Between Wittenberg and Geneva

Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation

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Robert Kolb, Carl R. Trueman
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , October
     2017.
     272 pages.
     $26.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780801049811.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Robert Kolb and Carl R. Trueman mention in the preface that this book was designed and written out of their concern about seminary students’ lack of a clear understanding of the theological similarities as well as differences between Lutherans and Reformed Christians. These authors, who are also seminary professors, candidly share their frustrating teaching experiences in class and explain why they decided to write such a book: many seminary students frequently referred to Martin Luther as “Reformed,” and they had to correct them by pointing out that he was a Lutheran reformer, but not Reformed (ix). In addition to this common confusion, Kolb and Trueman indicate that many students from within Lutheran and Reformed churches are not able to clearly distinguish both Lutheran and Reformed confessional traditions from the broader movement of evangelicalism, which was related to the revivals and revivalism of the 18th century (ix). Considering these problems, the primary goals of this book are to outline Lutheran and Reformed positions on various doctrines and to highlight the theological divergences between each of the confessional traditions that originated from the Reformation in the 16th century, and, to a lesser extent, the evangelicalism rooted in the revivalism of the 18th century. 

The eight topics (doctrines) that the authors chose for comparison and contrast are as follows: 1) scripture and its interpretation; 2) law and gospel; 3) the person and work of Christ; 4) election and the bondage of the will; 5) justification and sanctification; 6) baptism; 7) the Lord’s Supper; 8) worship. Each chapter of the book follows an identical structure, and it is divided into two main parts: in the first part, Kolb explains the Lutheran position of a chosen theological topic (in many cases basing his articulation on the theology of Luther); in the second part, Trueman investigates various Reformed positions regarding the same topic, and he concludes the chapter with a brief summary of the commonalities and differences between the two confessional traditions. The identical structure of each chapter, which I believe is a strength of this book, provides continuity between each author’s discussions as well as consistency throughout the book. 

In their discussions of each topic, Kolb and Trueman successfully demonstrate the sharp points of theological disagreement as well as the remarkable commonalities between these two confessional traditions. For instance, with the backdrop of the medieval church’s view of scripture, tradition, and the fourfold sense of the Bible, the authors underscore the Lutheran and Reformed emphasis on the authority of scripture, the primacy of the literal sense, and the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical exposition. With these theological commonalities, Kolb and Trueman also point out the particular Reformed commitment to the unity of one church in history, the relationship between the Old and the New Testament, and the analogy of faith, in contrast to the law-gospel antithesis of Luther, which is the fundamental principle of reading scripture in the Lutheran tradition (28). In the second chapter, the authors’ articulation of the dialectical relationship between law and gospel in Luther’s thought is clear, and their argument of John Calvin’s view of the three uses of law explained in the Institutes is also accurate. They convincingly argue that the primacy of the third use of the law in the Reformed tradition, which encourages and guides the ethical behavior of the believer, resulted in the distinctive Reformed order of “gospel-law,” not “law-gospel” as in Luther’s theology (52). 

In the discussion of election and the bondage of the will, Kolb and Trueman nicely situate Luther’s theological position within his debate against Desiderius Erasmus in the 16th century, and they offer a helpful overview of the historical development of the Reformed theology of predestination, investigating various confessions, articles, and catechisms produced in 16th-century and 17th-century historical contexts (102-105). On the topic of justification and sanctification, the authors persuasively contend that Luther’s theology of justification by grace through faith is crucial to both of the traditions, while they effectively remind the reader of the discussion of law and gospel in the previous chapters to articulate how the Reformed emphasis on the third use of the law impacted their distinctive view regarding the order of salvation (“from justification to sanctification” and “from the indicative to the imperative”). Kolb and Trueman’s explanation of each tradition’s divergent theological positions on baptism and the Lord’s Supper would be particularly helpful for seminary students who might not clearly understand the interconnected nature of christology and sacramental theologies. Also, the chapter on worship offers a nice overview of the two traditions’ different views of the relationship between spirit and matter, and it nicely juxtaposes Luther’s position on the use of the visual and music in worship with the various views of Reformed theologians such as John Knox and John Owen. 

This book successfully fulfills its goal by providing a clear picture of significant theological disagreements and commonalities between Lutheran and Reformed traditions. However, throughout the book, the authors do not explain in detail how these two confessional traditions actually differ from modern evangelicalism. Kolb and Trueman seem to presuppose that modern evangelicalism is in general “antisacramental” and that it appropriates and even domesticates the Protestant reformers and their thoughts (x). An additional chapter on articulating major theological differences between confessional Protestantism and modern evangelicalism would probably be helpful for many readers who are interested in this subject. As Kolb and Trueman mentioned in the preface, given the centrality of Luther’s theology, it is inevitable to focus on his thought in the discussion of Lutheran tradition (xii). In the sections on the Reformed tradition, they made a good decision to include actual confessional documents of the tradition and to discuss not only the theology of Calvin, but also that of many other Reformed theologians such as John Knox, Heinrich Bullinger, and Zacharias Ursinus. It is, however, not clear why in many cases Trueman summarized his exposition of Reformed tradition with the particular theological position of Herman Bavinck, giving the reader an unintentional impression that he might regard Bavinck as a central and dominant figure of the tradition. Nevertheless, this book is an excellent introduction of classic Lutheran and Reformed theologies and I highly recommend it. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inseo Song is Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Kolb is Mission professor of systematic theology emeritus at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including The Genius of Luther's Theology, Luther and the Stories of God, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, and The Christian Faith: A Lutheran Exposition. Kolb is also coeditor of The Book of Concord (2000 translation). He has lectured at more than forty educational institutions on five continents and at many ecclesiastical gatherings. Since 1996 he has been Gastdozent at the Lutherische Theologische Hochschule in Oberursel, Germany.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of church history and chair of the department at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. For the 2017-2018 academic year, he is serving as the William E. Simon Visiting fellow in religion and public life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He has written more than a dozen books, including Grace Alone--Salvation as a Gift of God, The Creedal Imperative, and Luther's Legacy: Salvation and the English Reformers, 1525-1556. He also writes online regularly at firstthings.com.

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