This volume joins a series entitled the Westminister Handbooks to Christian Theology, which has thus far addressed both movements (evangelical theology, medieval theology, and others) and individual theologians (Origen, Aquinas, and now Luther). The goal is to “assist scholars and students in finding concise and accurate treatments of important theological terms,” by providing entries “arranged in alphabetical format” (p. ix).
This contribution to the series is by Denis Janz, who, though teaching at Loyola University, is a Luther scholar with several volumes on Luther to his credit, as well as an excellent selection of primary texts from Reformation figures in his A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, which this reviewer has used with great profit, both personally and in the classroom. In the introduction, Janz states that he has written this book for scholars, students, and those he calls “seekers,” who he says “are sometimes found to be reading when more ‘well-adjusted’ people are watching prime-time television” and are “determined to rescue a few last fragments of truth and goodness and beauty from the toxic slagheaps of late modern society” (p. x). Spoken like a true church historian!
Janz also notes several distinguishing features of this work. Like all the other volumes in this series, it is an A–Z reference work and thus introduces readers to Luther through short essays on fifty-eight topics from Anfechtung to Worship. Another somewhat unusual feature is that there is no interaction with or reference to secondary literature in the essays. There is a brief bibliography at the end of the book (with fifty-two entries), but the essays themselves focus on numerous quotations from Luther’s writings (drawing from both the American edition and the Weimarer Ausgabe), as interpreted by Janz.
Not noted by Janz are some other distinguishing features. Most important among them are the short length of the essays. The fifty-eight topics are treated in only 143 pages, with five pages being the most any topic receives and topics like justification receiving slightly more than three pages. This feature increases the book’s usefulness for the introductory student and casual reader, but limits its helpfulness to the scholar, who would desire more thorough treatments, especially of crucial topics.
Another important feature is the necessarily selective nature of a volume such as this. Thus, while there are essays on the descent into hell, extreme unction, and Islam/Muslims, there is no entry on music or preaching, indulgences or purgatory. Though some of these topics are mentioned in other essays, the lack of a specific treatment of some issues of some importance to Luther is another limitation. Of course, any volume like this must make some choices, and most of Janz’s choices are sound; but most students of Luther will probably find a favorite topic or two omitted.
Of course, the most distinguishing feature of this work is that it presents Janz’s interpretation of Luther’s thought. And while he is a competent and seasoned scholar, his interpretations of some important ideas sound off-key to this reviewer. For example, he gives as Luther’s idea of faith “the ability to understand and accept ourselves as the object of God’s’ love” and adds, “This, Luther thought, is the key to finding happiness in life” (p. 59). He sees Luther as downplaying hell as a future destiny but emphasizing our present experience of it: “the only hell we really know about is the one we encounter in our lives. And this is the one Luther speaks about almost exclusively” (p. 71). Such ideas do not square with my own reading of Luther or the interpretation of a number of other Luther scholars.
There were enough discordant notes of this type to require qualification of an endorsement of this book. While it is useful as a handbook, giving a fair introduction to various aspects of Luther’s thought in an easily accessible format, I would not want it to be the only book about Luther a student read. Its best service would be to lead students into Luther’s works themselves.