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Reviewed by:
  • Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicals ed. by Jason A. Mahn
  • Matthew L. Becker
Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicals. Edited by Jason A. Mahn. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2017. 156 pp.

The five contributors to this book (professors at ELCA colleges or universities) make the case that a Lutheran Christian can be a political "radical." While these authors may not agree on precisely what that term implies, one gets the impression that they generally view market economies and current liberal-democratic structures with deep suspicion and hold that these institutions need to be thoroughly reformed. The penultimate chapter, for example, favors socialist and liberationist ideas (most of which were conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, given wider currency in the 1960s and 70s, and have now become institutionalized in liberal Protestant church bodies). The book's thesis is that "radical Lutherans" (that is, those who repeatedly return to the gospel root [radix] of the Christian faith) "ineluctably become Lutheran radicals: those freed by God's gracious word to engage in social and political reforms that are often subversive of 'the way things are'" (4). The book thus seeks to underscore [End Page 233] a deep connection between God's justification of sinners and the actions of justified sinners toward establishing earthly justice, as such is envisioned typically by socialists and liberationists.

The book focuses on four Lutheran thinkers as important resources for nourishing such "radical" social-political action: Martin Luther, Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dorothee Soelle. By focusing on Luther's criticism of established authorities and the implications of his social reforms, Samuel Torvend argues that Luther was a radical for his time (despite his criticisms of peasants and reformers like Müntzer). Carl Hughes highlights Kierkegaard's acidic denunciation of the Danish state church and provides an excellent introduction to this difficult thinker. Lori Brandt Hale examines the development of Bonhoeffer's political theology, culminating in his involvement in a conspiracy to murder Hitler and Bonhoeffer's eventual martyrdom. Jacqueline Bussie provides a good summary of Soelle's defense of Christian socialism and liberation theology. Each chapter gives important biographical details, while focusing especially on the subject's understanding of the relationship between Christian faith and social-political action. Throughout, a central motif is Luther's theology of the cross and its import for social-political engagement.

While the introductory chapter by the editor defines central Lutheran terms and concepts, the final chapter ("You"), also by Mahn, invites the reader to consider that a radicalized understanding of Luther's teaching about vocation is helpful "for courageous work in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and exploited" (144). Each chapter ends by pointing to five or six additional resources for further study and by raising four sets of well-crafted discussion questions.

A primary audience will be students at ELCA colleges and universities, where many have to take a basic course that deals with Luther and his heritage. The book will also undoubtedly attract readers who are affiliated with the ELCA's social-ministry organizations or who are already active in progressive politics. For students who come to class wearing "Make America Great Again" hats, or even for Lutherans who consider themselves politically "centrist" or conservative, reading the book will likely be a frustrating experience. [End Page 234] How many "radical Lutherans," as Gerhard Forde defined this phrase, agree with Soelle that liberation theology is "the only fitting option for faithful Christians truly seeking to follow Christ in today's world" (105)? Can a Christian regularly invest in a retirement account or make use of a bank account or a credit card, let alone pay taxes or contribute to "Big Business" (e.g., by using computers and the internet to produce theology books)? Must one be a socialist or a liberationist or even a liberal Democrat in order to work for positive climate-change policies, the de-nuclearization of the planet, humane immigration policies, nationalized health care for all, the end of racism, and the defense of human rights, democracy, and civil liberties? Can a "radical Lutheran" be politically conservative, for example, if one is counter-culturally concerned about protecting the limited rights of the unborn? Then again, the...


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