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Ask Conciliar Post: Reformed Theologies? A Contemporary Comparison

One of the many unique features of Conciliar Post is the Ask function that allows readers to pose questions to the Conciliar Post community. Unfortunately, this portion of our attempts to further meaningful and informed dialogue has often resulted in questions which are (for a variety of reasons) not suitable for public response. That all changes today, however, as this article stems from the following question asked by a Conciliar Post Reader: What are the key differences between the theology of Luther and Calvin? How do these differences play out in contemporary Protestantism?

Luther and Calvin

Comparing the theologies of Luther and Calvin is an extensive and complex project,1 one that I will not bore you with here. Historically speaking, however, there are a number of similarities and differences between these seminal Protestant Reformers.2 In brief, both Luther and Calvin advocated the importance of justification by faith alone, the supremacy of scripture over tradition, the sinfulness of humanity, need for reform within the Church, and sovereignty of God. They rejected Roman claims to supremacy and–although they used various medieval Christian sources–also disagreed with much Roman Catholic theology.Both also affirmed (along with most other Protestant reformers) orthodox Christian theology as outlined by the Nicene Creed and Chalcedon Definition.

Despite their connection in the contemporary mind as Protestant reformers, the historical contexts of Luther and Calvin were quite different. Luther was (essentially) the first reformer in the movement that became known as Protestantism, while Calvin was a second generation figure who arrived in a theological context familiar with the concept (though not necessarily acceptance) of the idea of “reform.” Thus, Luther’s work in Wittenberg, especially from his early years, does not possess nearly the polish that Calvin’s does on the whole. That is to say, Luther faced a number of challenges that were unique to his situation as the “first” man enacting theological reform in 16th century Germany. Conversely, while Calvin’s reforms in Geneva were by no means smoothly implemented, he was able to rely on the insights and experiences of other, earlier reformers.3

Luther and Calvin held similar views on baptism, with both allowing the baptism of infants. However, their Eucharistic theologies diverged. Luther advocated a view now called “consubstantiation,” where the true body and blood of Christ are believed to be physically present in the Eucharist “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. Calvin, on the other hand, affirmed the “real presence” of Christ in the elements of communion, but in a spiritual (non-physical) manner. In this view, Christ’s presence is mediated by the Holy Spirit, not through the physical substances of the Lord’s Supper.4 Additionally, by the end of their lives both Calvin and Luther rejected any sacraments other than baptism and communion.

As a final area of comparison, the churches which have developed from the theologies of Luther and Calvin are rather different. Lutheranism spread mostly throughout the Holy Roman Empire and Northern Europe. Followers of Calvin adopted the name “Reformed” and spread to Scotland, the Netherlands, and parts of Switzerland and France. Both churches went through periods of confessionalism (the solidification of doctrinal beliefs), scholasticism (exposition of those beliefs), and revivalism (periods of new growth) in the centuries following the Reformation. The spiritual legacies of each are very different as well. Calvinist theology may be best known for its Westminster Confession and the Calvinist/Arminian debate on Predestination and Freewill. Lutheran theology may be best known Biblical Criticism and the world’s best organ music. Both Luther and Calvin were complex men with nuanced theologies, each of which have significantly impacted contemporary Christianity in important ways.

Contemporary Reformed Theologies

There are numerous contemporary forms of Protestantism claiming the spiritual legacies of Luther and Calvin. Almost every Protestant church of any kind owes something to Luther’s launching of the Reformation. Many churches—especially those of Puritan or Baptist origins—have also been impacted by Calvin and his followers over the years as well. Of American churches claiming direct dependence upon these two Reformers, the Evangelical Lutheran Church claims the most adherents, with some 4.5 million members. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has some 2.8 million members and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod nearly 2.3 million. There are also a number of smaller Reformed and Lutheran bodies, including the Christian Reformed Church, North American Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church in America, and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

To help underline the relationship between contemporary Lutherans and Calvinists, I have asked Conciliar Post authors Nicholai Stuckwisch (Missouri Synod Lutheran) and George Aldhizer (Presbyterian Church in America) to offer some reflections on the relationship between these two forms of Protestant Christianity.5

“While I can’t claim to be an expert on Calvinist theology, or even Lutheran theology for that matter, there are two main conflicts between the two denominations that I know of. As I understand it, the Calvinists believe in predestination to some extent. That is, they believe that those who will be saved and those who will be damned are already determined and set in stone. I am not at all familiar with the intricacies and details of this confession, but the Lutheran church confesses that, by the grace of God, all people can be saved through faith, repentance, and forgiveness. Another incredibly important distinction between the Calvinist and Lutherans, as I understand it, is rooted in their confession of the Lord’s Supper. Lutherans confess that the Sacrament of the Altar is the true Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ while simultaneously remaining bread and wine. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic church teaches that the Lord’s Supper is the Body and Blood of Christ, they reject the idea that the bread and wine remain. On the flip side, the Calvinist confession, as far as I can tell, is that the Lord’s Supper is merely a representation of Christ’s Body and Blood and remains only bread and wine. While there are almost certainly many other differences that I am not aware of, and while my explanation is undoubtedly an oversimplification, these two conflicting ideas are the ones I am most keenly aware of.” — Nicholai Stuckwisch

“The Reformed view the scriptures as a unified whole, seeing the entirety of the scriptures testifying to a God who relates to his people in covenants. In the garden, God established a covenant of works with Adam and Eve, God promising that life will be given to obedience, death to disobedience. After the Fall, God did not scrap the broken world, but instead relates to humanity in a covenant of grace, humanity now must repent and believe in Jesus, the only way we can be reconciled to God. Humanity relates to the law of God both as a means of convicting humanity of sin and as a means of sanctification. This view of the scriptures and of God’s relation to humanity contradicts a strict Lutheran ‘Law/Gospel’ distinction, the Law in Reformed understanding spurring the Reformed to growing in grace. A third distinction (in addition to views of the coherence of the scriptures and Law/Gospel) would be the understanding of the Lord’s Supper. The Reformed deny that the Eucharistic elements are the body and blood of Christ, believing that the ritual is a physical ‘sign and seal’ of the covenant of grace. Christ is present in the Supper, not in his literal body and blood, but through the Holy Spirit, connecting to and nourishing the believer in the ascended Christ. “ — George Aldhizer

As Nicholai and George demonstrate, there are certainly differences between contemporary expressions of Lutheran and Calvinist Christian faith. These differences ultimately go back to the respective theologies of Luther and Calvin, whose distinct approaches to Christian theology have helped shape our world and given rise to the rich tapestry of Christian faith today.

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Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree.

Program Assistant at Stephen Ministries, Ph.D. student at St. Louis University, and teacher at The Rock Church. Alumnus of various institutions.

  • George Aldhizer

    I thought your “rich tapestry” comment was very interesting. It seems that is pretty controversial language. Theological diversity, according to Ben and Benjamin (among others), it seems, is something that should not exist at all costs.

    Maybe I’m reading into things, but I’d be curious what you all think of that way of speaking of theological differences (I’m also asking because I’ll be writing on this soon).

    • His Eminence Met. Kallistos Ware said we should seek Ecumenism not as “uniformity” but as “unity in diversity”—of course, he says this with reference to RC and EOC churches . . . And certainly does not mean the “soft, fluffy ecumenism” of the Emergent churches. For the EOC and RC, unity essentially consists in the Eucharist—and the Eucharistic communion. That being said, RC and EOC share a rich history and I am hopeful that we will reunite. As for everything else, I am unsure. But certainly there is but “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” — what that means, however, is often a point of contention.

    • Jacob

      Thanks for the very important question (my apologies for the slow response, as I’ve had family in town the past few days and have not been checking my email). This is also something I’m wrestling with at the moment (ties into my dissertation topic), but here are some preliminary thoughts:

      “Unity” and “diversity”, although often used as mutually exclusive terms, do not necessarily have to be that way. And neither is to be sought at the expense of all else. This is the balance I try to find in my approach to contemporary Christianity–there are definite boundaries to Christian faith and practice (beyond which is not “Christianity” (but within those boundaries there is much room for variety of expression and (on some issues) practice. Thus, we can speak of a “rich tapestry” of Christian faith not as the “goal” of the Christian life (or something, as you note, that should exist “at all costs”), but as a consequence of many different people seeking God in varying circumstances, contexts, and times.

      The approach of Philip Melancthon and the German pietists is an important expression of this thinking for me, especially their saying , “in necessarii unitas, in non necessarii libertas, in omnibus caritas”, meaning “in necessary things unity, in non-necessary things liberty, in all things love.”

      I look forward to your response (and to your forthcoming writing on this topic). JJP

      • George Aldhizer

        Yeah, thanks for that response. And I love love in essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, all things charity. It seems to me that Protestants can consistently affirm this, saying that there are essentials to faith and practice, and things that we as the Church catholic can disagree on. Catholics and Orthodox, it seems to me, who believe the entirety of their practices and beliefs are wrapped up in the “true church,” cannot consistently affirm unity in diversity in that same way.

        It seems that Protestants can affirm a catholic sensibility and a unity that goes beyond ecclesiology. I dunno, maybe this is just excuse for multi-denominationalism. Do you feel like your “rich tapestry” comment (and all that it entails) can be consistently affirmed by non-Protestants?

        • Jacob

          I see where you’re coming from with your comments on Orthodoxy/Catholicism, but there are a lot of Protestants who hold similar views. Yet, in my experience, there are plenty of non-Protestants (and Protestants as well) who can affirm the “rich tapestry” approach; the implications of that language, of course, will vary greatly.

  • Jacob

    A big thank you to George and Nicholai for their assistance with this post.

  • Very clear and helpful! Thanks!

    • Jacob

      Glad to hear that Chris. Sorry this took me so long.

      • Not a problem. You are one of the hardest working dudes I know, so I know it wasn’t due to anything but being very busy.

  • Excellent! Thank you for this wonderful contribution to the Conciliar Post dialogue!

    • Jacob

      Thanks Ben!