Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism #6: Similarities between Confessional Calvinism and Lutheranism, by Bethany Tanis

(Editor’s Note: Bethany Tanis has authored many great comments on the BJS website, particularly concerning Calvinism and so we asked her to do a little writing for us on the relationship between Calvinism and Evangelicalism. It is a good thing for the Brothers and all our readers to understand the various denominational tag lines out there as we seek to uphold the Lutheran Confessions and distinguish them from false confessions. Bethany has a Ph.D. from Boston College in modern British history and is starting an assistant professorship in modern European history at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI in the fall. This is the final post in this series.)

Like confessional Lutherans, confessional Calvinists are products of the magisterial Reformation and share our emphasis on sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia.   Against many modern Evangelicals who would completely disconnect Biblical interpretation from the regula fidei (rule of faith) and church tradition, Calvinists, like confessional Lutherans, presuppose the reading of the Bible within the Christian tradition.   A good book defending the Calvinist and Lutheran position on sola scriptura against Evangelical (and Roman Catholic!) assaults is The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Calvinist Keith A. Mathison.  

Also, like Lutherans, Calvinists adhere to divine monergism.   What does this mean?   It means that Calvinists also accept the total depravity of man and man’s complete inability to save himself or “make a decision for Jesus.”   Calvinists argue that God alone saves man by grace through faith in Christ.[1]   Most American Evangelicals are Arminians.   Jakob Arminius argued that man had the free will to come to faith.   Both confessional Calvinists and Lutherans vigorously disagree with Arminias and his latter-day Evangelical disciples.  

Moreover, despite the fact that Calvin’s belief in the direct action of the Holy Spirit on the heart apart from any means has contributed to the development of contemporary entertainment-worship, confessional Calvinists often call for a return to reverent, liturgical worship that puts Christ – not man – at the center.   Calvinist Mike Horton’s recent book Christless Christianity provides a good analysis of the disappearance of Christ from much of American Evangelicalism.   Calvinists, with their rigorous theological tradition, also join with Lutherans in bemoaning the disappearance of theology and belief in objective truth among Evangelicals and the Emergent community.   Although older, David Wells’s No place for truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993) offers a still-timely rebuke of the “dumbing down” of Evangelical theology.   Wells writes as an Evangelical insider steeped in the Calvinist Congregationalist tradition.  

Finally, American Evangelicals are generally more influenced by Ulrich Zwingli’s Eucharistic and Baptismal theology than Calvin’s.   Zwingli saw the Sacraments as merely memorials, whereas Calvin believed they conveyed a spiritual presence.   Thus, confessional Calvinists usually have a higher view of the Sacraments than Evangelicals.   In fact, some Calvinist scholars (for example, theologian Peter Leithart and historian Mark Noll) have sacramental theologies that approach Lutheranism.   In short, although Calvin and Calvinism may have helped create American Evangelicalism as it exists today (just as Pietism, an aberrant form of Lutheranism, also contributed!) modern-day confessional Calvinists can be fine allies in the battle against the “Christless Christianity” that afflicts our many Evangelical friends.[2]  

[1] See Heidelberg Catechism (1563), questions 60-62; Internet, Westminster Theological Seminary Resources, available from; accessed 4 February 2009.

[2] The White Horse Inn radio program provides an example of cooperation between a confessional Lutheran (Rod Rosenbladt) and confessional Calvinists (Michael Horton, Ken Jones, and Kim Riddlebarger).

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