Book Notice: Marianna Forde

Marianna Forde, Gerhard Forde: A Life. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2014. 247 pgs.

Marianna Forde has written a welcome tribute to her late husband Gerhard Forde. Gerhard, or “Ga” as his family knew him, and who passed away in 2005, taught theology for nearly forty years at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. In theological circles Gerhard will surely be remembered for his many writings, his “Radical Lutheranism,” and his inimitable articulation of Reformation commonplaces like the distinction between law and gospel, the bondage of the will, and justification by faith. A credit of Marianna’s work, though, is its premise that there is just as much reason to appreciate the memory of Gerhard the man as there is for Gerhard the theologian.

Marianna develops this lesson in two principal ways. First, interspersed throughout the volume, there runs a biographical narrative that outlines the major episodes that structured and colored Gerhard’s life and ministry. Much of the material is what you would expect from a biography. Marianna details Gerhard’s childhood in 1920s Starbuck, Minnesota; the tragic early loss of his mother; his decision to switch from the study of chemistry to theology; his time in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (‘46-‘47); his attendance at Martin Luther Kings Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech accompanied by Robert Jenson and Sam Preus; his courtship of Marianna and the beginnings of their family; and his work at the universities of Harvard, Tübingen, Oxford, and other institutions. Second, Marianna includes a copious amount of first-hand recollections of Gerhard from siblings, friends, colleagues, and students. From these vignettes much is learned about Gerhard that his own writings shed only little light on, namely, his political sympathies for the working classes, his profound enjoyment of music and poetry, and his partiality for understated, dry witticisms.

When it does come to Gerhard the theologian, Marianna proves just as able a guide. This is not the least surprising considering, she admits, “my theological understanding was much increased listening to Gerhard very often discuss theology over the dinner table during forty years of marriage” (7). The result is the most comprehensive introduction to Gerhard’s writings and characteristic themes to-date. Gerhard is situated as a student of the Luther Renaissance. Particularly influential for him were the Lutheran theologians Lauri Haikola (1917-87, Finnish) and Hans J. Iwand (1899-1960, German). Gerhard himself contributed to the recovery of Luther’s theology of the cross and eschatological sensibilities, and he sought to demonstrate their fruitfulness for contemporary systematic use. Gerhard’s work in atonement theology is a prime case-in-point. Still controversial, even in some Lutheran circles, are Gerhard’s treatments, or lack thereof, of sanctification, the third use of the law, and ecclesiology, though Gerhard would more likely consider these lacunae badges of honor. A more germane testament to Gerhard’s ministry as a theologian, however, would have to be the generations of students who, stirred by his teaching and preaching, “have described what happened to them as a conversion” (167).

The volume is not without its share of shortcomings. At times the narrative dallies with repetitiveness (cf. 69-70 and 121). It may be overgenerous with lengthy quotations. Its endnote apparatus is a curious editing choice. The volume would also have been improved had it included an index. None of these features, though, eclipse its achievements.

What’s nicest to see is the attention Marianna pays to Gerhard’s central insight: “dogmatics cannot save us—only preaching and the sacraments can do that” (114). It’s difficult to overstate how formative this conviction was for Gerhard’s body of work. It even came to inform his choice of audience, for Gerhard “refused to write his theology for [the] guild. Instead, he wrote for preachers. He could have written for the guild, of course. His mind was first class, and he wrote beautifully. But, like St Paul, he came to preach Christ and him crucified. Toward that goal, he was steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord” (190).

For Marianna’s work in preserving the memory of such a theologian, and the gospel Gerhard served, we owe Mrs. Forde our thanks.

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