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.

2 thoughts on “Luther’s Extra-Calvinisticum? (Updated)

  1. Always nice to find Richard Muller being cited at length.
    I’m no Luther scholar either, but when I hear contemporary theologians invoking Luther it often seems to me as if he’s being read in anachronistic ways, saying things that no one of his time period would ever say. Which makes me wonder if at least sometimes his poetic and provocative rhetoric has been taken as technical and literal.

    • Yes, that issue of Luther’s rhetoric is very important. And I did wonder if I am maybe taking him too at face value here. I would love to know what an actual Luther scholar has to say about it.

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