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.


The Cause of the Reformation

[The following is an excerpt from The Conservative Reformation by Lutheran historian Charles P. Krauth.]

The occasions and cause of so wonderful and important an event as the Reformation have naturally occupied very largely the thoughts of both its friends and its foes. On the part of its enemies the solution of its rapid rise, its gigantic growth, its overwhelming march, has been found by some in the rancor of monkish malice–the thing arose in a squabble between two sets of friars, about the farming of the indulgences–a solution as sapient and as completely in harmony with the facts as would be the statement that the American Revolution was gotten up by one George Washington, who, angry that the British Government refused to make him a collector of the tax on tea, stirred up a happy people to rebellion against a mild and just rule.

The solution has been found by others in the lust of the human heart for change –it was begotten in the mere love of novelty; men went into the Reformation as they go into a menagerie, or adopt the new mode, or buy up some “novelist’s last.”  Another class, among whom the brilliant French Jesuit, Audin, is conspicuous, attribute the movement mainly to the personal genius and fascinating audacity of the great leader in the movement.  Luther so charmed the millions with his marvellous speech and magic style, that they were led at his will.  On the part of some, its nominal friends, reasons hardly more adequate have often been assigned.  Confounding the mere aids, or at most, the mere occasions of the Reformation with its real causes, an undue importance has been attributed in the production of it to the progress of the arts and sciences after the revival of letters.  Much stress has been laid upon the invention of printing, and the discovery of America, which tended to rouse the minds of men to a new life. Much has been said of the fermenting political discontents of the day, the influence of the great Councils in diminishing the authority of the Pope, and much has been made, in general, of the causes whose root is either wholly or in part in the earth.  The Rationalist represents the Reformation as a triumph of reason over authority.  The Infidel says, that its power was purely negative; it was a grand subversion; it was mightier than Rome, because it believed less than Rome; it prevailed, not by what it taught, but by what it denied; and it failed of universal triumph simply because it did not deny everything.  The insect-minded sectarian allows the Reformation very little merit except as it prepared the way for the putting forth, in due time, of the particular twig of Protestantism on which he crawls, and which he imagines bears all the fruit, and gives all the value to the tree.  As the little green tenants of the rose-bush might be supposed to argue that the rose was made for the purpose of furnishing them a home and food, so these small speculators find the root of the Reformation in the particular part of Providence which they consent to adopt and patronize.  The Reformation, as they take it, originated in the divine plan for furnishing a nursery for sectarian Aphids.

But we must have causes which, however feeble, are adapted to the effects. A little fire indeed kindleth a great matter, but however little, it must be genuine fire., Frost will not do, and a painting of flame will not do, though the pencil of Raphael produced it. A little hammer may break a great rock, but that which breaks must be harder and more tenacious than the thing broken. There must be a hand to apply the fire, and air to fan it; it must be rightly placed within the material to be kindled; it must be kept from being smothered. And yet all aids do but enable it to exercise its own nature, and it alone kindles. There must be a hand to wield the hammer, and a heart to move the hand; the rock must be struck with vigor, but the hammer itself is indispensable. God used instruments to apply the fire and wield the hammer; His providence prepared the way for the burning and the breaking. And yet there was but one agency, by which they could be brought to pass. Do we ask what was the agency which was needed to kindle the flame? What was it, that was destined to give the stroke whose crash filled earth with wonder, and hell with consternation, and heaven with joy? God himself asks the question, so that it becomes its own answer: “Is not MY WORD like as a fire? Is not MY WORD like the hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?”

It is not without an aim that the Word of God is presented in the language we have just quoted, under two images; as fire and as a hammer. The fire is a type of its inward efficacy; the hammer, of its outward work. The one image shows how it acts on those who admit it, the other how it effects those who harden themselves against it; the one symbolizes the persuasive fervor of that Word by which it makes our hearts burn within us in love to the Son of God, the other is an image of the energy with which, in the hands of the King on the holy hill of Zion, it breaks the opposers as with a rod of iron. The fire symbolizes the energy of the Word as a Gospel, which draws the heart to God, the hammer shadows forth its energy as a law which reveals the terrors of God’s justice against transgressors.  In both these grand aspects the Word of God was the creator of the Reformation and its mightiest instrument. It aroused the workers, and fitted them for their work; it opened blind eyes, and subdued stubborn hearts. The Reformation is its work and its trophy. However manifold the occasions of the Reformation, THE WORD, under God, was its cause.

Published in: on October 28, 2011 at 10:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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