Radical Lutherans / Lutheran Radicals

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Jason A. Mahn
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     168 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicals retrieves the life and work of Martin Luther, Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dorothee Soelle to demonstrate that a deep commitment to the Lutheran theological tradition is commensurate with subversive socio-political action and resistance to injustice. The essays in the volume collectively wrestle with the legacies of the above four theologians, resisting the impulse to hagiography and refusing cheap appropriations of their thought for our contemporary context. While the authors are concerned with rooting Luther, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and Soelle within a five hundred year-old tradition, they simultaneously articulate the ways these thinkers are committed to a posture of semper reformanada as they revised and, in some cases, diverged from their Lutheran heritage.

In the introduction, Jason Mahn notes that many may find the juxtaposition of the terms radical and Lutheran strange. However, Samuel Torvend’s essay on Martin Luther demonstrates that the Lutheran tradition by no means occludes radical action in response to injustice. Torvend labels Luther the forgotten radical, and details the progressive social reforms often obfuscated by the more popular aspects of Luther’s legacy. For example, many may be unware that Luther’s understanding of justification by grace through faith also includes a social mandate to love one’s neighbor. Torvend underscores that for Luther, care for others had little value unless it “took concrete form in social policy that actually changed the conditions in which the vulnerable lived” (36). To this end, Luther promoted reforms in a variety of fields outside the church, from economics and ecology to politics and education. Luther was also aware that injustice is not solely caused by individuals, and Torvend’s essay highlights the ways Luther condemned the authorities and networks of power that create and maintain the conditions for injustice to thrive.

Carl Hughes’s essay details the life of Søren Kierkegaard, who follows Luther’s impulse to reform, and yet was arguably one of Lutheranism’s most ardent critics. Hughes notes how Kierkegaard challenged the bourgeois Lutheran establishment of his time, but explains Kierkegaard’s criticisms “almost always radicalize rather than reject key themes of the Lutheran theological tradition” (58). While Kierkegaard and Luther are united in their subjective understanding of the faith, Kierkegaard diverged from Luther on key tenants of the tradition such as the law/gospel dialectic. However, Hughes states that rather than rejecting Luther wholesale, Kierkegaard adopted a posture of “critical embrace” (60). For example, although Kierkegaard was appalled with how the law/gospel dialectic had been distorted by the church, Hughes asserts that Kierkegaard remained committed to it, reinterpreting this traditional two step pattern in terms of paradox (61). Kierkegaard’s frequent assaults on Danish Christianity certainly qualify him as a Lutheran radical. However, Hughes demonstrates that Kierkegaard is simultaneously radically Lutheran in his commitment to the tradition, even when its churches require reformation.

Lori Brandt Hale’s essay embarks on the difficult task of attending to both the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer without prioritizing one over the other. Hale expertly charts Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography, from his formation in the German Bildungsbürgertum, to his time in New York with Al Fisher, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jean Lassere, to his execution at Flossenbürg for his role in the resistance against Hitler. At the same time, Hale details how this historical backdrop informed and intersected with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological journey. Despite the abundance of literature on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, few scholars have explored the Lutheran roots of his theology. Thus, readers will appreciate Hale’s consistent focus on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological engagement with Martin Luther. Specifically, Hale explores how Dietrich Bonhoeffer “re-examined” Lutheran two-kingdoms thinking (74), and reasserted Luther’s doctrine of justification while establishing a “middle ground” between the classical Protestant and Catholic understanding of the doctrine (82). Hale also draws intriguing connections between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s incipient religionless Christianity in a world come of age with Luther’s theology of the cross, stating that “the good news of religionless Christianity, for Bonhoeffer, is the good news of Jesus on the cross” (89).

Jacqueline Bussie also explores the theology of the cross, encouraging her readers to reimagine Dorothee Soelle as a Lutheran liberation theologian of the cross. Bussie argues that Soelle adopts Luther’s theologia crucis, specifically his emphasis on deus absconditus, homo incurvatus in se ipsum, and calling a thing for what it is (96). Nevertheless, Bussie’s essay highlights the ways Soelle wrestled with her theological heritage and details how she radically reinterpreted these Lutheran concepts while applying them to her own context. For example, Bussie notes how Soelle takes Luther’s notion of a hidden God on the cross to its “limits” by claiming God hides with the poor and thus requires human help (100). Bussie also examines significant differences between Soelle and Luther. She details that for Soelle, theology is inherently political, and contains a clear call to enter into solidarity with the oppressed. The divergence between the two theologians is particularly acute when Bussie analyzes Soelle’s understanding of collective and structural sin. Nevertheless, Bussie explains that while Soelle rejected Luther, she also embraced him, and paradoxically remained “over, against, within, and beyond the Lutheran theological tradition” (119).

With 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of the reformation, Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicals is a timely introduction to the diverse roots of the Lutheran tradition. The text is accessible to a wide audience, and those approaching the subject for the first time will appreciate Mahn’s introduction explaining key Lutheran theological terms as well as the suggestions for further reading accompanying each essay. That said, the volume is introductory, and as such does not explore the nuances of each thinker in detail. For example, absent is recent research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer which troubles the suggestion that he modified his commitment to Lutheran two-kingdoms thinking (See Michael DeJonge, Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther, Oxford University Press, 2017). Nevertheless, this collection is to be commended for beginning the difficult task of critically interrogating the very tradition it seeks to extend. Moreover, Mahn’s closing essay invites us all to wrestle with our own vocations as we seek to live peaceably on this earth before God and with others.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew K. Jones is an independent scholar.  His current research explores Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Fiction from Tegel Prison.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jason A. Mahn is associate professor of religion and director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois. He is the author of Fortunate Fallibility (2011) and Becoming a Christian in Christendom (2016).


Jason Mahn

Thank you, Matthew Jones, for this gracious (but still critical) review of the book. It was a gift to work with the other four authors--each of whom balance rootedness in the Christian tradition with concerns for justice in their writing and lives. 

Matthew K Jones

Professor Mahn - Thanks for putting it together - it was a joy to read! As someone who works in some of Chicago’s most neglected neighborhoods, it is refreshing to know there are contemporary Radical Lutherans / Lutheran Radicals - scholars who are intentional about attending to the ways their work intersects with race, politics, the environment etc. 


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