This Is Entirely Incorrect And Here Is Why

Then on another point the Reformed went beyond Luther on this doctrine. They ethicized justification, that is, they put into justification a moral element. It goes without saying that Calvin was the great Ethicist of the reformation. Though Calvin in his theology made so much of God’s act in election, yet he demanded man’s act in doing right. Here he also went beyond Luther.Luther in his intense opposition to justification by works so emphasized faith as to leave works out. He separated the doctrine of faith from what ought always to be connected with it, good works. He tended to place faith and works into juxtaposition with each other. He insisted on justification pure and simple. He did not place works at the beginning of justification as did the Catholics, nor did he place it at the end even by a synergism as did Melancthon. He was solafidian throughout, that it, by faith alone.

But with Calvin, justification always had in it an ethical element. Not that works saved us. In rejecting justification by works, he was at once with Luther. But while Luther said justification was by faith, Calvin said it was by God. They meant the same thing, only Luther emphasized faith, and Calvin, God.

Again Luther most pronouncedly sets the law over against faith. Calvin did not set them over against each other, for faith included the law, that is, the observance of the law. He thus put an ethical element in faith. He was not so much afraid of works as Luther. He put them into the doctrine, not at the beginning as the Catholics, but at the end. Thus a man never could be justified if he were impure or unrighteous. There was an ethical necessity because faith was not complete without works. He thus did not separate faith and works as did Luther, but he put them together. Every act of justification implied an ethical element in it. It was just this ethical element that Calvin did not overlook in the doctrine. Calvin placed less value on subjective assurance, for he demanded the presence of good works as evidence of saving faith. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints was not mere tenacity in holding on to God, but it was their consistent activities in the energies of the Christian life. This ethical peculiarity of the Reformed grew out of their doctrinal beliefs. They believed in election, but they believed that no man was elect unless his life as a whole was up to his election. They believed in justification, but it was not justification unless there was an ethical temper about the conversion.

James I. Good, The Reformed Reformation (Philadelphia: Heidelberg Press, 1916), 121–22.

I stumbled upon this passage whilst looking for something else. It is an excellent summary of what was widely held and taught from the first half of  the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century. There are more than a few Reformed, evangelical, and Lutheran folk who continue to repeat this narrative and it is one which I have been trying to overturn. Why? Because it is simply untrue. It rests entirely on a false but widespread narrative that was invented in the 19th century. It is entirely without support in the primary sources (i.e., the writings of Luther, Calvin, and their orthodox, confessional successors) but its simplicity and clarity made it too attractive to reject. It fit the prejudices of the two confessional camps as they became even more heated rivals in the 19th century. It fit the prejudices of the Pietist evangelicals too.

For example, it fit the confessional Lutheran need to carve out a distinct identity in a new world (the USA) as immigrants arrived first in New Orleans and then made their way to St Louis. They felt overwhelmed by the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. They saw all of it as “Reformed.” They seemed quite unaware that the more confessional among the Reformed (e.g., the Reformed arrivals from the Netherlands in the 1840s and 50s from the Afscheiding churches) felt just as threatened by what they described as the “Methodists” in the New World. They knew that the revivalist theology, piety, and practice could not be squared with the theology, piety, and practice of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.

Those American Presbyterians and Reformed, e.g., the opponents of the Mercersburg Theology in the German Reformed Church and those among the American Presbyterians who felt uncomfortable with Calvin’s more mystical account of the Lord’s Supper, were attracted to the false narrative that the Reformed were rooted in Zwingli more than in Calvin and distinct from Luther in the ways that Good claimed. J. I. Good was a leader in the anti-Mercersburg movement in the late 19th and early 20th century in the (German) Reformed Church in the U. S.

Whence this story, that Luther was an antinomian “solafidian” and Calvin had an “ethical” component to his doctrine of justification? It was Alexander Schweizer (1808–88), who argued that there were in Lutheranism and in Reformed theology two distinct “central dogmas.” He argued that the principle of the Lutheran Reformation was justification sola gratia, sola fide. The Reformed central dogma was said to be predestination. He argued that the Reformed orthodox developed a speculative and deductive theology based on their doctrine of God.

Schweizer was himself deeply influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) theology. Schleiermacher was the child of Pietists (not merely pious people, but part of a broad movement that swept across Protestant theology in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, which sought to marginalize confessions and doctrine in favor of personal religious experience and ethics) who became influenced by the Enlightenment movements and who abandoned Christian orthodoxy to formulate a religion organized around the sense of divine dependence.

Richard Muller writes, “Schweizer’s account of Reformed theology was not organized according to the logic of the sixteenth and seventeenth century systems, but according to the requirements of his own Schleiermachian theological system.”1 He re-told the story of Reformed theology. In his telling, as it turned out, Reformed theology is about the consciousness of absolute divine dependence. This approach was followed by the so-called “mediating” (between the tradition and the historical-critical method) theologian I. A. Dorner (1809–84) and later by Paul Althaus (1888-1966) in 1914. There are echoes of this approach in Heinrich Heppe’s (1820–79) histories and summaries of Reformed theology. Many Reformed and evangelical Christians have been unwittingly influenced by Schweizer’s story as it has been mediated in histories of theology but the story is simply untrue but on the basis of this false narrative Reformed folk have fabricated all kinds of supposed differences with Lutherans that never actually existed.

As a consequence of the influence of this theory there are Reformed folk who argue that the central doctrine of Reformed theology is their peculiar version of union with Christ, others argue for adoption as the central truth or doctrine. Still others agree with Schweizer, as Good apparently did, that Reformed theology is God-centered (which is code for predestinarian) and has an “ethical component” that Lutheran theology lacks. It is widely held that whereas the Lutherans distinguished law and gospel, the Reformed did not or, as one writer has argued, Calvin distinguished “spirit and letter” rather than law and gospel. This is all quite incorrect.

  1. As Richard Muller has been telling us for more than 40 years, there is no “Central Dogma” in Reformed theology. I doubt that Lutheranism has a Central Dogma either. Schweizer’s was a poor method for analyzing the history of theology because it was driven by a priori assumptions rather than by facts and history. Ultimately, these kinds of stories have more to do with Hegel (whereby history is the outworking of competing principles) than history (what actually happened, as best we can tell).
  2. Confessional Reformed theology taught unequivocally justification sola gratia, sola fide and the magisterial Protestants knew nothing about operating on a different principle than Luther.
  3. It is not entirely clear what Good means here by “ethicized” but that Good knew intuitively that he was in trouble is evident on the face of his explanation, which is incoherent. Good was expert in the history of the Heidelberg Catechism but he seems to have missed the forest for the trees: the profound influence of Martin Luther on the structure and theology of the Heidelberg itself.  The very threefold structure of the catechism is indebted to Luther. The more I read him, the more I see his language, his phrasing, and his concerns reverberating through the Catechism. This should not surprise us when we consider that the principle author (Zacharias Ursinus) was Melanchthon’s student for seven years before he became Reformed. Melanchthon gave us the phrase “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis) but Luther taught the substance of the third use of the law before Melanchthon coined the phrase. Luther himself battled antinomianism in the 1520s and beyond and gave us the very expression antinomian to describe his opponents. From the time he had arrived at his essential Protestant convictions, which he shared with all the magisterial Protestants, with some caveats in Zwingli’s case, he consistently preached and taught that new life is God’s sovereign gift, that new life and true faith must issue in a new life (sanctification), which leads to a desire to obey God’s holy moral law out of gratitude. Again, this alleged point of departure between Luther and Calvin was simply unknown to Calvin himself. The claim that Luther omitted works as the fruit and evidence of justification is quite false and impossible to sustain on the basis of Luther’s own writings. Further, the claim that Melanchthon became a synergist is also quite hard to sustain from his own writings. As fond as Luther was of Philipp, had he thought for a minute that Melanchthon was a synergist, he would never have stood for it but we see nothing from Luther about this. This claim is rooted more in internecine Lutheran arguments (Philippists v. the Gnesio-Lutherans) in the 1550s than it is in history and fact.
  4. Good’s claim that Calvin never set law against faith is risible. Calvin regularly distinguished between law and gospel and between works and faith (see the resources below).
  5. Luther no less than Calvin called for good works as evidence of true faith. Calvin had no consciousness that he disagreed with Luther on assurance.

There were genuine differences between the Reformed (including Calvin) and the Lutherans. I have documented them previously (see the resources below) and, frankly, anyone who knows the primary documents of the Reformation and post-Reformation period knows them. The Reformed and the Lutherans disagreed over the relations between Christ’s humanity to his deity, over the nature of Christ’s presence in the supper, over the implications of the second commandment for worship and the use of images of Christ. They differed over the nature of baptism (though it is not entirely clear how much Calvin disagreed with Luther on baptism nor that Luther taught baptismal regeneration). Luther invoked the covenant but the Reformed worked out a more thorough covenant theology. Calvin worked out of a more thorough ecclesiology than Luther, who was relatively indifferent to the external form and government of the visible church. The differences, however, that the “Central Dogma” narrative invented are fictitious.

© R. Scott Clark, 2020.



1. Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1.124.

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  1. Calvin debated Cardinal Sadoleto in an exchange of letters, Sadoleto says “When we say then, that we can be saved by faith alone in God and Jesus Christ, we hold that in this very faith, love is essentially comprehended, as the chief and primary cause of our salvation (p. 36),”

    Calvin responds “we constantly maintain, that man is not only justified freely once for all, without any merit of works, but that on this gratuitous justification the salvation of man perpetually depends. Nor is it possible that any work of man can be accepted by God unless it be gratuitously approved. Wherefore, I was amazed when I read your assertion, that love is the first and chief cause of our salvation. O, Sadoleto, who could ever have expected such a saying from you? Undoubtedly the very blind, while in darkness feel the mercy of God too surely to dare to claim for their love the first cause of their salvation, while those who have merely one spark of divine light feel that their salvation consists in nothing else than their being adopted by God (p. 69).”

  2. “Central dogma” is a little too crude a frame for people who want to reduce entire theological systems to fit in Hegel-shaped holes nowadays, and I have heard much more of the “formal and material principles of theology”, where we get double the nuance with double the number of central dogmas. The real impulse for e.g. neonomianism is never going to change, but this reduction permits any and all innovation to be cast as merely polishing a gemstone, to buff out the rough edges, to more truly realize whatever the author has decided the thesis of the faith is.

  3. This inquiry over where the differences in Reformed and Lutheran approaches to justification may require the examination of a number of other salient points.

    Is it possible that Luther’s discovery of Sola Fide brought him to the Solo Christo position, while Zwingli’s discovery of Solo Christo (which is prominent in his _Commentary on Ture and False Religion_) led him to the position of Sola Fide? The point of entry for each Reformer’s criticism of Rome may be crucial.

    Do some mistake the role of the active obedience of Christ, as understood in Reformed theology, for the third use of the law in the pursuit of Christian living?

    Finally, could a lot of the confessional Lutheran wrath towards the Reformed stem not so much from the unsettled issues at Marburg, as from the Hohenzollern dynasty’s Kirchenverein, against which North German Old Lutherans defined themselves?

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