Wednesday, July 4, 2012

From Geneva to Wittenberg: Introduction and Overview

In my spiritual journey to date, I have lived, believed, and worshiped within three major traditions of the Christian faith. I was reared and formed initially as a Christian in the Baptist tradition, but, as I read, studied, and lived more in the faith I had been given, I came to conclusions about the sacraments and Church history that brought my viewpoint in line with the right wing of the Protestant Reformation, that which in its reform of medieval Roman Catholicism sought to maintain the greatest continuity in doctrine and worship with the Church as it had existed prior to the Reformation. This right wing of the Reformation in history has been represented principally by the Reformed churches and system of doctrine and the Lutheran churches and system of doctrine. By a blessed accident (what we would theologically call a Providence), I lived into the conservative Reformation first in the Reformed churches, and now, by a similar but also blessed accident, God has placed me in Christ's body as it finds its expression within the Lutheran churches. Though I am now living, worshiping, and believing as a Lutheran Christian, the blessings of my Reformed heritage (and also of my Baptist heritage prior to that) continue to live with me.

With that in mind, I will take opportunity briefly to sing the praises of what I view to be the chief blessings of the Reformed churches to global Christianity before moving on to the main project I have in view here of comparing the two traditions’ views on controverted matters between themselves and explaining my insights from navigating these issues and embracing the Lutheran take as the one more faithful and true to the Scriptures. I alluded to the word Providence above, and it is in the Calvinist emphasis on God's exhaustively sovereign and providential reign over his entire creation that I find the greatest comfort and benefit of this tradition. God is in control, and he is in control for us, lovingly governing his world and embracing it in the redemption he has accomplished for it through Jesus Christ. I believe this understanding helps us to better praise God and see his glory in all things. Where things are marred due to sin and death in this world, we can see in this understanding of Providence, that our fulfillment and hope in life and death, in good and bad, is the transcendent God who humbled himself, took on our flesh, suffered for us, died for us, rose for us, sits at the right hand of God as Lord of heaven and earth and Redeemer for us, and will come again for us to abolish sin and death from the good creation he loves and is so exhaustively engaged with. The Reformed teach this and find life in it better than most, and we can learn from them here.

I must also praise the way in light of the above, the Reformed tradition has historically preached the whole Scriptures and especially the Old Testament. I would not now trade the blessings of the sermons on a cyclical lectionary of Scripture passages in the Lutheran Divine Service, because these passages center us on Christ, who is taught all throughout Scripture as its central message, and they do this particularly well. It is not for nothing that these texts have been preached more extensively and exhaustively throughout the history of the church than any other passages in the Bible! Nevertheless, redemptive-historical preaching consecutively through whole books of the Bible and through the Old Testament helps to flesh the centrality of Christ out even in those passages that have not been preached as frequently in church history. I would heed the Lutheran caution of not conflating Law and Gospel or flattening the differences between the Testaments, but would that we all preached the whole Scriptures with the rigor and exhaustiveness the Reformed so often have!

I will conclude this brief litany of praises by connecting the exhaustive Providence of Calvinism with the exhaustive focus on Christ throughout all of Scripture that we see in Calvinism by praising the tradition for its commitment to seeing the Lordship of Christ exalted in every area of life. Lutherans, what with Luther's robust teaching on Creation, our Two Kingdoms theology of Christ's Lordship over heaven and earth, and our teaching on vocation as divine calling, do not have cause to hang our heads on these matters quite as much as is popularly thought, but I must give Calvinism props for showing me the way the Christian hope affects all of life and transforms people and societies for the glory of Christ.

Having now praised the aspects of my Reformed heritage that have most blessed me and that I believe to be genuine blessings to the entire Church catholic, I will now put forward some very general comparisons and contrasts and to state in as factual manner I can the controverted issues between the Lutheran and Reformed churches and confessions.

The branch of the Reformation later designated by the term Reformed or Calvinist began under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. It began independently from the Reformation in Germany under Luther, but it held several things in common with it. Just as was the case with the Reformation in Germany, its principle for reforming the Roman Catholic Church in doctrine and worship was Scripture alone as the final authority in the Church. Similarly, just as was the case with the Reformation in Germany under Luther, the theological principle for reforming doctrine which Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation took from the Scriptures was justification by grace alone through faith alone. When it came to worship, however, the Reformation movements followed different principles. The Reformed followed what is termed the regulative principle, which states that only those practices explicitly commanded or prescribed in Scripture were to be permitted in the worship of God, while the Lutherans followed what can be called the normative principle, which states that the Church in its worship is forbidden from only those practices that are forbidden in or contrary to Scripture. As a result, the Reformed followed a more rigorous and radical plan for reforming worship, which included exclusive psalmody, the exclusion of musical instruments from worship, the removal of images and crucifixes from the churches, and a more simplified liturgy, while the Lutherans retained practices and traditions from the Church as it had existed prior to the Reformation, such as the singing of hymns, instrumental music, and much of the liturgical form and content of the medieval Mass. Some of the austerity of Reformed worship lessened under the leadership of John Calvin, but vast differences continued in the liturgical principles of the traditions, including down to the present.

The differences in approach to worship express some of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in doctrinal and theological emphases of the two traditions. The heartbeat and very center of the Lutheran Reformation has always been justification by grace alone through faith alone. For Lutherans this doctrine has always been the rock on which the Church stands or falls, while in Calvinism the concern for the Gospel has often been expressed more in terms of God's immutable predestination than in terms of justification by faith, and obedience to the Law in Christian worship and liturgy have often been placed on equal footing with the preaching of the Gospel as the essence of the Church.

Their differing emphases in preaching the Gospel, the relative weight each puts on the doctrine of justification in their overall system, and their juncture with the differing emphases and principles of worship each tradition follows point us to the first issue between the Reformed churches and Lutheranism that truly is and has been church-dividing from the time of the Reformation. This is the issue of the sacraments in general, and of the Lord's Supper in particular. The Lutherans teach a straightforward doctrine of baptismal regeneration and the sacramental union of Jesus Christ's body and blood with the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper, while the Reformed have a more indirect understanding of the way in which the sacraments work for our salvation. This more indirect view of the sacraments stems from the greater emphasis the Reformed place on God's transcendence and secret predestination in our salvation. The sacraments testify indirectly to election and are means of salvation only to those who will ultimately persevere to the end and be finally saved. For the Lutherans, however, the Word of God, and its objective promises delivered to sinners directly in the sacraments are sure testimonies of God's saving intent. They tangibly present the realities they signify to all those who receive them. The Lord's Supper saves because it is Jesus Christ, his body and blood being immediately present in, with, and under the bread and wine. The Reformed, due to the normative status in their system of doctrine of Calvin's marked improvement over Zwingli on the sacraments, affirm a feeding on the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper indirectly through faith and the Holy Spirit, but for the Lutherans, it is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, through whom we receive the Holy Spirit, that guarantees our salvation and strengthens our faith. We know we are Christians because we have received these gifts to eat and drink to everlasting life.

This, of course, explains the juncture between worship and justification I obliquely mentioned above and failed to describe until now. The primary purpose of worship in the Lutheran view is to receive the forgiveness of sins. For the Reformed, the note of forgiveness in the worship service is still certainly there but the primary emphasis is on the duty to obey God and render him service. This is not to say, conversely, that Lutherans do not understand the Divine Service as moving us to gratefully serve God and our neighbor in response to his glorious gifts, but the primary form of worship God receives from us when we go to church is "the divine service of the Gospel" where "we receive from him gifts" (Defense of the Augsburg Confession, IV II.189).

As the controversy on the Lord's Supper indicates, the issues of grace and election are also controverted and church-dividing between the Lutherans and Reformed. Differences on predestination, the extent of the atonement, the question of the resistibility of grace, and perseverance in grace are the most salient points in the disagreement.

Finally, while both Lutherans and Reformed fall safely within the bounds of Christological orthodoxy established in the Nicene Creed and the Formula of Chalcedon, each has steadily leveled at the other the charge of transgressing those boundaries. The Christological issue that has been in debate, i.e., the degree to which Christ's divine nature communicates its properties to the human nature, is significant for our understanding of the Incarnation itself. Of course, the occasion for the eruption of the controversy was differing teachings on the presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord's Supper and the implications of Christ's Ascension to the right-hand of the Father to this question. The Christological issues, thus, are significant for their role in the sacramental teachings of each tradition.

I want to examine these controverted issues each a little more closely in their turn. I will start with the Christological controversy, advance to the Lord's Supper, and conclude my study with grace and election.

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