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Luther and Calvin

In response to:

Sleepwalker from the February 17, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

I must take issue with several views/statements of J.M. Cameron’s review of John M. Todd’s Luther: A Life, and Peter Manns’ Martin Luther: An Illustrated Biography [NYR, February 17].

Mr. Cameron sees little difference in the Lutheran and Calvinist conception of the church. There is, in fact, a great deal of difference. For one thing, Lutherans (of the sixteenth century, at least) did not use the visible/invisible distinction which Cameron implies by his placing both Lutheran and Calvinist ecclesiologies into the Anglican Articles framework. The territorial churches of northern Europe turned out quite differently in polity, depending on whether they were Calvinist or Lutheran. Even after the Prussian Union of 1817 differences, based on quite different ecclesiologies, existed.

If Cameron likes the Anabaptist model, that is fine. But to put his predilections into a review of books on Luther seems to me to be rather gratuitous. And I fail to understand why Cameron, in the same paragraph, makes the claim that Luther “gives up, as it were, on the world” (albeit in a different way than the Anabaptists). It seems to me that Luther’s “rather labored exegesis” of Romans 13:1-7 bespeaks quite the opposite. God’s “kingdom of the left hand” (political authority) ties God to the world, and obedience to that authority is the way that the Christian is “in” the world. That’s hardly “giving up on the world.”

Finally, the quotation from the Short Catechism to illustrate Luther’s medieval view of the right relation between the life of faith and the life of the world seems forced. I would argue that although Luther was a man of the Middle Ages in many respects, it is precisely in this respect that Luther broke new ground with his views on vocatio.

Arthur A. Preisinger

University Lutheran Church at Texas Tech

Lubbock, Texas

J. M Cameron replies:

I am grateful for Mr. Preisinger’s letter. What I wrote in my review was perhaps too spare.

I thought I had made it plain that in my view the Lutheran and Calvinist conceptions of the Church were different and that in particular the Calvinists had a vigor—they were less supine before secular power—that the Lutherans lacked. As to the Anabaptists: I don’t especially like them; but I think they were begotten by Luther and that his wanting to strangle his offspring gives them a certain pathos; and that their solution to the problem set by the sola fide and the sola Scriptura, and by the distinction between the elect and the reprobate, was more defensible than that of Luther and Calvin. It does seem to me preposterous that Luther’s own pronouncements should in effect constitute the rule of faith. I know that Luther didn’t think of his pronouncements in this way; but given what was evident enough before the first decade of the Reformation was over, that the Bible is not self-interpreting, it seems to me more plausible to make the gathered community the regulator rather than either Luther or Calvin or the monarchical/aristocratic regimes that said what was to be believed in Wittenberg and Geneva and had the self-confidence to persecute the Anabaptists and other dissenters.

As to Luther’s having given up on the world: I think the kind of obedience to princely authority commended by Luther is precisely to give up on the world, that is, to give up the task of civilizing the world and of rebuking Caesar—even, sometimes, overthrowing him. Here both Luther and the Anabaptists give up on the world, the former falling down before the godly prince, the latter by withdrawing from secular society and its obligations. As to others, it was Sir Robert Filmer, a strong defender of patriarchal and monarchical authority, who observed that “Cardinal Bellarmine and Calvin both look asquint this way.”

I don’t understand why my use of the Shorter Catechism is “forced” or what the passage I quoted has to do with Luther’s idea of vocation.

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