Why Calvinism Not Lutheranism? Books

Last week over at First Things James Rogers asked:

Why is Calvinism so influential among American Evangelicals while Lutheranism is not? We might describe the statistically modal convert to Calvinism—that is, the most frequently observed kind of convert—as a person like this: A young adult, usually male. Raised in a broad though indistinct Evangelical (and sometimes nominally Catholic) home. Bright. A reader. Searching for better intellectual answers to questions about God, Jesus and the Bible. Is open to becoming a pastor. Why does this young man so much more often become a Calvinist instead a Lutheran?

It’s a good question. When I was doing my theological searching early on, I found myself initially more attracted to Lutheranism given their apparent lack of emphasis on predestination as well as Luther’s fiery wit. (Also, I was in my anti-Piper phase.) In fact, many of us raised in more a-historical, non-denominational Evangelical backgrounds are likely to hear of Martin Luther as the Reformer, instead of Calvin, just because of the 95 theses and the issue of justification by faith. So why is it that so many of us end up learning the Westminster or Heidelberg catechism, instead of Luther’s?

Rogers lists a number of possible reasons I find worth summarizing here:

  • American Lutheran churches have tended to be ethnically-focused and insular. That alone just makes it harder to even find.
  • Beyond that, it’s hard to read your way in. Calvin wrote an influential systematics, while Luther’s works are more piecemeal and polemically-situated. That makes immersion in the one easier than the other.
  • In the same vein, Lutheran Confessional documents assume and refer to a lot of church history, so their clarity and accessibility leave something to be desired. Reformed documents tend to spell things out more cleanly, assume less, and verify more, making them welcoming to the newbie. The opposite holds true of the catechisms–Luther gives less and assumes more. Westminster gives more distinctly formative theology to the inquirer.
  • Ecclesiastically, Calvinists know their Bibles and confessions, on average better than their Lutheran counterparts, so you’re more likely to run into a Calvinist who knows their stuff.
  • Sacramentally, Lutheran practice and theology is even less accessible. Functionally, most Evangelicals are rockin’ a pseudo-Zwinglian view of Baptism and the bread & wine/grape juice. Making the jump to baptismal regeneration and Luther’s consubstantion is leap, both theologically and experientially.
  • Drawing on Lutheran theologian Philip Cary, he makes big contrast between the two modes of piety: one focused on the mental assent of the believer, and the other on Christ’s faithfulness alone as the sole ground of my comfort. The Evangelical/Calvinist assures himself by remembering he’s assented in proper faith, while the Lutheran has it because he remembers Christ’s faithfulness given to him in baptism. Lutheran air is made of thicker stuff than the Zwinglian rationalism and nominalism the average Evangelical is used to, so it’s a bit of more an awkward shift than simply picking up a Reformed soteriology.

Finally, he ends with an appeal to Lutherans to be as winsomely passionate about evangelizing for a Lutheran view of Word and Sacrament as Calvinists are about predestination.

Me with BooksReading My Way In – Given Rogers’ Lutheranism, his apology for it is understandable and somewhat slanted read of Calvinist piety is somewhat forgivable. Only somewhat, though, given the classic Reformed emphasis on union with Christ, which, honestly does all that the Lutheran’s does, as well as gives us a bit of a boost into sanctification. That said, his point about the cultural difference is a real one. Still, the more interesting point for me was the one about reading, because in my experience far easier to read yourself into Calvinism or Reformed theology. I would say there are a few reasons for this, though, beyond Calvin and confessional documents.

As DeYoung points out in the article I referenced yesterday, Calvinism (whether broadly or narrowly defined) has dominated the theological conversation in America since its founding. I mean, just think about the Pilgrims–Puritan Calvinists. Beyond that, Reformed thought, especially its soteriology, can be found across denominational lines be it Episcopal, Presbyterian, Particular Baptist, or whatever else. This is also the case in our revival heritage. While Finney is horrifyingly hyper-Arminian (and that’s really unfair to Arminians), much revivalist piety has still had a Reformed rooting. In other words, it travels well, which means that if you go digging into the literature, you’ll be able to find broadly Reformed thinkers in various places.

Institutionally it’s been better represented as well in terms of universities, publishing houses, and authors. This last one is probably the most pertinent one right now. Honestly, it’s easier to read yourself into Calvinism, because who knows of any good, current, pop-level Lutheran books, writers, or preachers? Tullian Tchividjian? (I kid.) Really though, the only current theologians I can think of are Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson–brilliant heavyweights, to be sure–but not exactly great book-club reading. Maybe someone might name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but again, not very pop or accessible, and at this point in history he’s become a figure that transcends confessional lines. There’s no current Lutheran author I know of, comparable to a Tim Keller or even a John Piper for popular reach.

So when a theologically-minded young man (or woman) goes shopping around for books on pressing theological subject, if he’s not pulled into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or some emergent, Heidegger-quoting business, it’s far easier to put a copy of Desiring God (Piper), or Knowing God (Packer), into his hands than find something written by a Lutheran. Or again, when a pastor is looking for a book to turn into a sermon series, it’s the Calvinists that are publishing en masse, so some Reformed emphasis will be bleeding into non-Reformed Evangelical preaching. That prepares the young Evangelical hearer to search for more of the that rich vein. Even picking up Rogers’ point about confessional literature, yes, I found Heidelberg before Luther’s Catechism, but I did so because of Kevin DeYoung’s excellent little commentary on it The Good News We Almost Forgot.

If you want my two cents, then, for why so many young, theological types choose Reformed theology over Lutheranism: books. Accessible, pop-level books that gave us a big picture of God, and a desire to read the thicker theologians and texts that we’d catch glimpses of in those pages.

Soli Deo Gloria

32 thoughts on “Why Calvinism Not Lutheranism? Books

  1. Really interesting issue to reflect upon. I also think that it would be worth turning the question around in various ways. How does its courting of influence among American Evangelicals shape ‘Calvinism’ (yeah, I have many reservations about the term) and select between different forms of it? In employing evangelicalism as a delivery system and milieu, what dimensions of historic Calvinism have been compromised?

    I wonder whether part of the reason isn’t because Lutheranism is just so much more ecclesial, confessional, and sacramental in its common forms, while to thrive in the context of evangelicalism, you need to articulate a theological identity that can locate its centre of gravity and primary forms of unity in a parachurch and non-denominational context.

    P.S. I love the picture! :-)

    • Alastair, leave it you to flip it with a great question. Yes, much of the influence goes back the other way, with pop-Evangelicalism shaping the way Calvinism is presented and so forth. I’m wondering if that is, in some ways, a testimony to its suppleness and strength, though? When I think of Christianity in general, it’s ability to transcend cultural forms with the clear, central, Gospel-content (although I know there is some link between content and form), that Calvinism can do the same to some degree seems to testify to a proper, Gospel-flexibility?

    • The pragmatic point about books is important, but I think it’s more than just that.

      Alastair is right: Lutheranism, because of its ecclesiology and sacramentology, is just a bridge too far for most Americans. I think if a Lutheran actually explained their theology to most American Christians the response would basically be, “So why shouldn’t I just become Catholic?” There’s important differences between the two traditions, but I think most American Christians would struggle to get past the similarities .

      After all, American religion has always been far more friendly to the churches and types of piety associated with the radical reformation rather than the more magisterial reformers, let alone Rome or Constantinople. Citizens of a “new world” that understand themselves as “beginning the world again,” and being radically independent from the rest of the world are never going to go for a theological system whose roots are so deeply and explicitly embedded in Europe.

      This also raises another problem with the “Calvinism as America’s religion” idea because I’d say the Reformed tradition is actually not that hospitable to these aspects of American identity either when you read it more closely. Bucer and Calvin’s understanding of the Eucharist, for instance, is a far cry from the pure memorialism you get in most American churches. Zwingli can go with it and some of the American Puritans can (although if you read the Mathers, their political theology is a far cry from what we have in the American constitution). So we might be further from Rome than the Lutherans, but our ecclesiology and sacramental theology is still problematic for most American Christians if they actually read more widely in the tradition (Calvin, Bucer–check out his De Regno Christi–the Mathers, Kuyper, etc.).

      As far as reconciling the Reformed tradition with American identity, I think the only way it works is if you cherry pick what you read from the Reformed tradition and then mash it up with the revivalistic Christianity we’ve inherited from the Second Great Awakening. (But enough about Reformed Baptists… ;) )

      • Hahaha!

        I mostly agree, although, I will say, when I find myself explaining Calvin’s view (insofar as I’m getting it right) to American Evangelicals, if they’re not super-committed to hyper-Zwinglianism, they’re actually pretty open to it. Lutheranism is a bridge too far in this aspect, it’s true.

        That said, I think the distance from typical pop American theology is the appeal of Calvinism. Even in its mediating forms, it is just different enough to be noticable, to lodge a critique of some of the individualism and so forth, while not being totally culturally-foreign.

  2. A young person recently told me he was really getting into Calvinism because “it answered all his questions.” Unintentionally, he acknowledged the problem as I see it. Whether it was Augustine using Greek philosophy to create a sort of systematics, or Calvin doing his thing — for those of us who are biblically shaped, the imposition of a system is inherently problematic. That’s not the faith as it was given to us. But the craving of an order, an answer to every question, yes, I understand why people love any sort of system that offers that. Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Calvinism. All those books! All those answers! It always appeared to me that the diehard TULIP people could suppress a natural horror in the idea that God preordained babies to hell, because they loved the neatness of the line of thought. It left no stray threads, but made a perfect whole cloth, no questions remaining.

  3. “Calvinism has dominated the theological conversation in America since its founding.” There is an important alternative historiography — scholars such as Noll, Hatch, Holifield, and Sweeney would contest this.

    • I’d be interested in reading them. Although, I will say, the one Noll Volume I have on Early American Evangelicalism only has Wesley as the non-Calvinist representative in the mix.

      Also, please don’t take this as saying Calvinism is the only legitimate dominant theology. Great appreciation for American Wesleyans and such!

      • Not at all! This is merely a historical observation (and not exactly my field, although of course I have a lot of interest in it).

  4. I don’t quite understand the problem people have with Predestination. We were born in the richest, most powerful country in world history. We are bright, educated (or reverse all of the above). We earned this, or deserved this, how?

  5. Having just done some research into the religion of a particular Founder, I am convinced that ethnicity plays more of a role than I used to like to think. The Church of England was a Protestant magisterium pressed on one side by Scottish Presbyterianism (what victories! Westminster, the Protectorate, the Acts of Union) and Dutch Reformed churches (William of Orange was invited to replace the Catholic abuser James). In the 18th-century, at least, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalist heirs of the Puritans were the respectable denominations. It would have been quite odd for any British (in the broad use of the term) immigrant to leave his perfectly serviceable Protestant church for another that seemed distinctly Germanic.

    I don’t think this undermines any of the above, but it is one way I explain things like the prevalence of Reformed nonLutheran thinkers.

    • Oh goodness. Really? Well, my buddy was Piper-hyper and part was a reaction to that. Also, it was in my anti-Calvinism days too. Basically, anything that smacked of the 5 points was suspect in my mind and Piper was top of the list. Then I listened to him a couple of times and read a couple of books because of my friend and realized he wasn’t that bad even though I wasn’t a Calvinist.

      And then I just got over it and now I generally like/respect him. I have my quibbles about phrases and emphasis, but I’ve been blessed by his ministry both first and second-hand,

      • I like Elizabeth’s famous dictum: He was the Word that spake it, and what that Word did make it, that I believe and take it.

      • Nice piece, Derek.

        “In, under, and with” means that Christ IS IN the Supper…IS IN Baptism…because He promised to be in it. He never commanded that we do anything, where He actually wouldn’t be present in it, for us. So He’s in it. He’s ‘all over it…the sacrament, for us…and we (unlike the Catholics) cannot explain ‘how’. For us it’s enough to know that He is.

        One very easy to read and accessible book on Lutheranism is a new one out by Steven Paulson, titled (appropriately) “Lutheran Theology”.
        One should read it just to be able to properly understand orthodox Lutheranism (and they’ll be ahead of the game over about 90% of Lutherans :D)

        Thanks!

  6. Those darn Heidegger quoters! Actually, funny enough, at the local Christian bookstore, in the Christian living section, right next to the latest Keller book and Billy Graham bio, was Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’. Utterly out-of-place. I laughed out loud.

    But (and maybe it’s my inner contrarian) Lutheranism always seemed to me to be what *should* be in Calvinisms position, culturally. It seems way more regular-joe to me, but in my defense, my mom grew up Lutheran, my dad an Episcopal altar-boy, and i went to Lutheran churches for VBS every year (as well as attending a WELS church for 6 months).

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  8. Quite a number of years ago, before I began to path to Reformed theology, I looked into Lutheranism through the book The Spirituality of the Cross by G.E. Veith. Definitely a popular level book, but short. The next step from there was the Book of Concord, but it seemed quite foreboding. I began reading Sproul and Packer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

  9. So I was listening to Romans while out running last year (the New Testament read aloud by Johnny Cash–it’s amazing), and I got to chapter 9 and it punched me hard, directly in the face.

    I spent most of the subsequent year wrestling with it, without ever picking up a popular book about Calvinism (unless you count Augustine’s Confessions :P ). What I’m trying to get at is that Calvinism is associated with a particular doctrine about predestination, and I’m not sure Lutheranism has a comparable “hook doctrine” (I know that Justification by faith alone is prominent in Lutheranism, but that’s not uniquely Lutheran by any means). So if you are reading the Bible and you come across Romans 9 (or Ephesians 1 or John 6), you may already know ahead of time what Calvinists think Romans 9 means. And if you find yourself thinking that is in fact what Romans 9 means, where does your mind go? Calvinism.

    I’m not expressing this very well–what I am trying to say is that because Calvinism is widely associated with particularly distinctive doctrines that are actively rejected by other Protestant tribes, if a person starts wrestling with those doctrines, they’re going to pretty much look to Calvinism, without ever having picked up Piper.

      • I was coming at it from outside “our church culture” though, as an ex-Mormon and then neopagan, just newly in the process of turning to Christ.

        But still, I knew that unconditional election was the U in TULIP. And I’m not sure that there’s a comparable doctrine that would make the average non-Lutheran go “oh snap, I guess I may be a Lutheran!”

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