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.