Brian W. Thomas. Wittenberg vs. Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that Divide. Irvine, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2015. See here to buy the book.
I have long wondered what exactly the difference is between Lutheranism and Calvinism.
In a college history class, I had to read Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will.” Luther sounded to me like a Calvinist in that treatise. Luther seemed to be arguing that humans cannot come to God through their own free will, for they are too sinful in nature even to want to come to God. God therefore needs to transform them spiritually for them to come to God.
I was discussing Luther with a Lutheran, however, and he emphatically denied that Martin Luther believed in predestination. He appealed to his time at a Lutheran school to support his point. And, granted, when I was going through Martin Luther’s lectures on Genesis, there were occasions in which Luther appeared to be concerned that the doctrine of predestination could breed spiritual insecurity.
When I read a book by a Lutheran that was critical of Calvinism, I gathered that Lutherans differ from Calvinists on certain issues. (The book, by the way, was Steven A. Hein’s The Christian Life: Cross or Glory? It is from the same publisher as Wittenberg vs. Geneva, and, as with Wittenberg vs. Geneva, I received a review copy of it through Cross Focused Reviews.) Calvinists believe that the saints will persevere in the faith unto the end, whereas Lutherans maintain that a saint could fall away from the faith and lose his or her salvation. Many Calvinists believe that Christ died only for the elect, the specific individuals God chose before the foundation of the world to be saved. Lutherans, by contrast, think that Christ died for everyone, and that everyone is objectively justified (forgiven), even if he or she fails to accept that salvation and thus goes to hell.
As I said in my review of Hein’s book, the Calvinist position strikes me as neat and internally consistent: God chooses who will be saved, God transforms those people so that they believe and become saved, and those people persevere in faith until the end. Granted, I agree with Thomas that Calvinists have to stretch their biblical interpretation to accommodate the biblical passages that do not fit so neatly with their system. (Lutherans, however, try to cope with the tensions, even if they do not resolve them adequately.) Still, the Calvinist position itself is neat and holds together. Lutheranism, by contrast, struck me as rather muddled. I wondered how exactly it held together.
I was eager to read Brian W. Thomas’ Wittenberg vs. Geneva because it identifies and tackles the differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism. Thomas writes from a Lutheran perspective, so he defends Lutheran positions while critiquing Calvinist positions.
On the issue of predestination, I was disappointed. Thomas affirms, as a Lutheran, that Christ died for everyone. At the same time, he believes in single predestination rather than double predestination. My understanding is that single predestination states that God chose before the foundation of the world who would be saved, and God later provided those people the resources they needed to become saved. Double predestination, however, states that God chose who would be saved and who would be damned to hell. Under double predestination, God specifically predestined certain people unto damnation.
Thomas obviously has problems with double predestination, and they are the same problems that many people have with it. Thomas also makes an effective biblical argument against it when he notes that the people God hardened in Romans 11 eventually become saved: they were hardened for a time, but that does not mean that God predestined them onto a path of inevitable damnation. Still, the doctrine of single predestination, as I understand it, does not appear to me to be a significant step up from double predestination. Under single predestination, God still seems to be choosing to save some and not others. And what happens to those whom God does not choose to save? They go to hell, right?
The blogger Lotharson compared single and double predestination to people drowning. (https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/nakled-calvinism-why-the-difference-between-single-and-double-predestination-does-not-matter/) Under single predestination, God chooses to rescue some people from drowning, while allowing others to drown. Granted, God under single predestination is not causing those other people to drown. But God is still allowing them to drown. Single predestination does not look that much better than double predestination.
Maybe I have single predestination all wrong, and it maintains that people who were not predestined can still be saved. If that is the case, it was not that clear in Thomas’ book.
The book has its strengths and weaknesses. Most of Thomas’ discussions have both strengths and weaknesses.
Thomas effectively argues against certain Calvinist positions. I John 2:2 states that Jesus is the propitiation of our sins, and also of the sins of the world. Thomas shows that the Greek word translated “world” in I John elsewhere in I John applies to the entire world, not only the elect. Hebrews 6:4-6 refers to people who tasted the heavenly gift and fell away. Some Calvinists, who believe that the saints cannot fall away and lose their salvation, argue that the people in Hebrews 6:4-6 merely tasted the heavenly gift, as opposed to having the Holy Spirit as truly saved Christians. Thomas disagrees and refers to Hebrews 2:9’s statement that Christ tasted death for every man. Christ’s taste of death was no light taste!
Thomas’ interpretation of Romans 9-11 was mixed in terms of its quality. Thomas did try to interpret Romans 9 in light of the Old Testament, and that is understandable. For example, Thomas notes that God chose Jacob over Esau, but God in the Old Testament still blessed Esau, on some level. At the same time, even though Thomas is correct that Romans 9-11 does not explicitly mention predestination, I have difficulty escaping the conclusion that Paul there is saying that God spiritually hardens some people. In Romans 9:19-21, Paul seems to be addressing the argument that this is unfair, for how can God find fault with people whom God Godself hardens? Thomas interprets the argument that Paul is countering as follows: “If God’s mercy cannot be apprehended by physical descent, good works, or sheer willpower, then how can he still find fault? If salvation ultimately rests in God’s merciful hand, reason revolts by shifting the blame back to God.” Huh?
Thomas discusses the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper extensively. My impression, from Thomas’ discussion, is that Calvinists view baptism and the elements of the Lord’s supper as symbolic of spiritual realities (and, according to Thomas, Augustine held that position, too). Lutherans, by contrast, tend to believe that these sacraments have more power than that. The water of baptism saves a person, by God’s declaration. When a person eats the bread and drinks the wine of the Lord’s supper, that person is actually partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. (My impression is that Thomas thinks that the elements of the Lord’s supper contain Christ; he rejects, however, the common idea that Lutherans believe in consubstantiation.)
Thomas’ Scriptural discussion of these topics was all right: I can see Calvinists’ point that there are metaphors in the Bible and thus the bread and wine may be symbolic; on the other hand, Thomas’ argument from I Corinthians 11:29 that even those partaking of the Lord’s supper unworthily are partaking of the Lord’s body is a pretty effective argument. In addition, in reference to transubstantiation, I have wondered how Christ at the original last supper could call the bread and the wine his body and blood, when Christ’s real body and blood were right there: Christ, the human being, was standing right there! Thomas addresses this by saying that Christ was hosting the event, yet also offering his body through the bread.
There were insights in the book that I especially appreciated, from a spiritual perspective. Thomas talks about how the Lutheran perspective offers more spiritual assurance than the Calvinist one: Calvinists look at their faith and the quality of their spiritual lives for assurance, whereas Lutherans encourage Christians to look at the objective reality of the sacraments and objective justification. (Such is Thomas’ characterization.) I like that, as one who finds that the quality of my faith and spiritual life falls short. Yet, while Thomas does well to quote the father who said “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), he also should have interacted with II Corinthians 13:5 “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (KJV).
I found Thomas’ interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 to be helpful. It concerns apostasy: those who fall away from the faith. The point of the passage, on the surface, seems to be that those who fall away from the faith have lost their salvation and cannot come back to God. That interpretation has long troubled me. How can one reconcile that with Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), in which a person leaves his father but later realizes the error of his ways and returns to his father? God forgave the Israelites continually after they rejected him and returned to him: Is the new covenant a step down from the old covenant, in that respect?
Thomas’ interpretation is that those who continue to reject Jesus cannot repent. That makes some sense to me, from a Christian perspective: continuing to reject Jesus is arguably inconsistent with repentance. One can drink the rain that God sends, or reject it (or so Hebrews 6:7-8 may be saying). If one is on a path of apostasy, he or she is going the opposite direction from repentance. Under Thomas’ scenario, one can still decide to accept Jesus and repent after going apostate. I am not entirely sure if Thomas’ interpretation works, though, for Hebrews 12:17 states that Esau could not repent, even if he sought the blessing with tears. Esau seems to have been willing to repent, according to the author of Hebrews, but he could not do so.
The book’s discussion of single predestination was disappointing, but the book still made effective arguments, in areas, and had some helpful insights.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Cross Focused Reviews, in exchange for an honest review.