Category Archives: Martin Luther

Does the Reformation’s Concern for the Glory of God Still Matter?

The Westminster shorter catechism famously begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer is pithy and to the point: “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” My parents taught me this truth when they told me that I could do whatever I wanted in life, just so long as I did it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:13).

This concern for the glory of God lay at the heart of the Reformation. To be sure, the Roman church did not deny the principle of Soli Deo Gloria in any explicit sense. But its teachings often undermined the principle in practice by shifting Christians’ attention away from the sovereign grace of God given in Christ toward all manner of human efforts at securing or mediating salvation.

For example, the church encouraged believers to pray to saints rather than directly to God in time of need. It called them to seek salvation through acts of penitence, pilgrimage, or patronage, or through participation in the sacraments of the church, rather than by trusting in the cross of Christ. And it insisted that sinners could prepare themselves to receive God’s grace and had to cooperate with that grace if it were to be effective in their lives. On top of all that, the Roman church claimed for the papacy and the church hierarchy a glory that should have been reserved for Christ himself.

The net effect of all of this was to rob God of the sole credit and glory for salvation. It was to distract human beings from the God on whom we depend for every good thing.

To be sure, the reformers recognized that Jesus shares his glory with believers by inviting us into the Trinitarian communion of love (John 17:22-24). Indeed, they affirmed, the whole creation will be brought into the liberty and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). And those whom God justifies and sanctifies, he also glorifies (Romans 8:30).

Still, they insisted that because all of this is God’s work, from start to finish, they insisted that all the glory for it ultimately belongs to God, from start to finish. As the Apostle Paul memorably concluded, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:35-36).

We live in a time when men and women believe their ultimate duty is to be true to themselves above all as they seek happiness and fulfillment in life. Indeed, a body no less august than the Supreme Court of the United States has declared a person’s right to determine ultimate meaning for him or herself a most basic and inalienable human right. Never has God’s claim to glory been more suspect in the eyes of his own creatures.

And yet, the more we trumpet our own inviolable dignity and glory as human beings, the more we struggle to explain where that dignity and glory comes from in the first place, or why it even matters. Though science gives us greater and greater knowledge of the glory of creation, we neither glorify God nor give him thanks (Romans 1:21). We continue to exchange the glory of the immortal God for idols of our own making.

Still, as has always been the case, our sin merely serves to advance God’s glory as our judge and as our savior (Romans 3:7; 10:22-23). And it does so in mind-boggling fashion. As Jesus taught his confused disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23-24, 32).

God’s character is most clearly revealed – and his glory must be most clearly proclaimed by the church – in the willingness of his son to set his glory aside in order to become a suffering servant on our behalf, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:9-11). In the final analysis, the glory of God redounds to our benefit and then back to him, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, “so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).

This article originally appeared in The Forum, the faculty publication of Calvin Theological Seminary, as part of an issue devoted to the five solas of the Reformation. The articles on the other solas are written by Jeff Weima, John Cooper, Karin Maag, and Lyle Bierma, and can be found here.

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Is Christianity Inherently Undemocratic? Hierarchy and Predestination

In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.

This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)

To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.

Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,

In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)

Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.

It  is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.

But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)

In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.

What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.

The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.

That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.

The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.

But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.

Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.

None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.

Imperial Calvinism: Transforming the World

It has long been standard in scholarly circles to claim that whereas Lutheran Protestantism tends to be passive and pietistic due to its emphasis on justification by faith alone and on the difference between the two kingdoms, Calvinism is active and vigorous in every area of life due to its emphasis on sanctification and the lordship of Christ. No matter how hard historical theologians work to show that this contrast is seriously exaggerated, the invention of modern theological controversies (not to mention Calvinists’ proclivities toward a certain Whiggish interpretation of history), it remains influential, enduring in the widely quoted statements of prominent scholars like Ernst Troeltsch, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Jurgen Moltmann.

Take, for instance, Troeltsch’s famous study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, now more than one hundred years old. Troeltsch agrees that Calvin used the language of Luther’s two kingdoms, but he claims that, spurred by the doctrines of predestination and the absolute sovereignty and glory of God, Calvin’s social theory turned in a radically different direction.

“In his teaching on the independence and secular character of the State Calvin used exactly the same language as Luther; since, however, at the same time he created a strong independent Church … through which he desired to effect a Christian and ethical transformation of the whole of Society and civilization, in practice he made the State subordinate to the Church.” (2:627)

Troeltsch, like so many early twentieth century scholars, erroneously believed that Calvinism is a system of thought “logically constructed” on “the idea of predestination, the famous central doctrine of Calvinism.” (2:579, 581) In this system, according to Troeltsch, the gospel was no longer a means to the salvation of sinners rooted in the God who is love, but a means to the greater end of the glory of God who is majesty. The purpose of the doctrine of justification was not the joy of the forgiveness of sins that results in loving service to one’s neighbors, but the sovereign calling of an individual to serve as an instrument of the divine will. The gospel thus became “a spur to action” and the “spirit of active energy” in the heroic elect, who in turn became “Christ’s warriors and champions.” (2:584) Certain of their salvation, Christians were free to look outward and to devote themselves to the transformation of society into the holy community of Christ.

The doctrine of predestination thus gave rise to Calvinism’s second distinctive characteristic, which was its heroic religious individualism. Protestantism is inherently individualistic, Troeltsch admitted, but Calvin directed that spirit toward the purpose of “the glorification of God in action, [which] is the real test of individual personal reality in religion.” Whereas the Lutheran Christian satisfies himself with the quiet loving service amid the providentially arranged circumstances of life, for the Calvinist

“the whole meaning of life consists precisely in entering into these circumstances, and, while inwardly rising above them, in shaping them into an expression of the Divine Will. In conflict and in labour the individual takes up the task of the sanctification of the world … The Calvinist knows that his calling and election are sure, and that therefore he is free to give all his attention to the effort to mold the world and society according to the Will of God.” (2:588, 589)

The result is the establishment of a sort of “spiritual aristocracy.” (2:590) The lordship of Christ bestows upon Calvinists a “high sense of a Divine mission to the world,” an “immeasurable responsibility.” (2:617) “Predestination means that the  minority, consisting of the best and the holiest souls, is called to bear rule over the majority of mankind, who are sinners.” (2:618)

The third distinctive characteristic of Calvinism is “the central significance of the idea of a society, and the task of the restoration of a holy community, of a Christocracy in which God is glorified in all its activity, both sacred and secular.” (2:590-591) Here the church is not merely the organ of justification but “the means of sanctification: it ought to prove itself effective in the Christianizing of the community, by placing the whole range of life under the control of Christian regulations and Christian purposes.” This is to take place “in every aspect of life: in Church and State, in family and in society, in economic life, and in all personal relationships, both public and private.” (2:591) Calvin thus made “an ethic of sanctification the underlying basis of Church discipline and of the development of the State.” (2:601) Calvinism “sought to make the whole of Society, down to the smallest detail, a real expression of the royal dominion of Christ.” (2:622)

Calvin’s tool for this transformation, Troeltsch argued, was the Bible, which Calvin turned into the blueprint of the holy community, “a law, whose aim and nature were of equal value in every part.” (2:586) To be sure, Calvin recognized that parts of the law were no longer binding on Christians, and in that sense he did not seek to revive “Jewish legalism.” (2:601) But in contrast to the Lutherans, Calvinism “extended the authority of the Bible over a wider field, and in the process it transformed the whole conception of the Bible into an infallible authority for all the problems and needs of the Church.” (2:587) Based on the premise that the Bible could speak to all of life, Calvinists seeking the political and legal transformation of society inevitably found lessons in the example of Israel, its kings and its prophets. Calvin dismissed the immediate significance of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Troeltsch claims, in favor of the more relevant Old Testament.

I reject Troeltsch’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology, of course, though I will not refute it at length in this blog post, but there is a reason why it has been so influential. It rings true, I believe, for a significant strand of Calvinism, which takes as its raison d’etre the vindication and assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God. Far too often this has bred what Max Stackhouse has called “imperial Calvinism,” or what Nicholas Wolterstorff describes as “that most insufferable of all human beings, the triumphalist Calvinist.” Take, for instance, the following quote from Troeltsch:

This peculiar combination of ideas produces a keen interest in politics, but not for the sake of the State; it produces active industry within the economic sphere, but not for the sake of wealth; it produces an eager social organization, but its aim is not material happiness; it produces unceasing labour, even disciplining the senses, but none of this effort is for the sake of the object of all this industry. The one main controlling idea and purpose of this ethic is to glorify God, to produce the Holy Community, to attain that salvation which in election is held up as the aim; to this one idea all the other formal peculiarities of Calvinism are subordinate.” (2:607)

In short, what we have here are highly activist, enormously confident individuals, whose devotion is to exerting power over other human beings in order to assert the sovereignty of God. This is in sharp contrast to the proper emphasis of the Christian ethic, which is on conforming to the image of Christ in self-sacrificial service toward others.

Thankfully, Troeltsch’s characterization is not accurate for many Reformed people on the ground. Many of us were reared on the Heidelberg Catechism, which says precious little about the themes Troeltsch believes are so central to Calvinism. And however later Calvinists might have conceived of the implications of their faith, John Calvin himself took the distinction between the two kingdoms seriously, stressing that the kingdom of Christ is manifest in the church and its ministry, and that during the present age its witness is characterized by the suffering of the cross (a means of conformity to Christ, Calvin stressed in light of Romans 8, that has been predestined by God!). Calvin well understood the difference between sanctification and politics, between spiritual righteousness and civil righteousness, between the church and the commonwealth. He was no “Imperial Calvinist.”

What does a Christian politician look like?

One of the popular caricatures of Protestant two kingdoms theology often bandied about – both by some of its critics and by some of its proponents – is that it separates Christianity from politics. The fact that some two kingdoms proponents in the modern era have presented the doctrine as if it does separate the authority of Christ or of scripture from politics gives some of these critics a certain measure of plausibility. However, anyone familiar with the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin will be aware that this does not represent the classic two kingdoms position. Luther and Calvin both followed their mentor Augustine in insisting that a faithful Christian prince would look quite different from the rank and file of his (or her) fellow politicians.

In his classic The City of God Augustine paints a colorful picture of the ideal Christian emperor:

We claim that they [Christian emperors] are happy if they make their power the servant of God’s majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of his worship; if they fear and love and worship God; if they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to share power more than their earthly kingdom; if they are slow to punish and ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to govern and defend the republic and not in order to indulge their own hatred; if they grant pardon, not so that crime should be unpunished, but in the hope of correction; if they compensate with the gentleness of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severe measure they may be compelled to decree; if their extravagance is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to rule evil desires rather than any people one might name; and if they do all these things from love of eternal happiness rather than ardor for empty glory; and if they do not fail to offer to the true God who is their God the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer for their sins. Such Christian emperors, we claim, are happy in the present through hope, and are happy afterwards, in the future, in the enjoyment of happiness itself, when what we wait for will have come. (Book V, Chapter 24)

During the late middle ages Augustine’s two cities model was gradually transformed by the papal two swords doctrine. The popes began to claim that as the vicars of Christ, all temporal and spiritual authority alike had been given to them. When seeking to rally Christendom in support of the crusades, Bernard of Clairvaux praised “a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens.” Temporal soldiers are worthy of honor, he admitted, and spiritual soldiers (monks and priests) are worthy of even greater honor. “But when the one sees a soldier powerfully girding himself with both swords and nobly marking his belt, who would not consider it worthy of all wonder, the more so since it has been hitherto unknown?” (In Praise of the New Knighthood)

It was to this horribly distorted version of Augustine’s theology that Luther was responding when he articulated the two kingdoms doctrine. Luther’s point, however, was not to say that politicians could not or should not conduct themselves as Christians. Rather, Luther’s point was that the vocation of a politician is secular and must be kept quite distinct from that of a pastor or priest. In his Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed Luther wrote,

Now that we know the limits of temporal authority, it is time to inquire also how a prince should use it. We do this for the sake of those very few who would also like very much to be Christian princes and lords, and who desire to enter into the life of heaven….

First, he must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every though to making himself useful and beneficial to them … He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs…’ In such a manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ did to us; and these are the proper works of Christian love….

Fourth, here we come to what should really have been placed first, and of which we spoke above. A prince must act in a Christian way toward his God also; that is, he must subject himself to him in entire confidence and pray for wisdom to rule well, as Solomon did…. Then the prince’s job will be done right, both outwardly and inwardly; it will be pleasing to God and to the people. But he will have to expect much envy and sorrow on account of it; the cross will soon rest on the shoulders of such a prince.

At least early in his career, Luther was of course much more critical than Augustine had been of the involvement of politicians in the defense of the gospel or the discipline of the church. His early theological opposition to the use of the sword to coerce heretics, like that of Calvin, anticipated the modern separation of church and state, without relying on modern assumptions about the separation of politics and religion. But the point is that neither Luther nor Calvin ever imagined that a Christian politician would separate his (or her) politics from fidelity and obedience to Christ. Such a view owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to Christianity.

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