Luther and Calvin on Predestination (Church History) 3
Hello everyone! I trust you are doing great! Let’s get back to our series on Luther and Calvin as to Predestination. Church History. Let’s pick it up where we left off.
PS: If you haven’t read the prequels, please do.
Let’s get right to it!
Calvin and Luther on Predestination
So, based upon what we last talked about, is it okay to say that Luther and Calvin differ on the doctrine of Predestination?
Well, there are two camps here; there is one that I think is a little historical and one that I think is based upon the actual reading of these two theologians. First off, in the modern evangelical protestant or just wider Christian world, there are people who do not embrace predestinarian language at all. They will come up with some other concept, probably Arminainism or something like that, and they’ll say, look, I’m not going to talk about Predestination at all, God didn’t move first. I invited Him in and He has saved me as a result. There are so many varieties of folks that come from this position, that what ends up happening in the modern world is when people read Luther and they find predestinarian language, very often, what happens is they sit back and say, “Boyy! Luther is on Calvin’s side, Luther is a Calvinist”. As strange as it might seem to say that!
Also, the amount of attack that “Calvinists” get as a result of the doctrine of predestination tends to mean that whenever someone gets into historical studies, or if they read Luther or someone else from the Reformation besides Calvin and they find this doctrine of Predestination, they usually have a eureka moment. They realize that this is something historical that is being embraced during the reformation and that all those in the modern world who might have a problem with the doctrine of Predestination can now be told that it is not Calvin alone who is to blame for this language, but is that where Calvin and Luther are coming from in the context of their own day‽ The short answer is that they do not agree, Calvin and Luther, on the doctrine of Predestination.
What do I mean? Well, it all comes down to the manner of speaking, the way we talk about Predestination, and the way Predestination is used in the context of the Christian life. Let’s start with Luther. About Luther, you can find all kinds of comments throughout the early, middle, and late periods of his ministry and writing, places where Luther has said, either in name or, at least, in principle that he subscribes to the doctrine of Predestination. To explain this further, let’s go back to Luther’s breakthrough. Luther’s breakthrough is basically hinged on the problem of what works he needs to do to make God love him. That was the belief that he had instilled within him in the monastery and his breakthrough is essentially a fundamental conviction from the book of Romans that God has chosen us, He has redeemed us, and His work is what is sufficient. Carrying that forward to 1525, when Luther writes “The Bondage of the Will“, what you tend to have is a very rigorous, pretty serious case with the idea that Luther is pretty much in favour of the doctrine of Predestination. Here’s the problem though, Lutherans today, save a few, do not believe in the doctrine of Predestination, and they tend to get a bit chippy whenever they are told that they teach the same thing as Calvin. But why is that‽
Well, let’s get to Calvin now, let’s see how he has developed his language. when he discusses the doctrine of Predestination, which comes from the same vintage as Luther, his first issue is when John (y’all remember our imaginary mortal human we integrated for the sake of explanation, yeah?) has converted, do we say that he has called upon God and God has responded? Or do we say that it is God who has rescued him, given him ears to hear, given him a heart of flesh, these kinds of things. Calvin is with Luther on this question. Absolutely, he says, it is not up to us, our choice, our invitation to God for Him to then save us or to justify us.
Calvin, just like Luther, at this point will say God was at work for our salvation before we were ever aware of it, and if it were not for the work of God in regenerating or renovating our hearts, we would not have had the capacity to respond to the Gospel in the first place. So, where do they differ you might ask. They differ in terms of the application of the description of what God knows in terms of what He is doing on the one hand, and on the other hand, how the Christian is supposed to live this life out. I’d like to cite some passages from Luther’s lectures on the book of Genesis that come during the last several years of his life.
“I hear that more and there among the nobles and persons of importance, viscious statements are being spread concerning predestination or God’s foreknowledge. For this is what they say, “if I’m predestined, I shall be saved, whether I do good or evil, if I am not predestined, I shall be damned regardless of my works.”
Now, the people that Luther is referring to are a bit hard to pin down. He is referring to noble folks and people, I think, within his context of Germany. he is not, at this point, referring to Calvin or other reformers. So, he is not attacking the doctrine of Calvinism, Calvin, or the reformed world. However, there is some sort of jab going on here. Now, what is it? Well, it seems to be the case that what Luther begins to articulate from his theology late in life, is real aversion to those who describe Predestination in a way that they somehow are aware of what Predestination means for their life definitively.
Furthermore, even the phrase that says, I shall be saved whether I do good or evil if I am predestined and if I am not, it matters not what I do, whether I do these things in the church life, if I partake of the sacraments, if I believe with all my heart, Luther alleges, these people will say that they will be damned. However, he says those people who do nothing, never attend church, but have some sort of eternal predestination within their hearts, Luther alleges that these people believe that they are elect no matter what. Now, we should say that this caricature that Luther gives is nothing that anyone in Calvinism or Calvin himself ever taught, no one has ever said that it is irrelevant to see the expression of faith or the Christian life or any of these things for one to understand one’s place in God’s salvation. You might say that what Luther describes here is some sort of mutated, Frankenstein, sort of, distorted Calvinism. Because again, this is not in any way, shape, or form the teaching of Calvin. nor is it the teaching of anyone in the reformed world.
But what Luther has a problem with here is that he feels at this point that the doctrine of Predestination has grown out of its proper place. I you look at Calvin’s institutes, one of the things you’ll notice is, for Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin, when they were looking at the order or of the subject of the book of Romans, there is a very interesting fact, which is that the doctrine of Predestination in that book is actually discussed after the doctrine of justification in terms of topic, in terms of the way that it is brought up in the context of the book of Romans. What Luther begins to be concerned about is that people are somehow believing that they can understand or that it is somehow irrelevant to the Christian life that they can understand either their place in God’s predestined plan or that they have somehow become neutered to the things of the church in the sacramental system. He goes on to say in other places that people will no longer take part in the sacraments, who cares about learning and teaching the preached word‽ Suddenly, it all becomes, well, if I am predestined, I’m in, so I might as well just wait around and see what happens whenever I leave the earth.
We’ll stop here today to pick it up where we left off in the next article. Do let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Credit: Ryan Reeves.
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