Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World
Today’s theological atmosphere creates a haze difficult to navigate. In Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World, Gene Edward Veith Jr. and A. Trevor Sutton clear a path out of the fog by illuminating distinctions found in Lutheran theology.
Veith and Sutton recognize that in today’s culture “There is a growing need to recover authentic Christian spirituality that can engage both nonbelievers and burned-out believers” (p. 34). They contend that churches need more than an updated culture or program to recover authentic Christian spirituality. “Instead of tinkering with style, for better or worse, churches need to deal, in a serious way, with the content of their teaching. Specifically, they need to find effective ways to rescue people from their life-and-death spiritual problems, particularly those that are characteristic of our age” (p. 40).
This book doesn’t call for a return to a time before postmodern ideology dominated today’s cultural landscape. In nine chapters and a prologue, Veith and Sutton show no interest in a one-sided vilification of contemporary postmodern thought. They point out that neither modern nor postmodern thought are innocent of the distortions facing authentic Christian faith today. Instead, they prefer to show us how we’ve arrived and lead us forward.
The authors ground this way forward not in mere Lutheran orthodoxy, but in what Lutheran’s have grounded their belief in since the Reformation: the Logos, the Word of God. The book traverses core Christian beliefs by placing them next to opposing modern and postmodern thought.
Veith and Sutton present the opposition between these complex cultural and theological topics with the layperson in mind. They distill often lofty theological concepts, like the doctrines of justification, sanctification, vocation, and the two kingdoms; the means of grace; the theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory, so that the average churchgoer, the burned-out believer, and the spiritual secularist can understand them.
Chapters six, seven, and eight stand out as particularly noteworthy for any reader. In chapter six, Veith and Sutton bring to the fore a driving doctrine of the Reformation that is most overlooked today, the doctrine of vocation.
Vocation was never meant to be just another word for “occupation.” Rather, it was originally about the Christian life that is fully integrated, meaningful, and teeming with purpose. Vocation was the locus for other important teachings, such as the priesthood of all believers, good works, and sanctification. It was not merely a theoretical teaching; rather, as taught in the early Reformation catechisms and sermons, the doctrine of vocation gave practical guidance to Christians in their marriage, parenthood, economic activity, and their role as citizens.
The doctrine of vocation shows Christians how to live out their faith in the world. It is about God’s presence in the world and how He works through human beings for His purposes. For Christians, vocation discloses the spirituality of everyday life. (p. 153)
In chapter seven, Veith and Sutton tease out what the doctrine of vocation looks like while living in the church and in the world.
The doctrine of the two kingdoms has been construed as teaching separatism (that Christians must remove themselves from the sinful world), dualism (that the Christian life has no connection with life in the world), political quietism (that Christians should uncritically follow even evil rulers), and liberalism (that Christians should uncritically follow all secular trends and ideologies). Properly understood, however, the doctrine of the two kingdoms shows Christians how to live out their faith productively and positively in the secular world. (p. 174–175)
Chapter eight brings my favorite two sentences from the entire book. “Justification is instant. Sanctification is slow.” It reminds the reader of the importance of this distinction and provides vast comfort in a world of instant gratification. The authors go on to connect sanctification and vocation.
The point is, vocations are not necessarily for our personal fulfillment. Their primary purpose is for the neighbor, not ourselves. They contribute to our sanctification through self-sacrifice, teaching us self-discipline, creating occasions for good works, and exercising our faith. (p. 211)
What I’ve shared here only scratches the surface of the depth and nuance carried out by the authors regarding these important doctrines of Christianity. Every Christian wrestles with and knows people who wrestle with the topics covered in this book: Who God is and how we know him. How imperfect people become justified before a perfect God. Why God was on a cross. Where God promises his presence can be found. The purpose of our lives. How justified Christians live in the world and how Christians grow in faith and service to neighbor.
This book is a great primer on these deep topics that affect faith today. The authors include several discussion questions at the end of each chapter for further thought and conversation. This book is an easy resource to return to when questions arise concerning these vital topics of Christianity. That makes this a great resource for Pastors and other church staff (youth ministers, worship leaders, office managers, preschool directors, etc.), as well as for lay leaders (elders, council members, ministry team leads) and parents.
Kyle G. Jones, Director of Youth & Family Ministry of All Saints Lutheran Church in Arlington, TX