Book Review- Wittenberg vs. Geneva

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Wittenberg vs. Geneva: A Bibical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that Divide Book Cover Wittenberg vs. Geneva: A Bibical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that Divide
Brian W. Thomas
New Reformation Press
August 24, 2015
Publisher's Description

What are the differences between Lutherans and Calvinists, and do they really matter? In Wittenberg 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.

Book Review- Wittenberg vs. Geneva

There are many things that I have really come to appreciate about Lutheranism. I believe their emphasis on the Law/Gospel distinction is admirable although I would differ slightly on how it is defined. I have also come to appreciate the Lutheran expression of the two kingdoms but even here have some reservations. Then there are the Lutheran doctrines which I just plain don’t understand. Among those are (were) their doctrines of predestination and the sacraments.

Wittenberg vs. Geneva  is a book that was intended to take these very issues and present them as if (as the subtitle indicates) in a head to head bout. This appealed to me. I am not one to simply dismiss a belief only on the basis of not understanding the view. I want to learn what others believe and do the hard work of digging into the Biblical text to see if what is confessed is the same as what is expressed in the pages of scripture. I also have an abiding interest in seeing opposing views hashed out in an open and civil discussion. In this sense I was disappointed in the book. However, there are many redeeming qualities about Wittenberg vs. Geneva that make it worth purchasing and reading.

Before I discuss the reasons why you should by this book I want to talk a little about where this book failed to meet expectations. Wittenberg vs. Geneva is billed as an open debate. The cover is cleverly designed like an old fashion ringside boxing bill. You have the two contestants (Luther & Calvin) facing one another with a bright and  bold Wittenberg vs Geneva Head to Head! in the middle. The cover also includes phrases such as “One Night Only!” and “Get a Ringside Seat!” . So naturally I expected to read not one, but two authors representing their own views. I expected a theological title fight. However, what I got was more akin to my childhood friend playing both players in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out on his Nintendo. In this familiar scene from my childhood, my buddy would choose two players and proceed to rack up points and knockouts with his player while the opposing player simply stood there and took it; unable to defend himself because there was nobody there to animate him. It’s one thing to truly engage in a bout with an opposing view. It is quite another thing to not invite a second player to defend himself. This is the feeling I had while reading the book.

To be fair, Brian Thomas used a lot of quotations from reformed theologians. However, he didn’t shy away from throwing a stray punch from time to time by not adequately representing the opposition. In this sense Wittenberg vs. Geneva is not really a bout between two views at all; but a brilliant player who is good at what he does demonstrating the strengths of his own position all the while projecting a sense of helplessness on his opponent. It was simply not a fair fight.

I don’t want it to sound as if this was a dirty fight. If you have ever tried to faithfully represent an opposing view you understand what a monumental task this truly is. Even if you are able to articulate an opposing view adequately it is nearly impossible to do so with the proper presuppositions required to faithfully represent the view. We simply have a difficult time escaping our own interpretive grid and try as we may, it is not easy to interpret another view from their presuppositions rather than from our own. So I want to be fair when critiquing the author for this. I believe he did an outstanding job all things considered. However, he sometimes came across as having a poor understanding of reformed theology. I believe this is because he was viewing Reformed doctrines from a Lutheran perspective. From his vantage point, some of the finer distinctives and subtle nuances of the Reformed view were unclear because they were being observed through a Lutheran lens.

All this aside . . . I absolutely LOVED this book! I have never come across a book that has so clearly articulated the Lutheran view. This alone s worth the price of admission for this theological “bout”. I gained a whole new appreciation for the Lutheran view of election and have begun to see how it is in fact faithful to the Biblical text (from a Lutheran foundation that is). For the first time, I began to see that not only is the Lutheran doctrine of election based upon sound exegesis, but it should be considered thoroughly orthodox. I was impressed with the way in which Thomas set out to demonstrate the greater context of Romans 9-11 and proceeded to demonstrate that Romans 9 is not primarily about individual election to salvation, but one part of a greater argument that the apostle is making about the past, present and future of Israel and the inclusion of Gentiles into the true Israel. Although I did not find it convincing enough to do an ‘about face’ on the doctrine of double predestination, I found myself understanding their position better and seeing how they come to the conclusion they do.

One of the important interpretive principles that Thomas starts with is that we should not go beyond what scripture says. I can appreciate this and this is where I am susceptible to accepting the Lutheran view of election. If indeed Romans 9 is not speaking of individual election, but instead is recapitulating Israel’s history to show God’s faithfulness to His promise, then the Lutherans have a strong case for leaving it as a divine mystery rather than trying to define a double predestination.

However, immediately after doing a fine job at demonstrating that we Reformed folk may be guilty of relying on reason and internal consistency for support of limited atonement, Thomas goes on to make the same error he accused his Reformed brothers and sisters of committing by going beyond what scripture says about the Lord’s Supper! It should be noted here that although I am Reformed in many areas, I have a difficult time accepting the Reformed (and Lutheran) view of communion. The reason why is that I do not believe that either camp has it right in how they interpret 1 Corinthians 11:27 (“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord”). If Thomas would have paid as close attention to the context of 1 Corinthians 11 as he did with Romans 9 I am confident that he would see that the “unworthy manner” Paul is referring to has nothing to do with the faith of the individual and everything to do with the manner in which they are not considering others as important as themselves. In fact, their mistreatment of others in the body was so poor that Paul said, when they get together, it isn’t even the Lord’s Supper that they are eating. Their selfishness and pride and despising the body was so great that it was blaspheming the very symbol of the bread. If the context of 1 Corinthians 11 is allowed to define what the “unworthy manner” is in verse 27, then the greater sin is not partaking if you haven’t been deemed worthy, but rather, withholding it from a member of the covenant community! The context of 1 Corinthians 11 was completely missed in favor of tradition; and Thomas, to his discredit, committed the same error he so readily accused the Reformed camp of committing with election.

Despite the weaknesses of Wittenberg vs. Geneva there is so much in the book to gain from that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is curious about the Lutheran doctrines of election and the sacraments. I haven’t read a book on Lutheran theology that was articulated so clearly and made the doctrines so easy to understand. Even more than that, Thomas did an outstanding job demonstrating the Lutheran commitment to scripture in defining their doctrine.


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 Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from New Reformation Press in exchange for an online review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

11 thoughts on “Book Review- Wittenberg vs. Geneva

  1. Davis Wheeler

    I have always been curious about Lutheranism. This is true especially in the last few years as a lot of them are strong on grace in the face of growing legalism. But their beliefs just seem too weird for me. Too something. Baptism doesn’t quite make sense. Are we saved by our baptism or by grace? I think they say both if I’m reading them correctly. That sounds Catholic! And the bread and wine are really the blood and body but not really? Just really but not? They have so many paradoxes that my brain gets tied in knots! Then predestination for them is like God elected all who will be saved but died for everyone anyway but it’s not based on who will choose him because we can’t choose him if we’re dead in our sins but everyone’s sins are paid for but not everyone is saved. So there you have it in a nutshell. Lutheranism to me seems to answer everything with “yes and no”.

    • Davis I agree. Part of my own struggle is the claim to take scripture at its plain meaning while not really doing that at all. Of course, the plain meaning of a text is often not as plain as we would think and really comes down to our presuppositions. For instance, “this is my body” to me is plainly not a statement about the bread being his literal body because… well… it’s bread. To me the plain meaning allows for a symbolic interpretation of the literal interpretation is not coherent. However, to a Lutheran, the plain meaning is that it REALLY IS his body! How can we look at the same words and understand the plain meaning to be completely different? Presuppositions. I presuppose that plain ordinary bread cannot be human flesh. Others presuppose that there isn’t any reason why it can’t be the real presence of Christ’s body. For the life of me I can’t see it. No matter how hard I try I am held captive to my presupposition that bread is bread, flesh is flesh, and any equating of the two must be symbolic.

  2. Ryan

    I get frustrated too. I think it’s mostly from not understanding them. Partly it’s due to their inconsistency. They always accuse us of trying to unmask the hidden God and of speculation but when they do it they get a pass on it. A prime example is with the eucharist. If they stopped where scripture stopped they wouldn’t have consubstantiation. That doctrine alone necessitates unmasking the hidden God a bit and speculating. Well, it looks like a good book that I might get at some point. How does it compare to Cooper?

    • Hello Ryan! Yeah… so I have this same struggle but here’s the thing, I don’t think Lutheranism is being inconsistent here. As the author points out, scripture refers to the bread as Christ’s body in some places and as bread (or a loaf) in other places. So while I disagree with the conclusion that Christ is referring to his literal body, I don’t think Lutherans are unmasking the hidden God here. I think they are guilty of this elsewhere but not here. From their perspective they read that it is flesh, read elsewhere that it is bread, and form their doctrine from there. Or I suppose at the very least we can look at those two ideas and say that in some way it is bread and in some way it is flesh. .. and leave it at that. This would be more consistent with the concept of the hidden God. The speculation comes in when they start defining how it is that it can be both at the same time since scripture doesn’t spell that out. So I guess maybe I somewhat agree with you.

      Regarding Cooper, I haven’t read him yet but I hear his book is very good. Have you read him?

  3. D. Kloss

    We appear to have a similar view of the Lord’s Supper. Like you I consider myself reformed but I differ from the Reformed in how I view sacraments and church. Basically I disagree with Reformed ecclesiology. The structure and nature of the church and what the church does with the sacraments. In everywhere else I consider myself reformed.

    • D, I like the way you think 🙂

  4. Todd Oberg

    How can you recommend this book if it completely misrepresents the faith? Is your recommendation strictly academic?

    • Todd, I feel like maybe I have been misunderstood. I don’t think he misrepresented THE faith. I think he missed some of the finer details of reformed theology. While I agree with reformed theology as the best option I don’t equate it with the faith. It is a very good expression of the Christian faith. I believe the best expression. Additionally I don’t mean to imply that he completely misrepresented it. By and large he got it right, but there are some subtle details that I would disagree with as being characteristic of reformed theology. Does that make sense?

  5. Manuel

    After reading this book what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of both sides? Did anything surprise you?

    • Manuel that’s a very good question. The weakness of the reformed view that was exposed by the book is the relatively small amount of evidence for double predestination. The author focused primarily on Romans 9 and offered an alternate and yet faithful interpretation. While I remain a convinced Calvinist it did reveal that we have a lot of work to do in presenting the doctrine clearly. I think some clarification would have helped the author understand the Reformed position a little better.

      The weakness of the Lutheran perspective on the same issue is the somewhat incoherent nature of their view of universal atonement with limited effects. How do the Lutherans (for example) get around the implication that if the atonement is universal and yet not all are saved then God’s power is severely limited? We reformed folk rest in the finished work of Christ on our behalf believing with confidence that the atonement was potent enough to save to the uttermost. The Lutheran view doesn’t limit God’s power to be fair. They certainly would not claim that the atonement was impotent. But if it was applied to all and yet not all are saved I just can’t see how to get around it! Now, the Lutheran would say that we cannot grasp how they are both true but scripture affirms both so we must be willing to accept our limitations and believe both. However, I can’t help but believe that there is enough textual support to avoid having to go there on this issue.

      What surprised me was the steadfast commitment Lutherans have in trying to not speculate beyond what’s revealed in scripture. Now, I think that still occurs in some of their doctrines showing the need for continuing reformation… but the fact that they have that as a rule of law is commendable. What surprised me about the Reformed view is how little work has been done to clarify nuances in reformed doctrine to show that we are not trying to speculate.

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