Confessional Cliche

For centuries, the history of the Reformation has been written by confessional historians who want to defend their own confessional tradition against the rivals. Lutheran historians make Luther the central character and have demonized the Swiss Reformed, while Reformed historians have flipped to the opposite end.

Both Reformed and Lutheran villanize the Catholic church, often for good reason, but that can lead to a simplistic understanding of the conflicts of the sixteenth ands seventeenth centuries.

The effect of this historiography is to perpetuate the divisions of the Reformation, to ensure that the divisions of the sixteenth century continue and even become more acute and hardened. The complexity of history turns to cliché, and the clichés bolster long-standing distortions and prejudices.

Reformed regularly characterize the Lutheran position as “consubstantition.” Just as regularly, Lutherans deny that they believe this, and claim that consubstantiation was a medieval theory about the real presence and not Luther’s.

And indeed in Luther’s early treatises at least, he doesn’t adopt a theory of the real presence. He points out that the Bible calls the bread “bread” and also calls it “body.” Both must be true; it must be both bread and body. How it is both Luther doesn’t attempt to explain.

Luther later tried to offer explanations, but at the core his position was just an insistence on taking Jesus at His word: If Jesus says “hoc est corpus meum,” then it must be so. Hard to argue with that.

Lutherans, on the other hand, often claim that the Reformed deny the real presence and hold to a “spiritual” view of the real presence. They conflate Zwingli and Calvin, though the two Swiss theologians had different views of the real presence.

Calvin does teach a “Spiritual” real presence, but for Calvin that means that Christ Himself is present by the power of the Spirit. He does not mean that Christ’s presence is not real. “Spiritual” doesn’t mean “mental” or “in the soul of the believer.” It means “by the agency of the Spirit.”

These clichés and counter-clichés have kept Lutherans and Reformed from seeing just how close they are on this disputed question from the Reformation.

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  • Lee

    Peter, as a Christian theologian of Wesleyan – Holiness background I agree with your premise and go a step or two further. The Church, the universal – catholic Church, (not Roman Catholic Church), must find the common ground of the Gospel and begin to seek reconciliation of born-again believers into a real unity of the body of Christ on earth. My own church background is one of unity of the body, though that presents some issues with the Roman Catholic Church, as it does with Calvinists, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, and other non-RCC Christians. The core concept and basis for our faith is belief in the Lordship of Jesus as the One, only begotten Son of God the Father, and through belief in our heart and confession with our mouth that he is so, we are saved by grace through that faith. From that point on, we must be willing to look at proper exegetic reasons for our various faith beliefs which seem to divide us. Yet, keeping in mind the fact that the body is made up of many members, each with distinct function in concert with the other functions of the body. Perhaps, each of us, we who proclaim salvation in Christ Jesus, has a different function and are able to reach different people for Christ precisely because of the different functions within the Body of Christ on earth?

  • Melvin Landers

    Can a unified church be reestablished on the earth by the actions of the Holy Spirit
    through a top down revival among religious institutions and their leaders? Or,
    will God start a fire in the souls of a group of nobodies on the outlying
    frontiers of “Christianity” that will sweep across the land, devouring the
    denominations and their supporting Bible Schools, Universities, Theological
    Seminaries.

    In John 17, we witness Jesus, in perfect faith, asking that we be in unity, to become
    perfect in one as a witness to the people of the world. How are they to believe
    that yielding to the rule of God is desirable if they do not believe that God
    sent Jesus to guide us to him or that God loves us as He loves Jesus, as Jesus
    expressed near the end of his prayer in vs. 23. Instead of that positive witness,
    they witness the ruthlessness of the rulers of the Church of Laodicea.

    The doctrinal infighting, competition for “members” and even violence perpetrated
    by the denominations in the name of “church” are a witness to the Buddhists, Hindus
    and especially Jews and Muslims that the organizations claiming to represent
    God’s Messiah on earth are liars. Jesus is the head of a unified church; not a
    bunch of divisions. That includes any of the original “orthodox” divisions in
    Rome, Egypt, Serbia, Russia, etc. Those schisms existed long before Luther was
    kicked out of the Roman church.

    It makes a good theme for a blog post, but, the Holy Spirit works in messy, unorganized,
    unexpected ways. The renewed Church of Philadelphia will not appear on anyone’s
    radar screen until it is well on its way to supplanting the present system.
    Jesus prayed for a united church and the Father will not disappoint him.