Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Calvinism is making a comeback?

In another one of the Yahoo groups I participate in, someone pointed out this article in Christianity Today:

Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback and shaking up the church

It is an interesting read about the resurgence of Calvinistic/Reformed teaching amongst the American Evangelical scene, particularly the young Evangelicals. For good and ill, I think this last quote captures some of the distinctive post-modern essence of contemporary perspectives of Calvinism today:
It's because the young Calvinists value theological systems far less than God and his Word. Whatever the cultural factors, many Calvinist converts respond to hallmark passages like Romans 9 and Ephesians 1. "I really don't like to raise any banner of Calvinism or Reformed theology," said Eric Lonergan, a 23-year-old University of Minnesota graduate. "Those are just terms. I just like to look at the Word and let it speak for itself."
Actually, this quote reminds me of something I read in a John Frame book, called Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the One Body of Christ (full version, with some updates, available online from this page). Here is some of what he says:
My wife once regularly attended a neighborhood Bible study, with women from Roman Catholic, Charismatic, Arminian, Dispensational, and Episcopal backgrounds as well as some fellow Presbyterians. However, it never became a doctrinal battleground, she says, because the study always focused on the text of Scripture. The women sought to avoid technical theological jargon and tried simply to do justice to what the Bible taught.

Certainly they studied some passages that were heavy with doctrinal content. Romans 9 was one. When the group read Romans 9, Calvinist and Arminian together marvelled at God's control of history including the his control of the human heart. When they got to chapter 10, all with one accord were challenged with the responsibility of human beings to preach the gospel. No one insisted on the dogmatic terminology of "free will" on the one hand, or of "unconditional election" on the other. Romans 9 and 10 spoke for themselves, as it were, and bound these Christian women together in praise and fellowship. All sincerely and warmly received the scriptural message.

Perhaps someone will say that they missed something! A Calvinist might reply that unless we bring in the theological concept of unconditional election, we cannot possibly understand Romans 9, and that therefore the ladies in question were rejoicing in ignorance. An Arminian might say the same thing about "free will." But if God did not inspire Paul to write the words "unconditional election," why should we insist that those precise words-- or the words "free will"-- are necessary to express his meaning?

I have no doubt that the women understood Romans 9 and 10. Would the theological terms have helped them get a better understanding? Perhaps in some Bible studies, but not in this one. In this particular case, introduction of technicalities would have produced unnecessary quarreling-- certainly not the response the Apostle Paul (and God, the ultimate author) intended the text to evoke. And the use of such terms might have exaggerated the extent to which Paul himself had a technical theological purpose in writing these chapters. I have no doubt that an avoidance of technicalities in this particular context gave the women a better understanding of the passages than they would have had otherwise.
Paul wrote these chapters at a time when the Calvinist/Arminian, even the Augustinian/Pelagian, debates were still future. He was not trying to persuade Arminians to become Calvinists, or the other way around. It is not wrong for us today to use these passages to help resolve the controversy. It is wrong to suggest that that is their only legitimate use, or even their chief use, or that the texts can be understood only in the context of that debate. Rather, there are other contexts too; other uses-- such as the ones Paul actually had in mind.

Certainly divine sovereignty and human responsibility are major themes of these passages. But one may appreciate both these themes without concentrating on the historical controversies over them. The ladies in the Bible study praised God's sovereignty, and they accepted the scriptural challenge to their own responsibility. And they did it without argument, without debate, simply listening to the word of God. For them, for an hour or so, the church was one.

Are there not times even in our local church life when it might be best simply to let the text speak (more or less! for we are still "explaining" it to one another) for itself? Do we always have to point out, in expounding Romans 9 and 10, how our party is right and the other party wrong? Does not that very emphasis keep us from appreciating certain nuances and emphases in the passage? Does not that practice exaggerate the importance of the historical controversy?

My wife (like me a good Calvinist) says that it is not hard to convince people of Calvinistic teachings when you avoid using Calvinistic jargon. I agree. Beyond this, there is a slogan among the Reformed that "anyone who prays for another's conversion is a Calvinist." I'm not sure where that came from; it has been attributed to Warfield, Van Til, Vos.. I agree with that too. If you pray for the soul of another, then you believe that person's decision is in the hand of God, not merely a product of the person's "free agency." But many pray like Calvinists, while proclaiming Arminian theology. That doesn't seem consistent to me, but I welcome their prayers, and I'll be happy to have them pray with me for the conversion of sinners. So perhaps my wife's point can be taken a further step: for there are people around who are Calvinists in one degree or another (evidenced by their words and actions), who would not use the Calvinistic jargon, who would, perhaps, even repudiate it.

It seems to me that what we call Calvinism is simply a spelling out of the heart-instincts of all believers in Christ. I can easily persuade myself that the whole church will be Calvinist eventually, if we allow people to read Scripture as it stands, without feeling that we have to rub their noses in historic controversy. There is a certain "smarty pants" theological attitude in wanting to show people of the other party that our team was right all along. We sometimes feel that we need to do that in order to make our case maximally cogent; but in fact that attitude detracts from the cogency of our case. We give people the impression that in order to acknowledge the biblical principle they must also acknowledge us, our denomination, our historical traditions. But no. Biblical principle deserves their allegiance. Our "team" does not necessarily deserve it.


  1. My problem with the Calvinist - Arminian debate is that I'm bored with it. It's centuries and centuries old and I worked through it personally when I was a teenager.

    I'm a 4 point Calvinist like the rest of us (yes, I know, Craig - you're a 5-pointer!) but I dislike TULIP. It can limit our exploration of the bible. We have to tick one of two boxes - rather than tick both boxes or neither or work out a third option.

    I'll never forget my first brush with well school presbyterians in a bible study group. We read a bible passage and I asked questions. For every question I was given doctrinal answers rather than answers from the passage. Very annoying. I've also heard some very boring Calvinist sermons. There might be a different text each week, but the preacher can just cycle throught the same 5 sermons! Sometimes I think we need to put our pre-package theology to one side so that we can actually hear God speak to us in his word.

    Any thoughts on this craig?

  2. Certainly I agree that we should always be trying to let God speak out to us from the Bible, rather than us read our theology into the wrong texts.

    However, I think non-Calvinists can also be uninspiring in their preaching, or too quick to force their theology onto texts as well. Even those who think they are avoiding a doctrinal approach, for example by using "Biblical Theology" instead, can be terribly predictable in what they say, and still really be giving doctrinal or party answers, rather than objectively expounding a text.

    Having said all that, there would seem to be a strong tendency amongst many who are self-consciously Calvinists to be more doctrinal rather than expository. Maybe its something to do with the personality types that are attracted to that kind of theology :-)

    The other thing I'd say is that IMO there is an anti-historical attitude amongst some contemporary Christianity that is keeping in step with the world. A product of individualism, existentialism, anti-authoritarianism, etc. I think there is a lot of bad involved in this, though it is good not to just be a card-carrier.

    BTW what do you think of Calvin as an expositor? And how about the long Frame quote in the blog entry? I like what he says about being more ecumenically minded.

  3. Can non-Calvinists be uninspiring? Absolutely. I've heard some shockers. Similarly those obsessed with BT, covenantism or any other theological framework. I think for all of us, the challenge is to keep on reading the text.

    I loved the Frame quote (I should have said that in the first place!)

    On the anti-historical movement, I wonder if it could be partly blamed on us for presenting church history in such a boring way. I'm bored with the C/A debate, but I'd love to explore the early christological controversies further. And they're just as important for our faith as the C/A ones. Why don't we hear about them?

    I'll read a calvin exposition before I comment on that one. And I'll bear in mind the name of your son and be measured in what I say...

  4. I'm sure boring presentations of church history won't help :-)

    Perhaps we don't talk Christological issues as much because it is not generally in dispute within our Christian community. Although if you interact with Lutheran theology you may find a difference with the Calvinistic tradition. Also if you talk with the Eastern Orthodox you might find differences. Having said that, on one Yahoo group consisting of Reformed Christians, we have recently been discussing the extent to which Christ's divinity was active during his 'earthly ministry'.

    Perhaps another part of our problem is that our debates are more about in-fighting than exchange with those outside. I expect if we spent more time interacting with JWs, Mormons, Moslems, Jews etc, Christology would much more be on the radar. Even just talking to the average non-Christian, the importance of emphasising the astounding humility, love and identification in the Word becoming flesh might also make us more Christologically aware.