Bayer claims that he is bringing Luther into a conversation with other truth-seekers, e.g., Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher (xx); he declares he is asking the questions: "What is true? Likewise: What has enduring value within the river of historical change? (xix) Accordingly, "his contemporary interpretation" is a "re-presentation in the double sense of the phrase." Firstly, the "historical subject matter,"which has determined the modern consciousness, must be brought again into modern consciousness; secondly, this subject matter must be examined from the perspective of its truth. Bayer's exploration relies upon over forty years of research into Luther texts of various genres: "sermons, treatises, written polemics, table talks, lectures and dispositions; predominant are the three genres of catechisms, prefaces to biblical books, and hymns" (xix). As expected, Bayer does not disappoint: his work with Luther is masterful, and his systematic theological emphasis is everywhere apparent. Moreover, the book is highly engaging; easily readable by those who read neither Luther monographs are systematic theology tomes for a living!
Bayer divides his presentation into an Introduction presenting the "Rupture between Ages" of the old and new eon, a four chapter presentation on Basic Themes (e.g., Luther's understanding of theology, his understanding of the sinful human before the justifying God, the Reformational turning point in his theology, his understanding of the authority of the Holy Scriptures), and finally 12 chapters dealing with Individual Themes (e.g., creation, human being, sin, Christ, Holy Spirit, church, faith, the two realms, eschatology). Everywhere Bayer emphasizes the divine promissio, the promise made and kept by God, and the content and contour of private and corporate life lived on the basis of that promise.
There is so much to be praised in this book, and I am sure that most readers will be as thrilled by its publication as the both Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson are, both of whom are capable theologians contributing endorsements on the text's back cover. I enjoyed reading the book, and I learned from it as well. Bayer does succeed, I think, in combining sound Luther research with systematic theological investigation. But frankly Bayer's own question haunted me in the reading of the text: Is his interpretation true? What of sixteenth century are we leaving behind in finding that of "enduring value within historical change"? Moreover, is Bayer's own systematic program true? Is it internally coherent and consistent, externally applicable and adequate, and sufficiently fruitful for further research? I have lately been quite fascinated by the realization of the dissimilarity between the ontological and semantic presuppositions of theology in Luther's time, and the ontological and semantic presuppositions of interpreters of Luther's theology in our own time. I believe, in fact, that the emergence of the Kantian paradigm in theology over the last two centuries has made it difficult sometimes to understand Luther's theological work on its own terms. More importantly, however, the hegemony of that paradigm has made it difficult for contemporary theologians to engage deeply the fundamental questions of theology, questions that go to the heart of the question of whether or not theological language has truth-conditions.
With respect to this text, I wish to offer constructively four questions, questions that arise for most Christian believers today who have not learned the standard theological moves routinely practiced by theological practitioners downstream in the Kantian tradition. The four are these:
- Is it possible to build systematic theology and a Luther interpretation on the basis of the primary use of theological language being performative?
- Is it possible to account for the authority of Holy Scriptures in terms of the existential effect the texts have upon their readers?
- Is it possible to deal with creation, either systematically or in Luther interpretation, without raising explicitly the causal question?
- Is it possible to have Christian faith, (e.g., the faith of Luther), in the absence of explicit metaphysical commitments?
All of these questions are weighty, challenging, and clearly take us beyond what would normally be discussed in a review. However, each is incredibly important to evaluating the ultimate success of Bayer's Luther interpretation. If, as Bayer and many assume, existence is linguistically-constituted, then divine promises make all the difference in the world, not only to who we ultimately are, but to whom God ultimately is. If the being of the Word is a function of what the Word does, then one needs to be excruciatingly clear about the identity conditions of what the Word does, and those conditions that merely accompany, but do not determine, what the Word does. But seemingly, what the Word does is deeply dependent upon the cultural horizon of the time, a horizon itself constitute by presuppostional ontological, semantic and epistemological commitments. It is simply obvious that the Word will strike the heart differently if the auditor believes that there is actually a God that exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, a God who cares, who loves, and who ultimately is causally efficacious in salvation.
Perhaps this is enough said for now. I whole-heartedly recommend Bayer's book for general reading, and for use both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.