Book Review: “Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World”
Peter Leithart’s slim 2016 volume The End of Protestantism outlined a bold vision for a post-denominational Christianity, but was skimpy on theological specifics. Now, Lutheran academic Gene Edward Veith and Lutheran pastor A. Trevor Sutton have answered Leithart’s call. Their new book Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World is an ambitious, audacious case for confessional Lutheranism as a universal Christian denomination (or, in their words, a “metachurch”). Veith and Sutton go beyond anything I’ve seen before from modern Lutheran writers: they don’t just argue for the enduring vitality of Lutheranism or explain its theological distinctives, but contend outright that Christians of other stripes ought to be Lutherans.
(Disclaimer: I’m a former student of Veith’s and a member of the same Lutheran denomination, but I’m writing this review entirely independently.)
Authentic Christianity is centrally aimed at American Protestants—particularly evangelicals—seeking a more rigorous theological rejoinder to the challenges of secular modernity and postmodernity. At first blush, the book’s overview of major Lutheran distinctives—the doctrine of God, justification through faith, the theology of the cross, sacramental theology, vocation, the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and the Christian life—might look familiar to those acquainted with Veith’s previous book The Spirituality of the Cross. But here, Veith and Sutton aren’t merely explaining these points; they’re defending them against rival Christian approaches.
They come out swinging from the start: right away, Veith and Sutton articulate a Lutheran metaphysics of God that hews far closer to Thomism than to the vague deism of contemporary Protestantism. As they explain (with plenty of references to Lutheran theologians old and new), this theology dictates that human attempts to make meaningful affirmative statements about God, apart from His self-revelation in Jesus, will ultimately prove deficient. God in Himself is “Wholly Other.”
Though Veith and Sutton don’t drive their point home too hard, it’s clear that they see this (classical) doctrine of God as largely incompatible with the Reformed varieties of Protestantism. Because God as God is not merely an anthropomorphic projection of ourselves, it makes little sense to debate issues like “the order of God’s decrees.” And as Veith and Sutton stress, this view of God also bears upon the “problem of evil”: since the transcendent and immanent God is sacramentally present in His creation, He is necessarily present with humans in the immediacy of their suffering, not somehow separate, aloof, and unwilling to intervene.
This is a very powerful and lucid argument—and firmly grounded in historic Christianity—but I wonder if it will fall on deaf ears, even within conservative Christian circles. I’m not sure Veith and Sutton realize just how deeply entrenched the quasi-deistic view of God has become. (There’s much to be written about how theological tribalism has led Protestants to uncritically accept evangelical kitsch as “Christian,” but treat Catholic resources as suspect, despite the decidedly aberrant theology that often underpins the former.) But that’s a conversation beyond the scope of Authentic Christianity.
From there, Authentic Christianity moves on to canvass a broad range of theological topics, from the Incarnation, to the Bible, and to the sacraments. Veith and Sutton’s arguments remain powerful and incisive throughout. I’ve been a Lutheran for over a quarter-century, but there was material in here that was entirely new to me. For instance, I’ve always had trouble with the Lutheran embrace of monergism—the idea that faith itself is a gift of God, not an operation of the intellect or will. It appears I’ve had difficulty because I accepted a certain Calvinist presupposition—the idea that “faith” is a mystical sense of inner awakening and inclination of the heart toward God, kindled by some mysterious process. But as Veith and Sutton explain, the Holy Spirit’s call to Christian faith comes through the Bible itself, not through some mystical sense of inner awakening (an “awakening,” I realize now, that would elide the unique importance of Scripture and elevate individual experience to something theologically authoritative). If we take the doctrine of biblical inspiration seriously, the Bible is given to us as a product of the Spirit’s work; thus, all faith founded on the Bible is necessarily a pure gift of God.
At this point, non-Protestant readers will certainly be raising their eyebrows. As previously mentioned, Authentic Christianity is primarily addressed to a Protestant audience, which perhaps explains why there’s little direct engagement with the Catholic and Orthodox traditions’ claims to apostolicity. Given the undeniable historical force of those claims, why be Lutheran instead of Catholic or Orthodox?
Traditionally, Lutherans have argued against Catholicism’s perceived “works-righteousness” (the list of polemics in this vein is virtually endless). But for those who find this unsatisfying (or predicated on a distorted reading of Catholic theology), one can also ground a case for Lutheranism in history and tradition. The Christian community from which the Nicean consensus emerged was composed of the Roman bishopric as well as those of the Eastern churches. The Great Schism between East and West fractured this unity. Since then, both Catholic and Orthodox traditions have required their adherents to accept that tradition’s ecclesiastical primacy (and thus superior claim to apostolicity) as an article of faith. Yet if the theological consensus of the early church councils—which virtually all Christian groups accept as authoritative—emerged from not one, but both branches, how can either branch standing alone claim complete authority? (If one must choose, I personally think Rome has the better of the argument, but that’s beside the point.) At bottom, I find neither branch’s claim strong enough to warrant the total theological allegiance each branch demands. That leaves Protestantism—and if one doesn’t embrace a Reformed metaphysics of God, the only real options left are Lutheranism and Anglicanism.
(On that note, Veith and Sutton make the astute point that the Anglican Communion’s unity is only skin-deep; a shared Book of Common Prayer means little in the face of severe and intractable doctrinal differences. But it bears mention, given the Lutheran Seminex controversy of the 1960s, that confessional Lutheranism is certainly not immune to conservative/liberal sparring and the ensuing theological upheavals.)
On nearly every front, Authentic Christianity is a great success. The book’s one notable weakness—a weakness that will doubtless frustrate readers looking for a more thoroughgoing cultural analysis—is its cursory treatment of key contemporary questions in political theology.
Where history is concerned, the book is on solid ground: Lutheran two-kingdoms theology (that is, that the church and state operate in separate spheres and ought not interfere with one another) has long been criticized for its perceived passivity in the face of civil injustice, and Veith and Sutton push back vigorously against this caricature—after all, Martin Luther himself wasn’t exactly politically quiescent! But given the recent flurry of bestsellers laden with sobering rhetoric about the future of Western Christianity—Rod Dreher’s inimitable The Benedict Option comes to mind—one wishes Veith and Sutton had tackled current debates head-on.
Veith and Sutton rightly criticize the American evangelical obsession with acquiring and keeping political power, but simultaneously suggest that certain behaviors (same-sex marriage, for instance) are matters of secular “morality” that the civil government has a duty to proscribe. Accordingly, it’s not exactly clear what Veith and Sutton might see as a confusion of the two kingdoms. I assume they’d be critical of explicit attempts (a la David Barton or Roy Moore) to privilege Christianity as a sort of civil religion, but I also doubt they’d agree with the Rawlsian principle that laws in a pluralistic society ought only to be justified in secular terms. They briefly reference “natural law” as the proper basis for civil authority, but one wonders whether they’re referring to the older Thomistic version (defended today by scholars like Edward Feser) or the “new natural law theory” of Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Robert George, and their successors.
Assuming a pluralistic democratic society, to my mind the theology of the two kingdoms is most compatible with a principled libertarianism that limits the civil authority’s coercive power. Where societal meta-commitments (that is, constitutional commitments) to religious freedom exist, sharp cleavages within society over moral issues will inevitably develop; if the principle of conscience really is sacrosanct, then the power of any majority to enforce its morality on a minority ought to be curtailed. I’m guardedly inclined to suggest that Veith and Sutton might agree (they praise free-market capitalism in their discussion of vocation), but I’m not sure how they’d answer the recent critiques of political liberalism writ large leveled by authors like Adrian Vermeule, Matthew Schmitz, and Patrick Deneen. Perhaps, though, that’s beside the point—Veith and Sutton aren’t political theorists, and Authentic Christianity really isn’t about the trajectory of Western civilization.
All that to say: is Authentic Christianity worth your time? Indeed it is, particularly for readers largely unfamiliar with Lutheran theological distinctives and how they compare to other Protestant perspectives. (And as I’ve mentioned, even cradle Lutherans like myself will find much food for thought here.) It’s a shame that Authentic Christianity likely won’t get the attention it deserves from reflective Christian outlets—Lutheran material, unfortunately, has a way of flying under the radar—but it certainly belongs on your reading list.