Book Review – The Great Divide

WIPFSTOCK_TemplateJordan Cooper is a former Reformed thinker, who converted to Lutheranism and now is a relatively well known Pastor, Theologian, and Author. I was generously provided a review copy of The Great Divide by Wipf and Stock. Today I want to share some of my thoughts regarding this work.

The primary thesis of the book, is to provide both a description and evaluation of Reformed theology by means of comparison with Lutheran theology. The book is intended for both academic and popular audiences.

Now, since I am a Reformed thinker, it is obvious that I disagree with the critiques presented in the book, and lest my readers panic… I remain unconvinced that Lutheranism is a superior interpretation of the Biblical data than Calvinism. As such, I am focusing my review on the methodology, argumentation, and a few technical aspects… rather than spending much time responding to the critiques. Furthermore, I want to make it clear that although there will be some admittedly pointed (perhaps even a little harsh) critiques made, I consider Jordan to be a capable scholar and colleague, and most importantly I consider him to be a Christian brother, cobilligerant, and co-laborer in the Gospel.

That said… Here, we, GO!

Uneven Sourcing

Jordan indicates in his introductory remarks that he hopes for this book to be useful for both the academic and the popular reader. For this reason, says he, he will utilize both popular and academic sources. However, as I read through the book I noticed a recurring pattern. When summarizing and explaining Reformed thought, Jordan overall relies on popular sources. His go to sources are James White, Michael Horton, and RC Sproul. However, while these three men are definitely academics, he utilizes primarily their popular works. The book is not entirely void of academic Reformed sources, nor of references to the seminal sources (Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, etc), however rather than constituting the primary structure of the argument with academic sources providing explanation for those less acquainted with the academic work by utilizing popular works… these references to academic sources are relatively sparse. When summarizing, and defending, Lutheran thought, the opposite is true. Jordan’s majority sources are the Lutheran confessions and Lutheran academics. I will grant that I am not particularly familiar with Lutheran popular writers, but I feel no more familiar with them than I did when I began the work.

I do not wish to speculate too much on the reason for this, I suspect that Jordan (as a Lutheran academic) is simply more familiar with the popular Reformed sources than he is with the academic ones (something I would readily admit of myself in the converse situation). However, when writing a book which is intended to adequately represent and critique the Reformed position I would expect an author to utilize the Reformed confessions as their primary source of information. Furthermore, there are instances where Jordan seems to lack an awareness of the place in which his sources fall within the Reformed tradition. For example, he claims at one point that God of Promise/Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton, is the best explanation of Reformed Covenant Theology. I agree that this is a great book, but Horton and the so-called Escondido Theology taught at Westminster Seminary California is not representative of the broad tradition. It is an extreme Minority Report historically, and many (most?) would say that it is contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Beyond that, it gives (perhaps intentionally) the impression that Lutheran thought is primarily academic, and Reformed thought is primarily popular. The relative scarcity of historic documents from the Reformed position similarly gives the impression that Reformed theology is somewhat novel, with Lutheranism being a continuous development starting in 1517.

Argument by Assertion

Each chapter follows a predictable pattern. The Reformed position is presented and critiqued, the Lutheran position is presented and defended, and then a conclusion is offered.

I joked with Jordan while I was reading the paper that the summary of the book is “Calvinism bad, Lutheranism good, therefore Lutheranism.” While it is definitely more nuanced in the book, and I don’t want to minimize the work that Jordan put into writing the book… that is the basic structure. While argumentation isn’t lacking, it is sparse. The critique and argumentation of Calvinism tends to simply be a description of Lutheranism with the assumption that Lutheranism is correct. Where there is exegetical discussion, the argumentation leaves much to be desired and is generally not sufficiently supported. For example, there is a discussion in the chapter regarding Election regarding the famous phrase “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.” Jordan’s response to the Reformed understanding is that the passage is only telling us something about Jacob’s election, but not about Esau’s reprobation. However, the argumentation supporting this assertion (which seems prima facie to be incorrect) was very limited. Especially when scattered among the repeated refrain that Lutherans stick to the text and do not go beyond it, where the Reformed rely on logical conclusions of the text… to not exegetically support this statement was strange. A similar dynamic happened when Jordan asserted that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (a classic Reformed proof text of Reprobation) was not because God had ordained it in advance, but because Pharaoh had rejected the grace offered to him. It left me scratching my head and trying to find the passage where it says Pharaoh had been offered any grace in the first place.

Perhaps most egregious is the discussion of the intersection of Christology and Sacramentology in the chapter regarding the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who knows this debate understands where the battle lines are drawn. However, Jordan does little more than describe the so-called extra calvinisticum, and wave it off as crypto-nestorianism. He then proceeds to describe the Lutheran view and claim that it is the view that is consistent with the Early Church, the Catholic tradition, and the Chalcedonian Definition. The conclusion of his chapter simply states that because the Calvinist view relies on a sub-biblical Christology that it cannot be correct. While he provides some biblical texts that may indicate that Christ’s human body was ubiquitous… he fails to explain how that does not violate the Chalcedonian Definition which indicates that attributes expressly do not transfer between Christ’s human nature and his divine nature. He also gives no indication that the Reformed position also claims to understand how those texts function within the Reformed paradigm (a fact that he surely is not ignorant of).

Selective Targeting

The Reformed tradition is a composite. Debates about the definition of what it means to be Reformed aside, one must grapple with views ranging from Zwingli to Spurgeon, Credobaptism to Paedobaptism, Spiritual Memorialism to Spiritual Real Presence. Recognizing the limitations of a work of this scope, Jordan seems to target the easiest to defeat position for his critique, and often leaves other parts of the tradition relatively unaddressed.

For example, the chapter regarding baptism is primarily a critique of Baptist views. While he acknowledges and briefly describes the Presbyterian view, he spends almost the whole chapter engaging in critiques that many (most?) of the Reformed would wholeheartedly agree with as he dismantles the Baptist understanding of Believer’s Only Baptism. Then as he concludes the chapter, he summarizes as though he has addressed and critiqued (overcome?) the entirety of the Reformed tradition. I won’t spend much time on this point, since it doesn’t need much explaining. However, related to my earlier critique regarding sourcing… had Jordan spent more time summarizing the content of the Reformed confessions, this would have naturally been avoided.

Similarly, the chapter on sanctification is almost exclusively a critique of a recent book published by Mark Jones. While I agree with Mark Jones’ position, I also recognize that there is a wide range of positions in the Reformed world, and interaction with that range would have been appropriate.

Miscellanes

There were a few other critiques that don’t really fit into any specific category.

I noticed what I consider to be some technical issues with Jordan’s citations. In his discussion of Mark Jones’ book, he cited exclusively from the Kindle version, and cited only Kindle location numbers. I recognize that in some styles (APA I believe) this is appropriate. However, it makes it next to impossible for someone who does not own a Kindle and the Kindle version of the book to locate his sources. Beyond that, it just feels inappropriate. This kind of gut feeling will contribute to something a little later. Another example is that in one place Jordan cites an entire volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Anyone who has read Barth can tell you that this is utterly unhelpful… even knowing what page something is on, it can be hard to find sometimes. It is possible that Jordan intended this to be a “See volume 4 for more” kind of note, but that is not the way I understood the note. Jordan had stated that Barth argued something, and then cited the volume for the argument.

Additionally, the chapters sometimes did not make a lot of sense in terms of their arrangements. In one of the early chapters discussing the 5 Points, Jordan engages in a discussion of one of the apostasy passages in Hebrews. I remember distinctly thinking that this was out of place and would make more sense in the chapter regarding Perseverance of the Saints. However, when proceeding to that chapter there was no discussion of this or any other apostasy passage. While it is entirely possible that this was intentional given that Lutherans and the Reformed connect different passages to similar doctrines… it seemed like a major oversight. It was as though the former was written without any consideration of the latter.

Finally, the book lacked any sense of cohesion between the chapters. I struggled to put my finger on what I was feeling as I read, and I joked that it felt like several seminary papers edited together into one book. The introduction was not in the numbered pages of the book (it was numerated with Roman Numerals). Because of this, the actual content of the book is conceptually separated from the introduction. Coupled with the lack of any meaningful conclusion to tie everything together, it really did feel like several disparate essays which were published as a whole. I’m not sure if this is actually what happened (nothing wrong with that if it was), but the book would have benefited from a cohesive metastructure.

Positives

Now that I’ve run Jordan’s book through the ringer, I want to call out a few of the positive things in the book as well.

By and large, and apart from the weighting and sourcing issues I have mentioned above, the book does a good job of accurately presenting Reformed doctrine. It is clear, and I think Jordan legitimately tried to paint the Reformed doctrine in the best light possible while describing it. He utilizes sources that the Reformed, broadly speaking, would recognize as legitimate sources and does not seek to set up a straw man to knock down.

Additionally, the book serves as a good primer to the basics of confessional Lutheran theology. Although, just as there is wide variety within the Reformed camp, there is also wide variety within Lutheranism and Jordan’s book does not do much to account for this. That said, someone who is legitimately wishing to learn about the differences between Reformed and Lutheran theology would benefit greatly by reading this book.

Finally, the book is easy to read. His goal of making it approachable for both the popular and academic reader is well met. The academic reader may find it lacking in some technical ways, but the benefit of foot notes (as opposed to end notes) is something that is useful for spurring on further study.

Note: Wipf and Stock has provided me with a copy of this book for review purposes. No further remuneration or compensation has been provided.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Great Divide

  1. I haven’t had the opportunity to read Jordan Cooper’s book yet. However, like him, I’m a former Calvinist who went Lutheran after quite a bit of study. You wrote, “he fails to explain how that does not violate the Chalcedonian Definition which indicates that attributes expressly do not transfer between Christ’s human nature and his divine nature.”

    The problem with this statements is that it fails to take into consideration the original intent of those who wrote the statement at Chalcedon. It’s similar in some ways to the way in which the Supreme Court found the right gay marriage in the 14th Amendment. Nobody who wrote the 14th Amendment would have thought that they were providing the right to gay marriage. If you read the Christological debates behind the ecumenical creeds, the orthodox church fathers did not start with a Christological position and then work their way out to a proper understanding of the Eucharist. They started with the doctrine of the Eucharist and worked their way out to a Christological definition. It’s by going backwards that I think Calvinist end up misunderstanding what is going on at Chalcedon. The orthodox fathers started with the idea that we receive the whole Christ according to both natures in the Eucharist and saw the various heresies as denying this in one way or another. You can find Cyril’s anathemas against Nestorius that were approved by the Council of Ephesus online. Cyril speaks of adoring Christ in the sacrament and Calvin is completely opposed to this because his understanding of Christology and the sacrament are quite a bit different than that of the church fathers.

    Nestorius treated the relationship between the two natures like two boards that were glued together. There’s a similar approach in Calvinism but they arrive at somewhat different conclusions although there are also points of contact in their conclusions. Nestorius got into trouble for denying that Mary is the Mother of God and denying that God died. R.C. Sproul affirms that Mary is the mother of God but denies that God died. John MacArthur denies that Mary is the mother of God but affirms that God died. Nestorius taught that in the Supper we receive Christ’s flesh but denied that Christ’s flesh was life-giving and so denied that we partake of Christ’s divine nature in the sacrament. Eutyches taught that in the incarnation, the human and divine natures were united into one nature and the concern of the orthodox was that according to the doctrine of Eutyches we do not truly partake of Christ’s true human nature in the sacrament. Nobody at the Councils was arguing that we cannot partake of Christ’s body because it can only be in one place at a time.

    The orthodox church fathers used the analogy of iron being heated in fire to describe the relationship between the human and divine natures. The iron doesn’t become fire but takes on properties of the fire. The human nature does not become the divine nature but because of the union takes on properties of the divine nature. So Jesus is able to pass through the wall of the tomb, appear and disappear at will, etc. But Calvinists start with a philosophical conception of what it means to be human and then impose these limitations upon Jesus. However, it seems foolish to tell Jesus what he can and cannot do. The incarnation, Trinity, and death of God all involve great mysteries that we cannot fully understand because we’re not God. Even in Quantum physics now, there have been experiments showing that small particles can be in more than one place at a time. I think Jesus is capable of more than a particle.

    1. Charles, all you have really done here is repeat the Lutheran position. I’m well acquainted with the ECF and have spent particular time studying Chalcedon. Your argument fails to explain how Christ’s human nature taking on divine attributes of the divine nature doesn’t cause a confusion or commingling of the nature.

      Beyond that, Sproul used confusing language, but he does affirm that it was the single person of God the Son who died on the cross. MacArthur is not representative of the Reformed tradition once you get beyond TULIP, so he is not a good example.

      I’m not telling Jesus what he can and cannot do, I’m repeating what Jesus had told us in Scripture, which is that the Son’s human nature remains human.

      Thank you for interacting with my work.

  2. I can’t make sense of the second sentence of your post. I’m guessing you’re the victim of autocorrect. When Jesus multiplied the fish and the loaves of bread, they didn’t cease to be real fish or real bread. At any rate, the testimony of the fathers and liturgies that were employed are sufficient enough to show that they didn’t understand the communication of the attributes to be a confusion or comingling of the natures. Chemnitz’s “Two Natures in Christ” provides not only an extremely thorough Scriptural defense of the Lutheran position, it also contains extensive quotations from the church fathers. Pages 366-372 are full of quotes from Cyril on this very topic and Chalcedon was upholding Cyril’s doctrine. Cyril, as well as many of the other church fathers, used the analogy of iron being heated by fire. If a Calvinist interpretation is imposed upon Chalcedon then all the orthodox fathers would be excommunicating themselves. Cyril talks about how in the Lord’s Supper we receive Christ’s flesh and condemns Nestorius for denying that Christ’s flesh is life-giving. Cyril says that Christ’s flesh is not life-giving according to its own nature but because of its union with the Logos.

  3. Tony,

    I found your first two criticisms to be quite faulty. The sourcing was quite fair in the book, and your criticism that Jordan used argument by assertion, is, well, an assertion.

    Selective targeting is simply overlooking the fact that Reformed Theology has a zillion different nuanced stances on just about everything and to address them all would take volumes.

    I found the book to be a very fair treatment of Reformed Theology *from a Lutheran perspective* and would highly recommend the book, not as a scholarly offering, but as a good nuts and bolts comparison of the two branches of the Reformation from a Lutheran standpoint. The book holds up very well for the educated lay person.

    *I am also a former Calvinist turned Lutheran.

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