Give bread, not information about bread

A couple of months ago, I posted some excerpts from an outstanding lecture by Phillip Cary (PDF) on the difference between Luther and Calvin in their understanding of “sola fide”.

In this lecture, Cary argued that the difference between Calvin and Luther’s understanding of the gospel was that, for Calvin, what gives us our assurance is knowing we believe, while for Luther what matters is that “Christ never lies but only tells the truth”, something we can cling to even when we doubt our own faith. (See that previous post for more details of Cary’s argument, including his comparison of the “Protestant syllogism” and “Luther’s syllogism”.)

Cary’s lecture was based on a longer essay which he wrote for Pro Ecclesia, entitled Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise, which I’m delighted to have now found online. Cary’s essay is quite long (56 pages of double-spaced text), and I’m still working my way through it, but it’s good stuff.

In the opening section, Cary describes how:

Calvin diverges from Luther in ways that can be described as narrow but deep, like a small crack that goes a long way down. (p.1)

This crack “widens in later versions of the Reformed tradition as well as its offshoots, such as the Baptist and revivalist traditions”, and can be seen in particular in the contrasting views of Lutherans and other Protestants over baptismal regeneration. As Cary continues:

Luther’s understanding of the power of the Gospel depends on a Catholic notion of sacramental efficacy, which places salvific power in external things. (p.3)

At the heart of Luther’s account of the gospel are statements addressed to us by Christ, through his minister, in the second person: “I baptise you“, “I forgive you“, “This is my body given for you“. This is what makes “unreflective faith” – faith which doesn’t even realise it exists, faith which may doubt its own existence – possible within Luther’s understanding of salvation:

Being a sacramental word, it is wholly external – dependent for both its meaning and its truth on external circumstances, the particular time and place in which it is spoken. Hence Luther will also insist that the Gospel is essentially an oral rather than a written word. This dependence on external circumstances of utterance makes it possible for the word of Christ to use the pronoun “you” to address me in particular. (p.8)

So when Luther emphasises his famous pro me, the need to realise that “Christ’s life and death, preaching and promise are indeed for me“, he is not throwing us back towards introspection:

It is important to notice that the emphasis here is not on personal experience but on the content of the word of God. When the Gospel is preached – most clearly of all in the sacraments – Christ himself says “you” and means me. To believe this word is to learn about myself from another, rather than to trust my own personal experience or feeling. (p.8)

So it is not simply that the gospel gives us information about Christ and salvation. Rather, the gospel has “sacramental efficacy”; it gives what it promises; it gives us Christ and salvation as we hear its promises addressed to each of us personally. As Cary puts it (in words that had me writing “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in the margin):

For Luther the Gospel is not, as the old Protestant saw has it, like one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. That would mean the minister’s job is to instruct people in how to meet the conditions necessary for salvation – how to get from here to where the true bread is. Instead, for Luther the Gospel is one beggar simply giving another beggar the bread of life, which of course is exactly what happens whenever Christ’s body is distributed in the sacrament.

This entry was posted in Gospel and Sacrament, Justification, Luther. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Give bread, not information about bread

  1. DRB says:

    Great post! The article explains a key difference between the Lutheran gospel and the Protestant gospel in terms of the sacraments. However, the root of the difference can be understood apart from the sacraments: Luther simply believed Christ’s unconditional promise, whereas Calvinism presents “the plan of salvation” as a specification of conditions:

  2. Jim says:

    Yeah, Cary’s article is superb. The “two syllogisms” nail it brilliantly.

  3. Phil Walker says:

    I’m about half-way through, and think I’m getting a handle on the argument. Clearly faith needn’t be reflective to be saving faith, and the Bible is quite clear on that. Nevertheless, I’m concerned about the way Scripture is handled.

    Cary, showing that Luther does the same, quotes “according to your faith be it done to you” (Matt. 8:13, 9:29) and claims that Luther’s use emphasises the irrelevance of knowing you have faith (the reflective aspect) (p. 4), while Calvin’s (boo! hiss!) emphasises the importance of knowing that you have faith (p. 15). But doesn’t Jesus point out, in the Matt. 9 passage, reflective faith? He asks the men, “Do you believe I can do this?” They say, “Yes,” and he then says, “According to your faith be it done to you.” (Clearly, the Matt. 8 passage doesn’t deal with the reflective aspect. Is Matthew trying to bring his readers to a point where they can say, “Yes, I believe” with the blind men?)

    Meanwhile, the “old Protestant saw” (p. 20) about beggars telling other beggars where to find bread comes directly from the pages of Scripture, too. It’s the story of the lepers who found the Syrian camp deserted and told the whole city about the food supplies they’d discovered (2 Kings 7). It’d be nice if it could have been acknowledged that we’re not just making this stuff up off the top of our heads.

    Cary suggests that you need to be a medieval sacramentalist in order to believe that the power of God can be found in the ordinary things of the world, like words and water and bread and wine (p. 24). Surely not; you just need to take the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians seriously? (Yes, I can hear you at the back. The theology of the cross is absolutely at work here. But 1 Cor. is open to us all, while I’d be interested to see how one gets from the theology of the cross to medieval sacramentalism.)

    At worst, is this simply suggesting that Calvin—and those of us who stand in his line—are guilty of simply elevating the Bible’s teaching about faith over the Bible’s teaching of faith?

  4. John H says:

    Phil: The point in Matthew 9 is that Jesus is addressing those individuals personally. He is not stating general principles and leaving it to the blind men to work out whether they have the faith required for those principles to apply to them. To put it another way, he is asking them a question about himself, not a question about their inner disposition.

    The precise analogy to this is found in Luther’s order for individual confession and absolution, where the pastor asks the penitent, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” (a question which surely has its roots in Matthew 9). The point of this question is not to require reflective faith (“Do I really believe this?”), but to awaken and stimulate faith by means of that question and answer (“Why yes, of course! Now you mention it, I do believe this!”). Again, it’s a question designed to draw attention to Christ’s promise, not the penitent’s level of faith.

    And in all this there is no suggestion that reflective faith is a bad thing – I know that I believe, am delighted to be able to say so, and would not want it any other way. The problem is the insistence that true faith must be reflective, and making awareness of our faith logically essential to our assurance.

    At worst, is this simply suggesting that Calvin—and those of us who stand in his line—are guilty of simply elevating the Bible’s teaching about faith over the Bible’s teaching of faith?

    I think the problem is more profound than that. As Cary says in the essay, the Bible contains many promises, and some are more fundamental than others. The problem with Calvin is that he chooses the wrong promises, making the conditional promises and general principles take precedence over the direct, unconditional promises addressed directly by Christ to the believer. He turns the gospel into something that is stated in the third person rather than something which addresses us in the second person.

  5. DRB says:

    Reflective faith is not wrong in itself. Luther’s faith was reflective every time he confessed the Creed.

    The problem comes when reflection is seen as necessary for faith, for in that case faith can never begin:

  6. G’day John.

    I made a post on my blog regarding Cary’s lecture and your post, thought you might like to have a read.
    Blessings craig b

  7. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Significant differences

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