Augustine scholar Phillip Cary retrieves and reargues that the meaning of Protestant theology is Christ offered for us. He explains, “The Gospel, Protestant theology has taught ever since Luther, is God’s way of giving us nothing less than his own beloved son” (2-3). Overall, he succeeds in communicating his main thesis but I am wary about some of his conclusions.
In more specific language, he teases out the significance of justification to show what Protestant theology means and has to offer Christians: “The doctrine of justification by faith alone says, in effect: believe the Gospel rather than your fears. The word of God, not your conscience, is telling the truth about yourself: that you are one of those for whose sake Christ shed his blood, for whom he intercedes with the Father, and to whom he presents his own life-giving flesh” (3-4).
And so he concludes: “What Protestant theology has to offer the whole church, in this and all times, is a piety of the word of God that clings to the Gospel alone as the way God gives us his own Son, along with a set of doctrines and practices designed to make that piety central to our lives” (2019: 4).
Cary explains Luther’s theology by its “outward turn.” That is, Luther looked outward to the Word of God as the sacramental Word which is also found in Baptism and the Eucharist. This external Word contrasts the inward turn into the soul whose purpose is to ascend finally to the beatific vision.
On Cary’s reding, Luther understands justification as meaning Christ becomes ours totally. Hence, he calls Christ’s righteousness an alien and infused (infusus) righteousness that becomes ours by faith. In this sense, justification amounts to something like union with Christ.
But Luther, according to Cary, also sees righteousness as progressive rather than only a forensic justification. Largely, Luther’s progressive justification agrees with the Reformed idea of forensic justification and subsequent sanctification. Yet, as Cary shows through a deep and careful engagement with Luther himself, the particular arrangement of his theology differs from the later Reformed.
Luther first sees Christ become ours via infusion so that Christians are good. But Christians are good because of Christ alone. And then they become righteous because a good fruit bears good fruit. Hence, this outward turn to Christ changes the locus of the transformation of the inward turn of Augustine and Medieval thought.
But this outward turn does not lack specifics in Luther’s Gospel. Baptism, the Eucharist, the Word preached—these outward signs truly and actually bring the Word to hearers, although they remain ineffectual without faith (but still remain valid).
Cary’s expertise in Augustine throughout provides insights into Luther’s theology. Luther followed Augustine closely without some caveats. The main exception would be the outward turn of Luther which conflicted with Augustine’s more platonic, inward turn.
Augustine, however, did not have to worry about a developed medieval system of penance and sacraments. Hence, his inward turn, something of a boogeyman in Cary’s thought, loses much of its ferocity. It seems to me that Augustine has through Platonic language imbibed the inner-world of the Psalter. Yet when this inward turn found fertile ground within anxious medieval consciences, it becomes more obvious as to why Luther needed to turn outward for assurance and stability.
Cary’s reading of Luther may ruffle the feathers of some reformed readers. But that should not be the case. Luther did, in fact, use a different idiom than later Continental Reformers. But this by no means should threaten or scare reformed Christians. Pointedly, Luther can and has his own theological idiom within his medieval setting. Cary has helped us hear Luther more closely without imputing later categories to him.
What probably places this book beyond others is how Cary situates Luther as a medieval thinker. Luther knew and used the language of potency, actuality, infusion, habitus, and so on. He used them although not without critique. Yet Luther, as Cary shows, engaged with contemporary Roman Catholic theology at a level that adds profound understanding to Luther and his thought.
For this reason alone, I would recommend Cary’s work. He shows how Augustine and Medieval shaped Luther and how the Protestant theology first and foremost offers us Christ. What more could we want?
Disclaimer: the publisher provided me a review copy.