especially after the Temple’s destruction, since one’s piety and good deeds replaces sacrifices (II:184). For many Jews, salvation meant precisely what Paul said it was: salvation from God’s coming judgment (II:188). Since Paul appeals to Christ alone as the source of salvation, his faith stance offers a radical break with Judaism. Christ, not the Torah, is at the heart of God’s mercy. Paul’s articulation of justification was not merely for advocating Gentile inclusion. If it were, then it is curiously absent from Pauline texts such as 1 Thessalonians (II:181). Christ’s bearing human sin on the cross “was not a cathartic release of anger but a just satisfaction of God’s cosmic and covenantal righteousness that provided the basis for both our forgiveness and rectitude—legal rectitude in justification, moral rectitude in sanctification, and consummate rectitude of body and soul in glorification” (II:226). Indeed, “At the cross, Christ triumphs not by destroying this good and natural order of creation but by bearing the curse for our violation so that a new order based on Christ’s resurrection will emerge” (II:242). Much thinking indebted to the New Perspective on Paul, such as we find it N. T. Wright, is unduly biased against the clear words of Paul. It assumes a priori that Paul and the Reformers could not have shared the same view of the gospel, since they think Paul was concerned with integrating Gentiles into the covenant community and not with the forgiveness of sins. Horton shows that Paul was every bit as much concerned with deliverance from divine wrath as were the Reformers.
This two volume work is indispensable reading for any interested in rebutting current critiques of justification by grace alone through faith alone.
Grand View University
Des Moines, Iowa
Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016. 398 pages. Reviewed by Mark Granquist
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015. 339 + xxxiv pp. Reviewed by Troy Troftgruben
Dennis Ngien is professor of systematic theology at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, as well as research professor at Wycliffe College (University of Toronto). Many of his books correlate theological studies with spirituality (e.g., Gifted Response, 2008)—a characteristic true also of his work on Luther (e.g., Luther as a Spiritual Adviser, 2007). In this book Ngien explores Luther’s interpretation of six lament Psalms, drawing attention to his theology, pastoral disposition, and appreciation for the Psalter. Thus, the book aims “to help the wider audience experience the riches of the Psalms” and thereby “reap holy fruits for the care of the soul” (xxxiii).
After a foreword (by Robert Kolb) and an introduction, the book includes six chapters, a conclusion, bibliography, and closing indices. Chapter one (on Psalm 6) emphasizes the consolation believers experience in suffering, according to Luther. Since the Christian life is lived under a theology of the cross, trials result in a poverty of spirit that allows space for “God’s embraces” (23). Chapter two (on Psalm 51) explores Luther’s reflections on confession, the spoken Word, justification, the revealed (vs. the hidden) God, and faith (vs. despair). Dynamics as these enable the Christian to experience God’s embrace “in the lap of God’s mercy” (LW 12.327). Chapter 3 (on Psalm 77) describes Luther’s concept of “meditation” as a progression from remembrance and remorse to joy and public praise. Chapter four characterizes Psalm 90 as “Mosaic” in how it reveals sin and death. In response, Luther depicts sighing as a prayer of faith that leads to mercy and joy. Chapter five focuses on an imprecatory Psalm (94), which describes God’s “alien work” of allowing oppression. Contrary to reason, faith perceives divine consolation hidden in suffering, changing the basis of complaint into a reason for God’s praise. Chapter six engages a “beloved” Psalm of Luther’s (118), reflecting on distress and prayer and the natural progression from pleading to thanksgiving. The conclusion depicts the entire book as “an exercise of the theology of the cross” (299): the believer’s experiences of temptation and loss reflect the way of the cross and lead all the more to trust in the God revealed in Christ.
Ngien’s book is an excellent entry into the interpretive mind of Luther. Not simply a commentary on Luther’s commentary, the book deliberately explores Luther’s theology at work in his exegesis, with pertinent historical background and appreciation for his pastoral demeanor. The book draws appropriately on Luther scholars (e.g., Forde, Wengert, Lohse, Paulson, Bayer), emphasizing that Luther’s work on lament Psalms deserves more attention. Ngien’s intended audience, however, is not scholars but “the nonspecialist, more advanced theological students, pastors, and teachers in churches” (xxxiii). Toward this end, scholarly dialogue is moderate and explanations of theological ideas more pronounced. At points the book feels meandering, since no logical progression guides each chapter’s discussions of history, theology, and exegesis. (Including each chapter’s respective Psalm text would help, as would chapter outlines.) But this approach reflects Luther’s exegetical style, making it, arguably, fitting. Still, this and the book’s focus on theological themes make it more likely to appeal to readers already acquainted with and appreciative of Luther and his theology. As implied by the title, the book theoretically focuses less on Luther’s historic interpretive approach and more on “the fruits one could reap from it for the care of the soul” (26). In practice it primarily discusses Luther’s theology in historical perspective, not issues of contemporary spirituality.
This work offers an authentic experience of Luther’s interpretive mind at work, with explicit connections to his theology and pastoral vocation. Ngien’s book is an articulate and informed work on Luther’s Psalter exegesis that will stimulate theologically-trained Lutherans and revive attention to Luther’s appreciation for lamentation.
Troy M. Troftgruben
Wartburg Theological Seminary
NY: Cambridge, 2015. Reviewed by Russell Kleckley
This carefully researched book is both more focused and more expansive than the title suggests. The “colonial southern frontier” is Georgia. “Community” specifically means Ebenezer, the settlement founded in 1734 by Lutheran religious exiles, a minute portion of the larger masses expelled from the Catholic territory of Salzburg beginning in 1731. “Religion” refers most directly to Franckean Lutheran Pietism embodied in Johann Martin Boltzius, the pastor appointed from Halle to lead the emigrés from Europe to America and in Ebenezer. But the scope of this work by James Van Horn Melton, Professor of History at Emory University, extends beyond the geographic and thematic boundaries of the title. It encompasses the entire story of Ebenezer, reaching back into Salzburg’s Alps where the story begins to post-Revolutionary America and the inevitable denouement of Ebenezer. By the end, the reader may wonder if the point has been to illuminate the history of slavery in colonial America through the story of Ebenezer, or to illuminate the story of Ebenezer through the history of slavery. Either is a welcome outcome of this lucidly written and insightful study.
The Salzburger story in Europe dominates the first half. Melton’s discussion of a “clandestine print culture” (25ff.), along with the traits of alpine miners, helps explain the existence of a surreptitious but vibrant religious life among Salzburg Lutherans despite the absence of pastoral leadership and the presence of Catholic repression and scrutiny. While these issues may seem somewhat removed from the themes of the book’s title, critical points from them emerge later in the story, for example in accounting for the compatibility between the Salzburger’s religious sensibilities and Boltzius’ own pietistic outlook, or the leadership provided by Salzburg miners in Ebenezer. Moreover, this background puts in relief the community’s later interpretation of their own experience of persecution, expulsion, and re-settlement through the lens of the biblical Exodus and post-Exodus accounts (to which Melton refers as “postexilic”).
The story shifts in the second part to the founding of Ebenezer, its growth and expansion through later arrivals of Salzburgers and other South German immigrants, Boltzius’ attempt to create a “pietist utopia,” and the subsequent fate of the community through the American Revolution and beyond. With the issue of slavery as the guiding thread, Melton compellingly argues that the initial opposition of Boltzius and Ebenezer to slavery was not specifically built on religious or moral grounds but based on practical reasons that mirrored those of the founding trustees who had banned slavery from Georgia. Since Georgia served as a strategic buffer between Spanish Florida to the south and slave-holding South Carolina to the north, the trustees hoped, by keeping Georgia slave free, to minimize the threat to British security from the potential for Spanish-inspired slave rebellions. Boltzius, Melton argues, became aware of the danger immediately upon arriving in Charleston, and continued with the rest of Ebenezer to exhibit “an antagonism not so much to slavery as they did antipathy toward slaves” (212, emphasis in original). Compounding this fear of rebellion and violence was the concern that the introduction of slave labor would threaten the economic survival of Ebenezer’s low-wage labor force.
This stance prevailed until the introduction of slavery into Georgia in 1751, when Boltzius, already battered from his public opposition to slavery, relented and allowed the practice into Ebenezer. Though initially optimistic that slavery might lead to slave conversions, Boltzius later regretted his change of position. But by then the practice already had been established in Ebenezer, though at a far lower level than practiced elsewhere in Georgia, due in part, Melton proposes, to the wide-ranging handcraft and agricultural skills brought from Germany and Salzburg that made Ebenezer more self-reliant (255f.).
Melton’s work is impressive, and his use of previously underused archival sources brings important new insights. His conclusions occasionally approach the speculative, e.g. that fears of Spanish-Catholic inspired slave rebellion as a tool of conquest were “tinged with psychological residues” (214) of the Salzburger experience with Catholic persecution. But such points are never pushed too far, they arise from the narrative Melton has developed, and raise issues for further consideration. In sum, Melton skillfully sets the experience of Ebenezer within the larger context of the political and social environment of Georgia, showing the non-religious as well as religious factors that shaped the community and its stance toward slavery. His book informs and illuminates several directions at once, the issue of slavery in colonial America, the story of the Salzburger refugees and Ebenezer, and the role of religion.
Enjoy this extended reivew by Mark Noll of the University of Notre Dame by clicking here.