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Book Review: Wittenberg Vs. Geneva

Book Review: Wittenberg Vs. Geneva

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I was recently given the opportunity to review Wittenberg Vs. Geneva by Brian Thomas. Having just finished a thorough reading of Jordan Cooper's The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology, I was excited for a secondary book to compare. Similar to Cooper, Thomas promises to engage the two traditions of the reformation and move the discussion forward. I have tried my best to be a conduit for such dialogue. Unfortunately, Wittenberg Vs. Geneva is a huge step backwards. I originally planned on doing a full, formal review (no first person pronouns & page numbers). Unfortunately, the ridiculousness within this book forced me to set it down halfway through. Adding misery to this writing experience, the physical review copy never arrived so I am without physical page numbers. All quotations are from the ePub version.

The first big issue was Thomas' use of Reformed sources (interestingly this was an issue some Reformed individuals had with Cooper). Thomas admits in the introduction that he has "engaged the works of Presbyterian pastor and theologian, R.C. Sproul, more than any other" and that the astute reader will recognize that throughout the book. This is no slight to Saint Sproul, but his work has been intentionally oriented towards laymen. It has great levels of clarity, but it is written to a larger, less engaged audience. This of itself is not a problem if the extensive Sproul-sourcing was complimented by some deeper Reformed thinkers - it is not. The only time more scholastic opinions are brought in are for brief details of Reformed exegesis. This means that more high-level, thorough, and systematic explanations of Reformed theology get simplified repeatedly. I do not want to harp on this point too early, but in his general disagreements, Thomas rarely engages anyone outside of Sproul. An even bigger issue is that Thomas does not seem to have read Sproul adequately or faithfully.

For starters, Thomas quotes Sproul's pulpit series as "commentary" which is a mild inflation of its intent and depth. Further, he draws conclusions for the entire Reformed Tradition based upon what chapters do and do not exists in popular books by Sproul — "It speaks volumes that in two of Sproul's most popular books...the sacraments are not even considered...they simply do not factor into a Reformed ordo salutis, which is why they are not very significant in the life of the Reformed body as a whole." This constitutes one of the grossest logical jumps I have perceived in ecumenical discussions. There is even a section entitled "Spiritus Sanctus" in which Thomas states "Sproul believes" (referencing Truths We Confess 3:95) when the actual quotation is a reference to Rome's view! This is unfortunate writing. Far too easily Thomas slips into personal affronts to Sproul instead of engaging the Reformed Tradition (e.g. "Sproul seems far more confident in his own logical consistency than Paul who is humbled by such contemplation," "Sproul provides no evidence," "if Sproul's claim concerning Luther was true," "I believe Sproul is too quick to dismiss the weight of Paul's Old Testament citations," "Sproul and Horton depreciate the sacraments," "Sproul's use of Luther is selective and misleading," "I appreciate Sproul's concern...but faith must have something to cling to," "As Sproul defines it").  If one wishes to engage R.C. Sproul then let that be the title and subject of the book. But as I have previously suggested, not only does Sproul count unfairly as Thomas' major Reformed source, but it does not seem that he is a good or fair reader of him.

Because of this, Thomas says some rather strange and unrecognizable things about the Reformed Tradition. He first states that "the Lord's Supper is celebrated infrequently" in the Reformed Tradition. This is unsubstantiated and directly against the emphasis of word, sacrament, and discipline found in Calvin and the Reformed church (Belgic Confession Article 29).  In this vein, he attempts to contrast the Reformed emphasis on preaching with the Lutheran emphasis on the Supper (a point on which I agree). But he takes it too far when he states the Lutheran church "has the advantage of specifying that it [the Lord's Supper] is a word specifically 'for you'" — as if this is not true in Reformed churches. But Thomas does not mention the Heidelberg which states, "as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross" (Q&A 75) [emphasis added]. Nor does Thomas mention Calvin who said, "Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated" (Calvin's commentary on the Gospels and quoted in Horton's Introducing Covenant Theology) [emphasis added].

Thomas simply does not seem fluent in Reformed sources. These two examples are not the far reaches of the Reformed fringe (which has influenced me and been promoted in review form here). These are basic Reformed resources. I must repeat a previous lament that Calvin's support of the "Lutheran position" in 2 Peter goes unnoticed when discussing limited atonement (I've discussed that here). Brian Thomas also misunderstands  "common grace" in the Reformed Tradition taking only half of the historical depiction (e.g restraint from sin) and equating it with the second use of the law (I would instead suggest this podcast and specifically Cornelius Van Til's Common Grace and the Gospel). It is quite clear that the Lutheran understanding of Law/Gospel is distinct from Reformed versions, but his simplification of common grace does not accurately depict any Reformed position. Further, it is clinically unfair that in a chapter speaking about sacramental efficacy, Thomas ignores the WCF which states "the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred" (WCF XXVIII.VI). In a chapter intended to show how the Reformed Tradition depreciates the sacraments and their importance, Thomas leaves out a wide range of Reformed thought on sacramental efficacy (e.g. The Second Helvetic Confession on Baptism). No one benefits from these simplistic reductions.

It pains me to admit that I could not in good conscience finish the book. The list of highlighted misrepresentations grew to be unbearable in my mind and written notes. No positive dialogue would result from a complete reading. Instead, I have attempted to lay forth only some of the incorrect depictions offered in Wittenberg Vs. Geneva. For interested Lutherans, Jordan Cooper's The Great Divide is infinitely more faithful in its depiction of the Reformed Tradition. I would recommend that all theologically minded dialogue partners pursue reading his work.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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