Lutheran Love

Bill Evans head shot

Controversial Florida PCA minister Tullian Tchividjian has been attracting some appreciative attention from Lutheran sources (e.g., here and here).  According to these reports he has been reading Luther as well as some current Lutheran Church Missouri Synod writers.   Some are likely surprised, while others have suggested that Tchividjian has been a closet Lutheran on soteriological (i.e., salvation) issues for some time.  In all of this there is something old and something new.

Of course, Reformed people have been reading Luther for many years.  Particular favorites have been Luther’s The Bondage of the Will (especially in the Packer/Johnston translation) and his Commentary on Galatians.  Many have found Luther’s keen grasp of the unmerited grace of God in justifying the helpless sinner to be an exhilarating and liberating message that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel.

But there is also something new afoot.  Tchividjian is part of a movement in Reformed circles that self-consciously wants to emphasize “grace” as the antidote to the legalism that some have experienced.  Practically speaking, this has meant prioritizing forensic justification with a corresponding deemphasis of Scriptural exhortations and imperatives.  Sanctification, or transformation of life, is extracted from justification; that is, sanctification is understood by Tchividjian and his cohorts as flowing from a right understanding of one’s justification or acceptance by God.  In contemporary Reformed circles this way of thinking has obvious antecedents in the so-called “Sonship theology” of Jack Miller, who argued that sanctification ensues as one is grateful for one’s justification and adoption rather than through moral exhortation (Miller too was said by some to have “Lutheranizing” tendencies).  With this approach often comes a suspicion of imperatives, requirements, and expectations as incipient legalism.  For those who may be interested in further exploration of this thinking, I’ve treated it here and here and here and here.

What does this Reformed movement of Tchividjian and others have to do with Lutheranism?  Quite a bit, actually, though the connections are indirect and some historical theology is needed in order to connect the dots.

Martin Luther was, of course, the great champion of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.  The story of his “Reformation breakthrough” insight (exactly when [and where!] it occurred is a matter of scholarly debate) that human beings are justified by faith in the finished work of Christ rather than by “doing their best” in order that God might show mercy is the stuff of classic religious biography.  He quite properly realized that the theology of the late medieval via moderna was religiously barren, and he recovered the great Pauline theme of the freedom of the Christian.

But Luther was more the great religious genius than a systematic theologian—he reveled in the apparent tensions between the polarities of law and gospel, the inner man and the outer man, the hidden God and the revealed God, the theology of glory and the theology of the cross, the secular kingdom and the church, and so forth, and didn’t seem particularly concerned to reconcile them.  It would fall to later Lutheran theologians to sort these things out.

Rather, Luther was first and foremost a biblical theologian.  Interestingly, despite the prominence of justification by faith in his thinking, he never forgot that justification cannot be abstracted from the person of Christ, and so, as Alister McGrath has rightly noted, he emphasized the Christian’s union with Christ.  While the righteousness of justification is Christ’s and not ours, nevertheless, by faith we are joined with Christ, and we receive his body and blood in the Eucharist (see McGrath, Iustitia Dei (1986), II:14).  This emphasis explains why the “Finnish school” of Luther interpretation, with its emphasis on the connection between justification and union with Christ, has gotten considerable traction (in both helpful and not-so-helpful ways).

Lutheran scholasticism sought to systematize Luther’s genius, and it did so by emphasizing certain themes and not others.  This is a complicated story, but a few examples will suffice.  The lines of Luther’s rather stark predestinarianism were softened as decided emphasis was placed on the God revealed in Jesus Christ rather than the hidden God of the decrees.  Luther’s programmatic emphasis on justification was further highlighted as the Lutheran scholastics adopted an ordo salutis (order of salvation) in which union with Christ became a subsidiary moment in that order caused by justification, and sanctification likewise was seen as the result of justification (see, e.g., J. T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics [1955], 320).  Furthermore, this causal relationship is often framed in terms of a psychological connection of gratitude (see Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics [1950-53], III:8-12).

Also important here was the prominence of the law/gospel hermeneutic.  From the Lutheran point of view, law and gospel must always be distinguished because the law condemns while the gospel brings life.  Thus there has been in Lutheran circles a rather persistent suspicion of the so-called “third use of the law” (the law as a guide for the life of the believer).  To say that the Christian is in some sense “under law” is regarded as legalism, and thus there has been a tendency toward a theoretical antinomianism in the Lutheran tradition (a tendency often counterbalanced by a strong ecclesiology with its emphasis on catechesis and the sacraments).

Interestingly, there were somewhat similar systematizing processes going on in Reformed circles.  Calvin had framed his doctrine of salvation in terms of the duplex gratia (double grace) of forensic justification and transformation flowing from spiritual union with Christ by faith and the Holy Spirit.  As Calvin himself put it, “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us” (Institutes, III.1.1).  But faced with the task of establishing a school-text position over against the Roman Catholic and Lutheran competition, later Reformed thinkers moved away from Calvin’s duplex gratia framework in favor of an ordo salutis in which justification logically and temporally precedes sanctification and transformation of life.

However, they did this in a way different from Lutheranism.  Rather than making union with Christ a subsidiary moment in the ordo, they formally retained Calvin’s emphasis on union with Christ as an umbrella category for salvation, but they bifurcated union into a federal or legal union on the one hand, and a spiritual or transforming union on the other.  Thus, to speak of a federal union with Christ was to speak of justification, and the spiritual union denoted sanctification.  Such language of distinct, if concomitant, unions became common in the tradition from the early eighteenth century onward, and Calvin’s understanding of spiritual union with Christ as holding justification and sanctification together without collapsing one into the other was lost.  The upshot of this was that later Reformed soteriology has been, shall we say, a bit bi-polar, and the history of this later Reformed theology has tended to oscillate back and forth between legalism or neonomianism (the danger for those who emphasize transformation) and antinomianism (the danger for those who focus especially on justification).  Thus, if the besetting sin of Lutheranism has been antinomianism, the besetting sins of the Reformed tradition have been both legalism and antinomianism, and both sets of problems are rooted in the structures of the traditions.

Another difference between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions has been the fact that the Reformed have generally affirmed the third use of the law.  This is due to a variety of reasons, including the pervasive Reformed emphasis on the biblical theme of covenant, with its dialectic of promise and obligation, the unconditional and the conditional, as a hermeneutical principle.

Of course, these Reformed distinctives have been disturbing to Lutherans.  Reformed attempts to frame justification in association with union with Christ have been viewed with great suspicion as an incipient compromise of the gratuity of justification by faith, and the Reformed emphasis on covenant has also been seen as involving an inappropriate mixture of law and gospel and an entangling of good works in the salvation process.

Just as interesting have been the Reformed responses to the instability of their own tradition.  Among those exercised about the danger of antinomianism, there is a lengthy history of expanding the definition of faith to include works of evangelical obedience, and some (e.g., Norman Shepherd) have explicitly challenged the principle of sola fide.  Others, sensitive to the dangers of both legalism and antinomianism, have sought to return to Calvin’s duplex gratia formulation with mystical union with Christ as foundational to both justification and sanctification.  Still others, particularly concerned about the danger of legalism, have moved in the direction of more Lutheran understandings of salvation, especially the prioritizing of justification.

Particularly important for this third group is the work of certain theologians at Westminster Seminary in California such as Michael Horton, Scott Clark, and John Fesko, who have foregrounded the law/gospel hermeneutic, argued for the priority and causal character of justification, and contended for a “pan-Protestantant” doctrine of justification which sees little difference between Lutheran and Reformed formulations of the matter (despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary on both sides!).   Moreover, there is considerable evidence that Horton’s influence on Tchividjian has been substantial in recent years, and this, in turn, brings us back to the issue prompting this post.

It is unclear, however, where this amorous encounter between Lutherans and Reformed will go.  The Lutheran tradition is a rich one with its own internal integrity and depth.  In other words, it cannot simply be reduced to the priority of justification or particular concerns about legalism.   Moreover, there are continuing points of disagreement between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions—differences having to do with Christology, the sacraments, and prevailing attitudes toward Christian involvement in politics.

In my judgment, all this says a good deal more about the current disunity among Reformed Christians and what I have elsewhere termed “the contemporary Reformed soteriological controversy” than it does about Lutherans.