I’ve been listening to Phillip Cary’s series Luther: Gospel, Law and Reformation from The Teaching Company. As I’ve said before, I was raised Lutheran (what used to be the LCA Synod). When I was 12 or so, I learned Reformation history as part of my confirmation classes (Can you believe 2 years of study in order to be confirmed? What an amazing education!). But, though I remember some of it (the Diet of Worms always stands out), 12 was a long time ago.
Although I’ve read some here or there over the years (and watched the movie Luther a few times), I am just now getting what I feel is a half decent grasp of what really went on during the Reformation and the theological issues involved. And, besides understanding Luther better, I’m also getting a bit better grasp on Calvin, Zwingli and the other
heretics Reformed crowd.
We are not to rest on our faith
While C and Z agreed with the Lutherans on the three major solas (sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura), Lutheran theology sets itself apart by maintaining that even though we are saved by faith alone (sola fide), we are not to depend on our faith.
Luther’s thinking here is, I think, nothing short of brilliant. If we somehow start to think that our faith saves us, it raises the question, “how much faith is enough?” Did we really believe, or did we only think we believed? Perhaps we should get baptized again, just in case. This could go on indefinitely as we try to determine if our faith was good enough.
For Luther, the point was that we can never believe enough. What is important is that God’s word—which is external to us—is true, and we simply have to believe it. It is God’s Word that saves us, we simply have to put our faith in that, not in our own ability to “have faith.” In talking about baptism, Luther wrote,
We are not to base baptism on faith. Whoever allows himself to be baptized on the strength of his faith is not only uncertain, but also an idolater who denies Christ, for he trusts in and builds on something of his own rather than on God’s word alone.
This concept permeates all of Luther’s thinking. Rather than placing importance on some inward decision or emotion, what is truly important is what God said.
Upon which Rock?
Our feelings change. There are days when I feel way more “saved” than on other days. Some days I feel full of faith. Other times I may be plagued with doubt. So what has changed? Nothing, except my emotions. Do I depend on the sincerity of my prayers, or upon God’s Word that Christ has died for my sins?
In response to Peter’s proclamation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus said, “… upon this rock, I will build my church.” Peter, obviously, was never an unwavering rock—at least according to what we know in the New Testament. The “rock” is the unwavering reality of God’s Word as spoken here by Peter.
Luther seems to have been a lot like Peter, up one day and down the next. I expect they both finally discovered the truth: What is unchanging is God’s Word, and upon this rock, we can have faith.
There are clear differences between Luther and the other continental Reformers, not least because where the work of Luther was rooted in Christianity’s essential soteriology as defined by the Apostles, the key issues away from Wittenburg were woefully often (in truth almost entirely) philosophical and ethical in nature, thereby causing an immediate detachment from the core of the faith. Luther stands above others of the time not because he wasn’t prone to mistakes, but because he knew what truly mattered and that hub of truth is indeed the substance by which the church stands or falls.
Calvin was actually more inclined toward Luther than was Zwingli; in fact, Calvin was not as Calvinist as some of his followers (and the same could be said of Luther). And, I’m not completely unsympathetic to some Reformed views, and I can’t completely agree with Luther on some things. For that matter, Luther didn’t even agree with himself at times.
The theological issue for Luther (which Zwingli apparently never really grasped) was the fundamental belief that God’s word is true and effective whether or not we believe it. For Zwingli, for example, The Lord’s Supper only “worked” if you believed it. Luther’s point was that when Jesus said “This is my body,” it didn’t matter whether the disciples believed it or not. Luther saw Zwingli as putting faith in faith, as opposed to faith in God’s Word.
Calvinists today are often inclined to see Luther was one of themselves, with some minor differences. From the Lutheran standpoint, the chasm is much wider.
That should be “Your faith has saved you.”
Yet Jesus did say to the woman, “You faith has saved you.” It is when faith becomes its own object that it runs into trouble. This is less a doctrinal issue, I think, than it is a psychological one.
I’m not as dismissive of Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Reformers as are you. (I also have a different take than you do on Augustine, it seems.) I very much appreciate Luther (a lot, in fact), but there are significant vestiges of Catholic tradition—I do not say Scriptural tradition—in him that I cannot affirm. The same holds true of the Reformers. But I think we need to distinguish between Reformed doctrine and their attempts to work out the philosophical implications of those doctrines, many of which they themselves recognized as arguable.
Though you may not agree, I think Calvin was a brilliant thinker too. The issues he takes up are not the same as those that Luther did. I think the mistake is to pit them against each other when, in fact, they play different positions on the same Reformation team.