The Recovery Lutherans Need?

Prolegomena: A Defense of the Scholastic Method, by Jordan Cooper, The Weidner Institute, 2020, 332 Pages, $21.60.

Christians—East and West, Protestant and Roman Catholic—have gone to work recovering the doctrinal resources of their traditions. The common heritage of patristic and medieval Christianity has likewise been plundered for its rich storehouse of theology, philosophy, and scriptural interpretation. Efforts to demonstrate the continuity and enduring relevance of early Protestantism have unearthed impressive results, especially in the work of Richard Muller on the development of Reformed thought. But Lutherans have been curiously absent from this program of recovery. One could hope that Cooper’s Prolegomena might constitute the first entry in such an effort. This self-published volume is a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation. It is also the first volume in a proposed series offering a contemporary Protestant scholastic theology.

This particular book has two central aims. The first is to defend the theological method of the scholastic writers of the Lutheran tradition. Scholasticism here refers to a kind of theological exposition that is systematic, uses technical philosophical terms, and organizes itself around responding to objections (88). The second aim is to refute those who depart from the scholastic method, namely, the so-called Radical Lutherans.[1] According to Cooper, the problem with these theologians—like Gerhard Forde, Oswald Bayer, Steven Paulson, and Robert Kolb—is that they’ve distorted Luther’s theology under the influence of existentialism and speech act theory. By replacing metaphysics with a relational and performative account of speech, Cooper alleges that the Radical Lutherans open themselves to a myriad of errors, especially antinomianism.

One would think this initiative might involve substantial engagement with Luther’s writings to redress the faults of his interpreters and unearth Luther’s forgotten metaphysics. Demonstrating early Lutheranism’s continuity would require such detailed engagement. Yet the interaction with Luther’s writings is slim. Cooper reads the Radical Lutherans as offering purely systematic proposals that of course militate against the true sense of Luther’s theology. But he doesn’t substantiate this assumption. Instead Cooper exposits the positions of contemporary theologians he disagrees with, sets these alongside the Lutheran orthodox, and then declares the superiority of the scholastic position. He doesn’t build the case for a thesis bit-by-bit, which renders the whole effort an exercise in begging the question. At the very least, Cooper might be commended for defending the scholastics against stereotypical portrayals that deride them as cold and detached from the church. But it remains unclear who Cooper is commending to his readers for reexamination. He generously uses translations of Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard, but also enlists nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American theologians from the Lutheran confessional revival. These authors might fit his definition of scholasticism, but Cooper’s lack of language facility appears to have delimited the selection of sources more than his subject matter.

Cooper’s general proposal is correct that modern strategies of correlation have often failed to commend Christian faith to its cultured despisers, instead imbibing the worst habits of the church’s critics. Cooper charges Radical Lutheranism with such correlation regarding existentialism and speech act theory. These figures are the final movement of an alternative fall narrative to the usual theory that Ockham and Scotus generated Protestantism and modernity by perverting Thomistic realism. In Cooper’s story, existentialism and speech act theory spring from the font of German Idealism, all of which underwrite the polluted readings of Luther offered by the Radical Lutherans. Here again Cooper is more invested in asserting his conclusion than demonstrating it. He comes off as interested in Lutheran scholasticism only insofar as he can use it to attack Radical Lutheranism.

The case of Bayer is especially curious. Cooper takes Bayer’s preference for speech act theory as a brand of post-Kantian existentialism. Yet Bayer locates the origin of his program in a dissatisfaction with the existentialist tendency “to speak of God only in the mirror of the human recipient”—a tendency Bayer proposes overcoming with Luther’s performative view of God’s promise.[2] Moreover, Cooper’s discussion of metaphysics fails to mention Bayer’s scholarship on J. G. Hamann, the eighteenth-century Lutheran critic of Kant. These are serious omissions that undermine Cooper’s accusation that Bayer is an existentialist for using speech act theory to explain how God’s word does things. More vexing is that Cooper does nothing with Luther’s signature and pervasive insistence that “the words of God are realities, not bare words.”[3] Even worse, he delineates no criteria that would prohibit an explanatory use of speech act theory but permit a programmatic use of Plato and Aristotle.

If Cooper intends to confront Kant’s influence on modern Lutheranism, then attacking figures like Bayer is friendly fire. If Cooper is attempting to recover scholastic realism and essentialism, then he fails to reckon with the gospel’s challenge to the inheritance of Greek theism. Christians confess that God has become flesh and that he speaks to creatures through creatures. This embodies a crisis for the metaphysical deposit of Greek paganism and its attempt to secure God from both time and death. One needn’t believe the Hellenization thesis or be an existentialist to accept Luther’s doctrine of Christ’s two natures in which the Son has both entered time and suffered death for us. Cooper’s readings of contemporary Lutherans would’ve been more accurate—and his interpretation of the scholastics more interesting—had he reckoned with the consequences of Jesus for the static metaphysics he defends. Perhaps doing so would’ve yielded a stronger account of the continuity between Luther and his heirs and a more appreciative reading of the contemporary authors he superficially dismisses.

Prolegomena is only the most recent offering in a broader movement to embrace the heritage of pre-Enlightenment theology. It’s in good company in that regard. Cooper is right that the way beyond the present malaise is a return to what is good and enduring about the Christian tradition—not least the Lutheran tradition. Yet by getting distracted with the litigation of interior Lutheran debates, Prolegomena falls well-short of its stated goal. The result is a shallow and unconvincing series of digressions in search of a thesis. Had Cooper actually executed his opening claim of retrieving the scholastics, the possibilities presented might’ve come into sharper and more compelling focus.

John W. Hoyum is pastor of Denny Park Lutheran Church in Seattle and a PhD student in systematic theology at the University of Aberdeen.

Related Links

Podcast: "Two Traditions," with Robert Kolb

"Introduction to Scholastic Theology," a review by Ryan McGraw

"Van Mastricht on the Scholastics" by Nick Batzing

Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1: Prolegomena by Petrus van Mastricht

Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History by Carl Trueman


[1] On the origin of this term, see Gerhard O. Forde, “Radical Lutheranism,” Lutheran Quarterly 1, no. 1 (1987): 5–18.

[2] Oswald Bayer, “How I Became a Luther Scholar,” Lutheran Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2013): 250.

[3] Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, in Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher Boyd Brown, 82 vols. (St. Louis & Philadelphia: Concordia & Fortress, 1955–), 1:22.