Saturday, May 28, 2011

Luther Wrote More on Predestination than Calvin?

This is an abridged excerpt from a paper I recently put together:

There appears to be nothing more infuriating to a Lutheran than to suggest that Luther was fundamentally a Calvinist in his view of sovereignty and predestination. Executive Director of Concordia Publishing House Reverend Paul McCain states, “Whenever the question of why are some saved and not others comes up, it is common for Calvinists who advocate for the view that God has predestined some to hell, and others to heaven, to try to drag Martin Luther into their argument and claim that they are actually being faithful to what Martin Luther taught. Let this much be clear: Martin Luther did not teach double-predestination.”[1]

McCain could have any number of Reformed authors in mind. In his book Chosen By God, R.C. Sproul lays out his past intellectual resistance to the doctrine of predestination. “My struggle with predestination began early in my Christian life. I knew a professor of philosophy in college who was a convinced Calvinist. He set forth the so-called ‘Reformed’ view of predestination. I did not like it. I did not like it at all. I fought against it tooth and nail all the way through college.”[2] Part of Sproul’s argumentation for eventually embracing the Reformed view includes a list comparing those who hold similar Reformed-esque views against those who do not. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards are stacked against Pelagius, Arminius, Melanchthon, Wesley, and Finny. Sproul points out that such a comparison doesn’t prove one view correct over the other, but “we must take seriously the fact that such learned men agreed on this difficult subject.”[3] Sproul states,

It is important for us to see that the Reformed doctrine of predestination was not invented by John Calvin. There is nothing in Calvin’s view of predestination that was not earlier propounded by Luther and Augustine before him. Later, Lutheranism did not follow Luther on this matter but Melanchthon, who altered his views after Luther’s death. It is also noteworthy that in his famous treatise on theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote sparingly on the subject. Luther wrote more about predestination than did Calvin.[4]

Luther wrote more about predestination than Calvin? Melanchthon altered Luther’s view on predestination for subsequent Lutherans? Such statements could easily lead to equivocating Luther and Calvin’s view of predestination, as well as Luther’s view with the so-called five points of Calvinism. Some in the Reformed camp have done precisely this. Lorraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination asserts Luther “went into the doctrine as heartily as did Calvin himself” and “He even asserted it with more warmth and proceeded to much harsher lengths in defending it than Calvin ever did.”[5] Duane Edward Spencer’s popular primer on Calvinism places Luther among those “stalwart theologians” that have held “to the precious doctrines of grace known as Calvinism.”[6] Edwin Palmer’s introduction to Calvinism refers to Luther as a “good Calvinist.”[7] The classic Steele and Thomas overview of Calvinism includes Luther as a champion listed on the “role call of Calvinists.”[8]

Sproul probably isn’t in error in his claim that Luther wrote more about predestination than Calvin did in his Institutes, if indeed Sproul is comparing this to The Bondage of the Will. Throughout his career though, Calvin did indeed write more on the subject than Luther did. After his Bondage of the Will, only a handful of brief statements can be corralled together. Sproul isn’t alone in making such comparative claims. One of the more extensive studies on Luther and Predestination was put together by Harry Buis “especially concentrating on the demonstration of the fact that Martin Luther held as strong a doctrine of predestination as did John Calvin.”[40] Buis strains every statement from Luther he can find through a Reformed paradigm. Buis claims Luther made a number of statements on the “main points of Calvinism” “which were more extreme than any which Calvin ever made.”[41] Many of the statements Buis compiled though speak only of Luther’s lifelong belief that the human will was enslaved, a topic often addressed by Luther. He spends considerable time with the Bondage of the Will, but avoids any full discussion of Luther’s paradigm of the hidden / revealed God. Buis will take the most meager statement as proof for Luther’s Calvinism. For instance, Of 2 Peter 3:9, Buis says Luther questioned if Peter actually wrote it. This serves as proof for Luther’s Calvinism! Rather though, Luther was probably alluding to the doubts of Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, ch. 3, par. 1. Luther actually states of 2 Peter, “Yet it is credible that this is nonetheless the apostle’s letter.”[42] Buis cites extensively from Luther’s pre-Reformation commentary on Romans, yet this writing precedes Luther’s paradox of the hidden / revealed God, and also stems from a time in which Luther himself was plagued by doubts about his own predestination. Buis then concludes his treatment of Luther with a number of citations from Luther’s Table Talk, a writing not from Luther’s hand. While having good intentions, Buis demonstrates that those from a Reformed perspective need to be careful with contexts, not allowing one’s own theological paradigms to interfere with reading texts accurately.

But not all from a Reformed perspective are so haphazard with Luther. Herman Bavinck posits much differently than Buis: “Luther accordingly, increasingly avoided the speculative doctrine of predestination, the will of divine good pleasure, the hidden God, preferring to focus on the ministry of Word and sacraments, to which grace is bound, and giving increasing prominence to God’s universal redemptive will, his expressed will.”[43] After sifting through the statements culled together by Buis, Bavinck appears to be correct. Luther’s later statements about predestination have more of a pastoral emphasis rather than polemical.

[1] Paul McCain, Refuting Calvinist Claims that Luther Taught Double Predestination, available from:
[2] R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986), 11-12.
[3] Ibid., 15.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932), 1.
[6] Duane Edward Spencer, Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 6-7.
[7] Edward H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980), 19.
[8] David Steele, and Curtis Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, and Documented (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2004), 74.
[40] Harry Buis, Historic Protestantism and Predestination (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1958), 2.
[41] Ibid., 61.
[42] LW 30: 198.
[43] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 356.

Addendum: Here's an interesting discussion on the Puritan board-


repeater75 said...

Any chance at getting access to your full paper?

James Swan said...

I'll be posting excerpts from time to time.

Thanks for the interest.

Brigitte said...

Thank you for clarifying such things.

James Swan said...

Brigitte said...
Thank you for clarifying such things

I have a lot more to post on this topic- You'll notice if you look closely, the footnotes skip from 8 to 40. It's a long paper, covering Predestination and other Calvinstic distinctives as compared to Luther.

The snippet I posted was two different sections stuck together.

Ed "The layman" said...

I am very interested in this subject as well. Will you post the full paper when you are done?

James Swan said...

Ed "The layman": I am very interested in this subject as well. Will you post the full paper when you are done?

Thanks for your interest. The full paper has been done for quite a while, but was not written for the Internet. I do plan though on posting more excerpts.