Martin Luther’s theology discerns between law and gospel.
Author: Steven D. Paulson
Publisher: T & T Clark International (www.continuumbooks.com)
The emphasis on our standing before God makes Lutheran Theology by Steven D. Paulson a significant book. “Luther said the ‘sum and substance,’ of Paul’s letter to the Romans ‘is to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh’” (pg. 1). Paulson goes on to state: “The second task of all theology is to make way for a completely foreign, new righteousness that has no law in it at all—'we must be taught a righteousness that comes completely from the outside and is foreign. And therefore our own righteousness that is born in us must first be plucked up’” (2). The goal or meaning of life becomes a person, Christ (3). It goes beyond just imitating Christ. “It is a new life outside the legal scheme without law at all. It means to have a new life outside one’s self who is dead according to the law, and in Christ exclusively” (3).
Paulson goes on to make a valuable point: “The key to any theology, especially done the Lutheran way, is to ask what role the law plays in its system” (4). Distinguishing between law and gospel is a major theme in this book, which is organized as a commentary on the book of Romans. The focus is on key verses and ideas rather than a verse-by-verse explanation, which Paulson elucidates from a Lutheran perspective. Even so, Paulson’s outstanding scholarship makes this a unique and valuable commentary. His breadth of knowledge is evident in frequent references to historical events, the writing of others, and his understanding of Scripture.
In relation to the latter, he is not afraid of controversy. Chapter 1 starts with the appropriate subtitle, “The Bombshell.” Predestination is central to Lutheran theology. “There is no free will, no choice, no decision, no acknowledgement, acceptance or any other verb you could try to give the human in relation to the Creator” (20). Presumably, this thought is drawn in part from Luther’s famous book on the subject, The Bondage of the Will.
Along with this idea, when the author repeatedly states that “everything happens by divine necessity,” (19) he not only puts a potential stumbling block before readers, he leaves me wondering how that relates to tragic events that occur. Does this mean that God was behind the terrible events of 9/11? As learned as Paulson may be and as skillful as he is with the Scriptures, I cannot help wondering about a doctrine that seems to imply that God causes horrific events. As controversial as this may be, it is educational to see Paulson’s defense of this teaching and to consider what is true. If you can get past this, there is much to appreciate in Paulson’s thought, but this doctrine is foundational to what he teaches in the rest of the book.
Though Paulson might in some ways be wrong on the issue, I appreciate how often his insights go deeper than what you typically find in churches, Bible studies and popular Christian books. Consider his thoughts about what Luther learned about faith: “Luther had discovered what made humans human—it was not thought, or will, or even love; it was faith alone. He learned that the heart is not made for itself; it is made to go outside itself and cling to that which speaks to the heart. Humans are therefore ‘hearing’ creatures whose heart is always clinging to some word or other. Unfortunately, words from the preacher are easily drowned out by other voices, and especially imaginary voices of what one sees or feels internally. Faith alone is what justifies us, but faith is never a virtue or attitude of a person, or some instrument or power which the person possesses. Faith goes outside itself, since faith requires something to believe in, and that something is God’s word as a promise—or else what faith grasps ends up being an accusing law” (57).
Typically, Luther is associated with thoughts like these and in particular the idea of being made right with God through faith. Reading this book helped me to realize how much more there is to Luther. His depth of insight is evident as Paulson walks us through Luther’s thought in relation to the entire book of Romans.
Paulson points out that Luther recognized that God’s faithfulness is central to Romans. “For Luther the key teaching in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the certainty of faith. Faith is certain precisely because it is not a power of humans, but depends upon God’s faithfulness to the promise, precisely while the recipients are unfaithful. Hope does not yet see its glory, but faith already has Christ so salvation is secured in re—in fact” (220).
Lutheran theology is a theology of the Word. “The preached Word makes the church, which word is solely authorized by the law and promises of Scripture. Justification and church depend utterly on God’s faithfulness to that Word: ‘That thou mayest be justified in Thy words (deum justificare)’” (238). This is why Lutherans view the office of preacher as the highest in the church.
It is also why preaching is foremost in the signs of a true church: “Signs of (a) true church are therefore all acts of preaching: sermons that distinguish between law and gospel, baptism, Lord’s Supper, Absolution, the calling of a public minister from among the Royal priesthood, and suffering for the gospel—the exact opposite of any sign of glory or power in the world” (239). I appreciate the thought that suffering is the norm for this life (exaltation comes in the next), which challenges believers to cling to the promises despite seeing evidence that would seem contrary to them.
Lutheran Theology is but one in a series of books. The other titles and authors in the series are as follows:
Catholic Theology – Matthew Levering
Anglican Theology – Mark Chapman
Reformed Theology – Michael Allen
Methodist Theology – Kenneth Wilson
Baptist Theology – Stephen Holmes
If this book is indicative of the scholarship in the series, any of these volumes would be worth reading.