Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, its also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

15 thoughts on “Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

  1. “What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.”

    Is it the case that Evangelicalism shares the doctrine of justification by faith with the Reformers? It seems to me that today’s Evangelicals have redefined “justification” and “faith” in a way that’s closer to the Roman rather than the Reformational understanding. When I hear my more-educated-than-most-Evangelicals friends in our apologetics club explain soteriology, I often forget I’m talking to a Protestant. I guess that probably sounds harsh, but I’m not saying that to be pugnacious.

  2. I have a hard time with Trueman; surprise surprise, right? 🙂 It isn’t just him, but he represents it well; an attitude towards anyone who is not a confessionally reformed Christian—i.e. most evangelicals. It’s an smugness even sectarian attitude towards those who aren’t in lockstep with the doctrinal norms that Trueman affirms. So it makes it very hard for me to read anything from him and not have this in the back of my mind; particularly when he is critiquing evangelicals. My guess is that he, like Horton, Riddlebarger, et al (i.e. White Horse Inn) wouldn’t even identify as an evangelical; that instead he sees himself as standing in the line of the truly Protestant faith developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

    I think the work that your Doktorvater is doing comes with a much better attitude; as such his critiques and correctives are much more receivable than what we get from someone like Trueman (who’s cleaning house at WTS etc).

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  4. I find this whole discussion important. I agree that Trueman can be particular in his understanding of who is inside the faith, yet his points remain valid. Evangelicalism has a penchant to claim anyone from the past as agreeing with them, regardless of their actual closeness.
    I am, like Trueman, intrigued with seeing how many post-modern, just believe evangelicals claim the reformation.

  5. I think some of the comments on this post illustrate what Trueman is getting at: the reformation and the reformers in particular are not just the five solas, but encompass an entire corpus of ideas and thoughts that (as you so rightly said) NEED to be wrestled with.

    I would also want to make a distinction between ecumenical spirit and evangelicalism. I think Trueman does a good job doing this by stating how much respect he has for Missouri Synod Lutherans, who disagree with him deeply, but view him as a brother and are open to those discussing while still holding beliefs. This is the right kind of ecumenical spirit that Trueman is hoping for, and I think you are as well in this article.

    This spirit, however, is not evangelicalism. Evangelicalism smooths over much of these topics, talks about them very little for the sake of unity, and so denegrates these issues to “secondary issues.” It is this practice that Trueman (I think rightly) says that Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, Olevianus, and all the reformers would strongly disapprove of.

    • “This spirit, however, is not evangelicalism. Evangelicalism smooths over much of these topics, talks about them very little for the sake of unity, and so denegrates these issues to ‘secondary issues.'”

      Bingo. Evangelicals are anti-doctrinal. I converted to old school Presbyterianism while attending a nondenominational, evangelical church, and no matter how cordial I am in bringing up doctrinal issues, I am often brushed off as being divisive and overly critical. Now, I mostly keep my mouth shut in public and pray for an Orthodox Presbyterian church plant within driving distance of my home.

    • Andy, thanks for the comment. I get the concern–I really do. As you note, I’m not arguing for an ecumenism or appreciation of history that downplays doctrinal distinctives, but one that rather is okay beginning with shared glories (and failings). In fact, I think a case could be made that much of what ails the contemporary church is rooted in a failure to appreciate even those shared points of doctrine properly.

      One more point I would make, though, is that I think I’m also somewhat wary of critiques of “Evangelicalism.” Evangelicalism can mean a lot of things and has a wide variety within it. Much of it is anti-doctrinal, which is wrong, but I honestly have a hard time imagining that’s the sector that’s throwing big Jamborees dedicated to Luther’s rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith, you know?

      • Very true.

        That in itself, though, shows the problem with the concept of evangelicalism. Who are we talking about? Even the issues you outline above (“the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth”) are not evangelical “musts.”

        Let’s pray and love one another, but also be able to disagree.

        (Obviously, as a reformed Christian, I want to recognize that I have a certain Nepoleanic complex on this issue, steming from several conversations where my convictions are passed over as un-important. We have to be careful of letting that create bitterness. I truly am thankful for non-reformed congregation that propogate the Gospel: I just wish they were more open to dialogue on these issues.)

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  8. Derek,

    It is true that Calvin was generally more ecumenical to other Protestants than was Luther and he was critical of Luther’s rhetoric on the Supper but there is a problem with the way you relate Calvin to Luther. You write,

    While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

    This goes to the heart of what is wrong with “evangelicalism” (as if such a thing really exists. See Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism. Calvin never countenanced the marginalizing of the doctrine of justification. In his 1549 response to the Leipzig Interim, which he called the Adultero-Interim he announced that there were hills, as it were, on which he was prepared to die: properly regulated worship and the doctrine of justification, in that order. He never varied from that.

    Further, as Alister McGrath observed more than twenty years ago, it was not Luther but the Reformed theologian J. H. Alsted (1588–1638) who wrote the justification is the articlus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. He was only re-stating what he had learned from Calvin and all the rest of Calvin’s orthodox successors. The Reformed were no less committed to the centrality of the doctrine of justification than Luther. For Calvin et al it was not just a “nodal” doctrine, though it certainly is that. It was, as Calvin said, “the principal axis” of the Christian faith. It is the sine qua non.

    There is little evidence that, since the Second Great Awakening, the doctrine of justification plays any such role in American evangelical theology, piety, and practice. The only truly essential doctrine for both the 60 million evangelical laity and their para-ecclesial leaders is the priority of a personal encounter with the risen Christ. Everything else is negotiable. When push comes to shove, American evangelicals are neither with Luther nor with Calvin,. They are with Thomas Muntzer. They increasingly share his doctrine of Scripture, his Christology, his soteriology, his piety, and in the so-called “Christian Right,” his practice and politics. Any real connection between American evangelicals and the Reformation was attenuated in the 1st Great Awakening, fatally weakened at Cane Ridge, and died at Oberlin. Sadly, it seems as if Carl Henry & co. were a blessed, temporary anomaly.

    • Scott,

      Thanks for commenting. This is very informative and helpful. I will say, though, I wonder if you may have gotten the wrong impression of that paragraph,

      First, I know Luther wasn’t the origin of the “article of standing or falling.” I also know that Calvin was aggressive and bold in defending it, seeing it as you say, “the principle axis.” He wasn’t who I had in mind when I was suggesting that some dispute it’s status as an article of standing or falling. I was referring to theologians like John Webster who have criticized the way some Lutherans have made the doctrine of justification a sort of principial doctrine the way Barth made “christocentrism” a principial, architectural discremen for doctrinal construction.

      Second, that Calvin and his heirs were bold about the centrality of justification would seem to rather reinforce my point that being able to celebrate the doctrine of justification together is a no small thing, wouldn’t it? So that if modern Evangelicalism (or at least the sector who might be tempted to celebrate the Reformation next year) shares the centrality of justification by faith across its various sub-groups, that is still something worth celebrating, even if it’s not the full instantiation of all the priorities and theological themes that the Reformers championed.

      As for your general portrait of Evangelicalism’s core, I don’t think I share it, but I haven’t read Hart or the broader literature on it.

  9. Derek,

    Thanks for this.

    I share Muller’s skepticism regarding Schweizer’s Zentraldogma theory. Certainly the Reformed had no such thing, not predestination and not justification. I doubt that Lutheran orthodoxy had a Central Dogma either. When, in the classical period, the Reformed argued with the Lutherans they didn’t argue about the doctrine of justification. They argued about Christology, worship, baptism, the supper, and perseverance among other things. I don’t think that either tradition deduced its system from a Central Dogma.

    I responded as I did because I perceive that many self-described evangelicals have marginalized the doctrine of justification. So it’s a genuine question in my mind whether evangelicals really do celebrate justification sola fide?

    Regarding the history of evangelicalism (and other issues addressed in this exchange), I added a bibliography to today’s HB post..

  10. Pingback: A Friendly Reply To Derek Regarding Calvin, Luther, & The Falling Of The Church
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