“Mark D. Tranvik is professor of religion at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, where he has taught since 1995. He also directed the college’s Lilly Endowment grant on vocation, Exploring Our Gifts. He has written widely on the Reformation, including the Luther Study Edition translation of The Freedom of a Christian.”
Much has been written about Martin Luther and the lost theology he slowly unearthed through his intense and life-long study of God’s Word. Throughout the centuries the touchstones of the Reformation he championed: grace, faith, and Scripture have been parsed and dissected by authors from every possible angle. Mark Tranvik doesn’t discount these foundational doctrines of the Bible, but he does propose that that one of the key biblical teachings brought to light by Luther hasn’t received the paper & ink that it should: vocation.
Tranvik suggests that “Justification was on one side of the coin. And the other side was vocation” (2). Although justification should be the center around which any discussion of the Lutheran Reformation revolves, he urges his readers that vocation cannot be ignored. With this in mind, Tranvik lists five reasons why a book on vocation is needed (4-8):
1) Luther provides a teaching about life that isn’t based on performance
2) Vocation is the application of justification
3) There is a lack of decent modern books on Luther & vocation
4) To counteract the “heroic concept of vocation”
5) There has been a renewed interest in Luther due to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
The book is divided into two sections: the theological basis of vocation and its application. In Tranvik’s words, “While each chapter will have a foundation in Luther’s thinking, we will also use the Reformer’s own catechism question, ‘What does this mean?’ in the second part of the book to ensure there is a vigorous engagement with life in the twenty-first century” (3).
The first three chapters comprise part one, giving the reader an overview of 1) the concept of vocation in the Middle Ages, 2) Luther’s evolving understanding of vocation while in the monastery, and 3) vocation founded on baptism.
The author actually does a commendable job explaining the power and importance of baptism, not only at the moment of application, but in the everyday life of a Christian, as Luther himself taught. “Baptism not only anchors a believer in Christ; it is also the sacrament of daily life” (54). In fact, baptism and its pervasive influence in the existence of a Christian is brought up several times throughout the rest of the book.
The second part of “Martin Luther and the Called Life” contains five chapters, each reviewing a
different aspect of Luther’s life in which he modeled vocation and then applying his example to 21st Century America. There are a few basic discussion questions at the end of each of these chapters to help the reader internally apply what has been taught. Tranvik divides part two into
1) The personal call
2) The calling in the home
3) The calling in the world
4) The calling in the church
5) The calling in work
The author does a fairly decent job of reaching his stated goal – with a caveat or two. He provides a summary of Luther’s life, specifically in regard to what he taught about vocation, what he counseled about vocation, and how he carried out his different vocations. But Tranvik also makes
an effort to apply Luther’s life and teaching to the lives of Christians half a millennium later. “The goal is to make this work accessible to the non-scholar…. The whole point is to help people see how Luther might help them in thinking about their own calling as spouses, parents, citizens,
church members, and workers” (12).
The book is really addressed to leaders of the church, however, and not to the lay person. Although it’s not overly scholarly in its approach, the intended audience is certainly those who are going to be teaching this topic and not simply to those on the receiving end in a classroom. In that sense,
it is a good beginners guide to the subject of vocation as it emanated from the Reformation, but stops short of being an exhaustive treatment of the doctrine in any way.
The 2nd part of the book has potential, but it could have been fleshed out with more pertinent examples of Luther’s preaching, teaching, and writing. It would have also been beneficial if the author spent some more time on specific examples of what this looks like for a Christian now.
Anyone interested in teaching a Bible study on vocation or getting a handle on what this topic means to his life would benefit form this “starter” book. It’s an easy read with very little that would we question doctrinally. The author speaks largely from our standpoint on the importance
of Scripture and the validity of baptism, so there is very little that a reader would have to filter out. The author also allows a pastor / teacher to struggle with the always relevant question: how can I apply this to my people? “How will we help people to nurture and maintain a sense of calling in
their lives? What will be needed to not just send people forth from worship ‘into the world in service,’ but also shape minds and imaginations about the concrete meaning of that phrase without lapsing into a legalism that negates God’s promise to us in our baptism” (168)?
This primer volume on Luther’s (and Scripture’s) concept of vocation is a valuable overview of the topic that will prompt you to want to dig even deeper into another work with more weight.