Calvin Beyond Luther: The Law of Moses

One of the textbook differences between Lutheran and Reformed theology is the Reformed assertion of the “third use” of the law, that is that the law serves to guide the conduct of believers. Thus, there is a way in which law and gospel co-exist in the believer’s life. Lutherans emphasize the contrast between law and gospel. Law comes “before” gospel in the sense that it prepares the sinner to receive the gospel. Gospel is deliverance from the law and the beginning of life in the Spirit. Part of the disagreement seems to me to derive from different descriptions of the content and function of the law. Randall Zachman gets at the problem:

Although both Luther and Calvin agree that the Old Testament contains attestations of God’s mercy as well as commandments and threats, it is nonetheless true that when Luther thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of the Ten Commandments in their theological use, whereas when Calvin thinks of the law of Moses he thinks of “the form of religion handed down by God through Moses” that sets forth God as Father to Israel in Christ under the double image of the tribe of Levi and the posterity of David.

This means that Calvin, in contrast to Luther, forces us to understand the Ten Commandments not as prior to, but as already contained within, the self-revelation of God the Father in Jesus Christ. This point will have direct implications on how Calvin understands the impact of the law in the narrow sense upon the conscience. On the one hand, it will mean that we cannot acknowledge that we are sinners who lack every good thing unless we at the same time know God as Father; on the other hand, it will mean that the principal use and proper purpose of the law will be in the lives of those who have already been adopted as children by the Father, and that this third use of the law will itself be given a christological meaning and shape just like the rest of the law of Moses. (The Assurance of Faith, 144)

Often the form of the question we ask determines the shape of the answer. An investigation into how a person might be assured of the favor of God will quickly (on Protestant principles) lead to a contrast between law and gospel. Likewise, an inquiry into the principles of Christian life seems to sputter or descend into subjectivism if “law” in some broad sense does not enter the picture.  Perhaps Christian theology needs multiple perspectives on law and gospel in order to handle every theological problem. I find it likely, though, that one conception will end up becoming architectonic, while others wills be slotted into it to fill out the picture. So far, I’m more confident in the ability of the Reformed system to appropriate the Lutheran contribution than vice versa.

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A Certain Breed of Calvinist

One of the perennial issues of theology, particularly in the Reformed and evangelical strains, is personal assurance of faith. One of the central contentions of the Reformation was that a person can and should have a firm sense of God’s love, an unwavering security in the efficacy of God’s saving work on one’s behalf. Yet, as the Reformation spread, another problem surfaced: nominalism. In Protestant countries, many seemingly orthodox people, who professed a Protestant faith, were untroubled by their godless lifestyles. Clergy were distraught at the immorality of some people who did not seem to have any doubts about their salvation.

So, the Reformed began to emphasize the counterpoint to lack of assurance, presumption of salvation. In some cases, elaborate systems were designed to distinguish between “true” and false regeneration, or repentance, or faith, or conversion. Charles Spurgeon weighed in on the more extreme of these Calvinists, but his diagnosis did not target the religious culture of the day (thanks to Tim, a missionary friend, for this reference):

There is a certain breed of Calvinist, whom I do not envy, who are always jeering and sneering as much as ever they can at the full assurance of faith. I have seen their long faces; I have heard their whining periods, and read their dismal sentences, in which they say something to the effect – “Groan in the Lord always, and again I say, groan! He that mourneth and weepeth, he that doubted and feareth, he that distrusteth and dishonoureth his God, shall be saved.” That seems to be the sum and substance of their very ungospel-like gospel. But why is it they do this? I speak now honestly and fearlessly. It is because there is a pride within them – a conceit which is fed on rottenness, and sucks marrow and fatness out of putrid carcasses. And what, say you, is the object of their pride? Why, the pride of being able to boast of a deep experience – the pride of being a blacker, grosser, and more detestable sinner than other people. “Whose glory is in their shame,” may well apply to them. A more dangerous, because a more deceitful pride than this is not to be found. It has all the elements of self-righteousness in it. ~  “Full Assurance” by C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1861, p. 292.

One might be tempted to relegate this phenomenon to the context of a state religion. Surely, in the contemporary U.S., where there is freedom of religion, there is little pressure to conform. Surely among Baptists, who require personal assent and profession of faith for membership, this problem is almost non-existent. Yet, I find the opposite to be the case. Many of the worst of this sort are Calvinistic Baptists.

Walter Chantry, raised Presbyterian but later a Baptist pastor, authored Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?, a book that few sensitive Christians can read without questioning their own salvation and the status of those around them. John MacArthur followed in Chantry’s footsteps, leveraging the story of the rich young ruler, as had Chantry. MacArthur’s books give the impression that hardly any of the professing Christians you know are truly saved. The title of one of his books is Hard to Believe, an unorthodox title if ever there were one. (In an earlier work, MacArthur said much more astutely that belief is neither easy nor difficult, but impossible for man.)

My point here is not to bash Calvinistic Baptists, of whom there are many fine examples. It is merely to refute the idea that a hyper-critical approach to assurance is something of a bygone era, confined to overzealous Puritans dealing with nominalism caused by infant baptism and political religion. Glorying in misery and doubt is indeed a form of spiritual pride for some people, and self-righteousness is not restricted to any time, place, or religious culture.

Published in: on December 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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