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Martin Luther, Jonathan Rainbow and bad historiography

January 29, 2008

Some may recall that I have been working on a critique of Rainbow’s problematic and ahistorical treatment of the Augustinian doctrine of the atonement. You can find earlier responses here, and here.

Now that I have blogged all the relevant data on Luther on the extent of the redemption and expiation here, I can proceed to tackle another of Rainbow’s ahistorical claims.

Let’s look at this oblique comment from Rainbow:

Reasserting Augustine

In the long view, the Reformation, and especially Reformed theology, should be seen as part of a long line of “Augustinian outbreaks.” The millennium following Augustine was punctuated by efforts to revive and reassert his mature predestinarianism in its fullest sense–and that includes the doctrine of limited redemption. Of these efforts, the Gottschalk movement of the ninth century and the critique of the church offered by Wyclif and Hus in the 14th-15th centuries were the most disruptive. Nor was Reformed theology the last of these outbreaks, for the Jansenist movement of the seventeenth century would belong to the same historical tradition. But Reformed theology was undoubtedly the most successful.

Before the Reformation, the Augustinian outbreaks had been either squelched or successfully weathered by the Catholic church, and the doctrine of limited redemption had remained, at best, on the fringe. Sometimes it had been considered heresy. It certainly never became what its defenders wanted it to become, the dominant and official theology of the Catholic church. But this long “exile” was to end in the sixteenth century. It is true that in Lutheranism, in spite of the Augustinianism of Luther himself, the familiar process of modification and synthesis took place, so that by the late sixteenth century Lutheran theology vigorously affirmed universal redemption and condemned limited redemption.

Jonathan Rainbow, The Will of God and the Cross, (Pennsylvania: Pickwick, 1990), 181-182.

Remember Rainbow has already presumed that true Augustianism, and Augustine himself, held to limited atonement, and that it was Prosper who deviated from Augustine. Then as a restorative, came Gottschalk. Then of course, men like Aquinas returned to the deviated track set out by Prosper. So following that artificial and inaccurate schema, Rainbow leaves his readers with the impression that in Luther true and original Augustinianism (I can only assume he means limited atonement) was recaptured and revived. However, it was later Lutherans and Lutheranism that once again turned aside from the true path of Augustine and adopted the “synethesis.”

There are a lot of problems with what Rainbow says here. Firstly, his comments are somewhat ambiguous. It is only by connecting the paired ideas “Augustinianism” with “limited redemption” that one gets the impression he wants to communicate. Why did he not just come out and say Luther held to limited redemption in his opinion? Secondly, again, Rainbow presents no documentation to support his argument. For a dissertation this is really bad. But let us move passed that for now. Here again is Rainbow’s thesis, paraphrased: Augustine white-hat, Prosper black-hat; then Gottschalk white-hat; Aquinas black-hat; Luther white-hat; later Lutherans black-hat.

We have seen that this is just plain false when it comes to the juxtapositioning of Augustine and Prosper. For Gottchalk we make no comment. But given that his initial categorization of Augustine and Prosper is incorrect, his claim that Aquinas was deviant is false. Then too, his claim that Luther was the true Augustinian, but later Lutherans as the ones departing true Augustinianism–on limited redemption–is just as false, just plain untrue and incorrect. It’s just a complete inaccurate picture Rainbow presents to his readers. For a nearly exhaustive list of Luther’s comments on the unlimited extent of the expiation and redemption see here.

And thus time and time again I return to my thought that I can hardly count Rainbow as a credible witness regarding Calvin.

This really needs to be pressed home as Rainbow’s work is the work more often cited as the definitive work on proving Calvin’s true position. But the dissertation is grounded in claims and assumptional foundations that are just downright wrong.

To be continued…


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