Sometimes Generalizations Are Helpful

Generalizations can hurt people if they are presented carelessly but they can also help us if they are used wisely. In terms of the former, one may unwittingly or even maliciously seek to ‘pigeon hole’ an opponent or detractor to make them seem to be or believe something other than what they are or confess. In answer to this approach, I believe our Lord’s teaching is sufficient: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).   

Therefore, if generalizations are to serve us, they serve us best when we use them carefully and helpfully, aiming to speak to the heart of what is being stated, while, at the same time, doing so without also misrepresenting others. In the case of theology (or dogmatics) generalizations can often summarize what others believe without having to define all the nuances of that particular tradition. In fact, it is often necessary to be general so we can get a bird’s eye view of a particular position, especially when we are contrasting it with other positions. 

I believe this is the case with Herman Bavinck’s statement about the Lutheran tradition in Volume 1 of his “Reformed Dogmatics.” Having defined and explore the history of Lutheran dogmatics in chapter 5, Bavinck goes on in chapter 6 to define and explore the history of Reformed dogmatics. Though he states there is much “agreement between them -extending even the confession of predestination – there was from the beginning an important difference between [the Lutheran and Reformed]” (page 176). This difference can be attributed to “a difference of principle” (ibid.).[1] Bavinck then explains that:

the difference seems to be conveyed best by saying that the Reformed Christian thinks theologically, the Lutheran anthropologically. The Reformed person is not content with an exclusively historical stance but raises his sights to the idea, the eternal decree of God. By contrast the Lutheran raises his position in the midst of the history of redemption and feels no need to enter more deeply into the counsel of God. For the Reformed, therefore, election is the heart of the church; for Lutherans, justification is the article by which the church stands or falls. Among the former the primary question: How is the glory of God advanced? Among the latter it is: How does a human get saved? The struggle of the former is above all against paganism – idolatry; that of the latter against Judaism – works-righteousness. The Reformed person does not rest until he has traced all things retrospectively to the divine decree, tracking down ‘wherefore’ of things, and prospectively made all things subservient to the glory of God; the Lutheran is content with the ‘that’ and enjoys the salvation in which he is, by faith, a participant. From this difference in principle, the dogmatic controversies between them (with respect to the image of God, original sin, the person of Christ, the order of salvation, the sacraments, church government, ethics etc.) can be easily explained.

Let us first note that when Bavinck assesses the Lutheran approach to dogmatics as being ‘anthropological’, he is not saying that Lutherans are man-centered in their theology, and the Reformed are God-centered in their theology. Besides being a straw man argument, this would run contrary to various statements in the Lutheran confessions themselves.

Rather Bavinck says that the Lutheran thinks anthropologically. That is, the way that they frame their theology is focused on man, or is presented in terms of man’s needs and wants. He is satisfied with knowing what God wants from him, and does not feel the “need to enter more deeply into the counsel of God.” This is a historical (man’s history or God’s dealing with man in history) viewpoint as opposed to a decretal (God’s sovereign plan for the world) viewpoint. Thus, as Bavinck points out, the theological disparity between us can be expressed in terms of the Reformed (theology) tending to focus on the glory of God as a final goal, and the Lutheran (theology) tending to focus on the question of how a human gets saved? And apparently this issue continues to be a kind of dividing line between us

For further clarification, I would also like to point out that Bavinck does affirm that justification “is rightly denominated the article on which the church either stands or falls.” (Volume 4, page 205). Thus his statement that “for Lutherans, justification is the article by which the church stands or falls” is not to be read or understood as a denial of justification by faith or somehow an argument that there is an essential difference between the Lutheran understanding of justification and the Reformed understanding of justification (as some would assert).[2]

At the same time, he is asserting that the Reformed wants to say more because his ultimate concern is to ask: “How is the glory of God advanced?” Thus we should conclude that the historical & decretal approaches are not necessarily at odds with each other. They complement each other but, according to Bavinck, the Reformed tends to wants both/and while the Lutheran settles for either/or. 

None of this proves, however, the superiority of one approach over the other and this is not, at least at this point, Bavinck’s argument.[3] But what we should take away from this statement is that open and honest dialogue between differing Christian traditions will benefit Christ’s Church, as each party is willing to ‘lay their cards on the table’ by assessing and contrasting each other’s views. In fact, to pretend that such differences don’t exist and don’t matter is to pretend that the history of theological development was all for not. But I would contend that this is more of a post-modern view and not a biblical view. It has more in common with cultural attempts to make everything ‘one’ when clearly some things are ‘two’ or more. 

This does not mean, however, that there are no commonalities amongst the Lutheran and Reformed: far from it. We are both heirs of the Reformation, and historically the Reformed are indebted to their Lutheran counterparts for their theological foundation. But we will never make any headway at all in ecumenical dialogue and rapprochement if we pretend that there is nothing significant in the way. And I believe that Bavinck helps us here to see what that is. 


[1] It should, here, be made clear that Bavinck is contrasting historical and confessional Lutheranism with historical and confessional Reformed theology. That is, his analysis has little to do with (some of) the present day incarnations of these traditions that seek to supplant, rather than to continue their heritage(s).
[2] Note that elsewhere Bavinck notes that “there is no material difference between Lutheran and Reformed theology with respect to the doctrine of justification, [though] in the latter, nevertheless, it occupies a different place and acquires a different accent”
 (emphasis mine).  Volume 4, page 200.
[3] He does address it elsewhere, especially in terms of the application of these different principles “with respect to the image of God, original sin, the person of Christ, the order of salvation, the sacraments, church government, ethics etc.” -excerpted from the quote above. I will touch on many of these applications in future posts as they arise in our study of Bavinck’s  Reformed Dogmatics


2 thoughts on “Sometimes Generalizations Are Helpful

  1. I completely agree with you in this. But I would like to add something to it. Generalizations are a double edged sword when it comes down to it, this where we receive a lot of disunity in all denominations. Paul mentioned in his letters several times (Philippians, Romans, 2 Corinthians, 1 Chronicles) “To be of one mind.” Creeds, doctrines and systems have a place in teaching, training and raising up members of the church, the important thing we need to remember is that we all follow one thing. Whether you are Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Anglican, Evangelical, Charismatic or Reformed; we all together as one body in Christ follow His holy word.
    This is where it turns into a double edged sword, with all of the different views in each denomination we lose focus on this one thing. We all follow a living God. Some may raise their hands, or bow their heads; others believe in infant baptism others believe in adult. Our creeds, doctrines and core denominational values keep us apart, but it is only when we finally understand that we are one body made up of many parts, (1 Corinthians 12 1-27), that we can see what God wants us to see, that His idea of a church will be seen, understood, and come to fruition.

  2. Pingback: Where Is the Starting Line? | Grace Reformed Church of Leduc

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