22 May 2008

The Genius of Luther's Theology

In hopes of gaining readers of a marvelous new book, below are the first and last paragraphs of a review I recently did of The Genius of Luther's Theology: A Wittenburg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church. It was released a few months ago by Baker Academic.

The title of this book is doubly audacious: first, in claiming something ingenious about Luther’s theology (a claim at which many today, especially in Paul studies, would scoff), and, second, in claiming to have unlocked it. As I turned the final page, however, I was convinced that such audacity was vindicated and even called for. In this marvelously accessible volume exegeting the irascible German’s theological core, a pair of Lutheran theologians explore two fundamental presuppositions to Luther’s theology, building bridges along the way into the twenty-first century church. Professors Kolb and Arand both teach systematic theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

All the foregoing strengths make this book worthwhile, but a fifth and final strength contains, to my mind, the key to its significance and timeliness. If hundreds of pastors all over the English-speaking world were to read and digest the message of The Genius of Luther’s Theology, Christianity could, under God, experience a third Great Awakening. With all due gratitude to Professors Kolb and Arand, this is not due to any cleverness of theirs. Rather, they have simply latched onto the gospel itself, in all its counterintuitive, doctrinally-contoured, flesh-defying, conscience-cleansing, wrath-remembering dimensions. In today’s fragmented, atheological evangelical mishmash, nothing could be more important. As pastors and writers have scrambled to delineate the boundaries of evangelicalism, the center, the gospel, has gone neglected. Overly concerned with border patrol, gradual internal meltdown has gone unnoticed. In fact, confusion over the gospel itself is rampant today not only in our pews but in our seminary classrooms. For some, the gospel is “Jesus is Lord.”—for others, the arrival of the Kingdom of God and its ramifications for this life—for still others, a story (not propositions) in which we are invited to participate. Yet as important as Christ’s lordship, the coming of the Kingdom, and the ongoing biblical narrative are, none of them is the gospel. Looking at and reflecting on a single core reality from various angles, Kolb and Arand, through the penetrating mind and prickly temper of Martin Luther, have reminded us that the gospel is simply the counterintuitive announcement that one is put irreversibly right with and perfectly approved before God by looking, in trusting faith, to Christ, against the relentless fallen human instinct to self-earn. Luther came to see that the only thing that qualified him for divine approval was a frank recognition that he did not qualify. Self-despair was the way out of despair. Approaching God not only having emptied his hands of rebellious wickedness but also scrupulously meticulous obedience, Luther clung only to Christ, God’s promise in flesh and blood. Impatient with the domestications of Luther, human sin, and divine holiness so pervasive in various branches of evangelicalism today, Kolb and Arand have, like the reformer, brought us back to the heart of biblical theology—free grace, received open- and empty-handed, by virtue of the ultimate sacrifice. This is, indeed, the genius of Luther’s theology.

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