Lutheran and Reformed Theology a Christological Comparison

Unlike Lutheranism, Reformed theology did not look to one single individual as its symbolic theological fountainhead. Instead, its origins and development lay with a number of highly significant theologians, of whom Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and Johannes Oecolampadius are probably the most significant of the first generation. In subsequent years, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Theodore Beza, Jerome Zanchius, Amandus Polanus, Franciscus Junius, and William Perkins also had significant impact.13 Of all of these men, John Calvin was without doubt the most significant, giving rise to the unfortunate characterization of Reformed theology as "Calvinism," a term which hides the pluriform roots of the movement and gives Calvin a role in Reformed theology analogous to that of Luther in Lutheranism -a role which, for all his pre-eminence as primus inter pares, Calvin never actually played.14

The key to understanding Reformed theology as a separate movement with Protestantism is to understand that which distinguishes it from its main rival, Lutheranism. While there are a variety of differences between the two movements, historically they are distinguished, as we have noted, by differing views of the eucharist. It is this that caused the fundamental breach between the two traditions and which was thus ultimately responsible for their separate confessional histories and identities. Beneath the difference on the eucharist lie two entirely different christologies: the Lutheran Chris-tology involves a complete union of the Logos with the human nature, to the extent that the properties of the divine nature, such as omnipresence, are communicated to the human nature with the result that where the divinity is, there is the humanity also. In arguing for this, the Lutherans safeguarded their doctrine of salvation which, as we have seen, depended upon the ubiquity of Christ's humanity. Reformed Christology, however, denies this, arguing that while the human nature of Christ is grasped by the Logos and the two natures are truly united in one person, the Logos continues to have an existence outside of the human nature of Christ even after the incarnation.15 To put the matter in terms of the communication of properties from one nature to the other, for the Lutherans the communication takes place between the natures, while for the Reformed the communication takes place in the person, with both natures retaining their distinctive properties. The Reformed teaching, known to posterity as the extra calvinisticum, marks off Reformed Christology, and indeed, Reformed theology as a whole, from that of the Lutheran churches.

Neither side was prepared to give significant ground to the other: for the Lutherans, Reformed Christology, with its willingness to distinguish so clearly between the divine and the human presence of Christ, smacked of Nestorianism; for the Reformed, the Lutheran emphasis upon the communication of properties between the natures seemed to disrupt the reality of Christ's humanity and pointed towards an Apollinarian Christology involving a confusion of the two natures.

The difference in Christology emerged very clearly in the formal treatments of Christ's life and ministry within the theologies of the two movements. Both groups used the motif of humiliation and exaltation to describe the life of Christ in theological terms. This approach was adopted in order to underline the historical movement of Christ's life and work in order to avoid an overly abstract or metaphysical approach to incarnation which missed, or underemphasized, the underlying saving purpose of Christ in history. Thus, there was a common concern behind both Lutheran and Reformed approaches. It is there, however, that much of the similarity both begins and ends.

For the Lutherans, the humiliation of Christ began at his incarnation when the Logos took flesh and the attributes of divinity were communicated directly from the divine nature to the human nature.16 It is important, however, to note that this humiliation is not a necessary part of the incarnation. Stooping to take human flesh was indeed an act of great condescension on God's part, but it is not this in which Christ's humiliation consists. After all, Christ is now exalted, but the incarnational union still continues. Instead, the humiliation consists in the voluntary and temporary surrender of the full powers of divinity by Christ so that he might suffer and die for the life of the world. The subject of this humiliation is the human nature as it is in union with the divine. The communication of properties between the natures means that, if Christ is to suffer and die for the world, then there must be a voluntary suspension of these divine attributes on the part of the human nature during Christ's earthly ministry. This surrender starts in the womb of the Virgin Mary and continues to his death on the cross. It is then that the exaltation of Christ begins.

In Lutheran theology, the exaltation of Christ began historically with his return from the dead in the grave followed by his literal descent into Hell (involving a literal reading of the (in)famously difficult clause in the Apostles' Creed), his resurrection, his ascension to heaven, and his current session at the right hand of the Father. Theologically, this involves the resumption of the plenary exercise of divine power which had been surrendered in the humiliation. In line with the teaching on humiliation, the divine nature is not the active subject of exaltation, but the human nature as it is united with the divine in the person of the mediator.

For the Reformed, the issue of humiliation and exaltation was somewhat different because of the different understanding of the nature of the communication of proper-ties.17 Because the divine attributes were not communicated to the human nature, the human nature could not voluntarily surrender use of them. As a result, the Reformed, while not regarding the incarnation itself as the humiliation (on the grounds, as the Lutherans, that it continues into the eschaton), located the humiliation in the hiding of divine glory and the submissive will to the Father that is involved both in the moment of incarnation and in Christ's subsequent life and ministry. The Logos is not, of course, diminished by the incarnation, and so, strictly speaking, the state of humiliation was restricted by the Reformed to the ministry of Christ on earth, up to and including his death on the cross.

As well as the key difference in the understanding of humiliation generated by the different understandings of the communication of properties, the Reformed also disagreed with Lutherans regarding the state of exaltation. Instead of starting it with the descent into Hell, understood literally, the Reformed read this clause of the Apostles' Creed as a symbolic statement concerning the terrible nature of Christ's experience on the cross and in the grave, and thus start the exaltation with the resurrection. More significant still is their understanding of the session of Christ at the right hand of the Father: the Lutherans, in line with their understanding of the direct communication of properties, regarded this as referring to Christ's omnipresence; the Reformed, in line with their adherence to the extra calvinisticum, understood Christ's body as locally present in heaven, only to return to earth at the second coming. Thus, once again, the Christological discussion leads in at least one way to questions relating to Christ's presence in the eucharist.

In assessing Reformation theology and the debates which shaped the progress of Protestantism in the two centuries after Luther's initial call for reform, it is important to see that it is Christology, as it relates to issues of salvation, revelation, assurance, and sacraments, that holds center stage. It is this that provides a fundamental point of continuity between Reformation Protestantism and its post-Reformation, pre-Enlightenment, development. It is to this development that we now turn.

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