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.
- The Danger of A Falling Church.
- “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in ed. David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 247–69.
- Recovering the Reformed Confession
- “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91.
- “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).
- Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006).
- Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity.
- Calvin’s Debt To Luther.
- More Resources on Calvin and Luther.