Thursday, February 11, 2016

Wittenberg vs Geneva

Wittenberg vs. Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that DivideWittenberg vs. Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that Divide by Brian W. Thomas

I almost bailed on this book early on. I was excited to see this book appear. The topic is interesting and deserves more attention than has been given. I was encouraged by Rod Rosenbladt’s preface. After the introduction touting an ecumenical, charitable spirit, I was looking forward to an honest, careful, forthright debate. But the first chapter was rocky!

In the first page of the debate, Thomas accuses R.C. Sproul of erecting a straw man, but he does not explain how or why Sproul’s argumentation is flawed. He simply dismisses it without support. Almost immediately after, he accuses John Owen of “adding to the Word” of God because Owen retranslated a verse to add clarity to it (in a commentary). He quotes Owen’s “addition to the Word” but leaves out the context. Owen writes that, “So that the sense [of John 3:16 based on the entirety of John’s writing and the Scriptures as a whole] is, ‘God so loved his elect throughout the world, that he gave his Son with this intention, that by him believers might be saved ’”(Owen, Works Vol 10). Some people (most people, actually) would call this what it is—teaching. To claim that Owen is sinning (that is what an accusation of “adding to the word” is) is ridiculous and is used, to quote Thomas, “either to purposefully mislead unsuspecting readers to gain rhetorical advantage or through sheer incompetence. Either one (is) inexcusable in a book purporting to teach the truth.” Someone writing a commentary and attempting to help illuminate a verse by using different language is not unheard of or improper. To accuse that person of sin for doing so is both.

Thomas’s then argues that the Reformed position of exegesis is poor or inconsistent for qualifying the word “all” in texts but not doing so in Romans 3:23. This is ridiculous in its own right. Romans 1:1-3:22 make the context for the “all” of Romans 3:23 explicitly universal. Other passages, even from Paul, are clearly used in other ways. It reminded me of a Virginia pastor ranting that he was going to handstand on a tree stump and proclaim that “’all’ means ‘all’ and that’s all that it means,” ignoring the fact that this is not how language works….at all. Recognizing that people use words differently to convey different meanings is not “inconsistent;” it is proper. This is true of “all” and Johannine “world” as well.

Thomas argues that the doctrine of limited atonement precludes assurance makes it clear that he does not (and has not) ever understood the doctrine of definite atonement. “If you interpret the universal passages as the Reformed do, then you cannot ultimately believe your sins are forgiven on the basis of the objective promises revealed in texts like the ever-popular John 3:16.” What? Every Reformed author I have read has drawn great encouragement from the fact that Christ’s death accomplished exactly what it was meant to do.
For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry, “It is finished!” For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there he intercedes—for you, little child, even though you do not know it. But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true. “We love him, because he first loved us.”—French Reformed Baptismal Liturgy
The Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep. What could be more assuring than knowing that?

But, like I said, I almost bailed on this book. And I am quite glad that I did not. Objections aside, this is a much-needed, well-argued (for the overwhelming majority of the time), and helpful book. The Lutheran position of objective and subjective justification is presented well and is much more convincing than a typical synergism argument. I remain unconvinced, but it will lead me to study the topic more. So will many more of Thomas’s arguments. There is a great interaction with Romans 9-11; I remain unconvinced in regards to his conclusion, but I am convinced that it warrants more study. The same is true with the sacramental word. His chapters on baptism and the Supper are quite good and well-worth consideration. I have always used “transubstantiation” as a description of the Lutheran position. Now I know that is misleading. “(The sacraments) simply do not factor into the Reformed ordo saludis”—True. “The difference in how Lutherans and Calvinists understand the relationship between word and sacrament has been one of the leading causes of controversy”—Agreed. And I am becoming convinced that this is the number one area where Lutheran theology can contribute greatly to the Reformed framework.

Thomas points out some significant misunderstandings that the Reformed hold about Lutheran theology. The book suffers a bit because he also demonstrates some significant misunderstandings that Lutherans have about Reformed teaching. All-in-all, this is a work where the beauty outshines the warts, even if the warts surface early on. I almost bailed on this book. I am glad I did not. I would encourage you to read it and read it to the end. You’ll be blessed and encouraged for doing so.

I received a review copy of this book.

View all my reviews

About The Book:
What are the differences between Lutherans and Calvinists, and do they really matter? InWittenberg vs. Geneva, Brian Thomas provides a biblical defense of the key doctrines that have divided the Lutheran and Reformed traditions for nearly five centuries. It is especially written to help those who may have an interest in the Lutheran church, but are concerned that her stance on doctrines like predestination or the sacraments may not have biblical support. To get to the heart of the matter, Pastor Thomas focuses solely upon those crucial scriptural texts that have led Lutheran and Reformed scholars down different paths to disparate conclusions as he spars with popular Calvinist theologians from the past and the present.
Brian W. ThomasAbout the Author:
Brian W. Thomas is a Lutheran pastor, writer, and speaker from the Pacific Northwest. He has had the privilege of serving churches in California and Washington, lecturing at the University of San Diego, and teaching the Bible all over the world. He is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Kingston, Washington.
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