Eric W. Gritsch, A History of Lutheranism (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2002)
The first thing you need to do with this book is to take its title seriously. It is less a history of Lutherans than it is a history of Lutheran doctrines and confessions. It is not surprising that two-fifths of the book is dedicated to the first 60 years, between Luther's posting the 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in 1517 to the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580. It does not even spend more than a few sentences on the political events in the conflict between Protestant and Catholic countries, the 30 Years War, in 1618--1648 and the Peace of Westphalia.
But we may be surprised at the political facts which do come up. In America, it is virtually unthinkable to imagine our religion determined by our government, but that was what the idea of Christendom, the combination in a one body the functions of worship and governance. One of the motives which drove theological disputes in central Europe was the right of the political ruler (King, Prince, Elector, Duke, Margrave, etc.) to determine their state religion, and enforce its observance by all residents of their state.
One surprise is to read that Luther went to his grave hoping for a reunion of the German reformers and the Roman church. Echoes of this founding principle are subtle in modern Lutheranism, but they lived as active agenda item up to the Catholic Council of Trent (1545--1563), which launched the 'Counter-Reformation' and closed the door on resolution between Rome and the reformers.
My primary interest in reading the book was to test my conjecture that compared to the Roman Catholics and the Calvinist influenced Reformed denominations, Lutheranism has a small theological footprint. With the Catholics, its an open and shut case. Neither Luther nor his legacy ever accepted the Roman belief in tradition and rationality, just as they never bought into the `rational theology' of the modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant. With the Calvinists, things are less certain. On the one hand, Lutherans in the 17th century produced their share of great tomes of theology, but almost all of these are forgotten, and there is no 20th century Lutheran theologian with works comparable to Swiss Reformed Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics.
Lutherans became the foremost Biblical scholars of the world in the last two centuries, freeing scholarly research from dogmatic constraints. This is traceable to Luther's emphasis on basing faith solely on a critical understanding of the Bible, and a belief that the Bible meant what it said and said what it meant. Luther and his followers had no regard for theologians after Augustine (354--430).
One of the powerful facets of Lutheran theology is adiaphora, the doctrine of separating things which are essential, such as the doctrine of `Affirming God's Loving Condescension as the Only Way to Salvation', from those things which are non-essential, such as genuflection.
Another motive for my reading this book is to get some insight on Luther's doctrine of predestination, and how it compares with Calvin's advocacy of that belief. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther comes close to Calvin, but in the Articles of Concord, the matter is left to God's governance which is hidden from us, putting it beyond those matters about which we need to be concerned.
The other side of the coin is that God made himself known through the life and works of Jesus Christ, which makes knowing about his teachings, life, and sacrificial death rise to the top of the list of important things for a Lutheran to be doing. This is why the Biblical readings and message are such an important part of Lutheran services, and the primary motive for the wealth of Lutheran Bible scholarship. It is the reason, in spite of Luther's emphasis on `the priesthood of all believers', that the educational requirements of Lutheran pastors is so high. The only thing which leaves us puzzled is the minute quantity of good Biblical interpretation we get in Sunday sermons and the empty seats when Lutherans offer adult Bible study.
The issue of predestination may seem abstruse to the point of triviality, but it turns out it was one of the central doctrines which separated Lutherans before The Book of Concord, and it is one of the doctrines which separated many American Lutheran synods, one from another in the 19th century, thereby explaining why there are literally dozens of smaller independent Lutheran bodies outside of the 'liberal' ELCA and the 'conservative' Missouri Synod.
This book explains the vigor behind Lutheran ecumenicalism within the U.S. and around the world, building communion with many other confessions such as the Moravians, the Episcopalians, and the Methodists. It suggests how Lutheran theologians and scholars such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rudolph Bultmann can strip away `myth' from Christian thinking, leaving Bonhoeffer's path of `costly grace' based primarily on the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Our belief is that Jesus represents the visible God, which we should study and follow. Rational theology tries to penetrate the hidden God, which is a chimera to us.
The book shows the importance of `confessions', similar to The Book of Concord, which define church beliefs. The idea was prominent in the 19th century, leading up to the historic `Confessing Church' formed to oppose surrender of German churches to Nazism.
One reservation about the book is that the thinking of the last century, from thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are not given more attention. I would be inclined to call this `A Short History of Lutheranism'. It is a very good place to start, after you read a biography of Luther.