Monday, October 31, 2011

LHP Review: The Heart of Christian Doctrine

The Theology and Life of Robert David Preus: Papers Presented at the Congress on the Lutheran Confessions, Itasca, Illinois, April 8-10, 1999. St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 2009. 142 Pages. Paper. $15.95. (LHP)

The Theology of the Cross: Reflections on His Cross and Ours (Impact Series). Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2008. 283 Pages. Paper. $17.99. (LHP).

Wright, N. T. Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 279 Pages. Cloth. $25.00. (LHP)

Nichols, Stephen J. What Is Vocation? (Basics of the Faith series). Phillipsburg, NJ: PandR, 2010. 31 Pages. Paper/Staple-bound. $3.99. (LHP)

Saltzman, Russell E. The Pastor's Page and Other Small Essays. Delhi, New York: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2010. 100 Pages. Paper. $6.50. (LHPN)

Gilbert, Greg. Foreword by D. A. Carson. What Is the Gospel? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. 127 Pages. Cloth. $12.99. (LHP)

Having recently reviewed two books that systematically presented Christian Doctrine, it only made sense to group these books together as ones that reflect on the heart of Christian Doctrine: Christ, Justification, and the Gospel.

A collection of essays presented at the 1999 Congress on the Lutheran Confessions has the substance of a theological tome. That's a high compliment!

The Theology and Life of Robert David Preus is a collection of papers presented at the 1999 Congress on the Lutheran Confessions in paperback.

Titles of the papers are:
  • Dr. Robert D. Preus: Confessional Systematician and Teacher of the Confessions, Kenneth Hagen
  • The Doctrine of Justification in the Theology of Robert Preus, Rolf Preus
  • Dr. Robert D. Preus and International Lutheranism, Jobst Schoene
  • The Doctrine of the Scriptures in the Theology of Robert David Preus (16 October 1924-4 November 1995), David Scaer
  • Dr. Robert D. Preus and the Evangelicals: A Tribute to Robert Preus, Michael Horton
  • Robert Preus--Life in Christ's Church, Daniel Preus
  • Robert Preus as an Organizer of Confessional Lutheranism, Marin R. Noland
  • Dr. Robert D. Preus and the Norwegian Lutheran Churches: Their Impact on American Lutheranism Today, Oliver Olson
  • Dr. Robert D. Preus: The Lutheran Confessions and the Idea of Confessional Lutheranism, Kurt Marquart,
  • Robert D. Preus: A Bibliography 
(Source: Publisher's website)
Michael Horton's presentation is to be especially noted as a tribute to the strong, consistent, Biblical confession Robert Preus made as a Lutheran while appropriately working together with other Reformation Christians to provide a clear witness to American Evangelicalism. Horton calls for "fair-mindedness" (78) and for a confessional Lutheranism without aberrations. Such is the challenge for Lutherans. We need to get our own house in order while making a fresh confession of the faith once delivered to the saints.

Why "testament" rather than "covenant"? See Oliver Olson's essay on how "covenant" may open the way for "a Reformed brand of synergism, especially by means of the American Puritan tradition" (120).

The sainted Dr. Marquardt is at his pithy best as he concludes his essay on the idea of Confessional Lutheranism:
The real problem, then, is not what we officially list as 'confessions,' old or new, but what we actually do with our confessions. Do we dare implement them--even if it means numerical losses? Confessions are simply not meant to be constitutional 'paragraphs' or decorative church-political documents on patient paper. They are meant to govern the life of the church. When we confess in the New Testament sense, we at once unite and divide. 'Confession' by majority vote is no confession at all, if mutual communion, church fellowship, continues undisturbed between those who confess and those who deny.  Obviously such 'confessing' is not meant seriously. Real confession has real consequences at the altar and in the pulpit. It either affirms or else violates the marks of the church, the purely preached gospel and the rightly administered sacraments, which alone determine church fellowship (134-5).
The volume is worth purchasing merely because it is about Robert Preus. It is also worth adding to your library for the Marquardt presentation alone. And it supports the work of the Luther Academy, too!

Daniel Deutschlander's recent Northwestern Publishing House book focuses on The Theology of the Cross.

According to the publisher, this is "A book on Christian doctrine that reminds readers that all biblical doctrine relates to Scripture's central teaching that God sent his Son to save lost sinners. The Old and New Testaments make it clear that our salvation is found in the cross of Christ. However, there is a seeming paradox between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Sinful people tend to overlook the cross and its demands and, instead, focus on the glory that they think they should now enjoy because they call themselves Christians. This is a matter of urgent concern. Deutschlander helps us to see Christ's cross as our cross. He reminds us that our good works have no value for our salvation. Yet good works are valuable as fruits of faith done out of gratitude to God for his gift of salvation. It deepens our understanding and appreciation for God's gift of life in Christ. It warns us of Satan's efforts to turn us from Christ to ourselves. It comforts us with the assurance that the cross of Christ leads to heavenly glory."

This book leads the reader to the cross of Jesus Christ and properly distinguishes the Lutheran theology of the cross from the alternative, a sad and ultimately unchristian theology of glory. "The liturgy addresses the needs of crossbearers" (4). The Church needs worship formed by the theology of the cross (133) and families need more than a "cute" Christmas and "nice" Easter (177ff).

What to do if God seems to be my enemy? Consider Chapter 2.

A choice quote: "Ultimately all error aims at using a rejection of my cross to get to the rejection of his cross, that is, to a rejection of the heart and core of the gospel, the doctrine of justification" (62)

A creative use of "sliver" helps create interest in Chapters 3 and 4, explaining acidia, otherwise known as sloth, laziness, or even apathy (81) and how to prevent overreaching with the Table of Duties (105).

The reader hears of the hiddenness of God (e.g. 114) and is catechized about common crosses of Christians (Chapter 7).

In the Appendices, readers are introduced to Hermann Sasse (223ff) and perhaps preachers will be encouraged to preach their own special sermon series on the theology of the cross based on this example (227).

Need a renewed perspective on what your congregation (and Christmas/Easter) visitors really need to hear? Read The Theology of the Cross: Reflections on His Cross and Ours.

N. T. Wright gets a lot of press. I appreciate the impact he has made in getting people to think. I'm not always encouraged by his content.

Few issues are more central to the Christian faith than the nature, scope and means of salvation. Many have thought it to be largely a transaction that gets one to heaven. In this riveting book, N. T. Wright explains that God's salvation is radically more than this.
At the heart of much vigorous debate on this topic is the term the apostle Paul uses in several of his letters to describe what happens to those in Christ--justification. Paul uses this dramatic image from the law court to declare that Christians are acquitted of the cosmic accusations against them. But justification goes beyond this in Paul's writings to offer a vision of God's future for the whole world as well as for his people.
Here in one place Wright now offers a comprehensive account and defense of his perspective on this crucial doctrine. He provides a sweeping overview of the central points in the debate before launching into a thorough explanation of the key texts in Paul's writings. While fully cognizant of tradition and controversy, the final authority for his conclusions is the letters of Paul themselves.

Along the way Wright responds to critics, such as John Piper, who have challenged what has come to be called the New Perspective. For Wright, what Paul means by justification is nothing less than God's unswerving commitment to the covenant promise he made to bless the whole world through Abraham and his family.

This irenic response is an important contribution for those on both sides of the debate--and those still in between--to consider. Whether you're a fan of Wright's work or have read his critics and would like to know the other side of the story, here is a chance to interact with Wright's views on the issues at stake and form your own conclusions.

Related Information and Resources

Read an interview with N. T. Wright here. Download an in-depth QandA interview with N. T. Wright about Justification. (publisher's website)
There's a comforting kind of radical and a concerning kind of radical. It is comforting to have someone rediscover the reality of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. That was comforting to hear from Wright. It concerns me that the bulk of Justification restates, reevaluates, or rewords traditional ways of confessing, teaching, and believing what Jesus accomplished. I had a visceral reaction to the book in a negative way.

It's not that I object to fresh words expressing Christian doctrine, faith, and life. I read Bonhoeffer, after all. In academic writing, there just seems to be an unnecessary communication gap between John Piper and N. T. Wright. As our regular readers may note, I do not see eye-to-eye with Piper on worship (

Wright argues for a thought experiment where we read Ephesians and Colossians first and then interpret Romans and Galatians in their light (43). I'm not opposed to experiments, but I don't agree with his assumptions that Lutherans (44) ignore large parts of books they don't like or  put redemption "into operation through faith, without works". There's too much re-writing of history here for me. "What might have been" is for alternate history in science fiction. ("What if Calvin would have agreed with Luther?" is a more fun what if for me, ranking up there with "What if England had gone Lutheran because of Barnes?") I disagree with the premise, his assumptions and details, and therefore disagree with his conclusions.

Wright is probably writing against more of the liberal ELCA version of "Lutheran," but there are larger critiques of Lutheranism in general (72ff, et al). Wright: "Not of course, that I wish to repeat the manifold hermeneutical dangers so evident in Luther's wonderful and deeply flawed commentary on Galatians, imagining that Paul is attacking exactly the enemies as he is himself" (112). Wright endorses Luther's simil iustus et peccator (119), Luther's "two kingdoms" (174), and is largely in favor of Freedom of a Christian (193). In contrast, I recoil at the following: "Part of me recoils from having to question this traditional reading on the text" (159 on 2 Cor. 5:21).

The author has some valuable things to say. Effective communication is not taking place. Consider the following question and answer from an interview by Trevin Wax on on January 13, 2009:
What is at stake in this debate over justification? If one were to adopt Piper's view instead of yours, what would they be missing?
What's missing is the big, Pauline picture of God's gospel going out to redeem the whole world, all of creation, with ourselves as part of that. What's missing is the big, Pauline view of the church, Jew and Gentile on equal footing, as the sing to the powers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they aren't. What's missing is the key work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the already justified believers to live with moral energy and will so that they really do "please God" as Paul says again and again, but as Reformed theology is shy of lest is smack of smuggling in works-righteousness again. What's missing is an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition.
Scripture, yes! Wright's answers in the interview were much clearer and acceptable than his muddled, overly-complicated, and controversial book. I'll stick with my Greek, Hebrew, and Luther, and will monitor further discussions. I assert that not only do Wright and his critics speak past one another, Wright also has need to more closely examine Luther (and not merely in translation) and Lutheranism (of the LCMS variety) before critiquing us too harshly.

His conclusion has a verbally creative final paragraph (252), but I think there is too much talking past the Reformation tradition of exegesis and theology on justification for N. T. Wright's book to be as helpful to Christians as he hoped it would be.

We now examine Christians at work and in their lives producing the fruits of the Gospel. This is vocation.

Vocation comes from the Latin word for "to call." God calls us to faith in Christ. We live our lives of faith serving God by serving our neighbor. "Works help our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living," we sing.
For some people, work is tedious and boring—something to endure until the weekend arrives. For others, work is everything; it consumes them and their time. The former find no meaning or satisfaction in their jobs, the latter find too much—both lack an eternal perspective, a biblical framework through which they can evaluate what they spend most of their lives doing.

This booklet offers that framework. Work, as ordained by God, has meaning and purpose. And by understanding your own vocation, you too can say with the psalmist, “Yes, establish the work of our hands!”(publisher's website)

These brief books from PandR Publishing on the basics of the faith have been helpful to me in explaining less-familiar Christian concepts in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Martin Luther is respected as a reformer, applying the word vocation to all aspects of a godly life lived in faith (8). Noted Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach makes an appearance as his "Soli Deo Gloria," to God alone be the glory, is added to the other solas of the Reformation (9).  

No, vocation is not Gospel, but  I especially appreciated the artful way Nichols shows us Jesus' vocation as Savior, and that is Gospel (25).

Most churches have newsletters. And most pastors write a regular column in their churches’ newsletters. For those who know Russ Saltzman via his 17 years as editor of Forum Letter from 1991 - 2007‚ it will come as no surprise that writing a monthly “Pastor’s Page” is something he did uncommonly well. This small book contains a collection of newsletter columns that he mostly wrote originally for his parishioners.

Pastor Saltzman’s writing is engaging and often humorous. But these are serious pieces about serious subjects like the Incarnation, the authority of the Bible, suffering, judgment, the Real Presence, the Two Kingdoms and more. Some are personal reflections on family or congregational life, but most are in fact short theological essays. Pastor Saltzman is writing for people he knows, loves and respects, and he has put a lot of thought into what he says. Reading each of these short essays is rather like having a conversation with a pastor you can trust to be honest with you.

Current Forum Letter editor and parish pastor Richard O. Johnson said about it that “The Pastor’s Page should be a seminary textbook for teaching future pastors how to communicate-and just how to be-with their parishioners.” There is indeed much here for pastors and other Christian teachers from which to learn and to borrow. But this book is also a joy to read just for its own sake. (publisher's website)
Call me crazy, but newsletter articles should say something worth the reader's time. Russ Saltzman does that. His articles are memorable and worth learning from.

I have questions and concerns about the apple juice story (44), yet I appreciate the author's bold stand in the ELCA (71 et al) and the challenges being a Lutheran in a time of troubling questionaire results (39ff)! Pastors and other readers will smile and respect the challenges all pastoral care brings (74ff), including weevils (20ff).

What Is the Gospel? I remember many segments that Issues, Etc. has done over the years exposing the sad ignorance and lack of clarity of many Christian authors and publishers on that very question. How does Greg Gilbert fare?

What is the gospel? It seems like a simple question, yet it has been known to incite some heated responses, even in the church. How are we to formulate a clear, biblical understanding of the gospel? Tradition, reason, and experience all leave us ultimately disappointed. If we want answers, we must turn to the Word of God.

Greg Gilbert does so in What Is the Gospel? Beginning with Paul's systematic presentation of the gospel in Romans and moving through the sermons in Acts, Gilbert argues that the central structure of the gospel consists of four main subjects: God, man, Christ, and a response. The book carefully examines each and then explores the effects the gospel can have in individuals, churches, and the world. Both Christian and non-Christian readers will gain a clearer understanding of the gospel in this valuable resource.

GREG GILBERT earned his BA from Yale and his MDiv from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is senior pastor at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, the author of What Is the Gospel?, and the co-author of What Is the Mission of the Church?
D. A. Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he has taught since 1978. He earned a doctorate in New Testament Studies from Cambridge University. He is an active guest lecturer, and he has written or edited more than forty books. He and his wife, Joy, have two children and live in the north suburbs of Chicago. (publisher's website)
Carson's forward calls for evangelicals to actually focus on the Gospel, the evangel. This is a good start (13ff).

Gilbert knows the Gospel and articulates it well (21, 31, Chapter 4, et al). The response to the Gospel is repentance and faith (Chapter 5). I would prefer that the Biblical order be maintained rather than "faith and repentance). He holds readers' feet to the fire in calling for repentance (80), yet lets expressions of decision theology go (also 80). I commend the author for maintaining a theology of the cross (Chapter 7), especially by exposing several false substitute "gospels," including moralism (109). God works through means, especially through the servants He has called into His service. The author explains the role of the holy ministry in comparison to the ministry of angels (119). Overall, the focus is on the person and work of Christ and the gifts He gifts and the Gift He is.

Justification is the article of faith by which the Church stands or falls. May these thoughts bless your reading and preparation for preaching, teaching, and pastoral care for the sake of the Gospel.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.