Now here’s a guy who’s on my wavelength …

Phillip Cary, who teaches philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., has a book out with the somewhat daunting title The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel That Gives Us Christ. I hadn’t heard of him before, but I saw a review in Christian Century that intrigued me.

In the review, the Rev. Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in Annandale, Va., summarizes Cary’s thesis like this: “… the gospel functions as an auditory sacrament, enacting the very reality of the thing signified, such that to believe the gospel is to receive Christ himself.”

That got my attention, since I’ve been wrestling (HERE and HERE and HERE, for example) with how to receive the sacraments during a global pandemic when the usual method of going to church and taking communion isn’t possible. Cary goes back to fundamental principles of the Reformation, suggesting that the Word of God itself is a sacrament.

“Particular doctrines, such as justification by faith alone or sola scriptura, are not merely parts of the Protestant message,” adds Micheli, whose review was posted May 18 to the magazine’s website and printed in the June 3 issue. “They’re means of understanding the gospel as the promise that gives us Christ.

“What sets this book apart is the way Cary shows how Luther’s grace-centered gospel produces the very thing many critics assume it fails to provide: changed and transformed Christians.”

And that got my curiosity up.

So I did a couple of Google searches and tracked down the author.

Cary teaches philosophy at Eastern, a Baptist college in the suburbs of Philly, and he wrote a book titled Good News for Anxious Christians: Ten Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do, introducing young evangelical Protestants to what is perhaps a less introspective, post-Calvinist, sin- and guilt-ridden approach to Christianity. Writing of himself in the third person, he says on his faculty profile page, “His favorite theologian is Martin Luther, which means he feels quite comfortable in a high-church Anglican congregation where they love both Word and Sacrament.”

Word and sacrament. Now, that I can relate to.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, but I joined a Lutheran church 20 years ago, and Luther is my favorite theologian. Which makes me kind of a spiritual mutt. (Or, to put it in terms more like what I grew up with, I have a broad-church ecumenical outlook.) But my spirituality centers on the sacraments — outward and visible signs, as I memorized it long ago in confirmation class, of an inward and spiritual grace — and a sacramental practice mediated by the church. So it’s no accident that the churches where I’ve felt most at home center more on Word and sacrament — to use the Lutheran formula — than they do with my being saved, getting right with God or the other evangelical doctrines of personal redemption I used to hear proclaimed by sidewalk preachers in Knoxville and 500-watt radio stations throughout East Tennessee and western North Carolina.

So I kept reading what Cary has to say about the sacraments. It hooked me and reeled me in.

Cary’s faculty page continues in the same vein. He’s highly rated (4.5 out of 5.0 on the Rate My Professor website), and I’ll bet it was written with undergrad students in mind:

Dr. Cary loves Luther because he thinks we know people by hearing their words, and that’s how Luther taught us to know God. He was writing a dissertation on this theme at Yale, while working on a double degree in philosophy and religious studies back in the early 90s.  He was planning to write a little chapter on the Augustinian background to Luther’s theology, but this grew into a whole large dissertation, which then grew over the years into three books on Augustine, who is endlessly fascinating and different from what he had expected.

That I can relate to, too. After all, Luther was an Augustinian monk — something I didn’t come to fully appreciate until I’d been teaching in a Catholic college affiliated with another religious community, the Ursuline sisters. Another broadly ecumenical insight that comes to a spiritual mutt at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.

Still writing in the third person, Cary goes on:

Dr. Cary loves learning things by reading old books, and that is essentially what he teaches.  As far as he is concerned the best old book is the Bible, because it contains the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It always cheers him up to teach anything that has to do with the Gospel.  Consequently, he has written a theological commentary on the presence of the Gospel in the book of Jonah, as well as a little book based largely on conversations with his students where he hopes to lure them into trusting the Gospel rather than applying a whole slew of “practical” ideas to their lives—unbiblical ideas that do little more than make them anxious.  It turns out the Gospel of Christ tends to cheer them up, too. 

That’s vintage Luther, too. He looked at all of scripture through the prism of law and gospel, and his theology is all about trusting the gospel. Law, to Luther, is what convicts us of our sin, of our alienation from God, and Gospel is what proclaims God’s grace and mercy and brings us back.

It also rings bells with me, and not just because Jonah is my favorite Old Testament prophet — he’s the only one whose prophecy was actually listened to. (I’ll have to get the Jonah book the next time I’m on Amazon! In fact, I may end up going through Cary’s entire backlist before I’m done with him.) In the meantime, he has several articles and interviews available online.

One is an email interview with a blogger and seeker named Randy S., in which he sketched in his background in the institutional church:

I’m a member of an Anglican church.  My favorite theologian is Martin Luther, but I’m not exactly a Lutheran.  There are a whole lot of assumptions that go with being a Lutheran that I don’t share, because I did not grow up Lutheran and have never been a member of a Lutheran church.  I’ve just read a whole lot of Luther and think he’s understood something terribly important and beautiful about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  What Luther’s theology has in common with Anglicanism is a tendency to find God in Word and Sacrament–in the external means of grace by which our Lord Jesus Christ gives himself to us.

Harking back to his book on interpreting the gospel without anxiety, Cary adds:

A good church does not get you looking to your life to find Christ but rather shows you how to find your life in Christ, locating yourself within his story, the Gospel.  (“Ah!  Simon Peter, the chief of the apostles, the one who repeatedly denies Christ!  That’s me, alright.  But look what our Lord Jesus does with him in the end!”)  The difference is palpable, you can taste it.  Instead of defining Christ by your experience (which is enough to make any sensible person anxious) you define your own life by looking at what the Gospel tells you about Christ. And once you’ve tasted this, you’ll know in your bones why you go to church.

Cary also wrote an article titled “Luther at 500: The Enduring Challenge of the Great Reformer” that appeared on the First Things website, marking the anniversary of the day Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg (or, more likely, mailed them to the Archbishop of Mainz). It develops the same themes he does in his faculty profile and his book Good News for Anxious Christians. For Luther, he says, the gospel is not just the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. “It is the Word of God with power to save us because it gives Christ, his forgiveness and grace and righteousness, to all who put their faith in it.” He adds:

In fact, in a sermon on Christmas Day, 1519, Luther comes right out and says the Gospel is a sacrament. It has the same structure and operation that Catholic theology finds in all the sacraments, which are external signs efficaciously conferring the grace they signify on those who properly receive them. Luther simply adds: The proper reception of the word of the Gospel is faith alone. Hence in the sermon he says that “all the Gospel stories are a kind of sacrament, that is, sacred signs through which God brings about, in those who believe, whatever the story designates.” This is why the story of Christ differs from every other history we might study. Even in the four gospels, the life and deeds of Peter, John, or Mary offer us only examples of righteousness and virtue to follow, whereas the story of Christ actually gives us the righteousness, virtue, and salvation it signifies, just as baptism gives us new birth, because what we receive by believing this story is Jesus Christ himself. On Christmas Day we can come to Bethlehem and find a tender maiden with a baby on her lap and say, “Mother, this baby is mine also.”

There’s a lot more to it than that. In fact, I printed out a copy (10 single-spaced pages) and plan to reread it several times before I can say, even to myself, I understand it. Cary contrasts Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith, which I’ve always had a hard time with, with the post-Calvinist, evangelical “performance anxiety” he discussed with Randy S. and readers of Good News for Anxious Christians.

“The great pastoral aim of Luther’s doctrine of justification,” he says, “is to free us from the kind of performance anxiety that arises whenever our salvation depends in any way on us, our hearts, our will, or our doings.”

 Cary also has approving things to say about the “Finnish school” of Luther studies sparked by Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki that I want to come back to. Like so many other things Lutheran, it gets back to justification, or salvation, by faith. Cary says:

What is often overlooked by later Protestant theology is that Christ’s righteousness is the righteousness of God. Recently a strong Finnish tradition of Luther scholarship has repaired this oversight and drawn the appropriate conclusion: that Luther’s teaching about union with Christ, followed by the wondrous exchange in which Christ shares with us every good thing that is his, implies a doctrine of deification. For the goods he shares with us include all that is divine in him, in which we participate—as the Church Fathers say—not by nature but by grace. In Luther’s terms, every divine gift is ours in Christ, who is ours by faith alone.

Cary also notes, in a response to another review of The Meaning of Protestant Theology, by Reformed theologian Carl Trueman, that “my own reading of Luther leads in the same direction” as Mannermaa and the Finnish school. So does this spiritual mutt’s (with reservations) — I’ve blogged about it HERE and HERE — and I want to come back to Cary’s article, Trueman’s review and Cary’s response for further study.

Something else I want to come back to is a 20-minute video that features Cary putting Luther into the context of late medieval theology and spiritual practice. He was one of five theologians interviewed for a series called 95 Theses, Reformation Then and Now: A Film (see directory at Among them was Trueman, in fact, and Timothy Wingert who has written powerfully about Luther’s Small Catechism. I really ought to go back and watch them all.

Until then, here for future reference is a an overview of Phillip Cary’s interview:

  • 00:00:00: The problem for penance: mortal sin. Restoring a state of love
  • 00:03:13: Purgatory. Overcoming “a murderousness in your heart”
  • 00:05:19: Indulgences. Buying a reduced sentence from purgatory
  • 00:07:29: The 95 Theses. Origin story, and the world’s first viral campaign
  • 0:10:42: They couldn’t get rid of this heretic. How Martin Luther pulled it off
  • 0:13:36: Thesis I: “When…Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Martin Luther’s “terrified conscience”
  • 0:18:40: If Luther were here today… Performance anxiety and the Christian life: my neighbor, not myself
  • 0:22:36: “There’s no one I’m more suspicious of, than someone who wants to change the world.” Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms
  • 0:24:52: “Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners, she makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable.” – Martin Luther
  • 0:27:07: Information technology, then and now. It wasn’t always about us
  • 0:30:02: Luther the insomniac. Anfechtungen
  • 0:32:44: Luther the anti-Semite. There’s no getting around it
  • 0:36:05: What makes this guy matter in 2017? 500 years later

And here’s an excerpt from the transcript (it’s a rush transcript, and the paragraphing is mine):

If Luther were here today, I’m hoping he’d be worried about the same things that worry me, because I find that there’s a certain kind of Lutheran preaching of the gospel that really reaches people – even people who don’t have the terrified conscience of the 16th century.

Many people in our day are not exactly afraid of going to hell if they die tonight. But, many Christians today are deeply shaped by a kind of performance anxiety, I’ll call it: they’re worried about whether they’re really good Christians, and they keep on trying to convince themselves that their Christian life is going well, that they’re living the abundant life and all that sort of thing. And then, when they mess up, instead of doing something ordinary and, you know, sort of doing something sensible like confessing their sins, they’re feeling all like there’s something wrong with their Christian life – maybe they’re not really Christian and so on. Luther’s preaching of the Gospel is a wonderful remedy for performance anxiety. It’s a way of saying, look, yes, you’re a sinner; yes, your Christian life is never going to be perfect; but you know what? The perfection belongs to Christ Jesus, who’s given to you by faith alone.

Meanwhile your works of love which are not perfect, they’re good enough for your neighbor. That’s why you do it. So instead of worrying whether you’re really truly a good Christian in your heart, let Jesus Christ worry about that. Meanwhile, you worry about your neighbor. And instead of asking the question “is my Christian life good enough?” – ask the question, “is what I’m doing for my neighbor actually good for my neighbor?”

[Revised June 26, 2020]

2 thoughts on “Phillip Cary on Luther — sola scriptura with a twist of performance anxiety

  1. Thank you for this review. I read Trueman’s review and it was funny. He is doing what other Calvinists do which is to protect their tradition at all costs. Cary, not even a Lutheran, spoke the truth concerning Calvinism (I know as a former Calvinist, now Lutheran) and Trueman hates that. All Trueman wanted to do was protect his tradition.


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