Fascinating quote from the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, from a comment by ThomasGoodwin in the thread following his own post looking at how 16th and 17th Reformed theologians viewed Lutherans. Must admit I didn’t pay all that much attention to the original post or the discussion that followed it, but these words from Bavinck leapt off the screen at me:

The difference seems to be conveyed best by saying that the Reformed Christian thinks theologically, the Lutheran anthropologically. The Reformed person is not content with an exclusively historical stance but raises his sights to the idea, the eternal decree of God. By contrast the Lutheran takes his position in the midst of the history of redemption and feels no need to enter more deeply into the counsel of God.

For the Reformed, therefore, election is the heart of the church; for Lutherans, justification is the article by which the church stands or falls. Among the former the primary question is: How is the glory of God advanced? Among the latter it is: How does a human get saved? The struggle of the former is above all against paganism – idolatry; that of the latter against Judaism – works-righteousness.

The Reformed person does not rest until he has traced all things retrospectively to the divine decree, tracking down the “wherefore” of things, and has prospectively made all things subservient to the glory of God; the Lutheran is content with the “that” and enjoys the salvation in which he is, by faith, a participant. From this difference in principle, the dogmatic controversies between them (with respect to the image of God, original sin, the person of Christ, the order of salvation, the sacraments, church government, ethics, etc.) can be easily explained.

Now, I’d prefer to say that the Lutheran thinks Christologically, rather than anthropologically. But what I found fascinating about Bavinck’s description of the difference is that both Calvinists and Lutherans could probably read his description of their respective positions and think, “Yes, and quite right too!”

From a Lutheran perspective, precisely the problem with the Reformed faith is that the Reformed Christian “is not content with an exclusively historical stance but raises his sights to the idea, the eternal decree of God”. Our desire to take our position “in the midst of the history of redemption” without feeling the need “to enter more deeply into the counsel of God” is, from our point of view, a feature rather than a bug.

In the same way, Lutherans have no problem at all with being told that we place justification at the heart of the Christian life rather than election, or that we rest “content with the ‘that'”, with enjoying the salvation in which we are, by faith, participants, rather than “trac[ing] all things retrospectively to the divine decree”.

Equally, I’m quite sure there will be Reformed Christians reading this who will find their hearts warmed by the reminder of what they love about their Reformed faith: its love for the person and attributes of God, its desire to place all things in the context of God’s grand plan of predestination, creation and redemption, its intellectual curiosity and rigour.

So all in all, I think Bavinck is on to something, there.

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6 Responses to

  1. Thomas says:

    Of course, there’s the possibility that Banvinck is wrong about the Reformed, at least those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. *Election* in one way or another is, to be sure, a tad important to ’em, but the desire to rise above this sublunary world to penetrate the divine decrees is, well, not so notable. Oh, to be more precise, there’s more diversity among ’em than Bavinck, and most others, imagine. A more reliable guide to that time is Richard Muller’s Christ and the Decree, wherein he limns the interrelations between Christology and predestination in the work of a number of folks from Calvin to William Perkins, and gives a more dense and textually grounded and contextually sound look at the different approaches taken. I offer this only in the irenic hope that we might know just what the heck we’re talking about before we, you know, talk. Whatever anyone makes of the Reformed of that time is another matter. I remain, as ever, annoyingly silent.

    Peace out, and happy reading.

  2. Kletos Sumboulos says:

    Indeed. I’m with you on this one. Though I think “Among the latter it is: How does a human get saved?” should read “Among the latter it is: What has Christ done for us?” as the primary question.

  3. John H says:

    Thomas: I’m sure you’re right about the diversity of the Reformed tradition in the 16th/17th centuries. This can be seen at a confessional level: the Three Forms of Unity, for example, breathe a different air compared with the Westminster Standards.

    However, Bavinck’s description rang true as regards much of more recent Calvinism, and certainly with my recollection of my own (admittedly fairly brief) experience as a Calvinist.

    Incidentally, I’ve never come across Richard Muller, but notice he is mentioned with approval several times in the linked post/thread. One reference in particular interested me: a commenter describing having been on the receiving end of Muller’s wrath for suggesting that Lutherans lacking a “doctrine of sanctification”:

    Muller, however, pointed out the fact that Lutherans often deal with sanctity in different places than we do. I think he said that they tend to deal with sanctity under baptism.

    Quite so, though I’m not sure I’d thought of it in those terms before. Muller sounds interesting – will have to check him out at some point. (Edit: ouch. Not until the pound recovers against the dollar, I won’t. 😦 )

    Kletos: Yes, good point.

  4. Thomas says:

    Just found Christ and the Decree on Amazon UK for about 30 pounds – don’t know if that breaks the bank or not. I mean, we’ve got this here recession, or not, and need all the govmint help we can get, or not, so books like this might be a luxury, or not.

  5. John H says:

    Thirty quid for a paperback breaks my bank. Find me a 2nd-hand copy for a fiver, and we’ll talk. 😉

  6. Phil Walker says:

    I ran across this post too, and now for the life of me can’t remember how I got there… 😦

    Anyway, Muller’s a Reformed chappy. Kim Riddlebarger often refers to an article of Muller’s where he defends Calvinism against five-pointers. 😉 At the beginning he gets a brief bio, although how up-to-date it is, I don’t know.


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