Book Review: Luther’s Gospel

Luther's Gospel Book Review

Graham Tomlin’s new book in Luther is an interesting one to read. Dense, beautifully written, provocative and encouraging, Luther’s Gospel: Reimagining the Wolrd invites the reader to think carefully about the great reformer and what he said.

After a helpful brief sketch of Luther’s life (brief enough for people who’ve read biographies of the man to enjoy Tomlins angle, helpful for those whose knowledge of Luther’s life is sketchy) we move to consider Luther’s view of the two key things that would shape his theological journey: the Bible and the apostle Paul. The chapter on Luther’s approach to bible translation is fascinating – with much to chew over in terms of what we want a translation to do, and revealing of the way that different theological and social concerns shape the way we translate the Bible. QUOTE TOP OF PAGE 31. In his chapter on Luther and Paul Tomlin engaged with the New Perspective on Paul, particularly the way that N. T. Wright engaged the difference between Luther and Paul. Tomlins fundamental challenge is that “perhaps Luther did understand Paul after all”, noting that the appearance of differences on covenant inclusion both rely on a similar thing: “the only true sign…”. These first three chapters are grouped together in Part A ‘Luther and His Gospel’, which pivots to a chapter on the cross to the second section of the book, ‘Luther in His Time’.

The chapter on Luther and the death of the Christ, which focused on the way that Luther’s theology y of the cross develops in reactive contrast to much medieval thought, is fascinating. In light of my recent book review on contemporary worship, it is notable that Tomlin observes that “Luther’s debut to late medieval monastic and popular Christian life was owed not so much to its theology but to its spirituality – its patterns of prayer and devotion”.  It is one particular pattern of devotion that is the focus of the next chapter: Luther on pilgrimage. This isn’t something I’ve thought particularly about for a number of years – so Tomlin’s wry observation about Protestants and pilgrimage at the opening of the chapter amused me. In terms of Luther’s thought, Tomlin carefully explains it in the context of the wider theological themes that the Reformer is perhaps better known for. With the backdrop of what was being protested theologically Tomlin notes Luther’s more biblically rioted view: “Luther’s point here moved from the eschatological (in the new age, God can now be encountered anywhere) to the sacramental (God has, in fact, told us where to find him)”. The focus is not on geographical encounter – like pilgrimage – but the reality of theological encounter; in word, sacrament, church and so on. Tomlin then curates an interesting reflection on the similarity and difference of the approaches of Luther and Calvin to pilgrimage and other related issues. This flows nicely into the chapter on Luther and prayer, where we continue to see the tension between an emphasis on the importance of prayer, the abuses and false piety of the day, and what the Bible perhaps teaches, or as Tomlin writes: “his approach is not a wholesale abandonment of earlier forms of prayer, but their thorough reformation”.

The final third of this book engages with three elements of the Christian life: Sex and marriage, the Devil, and Freedom. The first of these is interesting not least because of what it reveals about Luther’s own marriage and life. Indeed, his personal experience clearly informed, shaped and dialogued with his theology. What might be seen as an overreaction – inverting the established order that being (for example) a priest was a superior state to marriage – was ultimately rooted in the sense that sexual desire was and is (in Tomlins paraphrase of Luther) “natural, normal and not to be shunned as inherently sinful”. Tomlin shows us aspects of Luther’s theology around sex and marriage from a variety of angles – some very time bound, others showing a deeper logic rooted in creation ordinances and continuing to echo through theology today. The chapter on Luther and his view of the Devil is a masterclass – Tomlin opens up a complex topic with obvious knowledge and an irenic engagement with other scholars. A key conclusion worth sharing is thus: “Luther is not ultimately a dualist, believing that the world is split into two realms, one ruled by God and the other by Satan. He knows that while Satan rages, he still comes under God’s power and authority”. The dialectical approach later taken up by C. S. Lewis is shown in Tomlins closing words: “Satan is simultaneously to be taken seriously but not listens to, recognized but not respected, disdained and not desired”. The final chapter of Luther’s Gospel is a joyful and fertile one. Tomlin writes about Luther’s view of freedom – with an eye on what this could contribute to “how we understand and articulate a Christian view of freedom”. This chapter is too dense and rich to fully summarize in the tale end of a paragraph of my review – but Tomlin touches (as Luther does) on issues of sin, grace, free will, lapsarianism, predestination and the very nature of God.

In closing, then, this is a really helpful book. I think the blend of readable introduction to Luther and lightly-worn but serious scholarship around various issues in his theology, makes this an excellent read. I’ll be blogging on different parts of it over the coming weeks, hopefully, and will be using parts of it in other things I’m planning to write. I’d recommend this to folk looking for a book on Luther – an introduction to his life and theology – as well as those wanting to reflect on the various ways his theology impacts the world today.

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