Luther's Theology of the Cross
Christ in Luther's Sermons on Johnn
- ISBN: 9781532645792
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: June 2018
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.
Marco Barone is an Independent Scholar.Marco BaroneDate Of Review:April 5, 2019