Calvin as Luther’s Disciple: #Refo500atDET

Not a bad title, I think, but not entirely honest either. You see, I tend to think that Calvin is not only properly understood as Luther’s disciple, but as Luther’s chief disciple. But that’s a whole other claim that I don’t want to get into today, so the title stays as it is.

In case you don’t like that engaging little introduction to the post, here’s another. Free of charge! Best 2-for-1 deal in the theoblogosphere today!

Hang around DET long enough, as long-time readers know, and eventually I’ll write yet another post about Calvin and Luther. I’ve included a little index of those posts at the bottom of this post, for your browsing convenience. Today is a little different, however, because I want to talk about how Spijker (Calvin: A Brief Guide to His Life and Thought [WJK, 2009])—correctly, in my humble opinion—understands Calvin as a student or disciple of Luther.

Understanding Calvin’s character as Luther’s disciple depends on recognizing the deeply soteriological core of Calvin’s theology. He generally expresses this core with reference to “union with Christ,” which Spijker recognizes as a variation played on Luther’s doctrine of justification. Calvin’s development of Luther’s position involves and pneumatological transposition of Luther’s doctrine:

[Calvin’s] affinity with Luther enabled him to assimilate the latter’s reformational discovery and at the same time to read it pneumatologically: Christ merited the gifts of the Spirit, by which we are not only justified but also sanctified, regenerated. (31)

Calvin’s emphasis on union with Christ, then, holistically articulates the soteriological core of reformational doctrine, the lynchpin of which Luther articulated in his doctrine of justification by faith. It is, in other words, a theological description of the saving encounter between God and human beings, what some later theologians - the dialectical sort; you know, the truest and best heirs of the Reformation - would call "the event of faith."

I’ve already commented a couple of times about what lies at the heart of Calvin’s theology, and discerning readers may have noted that at neither point did I describe that heart as the doctrine of predestination. No, the simultaneously generating and constraining germ of Calvin’s theology is soteriological in nature; it is this very encounter between God and humans. Spijker brings this out well, again with reference to Luther, in his discussion of the famous opening lines of the Institutes.

In his Reply to Pighius, who had plagiarized the famous first sentence of the Institutes, Calvin relates what the secret of his approach in the Institutes was. The cognition Dei et hominis (the knowledge of God and ourselves) seemed to him particularly suitable for instruction. For him, this was more than just an approach; it also involved his whole theological method. Here he was in agreement with Luther, who saw in the encounter between God and humanity the essence of true theology. In his determination of the object and subject of theology, Calvin was very close to Luther. For Calvin, theology was never a matter of nuda speculation (empty speculation), pointless intellectual reflection on God and humanity; rather, it was a matter of “mutuality,” a correlation between the knowledge of God and knowledge of self. (112)

What then can we say about the unity of Calvin’s theology? The hard core that binds it together? This has always been a vexing question especially given the amount that Calvin wrote across many different genres. But I think that Spijker’s way of putting it is exactly right:

Calvin’s theology . . . is not a closed, well-rounded whole, subordinated to one central idea. His religious thought is open toward God and toward humanity and the world, without the bigger picture becoming lost in the diversity of the “parts,” the loci. There is an existential unity here. (113)

What, then, can we say in conclusion about Calvin as Luther’s disciple? I’ll leave it to Spijker to sum up:

Luther’s influence [was] unmistakable and ever present. . . . Nevertheless, Calvin did not become slavishly bound to Luther. He recognized Luther’s faults, which, so as to highlight his talents, he did not want to pass off as virtues. But he also vigorously defended Luther against Pighius, and no less against Bullinger.

Luther’s influence was clearly present already in the 1536 Institutes. . . . At the same time, however, Calvin [in later editions] had moved further along the path to which Luther had pointed him. . . .

The progress in Calvin’s theology, therefore, when compared to Luther’s theology, involves a certain harmonization of opposites. That the later Lutherans were unable to adopt such harmonization led to a growing apart of the two traditions. (130–31)

Well, gentle readers, there you have it: the exciting conclusion of #Refo500atDET! It's been a lot of fun writing for and putting this series together. The good news is that 1517 isn't all the big of a deal for us Presbyterian / Reformed types. You can expect us to be back for a number of further 500-year anniversary of the Reformation celebrations over the coming century. For instance, I'm looking forward to the 500th anniversary of the first edition of Calvin's Institutes in 1536. Or the 500th anniversary of his commentary on Romans in 1539. Or...well, you get the idea. In the meantime, I invite you to revisit the posts in this series through the introduction and schedule post or the serials index page. And for more on Calvin and Luther, here are links to the DET posts on that subject as of now:


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