Jordan 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!
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).
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.
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.
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.