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.”
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