Luther's Theology of the Cross

Christ in Luther's Sermons on Johnn

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Dennis Ngien
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     2018.
     312 pages.
     $36.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532645792.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

David Ngien’s Luther’s Theology of the Cross is a thorough and enjoyable summary of and commentary on Martin Luther’s sermons on the Gospel of John. Its chapters, however, do not necessarily follow Luther’s order of exposition, and are thematically structured more than chronologically. This makes Ngien’s book an unusual introduction to Luther’s theology: it is an introduction in that virtually every pillar of Luther’s thought is discussed, and it is unusual considering that the exposition is meant to be practical and pastoral through the summary and exposition of sermons that Luther specifically intended to be so as they were offered to people in the church pews. Although the latter is, by no means, a negative characteristic, the reader who is looking for a survey of Luther’s thought should keep in mind the nature of this book.

The “Introduction” acquaints the reader with Luther’s general theological vision as presented in his sermons on John as well as with his rhetoric and terminology constituted by emphatic expressions, conceptual oppositions aimed at underlining the paradox of the cross and of the Christian life. Ngien also discusses Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518), as its theses are the core of the theology that will permeate Luther’s ministry for the rest of his life. The reader is invited to keep in mind Ngien’s “Introduction” in general, and Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation in particular, as they offer key theoretical and hermeneutical concepts for understanding the German reformer. In a review such as this, it would be unnecessary to summarize every single chapter of Ngien’s book. The author’s clarity of exposition, together with the popular and practical nature of Luther’s sermons, makes such a summary quite unnecessary. Luther’s Theology of the Cross is a relatively easy read and quite accessible to the beginner, in spite of the depths of its treatments.

Nevertheless, there are a few places in the book that might be considered problematic, especially for a reader not acquainted with or not necessarily sympathetic to Luther’s theology. In particular, chapter 11 “Christological Predictions: The Usage of Communicatio Idiomatum” is representative of these problems which, although I do not claim they are irresolvable, nonetheless seem to be left unanswered in Ngien’s book.

Chapter 11 is dedicated to Luther’s treatment of the communicatio idiomatum, the doctrine of the communication of attributes between the two natures of Christ. The primary problem in this chapter is the fact that, in Christ, there are two natures (the human and the divine) in a single person. This, however, does not necessarily require the divine nature to share attributes with the human nature and vice-versa—which is Luther’s, and presumably, Ngien’s claim. This is a thesis that is not inherent to the doctrine of Christ, as expounded in the articles of the Christian ecumenical creeds and that needs to be argued for further. However, the reader looks in vain for a full argument, or interpretation of Scripture, or the ecumenical creeds, that is developed enough to support this additional claim. 

Moreover, the claim in question—as expounded in chapter 11—is met with several prima facie contradictions. Ngien claims that, for Luther, “not only the man Jesus but also the Son of God was crucified, for there is one individual Person” (215). This means “suffering, proper only to the Son of man, since God cannot suffer, is now communicated to the Son of God, for there is one Son” (215). In addition to the fact that the Son as one person does not logically require any communication of attributes between the two natures, there is a problem with what Luther himself says elsewhere. In De servo Arbitrio, Luther says that God’s will is immutable because his nature and attributes are immutable and unchangeable (WA 18, 615-616 and 724-725, as translated by E.G. Rupp and P.S. Watson, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Westminster, 1969, 118-119, 252).It is difficult to see how it is possible to coherently maintain that 1) the Son of God—according to his divine nature—not only suffers, but also that he begins to suffer at the incarnation; and 2) God’s nature—and, therefore, the Son of God according to his divine nature—is immutable. This issue is not addressed in Ngien’s book. This problem becomes even more evident when Ngien adds that this communication of attributes is real and concrete, and not merely ideal or verbal: “[t]he attributes of both natures are predicated of the whole person of Christ ‘in the concrete,’ so that the attributes of the one nature are shared with the other … Mortality, which is exclusively of the human nature, is now attributed to the divinity via the communication of properties in concrete” (215). The reader’s possible confusion is augmented when Ngien repeatedly claims that “Luther’s position sits comfortably with Chalcedon” (16, 84, 209, 220). However, the Creed of Chalcedon famously asserts that the two natures of Christ are without confusion and without change. It seems quite difficult to reconcile Ngien’s claim with these articles of the Creed of Chalcedon, or at least, Ngien does not offer enough material to make sense of this apparent contradiction.

Considering that an entire chapter was dedicated to this problematic point, it was perhaps necessary to address it somewhat at length. However, the critical considerations above do not necessarily lower the quality of Ngien’s achievement. His book is not intended as a developed defense of Luther’s position on the abovementioned or other issues, but rather an exposition of his theology from a pastoral perspective. In fact, Luther’s Theology of the Cross is not only helpful for the scholar, but also beneficial for the reader who wants to approach Luther for devotional purposes. From this point of view, Ngien’s volume has achieved its goals and it deserves the scholarly endorsements that accompany it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marco Barone is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dennis Ngien is Professor of Systematic Theology at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and Research Scholar in Theology at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University. He is the author of seven books including The Suffering of God's according to Martin Luther's "Theologia Crucis" (1995) and Apologetic for Filioque in Medieval Theology (2005). A founder of the Centre for Mentorship and Theological Reflection, he focuses on mentoring scholars, pastors, church leaders, and theological students.

Comments

Dennis Ngien

With appreciation for the Reviewer:

The reviewer (Barone) was accurate and fair throughout.  Regarding his comments: "Nevertheless, there are a few places in the book that might be considered problematic, especially for a reader not acquainted with or not necessarily sympathetic to Luther’s theology. In particular, chapter 11 “Christological Predictions: The Usage of Communicatio Idiomatum” is representative of these problems which, although I do not claim they are irresolvable, nonetheless seem to be left unanswered in Ngien’s book." One must bear in mind that the polemical issue of Christological predication between the two natures did not occur in his sermons; this was not the intention of Luther's homiletic sermons as his audience was the people in the pews. The intent of my book is to let Luther's voice heard loud and clear from his own sermons. This is what the reviewer recognized. He wrote: "His (Ngien's) book is not intended as a developed defense of Luther’s position on the abovementioned or other issues, but rather an exposition of his theology from a pastoral perspective. In fact, Luther’s Theology of the Cross is not only helpful for the scholar, but also beneficial for the reader who wants to approach Luther for devotional purposes." I applaud his commendation: "From this point of view, Ngien’s volume has achieved its goals and it deserves the scholarly endorsements that accompany it." 

A fully-developed apology for the doctrine of his usage of communicatio idiomatum occurs elsewhere; perhaps another book of such topic will emerge one day. This doctrine continues to be of debate, but that is not the point of Luther's sermons on John (which the reviewer recognizes accurately). I would encourage Barone to do a book on this topic, and flesh out the consistency of Luther's theologia crucis pertaining to the question of divine impassibility vs. passibility, etc.. For now, I am working towards the completion of Reformation Spirituality in Luther and Calvin, focusing on how the gospel shapes Christian living (Baker Academic). Again, my leaning is to highlight the pastoral and spiritual side of the reformer (that shines Luther's sermons on John as well).

Enough for now, and I thank the reviewer for his tribute 
(underserved, as I am constantly growing in my reading o the reformers such as Luther and Calvin). 

With gratitude, Dennis

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