Calvinism’s Faulty Christology

Here is some good material from the great Lutheran dogmatician, Francis Pieper, who puts his finger on the core problem with Calvinism: Christological error. It is interesting to note that when Francis Pieper wrote his magisterial three-volume work of dogmatics, the first volume issued was the volume devoted largely to the doctrine of Christ.  Here is a quote from that volume.

Calvin’s theology, as far as it differs from that of Luther, is dominated largely by rationalistic and philosophical principles, and his sometimes fanatical controversy against the Lutheran doctrine is manifestly inspired by his rationalistic and philosophical principles. Calvin’s doctrine of divine grace, in particular his determination of the extent of divine grace, is so entirely motivated by human speculation that he judges this not by the clear Scripture statements, but by experience (experientia), or the practical result (effectus). Because of his rationalistic viewpoint Calvin perverts all Scripture statements which in unmistakable terms declare God’s universal will of grace, and he designates as fools all theologians who teach universal grace. So also Calvin’s Christology is dominated, just as is that of Zwingli and other Reformed theologians, by the human figment of the incapacity of the human nature for divinity. He calls it folly to say that the humanity of Christ is everywhere united with the Godhead. Above all, he urges the rationalistic axiom that Christ’s human nature can possess only a visible and local presence. He writes: “They [the Lutherans] babble of an invisible presence. It is essential to a real body to have its special form and dimensions and to be contained within some certain space.”464 On the basis of this rationalistic premise he interprets the closed doors (John 20:19) to mean “open doors,” and the miracle of Christ’s vanishing (Luke 24:31) he explains away as if merely the eyes of the disciples had been at fault. On the basis of this rationalistic axiom he also accuses the Lutherans of Eutychianism, indeed of being theologians who are worse than the papists. He writes: “I speak not of the Romanists, whose doctrine is more tolerable, or at least more modest; but some [the Lutherans] are so carried away with the heat of the contention as to affirm that, on account of the union of the two natures of Christ, wherever His deity is, His flesh, which cannot be separated from it, is there also.”465 Calvin’s theology, therefore, is not basically Biblical, but rationalistically motivated.

It is a pity that such eminent Reformed dogmaticians as Hodge, Shedd, and Boehl, who frequently oppose modern liberalism in an effective manner, reproduce in their Christology the ancient Reformed error with its self-contradiction and its denial of the Scripture truth. In doing this they also succumb to the temptation to misrepresent, in their polemics, the Lutheran doctrine according to its content and [Vol. 2, Page 277] history. In the preceding chapters we frequently referred to Hodge, since his Systematic Theology and his commentaries are widely read in American Lutheran circles. Hodge, as we have seen, represents the old Reformed viewpoint and combats the Lutheran doctrine on the basis of the figment that Christ’s human nature is not capable of the attributes and works of His divine nature. We here note the additional fact that Hodge’s historical remarks on Lutheran Christology are exceedingly unreliable. This fault Krauth criticizes in Shedd, against whom he writes very sharply, though not unfairly: “We cannot refrain from expressing our amazement that the writer of A History of Christian Doctrine466 should give such a definition of so familiar a term” (communicatio idiomatum, which Shedd defines as “the presence of the divine nature of Christ in the sacramental elements”). “We are forced almost to the conclusion—and it is the mildest one we can make for Dr. Shedd—that he has ventured to give a statement of the doctrine of our Formula [of Concord] without having read it with sufficient care to form a correct judgment as to the meaning of its most important terms …. Dr. Shedd … in general seems to stumble from the moment he gets on German ground.”467

In his historical remarks on Lutheran Christology Dr. Hodge fares no better. He states not only that Chemnitz teaches “that human nature is not capable of divinity,” but also that hopeless disagreement468 prevails among the Lutheran theologians on the subject of Christology. He writes: “It would require a volume to give the details of the controversies between the different schools of the Lutheran divines.” To prove this alleged discord, he writes: “No less diversity appears in the answer to the question: What is meant by the communication of natures? Sometimes it is said to be a communication of the essence of God to the human nature of Christ; sometimes, a communication of divine attributes; and sometimes it is said to mean nothing more than that the human is made the organ of the divine.”469

As a matter of fact, all Lutheran theologians teach and confess these three truths. All teach that God’s essence was communicated to the human nature of Christ, since Scripture declares that in Christ’s human nature the fullness of the Godhead dwells as in its body and that God’s Son became man, not excluding, but including His divine [Vol. 2, Page 278] nature (Col. 2:9John 1:14). The assumption of the Reformed that the Son of God became man without His divine nature, all Lutheran teachers declare to be, as indeed it is, a denial of what Scripture teaches in clear and unmistakable words. Again, all Lutheran theologians teach the communication of the divine attributes to the human nature, because, according to Scripture, Christ was given in time, and so according to His human nature, not merely extraordinary finite gifts (dona finita), but also supernatural and truly divine gifts (dona vere divina et infinita). When the Reformed, for instance, interpret the phrase “all power in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18) to mean merely limited power, the Lutheran teachers declare this to be a perversion of the clear Scripture statement. Or, when the Reformed refer the words to Christ’s divine nature, the Lutherans with one accord point out that by this Christ’s eternal deity is denied and the Son of God is changed into an “Arian creature,” since the passage speaks of an omnipotence given to Christ not in eternity, but in time. Finally, all Lutheran teachers, including Luther himself, teach that the communication of divine attributes to the human nature means only that the human nature was made the organ of the divine nature. The Lutherans stress only the reservation that the human nature of Christ is the organ of the Deity in a far different and higher manner than the human nature of Peter was God’s organ when He performed miracles through him. Lutheran teachers take Christ’s human nature to be an organ which is a part of the Person of the Son of God, and so they call it an instrument personally united, active, and co-operative (instrumentum personaliter coniunctum, εὔχρηατον, co-operans). Very emphatically the Lutheran divines also declare it to be a denial of the incarnation of the Son of God when the Reformed aver that Christ performed His divine works according to His human nature in exactly the same way as other miracle workers performed theirs.

It is obvious, therefore, that the disagreement which Hodge charges to the Lutherans in the three points mentioned above belongs to the realm of fiction. As we already pointed out, neither the Lutherans nor the Reformed could essentially disagree among themselves as long as, on the one hand, the Lutherans maintain that the finite in Christ is capable of the infinite, or that the human nature of Christ is capable of divinity, or that neither the flesh is outside the λόγος, nor the λόγος outside the flesh, and the Reformed, on the other hand, in their Christological discussions assert the very opposite, namely, that the finite in Christ is not capable of the infinite, or that the human nature of Christ is not capable of divinity, or that the human nature [Vol. 2, Page 279] cannot be made the organ of the Deity and His attributes, or that the human nature of Christ has none other than a visible and local presence.

So far as the obiections are concerned which Hodge prefers against the Lutherans under the title “Remarks on the Lutheran Doctrine,”470 these, too, lie outside the pale of historical truth. Hodge, for example, says: “The first objection is that the Lutheran doctrine is an attempt to explain the mystery.” This he defines more fully thus: “Not content with admitting the fact that two natures are united in the one Person of Christ, the Lutheran theologians insist on explaining the fact.” But the very opposite of this is true. The Lutheran doctrine that Christ’s human nature through its personal union with the Son of God has not merely nominal, but real communion with the divine nature, its properties and works, is not a dogma which the Lutherans have fabricated and forced upon the personal union, nor one at which they have arrived by rationalistic deductions from the personal union, but it is a doctrine clearly taught in Scripture by express words. On the other hand, the Reformed denial of the communion of the natures and of the communication of the divine attributes and works to the human nature is a direct negation of the statements of Scripture and a rationalistic attempt to explain away the personal union as set forth in Scripture. Hodge’s objections to Lutheran Christology are bound to miss the mark, because they rest on the human figment of the incapacity of the human nature for divinity.

But Hodge, too, fortunately withdraws all his objections to Lutheran Christology when, in the chapter on “The Intrinsic Worth of Christ’s Satisfaction,”471 he defends the expressions “God’s death,” “God’s blood,” “God’s suffering,” and finds the cause for the infinite value of Christ’s merit in what these terms express, just as the Admonitio Neostadiensis holds that the divine nature imparts infinite value to the sufferings of the human nature. Thus both Hodge and the Admonitio Neostadiensis concede what they do not mean to concede, the communion of the natures and their works.

Reformed Christology, therefore, presents both an unchristian and a Christian aspect. In so far as it maintains and applies the rationalistic axiom Finitum non est capax infiniti, it is Unitarian and unchristian. In so far as it becomes inconsistent and, contrary to its basic premise, maintains the personal union and the intrinsic, infinite value of Christ’s suffering and death, it is orthodox and Christian.

[Vol. 2, Page 280]  464 Inst. IV, 17, 29 f.465 Inst. IV, 17, 30.466 Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine (2 vols.). First edition, New York and Edinburgh, 1865.467 The Conservative Reformation, p. 351 ff.468 Syst. Theol. II, 413.469 Loc. cit. II, 411.470 Loc. cit. II, 413–418.471 Loc. cit. II, 482 ff.Pieper, F. (1999, c1950, c1951, c1953). Christian Dogmatics (electronic ed.). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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