Published on February 25, 2019 by Joshua R Monroe

Baker Academic, 2017 | 272 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Andre Gazal


Since Martin Luther’s and Ulrich Zwingli’s acrimonious exchange regarding the Lord’s Supper at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, there has existed a seemingly irreconcilable divide between two great confessional traditions that emerged from the Reformation, the Lutheran and Reformed. However, over the course of the twentieth century the ecumenical movement fostered dialogue between the two Protestant traditions that continues. These exchanges have largely produced mutual understanding between adherents of the respective confessions while deepening appreciation for each other’s differences. Between Wittenberg and Geneva represents another valuable contribution to this ongoing conversation.

Published during the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, two prominent representatives of these traditions, Robert Kolb (Lutheran), and Carl Trueman (Reformed) engage in a substantive, lucid, and irenic discussion concerning areas of agreement and disagreement. This book is intended for both Lutheran and Reformed readers interested in deepening appreciation for their own heritage as well as informed and charitable respect for one another’s. The work consists of eight chapters in which the authors describe the perspective of their traditions regarding a specific doctrine or practice while highlighting elements of unanimity.

Chapter 1 addresses what both Lutherans and Reformed regard as the formal principle of Reformation theology, sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone” as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Moreover this chapter investigates Lutheran and Reformed approaches to biblical interpretation. From the outset the authors acknowledge that both traditions believe that the reading and teaching of Holy Scripture lay at the heart of the church’s public ministry. In this regard, Lutheran and Reformed theologians believe that the preached Word is a means of grace that confronts God’s people with his presence. Kolb begins his section of the chapter with discussion of Luther’s encounter with Scripture, which ultimate led him to the re-discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Following this is Kolb’s treatment of the relationship of Scripture and tradition. Commenting specifically on Martin Chemnitz’s exposition of tradition in his Examination of the Council of Trent (1565-73), Kolb points out that this pre-eminent Lutheran theologian defined tradition as both the content and the sharing of the Scriptural message from one generation to another that takes place in seven ways: the recording of Jesus’ words and those of his apostles by their contemporaries; the entire Scripture itself; the “rule of faith,” or the summary of the biblical message prepared by the church for evangelization and instruction; the transmission of the biblical message through those who interpret its texts; the development of dogmatic terminology such as “Trinity”; the catholic consensus of the Fathers; and the ancient rites and customs of the church. Afterwards Kolb explores Luther’s conception of Scripture as the means through which God speaks. Scripture, according to Luther, is “a manuscript with a voice,” meaning it is the organ of God’s voice. Though he did not employ the term, “inspiration,” Kolb observes, Luther nevertheless affirmed the concept that it denotes. This author also calls attention to the manner in which Luther resolved certain biblical difficulties such as slight, but notable differences in the accounts of Jesus’ activities in the Gospels. Kolb then calls attention to another biblical difficulty Luther addressed which was the place of James in the canon. Here Kolb refutes the charge often alleged by scholars that Luther operated according to “a canon within a canon” as indicated by his reference to James as “an epistle without straw.” Kolb then devotes attention to Luther’s understanding of language, which the reformer derived from his Ockamist training from the University of Erfurt. When applied to Scripture, Luther believed that the Word creates for the hearer the reality that the Author of reality sees. This fact, for Luther, made the preached Word a means of grace. Regarding biblical interpretation, Kolb notes that even though Luther employed a grammatical and syntactical approach to exegesis, he occasionally resorts to allegory as was the case in his commentary on Deuteronomy (1525).

Writing for the Reformed position, Trueman calls attention for that tradition’s emphasis on the centrality of the preached Word as averred by Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, and the authors of the Thirty-Nine Articles. Like Luther, the Reformed identified the proclamation of the Word with the power of the keys. Moreover, the Word is God’s speech to his people. The overall Reformed position on Scripture is as follows: Scripture is sufficient; Scripture is clear on the essentials of salvation, either by direct statement or by legitimate inference; the vital truths of Scripture are so plainly stated that even least educated person can understand them. One of the prime hermeneutical issues Reformed theologians and exegetes discussed was the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Commenting on Calvin in this regard, Trueman observes that the similarity between the Testaments lay in the covenants which first were made with the patriarchs, and then with the New Testament church. These covenants pointed to spiritual, and not temporal blessings. Also, these covenants were based on grace, and not human merit. Thirdly, Christ is the mediator of these covenants. From here Trueman turns to the analogy of faith by which obscure passages of Scripture are interpreted by the clearer ones. In describing the analogy of faith, Trueman observes the following facets of it: it assumes the coherence and consistency of the Bible’s teaching; the analogy of faith assumes the essential clarity of Scripture; it assumes the legitimacy of drawing doctrinal conclusions by good and necessary consequence from clear passages in order to understand properly the more difficult ones; the analogy of faith assumes these dynamics of Scriptural interpretation: the distinction between law and gospel and the overall narrative of redemptive history culminating in Jesus Christ and the conferral of the Spirit upon the church. Truman afterwards finishes this section with a treatment on Reformed preaching in which he notes its equal emphasis on exegesis and practical application.

Chapter 2 explores the Lutheran and Reformed understandings of the distinction between law and gospel. Here the authors observe that both traditions hold to this distinction, although they differ on some aspects of it. Regarding Luther, Kolb observes that he viewed law and gospel as Scriptures two messages. The law consists of those commands of God that all humanity is to observe. These commands encompass more than either the Ten Commandments or any specific passages of Scripture. They also, according to Luther, are embedded within the structure of callings that God appointed for the proper functioning of human life in the family, commerce, social, and political relationships as well as religious life. Towards this end, God established tasks, roles, and responsibilities for every individual being. These callings along with his commands provide direction for human performance pursuant to the good life. Hence, the law preserves order. The law also exposes the sinfulness of human beings, leading them to despair so as to prepare them to be drawn to Christ. The gospel, however, is the declaration of God’s promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ, which he secured through his death and resurrection. For Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who wrote the first major Protestant book on hermeneutics, The Key to the Sacred Scripture, Christ’s redemptive work functioned as the governing interpretive principle of Holy Scripture. Regarding law and gospel in the Reformed tradition, Trueman acknowledges the said tradition’s dependence on Luther for the distinction itself. However, this author further observes, the Reformed take the function of the law in a slightly different direction than Luther. With respect to the law, the Reformed, Trueman notes, stress its division into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil. This division was not original with the Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century, but rather was paradigmatic in medieval moral theology as exemplified in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.  The moral law, summarized by the Decalogue, consists of those divine, moral truths that apply to all human beings in general, and not just the nation of Israel before the advent of Christ. The ceremonial law codified the sacrificial system which pointed the faithful to Christ. The civil law pertained to the political administration of ancient Israel. The latter two divisions were abrogated by the work of Christ. Yet, the moral law remains in place because it reflects the character of God and the responsibilities of men and women made in his image. This moral law, which remains normative, functions in three ways according to the Reformed: the exposing of sin, restraining wickedness, and providing moral principles for guiding the life of the Christian. Trueman proceeds at length to elaborate in detail on each of these functions throughout the remainder of the chapter.

Chapter 3 concerns the person and work of Christ which fundamentally is at the heart of differences between the Lutheran and Reformed doctrines of the Lord’s Supper. Both traditions accede to the Trinitarian and Christological doctrine of the first four ecumenical councils, Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). The last of these defined the Hypostatic Union, wherein Jesus Christ is the person of the Son of God in whom are united two natures, one fully human, and one fully divine “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” It is in the appropriation of this doctrine that the two traditions differ, specifically with regards to the communication of attributes (communicatio idiomatum). Luther maintained that the attributes of Christ’s divine nature transferred to his human nature resulting, among other things, in the ubiquity of Christ’s physical body, making therefore possible for him to be physically present in the Lord’s supper. Trueman’s discussion of Reformed Christology is more comprehensive. He observes that Reformed Christology has as its foundation the “covenant of redemption,” wherein the Father and Son entered into a covenant with each other in eternity whereby the Son would accept the role of Mediator and appointment as the second and last Adam, federal head of the elect. The Reformed further appropriate Anselm’s view of the Incarnation to join together the person and work of Christ. In so doing, Reformed theologians explicitly make the Incarnation instrumental to Christ’s death. From here, Trueman moves on to the Reformed understanding of the communication of attributes. In this regard, the Reformed view operates according to two principles. First, it stresses the Chalcedonian formula with respect to the natures not being comingled. Second, the Reformed view holds to the principle of finitum non capax infinitii (“the finite cannot contain the infinite.”). This latter principle emphasized the finitude of all humanity, including Christ’s own humanity, meaning that it was incapable of receiving divine attributes such as omnipresence and omniscience (traditionally called “incommunicable attributes”). Lutheran opponents polemically castigated this as the so-called extra calvinisticum. Afterwards, Trueman discusses the Reformed explanation of the work of Christ in terms of his two states, the state of humiliation, and the state exaltation. This is followed by an explication of the offices through Christ performs his work: prophet, priest, and king.

Chapter 4 examines the two traditions’ teaching on election and the bondage of the will.   

Kolb situates his discussion of Luther’s doctrine of the will within the context of late medieval Ockhamist thought which pervaded the University of Erfurt where Luther had studied through its professors who in turn had studied under Gabriel Biel. The Ockhamists of Erfurt taught that God gives initial grace to those who did what they could (facere quod in se est). In this regard, they maintained that the will controls human activity and identity. Luther, however, found his own will too weak to do his best, and thus became convinced that he did not have God’s grace. He had concluded that the sinner’s will may be active, but it is bound to turn away from God to sin. This was the general position he would argue against Erasmus in 1525 in his important treatise, On the Bondage of the Will. In this work, Luther argued that the will continues to be active in its bondage to sin. Its ability to choose God is bound to make false choices by its sinfulness. It continues to will and to move human beings to place trust in objects God created rather than in the creator himself. Though Luther held to the concept of absolute necessity, he abandoned it after writing On the Bondage of the Will. Furthermore, Luther maintained a belief in predestination in order to bolster the assurance that comes from God’s promises. However, much of later Lutheran theology as represented by the work of Philipp Melanchthon, came to assign greater freedom to the human will in salvation. Also, the Formula of Concord shows modifications of Luther’s views with its retention of foreknowledge and eternal election, a thought rejected by Luther entirely.

Trueman points out that predestination and election were standard elements of theology of the Reformed churches. He demonstrates that although Calvin held to a doctrine of double predestination, he was somewhat circumspect about it. This is particularly apparent in the Institutes. As Reformed theology continued to develop, election was regarded by some, like William Perkins, as the foundation for the order of salvation. Also as double predestination became more characteristic of Reformed theology, the dispute between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism began to emerge.

Chapter 5 covers the subjects of justification and sanctification. Both authors acknowledge the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone as having been the very heart of the Reformation. This doctrine, which Luther identified as the article upon which the church rises and falls, countered the dominant late medieval (confirmed later by the Council of Trent) view which conceived of justification as a process involving the impartation of Christ’s righteousness. Moreover, the reformers’ insistence on faith as fiducial trust served as the foundation for their doctrine of justification. Yet, the authors also observe that the Christian life was more than justification. It is also characterized by the work of sanctification.  Throughout this chapter, the authors not only define justification according to their respective traditions, but also describe its relationship to sanctification. Luther defined justification initially as God’s declaration of the sinner as righteous. Specifically, sinners become right in God’s sight when they trust in him and depend on him alone. Furthermore, they exert their active righteousness on the basis of their identity given by God. The ground of justification is the atonement. Luther’s proclamation of forgiveness and salvation centered on the substitutional sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the cross and his return to life. Luther depicted justification dramatically means of such analogies like “the joyous exchange in which Christ gives his righteousness to the sinner, whose sins become Christ’s possession. Kolb moreover points out that Luther’s understanding of justification is intimately related to his view on baptism. Baptism confers both the gift of the end of sinful identity through burial with Christ. Although Luther did not explicitly distinguish between justification and sanctification, he did understand that the living of a holy life was the end that justification served. Indeed, the gospel does not only speak of the forgiveness of sins. It also provides the power and strength to live as the children of God—an identity God bestowed on sinners by means of that forgiveness. Later Lutheran theologians, however, further developed the distinction between justification and sanctification.

There is substantial agreement between Lutherans and Reformed concerning justification. Both unequivocally believe that justification is by grace through faith on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness. In fact the Reformed owe their understanding of justification from Luther. However, the Reformed, in their explication of justification, give it certain emphases. Commenting on Calvin’s discussion of justification, Trueman observes that the reformer of Geneva grounded justification on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness in union with Christ. Moreover, Reformed theologians believed that justifying faith must be accompanied by repentance.

Chapter 6 considers the Lutheran and Reformed doctrines of baptism. As two branches of the magisterial Reformation, these traditions retained infant baptism. Despite their mutual retention of this practice, Lutheran and Reformed theologians differed significantly in their theologies buttressing the practice. Luther believed that baptism is not simply plain water. Instead, it is water joined to God’s Word. This is because God approaches sinners through external means, including the human language used in Christian discourse, including sermons, absolution, hymns, and catechisms, and authoritatively in Holy Scripture as well as sacramental forms of his promise. Indeed God ordained these audible, readable, and visual instruments for effecting is will in the world. According to Luther, as stated in his Small Catechism, baptism “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promises of God declare” (152). Luther further addresses the manner in which baptism accomplishes this, especially in infants. In this regard, Luther again declares in the Small Catechism, “Clearly the water does not do it, but the Word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without the Word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the Word of God it is a baptism, that is, a grace-filled water of life and a ‘bath of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says to Titus in chapter 3” (154). God’s promise established a relationship that parallels that of earthly parents with their children. Long before a child can express anything regarding his/her relationship, parental care surrounds and sustains the child. This same thing applies to the baptismal promise in that God assumes the role of heavenly Father in his pledge in the words of baptism and commits himself to exercising divine parental care. Because God acts in baptism, he establishes the relationship apart from Human reaction, but with the expectation of that trust in the promise when that becomes possible. Luther posited the possibility of infant faith. In this regard, Luther argued that because God’s action in baptism is primary and its promise creates and elicits faith through the power of the Holy Spirit, and because original sin is present in the child, the church’s ancient practice of baptizing infants has proved itself through its creation of believers throughout the centuries. In his examination of the Reformed theology of baptism, Trueman devotes his attention to the views of Zwingli and Calvin. Zwingli emphasized the sacraments as symbols resembling military oaths. This is because a symbol reflects something that has already is the case. Moreover, a military oath is something that the participant does. In each instance of this, the sacramental action is not one coming from heaven, but instead is horizontal, a sign to other believers. This meant that for Zwingli, the most important meaning of the sacraments in general, and in this case, baptism, is that they are public professions of faith. This particular understanding of the nature of the sacraments led Zwingli to flirt momentarily with credo-baptism. However, because of the implications of rejecting infant baptism for the Christian commonwealth, Zwingli abandoned this preoccupation in favor of baptizing infants. Supporting his doctrine of infant baptism is his situating the sacrament within the context of a covenantal reading of the Scriptures in which it replaces circumcision as the initiatory rite into community of faith. Turing to John Calvin, Trueman notes that this important reformer described baptism as consisting in three specific actions: that our sins are forgiven in Christ; that we are united to Christ for the mortification of indwelling sin and for newness of life; and that we are united to Christ so as to be partakers in all his benefits.

Chapter 7 addresses one of the most controversial subjects of the Reformation which contributed significantly to the divide between Lutherans and the Reformed, Communion. At issue specifically was the meaning of the words of institution relative to Christ’s presence with the elements. Luther soundly rejected the late medieval doctrine of Transubstantiation as well as the Roman Church’s teaching that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice. Instead, taking as his point of departure Ockhamist theology, Luther alleged that God is sovereign or almighty and as such had the power and ability to create the world according to his own will. For this reason, Luther rejected the realist acceptance of the principle that the finite cannot convey or deliver the infinite and held that God wrote the rules for all creation. If he decided to offer his body and blood, and with them forgiveness, life, and salvation in, with, or under bread and wine of the Supper Christ instituted. Furthermore, Luther relied mainly on his conviction that there is no reason not interpret what Christ says in instituting the Supper literally. Luther and later Lutheran theologians solidified their understanding of Christ’s presence in Communion by means of the three phrases. First, Christ’ body and blood were “sacramentally present,” meaning that they are present in some form that makes them truly present but does not submit itself to rational human investigation, proof, elucidation. Second, Christ’s body and blood are received thorough the mouth. Third, because God’s Word, not human faith, establishes this presence, false believers, those who do not look to Christ for salvation in faith also receive Christ’s body and blood, albeit to their condemnation. The promise that the body and blood deliver the promised blessings is effective only for those who trust Christ’s pledge that the sacrament is “for you.” Moreover, Luther appropriated the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures of Christ as defined by Council of Chalcedon (451). In so doing, Luther believed that while the two natures retain their own characteristics and never acquire the attributes of the other, thereby preserving the integrity of their own natures, they do share those characteristics fully with each other. In this way he maintained the ancient doctrine of the communication of attributes. For this reason, the one person of Christ could exercise his ability to be present where and in what form he wishes with his human body and blood. Within the Reformed churches there was further division regarding Communion. Whereas those theologians leaning toward Zwingli and his successors in Zurich, held to what was generally a symbolic or memorialist view of the Supper, those associated with Calvin and his colleagues in advocated a view that went beyond memorialism to emphasize the reality of feeding on Christ’s flesh for the Christian life.

Finally, in chapter 8 Kolb and Trueman examine Lutheran and Reformed conceptions of worship. Luther significantly revised the liturgy by translating it into the vernacular, and removing the Ordinary of the Mass. Throughout his liturgical reforms, Luther reoriented worship from the earning of merit to the offering of praise. Moreover, he assigned central place to the preaching of the Word. Also, Luther retained observance of the traditional church year, and encouraged freedom in worship. Notably Luther promoted the use of art and music as divinely endowed means of rendering praise. The Reformed approach to worship, as indicated especially in Trueman’s discussion of John Knox, was distinguished by the formulation and use of the regulative principle which removed from worship those aspects not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. Thus according to the Reformed, certain specific elements characterize worship according to the Word of God: prayers, preaching, reading of the Scriptures, and the singing of the Psalms.

Between Wittenberg and Geneva serves as a helpful compendium of the historical differences between two great Reformation traditions whose continuing influence on Christianity is significant. Consisting of an irenic dialogue conducted by foremost scholarly, evangelical representatives of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, this work succeeds not only in familiarizing the reader with nuances of the differing positions on sundry doctrines and ecclesiastical practices, but also in providing a model for mutually charitable discussion that reinforces the common faith that ultimately unites the adherents of both traditions. Perhaps this book will prove to be a small step in bridging what is still a gaping divide.    


Andre Gazal
North Greenville University
Nicolet Bible Institute   

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Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation

Baker Academic, 2017 | 272 pages

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