The Lutheran Difference: An Explanation & Comparison of Christian Beliefs, edited by Edward A. Engelbrecht. St. Louis: CPH, 2010. 602 pages.
Rev. Edward A. Engelbrecht is Senior Editor for Bible Resources at Concordia Publishing House. He was the general editor for The Lutheran Study Bible, The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes, and The Church from Age to Age: A History.
The Lutheran Difference “began as a popular Bible Study series,” which turned into “eighteen booklets,” which turned into “one accessible volume” that follows the Nicene Creed as its outline (xii). While the concept of the book has a lot of potential, the book itself has several weaknesses that make it difficult for this reviewer to give it a general recommendation.
First, the title is weak. Each chapter, which covers a different biblical topic, starts out by “engaging the topic.” It then proceeds to flesh out the topic, with various “Comparisons” sections along the way. However, the comparisons sometimes have little to do with the material preceding them (e.g. 96-98).
At other times, the citations in a given “Comparisons” section have little to do with each other, which prevents the reader from actually comparing the denominational positions (e.g. the comparison of the Roman Catholic position to the Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, and Methodist positions on pg. 361). In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the actual comparing is left up to the reader. There is usually no commentary along the way to show how one denominational statement differs from another. Even when there is commentary, it sometimes helps very little or actually misleads the reader (e.g. pg. 361, where the cited position of the Reformed contradicts the preceding commentary, and pg. 427, where the commentary suggests that the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Reformed, Anabaptists, Baptists, and Wesleyans all believe the same thing about preparation for Communion).
Secondly, the unity of the book is weak, as one might guess based on the origins of the book. Each chapter essentially has a different author, who prepared the original Bible study. Thus some topics, such as “God’s Word” and “God the Father,” are comparatively weak, while others, such as “Creation” and “Baptism,” are stronger.
Thirdly, the logical progression within the individual topics is weak as a whole. (The exception is if the topic covered has a built-in outline, like the Lord’s Prayer.) For example, here are some subheadings, in order, in the chapter on “Justification and Sanctification”: The Curse and the Cure; Diagnosing the Disease; Rejoicing in the Cure; The Last Word?; Stumbling Stone and Cornerstone; The Unlovely Beloved; The Centrality of the Cross; All Too Easy? (240-249). To be sure, these all deal with the topic, but they do not follow any readily identifiable progression.
The chapter on “The Lord’s Supper” starts and ends with sizable historical asides that are barely related to any particulars of the Bible’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper (401-403; 432-436).
In the sections titled “Lutheran Facts,” the facts presented often strike this reviewer as bullet points fired in an extremely random way. The “Point to Remember” at the bottom of page 82 has almost nothing to do with anything that preceded it.
Fourthly, the presentation of the doctrine is sadly, and surprisingly, often weak. A few examples will suffice.
In the chapter on “God’s Word,” the author seems to get the chicken and the egg turned around. He writes: “We use what we already believe to help us understand God’s Word. For example, if we believe our God can and does accomplish miracles in the created world, we accept the biblical stories of Jonah and Lazarus as historically true” (3).
On the contrary, confessional Lutherans are unique in that they allow Scripture to speak for itself, without letting pre-conceived notions influence their interpretation. We accept the biblical stories of Jonah and Lazarus as true because the Bible itself presents them as true and convinces us that they are true. That is consequently why we believe that God can and does accomplish miracles, not the other way around.
That same author goes on to present the Bible simply as “additional information” about God that can’t be found in nature (6). It isn’t until he cites the Reformed/Presbyterian position on God’s word that we learn the important truth that “the works of creation and providence…are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation” (9). This advantage of the revealed knowledge of God is not stressed as something Lutheran.
In the chapter on “Marriage and Family,” we find an attempt (not foreign to WELS circles either) to water down the roles of men and women in marriage. The author interprets Ephesians 5:21 as an exhortation to believers to indiscriminately submit to each other (192), instead of as an introduction to the very specific submission instructions that follow. He then continues: “Headship is frequently misunderstood as a ‘who’s in charge and who gets to give the orders’ proposition. That is not the way of Christian headship. The Greek word kephale is used here, and it doesn’t mean the ‘status or position of leader.’ Rather, kephale is a field commander…” (193-194).
Aren’t field commanders in charge? Don’t they give orders? Aren’t they leaders? Certainly, Paul is not giving the husband any license to be a domineering lord, but he does specifically who has been given charge of the Christian family. The author does not explain the submission of the wife.
In the chapter on “Priesthood and Ministry,” the “Office of the Holy Ministry” (452-468) is equated only with the pastoral office throughout. The author also says that the biblical “term elder…is synonymous with overseer or pastor.” This position probably also accounts for the professor and theologian Melanchthon being labeled a “lay associate” of Martin Luther (xix).
Finally, there is a weakness in facts. The birthday of the Lutheran church is equated with Luther’s excommunication instead of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession (xvi). The term Abba is incorrectly equated with the English title “Daddy” (95). It is maintained that “during the Middle Ages, most congregations of Western Christendom celebrated the Lord’s Supper four times a year” (407). It is said that the Passover lambs were slaughtered on 14 Nisan and the Passover meal eaten on 15 Nisan, which might, perhaps, be correct, but directly disagrees with Dr. Andrew Steinmann’s more scholarly presentation in From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology, which is also, ironically, published by CPH.
There are some helpful charts (e.g. spiritual gifts on pg. 321) and a few well-researched chapters, such as the chapter on “Creation”, stuck out. However, this reviewer feels it understated to say the book was difficult and disappointing overall.