New In Print: Calvin—Subtle Sacramentarian Or Loyal Son? John Calvin’s Relationship To Martin Luther

In October of 1545, Heinrich von Wolfenbüttel (1489–1568), the Romanist Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneberg-Wolfenbüttel, in the process of a attempting to recover lands taken from him by the Protestant Schmalkald League (in 1542), was taken captive along with his sons. The Lutheran territories of Hesse and Saxony in were placed in great danger of invasion by Romanist forces.1 In response, the Reformed pastor-theologian John Calvin (1509–64) was so disturbed by this threat to his Lutheran brothers that he asked for and received permission from the city fathers of Geneva to hold a special prayer service on their behalf.2 In one of only two sermons from the years prior to 1549 to be transcribed, he expressed concern that Lord’s name should not be blasphemed (Ps 115:2–3).3 He justified the prayer service for the besieged Lutherans on the basis of the spiritual union between the Genevan church and the German Lutherans. He invoked Ephesians 4:1–6, reminding the assembled “there is only one God, one Redeemer, only one true doctrine, one faith, one baptism.” He invoked 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one member suffers, we must all have compassion.” For Calvin there was “no question” of a single member. For Calvin, an attack on the Lutherans in Hesse and Saxony was an an attack on the Reformed in Geneva. They were, after all, members of the same church, though scattered and separated from each other by distance and language. They owed it to their brothers to intercede with God on their behalf.

This relatively obscure episode four years into Calvin’s second tenure in Geneva illustrates his fraternal feelings toward the Lutherans generally and his filial attitude toward Luther in particular. Calvin’s strong affirmation of Genevan unity with the Lutherans of Hesse and Saxony might surprise both confessional Lutherans and some confessional Reformed Christians today. After all, we live after centuries of what B. A. Gerrish calls “confessional mis-trust.”4 Read more»

R. Scott Clark, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 21.4 (2017), 35–36.

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  1. Dr. Clark, I’ve read your article and I’m sincerely curious — not so much about the article itself but about the venue of publication. I’m surprised to see this published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Is there an interest in Southern Baptist academic circles about Lutheran-Reformed differences and similarities? I certainly see no hint of that in the Ozarks, where Baptists are as common as the stones on the ground, while Lutherans are rare and Calvinists are so rare as to be nearly nonexistent, but both are routinely condemned as half-Catholic baby baptizers.

  2. Thank you for the article Dr. Clark. It made me think of many times when I’ve heard Presbyterian ministers tell me (I’m PCA) that we disagree with Luther on the Law/Gospel distinction when the Law/Gospel distinction is in Luther, and arguably, in the Westminster Standards (Covenant of Works v. Covenant of Grace) and definitely in the Three Form.

  3. Such a helpful resolution of folk law and myth regarding Luther, Calvin and the Reformers. It is my prayerful hope that many, who are so swift to criticise and ostracize, may read this essay.

  4. As always, thanks for your tireless work in providing historical background to the Reformation. It is important for us to know our indebtedness to Luther’s breakthrough in inderstanding that, “faith justifies the sinner, not because it sanctifies, but because it apprehends Christ’s righteousness.” As Calvin acknowledged his indebtedness to Luther in understanding the law/gospel distinction, it is vital in our understanding of how we are to stand righteous before God by keeping the law and gospel distinct from each other. We may never look to the law as providing a way for our obedience to be part of our right standing before God. Only then can the law show us how to express our gratitude, as fruit of the Spirit, while He renovates us in God’s image. As Calvin gratefully acknowledged, we owe a great deal to Luther in providing the us with the law/gospel distinction.

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