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Lutheranism versus Calvinism


Yesterday I happened upon the following excerpt from Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. As a Lutheran-turned-Calvinist, I found it particularly interesting, and the more I considered it, the more I saw the truth of it.

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The difference seems to be conveyed best by saying that the Reformed Christian thinks theologically, the Lutheran anthropologically. The Reformed person is not content with an exclusively historical stance but raises his sights to the idea, the eternal decree of God. By contrast, the Lutheran takes his position in the midst of the history of redemption and feels no need to enter more deeply into the counsel of God. For the Reformed, therefore, election is the heart of the church; for Lutherans, justification is the article by which the church stands or falls. Among the former the primary question is: How is the glory of God advanced? Among the latter it is: How does a human get saved? The struggle of the former is above all paganism- idolatry; that of the latter against Judaism- works righteousness. The Reformed person does not rest until he has traced all things retrospectively to the divine decree, tracking down the “wherefore” of things, and has prospectively made all things subservient to the glory of God; the Lutheran is content with the “that” and enjoys the salvation in which he is, by faith, a participant. From this difference in principle, the dogmatic controversies between them (with respect to the image of God, original sin, the person of Christ, the order of salvation, the sacraments, church government, ethics, etc.) can be easily explained.

—Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: Prolegomena (Baker, 2003), 177.

Also yesterday, as it happened, I had done something I normally do not do: study a text without reading Calvin. So, with Bavinck in mind, I looked up both Luther and Calvin on Genesis 11:30. Luther wrote:

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But Sarai was barren; she had no child (11:29, 30). The Scriptures (here) report that Sarai (Sarah) had no children. This shows that at that time children were regarded as precious gifts of God, for the text represents Sarai’s barrenness as a great affliction. So the almighty God chastened this saintly man (Abraham) with this great tribulation as he lived in this sin-cursed world in which we all (by our sins) are deserving of hell. The wicked (meanwhile) had many children and a large generation, while Abraham’s marriage was without issue. But this was more than a mere trial of Abraham, for it also demonstrated very convincingly God’s adorable mercy, power and faithfulness, for barren Sarai, when she had become old and was beyond the years of bearing children, received a son, from whom there came a great people.

—Martin Luther, Luther’s Commentary on Genesis Volume I, trans. J. Theodore Mueller, (Zondervan, 1958), 203–204.

and Calvin:

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But Sarai was barren. Not only does he say that Abram was without children, but he states the reasons namely, the sterility of his wife; in order to show that it was by nothing short of an extraordinary miracle that she afterwards bare Isaac, as we shall declare more fully in its proper place. Thus was God pleased to humble his servant; and we cannot doubt that Abram would suffer severe pain through this privation. He sees the wicked springing up everywhere, in great numbers, to cover the earth; he alone is deprived of children. And although hitherto he was ignorant of his own future vocation; yet God designed in his person, as in a mirror, to make it evident, whence and in what manner his Church should arise; for at that time it lay hid, as in a dry root under the earth.

—John Calvin, Commentary on the Genesis, Volume I (Baker Books, 2009), 337–338.

This text, at least, corroborates Bavinck. While Calvin interprets it as a mirror of God’s glory, Luther sees God’s purpose for Abraham.



Posted 2011·03·15 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Calvin’s Commentaries: Genesis · Genesis · Herman Bavinck · John Calvin · Justification · Luther's Commentary on Genesis · Lutheranism · Martin Luther · Reformed Dogmatics · Unconditional Election

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