Doesn’t Grace Compel Us to Traverse the Reformed Path of Following Jesus?
When a Lutheran like me dialogues with a Reformed theologian like Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, at least to this Lutheran it feels like a conversation among kin. In no other part of Christendom do Lutherans find the celebration of God’s grace more strongly and compellingly articulated than among the heirs of Calvin. How wonderful to live with the assurance and joy that follows from the awareness that when it comes to salvation and following Jesus, God in Christ does the heavy lifting. Your comment about “in the end we walk our way into faith” does not force me to take back that comment, does it Wes?
The title of Granberg-Michaelson’s posting seems to reflect the emphasis on grace that I am seeking and want to celebrate in his work. In fact, his idea of moving from guilt to grace sounds precisely like the Lutheran Law-Gospel dialectic (the Word as Law condemning our sin setting the stage for our receiving the Gospel of grace) (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.5). And then when the claim is made that grace leads to gratitude, that resonates with my Lutheran celebration of joy and celebration in the Christian life. Of course, Wes and “Calvin the lawyer” might want to be a little more serious and structured in their gratitude than that spontaneous Luther, but are we not still kin in this movement from guilt to grace to gratitude?
Now I turn to the five distinctives of being Reformed that Wes presents. Again I think that the Lutheran heritage exhibits these distinctives in its own way, and I just want to find out if Dr. Granberg-Michaelson agrees that we are kin on these points as well. And my hope is that we can formulate these commitments in such a way that our other ecumenical partners in this dialogue might sense that in their own unique ways they embody those commitments with us.
First there is the Confessional character of the Reformed tradition. Music to my Lutheran ears! The whole reason for a Confessional fidelity is to ensure that faith and our work with Jesus are not done alone. The Confessions make our faith communal, as we embrace what our ancestors in the faith and those to come have and will affirm. And the Confessions are safeguards, a check-and-balance system, against false interpretations. Is this an adequate ode to a Confessional perspective from a Reformed point of view? Perhaps colleagues from liturgically oriented traditions or those with authoritative Articles of Religion would want to join us in these sentiments.
Regarding the Covenental character of the Reformed tradition, again Lutherans are on board with an awareness that faith is not a private matter, that it is communal. This fits our Confessional commitments. And although Lutherans do not make use of this theme of covenant as explicitly as the Reformed tradition does, Luther did refer to the Sacrament of Baptism as a covenant (Luther’s Works, Vol.1, p.228) and the Gospel, indeed Christ Himself as a covenant (Luther’s Works, Vol.17, p.69). We do not encounter Christ alone and we do not join the Church alone. (This way of construing the Sacraments logically critiques a symbolic view of the rites, which I gather from private conversation that Dr. Granberg-Michaelson joins me in critiquing.)
Understanding the world as belonging to God is a wonderful critique of modernity and Greek philosophical dualism. Lutherans can wholeheartedly join the Reformed heritage in this unless it entails that the practice of a distinctively Christian politic is possible. The Lutheran Two-Kingdom Ethic is suspicious of efforts to derive public policy from Christian teaching (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XVI). But the very fact that there has been room for the free-market dispositions of Calvin (Commentary On Exodus, 16:7; 11:2) and the calls for government intervention in the market by Kuyper (“The Social Question and the Christian Religion”, in English, The Problem of Poverty) gives me hope that the Reformed tradition allows for a diversity in our politics which so as to chasten dispositions to claim a “Christian” viewpoint on most political issues.
This call for humility about our politics fits Wesley’s fourth Reformed distinctive – taking sin very seriously. Like Calvin, Lutherans are the offspring of Augustine on that score (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, II.24). An awareness that we sin in everything we do entails that no purely Christian state or law can ever be established. This awareness is also what makes the Reformed and followers of Luther grace-freaks.
Wesley also talks about the Reformed tradition as ecumenical. In all the writing I have done for our conversations, and in this contribution, I’ve tried to show that Lutheranism is ecumenical, evidenced in its ability to endorse the characteristic commitments of all its discussion partners. Does the Reformed tradition reflect this sort of endorsement of theological diversity? The sticky-wickets here are whether the Reformed tradition really is catholic, in allowing for the legitimacy oof teachings and practices which have stood the test of time, such as liturgical worship and ancient church architecture? Can a faith tradition which posits that the Church must always be in Reform allow for the possibility that some existing church practices and teachings might not require reform in the final analysis?
In the same vein, it must be asked if Reformed commitment to the “solas” of the Reformation, can allow place to accommodate, as Lutheranism does (Formula of Concord SD II. 90), the validity of those Christians asserting a role of works in salvation? If not, are Reformed Christians really as ecumenical as they say they want to be?
It is evident how Lutherans and Reformed Christians share so many commonalities. Can Christians really endorse prevenient grace and not end up following Jesus in ways compatible with the Reformed path? The only remaining sticky-wicket is whether there is place in Reformed thinking and living the faith for the Lutheran commitment to freedom from the Law, spontaneity, and a Situational Ethic (Galatians 3:13; 5:1; Ephesians 2:10; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, 333-377). Wes and my dialogue indicated a possible openness from his Reformed viewpoint towards something like Lutheran spontaneity and freedom in certain particular settings, so I am now totally at home with the formal agreements between our denominations. I wonder if Calvin himself might provide a way to make sense of how Reformed Christians can endorse at times the spontaneity of good works. For at some points, though not characteristically, like Luther, Calvin did speak of Justification in terms of Intimate Union with Christ (Institutes, III.I.1; III.XI.9ff). And as the human love in marriage leads to spontaneous good deeds, so marriage to Jesus cannot but create joyful even ecstatic good works sometimes. Yes, Calvin himself provides his followers with a framework for making sense of joyful spontaneity in following Jesus.
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