Gene Veith has a post over at Cranach entitled “Why Is Calvinism So Influential and Not Lutheranism?” He’s responding to a D.G. Hart post over at Hart’s Old Life blog.
As someone baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, literally a former altar boy/acolyte, who left the church about five minutes after his confirmation, but who returned to the faith in his 20s only to attend Wesleyan churches and, finally, to join Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York (and leave after eight years), let me try and explain the appeal of Calvinism over Lutheranism for many. (I’m speaking more about its contemporary manifestations than its influence in the U.S. over the past three centuries, although the two are not completely unrelated, I don’t think.)
Calvinism, like other evangelical movements, offers new beginnings. Under powerful preaching, even the baptized come to believe they are starting a new life in Christ. Before they may have experienced, or been subjected to, dead religion with its rituals and liturgies, but now they have living faith — a personal relationship with the Risen Christ. They often mark their lives by the day they came to faith (which had nothing to do with water baptism) and how nothing was the same after that. We love the idea of the do-over. The Lutheran teaching of continual repentance does not have the same psychological effect (nor is it intended to).
Calvinism also offers some of the more potent expository preaching you will hear. Where are the Lutheran Spurgeons or Martyn Lloyd-Jones? Or, for that matter, Tim Kellers? The Law-Gospel paradigm in the pulpit does not lend itself easily to the kind of dynamism, for lack of a better word, often found in Reformed pulpits — preaching that often offers specific direction to the person in the pew, over and above repentance. Lutherans can roll their eyes at such preaching, but it is precious in the life of Reformed Christians, as far as sustaining their life of faith goes.
There is also the call to young Christians, especially young men, to (a) discipline themselves and (b) engage the culture. Don’t underestimate the motivational power of these expectations. For example, 2K theology reads too often like defeat in the public square — “Christ is for church on Sundays; at your humdrum job, just keep your head down, do your duty, be obedient, pay your bills, and wait until the Eschaton.” And double predestination, as horrifying as it is, at least makes a kind of logical sense and also has a role to play in motivating the baby believer: “God chooses whom to adopt. And since everyone born deserves to go to hell because of sin, we should be grateful he chooses to save anyone at all.” That’s actually comforting — if you’re convinced you’re one of the Elect. Then you can rest in the fact that you can never fall away, that your faith will never ultimately fail, that God has plucked you out of the garbage bin that is Gehenna* — and for a purpose: not only to grant you eternal life but also to glorify Him.
But how can I know I’m elect? Calvinists have no problem with the subjective element in faith. Romans 8: 16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Read 2 Peter — it talks of believers making their calling and election sure. (It also talks of making “every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.” Try and preach that in a confessional Lutheran church and you’ll be chastised for confusing law and Gospel.) The Lutheran doctrine of predestination makes little sense to most non-Lutherans: a monergism that also says you can lose your justification. Doesn’t the Scripture say that God will glorify all who are justified? Etc. Etc. That subjective element in Calvinism is then balanced by weighty tomes of systematic theology to exercise your noggin.
Calvinism is also a faith for people on the run. Literally. It was not rooted in one country, dependent on a nation-state or powerful patron. Calvin tried to settle in Geneva, but even there things did not always go well with the locals, who either resented the intrusions in their lives or refused to divvy up power in a specific way. (Calvin and Farel were exiled in 1538.) So whether persecuted by authorities (France, England) or resented by Christians of other temperaments, Calvinism learned to pack light, cut to the chase, emphasize only what’s absolutely necessary. No time to build cathedrals or altars. Even images misdirect. It’s a tabernacle kind of church, not a Temple. In a world of multiple (false) choices and distractions, a faith that does the honing and pruning for you no doubt appeals.
Calvinism is also more Jewish than Greco-Roman. The emphasis on the unseen God, on iconoclasm, on the covenant and its blessings, on the law in the life of the believer makes that seam between testaments less unsightly.
If this is all true, why do so many people leave, in some cases flee, Calvinism/Reformed churches?
1. They come to believe that limited atonement is simply not biblical. It may be the logical consequence of double predestination, but if the Faith were reasonable in that sense, where do you begin and end? What is “reasonable” about the Incarnation or the Cross?
2. The lack of ecumenicity (or even simple courtesy). Lutherans are often slammed for teaching closed Communion, but it does not deny the name “Christian” to Arminians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or, for that matter, the Reformed. Many Reformed do not believe Catholics and Orthodox are Christians at all, because these communions embrace a false gospel. But that means the overwhelming majority of all Christians who have ever lived got it so wrong that they are almost certainly lost. Which leaves an Elect pool of about 11 people, relatively speaking. Then what constituted the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, for all those centuries before Calvin, Zwingli, Beza, Vermigli, et al.? For a tradition that prizes logic, this doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, when the Church was promised the Holy Spirit and Christ’s abiding presence.
3. Endless debates and factions — including the paedo-/credo-baptism controversy. Now, Lutherans have seen their splits, too. Pietist vs. confessionalist, mainline (ELCA) vs. “conservative” (LCMS, WELS, and others), confessionalists who don’t ordain women (LCMS, WELS) vs. confessionalists who do (NALC), and the variety of independent bodies. But when you start debating whether God hated the reprobate before the Fall or only after the Fall, it’s time to go do something else with your life.
4. The sacraments, as they’ve been understood, again, by the overwhelming majority of all Christians throughout time: baptismal regeneration and the real bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist**. (I would add auricular confession to an ordained minister/priest and absolution.) Calvinism has this gaping hole in its center — a hole that the Federal Vision folk have tried to address by “thickening” their concept of covenant baptism and the Real Presence, which has raised the ire of those who believe FV types have rejected key points of the historic Reformed confessions. (Google all of R. Scott Clark’s blog posts contra Doug Wilson, and also the Peter Leithart heresy trial.)
Lutheranism is never going to be as “appealing” as Calvinism. It’s going to have to settle for being a church that former/burned-out Reformed repair to.
UPDATE (11/30/13): I see RealClearReligion (and First Thoughts—thanks, guys) has linked to this piece. In light of the vastly increased traffic, I thought I’d add some thoughts regarding From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Kindle edition), which I’m almost finished reading. It’s as effective a contemporary defense of definite (limited) atonement as you are going to find. It takes seriously all objections, confronts the tough counter Bible verses, and swats away earlier defenses of the doctrine that the authors feel are inadequate or forms of special pleading.
Certainly the Reformed construal of the atonement is more coherent than the Lutheran. Most confessional Lutherans believe in something commonly referred to as Universal Objective Justification. In short, when Jesus said “It is finished,” he meant that the entire world had been reconciled to God by virtue of his sacrifice. (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”) Lutherans believe and teach that, on this basis, God loves everyone, that Christ died to atone for the sins of everyone, and that no one has been reprobated. In other words, no one need go to hell for God’s justice to be satisfied or his glory to be increased. It is all taken care of at the Cross.
Sounds lovely. And yet: confessional Lutherans also believe in monergism. We do not choose Christ; Christ chooses us. The number of the Elect is fixed. We are justified at the Cross. We are justified in baptism. We are justified by faith. Yet we can lose this very real reconciliation to the Father by a very real act of apostasy. We can say No to God. We can choose to reject the Good News. We can wallow in unbelief. How this is possible if God is solely responsible for our salvation, how this is possible given the “golden chain” drawn by Paul in Romans 8 (“and whom he justified, them he also glorified”), is chalked up to “mystery.” If the human contribution to the economy of salvation is purely a negative one, then isn’t darkness finally stronger than the Light in some souls? Isn’t the power of Death greater than the power of the revivifying Spirit? Doesn’t this smack of a certain Manichaeism, where Evil dukes it out with Good — and let the stronger impulse win?
Yes, despite the nuance, Lutherans never really traveled far from Luther himself, whose views on election were formed by Augustine’s and Peter Lombard’s (see David Hogg’s chapter, ““Sufficient for All, Efficient for Some” Definite Atonement in the Medieval Church,” for an enlightening analysis of the great “Sentences” writer’s theology of atonement). In short, the Elect will persevere. God’s will will be done. The non-Elect, even though believed to have been really, truly justified, will finally fall away. It is as certain in Lutheranism as it is in Reformed theology. Lutherans have simply confronted the pastoral issue of assurance by preaching a “universal” love directed toward all sinners, even though God still has an Elect he will certainly preserve. Why posit a universal atonement in light of this is what makes Reformed heads spin. Mine too. I get a similar form of vertigo when Reformed apologists say God truly loves all people because even the reprobate enjoy rain in due season.
OK — so Bob gets eternal live, peace, and joy. And I get rain on a spring day. Yay me!
I understand that Reason is a whore. But even whores have rights. Including the right to appeal to the law of noncontradiction.
Daniel Strange’s chapter in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her confronts how the very idea of universal atonement implies a universal accessibility to the Gospel. Although he is addressing the Arminian use of the doctrine, not the Lutheran, one does take his point: What is the point of a universal atonement when we all know that the majority of people who have ever lived to date have never even heard the Gospel? Isn’t the atonement thereby “limited”? It seems that Christ’s purpose in dying for all is frustrated by geography, technology, and evil political regimes.
Thomas Schreiner’s chapter, ” ‘Problematic’ Texts for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles,” may be where a lot of Lutherans and other non-Reformed want to start. Schreiner does yeoman’s work in tacking 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. He makes a compelling case for a Reformed reading of 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Here Schreiner (and others) interprets Savior to mean something other than bringer of spiritual salvation, more like “preserver,” given that the referent is “the living God,” namely, the Father, and not, say, “the Lord,” or Christ.
But Schreiner meets his match at 2 Peter 2:1: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Schreiner:
Is there a reading that treats this text plausibly, and consistently interprets what Peter says about the false teachers in both verse 1 and verses 20–22? I suggest there is: Peter’s language is phenomenological. In other words, it appeared as if the Lord had purchased the false teachers with his blood (v. 1), though they actually did not truly belong to the Lord. Similarly, the false teachers gave every appearance of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (v. 20) and appeared to have known the righteous saving way (v. 21).
Is that an honest reading of the passage?
I would love to see a full-throated Lutheran (or Arminian) response to this book. The idea of “fairness” isn’t going to go very far with Reformed theologians and apologists. If you believe everyone deserves to suffer an eternal, conscious torment because they inherited a sin nature than ensures they cannot not sin, well, I guess we could all go to hell and God would still be just. I think many could, and do, argue that this is a game rigged against sentient beings with nerve endings brought into existence simply for the purpose of torturing them. And that this would make God the cosmic sadist atheists accuse him of being. If the Fall is the true basis for this righteous judgment, then why not bring the curtain down on history before any more men, women, and (presumably) non-Elect children are subjected to that kind of endless horror? Well, we’re back to the Elect. The world, and the reprobate, are preserved for the sake of the Elect. Which I think those critics would have preferred limited to six or seven — again, given the amount of agony this whole enterprise entails. Makes it hard to make the argument for the preciousness of every human life, no, when so many human lives are little more than Gehenna fodder?
Which is a way of asking the question I think a lot of even Christian foik ask in the deep, dark recesses of their fallen minds when considering the implications of definite atonement or the fate of the unevangelized: “Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, is this really the best you could do?”
Which is why we must always keep in mind that God, if worthy of the name, can only do right. Even when it seems like so much has gone so terribly wrong.
* It is unclear whether the wrath of God abides on the Elect, too, until they come to faith, or whether God loves the Elect even in their unconverted state because of their Elect status. But that would mean that the Elect are also justified from conception on, as opposed to being justified by faith. Discuss. Write me if there’s a fire.
** Here’s a provocative idea: how many churches demand that you kneel at an altar to receive Communion/the Lord’s Supper? Most RC churches have people stand in line to receive. Eastern Orthodox stand. Evangelicals receive sitting, as you would in an ordinary meal. As far as American Christianity goes, on any given Sunday, only Lutherans and High Church Anglicans still kneel at an altar. I do wonder if that posture is off-putting to many, who deem it humiliating, even when told they are kneeling before Christ and not men. I have no data to back this up — I’m just throwing it out there.