1. What initially prompted you to write this book?
I was invited to teach a Bible camp adult study for family camp that took people into the core of their Lutheran identity. The Augsburg Confession is something that all Lutheran congregations have in common. In fact, all Lutheran pastors bind themselves to teaching in accordance with it when they are ordained. The church regards it as a clear reflection of the biblical witness to what God in Christ does for sinners. It made sense to zero in on such an important document.
It’s more official name is the Confessio Augustana (after the Latin name of the city where it was presented in 1530), but understanding that is the easy part. Philip Melanchthon, who wrote it and was one of Luther’s university colleagues, assumed a ton of history that modern day readers don’t know about. That can make for a difficult read.
My goal was to make the central ideas in the Augustana accessible. I wanted to show its inner logic and help people catch the connections to the vital social network of faith that swirled around the reformers. I wanted them to see that behind the 16th century language is a living, breathing witness that’s still essential for us today.
2. Why is it helpful to think about these theological ideas as tools in a toolkit?
I have a toolkit on the workbench in my garage that contains all manner of things I could use to take care of our house — at least if I could gin up my will and decide to do it. We sinners are no different when it comes to our spiritual house. We know there are fixes that need to be taken care of, but we can’t seem to get moving on them. If we think about what our Lutheran toolkit is stocked with, if we think of it as something we need to work with, we either won’t git ‘er done or we’ll try to build a house to our own specifications.
But if we think of the loci (another Latin word, this time for “commonplaces” or “central ideas”) as pointing to ways God works to build his kingdom of mercy, something new happens. What was a 500-year-old document now becomes something God can use even today to raise up faith. In other words, it moves from boring words on the page to a word that preaches. The Holy Spirit wields these tools in proclamation and the sacraments not only to create the church but to raise dead sinners to new life with the good news of Christ crucified and risen.
3. You’ve said that the, “The Augustana,” or Augsburg Confession, made faith come alive for you. Can you tell us more about how this document has influenced you, and why it’s important today?
When I started seminary 35 years ago, I thought I was training to become part of a helping profession. Encountering the theology of the Augustana quickly disabused me of the notions that I could fix other people or that I could rehabilitate my sinful nature. These tools freed me from the burden of managing a congregational plan or a pastoral program that, if it wouldn’t necessarily bring in the New Jerusalem, would at least keep the church’s gears oiled.
The Augustana’s primary gift is that it points to Christ as the agent for new life. If Jesus claims full responsibility for bringing in the New Day, it relieves me of the onus of constantly having to suss out tactics and strategies for making it happen.
Because of the Augustana, I know that all I need to do is understand what’s broken and then point to Christ. In the American church (and especially in a pandemic), pastors are laden with demands to be CEOs, therapists, community organizers, and visionaries. What a relief it would be for them to have their congregations understand what they’re actually called to do. If pastors can be freed from the law, so can lay people.
If Jesus claims full responsibility for bringing in the New Day, it relieves me of the onus of constantly having to suss out tactics and strategies for making it happen.
4. You’ve spent a lot of time in the classroom teaching students sixteenth century ideas. How has your teaching experience influenced this book?
By and large, most college students today slot themselves into “the none zone” when asked about their religion. Even those with a rich background in Christian faith are hard put to articulate the basics of the faith. Usually they point to loving God and being good so you can get into heaven. That means I have an opportunity for evangelism that few pastors have. I have access to a population that’s inherently curious, even as they’re moving through an enormous developmental shift in their lives.
But it doesn’t work to beat them over the head with the Bible. They want authenticity that arises from actual experience. They want to be partners in learning and don’t want a snobbish expert lecturing them. Neither smoke-and-mirrors nor a dense theological treatise will do.
Along the way, I’ve learned the value of Luther’s advice to Melanchthon on how to be a better preacher: don’t be afraid to be a real sinner who needs the gospel. Just tell your story and Jesus’ story. When that happens, students are surprisingly open, and sometimes they find themselves at the font full of water and a future drenched in Christ’s promise.
5. Is there any advice or thoughts you want to share with potential readers?
The Lutheran Toolkit is intended to be a quick, fun jaunt through a passel of ideas that can help people understand their life in the church more clearly. There are countless thinkers out there who have written important works about each of these ideas. But if the gospel is intended to be “for you,” then the entry point can’t be a thick tome detailing the minutiae of a theological argument.
Use the Toolkit as the place to dip your toe. The waters of this pool are the same as in the deep end, and when you become familiar with the Augustana you can go further. You can start to think about why a sermon is structured a certain way or why church policies argue for a particular stance on an issue. More important, you can begin looking at yourself, your history, your work, and your relationships through this lens. And the Holy Spirit can use it to take you from a house with badly hung doors and leaky faucets to a place where divine love dwells — even in the midst of the mess.