My take on the Lutheran/Calvinist discussion

Some thoughts on the discussion about Lutherans and Calvinists that was provoked by thoughts from Peter Leithhart and D. G. Hart.  (To get up to date with the latest contributions, see also what Anthony Sacramone had to say about it, as well as Dr. Hart’s rejoinder.)

I am one Lutheran who is not a Calvinist basher.  Having grown up in mainline liberal Protestantism and then hanging out in grad school with collegiate evangelicals, I heard about God’s grace for the first time from a friend who was a Calvinist.  It had never occurred to me and I had never been taught that God accomplishes everything for my salvation.  I found that very liberating.  I read Calvin’s Institutes and was greatly instructed.  I credit Calvin for leading me to Luther, whose theology seemed to me to have everything I appreciated in Calvinism while avoiding some of its problems.   In Lutheranism, I would find  dimensions of grace that I never dreamed of before.  But, frankly, if there had been a Calvinist church in the small Oklahoma town where I got my first teaching job, I might have gone in that direction.  Instead, there was a congregation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which opened up to me dimensions of grace that I had never dreamed of before, including a deeply sacramental kind of spirituality.  Which brings up my first point:  In the discussion, it came out that Dr. Hart’s Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) has only 30,000 members and that the Presbyterian Church in America has only 300,000.  If you add together the LCMS with other conservative, confessional church bodies, such as the Wisconsin Synod (WELS), the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), and other smaller denominations and independent churches, there are some 3,000,000 members of confessional Lutheran church bodies (not even counting the confessional Lutherans in the  ELCA, of which there are quite a few in that liberal denomination, which is shrinking but still has some 4 million members).  But let’s keep the math simple.  There are apparently 10 times more confessional Lutherans than there are Calvinists in the PCA.  And 100 times more Lutherans than there are Calvinists in the OPC.  Now this in no way casts doubt on Calvinist theology, since numbers of members have nothing to do with truth.  But the question at issue was influence.  How can it be said that Calvinism has more influence than Lutheranism when the latter has far more congregations and far more people being taught that theology?

By influence do we just mean influence on evangelical intellectuals?  Or influence in lots of different non-Presbyterian denominations?  I can see that.  By reducing Calvinism to the TULIP acronymn (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints), we have a systematic theology that is simple and clear, fulfilling the criteria of the elevator pitch.  And it is portable.  You can be a Baptist, a Charismatic, or a non-denominationalist and hold to those five doctrines.  They work apart from any particular church order, system of governance, way of worship, or belief in the sacraments.  It fits well with the parachurch nature of much of today’s evangelicalism.

Lutheranism, on the other hand, is more “churchy,” tied as it is to the administration of the Sacraments.

Further questions:  We Lutherans learn from the discussion that there are apparently lots of different kinds of Calvinism:  Dr. Hart seems dismissive of the Calvinism of Tim Keller and his “Kellerism.”  Then there is the Federal Vision movement, of which Dr. Leithhart is apparently a fellow traveler, though other Calvinists are putting him on trial.  What’s with all of that?  Do all of these kinds agree on TULIP? And where would, say, Mike Horton, fit into all of this? Just trying to learn.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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