In my post “Why We Don’t Have Lutheran Baptists,” I wrote, “Both reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, had similar doctrines of soteriology.” Since that post went up, my inbox has been peppered with alerts from Google notifying me that Lutheran bloggers and commenters have taken issue with my assertion. I didn’t expect to arouse anyone’s ire, and I’d like to revisit this historical question in hopes of shedding some light on my position.
I had assumed that it was common knowledge that Melanchthon modified Luther’s soteriology to make more room for human free will. Luther’s writings about salvation sound like Calvin. There’s good reason for this. Both Luther and Calvin were dependent on Augustinian soteriology. Moreover, Calvin is dependent on Luther. The first edition of Calvin’s Institutes borrows much from Luther’s Short Catechism. When one is dependent on the other, they are going to be similar.
The biggest complaint that I received from Lutherans was that I obviously couldn’t understand the issue at hand because I neglected to mention the importance of Lutheranism’s doctrine of the sacraments. Calvin and Luther might sound superficially alike, but since they don’t view the sacraments similarly, their soteriologies cannot be similar. This is a very curious assertion.
As I’ve already mentioned, Melanchthon softened Luther’s hard doctrine of predestination. It seems to have been forgotten by many Lutherans that in 1540 Melanchthon also tried to eliminate the “real presence” from the Eucharist in a revision of the Augsburg Confession. Melanchthon’s ideas about the Eucharist actually ended up influencing the Reformed tradition. How’s that for a twist? But after Luther’s death, a faction that historians call gnesio-Lutherans (“authentic” Lutherans) opposed Melanchthon’s modifications to Luther’s theology.
In his magisterial The Reformation: A History, Diarmaid MacCulloch has a wonderful passage describing disputes between these two Lutheran factions and how these disputes helped define the relationship between Lutherans and Calvinists. These disputes especially concerned soteriology and the sacraments.
Lutheranism’s internal arguments about salvation and the Eucharist became all the more bitter because after the 1555 Peace of Augsburg they represented not only a contest for God’s favour but a political competition to possess the newly acquired legal status of Lutheran Protestantism within the Empire. Worse still, they were played out against the background of the disputes between Lutheran and Reformed Protestants: these reached a defining moment in the decade after the 1549 Consensus Tigurinus, when the emerging champion of Reformed theology John Calvin exchanged insults with the Hamburg gnesio-Lutheran Joachin Westphal about eucharistic doctrine. To complicate matters further, Calvin emphatically agreed with the ‘original’ Luther (and therefore with the gnesio-Lutherans) against Melanchthon on predestination, but he disapproved of Luther’s assertions about eucharistic presence and sympathized with Melanchthon in his efforts to modify them. In the end, in the intricate and convoluted disputes leading to a resolution of the doctrinal impasses within Lutheranism, it was what Calvin or the Reformed believed that decided what mainstream Lutheranism would pronounce as orthodoxy. If Calvin had affirmed it, then they were against it (although naturally this was not how they argued in public or in print).
MacCulloch concludes by saying, “Lutheran orthodoxy therefore emerged as playing down the doctrine of predestination (with Melanchthon) and affirming the real presence in the Eucharist (against Melanchthon).” From the Calvinist point of view, the Lutherans chose the exact wrong options available to them from their own tradition. They should have stuck with Luther on predestination (like Calvin did) and Melanchthon on the Eucharist (like Calvin did).