A perpective on the Biblical view of God’s sovereignty that’s seldom heard- at least by me- is that of our Lutheran brothers. Lutheran blogger Josh Strodtbeck is a outstanding expounder of Lutheranism, so I’ve invited him to answer some questions. From the first time I ever heard Josh talk about this, it seemed to me he was saying something very Biblical, helpful and important.
I’ve got several questions for Josh, and I’ll do each one as a separate post.
1. What’s the difference between Lutheranism and Calvinism on the place of the Sovereignty of God in theology?
If you look at Calvin’s Institutes, he begins by defining God philosophically, much like Thomas Aquinas does in his Summa. That is, he defines God in terms of various attributes. That in itself makes Calvinism more prone to seeing theology as the development of an abstract system of thought. Again, the similarities to Thomas should be obvious. Of course, just listing attributes of God gets kind of dull after a while, so you have to begin discussing his actions at some point. But since the system itself begins with philosophically defined and described attributes, the theologian is naturally going to gravitate toward discussing things in terms of the attributes. I think the nature of the human mind is such that one, maybe two or three more, of the attributes will become dominant, and for Calvinists, this attribute is divine sovereignty, especially because Calvinism as a theological tradition quickly became defined partly in terms of opposition to synergism and a strong emphasis on the ontological transcendence of God. This is manifested most sharply in the Westminster Standards, which in both the Confession and the Catechisms define God in terms of his attributes and derive the rest of Christian doctrine out of God’s decrees.
You see this show up in a number of places. The most obvious one is TULIP and the obsession of some Calvinists with predestination and the ordo salutis. The dominating concern in traditional formulations of the ordo is that God be absolutely sovereign in each step so that his desires are in no way frustrated. Less obvious is the Calvinist use of the Law. A sovereign is chiefly in the business of promulgating laws, whether those laws are active, such as the decree of predestination, or passive, such as the prohibition of murder. For some Calvinists, this means an emphasis on self-reflection to see if one’s law-keeping sufficiently proves one’s regeneration and election. For others, this means rewriting the doctrine of justification in terms of covenant fidelity or downplaying the significance of justification in theology. It often means rigorous church discipline, and it can even manifest itself by discussing the entirety of one’s knowledge of God and pursuit of the Christian life almost wholly in terms of law-keeping.
The most obvious place is the doctrine of baptism. Your typical Calvinistic treatment of baptism heavily emphasizes the imposition of covenant obligations on the parents, the child, and the church. Depending on who you read, the “grace” of baptism is little more than being in the community where the covenant stipulations are upheld.
Luther shied away from abstractions, and we Lutherans inherited that. Not just sovereignty, but the attributes of God in general are simply not of extreme importance. If you look at Luther’s catechisms, he actually defines God in terms of Creation, the Cross, and the Church. Compare that to Q7 in the Westminster LC. So for Lutherans, theology is done in terms of God’s relation to us. That means theology never gets away from Law and Gospel, from justification, from the incarnation of Jesus Christ. If you look at the discussion of election in the Formula of Concord, its driving concern is not maintaining God’s sovereignty, but rather how election is to be preached within the framework of Law and Gospel. That’s why Chemnitz is comfortable with basically saying that God declares our election to us in the preaching of the Gospel and admonishes against rational speculation on the inscrutable decrees of God apart from Christ, who is made known to us in the Gospel and the Sacraments. It’s also the source of the bewildering (to Calvinists) assertion by Lutherans that while election is purely of the grace of God in Christ, reprobation is purely of the obstinate will of man and against God’s desire that they be saved. This doesn’t make sense in terms of divine attributes or sovereignty, but it does if you hold that damnation is Law and election is Gospel.
So for Lutherans, divine sovereignty isn’t a significant driving force in theology. As we see it, God’s attributes are in some sense inscrutable. Theology begins and lives where God is known, which is in Christ given to us in the Word and the Sacraments, not in abstract formulations of attributes or rigorous, logically consistent assertions about the nature of divine decrees.
To Be Continued….