Growing up as a typical Southern Baptist, my knowledge of Protestant history is a half drawn pencil sketch of Martin Luther, the Puritans, and a handful of American luminaries like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. (We also heard the names Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong but just associated them with giving up the change in our piggy banks.) If you asked me to sketch out my knowledge of Martin Luther, my understanding of the German reformer would fit easily on a post it note: ex-monk, 95 Theses, “Here I Stand,” and that’s about it.
That’s why Carl Trueman’ s new book Luther on the Christian Life (part of Crossway’ s series on Theologians and the Christian Life) is so important for the evangelical church. Books like this will help us understand the history of Reformation thought and keep us from misappropriating theological figures for our own purposes (as some say we’ve done with Bonhoeffer, for example).
In Luther on the Christian Life, Trueman provides a brief but detailed sketch of Luther’s life and historical context, before diving into Luther’s teaching on the preaching office, the doctrines of Scripture and righteousness, the role of the sacraments/ordinances, the reality of the spiritual warfare, and the roles of domestic and secular responsibilities in the life of a Christian.
What makes this book stand out from other discussions of Luther’s theology, according to the afterword by Luther scholar Martin Marty, is that Trueman is not himself Lutheran, which gives him enough critical detachment to honestly evaluate some of Luther’s peculiar views and human failings. While Trueman doesn’t dive into some particularly murky issues in Luther’s works, he does address them fairly without glossing over uncomfortable subjects.
Another strength of this book is Trueman’s writing style: straight-forward and wry, academic without being stuffy, and clearly pastoral. Trueman draws clear contrasts between Luther’s theology and modern-day evangelical belief (including the fact that Luther would not consider many non-Lutherans to even be Christians due to our beliefs about the sacraments). Trueman’s commentary and obvious efforts at thorough research make this a valuable addition to any church library or pastor’s study.
Normally I try to address discrepancies or weaknesses in every book I review, but I have to admit, I’m hard-pressed here. I know the author himself would be willing to admit places where his text may be inadequate, but I can’t put my finger on those. While I can’t speak to the real accuracy and fairness of the material (as I am not well-versed in Luther), it seemed to be extremely well-balanced.
On the whole, I found Luther on the Christian Life to be fascinating, challenging, and encouraging. I’m walking away from it with a deeper understanding of Luther the man as well as Luther the theologian, and now can appreciate and articulate where my theology differs from his. In an era of denominational mash-ups, making helpful doctrinal distinctions are becoming more rare and thus more needed. For that, I’m very thankful.
Please Note: I received a complimentary electronic copy of the book from Crossway for the purposes of review, as part of their “Beyond the Page” bloggers program. My thoughts and opinions of the book are unbiased and freely offered.