By Hans Schwarz
Hans Schwarz has done the Lutheran world a great service as it leads up to the 500 year anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017. This book is a wonderful introduction to the life and thought of Luther written in a masterfully concise manner, easy to understand, and structured beautifully. Pastors, professors, teachers, bible study and book club leaders who perhaps want to use this upcoming event as an excuse to explore the life and thought of the Lutheran Reformation will here find a book suitable to their purpose. It is also great for those who wish to read up and get a better understanding of Luther on their own.
The book begins with a brief biography of Luther. This biography is enough to serve the purposes of a springboard into Luther’s thought, explaining key characters in his life, and how they influenced him. It also does a great job explaining the society into which Luther was born and how this influenced his thinking and practice. It helps set the theme. It is quite short. For those wishing to have a more in depth look at his life, I would recommend “Luther the Reformer” by James Kittleson, as a more in depth study yet easy to read. Others might be interested in Roland Bainton’s work “Here I Stand” which seems to have come into more affordable price ranges as of recent, and is long considered to be the classic work on the life of the Reformer. Of chief importance in this part of Schwarze’s work is the influence of von Staupitz in pointing Luther to the cross, and Luther’s break with the theology of predestination as presented by Gabriel Breil. Though Luther will hold to a doctrine of predestination his whole life, he makes some considerable breaks with the doctrine as it was historically taught. This is also a chief difference between his theology and that of the Swiss reformers who have a doctrine closer to that of Gabreil Breil’s, which Luther’s teaching of justification by faith through grace was at complete odds with, A person seeking more understanding in that area might also read, Uuras Saarnivara “Luther Discovers the Gospel.”
After the biography, Schwarz delves into the thought of Luther with a special emphasis on how it is relevant today, especially in regards to the central question guiding Luther’s thought of “How do I find a gracious God.” Schwarz notices that this “existential” question is still a question for modern man in the face of countless catastrophes. It is the gracious God of the Bible that Luther discovered and how this played out in the thought and reforms of Luther than then guide the discussion even in topics such as family life and music in the rest of the book.
The book excels refreshingly as Schwarz weaves in the narratives of Luther’s life into such topical discussions as the Divinity of God (in contrast to the reformed preoccupation with the sovereignty of God), Faith and Reason (Faith isn’t unreasonable, or blind) the principle of Scripture alone and the reasoning behind Luther’s rejection of James. It seriously was an absolutely brilliant and captivating read. At times, the reader may question how relevant the author’s views on “over population” or environmentalism actually come into play. He comes from a more liberal slant on political issues like these, but they don’t by any means overpower the book if a conservative like me can raise an eyebrow and read on. I was however a bit perplexed theologically on two occasions. The author says that Luther taught a doctrine of consubstantiation in regards to the Lord’s Supper, and his discussion on Luther’s view of the law and its uses was found to be a bit weak.
First, “a” doctrine of consubstantiation. It seemed to me the author left a lot hanging on an indefinite article. There is a doctrine of consubstantiation. And what comes to mind for most when they hear that fifty cent word is not the Lutheran doctrine regarding the Lord’s Supper and the real presence, which is otherwise presented well, especially the connection of the Lord’s Supper to the Sacrifice of Christ, and the necessity of God acting in the sacrament rather than man. I suppose if a person wanted to redefine consubstantiation in a manner that explains the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper in contrast to the doctrine normally associated with the word, a person could do so. The author does not attempt this for some reason, perhaps space.
When it comes to the law, the author is very guarded against attributing to Luther any notion of a “third use of the law.” That is the law as curb, mirror and guide. But to do this he enters into a game of theological gymnastics in which a person is supposed to distinguish between a command of God and the law of God as if God’s command wasn’t law. I don’t know how a person does that. Law, is typically defined as those things God commands that we do. Gospel as those things God does for us, especially in regard to our salvation. To be sure there is a rather large difference between a Lutheran’ understanding of third use, and that of our Reformed brethren, but that does not give license to speak of God’s command as anything but what it is, law, it is that for the Christian as well as the non-Christian.
On the other hand, his treatment of Luther’s view on family life and the application of the freedom of a Christian to society issues is refreshing at a time when many Christians, and Lutherans among them are advocating a return to “biblical” principles there such that they advocate for Patriarchalism and various forms of complementarianism. Schwarz shows that in Luther’s view societies were free to organize themselves in a variety of different ways, and families are able to do the same for themselves, and bolsters this argumentation by looking at Luther’s own rather progressive family for its time. I’m thankful to Fortress press for allowing me the opportunity to review this book with a loan copy for that purpose. It truly was a pleasure to read.