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.
Reading 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