With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation just over a year away, the confessional Lutheran church finds itself at a crossroads. The culture around us grows more secular and hostile to conservative Christianity, while pressure to compromise with the ever-changing whims of the world is only increasing. Mission work has become all the more challenging for those who claim to be heirs of Martin Luther and the Reformation.
In spite of these challenges, the Lord is still providing opportunities. As the culture grows more secular and hostile, there is a growing desperation for a real, authentic source of hope not unlike the restlessness that Augustine spoke of in his Confessions. No matter how hostile people may appear, they still have that need for hope deep down inside. Even though the ever-changing whims of society put pressure on Christians and congregations to compromise, many still stand firm not because their church tells them to do so, but because Christ’s love compels them and has made a genuine difference in their lives. For such a time as this, Peter’s encouragement in 1 Peter 3:15 is most appropriate: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”
That prompts the question: Is there value in having a uniquely Lutheran voice as we have conversations with people outside the Christian faith and with other Christians? Is there value in studying the life, thought, and theology of Martin Luther—who lived in a very different historical context 500 years ago—for lessons and applications to life and ministry in the 21st century? The authors of The Genius of Luther’s Theology would respond with a resounding “Yes!” There is value in studying the life and work of Martin Luther to help “pastors and laypersons in the twenty-first century as they bring the promise of life in Christ to their neighbors in our time” (12).
Rather than simply examine Luther’s theology in a dogmatic fashion, Kolb and Arand arranged their study around two of Luther’s basic presuppositions—his view of humanity and his view of how God interacts with humanity.
The first half of the book focuses on the fact that “what makes human beings genuine human creatures of God in his sight is his grace and favor alone, to which we respond with total trust in him; what makes us genuinely human in relationship to other creatures is our performance of the works of love, which God designed to be our way of living out our trust in him” (12). This is known as Luther’s teaching of “two kinds of righteousness.” We are passively righteous before God solely because of his gracious activity on our behalf through Christ. We are actively righteous in the world as we carry out “our God-entrusted tasks within our walks of life for the good of creation” (28). In this section, the authors make significant use of Luther’s lectures on Galatians (1531-1535) to flesh out the various teachings that adorn his teaching of the “two kinds of righteousness.” They discuss Luther’s teaching on sin, justification, faith, the theology of the cross, vocation, natural law, etc. They also emphasize the relationship of Creator and creature in a way that this reviewer found to be rather unique, yet consistent with Scripture (31, 37-38, etc.).
The second half of the book focuses on the Word of God, specifically that the “Word does not merely provide us with information about [God’s] heavenly disposition. Instead, the God who spoke the worlds into being (Gen. 1) speaks through his Word in oral, written, and sacramental forms as it actually effects and delivers new life on the basis of the Word made flesh, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ” (12). The authors focus primarily on Luther’s lectures on Genesis (1535-1545) to flesh out his teaching on the Word of God with discussions on the effective power of Holy Scripture, Law and Gospel, Christology, the means of grace, evangelism, etc. Besides a strong emphasis on the need for the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, the authors also used the unique imagery of God’s ongoing conversation with humanity throughout this section—a conversation that was broken at the Fall into sin and revived through his Word to the nations through the Word made flesh (137ff.).
This book provides a rather solid exposition of the Scriptural basis for Luther’s theology. While this reviewer occasionally disagreed with the explanation of a particular teaching (e.g. public ministry—44, 182) or wondered if they could have used better phrasing, it was far more common to find excellent explanations of various aspects of Luther’s theology (e.g. the theology of glory—83-88; the Christian life—111-114; sanctification—123-128; the theology of the cross—146-148; prayer—212-215; etc.). The authors provide an excellent historical background for Luther’s theology. They also provide a handy bibliography of recommended resources for further research and a very detailed index at the end of the book.
The reader should note that this book is a scholarly work and not an easy read. The rather complicated language of the book can sometimes lead the reader to lose track of where the authors are going as they discuss some small aspect of Luther’s theology.
However, the most glaring area of weakness in the book occurs when the authors try to make Luther’s 500-year-old theology speak to the 21st century. This may likely be due to the fact that the book was written almost a decade ago and the authors could not have foreseen the drastic changes within the Christian church and modern culture since that time. In this reviewer’s opinion, Gene Veith’s Spirituality of the Cross does a better job applying Luther’s teaching to the modern day at a level that is much more attainable for the average Lutheran reader.
In the end, Kolb and Arand offer an intriguing premise and provide a solid exposition of Luther’s theology. While this book limps with application and the occasional explanation, The Genius of Luther’s Theology can serve as a worthwhile jumping-off point for further study into the writings and theology of Martin Luther and how they speak to the church and our culture today.
Robert Kolb (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison) is Mission Professor of Systematic Theology (Emeritus) and International Research Emeritus Professor for the Institute for Mission Studies at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He has written extensively on the Lutheran Reformation serving as the co-editor of The Sixteenth Century Journal and Missio Apostolica and as the author or co-author of numerous books including Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, and Hero: Images of the Reformer, 1520-1620 and The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord. He also co-edited The Book of Concord: The Confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord.
Charles Arand is professor of systematic theology, dean of theological research and publication, and director of the Center for the Care of Creation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He is the author of Testing the Boundaries: Windows into Lutheran Identity and That I May Be His Own: A Theological Overview of Luther’s Catechisms and co-author of The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord.