Why is Calvinism so influential among American Evangelicals while Lutheranism is not? We might describe the statistically modal convert to Calvinism—that is, the most frequently observed kind of convert—as a person like this: A young adult, usually male. Raised in a broad though indistinct Evangelical (and sometimes nominally Catholic) home. Bright. A reader. Searching for better intellectual answers to questions about God, Jesus and the Bible. Is open to becoming a pastor. Why does this young man so much more often become a Calvinist instead a Lutheran?

There are the usual suspects: Many Lutheran churches began as “ethnic” churches, not even using English in worship. And memories of forced union with Reformed churches in Germany in the early nineteenth century (which prompted much Lutheran immigration to the U.S) also induced isolation from broader American Evangelical culture.

This is part of why it is harder for folks in the U.S. simply to find Lutheranism than it is for them to find Calvinism. But I don’t mean that it’s harder for our modern young Evangelical geographically to find an English-speaking Lutheran Church. I’d claim that it’s harder for him to find Lutheranism intellectually than it is for him to find Calvinism intellectually. By that I do not mean that Lutheranism is any more difficult to understand than Calvinism; I mean instead that it is harder for him to read his way into Lutheranism than it is for him to read his way into Calvinism.

Consider texts that Calvin and Luther wrote themselves, and notable confessional documents produced by their respective traditions.

First, the obvious: Calvin wrote a systematic theology. Luther did not. Yet while obvious, we shouldn’t underestimate its importance. If a person wants to know what Calvinists believe, Calvinists often will point to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin intended the Institutes to be a one-stop summary of his entire theology, and he seems to have succeeded.

Ask a Lutheran the same question, and the Lutheran might point to Luther’s commentary on Galatians or Romans, or perhaps one or more monographs that Luther wrote on specific topics. Ask for a systematic theology, and the Lutheran might point the person to any one of several theologians, old or new, who wrote subsequent to Luther.

But there is nothing that Luther himself wrote that is analogous in scope to Calvin’s Institutes. For bright individuals yearning for more than what much of American Evangelicalism serves up, I think it’s simply easier for them to “find” Calvin’s theology than it is for them to “find” Luther’s theology.

Of course, folks need not start by reading Calvin or Luther proper. Both traditions produced well-known confessional documents as well. After Calvin’s Institutes, if one asks an American Calvinist for a systematic treatment of Calvinist theology, one would likely be pointed to Presbyterianism’s Westminster Confession of Faith, or the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Ask a Lutheran about what Lutherans believe, and one might be handed the Book of Concord, which contains the official confessional documents of Lutheran churches.

Lutheran confessional documents present a different kind of problem for the inquiring American Evangelical than do Calvinist confessional documents: Aside from Luther’s catechisms (which present a different type of issue to our young Evangelical reader), a modern reader who picks up the Book of Concord and starts reading from the beginning will most likely get the sensation of having stepped into the middle of a conversation (which in fact is not far off the mark).

Here, for example, is the start of the Augsburg Confession, the fundamental Lutheran confessional document:

Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “person” they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.

They condemn all heresies which have sprung up against this article, as the Manichaeans, who assumed two principles, one Good and the other Evil: also the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all such. They condemn also the Samosatenes, old and new, who, contending that there is but one Person, sophistically and impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Ghost are not distinct Persons, but that “Word” signifies a spoken word, and “Spirit” signifies motion created in things.

Sort of like intending to read through the whole Bible and then hitting the genealogy early in Genesis, even if our young reader sticks with us in the first paragraph, unless he is very persistent, his eyes are already glazing over in the second paragraph and we’ve lost him.

In contrast, here is the start of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

I think that most modern American Evangelical readers, attempting to read Lutheran confessional documents by himself or herself, will usually get lost more quickly, and give up sooner, than when reading the analogous Calvinist confessional texts.

But what about Luther’s Small Catechism? Luther’s Small Catechism present the opposite problem to our Evangelical seeker, it doesn’t provide enough perspective to engage him. Luther wrote the Small Catechism as the most basic introduction to the faith in an age of widespread ignorance among layfolk. It starts simply enough with the ten commands, “The First Commandment. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods.’ ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Answer. We should fear, love, and trust God above all thing.’”

While the Small Catechism is well suited for the purpose for which it was written, it is not well suited to our modal Evangelical seeker, who already has a passing knowledge of the Scriptures and is looking for deeper answers. While the Augsburg starts too far down the stream for our Evangelical autodidact, the Small Catechism, as it were, starts too early to engage the same person.

In contrast, the Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by providing the reader with its distinctive perspective:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Q. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

Whether or not one thinks it best to start where the Shorter Catechism starts (and I do not), its claim is easy to understand, and yet it is also a profound summary claim of the goal of human life.

In addition to the difficulty of “finding” Lutheranism intellectually relative to Calvinism in their respective publications, I also think it’s more difficult for our putative convert to find Lutheranism ecclesiastically relative to Calvinism. It is my impression that, on average, layfolk at Calvinist churches know both the Bible and their respective theologies better than layfolk at Lutheran churches. This means that simply in terms of sheer numbers, there are more access points to Calvinism for the average Evangelical that there are access points to Lutheranism, even if Lutheran layfolk out number Calvinist layfolk.

Perhaps even more important than the relative number of confessionally literate adherents, I suspect that the Lutheran understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper constitutes a huge barrier to the influence of Lutheranism among American Evangelicals relative to the influence of Calvinism. And this is not simply a theological barrier, it is a cultural barrier as well, albeit one that develops out of theological (and ecclesiastical) differences.

The modal view of the sacraments in Calvinist churches are not actually Calvin’s views, but Zwingli’s views. Baptism is the outward sign of an inward grace; baptism itself does not confer that grace. Indeed, baptism is often understood to be akin to publicly confessing Jesus. It’s something that the baptized person offers to God, not something through which God confers something on the baptized. And the Lord’s Supper confers grace because while one eats the bread and sips the wine—er, I mean the grape juice—one remembers what Jesus did on the cross. One does not actually receive forgiveness and union with Christ by receiving Jesus’ true body and blood in the Supper.

In contrast, Lutherans believe that God works through the sacrament with the Word, and so God actually confers grace in and through baptism and the Supper. For Lutherans, it is God who works through these means, and not man. Therefore Christians really receive God’s forgiveness through Christ when we are united with Christ in baptism, and receive Jesus’ true body and the blood poured out for our forgiveness in the bread and wine that we receive.

While this may seem to be theological nit-picking, the differences create important differences in the spiritual and ecclesiastical experience of the average layfolk in the two traditions.

Philip Cary wrote several papers a few years back that helpfully contrast the general Evangelical/Protestant understanding of “sola fide” with the role of the sacraments in Luther’s understanding of “sola fide.” Cary characterizes the standard Protestant view of “sola fide” with this syllogism:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

This syllogism implies what Cary calls this the requirement of “reflective faith.”

The hour I first believed, the moment when I can first say “I truly believe in Christ” is the moment of my salvation, of my conversion and turning from death to life. What matters is that moment of conversion, not the sacrament of baptism, because everything depends on my being able to say “I believe.” For only if I know that I truly believe can I confidently conclude: I am saved.

I have heard Evangelicals worry whether the faith they have is “true” or “authentic” faith, or whether they are deceiving themselves. I have even heard some worry about being lost by having a passing doubt at the moment of their death. Salvation in this view can be assured only by a sustained act of will to believe. The burden of having to sustain this act of will can be nerve-wracking.

In contrast, Luther’s “sola fide” for Cary is grounded not in the believer’s internal act of will, but in the work of Christ applied to “me” in baptism. Cary characterizes Luther’s syllogism this way:

Major premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

Cary observes that the “difference is subtle but makes a huge logical difference in the outcome.” First, Christ’s promise is spoken to me in baptism. It is “Christ who speaks the baptismal formula” through the mouth of the pastor (or the lay baptizer in the case of emergency). These words are spoken to “me in particular.” (As in absolution, Christ speaks through the pastor, saying, “I forgive you, the person to whom I am now speaking.”)

Cary’s essays are worth reading in their entirety. The crucial shift is that, for the Lutherans, justification derives from Christ’s faithfulness—his trustworthiness—rather than from an act of mental will. This affects Lutheran preaching and Lutheran piety.

Consider the differing appeals made to a person weak in faith. The admonition derived from the standard Protestant view of sola fide is that the person weak in faith must try to believe harder. The admonition directs the person to look within to remedy his or her failure. In Lutheranism, the admonition comes from Jesus himself to me in particular, not to look inward to myself or my belief, but to look outward, away from myself, to Christ on the Cross. Trust in Christ comes not from an act of will, but rather simply reflects the fact that Jesus is trustworthy. Trust, or faith, comes not from within, but from the nature of God’s character revealed in Jesus on the Cross. As Paul puts it in the well-known passage in Romans, given that God “did not spare his own son, but delivered him over for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things?”

If our young Evangelical would happen to visit a Lutheran church, long before he hears about theological differences, he will “feel” that the experience of church and spirituality is different in the Lutheran church. With a nod to Cary’s argument, if the Lutheran church, as it were, “does” it right, it will feel alien relative to the average American church—it will “feel” frankly medieval. And it will feel that way irrespective of whether the Lutheran church sings praise songs instead of hymns, or whether it uses traditional or modern architecture in its building. Word and sacrament is what it’s all about. Christians are actually united in baptism with Christ on the Cross, and we actually receive Christ’s forgiveness by receiving his body and blood respectively broken and poured out for that forgiveness.

The rationalism and nominalism inherent in Zwinglian sacramental theology is the very air that American Evangelicalism inhales. The shift from an Evangelical church to a Lutheran church is therefore not simply one of amending a few abstract theological affirmations, it represents a cultural shift for the person as well as a shift in how one conceives of and expresses one’s piety and spirituality, both individually and as part of an ecclesiastical community.

As a result, the sacraments—and all that they entail both for belief and practice—do not create a barrier to the influence of Calvinism in the way that they do for the influence of Lutheranism in American Evangelical culture.

So where does this leave us? I don’t have any particular insights into how to remedy Lutheranism’s lack of influence, except to be a persistently, winsomely, openly Lutheran as we can be. I think that Calvinists are passionate about predestination because they believe that when Christians understand it, it changes their lives. I agree. Indeed, I wish that Lutheran churches were more open and public about what our confessions and doctrine plainly affirm about election.

More importantly, however, is the point that Cary made in his essays: The touchstone of Luther’s “sola fide” is that Christ’s forgiveness is offered specifically to the recipient, “to you,” in baptism and in Christ’s body and blood in the Supper. If Lutherans really believe what their theology says about Word and Sacrament, then I think they would be equally passionate about engaging other Christians: When Christians understand what Christ offers in the sacraments, that understanding, and what is actually received, changes their lives because they come into direct contact with the death and new life of Jesus.

Further Reading

Philip Cary, “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin”

Philip Cary, “Why Luther is not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise”

Gene Veith, “Why is Calvinism so influential and not Lutheranism?”

Anthony Sacramone, “Why Calvin and Not Luther?”

D. G. Hart, “Now Lutherans Are Tightening My Jaws”

James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. His previous articles can be found here. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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Articles by James R. Rogers

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