A Friendly Reply To Derek Regarding Calvin, Luther, And The Falling Of The Church

You can catch up with the flow of the discussion via Derek Rishmawy’s interesting essay but the short story is that Carl Trueman published an essay at First Things properly cautioning American evangelicals about re-making Luther into their own image and challenging them to reconsider their relations to him. Derek replies by arguing that American evangelicals may have more in common with Calvin than with Luther. My reply is below.


It is true that Calvin was generally more irenic toward other Protestants than was Luther and he was critical of Luther’s rhetoric on the Supper (inter alia) 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 D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism). Calvin never countenanced 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 “articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.” He was only re-stating what he had learned from Calvin and the rest of Calvin’s orthodox successors. The Reformed were no less committed than Luther to the centrality of the doctrine of justification. For Calvin et al it was not just a “nodal” doctrine, though it certainly was (and is) that. It was, as Calvin said, “the principal axis” of the Christian faith. It was the sine qua non.

There is little evidence that, since the Second Great Awakening, the doctrine of justification has played 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 Müntzer. 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 First Great Awakening, fatally weakened at Cane Ridge, and died at Oberlin.

Sadly, it seems as if Carl Henry and Co., students of Old Westminster and heirs of Old Princeton, which connected them to the Reformation, were a blessed, if temporary anomaly in American evangelical theology and piety.

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  1. This point about justification is an important insight, one that goes along with what I’ve been learning from DG Hart’s Lost Soul of American Protestantism!

  2. Speaking as a professional swindler of the young–oops, public high school history teacher–a lot of modern Americans of the past few generations have been confused by their educations. Few are aware that Calvin was a strong advocate of justification by faith alone and that Luther’s _Lectures on Romans_is about as predestinarian as anything Calvin ever wrote. But, I suppose, in this strongly anti-theological age, it would be difficult to explain how Calvin’s stress on the HS making Christ present to believers in the Lord’s Supper differs from Luther’s doctrine of Consubstantiation (would you believe I’ve actually met people raised Lutheran who believed that their churches taught transubstantiation? I lie not), or different views of what is permissible in worship. And, on to another subject, the textbook speaks of Anglicanism as a middle way between Rome and Geneva rather than a middle way between Zurich and Wittenberg.

    In short, the adolescent rebellions of the early 19th century are alive and well and perpetuated in your kids’ high school world history textbooks. In the immortal words of Charlie Brown, AAAAAUUUUUGGGGGGH!

  3. McGrath noted that Alsted used the phrase ‘articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae’ (slight correction required in the above post), but his point was that Loscher’s use in the eighteenth century was not the first (as claimed by Loofs), so McGrath quoted Alsted as an example of usage a century earlier to prove it. McGrath didn’t care to say whether Alsted’s use (in 1618 in his ‘Theologia scholastica didactica’ [note spelling]) of the phrase was the first or even the earliest extant, but he sometimes gets read as though he did.

    The exact expression is also found in Balthasar Meisner in 1618, as one already in common use, and attributed to Luther, orally if not in writing:

    “Adeo verissimum est illud Lutheri proverbium, quo saepius fuit usus: Justificatio est articulus stantis & cadentis Ecclesiae. ”

    Anthropologias Sacrae, Disputatio XXIV, Thesis I, III, (Wittenberg: Johannes Gormannus, 1618).

    Some cite an earlier 1615 edition, but I have not been able to verify that, as I have the above 1618 citation by viewing it.

    • Kevin,

      Typos corrected. Thank you.

      I take your point that there is a late edition of Luther attributing that saying to him. I appreciate that but I’ve never found Luther using this expression in the Luthers Werke. I just ran a search of Luther’s Works and find no reference either in Latin or in English to the expression.

      Further, stimulated by your post, I just did a search of 1176 documents from the Lutheran (including Luther), Anglican, Reformed, Puritan, and Separatist traditions (using the nomenclature and categories of the search engine) and, remarkably, found not a single instance of the expression “articulus stantis et cadentis.” The Luther corpus searched dates from 1517–23 so it’s possible that the expression appeared later but it does not appear in any of his major works.

      My major point is that it is not possible to separate the Reformed from Luther (and orthodox Lutheranism) on justification. Over the years I have often heard and seen Reformed folk repeating the Central Dogma theory as a ground for suggesting that Reformed had departed from Luther on this point.

      Almost invariably, when this expression is quoted it is attributed to Luther but without any citation as if it were axiomatic that Luther said it. Rarely (that is to say, at this moment, I cannot remember anyone quoting this expression and attributing it to Alsted) is it attributed to Alsted.

      I take this assumption, that it is a uniquely Lutheran notion, as evidence of the continuing influence of the Central Dogma theory.

    • Looks like ‘Iustificatio’ in print, but the expression is in italics. When not italicized the printer uses ‘Justificatio’, and comparing texts it is clear that the printer uses an italic capital ‘I’ for an italic capital ‘J’, which are after all the very same letter in Latin.

  4. Thanks Dr Clark.

    My point really was that Meisner in 1618 attributes the expression ‘Justificatio est articulus stantis & cadentis Ecclesiae’ to Luther. True, it is not in Luther’s extant writings – all we have is that it was a saying of Luther’s (according to Meiser) that had been passed down to Meisner’s day, and was so common that it had become proverbial.

    I have seen it argued that it is an apocryphal saying that Luther never said, but it’s impossible to demonstrate that, and the very close statements that Luther wrote, and this claim in 1618 that this saying of his was well known must advise caution.

    Earlier this year I was amazed reading Luther’s teaching just how clear he had become on justification as early as the summer of 1515 – he was not the whole way there (that would take until around 1523) but he makes some excellent points, which are still worth citing today.

    • Kevin,

      That the expression was not attributed to Luther until 1618, if that’s the case, we have reason to doubt its authenticity. That it was attributed to Luther the same year it appeared in Alsted is also interesting.

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