Luther and Calvinism

Image and Reception of Martin Luther in the History and Theology of Calvinism

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Herman J. Selderhuis, J. Marius J. Lange van Ravenswaay
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
    , May
     547 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The foremost contribution of this book is to give a comprehensive overview of Luther’s immense effect on Calvinism across various topics and throughout Europe. The soteriological influence of Luther on Calvinism can be seen in the Beneficio di Cristo, the most popular document of the Italian Sprituali in the first half of the sixteenth century, as well as the doctrine of justification in French Calvinism at the beginning of the French Reformation. Especially in Dutch Reformed pietism and English Puritanism, Luther was celebrated as “the hero of faith” because of his existential experience of the law-gospel dialectic. Indeed, Luther was much more popular than Calvin in Calvinistic pietism, as illuminated by the use of Lutheran devotional literature by German Reformed Protestants, as well as Dutch Reformed pietists and English Puritans.

Luther’s doctrine of a double truth  (duplex veritas), that a truth in one area does not necessarily make sense in another, led to momentous debate among many Lutheran and Calvinist philosophers such as Bartholomaus Keckermann, Johann Musaus, Nikolaus Wedel, and von Balthasar Meisner. German-speaking Reformed theology and philosophy in the nineteenth century, represented by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Alexander Schweizer, Karl Bernhard Hundeshagen, Heinrich Lang, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Wilhelm Dilthey, and others, reveals traces Luther left. Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God in the prolegomena of his Church Dogmatics was also strongly impressed by Luther’s understanding of scripture.

In the field of legal and political understanding, Luther’s doctrines of the Decalogue and the two kingdoms impacted Calvinist understandings of authority and law. “Luther’s political-theological thought provides an important background for understanding the development of later Reformed thought, particularly in the case of the Emden syndic Johannes Althusius” (124). Luther’s anti-hierarchical principle in church orders and church polity underlies the development of Calvin’s Ordonnances Ecclesiastiques of 1541 through to the church order of Dordrecht in 1618/19.

Luther’s theology often appeared in Calvinist art, as seen in the use of triptychs in interdenominational discourse. Images of Luther in Dutch art are influenced by Lucas Cranach’s image of Luther. In addition to this, in the construction and furnishing of church buildings, Luther’s pragmatic-functional point of view was an inevitable force on both Zwingli and Calvin’s far-reaching transformation of ecclesiastical spaces, especially Luther’s emphasis on the role of the choir. Although Luther’s direct influence on Calvinist pedagogy cannot be proven, it is clear that basic elements of Luther’s pedagogy entered into Reformed educational practices (e.g., school as a public institution and catechesis as a link between school and community). Finally, Reformed worship in regions such as Emden and Datheen in the Netherlands used a hymnbook that contained Luther’s songs translated into Dutch.

Another contribution of this book comes from its representation of various images of Luther in the Calvinist tradition. According to the French Huguenots, Luther was and remained the pioneer, the common root of the Reformation, though, they argued, the Reformation experienced its perfection in Calvinism. In English Puritanism, Luther was ambivalently regarded as both “the father of true religion, the Gospel of Christ crucified” and “an adherent of problematic and potentially idolatrous practices” (381). In Dutch Reformed orthodoxy, “there is a tendency to relativize the historical importance of Luther for the Reformation” (439). In Dutch Reformed pietism, an appeal to Luther, especially to his Galatians commentary, seemed to be a powerful remedy to apathy among eighteenth century Reformed believers. In the arts of the low countries, Luther was often viewed as a Church Father. Seldom depicted as a saint or a prophet, Luther was the icon of the Reformation, the pope’s antagonist, and the representative of his denomination.

In Luther and Calvinism, two categories—topics and regions—are used to demonstrtate the “image and reception of Martin Luther in the history and theology of Calvinism” (the subtitle of the book). This approach shows Lutheran contributions to the emergence of an early modern Hungarian Protestant martyrology (e.g., Georgius Lani) as well as in the diaconal duty of the poor in Amsterdam from 1633-1967. This topical and regional arrangement also enables the book to explore themes that have been barely investigated or even ignored.

Luther and Calvinism’s comprehensive survey leaves something to be desired because it does not systematically examine the dynamics of the relation between Luther and Calvinism. To speak of “image” or “reception,” as the subtitle does, is too vague and broad. The relation between Luther and Calvinism is a diverse and variegated one. Luther’s influence did not appear as significant as it should be in French Calvinism, Dutch Reformed Orthodoxy, and Transylvanian Christianity of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, Luther’s direct influence cannot be proven in Calvinist pedagogy or Calvinist legal and political thoughts. The relationship between Luther and the English Puritans and Karl Barth is also extremely ambivalent. Even Erasmus of Tschernembl found himself standing clear of Luther’s shadow by moving from Luther’s theology to a political Calvinism. Thus, as the editors hope, further studies of Luther’s relation with Calvinism should be conducted.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eundeuk Kim is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Herman J. Selderhuis is professor of church history at the Theological University of Apeldoorn, director of Refo500, scientific curator of the Johannes a Lasco Library and president of the International Calvinist Congress.

Jan Marius Jacob Lange van Ravenswaay is a German Protestant theologian and was scientific director of the Johannes a Lasco Library in Emden until 2017 and Protestant Reformed pastor in Moormerland until 2018 .


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