Brian W. Thomas. Wittenberg vs. Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that Divide. Irvine, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2015. See here to buy the book.
I have long wondered what exactly the difference is between Lutheranism and Calvinism.
In a college history class, I had to read Martin Luther’s “Bondage of
the Will.” Luther sounded to me like a Calvinist in that treatise.
Luther seemed to be arguing that humans cannot come to God through their
own free will, for they are too sinful in nature even to want to come
to God. God therefore needs to transform them spiritually for them to
come to God.
I was discussing Luther with a Lutheran, however, and he emphatically
denied that Martin Luther believed in predestination. He appealed to
his time at a Lutheran school to support his point. And, granted, when I
was going through Martin Luther’s lectures on Genesis, there were
occasions in which Luther appeared to be concerned that the doctrine of
predestination could breed spiritual insecurity.
When I read a book by a Lutheran that was critical of Calvinism, I
gathered that Lutherans differ from Calvinists on certain issues. (The
book, by the way, was Steven A. Hein’s The Christian Life: Cross or Glory? It is from the same publisher as Wittenberg vs. Geneva, and, as with Wittenberg vs. Geneva,
I received a review copy of it through Cross Focused Reviews.)
Calvinists believe that the saints will persevere in the faith unto the
end, whereas Lutherans maintain that a saint could fall away from the
faith and lose his or her salvation. Many Calvinists believe that
Christ died only for the elect, the specific individuals God chose
before the foundation of the world to be saved. Lutherans, by contrast,
think that Christ died for everyone, and that everyone is objectively
justified (forgiven), even if he or she fails to accept that salvation
and thus goes to hell.
As I said in my review of Hein’s book, the Calvinist position strikes
me as neat and internally consistent: God chooses who will be saved,
God transforms those people so that they believe and become saved, and
those people persevere in faith until the end. Granted, I agree with
Thomas that Calvinists have to stretch their biblical interpretation to
accommodate the biblical passages that do not fit so neatly with their
system. (Lutherans, however, try to cope with the tensions, even if
they do not resolve them adequately.) Still, the Calvinist position
itself is neat and holds together. Lutheranism, by contrast, struck me
as rather muddled. I wondered how exactly it held together.
I was eager to read Brian W. Thomas’ Wittenberg vs. Geneva
because it identifies and tackles the differences between Lutheranism
and Calvinism. Thomas writes from a Lutheran perspective, so he defends
Lutheran positions while critiquing Calvinist positions.
On the issue of predestination, I was disappointed. Thomas affirms,
as a Lutheran, that Christ died for everyone. At the same time, he
believes in single predestination rather than double predestination. My
understanding is that single predestination states that God chose
before the foundation of the world who would be saved, and God later
provided those people the resources they needed to become saved. Double
predestination, however, states that God chose who would be saved and
who would be damned to hell. Under double predestination, God
specifically predestined certain people unto damnation.
Thomas obviously has problems with double predestination, and they
are the same problems that many people have with it. Thomas also makes
an effective biblical argument against it when he notes that the people
God hardened in Romans 11 eventually become saved: they were hardened
for a time, but that does not mean that God predestined them onto a path
of inevitable damnation. Still, the doctrine of single predestination,
as I understand it, does not appear to me to be a significant step up
from double predestination. Under single predestination, God still
seems to be choosing to save some and not others. And what happens to
those whom God does not choose to save? They go to hell, right?
The blogger Lotharson compared single and double predestination to people drowning. (https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/nakled-calvinism-why-the-difference-between-single-and-double-predestination-does-not-matter/)
Under single predestination, God chooses to rescue some people from
drowning, while allowing others to drown. Granted, God under single
predestination is not causing those other people to drown. But God is
still allowing them to drown. Single predestination does not look that
much better than double predestination.
Maybe I have single predestination all wrong, and it maintains that
people who were not predestined can still be saved. If that is the
case, it was not that clear in Thomas’ book.
The book has its strengths and weaknesses. Most of Thomas’ discussions have both strengths and weaknesses.
Thomas effectively argues against certain Calvinist positions. I
John 2:2 states that Jesus is the propitiation of our sins, and also of
the sins of the world. Thomas shows that the Greek word translated
“world” in I John elsewhere in I John applies to the entire world, not
only the elect. Hebrews 6:4-6 refers to people who tasted the heavenly
gift and fell away. Some Calvinists, who believe that the saints cannot
fall away and lose their salvation, argue that the people in Hebrews
6:4-6 merely tasted the heavenly gift, as opposed to having the Holy
Spirit as truly saved Christians. Thomas disagrees and refers to
Hebrews 2:9’s statement that Christ tasted death for every man.
Christ’s taste of death was no light taste!
Thomas’ interpretation of Romans 9-11 was mixed in terms of its
quality. Thomas did try to interpret Romans 9 in light of the Old
Testament, and that is understandable. For example, Thomas notes that
God chose Jacob over Esau, but God in the Old Testament still blessed
Esau, on some level. At the same time, even though Thomas is correct
that Romans 9-11 does not explicitly mention predestination, I have
difficulty escaping the conclusion that Paul there is saying that God
spiritually hardens some people. In Romans 9:19-21, Paul seems to be
addressing the argument that this is unfair, for how can God find fault
with people whom God Godself hardens? Thomas interprets the argument
that Paul is countering as follows: “If God’s mercy cannot be
apprehended by physical descent, good works, or sheer willpower, then
how can he still find fault? If salvation ultimately rests in God’s
merciful hand, reason revolts by shifting the blame back to God.” Huh?
Thomas discusses the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper
extensively. My impression, from Thomas’ discussion, is that Calvinists
view baptism and the elements of the Lord’s supper as symbolic of
spiritual realities (and, according to Thomas, Augustine held that
position, too). Lutherans, by contrast, tend to believe that these
sacraments have more power than that. The water of baptism saves a
person, by God’s declaration. When a person eats the bread and drinks
the wine of the Lord’s supper, that person is actually partaking of the
body and blood of Jesus Christ. (My impression is that Thomas thinks
that the elements of the Lord’s supper contain Christ; he rejects,
however, the common idea that Lutherans believe in consubstantiation.)
Thomas’ Scriptural discussion of these topics was all right: I can
see Calvinists’ point that there are metaphors in the Bible and thus the
bread and wine may be symbolic; on the other hand, Thomas’ argument
from I Corinthians 11:29 that even those partaking of the Lord’s supper
unworthily are partaking of the Lord’s body is a pretty effective
argument. In addition, in reference to transubstantiation, I have
wondered how Christ at the original last supper could call the bread and
the wine his body and blood, when Christ’s real body and blood were
right there: Christ, the human being, was standing right there! Thomas
addresses this by saying that Christ was hosting the event, yet also
offering his body through the bread.
There were insights in the book that I especially appreciated, from a
spiritual perspective. Thomas talks about how the Lutheran perspective
offers more spiritual assurance than the Calvinist one: Calvinists look
at their faith and the quality of their spiritual lives for assurance,
whereas Lutherans encourage Christians to look at the objective reality
of the sacraments and objective justification. (Such is Thomas’
characterization.) I like that, as one who finds that the quality of my
faith and spiritual life falls short. Yet, while Thomas does well to
quote the father who said “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mark
9:24), he also should have interacted with II Corinthians 13:5 “Examine
yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (KJV).
I found Thomas’ interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 to be helpful. It
concerns apostasy: those who fall away from the faith. The point of the
passage, on the surface, seems to be that those who fall away from the
faith have lost their salvation and cannot come back to God. That
interpretation has long troubled me. How can one reconcile that with
Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), in which a person
leaves his father but later realizes the error of his ways and returns
to his father? God forgave the Israelites continually after they
rejected him and returned to him: Is the new covenant a step down from
the old covenant, in that respect?
Thomas’ interpretation is that those who continue to reject Jesus
cannot repent. That makes some sense to me, from a Christian
perspective: continuing to reject Jesus is arguably inconsistent with
repentance. One can drink the rain that God sends, or reject it (or so
Hebrews 6:7-8 may be saying). If one is on a path of apostasy, he or
she is going the opposite direction from repentance. Under Thomas’
scenario, one can still decide to accept Jesus and repent after going
apostate. I am not entirely sure if Thomas’ interpretation works,
though, for Hebrews 12:17 states that Esau could not repent, even if he
sought the blessing with tears. Esau seems to have been willing to
repent, according to the author of Hebrews, but he could not do so.
The book’s discussion of single predestination was disappointing, but
the book still made effective arguments, in areas, and had some helpful
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Cross Focused Reviews, in exchange for an honest review.