The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first provides multiple definitions of the word “myth.” The first says, “A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.” The second says “A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.” These two share the notion of a traditional narrative that is essentially untrue but that performs important social functions of explaining origins and defining social boundaries. Typically, myths are inherited by one generation and passed on to another. In a more politically incorrect time we called them “old wives tales” invoking the image of housewives passing along, e.g., medical misinformation or the like to one another over the garden fence. This happens in groups too as they seek to explain and reinforce their unique identity to their own group.
One example of this phenomenon is the story that nineteenth-century Lutherans in North America told about Calvin and Calvinism as they sought to define themselves over against what they perceived to be a land largely dominated by Calvinism. Where some Lutherans had been able and willing to admit areas of commonality between Lutherans and Calvinists at one point, as the need to create a unique narrative and identity pressed, the story changed. That dynamic was influenced by immigrants from Germany who were fleeing an attempt by the state to force Lutheran and Reformed Christians to abandon their distinct confessions and identities. It was also influenced by the need to create new denominations (e.g., the LCMS) in what was, to them, “the new world.” I described these phenomena in “Calvin as Negative Boundary Marker in American Lutheran Self-Identity 1871–1934″ in Johan de Niet, Herman Paul, and Bart Wallet, ed., Sober, Strict, and Scriptural: Collective Memories of John Calvin, 1800–2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 245–66.1
Among Lutheran confessionalists in the 19th century, this identity formation process both resulted in and required the formation of a near total fabrication of a myth about John Calvin. By the late 19th-century and early 20th centuries, the story Lutheran confessionalists told themselves about Calvin and Calvinists was historically worthless but it was socially and psychologically useful to help carve out a distinct identity for themselves in a new and often threatening environment. Those myths about Calvin and Calvinists are preserved in still widely-used, if dated, Lutheran systematic theology handbooks. Behind those works lie pamphlets and other more popular material that were more “in-house” communications. Calvin or his orthodox successors would hardly recognize themselves as portrayed. Remarkably but predictably, the closer a group (e.g., the LCMS on justification sola gratia, sola fide, and unconditional election) actually was to Calvin and Calvinist doctrine the harsher the rhetoric about Calvin and Calvinists.
The same phenomena can be observed in American Reformed circles in the 19th and 20th centuries and even today. In the age of the internet, especially when things are published on the internet, it is more difficult for the parochial in-house story to remain in-house, especially when it’s being peddled as actual professional history. We see a classic case of myth as boundary-marking in a February 3 post by the redoubtable William Evans (HT: Aquila Report). It is occasioned by article published by a Travis Scholl, a Lutheran pastor in the St Louis Post-Dispatch (HT: Aquila Report) in which he marvels at the apparent uptick in influence of Luther among American evangelicals. Scholl is surprised, in part, because the LCMS confesses in the Book of Concord that the Reformed are “sacramentarians,” which is shorthand for “regards the Lord’s Supper as a mere memorial” or “Zwinglian.” Indeed, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord VII (3) distinguishes between two kinds of sacramentarians: gross and subtle (or crafty). The “gross” sacramentarians were the Swiss German Reformed in Zürich. The “subtle” or “crafty” sacramentarians referred to Calvin and the Calvinists who are
the most injurious of all, who partly speak very speciously in our own words, and pretend that they also believe a true presence of the true, essential, living body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, however, that 5] this occurs spiritually through faith. Nevertheless they retain under these specious words precisely the former gross opinion, namely, that in the Holy Supper nothing is present and received with the mouth except bread and wine.
This confession against Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy combined with the various forces helping to form Rev. Scholl’s denomination and the general refusal among confessional Lutherans to read Calvin or Reformed theologians generally explain why he would be surprised to find Reformed writers citing Luther and Lutheran writers with approval. Where the Belgic Confession never mentions the Lutherans by name and where the Reformed, historically, have tended to distinguish clearly between Lutherans and others with whom they disagree, in my experience (and sometimes in my presence!), Lutheran confessionalists tend to have a very broad definition of “Reformed” that includes Jimmy Swaggart and your local Word-Faith heretic. The Belgic Confession (1561) singles out Rome, Anabaptists, and sects for harsh criticism but never mentions the Lutherans, even though DeBres was well aware of strong disagreements between the Lutherans the Reformed—so much so that when civil authorities asked him to tone down his criticism of the Lutherans in the interests of the political-military coalition against the (Romanist) Spanish, he refused. Calvin himself, even though he wrote voluminously, rarely criticized Luther and when he did it was typically in reference to Luther’s rhetoric on Christology.
So, given the general Lutheran unfamiliarity with actual Reformed view of Luther and Lutheranism and the particulars of what the Reformed actually teach and confess and given the Lutheran confession about Calvin and the Reformed, the Rev. Scholl might be forgiven for being surprised to see Reformed writers quoting Luther and Lutherans with appreciation. It is a little more difficult, however, to understand the existence of an analogous ignorance of the Reformed tradition among Reformed writers and scholars as exemplified in Evans’ essay. After all, it is not as if the classic Reformed texts are all still locked away in Latin. Many (if not all) of the most important texts are now in English (and there are more to come).
To the best of my knowledge the Reformed never mention the “Lutherans” explicitly in any of our confessions. Typically we only refer to them obliquely (e.g., Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 48 on Christology). Our older writers do refer to “the ubiquitarians” and Olevianus, e.g., did speak cryptically of “half-evangelicals,” which may or may not be a “shot” (as they say) at the Lutherans.
Through the course of the 19th-century, some American Presbyterians developed their own counter-myth to the Lutheran narrative about Calvin and the Reformed. This myth is less well defined than that which was developed by Lutheran confessionalists but it has certain discernible outlines. It was fueled in large measure by the view that the Lutheran “central dogma” (assuming there are such things) was justification sola fide and the Reformed organizing principle (from which all other doctrines are inferred) was predestination. In the late 20th century, however, there developed a peculiar version of this myth, a caricature of the caricature Evans’ piece is a handy snapshot of this weird drawing.
- The Lutherans had a “law-gospel” hermeneutic v the Reformed covenantal hermeneutic
- The Lutherans “prioritize forensic justification and the Reformed prioritize union with Christ
- The Lutherans “extract” sanctification from justification
- The Lutherans adopted an “ordo salutis” that made union with Christ subsidiary and relied on a gratitude as a psychological motivation for sanctity v the Reformed view of union and the twofold grace of God (duplex gratia Dei).
- The persistent Lutheran suspicion of the third use of the law v the Reformed affirmation of it
The moment I saw the piece by Rev. Scholl I looked at my watch to begin counting down until the Evans piece appeared. I should have set a timer so I could report the time elapsed. I’ve responded to these points at length, in print and online, here and elsewhere so I’ll reply briefly here to Evans’ five points:
The Reformed theologians had no consciousness in the 16th or 17th centuries that they were working out a law-gospel hermeneutic fundamentally distinct from Luther or Lutheran orthodoxy. I demonstrated this in “Law and Gospel in Early Reformed Orthodoxy: Hermeneutical Conservatism in Olevianus’ Commentary on Romans,” in Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma and Jason Zuidema editors, Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2013).2 Here’s a lecture I gave on this topic. There’s a chapter in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California documenting the Reformed use of the law-gospel distinction. The evidence that the Reformed taught a law-gospel distinction is overwhelming. I’ve documented it online for years.3
On the logical “priority” of justification to progressive sanctification in Reformed theology, the notion that it doesn’t exist rests on the a priori theological conviction that it can’t exist. In other words, it’s not a historical claim. The idea that there is a logical priority of justification, that it is the justified whom God progressively sanctifies, has been long understood. Seeing a logical priority of justification in Reformed theology is hardly evidence of undue affection for Lutheranism. The Old Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) saw it in Reformed theology and he has never been accused of being influenced by Lutheranism.
On whether Reformed theology “extracts” sanctification from justification, we must say that this is an ambiguous word at least. One of the great animating concerns of the Protestant Reformation was to distinguish justification from sanctification. The medieval church had confused the two and, consequently, taught that we justified because and to the extent that we progressively sanctified. This remains Romanist doctrine today. If making the Protestant distinction is extraction, well, mea culpa but we’re in good company. Calvin wrote on Galatians 5:6
When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.
I don’t think that anyone has ever charged William Perkins (1558-1602), one of the fathers of English Reformed theology, with crypto-Lutheranism, but he defended the very same distinction. Indeed, one finds it throughout Reformed orthodox from the mid-16th century forward.
On the matter of the ordo salutis, Evans’ claim, however oft repeated, is entirely without foundation in the history of Reformed theology prior to 1974. He does not agree with confessional Reformed soteriology and wants to see it substantially revised in a way that will, if unchecked, lead us back to Romanist moralism. I’ve responded previously to his claims here so I won’t repeat that material in this post. Lest the gentle reader think (or be led to think) that this is some idiosyncratic reading of the history of Reformed theology emanating from the West Coast, let him betake himself to Grand Rapids and to the study of Richard Muller and his recent volume, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, which quite rejects these claims about the Reformed doctrine of union with Christ. Here are the HB resources on union.
On the question of the Reformed doctrine of the duplex gratia Dei, here is a three-part series on some of the theological, historical, and methodological issues involved. See also the books and articles linked below.4 When the Reformed formulated their doctrine of the “twofold grace” of justification and sanctification they didn’t do so in order to set up a competing approach to the Lutherans. They did it in continuity with what they understood Luther to be teaching. Indeed, I’ve argued (see below) that they inherited this way of thinking from Luther himself. Further, as Billings, Venema, Horton, and Fesko have shown, the “double benefit” approach is complementary to, not competitive with, a logical priority of justification.
On union with Christ, the primary sources and modern historical research do not sustain Evans’ claims. See the works linked below.5
On the third use of of the law. This repeated canard is astounding, revealing, and helps to demonstrate my thesis that Evans’ post is much more about identity formation and bogey men than it is about Reformed theology or history.
First, it was Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), a Lutheran, who gave us the expression “tertius usus legis (third use of the law).
Second, the Lutherans confess the Third Use of the Law. There is an entire chapter devoted to it in the Solid Declaration.
Third, Luther arguably taught the substance of the third use both in his response to the antinomians and, e.g., in his Large Catechism (1529)
Fourth, when the Reformed articulated their doctrine of the third use, they didn’t do so over against the Lutherans, with whom they saw themselves agreeing on this point.
Fifth, It is true that there are mainline (liberal) Lutherans in Germany and the USA who don’t like the third use. These are not confessional Lutherans. Judging the Lutheran view of the third use by the mainline dismissal of orthodoxy is like using the PCUSA to determine what the Reformed believe.
On gratitude as the principal motive for sanctification. I plead the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):
2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?
Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.
28. What does it profit us to know that God created, and by His providence upholds all things?
That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity….
32. But why are you called a Christian?
Because by faith I am a member of Christ and thus a partaker of His anointing, in order that I also may confess His Name, may present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him….
64. But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?
No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.
86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?
Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing….
116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
Because it is the chief part of thankfulness
According to the primary author of the catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), the catechism is organized in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. In other words, gratitude is no mere psychological ploy to motivate believers, it is part of the structure of the Reformed faith. The current move, fashionable in some circles, to highlight other motives for sanctification, however useful, should not be understood to supplant the principal place of gratitude as the motive for sanctification. I dealt with some of these issues in a detailed series on the warning passages in Scripture. In short, if loving the Heidelberg Catechism on guilt, grace, and gratitude is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
As we saw above, we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 32, we are members of Christ “by faith.” We say the same in Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 30:
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
We confess that the Spirit creates new life (regenerates) and grants the gift of faith (Eph 2:8-10), and through the gift of faith creates an existential, vital, mystical union with Christ. Our Christian life, our growth in sanctity, is inextricably bound up with our union in Christ. The modern reconstruction of that doctrine, proposed in some quarters, however, tends to lead us away from the faith as we’ve known and confessed it. It tends to marginalize the doctrine of justification, thereby reducing it to a technicality, and it tends to replace the function of faith with union with Christ. As a matter of exegetical and systematic theology this proposal should be debated but as a matter of history there it is certainly a novelty.
As B. B. Warfield wrote:
It is unfortunate that a great body of the scientific discussion which, since Max Goebel […] first clearly posited the problem, has been carried on somewhat vigorously with a view to determining the fundamental principle of Calvinism, has sought particularly to bring out its contrast with some other theological tendency, commonly with the sister Protestant tendency of Lutheranism. Undoubtedly somewhat different spirits inform Calvinism and Lutheranism.
But it is gravely misleading to identify the formative principle of either type of Protestantism with its prominent points of difference from the others. They have vastly more in common than in distinction. And nothing could be more misleading than to trace all their differences, as to their roots, to the fundamental place given in the two systems respectively to the principles of predestination and justification by faith.
If you follow the link to the quotation, you’ll find Warfield indulging the 19th-century notion of a “formative principle” but he was too well read in both traditions to buy what the Germans were selling and what Evans has evidently bought.
Myth-making happens but we don’t have to historically ignorant or naive. Boundary-marking as identity formation, i.e., political rhetoric for the purposes of creating a distinct group identity, is one thing and the history of Reformed theology is quite often another. There are genuine, serious, and probably irreconcilable differences between the Lutheran confession and the Reformed (resources here) but, if we have to choose between Warfield and Evans on how the Reformed and the Lutherans relate, as we do, we should follow Warfield
1. Yes, this is one of those very expensive academic volumes but you can probably order and read it via Inter-Library Loan at little or no cost. Based on what our Library Directors have told me over the years, your local public librarian will likely be thrilled to his or her socks if you ask them to order a book or article for you via ILL.
2. See #1 above.
3. See the following:
- Classic Covenant Theology On Law and Gospel
- HB Resources on the Law-Gospel Distinction
- When the Good News Becomes Bad
4. On the history of the Reformed duplex gratia Dei, see:
- Cornelis Venema, Accepted and Renewed in Christ
- R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant
- —“The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34.
- —“Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 2 (2006): 3–19.
5. On union with Christ see:
- Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition
- J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and The Gift
- —Union With Christ
- J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin.
- Michael Horton, Covenant And Salvation: Union With Christ.