Luther’s Extra-Calvinisticum? (Updated)

martin-lutherStudying theology is largely a matter of learning nerdy, specialized jargon. Well, maybe not. Still, it feels that way sometimes. “Extra-Calvinisticum” (the Calvinistic extra) is one of those super-nerdy, theological terms.  (Pro-tip: learning these and throwing them out randomly at parties does not make you cooler–not even in seminary). It comes from the debates of the post-Reformation period where Reformed (Calvinist) theologians were going back and forth with the Lutherans over the nature of the Lord’s Supper and the Christology (view of Christ’s nature as the Godman) that shapes it.

The Lutherans came up with the term to describe what they took to be the distinctively Calvinist view of the union of Christ’s human and divine natures in one person. Richard Muller helpfully summarizes it for us:

extra calvinisticum: The Calvinistic extra; a term used by the Lutherans to refer to the Reformed insistence on the utter transcendence of the human nature of Christ by the Second Person of the Trinity in and during the incarnation. The Reformed argued that the Word is fully united to but never totally contained within the human nature and, therefore, even in the incarnation is to be conceived of as beyond or outside of (extra) the human nature.
In response to the Calvinistic extra, the Lutherans taught the maxim, Logos non extra carnem. It is clear that the so-called extra calvinisticum is not the invention of the Calvinists but is a christological concept, safeguarding both the transcendence of Christ’s divinity and the integrity of Christ’s humanity, known to and used by the fathers of the first five centuries, including Athanasius and Augustine.
It is also clear (1) that Reformed emphasis on the concept arose out of the tendency of Reformed christology to teach acommunicatio idiomatum in concreto over against the perceived Lutheran emphasis upon acommunicatio idiomatum in abstracto and (2) that the polarization of Lutheran and Reformed Christologies owed much to the debate over the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, in which the Lutherans emphasized the real but illocal presence of Christ’s body and blood by reason of the communicated omnipresence of the Logos and the Reformed emphasized the transcendence of the divine and the heavenly location of Christ’s body. Against the Lutherans, the Reformed interpreted the extra calvinisticum in terms of the maxim Finitum non capax infiniti, the finite is incapable of the infinite. In other words, the finite humanity of Christ is incapable of receiving or grasping infinite attributes such as omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience.”
Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 111.

So there you have it. The Calvinistic “extra” means that while the Son is really and truly present through his human nature–it is precisely his human nature–he is not limited or boxed in by it. He transcends beyond it as he always has. Now, again, I’d emphasize here that recent scholarship has shown this “extra” isn’t just a Calvinistic quirk. It can be found in Athanasius, Augustine, and others. As some scholars have noted, it might just as well have been called the extra-Patristicum.

Here’s the really funny bit, though. It seems like it wasn’t just something the Fathers or the Reformed taught, contra the Lutherans. It actually appears Luther himself might taught it–even though he came to different conclusions with respect to the communication of attributes and the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

I ran across this passage in my reading this last week and though I’m clearly not a Luther scholar this seems like clear statement of the “extra” nature of the Son’s divinity:

Now we revert to our text, which is easily understood on the basis of what we have said: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven.” Here Christ is really pointing to His two natures, which dwell in one person. He indicates that His Father is God and that His mother is human, that both have the one and the same Son, our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as our Creed also teaches. Inasmuch as Christ is God, He is in heaven above from eternity, together with the Father. When He was born of the Virgin Mary, however, He descended from heaven; but at the same time He remained in heaven. He also ascended into heaven, but He was also in heaven before His ascension.

-Luther’s Works, Volume 22: Sermons on the Gospel of John, 1-4, p. 324-325 

Here we see that the unity of the divine and human natures in Christ in no way means that the divine nature is limited to the location of the human nature. So, though the eternal Son of God was born by the Virgin Mary and lay in a manger as an infant, walked around the Sea of Galilee, and was subject to all the regular constraints and limitations of human finitude, Luther says that in no ways means that he ceased being the omnipresent, eternal, infinite one according to his divine nature.

Why does this matter? Is this really just an excuse to learn a bit of history and a nerdy, theological term? Well, not only that. First, historically–if I’m not totally misreading things–there were even more similarities between Calvin and Luther than some might be tempted to believe.

Second, at the very least, it simply offers us another excuse to wonder at and worship the glorious person of Jesus. Jesus is the eternal Son, who, while he sustained the world, holding all things into being, is the one who was simultaneously humbled, taking upon himself human form, submitting to all the vicissitudes and tragedies of our existences, so that he might endure, overcome, and transform them for us and our salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria 

P.S. I am open to correction this from students/scholars of Luther. Just reporting what I read here.

Update: Kyle Drake, a Ph.D. student work on the development of the extra-Calvinisticum over at Saint Louis University very helpfully (and charitably) wrote me a counter-reading of the text in Luther I highlighted. Not being a Luther expert–or an expert of any sort, for that matter–I thought it worth sharing. I’m not sure I’m going to quickly decide against my own reading, but this is certainly an important dimension worth considering.

The quote that you have supplied from Luther is indeed interesting especially considering that the Sermon appears to be from 1538. However, it is not properly referring to the extra because of Luther’s understanding of the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature. He say “Inasmuch as Christ is God, He is in heaven above from eternity, together with the Father.” This is one component of the extra that Christ exists before the incarnation as the logos asarkos, this is one of the elements of the doctrine that Barth denied. However, how Luther continues things gets more unclear, “When He was born of the Virgin Mary, however, He descended from heaven; but at the same time He remained in heaven. He also ascended into heaven, but He was also in heaven before His ascension.” Luther gives no indication here how Christ “remains in heaven” or is “in heaven before His ascension.”  Because of his doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ, that the human body of Christ really partakes of the divine property of omnipresence, it is possibly that he holds that the human nature of Christ is in heaven as well from the moment of incarnation. This was actually a heated debate in later Lutheranism over the interpretation of Luther’s understanding of ubiquity. Johann Brenz argued that Luther intended to teach a necessary ubiquity of the humanity from the moment of incarnation. While Martin Chemnitz argued that the body became omnipresent after the glorification and then only when Christ willed it to be so. I think that this quote from Luther could be interpreted along either Brenzian or Chemnitzian lines.

Luther’s Very Scholastic Reformation

Luther hammerI’ve been enjoying working my way through William Jan Van Asselt’s edited volume on Reformed Scholasticism lately. One of the main points the various contributors have been underscoring is that far from being a specific body of content, scholastic theology ought to be seen rather as a method of approach that could be used by various theological perspectives. Indeed, nowhere is this highlighted best than when we consider what is usually painted as the explosive, revolutionary act that kicked off the Reformation:

When, as tradition has it, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his theses on indulgences to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg in 1517, the hammer blows appeared to usher in a new era for the church. Luther’s act is often considered the beginning of the Reformation. However, a close look at the theses will make it clear that they do not condemn indulgences as such, but only the misuse of them. When it comes to content, Luther’s first act of reform was therefore more medieval than has commonly been assumed.

But the form of this important act in the history of the church also must be seen against a medieval background. Nailing theses to a door was not an unusual thing to do, since theological disputations were regularly held on theses that previously had been made known. When Luther nailed those famous theses to the door, his intention was to enter into a theological disputation. The disputation genre had developed in the medieval schools and formed an important part of the scholastic method. Luther’s hammer blows may have drawn the curtains on the Middle Ages and heralded a new era in church history, but as such his first act of reformation was entirely medieval.

Added to this paradox is the fact that Luther engaged in disputes against scholastic theology only shortly before nailing the ninety-five to the door. In his attack on scholastic theology, Luther thus used an element from scholastic method, the disputation. This was because Luther understood the concept of scholasticism in terms of content, as representing the teaching of Aristotle and William of Ockham. Luther’s Galatians commentary (1519), whose contents identify it as a Reformed commentary, was similarly the fruit of a medieval pedagogical method, the lectio (reading), in which a (biblical) book was read and commented on by the master during his lectures.

–Pieter L. Rouwiendal, “The Method of the Schools: Medieval Scholasticism.” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Willem J. Van Asselt. Ed. (Kindle Locations 1140-1152). Reformation Heritage Books.

Far from being a great anti-scholastic revolt, Luther’s initial reformatory foray was scholastic, both in content and in method. It was somewhat of an unintentional revolution initiated by professor thoroughly shaped and formed from within a tradition, not the work of an outsider rebel disrupting the system from without.

At the expense of moralizing an interesting historical tidbit, there might be a bit of cautioning, or at least chastening, word for would-be theological revolutionaries. Luther, Calvin, and the other great Reformers were all, for the most part, trained and schooled in the classic texts, sources, methods, and theology, which is what allowed them to be so devastatingly effective, both in retaining the best of the catholic tradition, as well as criticizing its excesses. There is likely more value in learning and submitting to the tradition, doing the hard work of study and so forth, than hot-blooded young types looking to reshape the Church want to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Dangers and One Hope for Pastors

parsonCalvin was nothing if not a theologian in service of the church. As much as he had to say about justification, faith, salvation in Christ, all of that was for the sake of the church and the right worship of God. To that end, he devoted a significant section to the proper calling and role of elders within the Christ’s Church, not only in the Institutes, but within the commentaries. As a careful student of the apostles though, he was not only concerned with right order but faithful pastoral care as we can see by his expansive comments on 1 Peter 5:1-4.

First he lays out the 3-fold structure of Peter’s instructions for pastors:

In exhorting pastors to their duty, he points out especially three vices which are found to prevail much, even sloth, desire of gain, and lust for power. In opposition to the first vice he sets alacrity or a willing attention; to the second, liberality; to the third, moderation and meekness, by which they are to keep themselves in their own rank or station.

Commentary on Catholic Epistles, 1 Peter 5:1-4

He then goes on to comment on the three at length, notably devoting special attention to the issue of pride or power:

  1. Sloth – He then says that pastors ought not to exercise care over the flock of the Lord, as far only as they are constrained; for they who seek to do no more than what constraint compels them, do their work formally and negligently. Hence he would have them to do willingly what they do, as those who are really devoted to their work.
  2. Avarice – To correct avarice, he bids them to perform their office with a ready mind; for whosoever has not this end in view, to spend himself and his labor disinterestedly and gladly in behalf of the Church, is not a minister of Christ, but a slave to his own stomach and his purse.
  3. Lust for Power – The third vice which he condemns is a lust for exercising power or dominion. But it may be asked, what kind of power does he mean? This, as it seems to me, may be gathered from the opposite clause, in which he bids them to be examples to the flock. It is the same as though he had said that they are to preside for this end, to be eminent in holiness, which cannot be, except they humbly subject themselves and their life to the same common rule. What stands opposed to this virtue is tyrannical pride, when the pastor exempts himself from all subjection, and tyrannizes over the Church. It was for this that Ezekiel condemned the false prophets, that is, that . (Ezekiel 34:4.) Christ also condemned the Pharisees, because they laid intolerable burdens on the shoulders of the people which they would not touch, no, not with a finger. (Matthew 23:4.) This imperious rigour, then, which ungodly pastors exercise over the Church, cannot be corrected, except their authority be restrained, so that they may rule in such a way as to afford an example of a godly life.

-ibid., v. 1-3

Far from encouraging an overweening authoritarianism, Calvin exhorts pastors not to keep themselves above the flock. Spiritual leadership does not equal license, or an invitation to “tyrannical pride.” “Imperious rigor” is not what is needed, but the “example of a godly life” in which pastors are chief in pursuit of holiness before anything else. Then, he moves to impress them with the importance of following the Peter’s commands by acknowledging the real obstacles pastors face:

Except pastors retain this end in view, it can by no means be that they will in good earnest proceed in the course of their calling, but will, on the contrary, become often faint; for there are innumerable hindrances which are sufficient to discourage the most prudent. They have often to do with ungrateful men, from whom they receive an unworthy reward; long and great labors are often in vain; Satan sometimes prevails in his wicked devices.

-ibid. v. 4

In fact, there is only “one remedy” for the discouragement they face amidst their many labors:

…to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ. Thus it will be, that he, who seems to derive no encouragement from men, will assiduously go on in his labors, knowing that a great reward is prepared for him by the Lord. And further, lest a protracted expectation should produce languor, he at the same time sets forth the greatness of the reward, which is sufficient to compensate for all delay: An unfading crown of glory, he says, awaits you.

-ibid. v 4

Finally, he calls attention to the fact that in the end Peter “calls Christ the chief Pastor”:

for we are to rule the Church under him and in his name, in no other way but that he should be still really the Pastor. So the word chief here does not only mean the principal, but him whose power all others ought to submit to, as they do not represent him except according to his command and authority.

-ibid, v. 4

This is a warning and a comfort. All pastoral authority is exercised only under the authority of Christ–remembering this will keep us from that tyrannical pride and vice. The comfort comes in knowing that as we pastor and fail, we have an unfailing Pastor who is keeping care over our souls as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Guest Post: Learning to Pray With Martin Luther

One of my college students worked up a piece for the rest of my college group analyzing and summarizing Martin Luther’s instructions on prayer to his barber, Master Peter. I figured I’d post it here for easy access and to bless the blog-readers as well. Also, I’m really proud of him.

Learning Prayer through a Letter from Martin Luther to His Barber

By Matt Poblenz

            Many people think that liturgy stifles spiritual growth, but Martin Luther believed differently. In Luther’s letter to his barber (Peter), we see how he views liturgy and bible reading in conjunction to, what he deems one of the most important disciplines, prayer. Luther starts off his letter with a quick prayer for his recipient, that “our dear Lord grant to you and everybody to do it (prayer) better than I!” This petition not only shows the importance of prayer to Luther, but this transitions him into his opening statements about prayer.

Before, Luther walks Peter (and us) through prayer step by step, he has some remarks about prayer. The main subject, in these opening remarks is the importance of prayer. Luther believes “it is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night.” He also instructs to guard yourself from business or ideas that can cause us to be distracted from prayer. Furthermore, he offers up two places to prayer: a quiet solitary place (for Luther his room), and a gathering of believers meeting to worship (for Luther Church during service). The places Luther suggests help limit the pacing ideas or business that can distract us from prayer.

luther            Luther does admit that there will be causes of emergency when the Lord’s work may have to come before a chance to pray. But, Luther instructs that in these cases we be mindful of God’s word and turn our action into prayer through the act of blessing. Likewise, Luther encourages us to meditate on our prayer and corresponding scripture through out the day and because “one must unceasingly guard against sin and wrong-doing, something one cannot do unless one fears God and keeps his commandment in mind.” Luther asks that we keep a habit of prayer, because if not, “we become lax and lazy, cool and listless toward prayer.” Furthermore, “the Devil that oppresses us is not lazy or careless, and our flesh is to ready and eager to sin and is disinclined to the spirit of power.”

After his opening statements regarding the importance of prayer Luther begins his break down of prayer. He has a simple four step process for prayer. First, one must humble themselves and acknowledge their place before God; “O Heavenly Father, dear God, I am a poor unworthy sinner.” Your opening may very, but it is important to acknowledge your place and humble yourself because it prepares your heart for the rest of the prayer. You become prepared in multiple ways, because you are reminded of God’s power, beauty, and love. Luther concludes his opening, “I do not deserve to raise my eyes or hands toward you or to pray. But because you have commanded us all to pray and have promised to hear us and through your Son Jesus Christ have taught us both how and what to pray, I come to you in obedience to your word, trusting in your gracious promise.”

Second, Luther recites the passage from the bible. This part can also be a section from a catechism or a hymn, but Luther suggests use of the holy scriptures. He recites the whole passage word for word from the bible ( like the Lord’s Prayer, ten commandments, or a whole psalm). This allows structure and focus as this is what we will be praying from.

Third, Luther states a section of the passage and prays through it by expounding upon it. Luther explains his method of expounding by using the ten commandments; “I divide each commandment into four parts, as I form a garland of four strands.” He continues, “that is I think of each commandment as, first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God commands of me so earnestly. Second I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth a prayer (petition).”

He gives a more specific example of his expounding methods by using the first commandment:

  1. He firsts states his instruction; “here I consider that God expects and teaches me to trust him sincerely in all things and that it is his most earnest purpose to be my God.”
  2. He then turns the commandment into a thanksgiving; “I give thanks for his infinite compassion by which he has come to me in such a fatherly way and unasked, unbidden, and unmerited, has offered to be my God, to care for me, and to be my comfort, guardian, help and strength in every time of need.”
  3. Luther, then confesses his sins regarding this area; “ I confess and acknowledge my great sin and ingratitude for having so shamefully despised such sublime teachings and such a precious gift throughout my whole life, and for having fearfully provoked his wrath by countless acts of idolatry.”
  4. Finally he petitions to God; “preserve my heart so that I shall never become forgetful and ungrateful, that I may never seek after other gods or other consolation on earth or in any creature, but cling truly and solely to you, my only God.”

After you conclude expounding upon sections of the scripture (as many as time permits or you’d like), you end the prayer with an Amen. However, make sure you speak the Amen firmly. Be confident that God has heard you: “do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘very well, God has heard my prayer; this is certainty and truth.’” Luther reminds us that Amen means “this is truth” and, therefore, our Amens should be said with a conviction that what you have prayed is true.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #11: God Listens to Prayer, But Don’t Expect Him to Obey

Time and again I find myself coming back to Luther because, even though he shoots his mouth off from time to time, you almost always come away with theological or practical wisdom you needed to hear. Take this gem of a quote on prayer:

It is impossible that God should not hear the prayers which with faith are made in Christ, though he give not according to the measure, manner, and time we dictate, for he will not be tied. In such sort dealt God with the mother of St Augustine; she prayed to God that her son might be converted, but as yet it would not be; then she ran to the learned, entreating them to persuade and advise him thereunto. She propounded unto him a marriage with a Christian virgin, that thereby he might be drawn and brought to the Christian faith, but all would not do as yet. But when our Lord God came thereto, he came to purpose, and made of him such an Augustine, that he became a great light to the church. St James says: “Pray one for another, for the prayer of the righteous availeth much.” Prayer is a powerful thing, for God has bound and tied himself thereunto. -Martin Luther, Table Talk

Luther clearly lays out a couple of key points we need to remember to keep straight for the sake of our theology and just general spiritual life.

  1. I wonder what my spiritual life would be like if I were trying to be Alfred instead of Batman.

    I wonder what my spiritual life would be like if I were trying to be Alfred instead of Batman.

    God is God. When you pray you’re making a request of your Lord, not commanding a servant. We often-times think about God and prayer as if he were our butler, like a divine Alfred (Batman’s butler/mentor) who manages to be very resourceful in helping us fulfill our missions out in the world. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. God is equipping and aiding us in being his servants, doing his will. You are not Batman. You are not the hero of your story–God is.  If we don’t get this straight, we end up thinking God failed us when it turns out he’s simply decided in his infinite wisdom that the “measure, manner, and time we dictate” are not the way that he wants to do things. God is not in your employ. He is not someone to be fired or reprimanded. He is not waiting for your year-end performance review. He really does know what he’s doing.

  2. God Listens. At the same time, God really does listen to prayers offered up through Jesus Christ. (John 14:13; 16:23) Whatever else we think about predestination and foreknowledge, we are told that God listens to our prayers for Christ’s sake. He has “bound” himself in that way, through his promises in Jesus. So many of us do not pray because we think God will not hear us. We think we’re too guilty, too small, too silly, too insignificant. Jesus reassures us that whatever might be true of us, in Christ, we are beloved of the Father and he will always hear us. (John 14:21) He is a God who keeps his promises, even if not always in the way that we expect them.

Luther tells us to keep these two truths in mind as we approach prayer. Between them we’re able to approach the God of the universe with the bold humility of faith–and that’s the goal isn’t it?

Soli Deo Gloria


The Gospel According to Luther

So, another confession I have to make: Martin Luther’s a favorite of mine. So sue me, I’m a Protestant. He’s an atrociously flawed man, but the more I read him, the more I love him despite the flaws. He is easily one of my top 5 “Dead Guys I’d love to have a Beer with.”

Despite the fact that he’s been dead for over 500 years and he’s a favorite whipping boy in many wings of Biblical studies, he’s kind of a must-read for anyone trying to get a handle on the New Testament or the Gospel. This absolutely brilliant passage on the Gospel is one of the many reasons why:

One should thus realize that there is only one Gospel, but that it is described by many apostles. Every single epistle of Paul and of Peter, as well as the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, is a Gospel, even though they do not record all the works and words of Christ, but one is shorter and includes less than another. There is not one of the four major Gospels anyway that includes all the words and works of Christ; nor is this necessary. Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or a prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the Gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered-a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, one this way, another that way.

For at its briefest, the Gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things. This much St. Paul takes in hand and spins out in his epistles. He bypasses all the miracles and incidents [in Christ’s ministry] which are set forth in the four Gospels, yet he includes the whole Gospel adequately and abundantly. This may be seen clearly and well in his greeting to the Romans [1:1-4], where he says what the Gospel is, and declares, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc.

There you have it. The Gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the Gospel in a nutshell. Just as there is no more than one Christ, so there is and may be no more than one Gospel….

– excerpt from Martin Luther, A Brief Instruction on What to Look For and Expect in the Gospels’