November 24, 2017

God’s Sovereignty in Lutheranism: An Interview With Josh Strodtbeck (1)

luther-p1.jpgUPDATE: Read Don Matzat’s excellent essay on “Martin Luther and Predestination.”

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….

Comments

  1. I can already see this is going to be good stuff.

  2. As an Evangelical who has reservations about both Arminianism and TULIP Calvinism, it has been refreshing over the past few years to read what Luther and his successors had to say on predestination. It seems that the authors of Evangelical systematic theologies I have read or skimmed aren’t even aware of the Lutheran answer to questions such as this.

  3. Scott Eaton says:

    I love this! “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.”

    Wow! Terrific stuff! This is the thing that makes Lutheranism appealing to me – it is all about Christ.

    What an encouraging post. I am looking forward to more.

  4. Michael,

    I have no idea if you have come across Richard Muller’s four volume Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (not a title to send the series up the book charts). One thing that he refutes, and this is true of the more recent scholarship in this area, is the idea that Calvinists logically derived their system from a central dogma like predestination.

    In light of that the opening paragraph just reads like a very bad caricature.

  5. Patrick Kyle says:

    Michael,

    Thanks for posting this. Lutheran doctrine has for some reason, not gotten the hearing it deserves. I think many people will benefit from this series.

    Josh,

    Excellent discussion. Clarified some things that I have long suspected to be true. Thanks

  6. Martin, I never said that all Calvinists logically derived their theologies from a single central dogma. That would be absurd, since no two individual theologians are exactly alike. However, what I said about the Westminster Standards is in fact true. Q12-14 of the Larger Catechism are clear enough. Creation and providence (which includes both covenants) are described in terms of the execution of the decrees of God. It’s very sovereignty-driven. It’s no coincidence that theologians shaped by the Westminster Standards constantly talk about God’s commands, God’s decrees, God’s sovereignty, and so forth.

  7. Almost thou persuadest me to become a Lutheran…

    Just can’t come to grips with their views on baptism and communion. It’s just the small things, really.

  8. Kevin said “It seems that the authors of Evangelical systematic theologies I have read or skimmed aren’t even aware of the Lutheran answer to questions such as this.”

    I agree. It is rare to hear or read about the Lutheran answers.

    Scott said “Wow! Terrific stuff! This is the thing that makes Lutheranism appealing to me – it is all about Christ.”

    I also agree. The focus on Christ is what led me to the Lutheran faith.

    Kevin and Scott – you may find the following article helpful:

    http://www.confessionallutherans.org/papers/touchgev.html

    Brian – here are several articles on both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (from a Lutheran view) that may be helpful:

    Baptism: http://www.wittenbergtrail.com/page4/page14/Baptism.html

    Lord’s Supper: http://www.wittenbergtrail.com/page4/page13/LordSupper.html

    In Christ,

    Eric

  9. I like Luther’s approach to predestination. I used to be a hard-core Piperite, but have moved in my theology. When asked what I think about election and predestination now I often say that my approach will tick off both staunch Calvinists and staunch Arminians. My answer is that predestination is a biblical doctrine. I also believe human responsibility and God’s desire that all be saved are biblical doctrines. Both doctrines are part of the datum revelation, but Holy Scripture does not synthesize them. In my mind attempts to synthsize them are ultimately theories. There is nothing wrong with theological theories, but I will not profess them as of the esse of my faith.

    When I arrive on the streets of gold and if asked why I am there, I plan to reply — chosen before the foundation of the world/trusted Christ in March of 1973/Died for in AD33. God can work out the details.

  10. Reading this I feel like I wish I’d heard more about Lutheranism a long time ago. Then again, trying to find a vibrant, conservative Lutheran congregation in my area seems like a needle in a haystack expedition here in Southern Baptist Land.

  11. I wouldn’t ever use “vibrant” and “Lutheranism” in the same sentence (joking–my congregation is great).

  12. :^)

    Very funny. But just to be clear, by “vibrant” please don’t take it to mean the kind of church I mentioned on my blog that I came to faith in. It’s almost like everyone there seemed to think spirituality meant out-emoting the person next to you in the Sunday worship service.

    BTW, you’re linked on my blog site now. Good stuff. Many thanks to you and Michael for this series!

  13. “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.”
    In your September 11 interview you ended with the above. It is uncanny how you really have Calvinism nailed down. That’s been my experience both in the baptistic variety and PCA. I tell my wife and best friend (a reformed Baptist leaning like me but behind on infant baptism) “I’m a crypto Lutheran or at least rising one!

    How does that play out say in Romans 9? What I’ve always seen there and my Calvinist connections would call me crazy, was that the rebuke of Paul “who are you ole man…” is rebuking the religious doer or worker to heaven. The hypocrisy is this, God wills man to be saved, but the “doer”, the fallen man, says “Why does God blame us…who resists His will”. Paul then rebukes him. Why? Because the REAL reason the “doer”, fallen man, will not trust is that he WILLS to not trust such a free grace, he has to work for salvation per se. So, Paul rebukes with Law, “You say you no one can resist God to excuse your unbelief or distrust in Him, yet here you stand resisting the will of God to save you sans your works and by free grace…your hypocrisy is obvious.” Then Paul says God will harden whom He will harden. How? By the same free grace! That free grace for Christ’s sake that is the food of the believer “the naked truster” is the same cause of hardening to the “doer” or worker to God. The worker to God cannot STAND it and it is free grace that hardens him all the more, because he wants merit. So he 1. Resists the will of God in free grace trying to say he doesn’t and 2. Is hardened by the very thing he resists. Is that what bothered the elder son in the parable of the “prodigal son” over the younger son, he was thus hardened by the grace and resisting the father’s will?

    When I was an atheist/agnostic the thing that I hated about the Christian faith was what I thought was the absurdity of God being crucified for my sin. I had no problem what-so-ever with morality. In fact me then and even today, that is the charge against the church, its morals are no better than any other group/religion’s.

    Blessings,

    Larry KY