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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Mattes, Mark C. [Ed.]


Twentieth-Century Lutheran Theologians.


Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2013. 339 S. = Refo500 Academic Studies, 10. Geb. EUR 99,99. ISBN 978-3-525-55045-8.


Joshua C. Miller

This volume is an anthology written in English on fourteen significant theologians of the Lutheran theological tradition in the modern era. The authors both describe the lives of these theolo-gians and discuss their contributions to modern Lutheran theo-logy. The theologians addressed here are Francis Pieper, John Philipp Koehler, Karl Holl, Ole Hallesby, Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, Herman Sasse, Hans Joachim Iwand, Edmund Schlink, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ernst Käsemann, Helmut Thielicke, Gustaf Wingren, and Gerhard Ebeling. This volume portrays distinctions amongst these theologians as well as a common theological core.

There are notable differences amongst these thinkers, including temporal, national, and even theological distinctions. The fourteen men whose lives and theologies are discussed in this volume all undertook their theological work to some extent in the twentieth century. Yet three – Pieper, Koehler, and Holl – also composed many of their writings in the nineteenth century. Some, such as Elert, Althaus, Bonhoeffer, and Käsemann worked mainly in the middle of the twentieth century, while others, like Wingren and Ebeling, were theologically active towards the end of the century. These theo­logians hailed from Germany, Norway and Switzerland. Three left their native land of Germany for different continents. Two, Pieper and Koehler, went to North America, and one, Sasse, moved to Australia. In addition to differences in origins, these fourteen theologians represent several different denominations and schools of theological thought.

Yet, as editor Mark Mattes highlights in his preface, they are all shared three theological characteristics. The first commonality is that all were united in that they were intentional and confessional Lutherans (7). Though each theologian had his own theological concerns and positions, and though sometimes they disagreed with one another, says Mattes, all shared in a common a commitment to the Lutheran confessions and sought to interpret them faithfully in modern times (14–15). The second shared characteristic is a common participation of all of these theologians in a modern renewal of Lutheran theology based in large part on the scholarship of the Luther Renaissance around the turn of the twentieth century. These theologians sought to speak to the present and move into the future by looking back to Luther as a source for articulating theology in the modern era (15). The final shared characteristic is an articulation of the promising nature of the gospel as opposed to the commanding and condemning nature of the law of God (15–16). It is perhaps this distinction more than anything else that truly sets these theologians apart as Lutheran not only in the content of their theologies but also in their approaches to the undertaking of theology itself. In a century dominated by the hermeneutical monism of its most famous theologian, Karl Barth, theologians like Elert, Althaus, Iwand, and Schlink emphasized that God has two words and speaks in two voices, not just one. The result was that these theologians were able to maintain the pure nature of the gospel as gift leaving it unconditional and unpolluted by any performance on the part of human beings.

At the same time, the authors and editor point out that these theologians did not neglect the realm of ethics, even if they sought to distinguish between the doing of ethics and the proclamation of the gospel. The authors discuss the various ways in which these theologians not only thought about ethics but actually lived their ethics out in their own lives. Sometimes, the stories of the lived ethics of these theologians differed vastly from one another.

No topic is more complex or controversial for Lutheran theologians than how their own fared under the shadow of the Third Reich. The authors of this volume, however, face this subject head-on, neither denying the involvement of Lutheran theologians nor castigating them in an uncompassionate manner. More than anything else, each author seeks to portray their theologians faithfully by describing their opposition or acquiescence to National Socialism in terms of how it flowed from their theologian’s Lutheran theology. Such faithful exposition not only demonstrates integrity in scholarship on the part of the authors, but it also shows how different Lutherans come to different ethical conclusions using the shared confessional resources and similar theological thinking. It further demonstrates how different positions may be arrived at through emphasizing different parts of Lutheran theology. For instance, Elert’s emphases on the absolute distinction between the law and the gospel, the two kingdoms, and the importance of obedience to temporal authority in matters if this world led to different results than Käsemann’s insistence of the radical, apocalyptical nature of the preached gospel and its calling to a kingdom not of this world.

The even-handed and in-depth scholarship of this volume makes it an invaluable resource to Lutheran theologians and pas­tors around the world. I am unaware of any other work that brings together such outstanding sketches of the lives and theologies of such important modern Lutheran theologians as do the authors and editor of this work. Each author demonstrates an outstanding knowledge of his or her respective theologian.

Yet, though this work is a valuable resource, it is also an incomplete resource. At least two other Lutheran theologians of the twentieth century should be addressed here: Theodosius Harnack and Oswald Bayer. While he was not, strictly speaking, a twentieth-century thinker, Harnack’s scholarly research on Luther anticipated and directly influenced both the Luther Renaissance and the work of the theologians discussed in this volume. Pieper and Koehler also worked before the turn of the twentieth century, and perhaps Harnack could have been added or at least discussed in the preface, even if his work was undertaken in the nineteenth century. Since his work spans the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, perhaps Bayer also falls outside the temporal framework of the volume. Nevertheless, his scholarship on the theme of promise in Luther’s theology, his focus on justification as an act of God’s Word, his discussion of the hidden God, and his research on Hamann are all unique and valu­able contributions to modern Lutheran theology. His inclusion in this volume would have been a real asset for read­ers.

This volume should be read by Lutheran theologians and pas-tors today not only in order to gain a better understanding of the course and currents of Lutheran theology in the twentieth century but also because it offers a path forward for Lutheran theologians »by looking backwards« (14–15). In the discussions here of the theologians whose life stories and ideas are portrayed in this volume, Lutherans today will find resources to address issues like the proclamation of the gospel in a secularized world, how far and under what circumstance Christians should follow or openly question their governments, and how to interpret the command and pro-mise of God in the context of today’s world. Lutherans today can learn much from the thought of Luther theologians of the twentieth century and from the witnesses of their lives. This volume provides an excellent resource in this regard.