St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013, 144 pages, softcover, $24. 99 [800-325-3040]

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Book Review

Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross—A Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology by John T. Pless

St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013, 144 pages, softcover, $24.99 [800-325-3040]

Rev. Paul J Cain, pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming

Luther was a pastor. In fact, he was a campus pastor. Former campus pastor John T. Pless, assistant professor of pastoral ministry and missions (and director of field education) at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, has distilled twelve years of experience in teaching pastors to be pastors using Luther’s writings into a valuable, insightful, and practical book, Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross—A Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology.

For Lutherans, theology is practical, not merely “ivory tower” intellectualism or books that collect more dust than a vacuum cleaner. Theology is a practical aptitude (Theologia est habitus practicus), especially for Lutheran pastors. Pless demonstrates the integration of heart and mind, faith and knowledge, and experience and pastoral care by examining “how Luther put his evangelical theology to work in actual cases of pastoral care” (14).

“For Luther, the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not a theoretical identification of specific texts as either Law or Gospel; it is instead a functional distinction that is critical for pastoral diagnosis of a person’s spiritual condition before God” (15). Based on Psalm 119, Luther teaches that Oratio (prayer grounded in the Lord’s Word), Meditatio (continual study of the Scriptures), and Tentatio (spiritual affliction, trial, and temptation) make a theologian.

The genesis, theme, and structure of this volume is to be a seminary textbook to teach pastoral care: a text for Introduction to the Pastoral Ministry for first-year students; a pastoral primer for the second-year student doing hands-on learning through field education; a reminder of academic, yet practical theology of the seminary for a vicar; and a proper guide to the fourth-year seminarian and pastor-elect as he reconsiders his “when I was on vicarage” experience in the context of good Lutheran theology and practice and prepares for service in the Lord’s pulpit and at altar, font, home, and bedside.

As President Harrison notes in his foreword, we may have high regard for psychology and professional pastoral counseling, yet “Care of souls is a profound theological discipline that requires deep and acquired insight into the human condition, especially regarding what the Bible has to say about God’s dealing with humankind through the cross of Jesus” (10, cf. 22–25). I pray this book will help more seminarians and pastors acquire such insight.

It will also have great value (especially ch 1) as the LCMS reclaims visitation (2013 LCMS Convention Resolutions 7–01 and 7–02) as a tool for pastoral care in the parish, proper pastoral oversight by circuit visitors and district presidents, and as a way for the Synod as a whole to truly “walk together” in doctrine and practice, faithfulness and mission. Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross would be an ideal book for study by all LCMS circuit visitors (and as a substantive topical study for circuit Winkels).

Ch 2 shows the down-to-earth approach of Luther. God comes to us. He saves us. He washes us, teaches us, absolves us, and feeds us by His means in Christ. Everyone has afflictions. Sometimes we only know when we ask. Guided by the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, we are guided in our battle against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. Doubt, despair, and how to pray are dealt with in ch 3.

I pray that ch 4 may help future pastors (and the parishes and people they will one day serve) better understand vocation as our Lutheran approach to sanctification. Specific examples in the chapter focus on danger and war, yet this chapter should help begin a conversation on all Christian vocations, including the Confession list in Luther’s Small Catechism: “Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker?”

Ch 5 is timely, given current attempts to redefine marriage. Luther grounds Holy Matrimony in Scripture. Now, as ever, we see that “lived under the cross, marriage would be an arena for the conflict between God and Satan as the evil one seeks to overturn what God has blessed” (80).

I am personally and pastorally thankful for the LCMS emphasis for the church: Witness, Mercy, Life Together. Ch 6 puts flesh and blood on all three: “Pastoral Care for the Poor, Needy, and Persecuted.”

Chs 7–8 put under one cover many of the resources I consulted to give comfort to a family grieving a recent suicide (cf. 113–16). (God’s promises in Holy Baptism were of great help and comfort in this situation too. See the Appendix, p 119ff.) Luther uses the template of fourteen images (seven of evil and seven of blessing) to show both the “complexity of evil” and the “multifaceted nature of God’s gracious work in Christ Jesus” (92ff). He also shows (102ff) Luther’s answer to the “purpose-driven death.” Pastoral care is spiritual warfare against the evil one (cf. 105). It is time we reclaimed that focus and seriousness in soul care. We can learn much from the “how” and “what” of Luther’s Christ-centered funeral preaching (116ff).

At the seminary, I wish I would have had this book, not only as a handbook on pastoral care, but also as a winsome introduction to the American Edition of Luther’s Works, a companion to the 1983 CPH title by George Kraus, A Guide to a Year’s Readings in Luther’s Works.

I commend Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross—A Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology to you as worth your money, time, effort, and shelf space—many times over!

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