Book Review: ‘Engaging Luther: A (New) Theological Assessment’, edited by Olli-Pekka Vainio

Engaging Luther: A (New) Theological Assessment‘, edited by Olli-Pekka Vainio, Cascade Books, 272 pp. $32.00

This was a very enjoyable collection of essays, centered around a broad engagement with Martin Luther. Each of the 12 essays in this volume survey Luther’s thought on a given theological topic, and each can be read on its own – this isn’t a systematic presentation or harmonization. What unifies the essays is the perspective of Finnish Lutheranism, which is the topic of the introductory article by Risto Saarinen. This essay serves as a primer on Finnish Lutheranism, which, as Saarinen puts it, ‘sets out to prove that, first, Luther’s theology is ontologically richer and contains an effective view of justification as the presence of things hoped for, and, second, that the subjectivist picture of Luther to a great extent stems from the anti-Catholic prejudices of modern Protestantism’ (p. 15). This serves as the unifying theme of all the various engagements with Luther here. Since there are 12 essays I won’t summarize each here, but instead I’ll note the ones I found to be exceptional.

The key distinction of Finnish Lutheranism is, as noted above, the drive to flesh out the ontological aspects of Luther’s theology. This has led to Finnish Lutheranism advocating for a kind of deification, which is laid out masterfully in the second chapter by Antti Raunio, who argues that it is in Luther’s anthropology that the ontological aspects of Finnish Lutheranism are to be found. While Luther himself left no systematic writing on anthropology, Raunio works through Luther’s texts to show how relational ontology, human nature and participation in God (which, Raunio says, is what Luther understands to be what it means humans created in God’s image) form a coherent picture. Raunio also notes that Luther was not opposed to working with and through philosophical terminology, since Luther uses Aristotelian terms such as ‘substance’ when talking about human beings; for Luther according to Raunio, participation in the divine life belongs to man’s original substance.

Olli-Pekka Vainio’s essay on faith goes was especially interesting for two reasons: Vainio shows that Luther was far from being a subjective-ist about faith, as well as (once again) willing to use Aristotelian philosophy to make his theological points. The former Vainio secures by showing that for Luther, it is Christ, his suffering and obedience that make the ‘happy exchange’ possible and that in apprehending faith, the believer ‘possesses Christ himself’ (p. 142). This, Vainio notes, results in faith effectively becoming a purely divine act within the believer, since for Luther the ‘appetitive and apprehensive faculties merge’ (p. 143). Christ is thus the object and subject of faith. This is how Vainio also shows that Luther was not averse to using Aristotle, since the theological epistemology articulated here is a profoundly Aristotelian one.

Perhaps the most interesting essays, however, deal with Luther’s more practical theology. The essays on sex, music and Luther as a reader of Holy Scripture, by Sammeli Juntunen, Miikka E. Anttila and Tuomo Mannermaa, respectively, were all immensely enjoyable and showcased Luther’s concerns with practical, day-to-day living. Juntunen surveys Luther’s thought on romance, vows of chastity (which was an immensely interesting section), children as the object of love as well as some of Luther’s quite frankly very odd bits of advice on sex within marriage. Anttila, rather brilliantly, puts Luther’s thinking on music within the context of his theology of the cross as well as sacramental theology (I won’t spoil this one at all – you’ll have to read it for yourself). Mannermaa finishes up the volume with a look at Luther as a reader of the Bible, setting his reading within the context favor/gift.

While I’ve not touched on all the essays in this volume, each is worthy of close and careful reading. These that I’ve referenced here were standouts to me, and will be read repeatedly by me in the future. There’s really nothing bad I can say about this volume (here and there the translation is a bit clunky, but that’s about it). Whether you’re interested in Luther studies proper, Lutheran theology, or learning about the Finnish Lutheranism, this is an essential volume that will repay close study.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

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