As my readers will know by this point, from time to time I get review copies of new books that I’ll write about. The most recent book I received was interesting to me on several fronts. The title of the book is Wittenberg vs Geneva: A Biblical Bout in Seven Rounds on the Doctrines that Divide by a Lutheran Pastor named Brian W. Thomas. As the title suggests, the book is designed to offer a comparison of the two great wings of the Protestant Reformation – with confessional Lutheranism on one side of the ring, and confessional Reformed churches on the other. This book is of interest to me, as I mentioned before, for several reasons. Partly because I am myself Reformed and am hoping to be a Reformed Pastor, but also because my wife grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod before becoming a Presbyterian several years ago. Needless to say, I was eager to dig into this book.
Let me start, then, by highlighting the strengths of Thomas’s work. The book as a whole is relatively short and the chapters are manageable. Professional theologians are already able to compare Pieper to Bavinck, so Thomas wisely limits his audience to the layperson. Thomas also recognizes that both traditions represent a range of thought and so he wisely compares the confessional documents of each tradition rather that getting locked into interminable debates between individual personalities or theologians. Thomas self-consciously brings the discussion back to the Scriptures in a recognition that both sides hold the Bible as their final authority. These are all strengths, and I commend Thomas for his efforts.
Each chapter seeks to identify a topic or question that has been a source of debate between the two camps. Once the question is identified, Thomas offers a summary of the Lutheran and Reformed views as articulated by their church confessions and leading proponents. Then he highlights some key passages of Scripture and offers the reader his reasons for why he believes the Lutheran camp more faithfully explains the texts.
As a Reformed person, I often felt that Thomas did not fully grasped the Reformed view of the different topics that were presented. While it’s clear that Thomas did his best to get up to speed and do his homework, it’s equally clear that he was not fully aware of the intramural debates that exist within the Reformed camp that would anticipate and respond to some of his critiques (for example, on page 6 where he quibbles with the Reformed use of the phrase “common grace” he seems unaware that there are those within the Reformed camp who offer the very same concerns that he does on the topic. Or on pg. 15 when he suggests that the Reformed fail to stress the objective role of the Sacraments when a close study of Questions 65-82 of the Heidelberg Catechism would show otherwise).
On the one hand, this is an encouraging book – if only because it tries to bring the two great wings of the Reformation back into conversation with each other. On many substantial issues of doctrine and life both Lutherans and the Reformed stand together in contrast to both Rome and much of the broader evangelical world. Perhaps this work can help believers from both traditions to work harder to understand what the other believes.
On the other hand, however, I don’t think that Thomas displayed the knowledge of historical theology requisite to faithfully carry out his project. There are simply too many places where he displays his ignorance of the historical Reformed tradition. Perhaps another theologian can pick up where Thomas has left off to offer a more rigorous comparison between these two camps.
I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book. I was not obligated to provide a positive review.