Philip Cary, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel that Gives Us Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019).

How you read a book has everything to do with where and when you read it. So it is difficult to imagine what I would have written about Philip Cary’s The Meaning of Protestant Theology if I had read it at any other time and place than 2020 America. When I first saw the title, I recoiled a bit. But by the time I had pushed past the off-putting title and engaged the book in earnest, we were already two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and protests had broken out all over the world in response to George Floyd’s murder. Night after night, my social media feeds were filled with family and friends protesting those protests, condemning them as lawless, anti-American, and counterproductive. At the same time, many of those same people, some of whom I deeply respect, were also condemning the shutdown and the mask mandates. Others responded in kind, protesting the protests of the protests and avowing the need for masks and social distancing. Needless to say, it was exhausting. And it filtered everything for me, including my reading of Cary’s book. I was impressed with Cary’s work, but in the end, I found myself reflecting on the disastrous failures of the evangelical tradition and the damaged, dangerous gift of theology. 

Should We Cancel Luther? 

As the book’s subtitle makes clear, Cary is concerned not with Protestant theology in general, or even Lutheran theology in particular, but specifically with Martin Luther’s defining theological innovation: the “outward turn” to the gospel as “sacramental promise” (145). As Cary understands it, this innovation offered a cure for the deep anxieties generated by the Augustinian doctrine of hidden election, anxieties that tormented the consciences of so many medieval and late-medieval Christians. But it is no secret that Luther’s theology is, at crucial points, venomously anti-Semitic. How, then, are we, who are reckoning—yet again—with the consequences of generations of anti-Blackness and white supremacist racism, to read him or celebrations of his work? To Cary’s credit, he does not shy away from this trouble. He acknowledges that Luther’s late-life treatises against Jews are “quite simply wicked,” and he is quick to insist that they “cannot simply be blamed on the prejudices of his time” (230). He is adamant that we cannot, and should not, try to defend Luther on this score. We can, however, learn from his failings. So, having denounced Luther’s anti-Semitism as wickedness, Cary explores what motivated the reformer to act so unchristianly, showing how his daring innovation, offered as a cure, in effect intensified long-standing Christian hatred for and oppression of the Jews and spread the disease of theological hopelessness.

In his most influential anti-Semitic work, On the Jews and Their Lies,published in 1543, the elder Luther passes over the usual medieval Catholic insults and accusations and moves directly to the issue that most concerns him: because Jews condemn Christian readings of the Old Testament, and in this way undermine the authority of the Scriptures—the very authority that makes the gospel certain—Jews are the existential enemies of all true Christians. In this treatise, Luther does not so much blame Jews for having killed Christ as accuse them of crucifying the texts that bear authoritative witness to the good news. Cary explains the sick reasoning in this way:  

The twisting and torturing of Scriptural texts is in fact at the center of his concern, because for him the Jews are at root hermeneutical enemies, rival interpreters who threaten his Christian grasp of the Scriptures. His anti-Judaism thus stands at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from the kind of gnostic or Marcionite theology that rejects the God of the Jews as if he were different from the God of Christian faith, or the genteel anti-Semitism of liberal Protestant theologians who found the Old Testament too saturated with ancient tribal Judaism to be normative for modern Christians. Quite the contrary, the key point for Luther is that the Old Testament is the word of God that bears witness to Jesus Christ, which means it is properly a Christian book. He sees the Jews as a threat precisely because they claim the Hebrew Scriptures as their own, as if Christian readings were illegitimate (231–32).

Cary believes that despite claiming love for Scripture as his motivation, it was a lust for certainty that drove Luther’s anti-Semitic theology. Years earlier, he had written in defense of the Jews against “the papists.” Over time, however, as he continually faced escalating conflict, he came to believe that the proclamation of the gospel depended at every point on the unchallenged—and unchallengeable—authority of certain readings of Scripture—his readings, of course. As a result, Luther could never rest content with “a faithfulness that clings to the Gospel in the face of doubts.” Instead, he felt the need to contend for “the indubitable certainty of his proof texts” (235). His lust for certainty—a lust awakened by his “Augustinian anxiety”—quite simply ate him up (83). 

Luther did not keep his hatred for the Jews to himself. It was not, for him, merely a matter of the heart. Instead, on the basis of his theological grievances, Luther pressed for the policy changes and police action he claimed necessary to protect the newly established German way of life. Jews, he argued, should be “forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country” (234). And not only that: they should be forbidden from speaking their convictions even in private:  

What will happen even if we do burn down the Jews’ synagogues and forbid them publicly to praise God, to pray, to teach, to utter God’s name? They will still keep doing it in secret. If we know that they are doing this in secret, it is the same as if they were doing it publicly. For our knowledge of their secret doings and our toleration of them implies that they are not secret after all, and thus our conscience is encumbered with it before God. . . . If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.1

Obviously, Luther’s evil should be named as such and rejected outright as anti-Christ. But as Cary intimates, there is no need to cancel him, if by that we mean he should never be read or appealed to as a theological or pastoral authority. We can and should refute his theological reasoning, of course, and we should denounce his political proposals. But we can learn from his failures, allowing them to call our own most deeply held convictions into question. Perhaps, through the Spirit’s wisdom and creativity, Luther’s least truthful work can do us the most good, disabusing us of the misconception that getting the gospel right solves all problems, reminding us how easily evil powers can use what we assume to be our best intentions against us and against others, including the “weak and simple” ones we presume need our protection and guidance (230).   

Should We Affirm Luther’s Gospel?  

In Cary’s telling, Luther, an extraordinarily clever and perceptive young Augustinian monk, found himself constantly terrified by the threat of God’s judgment and tormented by his own faults and failings. Then, as he reflected on the penitential life, he came slowly to the realization that the gospel, rightly proclaimed, effects an “outward turn” to the truth of God and away from the devil’s lies (147). This “turn,” he declared—and it alone—sets the conscience at ease so that the believer may live without fear of alienation from God. And this, Cary insists, is the truth of the gospel that every Christian needs to hear. The hope that Luther discovered in his reflections on penance is the same hope that we need to rediscover for the sake of our own troubles: “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” (3).

Of course, as Cary readily admits, we no longer live in the sixteenth century. To put it mildly, “the terrified conscience is not as common among us as it used to be” (204). But he holds that we still have our own “performance anxieties,” angsts, apprehensions, and alarms that drive us to distraction and keep us from living the loving lives God desires for us. Hence, at least in his view, we need Luther’s teaching now as much as late-medieval believers needed it then. We need to be nudged to accept our inadequacies and shortcomings without reserve, certain that our standing with God is assured by Christ’s devotion to us rather than our devotion to him, an assurance realized in our lives as we trust absolutely in the grace of absolution. Forgiven, and certain of our forgiveness, we are freed for the work of caring for our neighbors. 

Carry believes that instead of worrying whether what I’m doing is good enough to show I’m really Christian, I can and should worry about whether what I’m doing is really good for my neighbor. That is the directive that love presses on us, after all. And although my works of love are never good enough to save me or make me a true Christian, they can be good enough to be a real help to my neighbor. In that way, the gospel frees me to live in love, concerned for the good of my neighbor rather than wrapped up in my spiritual anxieties about myself. It is precisely because I am justified by faith alone that I am free to love (204).2 This, Cary argues, is the pastoral heart of Luther’s theology. 

Cary knows, of course, that “you don’t have to believe in justification by faith alone in order to be justified by faith alone” (3). Still, he thinks the best way to keep the story of Christ central in our lives is by clinging to the truth of this Protestant doctrine. It affords the Christian “a measure of self-understanding and assurance,” which he is convinced remains our only consolation in the face of the fear of damnation and the terror of one’s own frailty. “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 you 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” (2–3). Without this doctrine, we cannot hear the story of Christ as the promise it is. 

He may be right. But it is also possible that the ecumenical theologian Robert W. Jenson is right when he argues that it is precisely this doctrine that keeps us from hearing the biblical account of Christ’s life and death as a word that frees us to live confidently into the future. In Story and Promise, Jenson argues that “precisely to be itself, the Gospel is never told the same way twice.” The gospel is good news only if it actually effects liberation, and that can only happen if the gospel is heard as a new word. Old words, even if they were once liberating, only bind us to the past rather than opening Jesus’s future for us. And in Jenson’s view, Luther’s account of justification proves the point: “‘We are justified by faith alone,’ said Luther, and liberated four generations. When preachers say these words today, supposing themselves to be following Luther, they bind us to the terrible law of having to save ourselves by the quality of our sincerity.”3 The “outward turn” can, all too easily, turn out to be yet another form of religion. As Jenson puts it in his characteristic style:   

The gospel is narrative of what happened with Jesus, spoken with the claim that this story tells the final destiny also of those who hear it told. “What will come of your life,” it says, “is to be discovered in the story of this man.” Therefore, the gospel is, and must be, always told in the language in which those who hear seek to understand their own destinies—which means those who at any period are then to hear. The gospel has spoken to Jews of judgment, to Greeks of participation in divinity, to Latins of the new law, to feudal societies of merit, and to the protomoderns of the Reformation of the overcoming of anxiety and absurdity. Every epoch of the gospel’s journey through man’s history has produced a new version of the gospel.4

Our grasp of the gospel is always only partial, if not also perverse. What matters is that we declare it in ways that effectively free people to live and die with one another the same way Jesus of Nazareth lived and died. Thus, the life of faith is a life lived religiously against religion.5 Only so is it truly a graced, gracious life. 

Assuming that Jenson is correct, it is not only imprudent but in fact impossible to preach Luther’s doctrine of justification just as he preached it. In fact, what is needed is a declaration of the gospel that frees us from the religious use of Protestant spirituality. But even if we side with Cary against Jenson, we should still be careful not to lose sight of the fact that Luther’s revelation, however glorious, however life-changing, did nothing to keep him from falling into blasphemous, graceless hatred at the end of his life, just as David’s delight in God, celebrated in his psalms, did nothing to keep him from dying with curses as well as blessings in his mouth (1 Kings 2:1–9). What is more, Luther’s polemics, like David’s vengefulness, generated troubling long-term consequences. Luther’s “demand for certainty” fueled his vicious polemics, which in turn led “to the uncertainty bred by the endless theological squabbles of confessional Europe in the next two centuries” (235). In the final analysis, then, Luther’s legacy is seen as much in the still-spreading fragmentation of the churches as in their continued renewal. And even more importantly, much of what afflicts us now has as much to do with the unintended aftereffects of that renewal as it does with the inevitable results of that fragmentation. 

All of that to say, perhaps Cary is right. Perhaps we can and should affirm Luther’s doctrine of justification without affirming either his anti-Semitism, his polemical violence, or his proof-texting method. Perhaps we can affirm his doctrine without ending up, as he did, consumed with spite for our enemies. But what if the placated conscience is precisely the sickness we need to be saved from? 

Cary suggests that when Luther accuses his opponents of lying against their own conscience, he is in truth “projecting his own uncertainties” on them. But is it not also possible that the untroubledness of Luther’s conscience energized and directed his vindictiveness? More to the point, what if the Protestant “outward turn,” once it has been appropriated as “religion,” effectively engenders certainty that deceives us into imagining that our violence toward others is both necessary and warranted, even virtuous? Is it not likely that preaching a gospel that appeases our conscience will leave us satisfied and so indifferent to the sufferings of our neighbors? What is more, it seems obvious to me that Luther’s doctrine only makes sense if our consciences are terrorized by guilt and shame. No doubt this is why so many Christians work to generate this terror in others as well as in themselves by preaching “law.” But if the terrified conscience is not natural for us, how can it be good for us to try to fabricate or re-create it? 

Protesting Theology 

A theologian’s wickedness does not in every case prove their theology to be wicked. But we have to take seriously the ways in which a theology can be used to cover abusive behavior and perhaps even to justify it. Luther’s story tells us that truth, and it is a truth affirmed in the lives of many prominent theologians, including John Howard Yoder and Jean Vanier.6 To state the obvious, theology is never simply theoretical, and “scholastic tidiness,” however accomplished, cannot “guarantee fidelity to God.”7 We must acknowledge that theology is not the one sure solution to all the problems we are facing; in fact, theology may actually be an originating and sustaining source of our problems. 

To be fair, I agree with Cary that “Christian faith grows out of the hearing of the Gospel in Christian life, worship, liturgy, preaching, teaching, prayer, praise, song, and sacrament” (343). But the historian and professor of spirituality Lauren Winner is also right: nothing created is untouched by the fall, so we should not be caught off guard when God’s good gifts, including the sacramental and charismatic gifts, are embodied, against God’s will, in damaging ways.8 That means—does it not?—that we can affirm the meaning of the good news in our preaching and our prayer without living lives that bring about meaningful good for others. And it also means—does it not?—that we can use the Gospel in ways that harm those we honestly believe we are healing. Knowing the promise of Christ’s story frees us to live the life of love—if we know it rightly, in the right spirit. Otherwise, it only condemns us to live lives that are anti-Christ and all the more dangerous precisely because they are so sincerely devout.  

I want to be as clear as I can be: The Meaning of Protestant Theology, like Cary’s previous works,is learned, measured, and insightful; eminently readable, it is clarifying even when it is not fully persuasive and provocative without being incendiary. I will return to this book many times, and I will encourage my friends and students to read it. But for now, having read this book when I did, I am mostly unsettled, dis-eased. But maybe that is what is needed right here, right now. Luther’s story is troubling. May we let it trouble us toward the truth God has entrusted to our enemies. 

  1. Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, in The Christian in Society 4, ed. Franklin Sherman, vol. 47 of Luther’s Works (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1971), 287, 288; quoted in Cary, Meaning, 234.
  2. Rowan Williams puts the point even more forcefully: Luther’s teaching reveals that God is born in us precisely as we suffer the “hell of abandonment.” Hence, Luther’s account of justification is “the triumph of ‘experiential’ theology and the wreck of a mere theology of experience” (The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross [London, UK: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1990], 163).
  3. Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1973), 11. Luther’s doctrine lost its liberating power at least in part because the rise of modern biblical criticism made it clear that his readings of Scripture were in fact interpretations, as Cary explains: “The effect was not so much to refute traditional readings of the Bible as to show that they were traditional. What had seemed transparent and perspicuous in the sixteenth century came to seem opaque and obscure in the nineteenth century, requiring a different kind of interpretation from that practiced in the church. Ever since Luther, Protestant theologians aiming for certainty had tried to make their interpretations so clear that they disappeared as interpretations, like transparent glass that you could see right through. Now the tradition of Protestant interpretation was exposed as belonging to a tradition, making it opaque and visible as one ecclesial tradition of interpretation among others. This was a serious problem for Protestant theologians, who were not used to thinking of themselves as belonging to a tradition of interpretation. It became very difficult to sustain the sense of transparency in their reading of Scripture that could once have been taken for granted—their sense that they were simply explaining what Scripture said without adding any interpretation of their own” (Meaning, 219).
  4. Jenson, Religion against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 15.
  5. Jenson, Religion, 116.
  6. These examples illustrate an obvious truth: Protestants and Protestant theology are not uniquely vulnerable to deception.
  7. Williams, Wound, 169.
  8. See Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).