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Martin Luther after 500 Years

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Martin Luther after 500 Years

Bruce D. Marshall

Five hundred years ago this past October, on the eve of All Saints—what we call Halloween—a young theology professor at a provincial German university posted a set of theses for academic debate.1 The university was in the northeast German town of Wittenberg, and the professor was Martin Luther, a monk and priest two weeks shy of his thirty-fourth birthday. His aim was a standard academic exercise, a public disputation on a series of contested points, so his theses were written in Latin, the universal academic language of Europe at the time. The subject of his theses was the theology and practice of indulgences. Indulgences had been a standard part of Western medieval religious life for several centuries, one part of a much larger picture about sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God and one’s community. Luther was moved to post his “Disputation to Clarify the Power of Indulgences,” to recall its formal title, by his lively irritation over the way a particular indulgence tied to the building of the new St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was, with papal approval, being preached and sold in north Germany at the time. But the proper understanding of indulgences, of what they could and could not do, was already a topic of running controversy, and a good deal of what Luther had to say in his ninety-five theses had already been said by others.

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Grace and Gratitude: A Reply to Bruce Marshall

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Grace and Gratitude: A Reply to Bruce Marshall

Michael Allen

“The spirits divide in manifold ways, and the division reaches even to the description of Protestantism’s iconic founding incident.” These words of Professor Bruce Marshall not only help us realize the challenge as we assess the events of October 1517, but, more broadly, as we consider the persona and witness of Martin Luther. Some take Luther’s significance to be political, and Marshall alludes to the significance of his support by “the Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise” for turning him from a mere reformer to a founder of German Protestantism. Others highlight the ways in which Luther confronted the economic exploitation of German peasants for the aristocrats and the foreign powers of Rome, to which Marshall also nods in his comments on the popular awareness of the ways in which indulgences could fleece the least of these. While treating the political and the economic aspects of reform as bearing significance, however, Marshall reminds us of the abiding theological character of his witness and the specifically pastoral shape of his reforms.

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Properly Preoccupied with God: Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology I

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Properly Preoccupied with God: Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology I

Philip G. Ziegler

There is much to welcome, learn, and indeed, to treasure in this first volume of Kate Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. I begin with two initial observations on the form of the work.

First, this is a work of striking intelligence internal and proper to faith itself. As such, despite its sustained concentration on the quiddity of God and its unashamedly metaphysical mode, the book is remote from the dispassionate coolness of an analytic style of theology whose first moves are hypothetical—“if P, then . . . .” The origins of Sonderegger’s theology lie not in the hypothetical, but in the vocational, that is, in “the call to the One God, the One Lord of Israel” (3). Accordingly, the tone of her work is joyfully urgent, and the voice always simultaneously academic and ecclesial, critical and edifying, metaphysical and biblical, argued and prayerful. The work is stylistically unapologetic, offering no argument for its own possibility and propriety beyond that divine call to which is a reasoned response. The performance itself must vindicate and justify its form. The truth and winsomeness of Sonderegger’s claim that in a biblical and ecclesial theology such as this “doctrine governs and generates method” (xx)—and within method we must include tone, style and discursive form—is demonstrated on stage, as it were, rather than defended in the program notes.

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Ecclesial Plurality

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Ecclesial Plurality

Alan Jacobs1

Recently, some of the strongest divisions within the Christian world in the West, and particular in North America, have arisen from disagreements about human sexuality. These disagreements may be described and accounted for in various ways. Those who hold to the traditional view that sexuality is properly expressed only in marriage between one man and one woman may speak of heresies and disobediences that demand the invocation of the strict disciplines and separations of 1 Corinthians 5; conversely, those who accept the validity of same-sex unions may see in the traditionalists the dangers of a renewed Donatism. Although all such charges have occasional validity, they tend to promote diagnostic crudity.

Such crudity has also been promoted by how both sides use the Bible. A great deal of energy has been expended, throughout the history of Christianity, in trying to resolve the apparent contradictions in the biblical witness, by choosing (often in ways that seem arbitrary) some passages to govern the interpretation of other passages. That’s how we get the Calvinist/Arminian divide, among many others. But then, seeing how interminable and fruitless these controversies are, some people decide that the Bible is incoherent and self-contradictory and stop relying on its witness to determine their theology.

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Tilting a Little More in the Direction of Thomas Aquinas

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Tilting a Little More in the Direction of Thomas Aquinas

Matthew Levering

Katherine Sonderegger’s first volume of her projected Systematic Theology is a masterpiece, a theological and rhetorical tour-de-force that enriches the life of the Church in profound ways. All Christians should joyfully welcome this book into the world, and it should have a long future of stimulating faith in the God of Jesus Christ. Sonderegger brilliantly balances between Barth and Aquinas, and—like the work of Barth and Aquinas—her work is deeply informed by Scripture. My task in this all-too-brief essay will be to focus attention on the book’s debt to Aquinas and especially on its critique of Aquinas. I think that the tremendous strengths of Sonderegger’s book would only become stronger by tilting just a little more in the direction of Aquinas’s doctrine of God.

With Aquinas, Sonderegger insists on undertaking an “ontological analysis of Divine Oneness” and thus a “metaphysical reading of Scripture’s subject matter” (15). She notes that although things in this world have likeness and commonality to each other, “common properties and concepts,” this does not hold for God and creatures: “There is no likeness—no relation—of this kind between the One God and creatures” (26). With Aquinas, she insists that “God is not a universal, nor a member of a class, even the only member” (27). She agrees with Aquinas on “God’s Nature as ‘beyond definition’” (30). She emphasizes how radical is Aquinas’s denial that God is contained in any genus. As she puts it, Aquinas brings “all speech to stunned silence, all thought to its own annihilation, before the God of Horeb, the One God in His Mystery. The True God must be affirmed as beyond genus” (32–33). She affirms, as Aquinas does, that “God is fundamentally, utterly God—in scholastic idiom, fully actual. Nothing is ‘potential’ in God, waiting for completion or satisfaction or unfolding. . . . God rather is simply, wholly and inexhaustibly God, uniquely God” (33). She notes that against the temptation to make God the biggest or perfect being among beings, “[w]e must not think that God belongs to all that exists—that He is—in such a way that His particular form of existence, unique, self-subsisting Being could pick him out from this larger club of all that is. Rather, God is His existence” (33). Hammering home the significance of Aquinas’s reflections, which echo Scripture’s campaign against idolatry, she states: “To say that God is ‘beyond being’ or ‘is his own existence’—these are really convertible claims—is to affirm that God cannot be defined. . . . Not God’s ‘absence’ or ‘hiddenness’ or ‘transcendence’ makes God ineffable, unique, beyond definition. Rather, God’s sheer Reality does this” (35).

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