How do you proclaim the forgiveness of sins to someone who doesn’t think he has done anything wrong? How can you apply the Law to someone who feels no guilt and the Gospel to someone who feels no need for Christ? Trying to evangelize today’s relativists seems like a futile project. How can we get through to them?
The Australian pastor and theologian Michael Lockwood has just published a stimulating, paradigm-shifting book entitled The Unholy Trinity: Martin Luther against the Idol of Me, Myself, and I.
On one level, it is a study of Luther’s view of idolatry. For Luther, idolatry is not just worshipping graven images, as with Christians who think tangible objects used in worship, such as crucifixes, are idols. Rather, idolatry is worshipping false gods created by the self. In his explanation of the First Commandment in the the Large Catechism, Luther asks, “what is it to have a God?” His answer: What do you put put your faith in? That’s your God. Ultimately, idolatry is the opposite of saving faith in Christ. It means putting your faith in yourself.
Dr. Lockwood then applies the insights from Luther to today’s spiritual landscape, from “Moralistic-therapeutic-Deism,” through the whole array of false spiritualities, to the pure secularism that sees no need for God at all. All of these, at their root, are idolaters of the self. But the self will let you down every time.
Drawing on his experience as a missionary, Dr. Lockwood says that non-believers first need to be “disenchanted” with their idols. He shows how the Law brings a message not only of guilt but of disenchantment. In times of suffering, failure, and the prospect of death, even the idolaters of the self can find redemption in Christ.
This is a ground-breaking book that brings a distinctly Lutheran perspective on the task of apologetics, evangelism, and pastoral care. But all Christians will benefit from its fresh approach to cultural criticism and from learning from Dr. Lockwood the art of “spiritual diagnosis.”
Read my review after the jump. Then buy this book.
Review of Michael Lockwood’s Unholy Trinity
by Gene Edward Veith
The Unholy Trinity explores Luther’s understanding of idolatry, which is interesting in itself and is important in drawing together different strands of his theology and illuminating their common themes. But the manuscript also does much more than that: It applies Luther’s critique of idolatry—that is, the false gods human beings construct for themselves apart from God’s self-revelation in His Word—to contemporary issues, from false theologies (such as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”) to the seemingly non-religious mindsets of secularism.
The result is a distinctly Lutheran approach to cultural criticism and what the author calls “spiritual diagnosis.” The author, drawing on his own experience in the mission field, says that missionaries must first “disenchant” the people they are trying to reach from their false gods, in order to proclaim the true God revealed in Jesus Christ. The same is true today: To evangelize people today, we must first cast down their idols.
This is not just a matter of denunciation, as is the manner of many Christian books. It has to do with the proper proclamation of Law, leading to the proclamation of the Gospel. The author shows that God’s use of the Law—for Christians as well as for non-Christians—includes the sufferings of life that destroy our self-sufficiency, which is the root of all idolatry. The book is full of practical suggestions for pastoral care, as well as evangelistic outreach, and can be an enormously helpful resource for pastors.
I appreciated how the author looks at Luther’s teachings on a subject and then follows that up with a look at the Bible’s teachings on that subject, showing that the two agree. This is important in reminding ourselves that our authority is not Luther but God’s Word. It furthermore gives the argument credibility to non-Lutheran readers, who should also find this book extremely helpful.
The book is clearly written (not just for scholars, though it is scholarly in its learning), full of illustrative examples (including the author’s personal experiences from the mission field and in the parish).