Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Calvinist or Lutheran?

Dr. David Koyzis asked an interesting question at First Things as to why Baptists use the modifier “Calvinist” but not “Lutheran.” This is in line with the standard discomfort which Reformed theologians always have towards Baptists who appropriate the terms “Reformed” or “Calvinistic.” Dr. Collin Garbarino, himself a Calvinistic Baptist, offered up a mostly helpful reply. Both installments, however, do exhibit the continued impoverished nomenclature that is involved in these sorts of discussions, for they both assume particular overly narrow meanings for each term.

For instance, Dr. Koyzis writes, “Calvin was much more explicit in setting forth a reformed ecclesiology than was Luther, who was more willing than his Genevan counterpart to tolerate different ecclesiastical polities in different geographical contexts.” This is quite false. Calvin had no quarrel with episcopalian churches in England and Scotland (we ought to remember that there were also episcopal polities among the Reformed churches of Hungary), and Geneva’s own form of “Presbyterian” church polity was quite different from the later English and Scottish Presbyterians. As is often noted, Calvin did not make discipline a mark of the church.

Dr. Koyzis also notes that the Reformed churches retained their polities as they came to the New World, but this wrongly assumes that the Anglicans/Episcopalians were not “Reformed” and that the Presbyterians did not have to significantly modify their earlier de jure divino polity. In fact, the Westminster Confession of Faith was modified on precisely this point in 1789. The reason that both Lutherans and Reformed changed their polity when they came to America was because of America itself, particularly its notion of religious liberty and separation between church and state.

For his part, Dr. Garbarino has the better history, pointing out that the Baptists were themselves descendants from the English Puritans, and thus they had a sort of genetic relationship to Calvinism which they did not have to Lutheranism. But this explanation, too, suffers from an insufficient historical picture. Dr. Garbarino assumes that the “Calvinism” which the Baptists inherited was itself a product of the Puritans, something relatively new to Anglicanism. He writes, “Calvin’s writings affected the English-speaking Christians. The Westminster Divines injected Calvinism into the Anglican church.” The assumption that an “injection” of Calvinism came at Westminster would surely be a surprise to Bishops Jewel, Ussher, Davenant, and Rev. Samuel Ward, umimpeachable Calvinists each. In fact, the 17th article of the Church of England’s 39 Articles has as robust a doctrine of predestination and election as one could want.

The real reason that Calvin gets the “credit” is because 16th and 17th century polemics tended to place the blame on him. You see, “Calvinism” is all too often a signifier, not of Calvin’s systematic theology, nor of  Reformed theology over and against Lutheranism (though it is that at times), but of the more Puritan and disciplinarian subset of Reformed theology which instigated many of the famous controversies of that time. Even predestinarian and sacramentarian “Anglicans” would at times distance themselves from the C-word for social and political reasons. Richard Hooker is the exemplar of this mood. Over time, however, the tag, implying narrow partisanship, was embraced and became a badge of pride and community.

And likewise, “Lutheranism” doesn’t really signify Martin Luther himself nor his primary theological contributions. All of the “Reformed” and “Calvinist” theologians claimed Luther as their own. They all held to justification by faith alone, the freedom of the Christian, and the two kingdoms. Instead, “Lutheran” eventually became the trademark of the Gnesio-Lutherans who made their particular emphasis on the real presence in the elements the sin qua non of Lutheran identity. It really had not figured as such in Luther’s most foundational works, and its unwarranted primacy did in part serve to give Lutheranism a sort of clerical and disciplinarian character which was quite inimical to its original theology. English Christians, many of whom were quite “Lutheran” at the outset, eventually lost their connection to that title because of their own proximity to the “Reformed” wing of the Reformation and because of the Lutheran reaction against that wing.

But Dr. Garbarino does get at something important at the very end of his piece when he says that he is more of a Lutheran than a Calvinist. Acknowledging the problematic nomenclature still at work, there is something to the point that the non-clericalist and non-disciplinarian English Protestatns made their stand on originally “Lutheran” theological commitments, particularly sola fide. In this way, it is valid to seek to recover a “Lutheranism” within the English Reformation, among both paedobaptists and credobaptists. But, we would add, this can only be done alongside the larger recovery of the “Lutheranism” of Calvinism as a whole.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

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