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Review of “The Self-Donation of God” by Jack D. Kilcrease

Jack D. Kilcrease, The Self-Donation of God: A Contemporary Lutheran Approach to Christ and His Benefits (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013).

Jack Kilcrease has accomplished the near impossible, drawing on his dissertation research and revising it so thoroughly as to produce a book that normal people might actually want to read. (“Normal people” is here understood to indicate a self-selecting and highly nerdy Lutheran laity—and “laity” here is understood to indicate “non-academic” rather than “non-ordained.”) His Self-Donation of God borrows the title and builds on the searching analysis from his doctoral thesis (2009), which treated the doctrine of the atonement within the Lutheran tradition, and presents an account of Christ’s person and work that is driven by Scripture and Lutheran theological discourse. Rather than drawing on the last hundred years of Lutheran academic theology, however, as his dissertation demanded (look, if you’re that nerdy, read it there), Kilcrease focuses on Scripture and interacts with Lutheran theology to the precise extent of “[standing] firmly with one of the foundational documents of the Lutheran Reformation, the Formula of Concord” (1). That said, the author does bring in the occasional reference to historical Lutheran lore as it relates to the subject matter at hand: see the Excursus into 17th-century Swabian and Saxon Lutheran churches on kenosis (225-38). And, really, who could blame him?

Why Christology? The person of Christ and the relationship between his human and divine natures are a mystery, and a subject that sends survivors of seminary back to the harrowing hours they spent trying to understand the arguments of their old friends Apollinaris, Nestorius, Cyril, and Eutyches. In addition to the complexity of the issue at hand, Lutheran theologians have the dubious honor of taking a unique (read: unaccepted by other Christian traditions) approach to these questions. Martin Luther’s doctrine of Christ’s two natures underwrote his controversy over the Lord’s Supper with Ulrich Zwingli and others beginning in the mid-1520s. At its fullest development, the doctrine drew on the idea of the communication of attributes, and Luther argued that Christ’s divine attribute of omnipresence was communicated to his human nature, enabling Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper (as well as everywhere else). In the succinct and damning commentary of Reformed theologian Charles Hodge, the resulting Lutheran doctrines and particularly the doctrine of Christ’s human nature’s ubiquity “are peculiar to that Church and form no part of Catholic Christianity.”1

So, why Christology? indeed. Is this not one of those “knotty theological questions” that “will all be resolved in the hereafter, and meanwhile… can be safely shelved”?2 Well, no—as Kilcrease explains, the “chief article” of Scripture is “Jesus Christ and his redeeming work” (7), and the exposition of this article throughout Scripture is precisely the task the author sets himself. Throughout two chapters on the Old Testament and two on the New, followed by nine on particular theological loci (five on Christ’s person, four on Christ’s work), the author draws on through-lines and echoes in the biblical account that converge in his argument for the primacy of God’s act of “self-donation,” the “giving of the divine being to his people in the form of a promise” (32-33).

In other words, the argument of the book is that Christology is central—because God’s act of self-giving or self-donation is central: the gift of the Incarnation and Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the culmination of the way God eternally is. The echoes of that activity are everywhere: when the LORD says, “By myself I have sworn” (Gen. 22:16) and when Moses pleads for Israel and asks God to “blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex. 32:32), the actions and words direct our attention, argues Kilcrease, to the self-donation of God in Christ (16, 21). Likewise, the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus or the two angels seated on either side of his resting place in the sepulcher are deliberate echoes of the two cherubim on either side of the Ark of the Covenant, making Jesus’ person “the new mercy seat” (72) where the presence of the LORD appears and where the blood from Aaron’s and the people’s sin offerings is sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. The text is packed with Easter eggs—in a very literal sense. These alone will make a fantastic preaching aid for pastors who wish to indicate the resonance of the cross throughout the Bible. Be warned, however, that there is no index, either of subjects or Scripture references: so you will have to come by your Easter eggs honestly.

It is odd, given his fixation on the language of God’s “self-donation” in Christ, and given his awareness of Tuomo Mannermaa (quoting him approvingly on p. 249, for example), that Kilcrease does not engage the distinction between Christ as favor and as donum popularized by Finnish Lutherans in the last few decades. But then, this should not be surprising, as one of Mannermaa’s central contentions is the need to reread Luther on this topic without the distorting lens of the (historically situated) Formula of Concord. This position is diametrically opposed to the author’s own, as mentioned above. And indeed, reading against the Formula of Concord and the generation of Lutherans who drafted it allows the “historical conundrum” of our view of Luther as a great teacher, none of whose students apparently grasped his main points.3 Still, one’s faithfulness to the creeds is better admired when the work of interpretation is not so narrowly conceived as it is here.4

Indeed, it is one of the text’s more unfortunate features that the author’s most florid prose is dedicated to the disparaging of other voices within the Christian tradition or within academic theology, rather than the stated central task of expounding the doctrine of Christ’s person. The wound that Reformed theologians like Hodge have dealt the author is particularly apparent. Plenty of petty railing is also done against modern day Epicureans who “[need] scripture to be errant in order to bolster their religion of allegory” (6). Kilcrease is very insistent that his readers should “feel no obligation to adopt this [Epicurean] framework” (7), a stance that seems to miss entirely the fact that a multiplicity of voices (even if some of these are wrong or arguing from an untenable position) can in fact draw readers’ attention to precisely the textual features they would otherwise miss. Instead, Kilcrease adopts a dismissive tone in order to protect his readers from the wrongness of multiplicity—identifying early Christian allegory as docetic (4), Protestant Liberal interpretation as Nestorian (5), and feminist and liberation theologies as gnostic (211), in a rhetorically impressive but ultimately breezy and unsupported way that is unfortunate to find in publication.

In summary, Kilcrease’s work is a fine first offering from a promising scholar and a helpful addition to the standard works on Lutheran Christology such as Bonhoeffer’s Christ the Center, Lienhard’s Luther: Witness to Christ, and Schaller’s Biblical Christology. One could wish that a book on the doctrine of Christ—which in Lutheran thought has always underwritten the doctrine of the sacrament of Christian unity—could have had kinder words for the author’s sisters and brothers in Christ. But then, Luther’s own table manners could have used refinement, too.

Katie M. Benjamin is a Th.D. candidate in European Reformation History and Theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), 418.
2. As the character Prior Philip says of transubstantiation in Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth (New York: Signet, 1990), 946.
3. Timothy J. Wengert, Defending Faith: Lutheran Responses to Andreas Osiander’s Doctrine of Justification, 1551-1559 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 3.
4. Compare this mission statement from the school of “theological interpretation” of Scripture: “The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture” (emphasis mine). R. R. Reno, “Series Preface,” in Sam Wells and George Sumner, Esther and Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013), xi.

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Review of N. T. Wright’s “Surprised by Scripture,” By Dennis Di Mauro

N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

A former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, and the current New Testament chair at the University of St. Andrews, N. T. Wright is undoubtedly the most popular and well respected biblical scholar alive today. Continuing his popular series begun with his bestselling 2008 book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright now takes on the task of understanding Scripture in light of issues confronting the church today. Using a style that is simultaneously academic and conversational, and easily accessible to the laity, Wright seeks to debunk many biblical misconceptions held by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

Wright contextualizes the topic with a short discussion of the Scopes Monkey trial (1925). This single event, according to Wright, forever balkanized the faith/science debate in North America—relegating individuals into rigid categories of Christian faith/literalism on one side and evolutionary science/atheism on the other, with little room for common ground. He attributes the rise of the second group to the reintroduction of Epicureanism into European (and later American) society through the 1417 rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, a poetic work which once again popularized Epicurus’ materialistic views. Much of the book, therefore, deals with countering modern Epicurean/atheistic thought, an effort that includes harmonizing the Bible and modern science. Wright lauds the work of Francis Collins in this regard, dedicating the volume to him.

Wright also offers a number of useful exegetical insights on contemporary issues such as women’s ordination and rapture theology. For instance, in discussing the biblical case for women’s ordination, he retells the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10) by outlining the expected gender roles of the first century. The typical sermon interpretation heard in pulpits today explains that Martha became angry with Mary because she decided to sit at the feet of Jesus rather than help her sister with the household tasks required for such an esteemed visit. While this interpretation is well supported by the text, Wright offers an additional element. He writes, “But far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East, and many other parts of the world to this day, would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’s feet in the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha… Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions… And Jesus declares that she is right to do so” (his italics). Wright’s new interpretation points to a Jesus who welcomes women into the formerly male-only milieu of theological discussion.

Wright also offers a fresh interpretation of I Thessalonians 4 to counter the ubiquitous rapture theology which has been so popularized by the Left Behind book series. Wright notes that the term ἀπάντησιν, translated as “meeting,” as in “meeting the Lord in the air,” is the technical term for welcoming Caesar at a “royal appearing” (παρουσία). Wright explains that “when the citizens went out to meet Caesar, they didn’t stay there in the countryside. They didn’t have a picnic in the field and then bid him farewell; they went out to escort their Lord royally into their city” (his italics). Wright thereby questions the idea that “Jesus is ‘coming back to take us home’—swooping down, scooping up his people, and zooming back to heaven with them, away from the wicked earth forever.  As Revelation makes clear in several passages, with echoes in other New Testament books, the point is that Jesus will reign on earth, and at his royal appearing the faithful will go to meet him… [to] escort him back into the world that is rightfully his and that he comes to claim, to judge, to rule with healing and wise sovereignty.” The environmental implications of such an interpretation are formidable. Instead of residing on a temporary world which will be totally destroyed at the second coming, we live instead on a planet which will one day be part of heaven itself.

Perhaps one way to retain one’s status as the most widely revered biblical scholar alive today is to sidestep hot-button issues which might alienate readers on either the theological left or right. This seems to be the only way one can explain the absence of a chapter on gay marriage in a book which purports to engage Scripture with contemporary issues. One can only assume that this glaring hole is by design rather than omission, as Wright seeks to avoid the cesspool of sexuality polemics which have fractured the church and society at large.

But despite the book’s many brilliant exegetical insights, Wright falls into the common mainline Protestant misconception that if the church could simply refute the “backward” fundamentalist theologies of evangelical Christians—the rapture, a six-day creation, an historical Adam, and so on—then the conceptual hurdles that prevent so many from entering the ranks of the faithful might be overcome. In other words, Wright calls for a “half-demythologization” that would be used in the service of modern evangelism. But if anything, we see just the opposite occurring in America today: Evangelical churches are growing by leaps and bounds, while the more “enlightened” mainline denominations are shrinking into irrelevancy. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is working by another method?

Dennis Di Mauro is Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Virginia, and teaches for St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.

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Review of “The Great and Holy War” by Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (San Francisco: Harper One, 2014), 448 pp. Page references are inserted in parentheses.

Philip Jenkins is a rare scholar in the current American scene.  A theologian, a historian and a excellent communicator, this academic is able to make comprehensible, huge social religious movements that have occurred in world history.  Whether it is the Global South’s religious explosion in his previous work, The Next Christendom, or the near-collapse of Eastern Christianity by Islam in The Lost History of Christianity, Jenkins articulates the broad sweep of history in an accessible way to a 21st century reader. He has done it again in The Great and Holy War, where we are confronted in 448 pages with a century-old story that resonates and relates to the modern world of 2015.

Jenkins tells us that the First World War created our reality. His thesis is that World War I was a religious event where nations with overwhelmingly Christian populations fought each other appealing to their own Christian theologies. Except for the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim-majority belligerent in the conflict, this was a war between Christian peoples. The First World War was as religious as the Crusades or the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. While religion does not go unmentioned in histories of this period, it usually doesn’t take center stage in most narratives. Jenkins reminds us that, unless you understand the religious dynamics of the 1914–1918 period, you miss much of the story.

World War I redrew the world religious map. And it was the most radical change in European Christianity since the 16th century. During this war, the Orthodox Church’s primacy in Russia collapsed. Several European states disestablished the church from their governments, Zionism blossomed in Palestine and Europe, and sub-Saharan African Christianity grew indigenous and began its rapid growth that continues to this day. Islam first became radicalized as the Ottoman Caliphate collapsed, Hinduism and Islam grew to see each other as opponents in what are now the nations of India and Pakistan, and the murder of millions in the Middle East began the exodus of Christian peoples from that area that continues to this very day.

As the war progressed and the huge land battles destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, the combatant nations all became more mystical and apocalyptic in their understanding of the times in which they lived. The great irony is how the most modern, secular, materialistic nations in the world could be so affected by  tools more familiar to the Middle Ages: mysticism, astrology, the occult, omens, voices and visions, good luck charms, dream interpretations, spiritualism, theosophy, even witchcraft. The visions of Fatima, the cult of Joan of Arc, the apparitions of angels or spirits were unique to the First World War and were not to be repeated in the Second World War a mere twenty-five years later.

In the history of World War I, grim and terrible chapters are the genocides, the murder of Armenians and other Christians by the Muslim Turks, the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the war zones of Russia (long before the Holocaust), and the Russian civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. Christians participated in the deportation of whole Jewish villages and the theft of their property during the war. The responsibility for the Armenian Holocaust that began in 1915 and killed at least 1.5 million of them is still an unresolved issue between the Armenian community and Turkey, one hundred years after it began. This is a wound that has not healed in Europe.

German Lutherans are especially critiqued by Jenkins for their participation in the religious justification of the First World War. Jenkins tells us that the Lutheran church was an ardent supporter of nationalism and militarism (79). Great German scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries were advocates for German imperial and military ambitions. When I was in seminary in the 1970s, we studied Adolf von Harnack, Emanuel Hirsch, Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, Ernst Troeltsch, Gerhard Kittel, and other great lights in the German liberal and mostly Lutheran theological universe. Yet Jenkins reports that during this period, jingoistic and crudely pro-war sentiment came forth from many German theological intellectuals. Von Harnack would even call Germany “the militia of Christ.” Jenkins comments that “Luther selectively quoted was a splendid patron saint for a totalitarian regime.” Some of those who survived until the Second World War would repeat this as they became viciously anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. Paul Althaus would later call the events of the Nazi takeover in 1933 a “gift and miracle of God” (212). Not just the professors, either; Lutheran pulpits were sources of state worship and war worship, too. German Lutheran pastors, laity, and bishops were clear. Germany was a divine state doing God’s will!

Thus, the 400th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 1917 was turned into a German patriotism festival. German peace parties in 1917 sought compromise and peace, but not the Lutherans who stuck to the agenda of 1914 (173–4). Jenkins, however, does not lay the imperialism of Germany or the Nazi regime at the door of Luther or the Protestant Church in Germany. “Some older historians attempted to place much of the blame for Nazism on Luther’s legacy and even to draw a straight line from Luther to Hitler. Any such attempt is unfair to Luther and to most Lutherans, intellectual leaders as well as ordinary believers. But at least some theologians and scholars were prepared to follow the extremist line to its logical conclusions” (213). German Lutheranism was a loser in World War I. Jenkins summarizes: “Perhaps when holy war rhetoric reaches a certain extreme, it discredits itself beyond redemption and becomes its own gravedigger” (369).

Most Christian denominational leaders in all warring states joined the military, at least rhetorically. All used “crusade language” in their attempts to put a theological blessing on their nation’s efforts. “Christians in all combatant nations including the United States entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of cosmic war,” Jenkins reports (page). Roman Catholic priests in Germany, France, and Austria entered the war firmly on their nation’s side, even as Pope Benedict XV worked tirelessly but in vain to secure an early armistice. There was no doubt from the clergy in the United States that God was on the side of the Americans.

The historical theologian in Philip Jenkins shines through when he discusses the effect of World War I on the theological development of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The collapse of the prevailing cultural faith during the war effort provided the basis and the future for the neo-orthodoxy of these great Protestant thinkers.

Christendom has faded, but not Christianity. In a short one hundred years Europe has almost totally secularized. Jenkins believes this is not the future for the world. Quoting sociologist Grace David, Jenkins believes that secular Europe is an “exceptional case” (371). As the secular state has grown in importance and control, religious loyalties worldwide have not diminished. Indeed, Christianity and Islam are growing very fast, especially in the southern hemisphere. Jenkins concludes that we are in the midst of revolution in religious life and doctrine, but “[o]bserving a revolution is quite different from comprehending it. Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another” (377). Reading this book by Philip Jenkins is worth your time.

Thomas A. Skrenes is bishop of the Northern Great Lakes Synod.

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Review of “Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom” By Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), xviii + 932 pp.

Pastoral work in the present needs more works from authors who belong to the theological wing of the theological disciplines. By this “theological wing,” I mean that the everyday work of pastors and lay leaders needs theology that is concerned as much with God as it is with the practical and the everyday. This appropriation of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s phrase—he claimed to be in the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”—points out that theology, as wide-ranging as it is, covering every topic under the sun, should at least speak and think of God.

Paul R. Hinlicky’s systematic theology offers what such “theological theology” at its best should present: a vision that touches on major concerns of the past and present that reorients how a person thinks and acts, renews a vision lost, and perhaps opens a door that never was visible before. But it does so through its consideration of God, keeping theology true to its subject matter.

This should entice readers to scale Hinlicky’s Beloved Community, which may be summarized in his thesis: “‘God’ is the self-surpassing Father who is determined to redeem creation and bring it to fulfillment in the Beloved Community by the missions in the world of His Son and Spirit” (49). Scaling is the right metaphor here because Hinlicky has written a lengthy dogmatics that has a varied topography, ranging from careful exegesis of John to standard discussions of patristic christology, from assessment of modern philosophies of the human subject to missiology.

In addition to this range, the book spurns many of the ordinary ways that theology books have been presented. First-person narratives mix with propositional argumentation. Assertion and argument follow each other. This varied terrain could intimidate a reader or obscure what the book offers, so in addition to reviewing the proposals Hinlicky makes, I offer some guidance to the reader to enter this work. Inevitably, I will have to skip or over-simplify some piece of his argument, owing to the size of this monograph.


Hinlicky has written an extensive and wide-ranging work of systematic theology that advances a deeply Augustinian, Lutheran, and ecumenical road for Christians to follow. His wide-ranging investigations drive continually toward the eschatological Beloved Community, an idiom Hinlicky has cultivated over several of his works. His use of the term “Beloved Community” refers to the divine community that is the eternal Trinity as well as to that community together with redeemed creation.

Hinlicky proposes that we interpret our experience and order our action and thought with and toward the Beloved Community by practicing what he calls “critical dogmatics.” This theological approach attempts what other theologians such as Oswald Bayer have held that there is no critique without the power of divine authority and no divine authority without critique. By this symmetrical phrase, Bayer intends what “critical dogmatics” can mean: that theology should countenance the challenges that Immanuel Kant and idealism have created for theology but that many of these challenges are answered not by accepting the Kantian or idealist position but by challenging them at their roots. For Hinlicky “critical dogmatics” also signals his rejection of modern reactionary theology just as much as those proponents who have endorsed it. Hinlicky frequently spurns modern positions in theology but he does not do so in order to flatly return to a pre-modern time; as his other book title suggests, Hinlicky pursues alternatives that have been muted or left aside in modern theology.

I suggest that readers begin at the end of the book. Starting with the last two chapters has the benefit of showing Hinlicky’s contribution of the context of theological work. Hinlicky begins his book with an account of theological subject, which provides us with a sketch of the agent, the actor of theology. He then continues on through to the theological object, concluding with the audience of such a subject. Hinlicky holds that God the Father is the audience of theology; this move shows a deep commitment to theology in the mode of addressing God, praising God, and indeed petitioning and struggling with God.

Writing theology for God or to God waned as the more economical genre of academic theology waxed in the high Middle Ages. This practical orientation and economical formulation for the sake of pedagogy has dominated theology ever since. To address God means to advocate again the kind of writing that suffuses Augustine’s Confessions, where addresses to God in the second person appears on every page. To address God also means to do the careful analytical work that Anselm undertook in his so-called ontological proof, a context that is often absent to us when it shorn of Anselm’s shaping of it as prayer when textbooks excerpt it. Much of The Beloved Community’s success depends on whether its readers accept this as a primary mode of theology.

God as the Auditor of Theology

Taking God as the primary audience of theological discourse means that we do not do theology for our own sake, though we gain knowledge of God that has practical and salvific import through the pursuit of theological inquiry, but because speech about God is undertaken within the Beloved Community. We do not formulate theological propositions for the sake of what “makes sense to a business manager in the middle of a day of work,” as Johannes Baptist Metz famously wrote. Theological propositions need to fit God, not the everyday delusions and dreams of domination of which we are victims and perpetrators in turn.

I find Hinlicky’s articulation of the audience of theology valuable because it neither pretends theology can be a discourse independent of the world nor does it make theology bow before the canons of what is plausible to contemporary North American culture. Indeed, Hinlicky’s formulation of the context of theology shows that our culture indeed has a role in how we speak but it is not the final or most embracing context for our theological work. Our pluriform culture itself is enclosed by God and has God the Father as its own context. In addressing our selves or our contemporaries, we are also speaking to God.

I think having this audience in place allows us to clear up some confusion that can emerge about Hinlicky’s methodological reflections on the subject of theology and his claims about pragmatic method that appear in the introduction and first chapters. Without this approach that takes God as the audience of theology, Hinlicky could seem to write as if theology were the provision only of those who have faith, thus seemingly embracing a kind of post-liberalism that holds theology to be subject only to the church, whichever church that might be, as well as a kind of liberalism that gives the theological right-of-way to personal experience. Without this context he seems to be recording his work in both the liberal and the post-liberal account-books. With this audience, something else is possible in Hinlicky’s work.

Hinlicky’s critical dogmatics proposes a way beyond the impasse between the post-liberal and the liberal. The liberal theology that dominates North American history privileges individual experience or propositional claims by demanding clear and certain grounds for knowledge. The post-liberal reaction to liberal theology eschews the idea of a common human knowledge or the availability of any way of grounding theology outside of the local community or culture. Hinlicky risks skewing post-liberal in this book by his embrace of a deflationary view of reason; he wishes to take reason as relative and local. At this point I think he gives too much credit to non-foundationalist theories of knowledge. The foundations of knowledge may no longer be held to be clear, certain, and immediately evident to all who posses reason. But that does not mean that there are not piers from which to set sail or judgments whose warrants are shared with or at least intelligible to natural scientists, non-religious people, or members of religious communities not Christian. By accepting a pragmatist theory of knowledge, Hinlicky advocates a point beyond these rationalist and post-modern impasses. Both foundationalism and non-foundationalism make too strong a claim on knowledge! Draping himself with the pragmatist flag, Hinlicky should advocate a moderate form of justification that does not go for the incommensurability of domains of reason that he articulates.

His avowed pragmatism can aid other dilemmas as well. The most important one of these impasses resolved is the context of theology: by articulating God the Father as the audience of theology, Hinlicky has liberated himself and those who follow him from the fetters of a specific school of theology and church tradition. If theology is tied to a particular tradition, it risks sectarianism and seclusion. If theology is too closely tied to the individual idiom of its author, it may speak truthfully to that person’s lived experience but it cannot hold for others so far as they do not share that person’s standpoint. If theology to quickly stamps out particular church traditions and confessions for the sake of a kind of lowest common denominator, the multiplicity of the Christian tradition diminishes. Hinlicky’s proposal for God as audience of theology offers a way to permit wide-ranging theological eclecticism and scholastic fidelity alike. Also, theology can operate on behalf of the church and the divided churches at the same time if done before God as audience.


Turning from the subject to the object of theology, the architecture of Hinlicky’s book deserves careful attention. These themes, prominent throughout, are: promise, pragmatism, and possibility. There are many more things to take up but I think these are crucial paths throughout the work. In each of these highways Hinlicky travels a good distance, demonstrating the value of his critical dogmatics for liturgical practice, for mission, and for dialogue with non-theological disciplines. In each of these spots of promise, pragmatism, and divine possibility, however, Hinlicky seems at a crossroad between several important alternatives.

The gift is the most important. As Hinlicky frequently declares, esse Deus dare, “to be God is to give.” “Gift” could be another name for God since it is crucial for the book. Several of Hinlicky’s summaries of Trinitarian doctrine rest on the metaphor and activity of giving. God the giver unites the long history of theology inflected by Platonism as much as the contemporary anthropological retrieval of the gift. God is the giver and as giver, God gives God to the world and the world gives back to God in the basic Platonic pattern of gift and its return. The task of thinking of God with respect to the discourse of being depends upon this gift: God has being and gives it to others in creating. At the same time, Hinlicky holds that God’s act of creation is a promise, and he takes faith to be a crucial dimension of the human relation to God because it rests in the particular promise that is born of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But a giving God is not a promising God. An important but often neglected cleft exists between the majority of theological traditions that privilege God as a giver and those comparably few that prefer to think of God’s graciousness as promise. Much hangs on this division because the activities of giving and promising differ in how the giver or promissor is construed to the point of implicating divergent accounts of divinity or Trinity.

Both ancient and modern theologians have had difficulty articulating the God who promises. In pre-modern schemes, many theologians in the past have claimed that God cannot promise; that God’s gifts only appear to us as promise because we perceive God’s eternal gift distended and chopped up in time. Or, from God’s eternity what is pledged at one time and then given in another is simply the same event. The simplicity of God’s being bars any idea of the activity of promising as anthropomorphism or the introduction of time into eternity. In its modern articulation, the giving God entails various nominalist or otherwise sovereign subjects as givers. This occurs when the arbitrary God who exceeds the created order to do whatever God wishes seems necessary if God is the sort of God who can keep promises. This kind of reasoning goes as follows: if God is trustworthy, God must have the capability to deliver on God’s promise and so one must conclude by virtue of this transcendental reasoning that God is more powerful than any event in the world that might emerge to prevent the promise from reaching its fulfillment.

On the other hand, a promise could entail a different kind of divine power and freedom. The risk and pain that making and keeping a promise requires of God removes the need for many of the metaphysical commitments that have long been attributed to God such as untrammeled power, simplicity of being, or immunity from time. Likewise, from the side of the human community, gifts do not require faith but only acceptance and then the task of passing them on to other creatures or returning them to God. It seems that this Triune God in The Beloved Community does not promise but only gives.

Trinity and Pragmatism

Reflection on the gift or promise is a way to return to basic questions about God’s being, to return to the Trinitarian matters that Hinlicky constantly urges. He rightly advocates attention to God’s being and holds that possibility holds an important place in thinking of God’s being because this reversal challenges conceptions of God alien to the God of the gospel. This can be seen in the way that Hinlicky makes claims about God, reasoning after God’s revelation in Jesus, as he puts it.

Hinlicky writes that statements about the eternal Trinity are “hope projected backwards.” Referring to another work of his, Hinlicky calls this a kind of reasoning about the eternal Trinity on the basis of the economic Trinity “induction.” The reasons for which Hinlicky invokes the eternal and immanent Trinity matters for this question because it seems that the freedom of God demands that there be a distinction of God from the event of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit upon the world, Israel, and the body of Christ. He, following much modern theology, requires that God would be the same God revealed in Jesus if there were no creation, no sin, no course of history that involves the election of Israel, and so on. The failure to uphold this, according to Hinlicky, is that God would not be free and therefore not God at all.

This reason, divine freedom, that Hinlicky advances, is no induction but might be closely associated with a form of argument called a transcendental deduction. He calls it “nachdenken,” thinking after, a suitable name for this sort of argument. God must be Triune in Godself because of the ontological requirements Hinlicky places on God if God is truly the God among us. That is, a conclusion of what is needed for God to be effective—the triumph over death requires God to be free over all things.

I take his way of making judgments about God to be somewhat transcendental instead of this inductive approach. If we approached knowledge of God inductively, we would consider claims about God in se as Trinity to be the retrospective conclusion of hope. Such inductive thinking about God could only be provisional. Provisional and defeasible claims about God would seem to fit the pragmatic approach to knowledge that Hinlicky claims to advance. Such a theory need not embrace an unbridled skepticism about knowing God as God is in eternity but it also does not need to endorse the immanent Trinity in the unqualified way as done by Hinlicky.

This stress on divine freedom seems to require Hinlicky to embrace a concept of God akin to that of modern individual subjectivity. He resists this embrace as he frequently lays the chief modern theological sin of “modern subject” at the feet of either Rene Descartes or Immanuel Kant. Likewise, his frequent opponent is modalism; not just the monarchic modalism of the pre-Nicene church, but modalism writ large and in many shapes. Versions of divine freedom seem to keep any name, even the name of Jesus, from sticking to God in eternity, since God can always undo any revelation. He proposes to remedy this sin by embracing God in God’s self-determination and the immanent Trinity. In both of these judgments Hinlicky repeats Karl Barth’s idioms nearly exactly. Privileging divine self-determination indeed elevates possibility over necessity, as Hinlicky wishes to do. Putting possibility before than actuality can occur in several ways. One idealist option, which Hinlicky especially rejects, finds possibility as a necessary outgrowth of an initial actuality. God must create, says Hinlicky’s idealist, since God needs another in order to become God. This means that God must become Jesus, in its crudest form, leaving no other being for the second person of the Trinity than the man Jesus of Nazareth.

Another tack on possibility lies with the embrace of divine infinity by a minority of theologians. Formerly infinity was a truncated and apophatic term that theologians such as Aquinas used to show that God was not anything finite, which would mean that infinity is just an empty and negative term. These writers held that by calling God infinite we say nothing about God at all. In response to this, John Duns Scotus, Nicholas of Cusa, and others developed infinity as a way to show the capaciousness of God for change, the world, and the new. For myself, I think this the better path and one that avoids the problems of a necessary action of God in order to become God and nominalistic voluntarism as this is another legacy of idealism worth developing. Hinlicky otherwise finds immense value in the reconstructive metaphysics of Eberhard Jüngel and of Robert W. Jenson, but he shies away from their treatment of God as an event. Both of these authors have brought event and infinity together in fruitful ways. The infinity of this particular event, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead, should satisfy and point beyond Hinlicky’s strictures.

Aside from this minority report, the voluntarist option is by and large the most prominent way of privileging possibility by making possibility rest on the freedom of God’s will. To preserve the freedom of divinity from the world’s strictures, from any kind of idealist necessity, or any other supra-divine reality into which God must fit, Hinlicky repairs to divine self-determination. God makes this decision. This privileging of the will has wrecked much havoc in theological history. It either detracts from the eternal Trinity for some, to others, including myself, it erases the actions of Jesus and their significance for who and what God is. Hinlicky seems to follow Schleiermacher, Barth, and Jüngel in placing love or wisdom as that which lies behind the will or decision of God, Jüngel especially finding love as event more basic to God than God’s will. This move makes love (or wisdom) that most fundamental reality about God.

Since Hinlicky frequently understands the Beloved Community as the promised consummation of the world, the life of the redeemed with God, I was surprised not to see this moderation of divine freedom or divine self-determination by love or wisdom in the book. This commitment of Hinlicky’s should weaken his commitment to God’s self-determination. As a promised community, Hinlicky could fulfill his pragmatist notions, underscore the importance of God as possibility, and, perhaps most importantly, realize that esse Deus promittere, to be God is to promise instead of to merely give. For promise and faith are correlates, as asserted by Luther and Melanchthon alike. Embracing promise, as Hinlicky seems to want to do, would mean a kind of apophaticism appropriate to that promise. Taking up the promising God would also fit Hinlicky’s avowed pragmatism and underscore the defeasibility of theological claims. That would further allow Hinlicky to free the concepts of God that he advances from the grip of the modern subject, a grip exhibited again and again in his description of God as self-determining.

The point this pragmatism, possibility, and promise serves is nothing other than that happy exchange, the kind of divine economy that Luther recovered from his predecessors and reformulated: Christ’s solidarity with us. Only the crucified God will do to bear our weight and much is at stake when there is another God on offer than the hanged man of Golgotha. The happy exchange and its sorrowful correlates energizes the Beloved Community in Hinlicky’s work but do not develop this strange and wondrous strife in God because the events of Jesus’ life and resurrection are mediated and distant from God in his construal; they stand in need of the Spirit’s uniting force, according to Hinlicky. In this case, the man Jesus’ relation to the God of Israel is not directly the relation of the Son to the Father. Rather, it is more complicated than that with Hinlicky, perhaps needlessly so.

Further, it might seem that the giving God articulated by Hinlicky would eliminate the danger that the one who is self-determining is also self-possessing. God, we learn from Hinlicky, is self-surpassing and giving. But the gift, again, needs more attention here. Giving away, in any gift-economy is always to create obligations, is always giving-to-keep or giving-to-return. If God were to be giving gifts without strings attached, God wouldn’t be giving, God would be making a promise. And instead of being self-determining, by making a promise, God would be opening Godself up to the burden of the other and the event of Jesus’ solidarity and death.

I see all of my comments as arguments I share within the traditions Hinlicky navigates. None of them detract from his accomplishment, for which I am very grateful. I recommend the book on the basis of its unrelenting theological concerns, that Hinlicky theologizes theologically, and that he so persistently wishes to be done with many false alternatives that plague contemporary North American theology that I simply hope for more books as strident and searching from Hinlicky as he further advances his critical dogmatics.

Gregory Walter is Associate Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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Review of “Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia”

Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia, eds. Michal Valčo and Daniel Slivka (Salem: Center for Religion and Society, 2012), 548 pages.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation—October 31, 1517—we also are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution—October 25, 1917. In the years following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets occupied a significant amount of the territory that had been influenced by the Reformation. I have had the privilege of serving with Lutheran Christians in lands formerly under Soviet power. The effects of the Bolshevik Revolution on the Lutheran Churches,1 other Christians,2 as well as Jews and Muslims, was significantly negative,3 though there were differences at times in the approach of the Soviets to Christians and to Muslims respectively.4

Lutheran Christians are still attempting to recover from the Soviet attempts to destroy religion and religious faith. The fall of the Soviet Union has led to freeing the churches from the oppressive power of the Soviet state and to rebirth even in the midst of uncertainty.5

The Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, coordinated a study entitled “Christian Churches in Post-Communist Slovakia: Current Challenges and Opportunities” in cooperation with the humanities faculty of the University of Žilina and the Greek-Catholic Theological faculty of the University of Prešov, as well as other researchers.

The interdisciplinary research resulted, in part, in this book, which examines the opportunities of the new situation, along with the burdens of the past. Burdens of the past include the oppression of the Nazis, the totalitarianism of the Soviets, the blessings and pitfalls of freedom, societal and cultural change, how to express the Christian faith in the post-Soviet and post-modern age, and how best to deal with the effects of materialism, secularism, and consumerism.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I speaks to the contemporary situation in Slovakia and examines ways to move forward. Part II deals with the history of the Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia, its oppression under the Soviets, and its current renewal. Part III examines the status of Jewish-Christian relationships in Slovakia today. Part IV examines the role of the media in relationship to the church in contemporary Slovakia.

The first essay by Daniel Slivka, “Church and Society in Slovakia—Past and Present,” sets the findings of the Roanoke study in the historical context of Slovakia, including its oppression under the Nazis and the Soviets. After 1989 Slovakia pursued democracy but the findings of the study indicate that there is a disconnect between religious faith and values and public life. Many people are still influenced by a Soviet mentality. Individualism, secularism, and privatization are all negative effects of Western modernization. Responsibility does not appear tied together with freedom and democracy in the minds of many. Thus the need for Christian values to have greater prominence in society.

The essay by Lukáš Bomba and Adrian Kacian, “The Relevance of Christian Faith for Everyday Life in Post Communist Slovakia,” examines the results of the European Value Survey of 2008, which revealed the religious situation in modern Slovakia, the impact of Communism on the Christian churches, and how relevant the Christian faith is for modern citizens of Slovakia. The study revealed that the expression of faith is based more on tradition than on belief, that Christianity is viewed as more of a private conviction than a public reality, and that many question the relevance of Christianity for everyday life.

Kamil Kardis’s “The Human Crisis and Exhibitions of Dehumanization in the Context of Today’s Society” examines the slide into the individualism and subjectivism of Western culture, which assumes that where God and the individual are in conflict, the individual is right and God is wrong. Self and experience are given the highest value and are normative for many.

Mária Kardis examines “The Chosen Aspects of Desocialization in the Context of Crisis of Postmodern Society.” This study found that desocialization resulted from a faulty view of human beings, increased moral individualism, and relativism. These trends led to the loss of ties between people and society, the disintegration of families, more crime, and a loss of faith. This study also found that religion is a dominant unifying force in society.

Katarína Valčová writes about “Liturgical Renewal as a Means of Church Renewal in the Slovak Post-Communist Context.” This essay examines what needs to be preserved so that the apostolic traditions and teachings are retained amid changing times, and what worship alterations would assist in the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a postmodern, post-communist era.

Michal Valčo’s contribution “Setting the Stage for a Meaningful Engagement: The Need for a Competent Public Theology in the Post-Communist Context of Slovakia.” This essay lays out the unease about the church’s role in modern society. Yet there is great need for the church to share its beliefs in the public realm and to proclaim a robust public Christian theology to today’s world. This is especially true now that Europe has lost its public religious discourse and its tradition of Christian education, thus causing the loss of most of its religious and cultural roots. Rigorous Christian education especially of the young is needed to influence society and to deal with the aftermath of Nazism and totalitarian Communism.

Jaroslav Coranič shares “The History of the Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia.” This church suffered complete liquidation during the Communist era, part of the larger ideological struggle the Soviets had with Rome. The Greek Catholic Church was forced by the Soviets to unite with the Russian Orthodox Church to lessen Rome’s influence in the Soviet empire. This essay traces the history of the Greek Catholic Church from the time of Cyril and Methodius to the year 2008 when Pope Benedict XVII established a new Catholic Greek eparchy in Slovakia.

Peter Šturák helps readers understand “The Attack on the Greek Catholic Church and Its Bishop during the Period of Communist Oppression.” Western Christians need to read such histories to gain understanding of the oppression their Christian brothers and sisters experienced under the Soviets. The accounts of martyrs and saints gives one pause, and the actions of many of them illustrate Christ’s forgiveness, love for enemies, the struggles for freedom, human rights, and faithfulness to Christ’s mission even under trial.

Marek Petro enlightens readers as to the “Stability and Flexibility in the [Greek Catholic] Church after the Fall of Communism.” This essay sets forth the stories of the martyrs Bishop P. P. Gojdič and Bishop Vasil’ Hopko, and the renewed flexibility and zeal of the church after Communism. Flexibility is necessary, for children are no longer brought up in Christian homes. Many homes are in fact anti-religious. The Greek Catholic Church has organized activities for youth and established youth centers, as well as centers for outreach to the Roma and their families.

František Ábel’s essay, “Righteousness, Justice and Holiness within Koinonia: The Theological Perspective of Development of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Slovakia,” attempts to deal with Slovakia’s totalitarian past and the near-elimination of the Jewish community by the Nazis and Communists. Now that such repression has ended, how do Christians and Jews interact so that Christians grow in their understanding of their Jewish roots and promote fraternal Jewish/Christian relationships and societal harmony? This essay uses several terms to frame the way forward: righteousness, justice (or justification), holiness, and fellowship.

Hedviga Hennelová’s essay, “The Culture of Media as a Substitute for Religion in a Post-Communist Context,” analyzes the influence of the media, which has become a kind of modern religion by its promotion of itself as an arbiter of truth, the lack of need for God, and a more secular view of life without absolutes. These things are in conflict with religious values. Thus there is need for religious people, especially Christians, to study the influence of the media and to effectively use the media to bring the gospel of Christ to bear on an increasingly secular world.

Terézia Rončáková’s essay, “Mass Media Coverage of Religious Topics: Understanding Topoi in Religious and Media Arguments,” researches the mass media’s ability to cover religious topics. The topoi are common places based on common values in society. To effectively communicate with an audience, gain its consent, and shape its attitudes, the approach must be grounded in the topoi. The study focused on the secular media’s coverage of five religious events. It also noted the challenges that the secular and church media both have in attempting to communicate effectively to society at large.

Imrich Gazda’s essay, “Catholic Media in Post-Communist Slovakia,” lays out the history of Catholic media (newspaper, radio, and television) in the post-Communist years. The work of the Slovak Bishop’s Conference Press Agency is also examined. The essay then examines the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic media in Slovakia. The main work of the Catholic media is to sustain and strengthen the faith of Slovakia’s Catholics, and its main challenge is to deal effectively with the increasing secularization of society. Questions are also raised about an enhanced presence on the internet.

Some might read the title for this book and wonder why it should be read by anyone outside of Slovakia. Christianity worldwide is experiencing some of the same challenges that are evident in Slovakia: the lessening of Christianity’s influence in society, the loss of moral absolutes, the church’s place and role in society, changes to the understanding of marriage, a loss of interest in doctrine and theology accompanied by the entrance into Christianity of religious and spiritual teachings antithetical to the faith, the challenge of religious pluralism, the rise of militant atheism, a resurgence of neo-Marxism, the challenge of peaceful interaction between the major world religions, questions about the media’s role in society and its portrayal of religious events and topics. This is a book that deserves a wide audience.

ARMAND BOEHME is Associate Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota, and a former missionary to Kazakhstan.

1. Gennadij Khonin, A Brief History of Lutheranism in Kazakhstan and the Restoration of a Brethren Lutheran Community to an Authentic Confessional Lutheran Congregation (D.Min. Thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, 2011), 1–59; Arthur Voobus, The Department of Theology at the University of Tartu: Its Life and Work, Martyrdom and Annihilation: A Chapter of Contemporary Church History in Estonia (Stockholm: Estonian Theological Society in Exile, 1963); Milan Opočenský, “Christian Existence in a Communist Country,” dialog 2/3 (1963): 214–23.
2. Kurt Hutten, Iron Curtain Christians: The Church in Communist Countries Today, trans. Walter G. Tillmanns (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1967); Dimitry Pospielovsky, The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime 1917–1982, vol 1. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984); The Church in Today’s Catacombs, ed. Sergiu Grossu, trans. Janet L. Johnson (New Rochelle: Arlington House Publishers, 1973); Arthur Voobus, The Martyrs of Estonia: The Suffering, Ordeal, and Annihilation of the Churches under the Russian Occupation (Stockholm: Ministerium of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1985).
3. Arch Paddington, Failed Utopias: Methods of Coercion in Communist Regimes (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1988), 47–66; J. N. Westwood, Russia 1917–1964 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 51, 81, 160, 190, 193–4; Alfred Martin Rehwinkel, Communism and the Church (St. Louis: Concordia, 1948), 40–75.
4. Paul Froese, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 89–100; Laurent Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 169–255.
5. Jörg Swoboda, The Revolution of the Candles: Christians in the Revolution of the German Democratic Republic, trans. Edwin P. Arnold (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1996); A Decade of Miracles 1998–2008, ed. Tomáš Gulán (Martin: Bible School in Martin, 2008).

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Review of “Luther and Katharina” by Jody Hedlund

Many moons ago when I was a tender tween I happened upon Kitty, My Rib, a genuinely hagiographical account of the First Lady of Lutheranism, tidy and heartwarming as only the 1950s could manage. Much more recently at a German bookshop I found the racier title Kinder des Ungehorsams (“Children of Disobedience”) and sweated through the unfamiliar vocabulary of brewing, herb gardening, and medieval medicine for a much more realistic and rather harsher depiction of the Luthers’ world… discovering only much too late that there was an English translation. Alas. Then a few months ago a publicist for romance writer and Lutheran P.K. Jody Hedlund asked if I’d like a review copy of her new Luther and Katharina. Maybe the sheer fact that it was in easy ol’ English weakened my resolve, as I had never read a single romance novel in my life (unless you count Jane Eyre). I took the bait.

Herewith an exercise in observing the Eighth Commandment.

As I said, I am no expert in the genre of romance novel, but in reading this one I figured out a few rules of the game. One: the principals have to thoroughly dislike each other or otherwise remain estranged for most of the story. Two: They nevertheless have to provoke steamy thoughts in each other’s minds, mostly unwillingly, at least at first. Three: There has to be a threat of sexual violence from some other unworthy suitor or villain. Four: The moral of the story has to be that “being in love” trumps all other considerations.

The difficulty is that, in order to pull this off, most of what we actually know about the Luthers had to be disregarded. For example, there’s no reason to think that they ever disliked each other. A major engine of the plot in Luther and Katharina is her being a right royal snob about her social standing and him feeling inadequate as a poor miner’s son. But there’s no reason to think Katie vaunted her social status, and Luther’s family was actually pretty well off. The issue of being ex-monk and ex-nun was way more of a scandal than an upper-class lady marrying beneath her.

As for the steamy thoughts, well, one might hope they approached each other with some eagerness when it came right down to it, though Luther went on the record as saying that he didn’t marry from lust or love but did grow in time to love his wife. The novel is, however, undeterred from the fluttering stomachs and caressed cheeks that are the bread-and-butter of chaste romances.

But then there’s the need for the threat on the other side, and this is where the book really went off the rails. Yes, there was some real nastiness that took place in monasteries and convents, and former religious could suffer badly for their defection. You’d easily get the impression from this book, though, that the average abbot was an accomplished rapist spouting the lingo of submission more characteristic of contemporary cults than medieval religiosity. Katie’s Aunt Lena is depicted to have sacrificed herself to keep Katharina and other nuns unharmed, resulting in several years of PTSD-induced vacant silence—rousing out of it in the end only to stab an infiltrating toady of the aforementioned rapist abbot. Who, by the way, kidnaps Katharina sometime after her escape, whips her back to bloody shreds, and is just dropping his drawers when Mother Superior walks in and saves her. Ecumenical considerations aside, it’s clear in this aspect of the story that the demands of the genre have overwhelmed the faintest tether to actual history.

It is true that Katharina had had another suitor before she married Luther, one Jerome Baumgartner, and true that he promised to marry her but then vanished and ultimately married another, wealthier woman who also happened not to be an ex-nun. But again, there’s not a shred of evidence that he was a rake and deflowerer of virgins of the first order. It’s just that the story demanded an unworthy rival for Luther’s heart.

The moral of the story is that Martin and Katie “fell in love.” I think they probably did. I think they probably didn’t before they were married, though; and I certainly don’t think Justus Jonas saw it all along and wanted Luther to write a treatise declaring to the world that he wasn’t acting out of principle or filial duty but because “you’ve fallen in love. It’s as simple as that.”

I don’t wish to be a total curmudgeon. It’s a work of fiction, after all, and not pretending to be anything other than a romance novel. And there’s something to be said for this non-negotiable of the genre: it recognizes that if marriage is going to be for life, as the Christian faith teaches it should, and a loving one too, then there has to be some kind of free recognition and acceptance of one another by the two parties. Romance also recognizes that the threat of sexual violence haunts the existence of all women while rejecting its dehumanizing claim on them. But this particular story was really not well suited for colonization by the romance genre. By the end I felt like I was reading a book about two people who just happened to have the same names and approximate life circumstances of the famous Martin and Katharina Luther that I knew.

Maybe what depressed me most of all was that the marriage itself was not of interest. Our culture only knows how to tell exciting stories of courtship, but exciting stories of marriage are well nigh nonexistent. A courtship story had to be engineered for the Luthers because the marriage story just didn’t fit the bill. But that’s the really interesting part about them, the real Luthers: how two such strong people did find, in time, that they loved each other; shared a bed together; made children, raised them, and showed family hospitality to countless others; fought their way through a risky reformation; and became dearer to each other than anyone ever would have thought possible. That’s a more compelling love story than any number of engineered quarrels and wicked abbots.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the Editor of Lutheran Forum.

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There’s Something about Flacius, By Martin J. Lohrmann

Review of Luka Ilić, Theologian of Sin and Grace: The Process of Radicalization in the Theology of Matthias Flacius Illyricus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).

Theological reflection involves both content and style. It is an art and a science: scientific in the rigorous analysis of its truth claims; artistic in how theologians choose to communicate their ideas. St. Augustine studied this reality in On Christian Teaching, which begins, “There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt.”[1]

This balance between content and communication is especially prominent in the life of Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520–1575), one of the great minds of the second generation of Lutheran reformers. Flacius was a native of Croatia (Latin Illyria, hence the name “Illyricus”). As a young man, Flacius’s relative—a Franciscan scholar named Baldo Lupetino—encouraged him to study in Germany.[2] Flacius arrived in Wittenberg in 1541, in time to develop relationships with Luther and Melanchthon; the budding scholar was teaching Hebrew at the University of Wittenberg already in 1544.[3]

The following years, however, brought troubles like Luther’s death (1546), the Lutherans’ defeat in the Smalcaldic War (1547), and the Augsburg Interim (1548), which was an imperial religious policy aiming to force Lutherans back under Roman ecclesiastical rule. At that time, Melanchthon and others in Wittenberg attempted to preserve evangelical teaching and civil peace by working with authorities to craft more acceptable alternatives to the Interim. In recent studies, historians like Günther Wartenberg and Timothy Wengert have demonstrated how Melanchthon acted with theological integrity in that situation.[4]

Flacius’s reaction to the same events, however, began a process that author Luka Ilić has aptly described as radicalization. Viewing Melanchthon’s efforts as “a union of Christ and Belial,” Flacius became a leading voice in the adiaphoristic controversy that launched decades of conflict among Lutheran theologians.[5] This entrance into controversy using sharp eschatological categories laid a lasting foundation for Flacius’ radical statements of doctrines like original sin and for his skepticism about dialogue with other theological perspectives. By the early 1560s, Flacius had burned most of his bridges with leaders of both church and state.

As Ilić writes, “Flacius’ radicalization reached its full extent during this time period [the early 1560s]. Not only was he adamant about holding on to his theological positions by not showing any willingness to re-think or modify them but this rigidity also began to rapidly influence his personal and professional relationships in a negative manner. Through his statements and behavior he was polarizing an ever growing circle of people.”[6]

By studying Flacius’s life and work in terms of radicalization, Ilić has offered a helpful lens through which to examine not only what Flacius’ believed but to consider the equally theological issue of how he expressed himself. As the citation from Augustine above reminds us, theology involves both content and communication. In Flacius’s case, he combined deeply-held beliefs with uncompromising language, which resulted in personal alienation and the escalation of intra-Lutheran controversy. While one may agree or disagree with the content of Flacius’s teachings, the effects of his radical expressions are plain to see.

Without turning him into either a hero or a villain, the language of radicalization both accurately describes how people experienced Flacius in his time and suggests ways that we might continue to learn from him today. We notice, for instance, that radicalism itself includes modes of thought and communication that bring with it certain effects. On the positive side, radical views offer strong foundations for faith and can provide clarity when engaging complex issues. On the negative side, however, radicalism can lead to broken relationships, closed communities, and closed minds.

Both of these aspects are true for Flacius, as seen in the 1577 Formula of Concord that settled many of the controversies of Flacius’s time. The article on original sin, for instance, condemned Flacius’s most radical statements about original sin and human nature.[7] The Formula’s article on adiaphora, however, affirmed Flacius’s conviction that there are times to stand up and refuse to bend when the gospel is at stake.[8]

How does a person know the difference between an overstatement of conviction and a true call to stand firm? Instead of offering radical solutions, the Formula deviated from Flacius’s radicalism by offering believers a set of principles to use in their discernment: Christians who want to be faithful should avoid arousing God’s wrath, not violate love, not strengthen enemies of God’s word, and not offend the weak in faith.[9] With these diverse factors in mind, individual and communities have a variety of perspectives to consider when evaluating situations for the sake of the gospel, conscience, and the well-being of others.

Something about Flacius—namely, his radical beliefs and formulations—keeps Christians in that vital crucible of personal conviction and mutual accountability. The concept of radicalization allows us to appreciate Flacius’s work, while also confronting negative sides of his legacy like infighting and inflexibility. By presenting Flacius in this way, this book and its author have made strong contributions to Reformation history. This approach also provides a valuable reminder for how Christians engage theological and social issues today: radicalism is not the only way.

Martin J. Lohrmann is Assistant Professor of Lutheran Confessions and Heritage at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, and the author of Book of Harmony: Spirit and Service in the Lutheran Confessions.



[1] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. H. P. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 8.

[2] Luka Ilić, Theologian of Sin and Grace: The Process of Radicalization in the Theology of Matthias Flacius Illyricus by (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 39.

[3] Ilić, 65.

[4] See Wartenberg and Wengert’s essays, respectively, in Politik und Bekenntnis: Die Reaktionen auf das Interim von 1548, eds. Irene Dingel and Günther Wartenberg (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2006).

[5] Ilić, 95. The “union of Christ and Belial” is a reference to II Corinthians 6:15. For more on the adiaphoristic controversy, see Charles P. Arand, Robert Kolb, and James A. Nestingen, The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 176-189.

[6] Ilić, 157.

[7] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) [hereafter BC], 531.1-532.3.

[8] BC 640.29.

[9] BC 640.25.

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Review of “Lutherans in America” by Mark Granquist

Mark Granquist, Lutherans in America: A New History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 375 pp.

It has been observed that there are countless dissertations, articles, and books on the Shakers, a tiny and now basically extinct group of American Christians, while the research on American Lutherans, once the third-largest Protestant group in America, is thin on the ground. Maybe this is a testimony to a certain kind of success, namely the successful transplantation of Lutheranism to a new continent with its new form of government and new patterns of cultural life. Maybe it’s a condemnation of our unexceptional ordinariness.

But whatever the rest of the world—or academia—may think of us, it’s hard not to be fascinated by our own family history. Mark Granquist has done an excellent job of drawing together the many and disparate branches of the family tree into a coherent narrative in his new history. Any Lutheran seeking to fill in the gaps—which will almost certainly mean correcting distorted preconceptions—will do well to read it cover to cover. I’ll comment on the items that struck me most.

indexThe first is that, having “arrived” socially and economically since the Second World War and the Baby Boom, we Lutherans tend to assume that we have always been privileged. The earliest Lutherans were anything but that. The vast majority of them were Germans who came to the colonies as indentured servants, bound for seven years of service that was just a shade above slavery. Those who came with at least political freedom, like the Swedes in Delaware, hung on by a fingernail; mere survival was brutally difficult. What pastors were willing to put up with to serve their far-flung and often recalcitrant flocks is little short of awe-inspiring. Though it was indeed so difficult that few were actually willing to do it, spawning the industry of pastoral charlatanism.

Related to this is Granquist’s explosion of “the myth of the boat” (a topic he also treated in LF Winter 2010). I’ve often heard it said that Lutherans have always been inward-looking, building little kingdoms of church and school and college for their own, while the grateful immigrants streamed into the waiting arms of the church. Quite the contrary! The rates of return to church life of even Lutheran immigrants was shockingly poor—a high of 25% for Norwegians and less than 10% for Danes—and even those came in largely due to tireless evangelical effort on the part of the pastors to draw them in. If the clergy weren’t overly active at seeking out other ethnic or racial groups, it was because they couldn’t possibly keep up with the people who were already their own charges. Not lack of concern but lack of workers for the harvest was the problem. And lack of funds: something like three out of four Lutheran schools, colleges, or seminaries went under, and what remain today are the survivors of a harsh winnowing process.

Of course, Lutherans did draw in those outside the obvious ethnic enclaves. There were efforts, almost entirely unsuccessful, to reach Native Americans. The one area of real and obvious failure was with regard to African Americans. Besides the truly egregious acceptance of slavery—even by leaders of the Salzburgers in Georgia who initially argued vehemently against it—was the fact that there were many congregations of African Americans, and these were repeatedly ignored and underfunded. Most ultimately went elsewhere after so much neglect. It’s a recurring theme and the most shameful of American Lutherans’ missional failures.

What also emerges, though, is that it’s something of a misnomer to think of Lutherans as “white,” as embarrassed denominational officials tend to. That is true now, of course, when ethnic distinctions have by and large faded away, but as with the case of privilege, “whiteness” seems to be a consequence of the Baby Boom and its attendant social changes, not an inherent quality of Lutherans for all of American history. Lutherans were ethnic, exotic, acceptable insofar as they were Protestant but in most other respects a quirky facet of the American landscape. Hard as it is to imagine now, overcoming their own internal distrust—between types of Germans, types of Scandinavians, between these branches and also between them and the minority Lutherans of eastern Europe—was no small task.

Here again, though, it’s important to realize that Lutherans were headed toward the English language already in the 1700s. They weren’t reluctant to speak the tongue of Americans or engage them culturally at all. What reversed the process, temporarily, was the mass of immigration starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. A reversion to German or Swedish was not a refusal of America but an appropriate missional response.

Ethnic diversity meant also “denominational” diversity, a reality imposed upon Lutherans by the sheer political fact of American disestablishment. The two large Lutheran denominations, three mid-size Lutheran denominations, and several dozen Lutheran micro-synods we have today might well qualify as more unity and less division than in centuries past. Accordingly, and almost inevitably, Granquist’s history is very much an institutional history, with the corresponding effluence of acronyms. His reference to luminous personalities is much appreciated, but by and large they are not the center of the story. Perhaps this is a matter of dispute among historians, but I remain curious: do institutions drive history, or do personalities? (Or, if both, by what relative weighting?) Muhlenberg is obviously one case of a personality driving history, and I have my own (not entirely objective) opinions about personalities driving Lutheranism in more recent history, but I’m in no position to judge on the time in between. Some of the gap in personality history is addressed in the excurses between the chapters, roughly two pages each taking up a more specific topic. One of these concerns a young missionary woman, Thea Rønning; another, “Father” Adam Keffer of Canadian Lutheranism. But I think it is a question worth further exploration.

Granquist warns the reader at the outset of his final chapter, which covers 1988 to 2013, how dangerous it is for historians to draw to close to the present. In the very final section, entitled “Hope” (tacitly suggesting that the reader may have come to the end without any), he reveals that his first readers of the final chapter’s draft thought it either too optimistic or too pessimistic! Undoubtedly readers will have their own Rorschach-test reaction to it as well.

Provisional conclusions are admittedly dangerous, but if the sign of success for American Lutherans is unity, then Granquist is surely right that we’ve come as far as we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future; and if the sign is numerical growth and percentage of the U.S. population, then we have failed miserably. Another wave of immigration from, say, East Africa or Indonesia might help us out, unless of course our denominations descend into competitive infighting for alliances. My own sympathies lie with Granquist’s own call—expressed with the subtlety befitting the long view of a historian—to return to the theological and catechetical roots of Lutheranism. We have certainly succeeded in becoming Americans; let us prove our worth to the wider culture with our distinctive gifts.

A final word, not on the text but on the book itself. I have had occasion to complain before about the less than impressive job Fortress does on its publications. Here again I have to raise the same complaint. The cover features an anemic graphic of the U.S.; the layout is dull; the margins are cramped; the internal graphics look like bad scans; and there were entirely too many typos and related errors for a book that has gone through the publishing process. Granquist and the reader surely deserved better.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the editor of Lutheran Forum.

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Review of “Sabbath as Resistance,” By Dennis Di Mauro

Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now 
(Westminster John Knox, 2014), 89 pp.

As a parish pastor, I find it more and more common for parents to inform me that their children will be unable to attend this Sunday’s worship service, confirmation class, or youth activity because of conflicts with soccer, lacrosse, football or some other extracurricular activity. These apologies put me in a difficult position. How should the shepherd respond? On one hand, the pastor wants to uphold the third commandment and its directive on keeping the Sabbath holy. But on the other hand, the pastor wants to be sympathetic to those faithful families who must live in a society which has abandoned the Sunday obligation altogether. In frustration, he asks in his Sunday sermon whether “setting aside one hour a week is too much for God to ask?”

But Walter Brueggemann, in his latest book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, argues that God’s primary goal in creating the Sabbath is to allow a respite to the never-ending daily demands of life. This Sabbath break also serves to curtail our own selfish cravings. Brueggemann writes, “Sabbath is an antidote to anxiety that both derives from our craving and in turn feeds those cravings for more.” Sabbath breaks the pattern of endless work, study, and organized sports. It allows us to resist society’s relentless economic pressures and live in an altogether different way. He suggests, “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative.”

As a noted Old Testament scholar who taught for many years at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, Brueggemann defends his premise with an insightful exegesis of the biblical texts. He starts with Exodus 5, likening Pharaoh to an unregulated corporate executive: “a hard-nosed production manager for whom production schedules [were] inexhaustible.” Pharaoh exploits his Israelite slave workers by forcing them to gather their own straw to make bricks. Yet despite the increased workload, the Israelites are still required to produce just as many bricks as before. To add insult to injury, their cries for relief are dismissed as symptoms of laziness. The workers are driven to despair by their inability to fulfill Pharaoh’s unreasonable demands, and they can see no relief for their troubles on the horizon. Brueggemann concludes that “in this system there can be no Sabbath rest.”

But the system plagues Pharaoh as well. Brueggemann notes that even though Pharaoh “was absolute in authority and he occupied the pinnacle of power, [he] was an endlessly anxious presence who caused the entire social environment to be permeated with a restless anxiety that had no limit or termination.” Indeed, no matter how much food was stockpiled against the threat of famine, Pharaoh continued to have nightmares about the starvation that might eventually plague the land. He too could find no rest.

Yet through the pronouncement of the third commandment in Exodus 20, God provides a antidote to this endless cycle of material production and the concurrent anxiety that accompanies it—a Sabbath. This Sabbath provides rest to the heads of households, but also to children, slaves, livestock, and resident aliens—as Brueggemann notes “all are equally at rest.” In mandating the Sabbath, God prevents the freed Israelites from being oppressed again, but He also prevents them from becoming unjust managers like their old Egyptian masters. Indeed, He protects them from becoming Pharaohs themselves. In verse 11, God likens this Sabbath rest to the one He himself enjoyed on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2-3). This final day of rest avoids the current commoditization of American life: a system that Brueggemann believes is not even questioned anymore. God provides the alternative to this rat race. Brueggemann concludes, “God is not a workaholic. God is not a Pharaoh.”

Brueggemann also notes that the Sabbath exhortation in Exodus 20 mirrors the canceling of debts (every seven years) found in Deuteronomy 15. Such a practice eliminates the long-term possibility of exploiting others by reminding those in power of their obligation to treat all their brothers and sisters as “Sabbath neighbors.” This practice also has the added benefit of preventing the creation of a permanent underclass.

Perhaps even more impressive is Brueggemann’s insight into Sabbath as a preventative against forgetfulness. Moses was keenly aware that the fruitfulness of the Promised Land could lead to Israelites’ forgetfulness about their need for God. As Brueggemann suggests, “prosperity breeds amnesia.” But in both Deuteronomy 6:12 and 8:14, the people are warned against the kind of forgetfulness that will lead them away from God and toward a repetition of Pharaoh’s predatory economic practices.

After reading Brueggemann’s powerful little book, I am now inspired to respond to my church members’ announced absences in an altogether different way. I will now inform those frantic families that God wants them to take a respite from the endless work, study, and organized sport that imprisons them in a fruitless quest for more and more. Brueggemann astutely observes that “People who keep Sabbath live all seven days differently.” God wants to give these families a break, and that break might just change their lives forever. But will they let Him?

Dennis Di Mauro is Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Virginia, and teaches at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.

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Review of “The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse,” By John T. Pless

The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse, eds. Matthew C. Harrison, Bror Erickson, and Joel A. Brondos (Irvine: New Reformation Publications, 2016), 647 pp.

Hermann Sasse (1895–1976) is remembered for his staunch confessionalism, largely out of step with twentieth century theology. The journey of his life was a movement away from the Prussian Union and the teachers of his youth in Berlin, particularly Adolph von Harnack and Karl Holl, toward a carefully articulated case for the distinctiveness of the Lutheran church in the world. Postgraduate studies at Hartford Seminary in 1925 and 1926 would expose him to American Christianity. While in the States he admitted to becoming a loyal Lutheran through the reading of Wilhelm Loehe’s Three Books about the Church.

Returning to Germany, Sasse was active in ecumenical affairs. He collaborated with Bonhoeffer in writing the Bethel Confession but refused to sign the Barmen Declaration as he evaluated it as Barthian. Along with such notables as Werner Elert and Paul Althaus, Sasse served on the faculty at Erlangen during the Nazi era. It was during this period that he wrote Here We Stand, a book that was translated into English in 1938 by his friend Theodore Tappert and widely used in American Lutheran seminaries of all stripes in the 1940s and 50s. Disappointed with unionistic path taken by the Lutheran Church in Bavaria after World War II, Sasse emigrated to Australia for a teaching post at Immanuel Lutheran Seminary in Adelaide.

While he was geographically isolated in Australia, Sasse kept abreast of theology in Europe and North America. His engagement was often through circular letters, mimeographed and mailed to Lutheran pastors and professors the world over. The letters have been collected and published in a three-volume set by Concordia Publishing House. Other significant essays have been translated and edited by Matthew Harrison in a two-volume set, The Lonely Way, also published by Concordia. Sasse’s wartime sermons translated by Bror Erickson are available in Witness, published by Magdeburg Press. His major book on the Lord’s Supper, This is My Body, was published by Augsburg Publishing House already in 1959. The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse now rounds out the corpus of Sasse’s collected works in English.

The materials in this most recent anthology are from the Australian years. The majority of the articles and book reviews in this volume were published in the Reformed Theological Review, an Australian journal. It was no accident that Sasse, who was highly critical of Reformed intrusions into Lutheran theology and church life, would be a welcomed contributor to this journal. Sasse was respected as a conservative Lutheran theologian who was willing to engage with those outside of his tradition. In fact, Sasse served for a while as president of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in Australia.

Sasse’s confessionalism was by no means a narrow parochialism. He was a friend and regular correspondent with Cardinal Augustin Bea, a highly influential figure in the years of the Second Vatican Council. Several of the entries in The Journal Articles are commentary on decisions of the Council. A significant number of articles deal with aspects of the ecumenical movement with which Sasse was intimately acquainted. He narrates the history of the ecumenical movement from its origins in Pietism and the great missionary movements of the nineteenth century. In a 1953 essay, Sasse worried that the ecumenical movement was so eager for reunion that it neglected truth. He wrote, “Ecumenical discussions can be fruitful but only if carried on between those who have a common doctrinal basis, be it the Nicene Creed or the ‘sola scriptura’ of the Reformation. Without such expression of common convictions and a common faith, the ecumenical discussions will lead not to a new Pentecost, but a Babel-like confusion of tongues. That is the tragedy of modern ecumenical organizations. What is meant to be a means of overcoming the divisions of Christendom has practically destroyed the unity that already existed” (p. 7). To be sure, Sasse is critical, but there is no hint of mean-spiritedness or cynicism. His polemic is intended to serve the truth of the one gospel which alone creates the unity of the church.

Along with essays on matters ecumenical, there are numerous essays on the nature of Holy Scripture and its authority. Shortly after his arrival in Australia, Sasse became entangled in debates on scriptural inerrancy, to the frustration and dismay of some of his friends in the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods. Critical of both the skepticism embodied in Rudolph Bultmann and the ahistorical approach of fundamentalism, Sasse sought a path forward that would avoid both extremes. His essays examine the emergence of the dogma of Holy Scripture and are suggestive of ways to confess that the Bible, like Christ, has both a divine and human nature. Although misunderstood on this point, Sasse asserted that to speak of the Bible’s human nature does not imply a capacity for error.

Also included in this volume are forty-two book reviews published in the Reformed Theological Review. These reviews demonstrate the wide-ranged of Sasse’s theological interest and give insight into his evaluation of his contemporaries such as Wingren, Schlink, Tillich, Cullmann, Elert, and Pelikan.

Given the current situation of global Lutheranism, it is not an overstatement to say that Hermann Sasse spoke prophetically. We have a record of his prophetic voice in this volume. No sectarian, Sasse was both confessional and ecumenical. He knew that the Lutheran Confessions stand in service to the whole church of Jesus Christ. These articles and reviews demonstrate the depth of his knowledge and the wide range of his ecclesiastical connections.

John T. Pless is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Mission at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.