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Masochistic Lutheranism at Calvinism's Westminster Seminary

Logia, a journal of Lutheran theology, recently (Vol. 8, No. 4) carried a lead essay by D. G. Hart, associate professor of church history and theological bibliography at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Westminster is generally considered the flagship of academic Calvinism.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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Logia, a journal of Lutheran theology, recently (Vol. 8, No. 4) carried a lead essay by D. G. Hart, associate professor of church history and theological bibliography at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Westminster is generally considered the flagship of academic Calvinism. Well, "flagship" may not be the most appropriate metaphor. At least there is nothing confrontational in Hart's essay, "What Can Presbyterians Learn from Lutherans?" "Retreating tug boat" may be a more fitting trope.

What can Presbyterians learn from Lutherans? Humility, for one thing, says Hart: "The Reformed could not be content with salvation or the church; they had a holy duty to transform their society according to God's revealed principles [i.e., the Bible]. According to [Abraham] Kuyper, salvation of souls was not enough. Real Calvinism had to change society." This is all true, and Hart the Westminster Lutheran Calvinist doesn't like it a bit. Modern Calvinists have the arrogant attitude that they are called to transform culture in explicitly Christian terms. They should take a clue from Luther. He warred against a "theology of glory." He espoused instead a "theology of the cross." This means, among other things, that Christians are to expect suffering, deprivation, and failure in this world. Victory for Christ's kingdom is "triumphalistic." Suffering is much, much better. Christians should revel in this, since this identifies us with the suffering Christ. The "theology of glory" means pride of accomplishment, worldly success, and cultural transformation. Calvinists, according to Westminster's Hart, must adopt Luther's "theology of the cross." Perceptive readers might get the impression that this is a spiritual masochism, a lust for suffering.

There is, to be sure, a legitimate theology of the cross. There can be no Christianity without it. Salvation apart from Christ's substitutionary atonement on the cross is not merely an impossibility. It is an affront to God. But we must never separate our theology of the cross from our theology of the resurrection — or the rest of the great Biblical redemptive complex, for that matter: Christ's incarnation, law-keeping life, ascension, session, and present reign on David's throne (Ac. 2).

Hart knows that a masochistic "theology of the cross" limits Christ's redemptive work to the individual or the church: "Kuyper's idea of the Reformed world-and-life view also nurtures a tendency to look to worldly accomplishments, rather than theological, liturgical, or ecclesiastical faithfulness, as marks of Calvinism's success." Translation: Consistent Calvinists believe that the Faith applies to all of life; Lutheran Calvinists believe the Faith applies to part of life. Better translation: Consistent Calvinists believe in the sovereignty of God; Lutheran Calvinists believe in the suffering of the saints.

Consistent Calvinists embrace the redemptive complex in its totality. This includes both the benefits of Christ's suffering on the cross and the benefits of Christ's victory over the grave. This latter includes incremental social sanctification (Dan. 2; Mt. 13:31-33). Consistent Calvinists support a holistic Faith; Lutheran Calvinists endorse a truncated Faith.

Hart cites several passages from Calvin positing man's frailty and suffering in this life. Hart opposes the "triumphant crusader conquering the world for Christ and his kingdom" and supports "the suffering pilgrim who endures pain and persecution, just as his savior [sic] did, who hopes for the life to come . . . ." He does not discuss why suffering cannot be a factor advancing Christ's comprehensive kingdom in time and history.

Hart does not believe that Christ's kingdom extends beyond the church. He does not believe the Bible should apply to all of life. Like Luther, therefore, Hart is a dualist. He says, "Just as there are two kinds of righteousness according to the theology of the cross and theology of glory, so the two kingdoms, that of the church and that of the state, have two standards of good conduct. . . . The norms for the church are faith and love, but the standards for public order are reason and justice."

Consistent Calvinists disagree. We believe that the Bible (not "reason" and "justice") should govern both church and state. The "norms for the church" are not "faith and love," but the commands of the Bible. The "standards for public order" are not "reason and justice," but the injunctions of the Bible. Faith, love, reason, and justice must be Biblically defined — and practiced. Consistent Calvinists want a holistic Biblical faith; Lutheran Calvinists want a truncated rationalistic Faith. (This is ironic, since Lutherans forever charge Calvinists with rationalism.)

The chasm between Consistent Calvinists and Lutheran Calvinists cannot be bridged by dialogue. It presupposes and reflects two fundamentally irreconcilable visions.

One sometimes even suspects, two different religions.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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