- Luther Refracted. The Reformer’s Ecumenical Legacy ed. by Piotr J. Małysz, Derek R. Nelson
I have to confess. Normally when I see the word “ecumenical” in a book title my first impulse is to leave the text unopened. Participants in ecumenical dialogues frequently lament the lack of interest in their work (297) but this is often the fault of overly technical language, turgid prose, and a hierarchy out of touch with people in the pews. However, I am happy to report that this book is anything but dry and boring. Using the image of “refraction,” the editors challenged participants from a variety of Christian churches to think about what happens when Luther’s theology pierces (like a ray of light) their own traditions. The result is some surprising and insightful reflections about the Reformer and how he might still speak to Christians today.
One of the best essays is by the retired University of Chicago theologian David Tracy. While not plowing any new ground, Tracy writes clearly and appreciatively of Luther’s theology of the cross and his understanding of the hiddenness of God. (A third section on the fashionable “theosis” theory is less persuasive.) Seldom have I seen Luther’s central theological concerns summarized so well and with such understanding. Tracy handles the paradoxes and tensions of these two subjects with sensitivity to the Reformer’s central concerns. In fact, I plan to use this article with my own students, particularly the ones interested in going deeper into Luther’s thought.
Another helpful essay is by the Baptist theologian Brian C. Brewer. Brewer is highly critical of tendencies in his own church, especially what he calls the “hyper-individualism” that seems to infect the Southern Baptists. Let’s be honest—this is an affliction that hampers much of American Christianity, Lutherans included. Brewer sees Luther’s concept of the “priesthood of all believers” as a [End Page 438] valuable correction to the Baptist conception of “soul competency” and its narrow view of the Christian standing alone before God. Brewer understands the priesthood of all believers in a communal sense where Christians pray for one another, read and study Scripture together, and work with each other for a better world.
Matthew Myer Boulton, a Disciples of Christ pastor, has a nice piece on the simul iustus et peccator. He sees this teaching as an important correction to the tendency of Christians to view themselves as holy and the outside world as sinful. While the idea of Christendom has largely been lost in Western culture, Boulton notes that individual Christian communities still fall prey to an “us–and–them” mentality. Luther’s notion of sin’s power to penetrate all of humanity resists the triumphalism that Christians often find tempting.
Another writing that deserves to be highlighted is a highly personal reflection by Episcopalian Randall C. Zachman, who teaches Reformation theology at Notre Dame. Zachman describes how his own interest in Luther developed. He relates in detail his struggle within his own conscience with the power of death and how Luther’s Christocentric theology provided a way beyond the void that looms at the end of life. While it could be said that Zachman belabors his point, I found his account of his battle with what Luther called Anfechtungen to be moving and ultimately uplifting. It is rare for an academic to bare his or her soul in such a fashion. I might add that Zachman could have found consolation in his baptism as Luther often did. Unfortunately he does not reference the sacrament.
Readers might be wondering about Lutheran voices in the mix. They are here as well. Both of the Lutheran editors as well as Paul Hinlicky, Ian McFarland, and Ted Peters provide reactions to the various perspectives offered in this volume. Their contributions are helpful and allow readers to listen to some Lutheran voices in the midst of this ecumenical conversation. Overall, editors Małysz and Nelson are to be applauded for their work in assembling this rich collection...