Monday, April 4, 2011

Calvinists and Lutherans: Why the Differences?

I was not planning to write on this topic again but after some conversations with a Calvinist friend who had some questions about Lutheranism I thought it might be helpful to summarize, condense, and add to some of the things I have already said on this topic. As you may already know, I am an ex-Calvinist. As a Calvinist I was trained to understand Lutherans as being a step in the right direction in regards to their differences from the Roman Catholic Church but that they did not go far enough. Of course Baptists tend to think Calvinists did not go far enough and so on and so on. Lutheranism was understood as sort of a spot in between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. This makes sense on a superficial level but if you dig deeper you will find that although certain outward practices of Lutherans tend to be closer to that of Roman Catholics, what stands behind those things at times reveals that Calvinists have not gone further than Lutherans but have actually run in the opposite direction.

Throughout this post I will use the term "Lutheran" to refer to Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgical Congregations. This is not a denomination but refers to confessional Lutheran churches that worship in a way that is consistent with the way Lutherans have historically worshiped. When I use the term "Calvinist" I will be referring to confessional Reformed and Presbyterian church bodies.

Theologically, one of the biggest differences that stands behind all the related differences between Lutheran and Calvinist theology is a difference in belief as to how much we can trust human reason when it comes to knowing who God is. For Roman Catholics who follow in the footsteps of Thomas Aquinas, "Revelation can never contradict reason." For Luther, "Reason is the Devil's whore." Revelation is almost always contrary to reason and in order to know something about God, God must reveal it to us. Calvinism actually occupies a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism in this case. The Calvinist believes that through a series of logical inferences he can arrive at doctrinal truth. Some of these inferences are what separate Calvinists from one another when it comes to inferences that they have drawn in differing directions on issues like the covenant.

When the Calvinist looks at the Lutheran, the Calvinist views the Lutheran as standing somewhere in between Calvinism and Arminianism. When the Lutheran looks at the Arminian, the Arminian understands the Arminian to be a kind of Calvinist. Both Calvinism and Arminianism have a similar confidence in human reason and learn about God through logical inference but have followed slightly different paths. The Lutheran does not attempt to fit God's plan of salvation into a nice reasonable package. The Lutheran knows that God's ways are not our ways and God's thoughts are not our thoughts and that God's wisdom is foolishness to man. The Calvinist doctrine of the limited atonement is not found anywhere in the Scriptures. In fact certain passages explicitly speak of those who deny the Lord who bought them (2 Peter 2:1). The Arminian concept of free will is also explicitly denied in the Scriptures.

When it comes to the Lord's Supper it is common for Calvinists to view Lutherans as occupying some middle ground between Roman Catholic transubstantiation and the "truth" of Calvinism. Calvinists even try to force Lutherans into some kind of philosophical category by referring to the Lutheran position as "consubstantiation." But Lutherans reject the Calvinist position for many of the same reasons that they reject Roman Catholic transubstantiation. Lutherans trust in Christ and the Words of Institution. Lutherans believe we receive Christ's very body and blood in the Lord's Supper because that's what Jesus said that we receive. Lutherans reject transubstantiation because they do not believe that by logical inference we can arrive at how this is the body and blood of Christ. The Calvinist belief that in the Lord's Supper the Holy Spirit lifts us up into heaven to partake of Christ's body and blood is not found anywhere in the Scriptures and neither is the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

The difference between the Lutheran idea that in the Lord's Supper where Christ descends to us and the Calvinist idea that we ascend to Christ reveals a characteristic difference between Lutheran and Calvinist "worship" that extends beyond the Lord's Supper. Lutheran worship is all about Christ descending to us and Calvinist worship is all about us ascending to God. Calvinists often understand Lutherans as occupying some middle position when it comes to worship between Roman Catholics and Calvinists. Calvinists vary to some degree on what practices they consider to be too Roman Catholic. Some are opposed to singing anything but the Scriptural Psalms, others permit them. Lutherans do not practice exclusive Psalmody but do chant a Psalm as part of the service. But there seems to be general agreement that Lutherans did not go far enough. But in this it almost seems as if Lutherans are on one side with Calvinists on the other side and Roman Catholics sit somewhere in between. Christ said that He did not come to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28). Lutherans believe that when Christians gather in the name of Christ, they do not do so primarily to give God glory but to receive God's good gifts--we receive forgiveness of sins in the preaching of the Gospel, we receive forgiveness of sins in the washing of baptism, we receive forgiveness of sins when we partake of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper. We certainly give thanks in response to these things but we do not gather together to give something to God. We gather to receive. Lutherans recognized that the historic liturgy did the best job of demonstrating that worship is all about receiving God's good gifts through faith. Certain elements had crept in that distracted from this fact and needed to be removed but if they threw the whole thing out they would end up doing the exact opposite of what they were trying to do. Calvinist worship tends to focus on us giving glory to God and most of the debates in Calvinist churches are over whether or not we are doing it right. It's as if God needs us there to give Him glory. Those who practice exclusive Psalmody even speak of the Biblical Law of worship--they turn what is Gospel into Law. If you read the Book of Acts, the early Christians met to "break bread" which is a way that early Christians spoke of the Lord's Supper. The service did not center around us giving glory to God in the right way but around Christ giving us His body and blood. The historic liturgy has always existed in some form. It grew out of the worship of the synagogue and temple. Christians Christianized the liturgy that was already there and handed it down. When people start talking about the Biblical Laws of worship they often end up with a type of service that never existed prior to the Reformation. But the church did not start at the time of the Reformation. When we gather in the name of Christ we join in the worship of the church of all ages. Strangely, many who are obsessed with the Biblical Laws of worship celebrate communion infrequently, even though it seems from the Scriptural record alone that the Lord's Supper was celebrated once a week or more. During Pentecost it was happening every day and we have records from some very early church fathers that daily celebration of the Lord's Supper was normal.

Since Lutherans have a different understanding of why we gather in the name of Christ, Lutheran sermons tend to differ quite a bit from Calvinist sermons. Calvinist sermons can vary quite a bit in content but they tend to be either a doctrinal study or about holy living. In either case the pastor is understood to be primarily a teacher. The Law is generally preached as doable. Lutheran pastors, rather than being primarily teachers, are dispensers of the forgiveness of sins. In John 20, when Jesus met with the apostles, He gave them the power to forgive sins. Teaching is part of what any pastor should do, but it is not the main thing. Lutherans believe that Christ-crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) ought to be the central message of all of Scripture. The appointed reading is explained in such a way that every person present is shown that they are guilty before God and worthy of his present and eternal punishment for violating His Law. And every person present must be told that they have been forgiven--that Christ has paid for his sins. The style of delivery may vary by the pastor but the general message should be the same. You can listen my pastor's sermons, Bill Cwirla's sermons, or David Petersen's sermons and hear essentially the same thing. They differ stylistically but they all deliver the forgiveness of sins--they all preach Christ-crucified.

In much the same way, Lutherans and Calvinists differ in how they interpret the Scriptures. Jesus said that all of the Scriptures are about Jesus (John 5:39-40). Calvin was actually the first commentator in the church to make a distinction between Messianic and non-Messianic Psalms. The church fathers regarded all the Psalms as being about Jesus and so do Lutherans. Lutherans are much more likely to consult the church fathers when interpreting the Scriptures than Calvinists are. Sometimes Calvinists will adopt interpretations of Scripture that would have been completely unknown to the pre-Reformation church. Rather than viewing "Christ" as the central message of all of Scripture, many Calvinists will understand "predestination" or the "covenant" (which varies by sect) to be the central teaching of all of Scripture. Lutherans believe that predestination and the covenant can only be understood in relation to Christ.

Lutherans believe that visible objects are not only permissible but helpful as teaching tools. Calvinists tend to be opposed to them. Historically, there was great controversy in the church over whether or not images of Christ ought to be made. Some believed that to do so broke the commandment against making images of God just as Calvinists do today. But after many years of controversy it was decided that making images of Christ did not break the commandment against making images of God. In Deuteronomy 4, God tells Israel that they are not to make images of Him because God did not take on any form when He appeared to the Israelites. But in Jesus, God most certainly did take on a form. Colossians 1:15 specifically refers to Jesus as the image of the invisible God. Lutherans do not attribute any power to art that depicts Jesus and do not worship it, but it does provide a helpful teaching tool. Some people don't have a problem with pictures of Jesus in general but are opposed to a crucifix that has a bloody Jesus hanging on it because they say they worship the risen Jesus. In Galatians 3:1 Paul says that what he placarded was Christ-crucified. It is certainly true that Jesus rose from the dead but we see God's great love for us most clearly in the crucifixion where God hangs dead and naked on a cross for us.

Lutherans tend to observe the traditions handed down in the church that point us to Christ and do away with those traditions that point us away from Christ. During Lent, Lutheran churches will place veils over some of the artwork in order to draw our attention away from everything except Christ-crucified. It also reminds us that Christ's glory was hidden during His suffering. There are many other traditions that Lutherans maintain. Calvinists tend to regard them as foolish and unnecessary or possibly even sinful. But Lutherans recognize that since the time of the Israelites, Biblical worship was a multi-sensory experience. God does not just address our brains. He is concerned for our entire person. God not only gives us the forgiveness of sins in Word but also gives us His body and blood to drink and washes our sins away with water.

I'm hoping this post will help Calvinists understand Lutherans better. If there are any questions about specific practices I would be happy to try to answer them.


NewKidontheBlogg said...

You give me a lot to consider with these contrasts. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post!

You explained the exact points that I have been struggling to articulate in my discussions with a friend about the way her husband preaches. He is the lead pastor of a large non-denominational seeker-sensitive Christian church, so the conversation has been heated and frustrating for both of us.

After hearing some podcasts of Lutheran preaching, I was refreshed by the gospel for the first time in over a decade. I have been listening to the sermons of my friend's husband since their church opened seven years ago, so she wanted to know how I had failed to hear the gospel in his sermons for all those years.

Not knowing the differences between Calvinists and Lutherans, I had a very difficult time to explaining how his sermons were different than the sermons which had refreshed my spirit.

Because you took the time to write this post, I have been able to let my friend know how the sermons differed. Also, I will be checking out my local Lutheran church this weekend because I think I've finally found what I've been looking for all these long, dry years.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Chuck Wiese said...


I'm glad you found the post helpful. I usually check out the Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgical Congregations website when I'm out of town. I'm sure there are some good ones that just haven't been put on the list but I've been to a few where the preaching is no different than what you would hear at a mega-church.

I've gotten into lots of those conversations about different preaching and have been very objective in my evaluations but they're usually not very productive. I think people tend to evaluate sermons most of the time the same way they evaluate music--it's all about how the sermon makes them feel. If they feel moved then they are convinced that the person is really preaching Christ even if they are not.

I evaluated a sermon that I had heard in person by a Calvinist pastor on my blog--it was all about how you need to be excited because John sounds excited and if you're not excited maybe you're not really a Christian. There was no Gospel. Word got around on facebook to some of the Calvinist ministers in the area. I attended the baptism of one of my friend's babies and during the prayer this other pastor started praying about those horrible people who evaluate sermons on facebook. It was so hard not to laugh. And then during his sermon he started saying, "I'm preaching the Gospel. Don't walk away and say you didn't hear the Gospel today." But he never preached the Gospel. It was pretty bizarre.

After having lots of these conversations with different people I'm starting to think this might not be the best way to go. I listened to some lectures by H.R. Curtis on evangelism and he speaks against proselytizing and I think he might be right. We should pray for our faithful Lutheran pastors and thank God for them. We should invite people who are dissatisfied with their church to ours. But I don't think we need to try to convert everyone. God's Word is still present in these churches and just living a godly life in our vocations and being ready to give answer might be the better way to go.