Are Lutherans different from Reformed Protestants? Duh! The odd aspect of the arguments that distinguish Lutheranism from Reformed Protestantism is that the arguers don’t seem to be so conscientious when it comes to Baptists. Are Baptists Calvinistic? Some are. Lots aren’t. So when it comes to drawing distinctions among Protestants why the urge to draw lines between Reformed and Lutherans and not between Reformed and the uncles of Baptists, the Puritans?
Of course, contemporary discomfort with Lutherans among Reformed Protestants and Calvinistic Baptists is not new. Benjamin Warfield, who rarely strayed in his judgments, was also inclined to draw a distinction between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism. He did so by observing the tendency of Lutherans to stress justification by faith in contrast to the Reformed impulse to push beyond faith and its benefits to the underlying circumstances of justification. Here is how Warfield put it (thanks to Scott Clark via Timothy):
Just as little can the doctrine of justification by faith be represented as specifically Lutheran. It is as central to the Reformed as to the Lutheran system. Nay, it is only in the Reformed system that it retains the purity of its conception and resists the tendency to make it a doctrine of justification on account of; instead of by, faith. It is true that Lutheranism is prone to rest in faith as a kind of ultimate fact, while Calvinism penetrates to its causes, and places faith in its due relation to the other products of God’s activity looking to the salvation of man. And this difference may, on due consideration, conduct us back to the formative principle of each type of thought. But it, too, is rather an outgrowth of the divergent formative principles than the embodiment of them. Lutheranism, sprung from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul seeking peace with God, finds peace in faith, and stops right there. It is so absorbed in rejoicing in the blessings which flow from faith that it refuses or neglects to inquire whence faith itself flows. It thus loses itself in a sort of divine euthumia, and knows, and will know nothing beyond the peace of the justified soul. Calvinism asks with the same eagerness as Lutheranism the great question, “What shall I do to be saved?” and answers it precisely as Lutheranism answers it. But it cannot stop there. The deeper question presses upon it, “Whence this faith by which I am justified?” And the deeper response suffuses all the chambers of the soul with praise, “From the free gift of God alone, to the praise of the glory of His grace.” Thus Calvinism withdraws the eye from the soul and its destiny and fixes it on God and His glory. It has zeal, no doubt, for salvation but its highest zeal is for the honour of God, and it is this that quickens its emotions and vitalizes its efforts. It begins, it centres and it ends with the vision of God in His glory and it sets itself; before all things, to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity.
Several items are worth noting in this quotation. First is Warfield’s notion that Reformed Protestantism is not content with faith alone but embarks upon a deeper quest to find the origins of this faith. He does not explain here what this quest looks like, but his could be an argument in favor of the kind of introspection that experimental Calvinists like Edwards and Piper favor.
A second curious feature of Warfield’s contrast is the idea that Lutheranism emphasizes justification while Reformed Protestantism stresses the glory of God. This suggests common view in some union with Christ circles that Lutheranism manifests an anthropocentric view of Christianity (e.g., man’s salvation) that contrasts with Reformed Protestantism’s theocentric outlook (e.g., God’s glory). After all, an oft-made contrast between Heidelberg (which is considered a catechism that made concessions to Lutheranism) and Westminster is that the former catechism begins with man’s “only comfort” while the Shorter Catechism begins with “God’s glory” as man’s chief end.
The danger in this contrast so far – man’s salvation vs. God’s glory – is that Lutherans had good reasons for not becoming absorbed with God’s glory. Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation was a forceful warning to theologians who were tempted to identify God’s glory with outward and external signs or forms. In other words, writ large in Luther’s theology is the idea that God’s ways are not man’s, and so God may not actually glorify himself the way that man expects. The cross is folly. Preaching is weak. Christians are poor and humble. In which case, God saves an unlikely people through surprising means. And that may also mean that God’s glory is not always as glorious as human beings expect it.
If God’s glory can be a complicated affair, then perhaps Warfield is wrong to draw the contrast between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism the way he does. If Lutherans actually believe in God’s glory but are also aware that it comes in surprising ways, then maybe Reformed Protestants need to learn a thing or two about how to be truly theocentric. The Lutheran theology of the cross could teach Reformed Protestants a measure of humility in their self-ascribed ability to locate God’s glory in every nook and cranny of the created order. Reformed might also consider that Lutherans understand better than Reformed triumphalists and experimental Calvinists that God’s glory is nowhere more on display, at least in this world, in the justification of sinners. After all, if man is the crown jewel of the created order and if Christ took on human form to save fallen sinners, then contra Warfield, we may not need to go much beyond justification and man’s salvation in seeing the glory of God.
If this is so, then Reformed Protestants may need to be content with the glory that is revealed in the cross and the salvation it yields instead of yielding to the temptation to find God’s glory in human powers of discernment. If Reformed Protestants followed the lead of Lutherans more, we might be spared many of those neo-Calvinist efforts to show the “Christian” meaning of calculus, Shakespeare, or Dutch history.
So while the game of saying that Reformed highlight God’s glory and Lutherans stop with justification sounds theocentric, it may turn out to be an unintended example of anthropocentricity in which believers try to prove their own godliness by discovering God’s glory through forced interpretations of general and special revelation. Perhaps Lutherans are the truly biblical ones who rest content with the glory that God has revealed in the salvation accomplished by Christ for weak and poor sinners. What could be more glorious than that!