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Review of "Confessing the Gospel"

Review of "Confessing the Gospel"


Confessing the Gospel: A Lutheran Approach to Systematic Theology, ed. Samuel H. Nafzger et al., 2 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017), 1261 pages.

reviewed by John T. Pless

This two-volume set had its genesis in 1983 under the leadership of the late Ralph Bohlmann, president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod at that time. It was hoped that a new dogmatics text would build on the work of Franz Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (Volume 2 published in German in 1917; Volume 3 in 1920; Volume 1 in 1924; and the whole set translated into English in the 1950s) while addressing more recent developments in both churchly and academic theology. Writers from the LCMS and its international partners were recruited to address doctrinal topics within their fields of expertise. It would take over thirty years for the project to be brought to publication.

The end result is a conservative Lutheran presentation of the Christian truth arranged according to the traditional loci. In this regard there are no surprises. The methodology for treating each locus is something of a “building-block” approach that moves from “Scriptural Foundation” (Old and New Testaments), “Confessional Witness” (Creeds and the Book of Concord), “Systematic Formulation,” “Historical and Contemporary Developments” to “Implications for Life and Ministry.” This methodology works better for some topics (God, Creation, Anthropology etc.) than others (Baptism and Lord’s Supper). The authors of both the loci on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper note that the most helpful Lutheran way is not to start with Old Testament rites and practices but the instituting words of the Lord. An essay written in 1932 by Theodore Graebner in support of use of grape juice in the Lord’s Supper is cited in the discussion of questions of practice surrounding the Lord’s Supper. This piece of casuistry does not persuasively come to terms with what Jesus mandated in the giving of the Supper.

The long delay in publication brings to the surface one of the defects of this set. Namely, it is no longer quite as contemporary as its planners had hoped. To be sure, theologians and theological developments after the 1920s are addressed by the authors of this work. Barth, Bultmann, Pannenberg, and Moltmann are given their due. But nearly all of the sources cited are at least ten years old. It is striking that the locus on the Holy Spirit includes a forceful engagement with the Charismatic Movement clearly indicating an issue current in the LCMS in the 1980s but not so much today. Pentecostalism, of course, does remain a significant force globally, but this locus will be only minimally helpful in addressing this reality. The author of this locus, Howard Tepker, died in 1998. An editor has attempted to supplement Tepker’s work with some more recent material from Leopold Sánchez’s work on “Spirit-Christology” (2003, 2006) but this addition appears somewhat cosmetic.

The section on Prolegomena is likewise dated. Some attention is paid to Helmut Thielicke and George Lindbeck. Missing is any engagement with more recent approaches, such as those of Oswald Bayer, Robert W. Jenson, and Paul R. Hinlicky. Given the fact that the distinction of Law from Gospel figures so prominently in Missouri’s theological tradition, it is puzzling (even more so from today’s perspective) that this distinction is only treated briefly in a larger section on the theology of the cross. (The recent work of John D. Koch Jr., The Distinction Between Law and Gospel as the Basis and Boundary of Theological Reflection, would be a salutary supplement/corrective to this lacuna.)

This is not to say that the set has no redeeming qualities. Several of the loci are in fact exemplary. The strongest sections of Confessing the Gospel are the excellent treatments of “Creation” (William Weinrich), “Work of Christ” (Henry Hamann),  “Last Things” (Edward Kettner and Paul Raabe), and “Election” (Robert Kolb). These four loci are engaging, well-crafted, and comprehensive.

A careful reading of the locus on creation might surprise those who suppose that Missouri Synod theologians have nothing to say about creation beyond a literal affirmation of the six days.  Weinrich carefully attends to the exegesis of Genesis 1-2, traces the creation theme through the Old Testament and into the New Testament, demonstrates how the doctrine is confessed in the Book of Concord, and then provides a systematic formulation of the teaching. Noteworthy is Weinrich’s discussion of the creatio ex nihilo as an act not of divine necessity but of God’s will to love by the free giving of Himself to His creatures. “God’s act of creation ex nihilo through the Word brings into existence the world with its own intrinsic being and intrinsic order. The world is not an extension of the divine being and, therefore, it is not divine. Yet the world is not illusory or unreal; it bears its own ‘being’ that is distinct from the being of God” (I:165). Creation is not divinized; it is not shunned as something unworthy of God. Rather it is recognized and received as gift: “Faith in the Creator allows no room for human works. Faith receives and gives thanks; faith itself does noting” (I:173).

Without collapsing God’s original act of creation into God’s own going work of creation, Weinrich clearly recognizes Luther’s accent on the fact that God continues to bestow and sustain life. Human beings are co-workers with God but not co-creators (see I:178). God’s fidelity as Creator is to be reflected in the bond of marital love between man and woman and as such marriage itself is a sign of new creation within this world (see I:178-179).

The late Australian theologian, Henry Hamann, contributed the locus on the “Work of Christ” which draws deeply on Luther, noting both the similarities and differences between the Reformer and Anselm’s theory of vicarious satisfaction. Paul Raabe, an Old Testament scholar, and Edward Kettner, a systematic theologian, team up to provide a treatment of the “Last Things” that challenges numerous manifestations of eschatological speculations including millennialism and universalism while setting forth the confident hope of Christ’s final victory over death.

Another exceptional locus is Robert Kolb’s treatment of election. Kolb observes from the Old Testament how “the eternal God reveals himself as the one who decides and chooses” (II:1195). This theme is foundational also in the New Testament and it lies behind all of the dominical and apostolic statements that attribute salvation to God alone. Having spent a lifetime working with Luther’s Bondage of the Will and its reception among later Lutherans, Kolb condenses the wealth of his research on predestination, election, and the human will into an accessible presentation of this doctrine for preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.

The set also demonstrates a potential shortcoming of teamwork. The locus on “The Ministry” lists two co-authors, the late Eugene Klug and the Bishop Emeritus of Missouri’s sister church in Germany (SELK), Jobst Schöne. These two men represent very different approaches to the ministerial office. This particular locus is an uneven fusion of two approaches.

Given the Missouri Synod’s recent struggle over questions of biblical authority and inerrancy, the locus on Holy Scripture (rightly placed with the means of grace rather than under Prolegomena) is a thorough attempt to articulate a Lutheran approach to the Scriptures in distinction from both Fundamentalism and modern liberalism. The author of this section is Samuel Nafzger, the general editor of the volumes, who also served for many years as the Executive of the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR). This probably accounts for the fact that the footnotes of Confessing the Gospel are a bit dense with references to CTCR documents.

The concluding block for each locus, “Implications for Life and Ministry,” articulates generally thoughtful and insightful attempts to demonstrate the pastoral significance of the doctrine under discussion. For example, Kolb’s treatment of the doctrine of election draws on the Formula of Concord (see FC SD XI:45-47) to demonstrate that this doctrine offers consolation in that our salvation is safely kept in “the hand of our Savior Jesus Christ, from whom no one can snatch us away” (II:1261).

It is questionable whether or not a dogmatics book can be adequately done by a team. This was, of course, done by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson in their 1984 Christian Dogmatics with mixed results. The dogmatics texts written by individuals such as Franz Pieper, Michael Reu, Adolf Hoeneke, Werner Elert, Wilfried Härle, and Helmut Thielicke for example, have the advantage of coherence and consistency. Such consistency and coherence is lost in both the work of Braaten/Jenson and Confessing the Gospel.

In the end it might be best to think of Confessing the Gospel as more of a “handbook” of systematic theology rather than as a dogmatics text. Yet here the usefulness of the book is somewhat crippled by lack of topical, biblical, and confessional indices. Perhaps such indices could be provided by CPH in a future printing. Up to date bibliography for each locus would also enhance the usefulness of the volumes.

John T. Pless is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions and Director of Field Education at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
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