I just read a brief and winsome introduction to The Christian Faith from a Lutheran Perspective by Peter W. Marty, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, as well as a noted speaker and author.
Pastor Marty covers many of the key teachings from the Lutheran tradition in a simple but not simplistic fashion, explaining them as though he were having a conversation with a neighbor about what his church believes. One point I appreciate is made at the outset of the book. He makes it clear that the noun that captures his identity is “Christian,” while “Lutheran” is an adjective modifying the main fact about his faith. As he puts it: “This is intentional. It has to do with keeping adjectives and nouns in their proper place, and retaining some proportional humility for our Lutheran claims.”
What areas of the Lutheran faith tradition does Peter Marty discuss?
Interestingly, he starts by encouraging us to appreciate doubt. Growing out of Martin Luther’s own spiritual struggles, the tradition that bears his name recognizes the fact of human limitations and the impossibility of certainty in dealing with a God beyond comprehension and a life filled with imponderables. Some approaches to the Christian faith make God look “more domesticated than our favorite pet,” he writes, but it is one of “the gifts of love to bring the arrogance of certainty to its knees.”
He then takes up the matter of self-perspective and talks about the dual nature of our human experience as people of faith.
One minute we think we’re God’s gift to the human race, or at least to our best friends. Life hums. Our talents expand. Others receive the grace of our kindness. The next minute we recognize what a jumbled mess we have made of different relationships and how miserably we have failed God.
It is one of the trademarks of Lutheran thought that “we are not mostly good and partially bad. We are completely loving and completely lousy, both at the same time. We are wholly saint and wholly sinner.” We cannot afford to ignore either reality when living our lives.
Next, the central reality in the world of Lutherans is worship, says Pastor Marty. He calls it “our weekly opportunity to practice not being God.” The gathered assembly of the Church for worship is the place where we can take God seriously and know that we are taken seriously as well. He issues a pastoral warning against those who say they can find God much better alone in nature. He urges us to remember that “nature gives no clue as to how sinners might be reconciled to God and invested with a hope in Christ.” Nor can it teach us to love our neighbors or our enemies or serve the poor. Staying away from worship with the congregation leads to a privatized journey that “transforms God to be virtually anything we want.”
That leads to discussions of the sacraments, first baptism, then the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the divine act that gives Christians the “rich identity that reminds us we have a permanent place in the heart of God.” Communion is our family meal and it reminds us that we are in God’s household because we were given life, not because we have somehow followed certain rules and met entrance requirements. I like what he says when he affirms that we do not take communion, we receive communion as a gift of heaven.
And that leads to the word grace. Quoting Eugene Peterson, who once said, “We wake into a world we didn’t make, and into a salvation we didn’t earn,” Marty notes that we begin each day and “grace is underway even before we reach for the cornflakes.” The daily rhythm as marked in Jewish culture has it right. We begin our day in the evening, when we rest and leave all work to God. “At daybreak we get to join in the work already begun.” Grace is a key word for Lutherans who, when they are practicing the tradition faithfully, recognize that all of life is pure gift.
However, we cannot speak of grace without discussing sin. Peter Marty affirms that “the way to know the grandeur of grace is to come to terms with a recognition of our sin,” and notes that we must learn to make the important distinction between “sin” and “sins.” Sin is our condition, not a catalog of external behaviors. It springs from our wayward hearts and bears fruit in the external attitudes, words, and actions of our lives. We need grace to come to us from the outside because we are sinful on the inside.
This knowledge comes to us, says the author, through Scripture, another key element in the Lutheran tradition. Dealing with Scripture is a lifetime challenge and opportunity. I like the way he puts it: “It’s not as if God halted all conversation with us the day our Bibles rolled off the press. Our spiritual assignment is to receive the biblical text as a gift that keeps on accumulating meaning.” He then highlights the distinctively Lutheran approach to the Bible:
Rather than selecting verses that conveniently confirm a particular worldview, Lutheran Christians are at their best when they are busy sniffing for Christ hidden all over the Old and New Testaments. “What is it in this passage,” we may keep asking ourselves, “that leads us to Christ?”
Three further chapters in Peter Marty’s primer on the Lutheran perspective bring out teachings that are sorely needed in today’s triumphalistic and prosperity-entranced world of Christianity. First, he speaks of the hidden God, or “God dressed in disguise” as he calls him. This builds on Luther’s profound insight that God is often best seen when he hides himself in weakness and suffering. Second, Marty writes about the human experience of fear. In Luther, this is known as his experience of anfechtungen, a sense of existential dread, despair, and abandonment which is only relieved by God’s gift of faith. Third, he deals with the theology of the cross:
Popular religion may be concerned with how you can feel better about yourself, go after what you want, enjoy what you get, and be more confident along the way. Cross-centered religion bears no resemblance to this. It informs us that there is power in weakness, and strength in suffering.
One final chapter I will mention: Peter Marty writes, as all good Lutherans do, about the doctrine of vocation. Rejecting the idea that there are specially sanctified occupations in life, and acknowledging that discerning one’s calling[s] in life can be a complicated business, he nonetheless affirms that we can live our lives through our ordinary relationships and daily work in a way that reveals the grace of God and contributes to the greater good. The overall message of vocation is that we are to be servants, people who love our neighbors because we ourselves have experienced such great love.
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I mention this book today not as part of a mission to convert people to the Lutheran tradition. I just happen to think that these perspectives can be of value to all of God’s people. As Peter Marty himself writes here, in the spirit of grace:
Lutheran Christians, who are referenced frequently in this book, are only one branch of a great big family tree. They happen to constitute a good and healthy limb within Christianity, rooted in deep biblical inspiration and a powerful tradition of worship and service. Still, they constitute only a portion of the Christian world. If you should find your Christian life strengthened by a Lutheran perspective on important realities involving this life and our God, that would be the aim of these pages.
Note: This book was self-published. If you would like a copy, I recommend you contact St. Paul Lutheran Church directly. I purchased my copy in the Book Corner shop in the church.
St. Paul Lutheran Church
2136 Brady Street
Davenport, IA 52803