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The Meaning of Protestant Theology
by phillip cary
baker, 384 pages, $32.99

The most immediate and pressing ecumenical question for Protestants is not their relationship to Rome but their relationship to one another. From the moment Luther refused to accept Zwingli’s memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper at Marburg in 1529, the history of Protestantism has followed the pattern that Roman ­Catholic critics predicted: ever-increasing theological and institutional fragmentation. Insisting that the unity for which Christ prayed need only be spiritual, and not institutional, Protestants have become as divided from one another as they are from Rome.

In recent years, however, there has been growing dissatisfaction with this situation. Scholarly work in historical theology has unearthed the deep roots of Reformation Protestantism in the work of earlier theologians and exegetes. And a rising generation of younger Protestants realize that much of conservative Protestantism has paid lip service to historic Christian creedal orthodoxy but has had little idea of what the Creeds really taught and why. “Scripture alone” was meant to be a means for regulating the church’s tradition; too often it has become the justification for reinventing the faith every Sunday. The debacle that has been the modern evangelical doctrine of God, with its unwitting rejection or catastrophic revision of catholic doctrines such as the Trinity, divine simplicity, and divine impassibility is only the most obvious.

Cut some of the leading evangelical writers of the last decades and they bleed Socinus—without even knowing his name. For example, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, the most widely read text of its kind in English-speaking conservative evangelical circles, rejects eternal generation of the Son via a very narrow anti-metaphysical biblicism divorced from any engagement with the catholic tradition on that point. Eternal generation is, of course, a lynchpin of Nicene Trinitarianism and so, while such evangelicals may be far from Socinianism on many points of doctrine, in their narrow biblicism and disdain for historical theology, they are methodologically its heirs.

Phillip Cary’s new volume, then, meets a real need. Cary teaches at Eastern University, an evangelical institution, and identifies as a Protestant. He is concerned that Protestantism does not understand its own tradition, has lost sight of its catholicity, and is vulnerable to an exodus of thoughtful young Christians to the more liturgical and self-consciously historical streams of Christianity represented by Rome and the Eastern churches. These people are the ones to whom Cary is writing. He seeks to put Protestantism on sounder theological and historical grounds by addressing the thought of two of the most important figures for understanding Reformation theology: Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther. 

Augustine may have been dead for over a thousand years before Luther was born, but he is the necessary precondition of Protestant theology. Calvin famously claimed, “­Augustine is completely ours!” and I remember hearing a patristics scholar once assert that the Reformation was “nothing more than a running footnote to Augustine.” Both comments were self-serving hyperbole, but they caught something of the truth. ­Augustine’s works, particularly his anti-Pelagian writings, were basic texts for the Reformers. And Luther is the founder of the Reformation feast: Whether it is authority, salvation, or sacraments, Luther set the major terms of debate in all areas of theology for the first two generations of Reformers.

Yet there is also a theme running through Cary’s argument that distorts his view of Luther and of the Christian life: his antipathy towards anything that smacks of introspection. This provides the great contrast he wishes to draw between his two main subjects: Augustine represents the inward turn; Luther represents (after a long period of spiritual masochism) a turn to the outward, in the form of the Word offered objectively in both preaching and sacraments. Whether Cary’s reading of ­Augustine is correct is outside of my sphere of competence, although he seems to me to over-emphasize the inwardness of Augustine’s thinking and to do so with a certain negative edge. Regardless, his understanding of Luther is certainly flawed. It draws on two problematic (and arguably incompatible) streams of Luther interpretation: the radical Lutheranism associated with Gerhard Forde on the one hand, and the Finnish School (associated in the United States with Carl E. Braaten and the late Robert Jenson) on the other.

Much of the problem with Cary’s understanding of Luther is summarized in the following paragraph, dealing with Luther’s 1516 comments on Romans 10:12:

This interpretation of faith in the cross as a coincidence of opposites is given the label “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis) in some of Luther’s more famous writings in 1518, a year or two later. It represents the pinnacle of his project of spiritual masochism, which a surprising number of scholars actually admire. For my part, however, I am glad that it quickly disappears from view as Luther learns to make a clear distinction between law and Gospel.

There are numerous errors here. First, for Luther the theology of the cross has little or nothing to do with “theological masochism.” Cary has a deep dislike of what is often called Luther’s “theology of humility,” which characterized his thinking before he settled on justification by grace through faith. The idea was that humility, or abject despair in one’s own powers, brought one into a state of grace. But Luther’s theology of the cross is not primarily about human experience. It is essentially a point about the way God reveals himself by acting in ways that contradict human expectation. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1, the cross appears outwardly as foolishness and an offense, but is in fact the power of God to salvation. To put Paul’s argument in Luther’s paradoxical way, God reveals himself in the Incarnation and on the cross precisely through his act of hiding himself in the Incarnation and on the cross. Thus, he can only be known by faith. For example, God conquers evil by dying on the cross and demonstrates power through the weakness and fragility of Christ’s flesh. This does have experiential implications: The Christian who is suffering might find that his strength is made perfect in weakness—a point made by no less an authority than Paul. Indeed, the theology of the cross is, in essence, the theology that Paul expresses in his Corinthian correspondence and not the fevered production of a tormented, introspective monastic conscience, as Cary seems to think.

Second, the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, which Cary celebrates, presents the theology of the cross as the culmination of its arguments about law and gospel. Far from being obsolete, the theology of the cross is perfected by the law-­gospel distinction. The law demands that we make ourselves righteous through good works; the gospel tells us that righteousness is an inward matter, given to us as a gift by God in Christ, and not something we earn for ourselves. This is obvious when the third error in the paragraph quoted above is noted: The theology of the cross does not vanish from Luther’s writings after 1518. Far from it. It remains a basic presupposition of his theology from 1518 onwards. It permeates Luther’s great commentary on ­Galatians (1531 and 1535), which is also one of his finest expressions of the law-gospel distinction. Luther even lists it as one of the nine essential marks of the true church which he delineates in On the Councils and the Church (1539). Both of these later texts witness to the continuing foundational importance of the theology of the cross to the Reformer and to both its epistemological and experiential importance. To misunderstand the theology of the cross and its relationship to the law-gospel dialectic is to misunderstand Luther at a fundamental level.

There are other troubling claims. Cary states that Luther’s understanding of justification needs to be distinguished from “the later Protestant doctrine of forensic justification.” Here, he seems to be echoing the thought of the Finnish School which places emphasis on the inward transformative nature of justification in Luther. Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated. It is certainly true that Luther prefers to use the language of marital union to that of the courtroom in his discussions of justification. But difference in metaphor need not require difference in doctrinal substance. To posit a fundamental difference between Luther’s view and forensic justification requires positing a fundamental difference between Luther and his colleague, Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon certainly had his differences with Luther—he leaned towards Erasmus on the nature of the human will, and he was more open to the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. But on justification, we have firsthand evidence that Luther and Melanchthon were in agreement. In a letter to Johannes Brenz, in May 1531, Melanchthon explained his forensic view of justification. Then, presumably in order to preempt the kind of interpretation here offered by Cary, Luther added a postscript in his own hand, making it clear that he and Melanchthon used different language to speak of justification but meant precisely the same thing. Cary appears to have been misled by the Finnish School of Luther interpretation, which has been roundly debunked on this point.

Cary also misreads the Reformed tradition. His argument that predestination led to problems with assurance, and then to the development of morbid introspection, is an old canard. A glance at the bibliography revealed, as I suspected, the presence of R. T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. It is rare that a book has been subjected to such consistent and devastating critique as this monograph. It relies on a narrow selection of sources, engages in consistent misreading of primary texts, reflects a tendentious theological agenda, and is based upon the historically indefensible idea that Calvin’s thought, expressed in the Institutes, is both a comprehensive account of his theology and normative for future generations. None of the vast literature exposing Kendall’s work as worthless is cited in either the text or the bibliography. The result is a theological and pastoral caricature of Reformed theology.

Protestant churches are defined by their confessions, not by the writings of one or two men. The meaning of Protestant theology has to be sought first and foremost in the documents that define those ­churches. Further, we need to understand that the Reformation was itself a work in progress, raising questions and challenging established practices. This, in turn, created new problems that required further reflection and adapted practice. For example, Cary rightly emphasizes Luther’s accenting of the external Word of the gospel. Yet he does not mention that, in 1528, the Reformer noted that this external Word had in practice allowed the people to think they could live like “irrational pigs,” to use ­Luther’s memorable phrase. Isolating the ­law-gospel dialectic in Luther’s thinking, and combining it with a reading of justification that is inherently transformative, does not do justice to the later Luther, who saw that his own early Reformation teaching, as its practical lacunae became evident, needed to be pastorally nuanced. Preaching justification by grace through faith was not enough, Luther realized. Building a healthy church required an emphasis on works and some degree of ­self-examination. 

We must not let contemporary concerns drive our historical and theological analyses. Introspective evangelical pietism certainly has its faults, for which a hearty dose of ­Luther’s gospel objectivism might well prove an antidote. But we are psychological beings. We do have inner lives. Not all introspection is necessarily morbid or mystical. And the best Christian theology acknowledges that fact, which is why the ­Luther of history—the Luther who saw ­David in the Psalms as the archetypal Christian giving expression to his religious experience, the Luther who bound the external and the internal together—is likely more useful than the Luther of Cary’s faith.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.