Luther's Loyal Son

R. Scott Clark

Many of us have probably been led to think of the Reformed (and Presbyterian) tradition as being separate and parallel tradition to the Lutheran tradition. There have been those within the modern Reformed tradition and within the Lutheran tradition since at least the 1550s who want us to think of things this way. This was not the story that John Calvin (1509-64) told, however, nor is it the way he saw his relationship to Martin Luther (1483-1546). In light of the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses and the ongoing Calvinist "resurgence," it is worth asking how Calvin himself saw his relationship to Luther and how his perception should influence ours.

Luther was the pioneer of Protestant theology, piety, and practice. He gradually became Protestant in the period between 1513-21 as he lectured through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again. Reading Augustine as he lectured on the Psalms he realized that the doctrine of man and sin that he had learned in university did not agree with Scripture nor did it agree with Augustine. In the Psalms he saw that human depravity is greater than he had thought and grace is greater, more powerful, and more free than he thought, that God has elected his people to new life and true faith unconditionally, from all eternity (sola gratia). By the end of his lectures on the Psalms he had become young, restless, and Augustinian but he was not yet a Protestant. As he lectured through Romans, he began to see that the basis on which we stand before God is not the sanctity wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace but Christ's righteousness accomplished outside of us and imputed to us. As he lectured through Galatians he came to see that view confirmed and he began to re-think what he had learned about the role of faith in salvation, that it was not just another virtue formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The picture became clearer as he lectured through Hebrews and the Psalms again. Late in life, looking back at his theological development, he said that it was as he lectured through Psalms again that the light went on, as it were, and he realized that it is faith that apprehends Christ, that rests in and receives Christ and his righteousness for us. It is through faith the Spirit unites us to Christ so that he becomes ours and we become his (sola fide).

In this period he also gradually came to see that the traditional way of speaking of law and gospel, i.e., of the "old law" and the "new law" were inadequate. Those categories did not account for the fundamental difference between the law and the gospel as distinct principles and as they relate to sinners. The old scheme had made the entire Bible bad news for sinners. Luther discovered that Scripture contains both bad news and good news for sinners.

His last breakthrough was to see that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and life. He saw that whereas the various councils had contradicted themselves, that canon law was endlessly complex, where popes contradicted Scripture and each other, the Scriptures were wonderfully simple and clear on the gospel and the Christian life.

By the time Luther published his justly famous treatise on predestination, On the Bound Will (1525), his theology, piety, and practice had been revolutionized. He was no longer a medieval theologian nor a Roman Catholic, but a Protestant and evangelical theologian and minister.

By the time Luther reached his essential Protestant convictions, Calvin was about 12 years old. He was just beginning a kind of internship toward the priesthood in Noyon. He would not become a Protestant for a little more than another decade, after several years in university. Where Luther was educated in a theology faculty, Calvin was educated in the arts and law faculties. Nevertheless, Calvin, who had originally intended to read theology toward entering the priesthood, retained an interest in theology and read Luther in university. In a passing comment he later remarked that he had been unusually stubborn in his Romanism. His conversion to the Reformation theology seems to have surprised even himself and Luther's writing, categories, and theology played a central role.

In the early 1530s "Lutheran" and "Reformed" were developing categories. The boundaries between them were fuzzy. The divisions between the two traditions, Lutheran and Reformed, would begin to harden in the confessional period beginning in the 1550s but Calvin always saw himself as Luther's loyal son.

The two never met and never even corresponded. Luther became aware of Calvin about 1539 in connection with Calvin's defense of the Reformation and sent well wishes via Melanchthon. Calvin wrote to Luther in 1545 professing his admiration for Luther, whom he described as "the most excellent pastor of the Christian church." He repeatedly called Luther "my father" as he asked him to endorse two treatises he had written to the "Nicodemites," i.e., those who said that they were with the Reformation but who nevertheless remained in the Roman church. Unfortunately, Melanchthon, to whom Calvin had sent the letter, pocketed it and Luther never saw it.

Calvin received as basic Luther's five breakthroughs. In 1543 he wrote to the Emperor, Charles V, "God raised up Luther and others in the beginning [of the Reformation]." He wrote that it was Luther "who carried the torch for us toward re-discovering the way of salvation, who founded our ministry, who instituted our churches." In a volume defending the biblical doctrine of election and reprobation, he described Luther as "a distinguished apostle of Christ." A catalogue of similar expressions of identity with Luther is easily found in Calvin's works.

Calvin's intellectual and spiritual debt to Luther has often been missed by students. Why? The reasons are several but here are three: 1) We have read our post-sixteenth-century loyalties back into the sixteenth-century. 2) Modern Reformed Christians are typically not well read in Luther and thus miss Luther's structural influence on Calvin's theology as well as the allusions to and even verbatim (but unacknowledged) quotations from Luther in Calvin's works. 3) Students of Calvin, particularly in the modern period, have tended to rely almost exclusively on his Institutes where he did not cite contemporary (sixteenth-century) writers by name, which creates a misleading impression about his debt to Luther.

Calvin did criticize Luther's manner and theology. For decades he wrote privately to friends to complain about Luther's rhetoric against the Zürichers. He also complained about those who toadied up to Luther, who refused to stand up to him regarding his rhetoric on the Supper and the two natures of Christ. He resented the expectation among some orthodox Lutherans that the Protestants should unfailingly follow Luther's biblical exegesis without dissent. Finally, Calvin and the Reformed reached different conclusions from Luther (and the Lutherans) on what he called "the rule of worship." In public, however, he was rarely so critical of Luther, whom he praised lavishly, as the one from whom he learned the gospel and the basics of evangelical Christianity.