A HOT ISSUE: CALVINISM, PART I

March 28, 2009

Here it comes -- a series of articles on what is now considered to be the hottest issue in Protestantism today!  Calvinism. For those of my readers who have heard of this word but are not sure how to sum it up in simple terms, here is a brief definition: "The view that from-the-womb-to-the-tomb God has determined the plight of each and every human being in so far as a having a relationship with Him.

I highlight the word determined because this word, more than any other, sums up Calvinism. If one is not careful in their theology, a lay person with little or no understanding of "predestination," "election" and "foreknowledge" would begin to believe that God, at least, is a puppet master or manipulator, and at worst, the originator of evil!

Before going any further I must warm my readers that this will be the first in a series of articles on the subject.  I cannot deal with this issue in one sitting.  If it takes the average writer two, three or sometimes four volumes to deal with the subject, it would take even the simplest of minds (like mine) at least four articles.  So with this, I would like to cover the dynamics of Calvinism first, to define it and to cover a little of its origin and history.

First of all, I should begin by mentioning that I am not a Calvinist.  I did attend, and graduated from, the most thoroughgoing Calvinist seminary in the United States, Westminster Theological Seminary.  I not only sat at the feet of some of the most hyper-Calvinists this side of Calvin himself, but was deeply indoctrinated with their "soteriology" (the doctrine of salvation). The more I listened and studied from them the more I would come to regard God as not only the author of evil, but was evil Himself. Since I believe John 3:16 is the hallmark of Christian doctrine ("God so loved the world"...not just a chosen few), I could easily reject the conclusion of God being evil and move on to a careful and more Biblical understanding of God's nature.

You are probably wondering why I bothered to attend a school like this.  Although, I was never a Calvinist, I did agree with their eschatology and desired to learn from some of the best minds about the doctrine of "the final things," i.e. the second coming of Christ.  I totally agree with their eschatology and view the interpretation of the book of Revelation from a much different perspective than the most popular beliefs today. I will save this topic for another day.

Calvinism derives it's name from the great Protestant Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564). I will point out that the term "Calvinism" doesn't mean everything Calvin believed and taught. Calvin merely articulated the theology.  He was trained as a lawyer and as such used the skill of systematizing," meaning he could take an issue and put it in it's logical order.  The theological understanding of God determining the plight of humankind is called "Augustinianism," which means a theology derived from the 5th century Bishop of Carthage, Augustine.  Augustine's understanding of anthropology was nothing new.  He merely adapted his theology from Greek philosophy, in particular, Plato's worldview of determinism. 

In short, Plato taught that the events and actions of nature and man are (present tense) determined by "the elements."  The word Plato used was stoicheia which meant the rudimentary elements that, binding together, form "a whole manipulator."  Plato saw this manipulator as present and working, not a thing, or person who did something in the past.

Augustine, highly educated in Plato's teachings, became Neo-Platonist (in other words, he adapted his view of man and man's plight from those learned leading teachers of his day who held to Plato's teachings with modifications).  Augustine brought these teachings into his theology after his conversion.  He, like the rebellious Jews in the time of the Kings, carried the "best" of his heathen indoctrination into his Christian teachings and merely synchronized his theology.  In other words, he continued to believe Plato's philosophy of determinism and merely substituted, stoicheia with the word "God."  And, instead of putting God's actions of determination in the present, he placed determination in the past!  That God acted in the past and, therefore, has pre-determined man and nature.

Eleven hundred years later, John Calvin, having studied Augustine and acting with Martin Luther in reaction to the Roman Catholic Church's teaching of works toward salvation, systematized Augustine's theology and enumerated God's working in human history in his magnum opus: The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Since the time of John Calvin, others have further elaborated and refined his thoughts.  Among these was one Cornelius Van Til, once a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and founder of Westminster, my alma mater. The many who were of his students continued the tradition and three were my teachers.

The aspects of Calvinism I criticize in this series are those central to historic Reformed theology and are where Calvinism diverges most sharply from what I consider to be most Biblical.  The refined Calvinism today is still very much Greek (or rather Platonic) and very much synchronistic, placing the teachings of the Bible about man along side of Plato.

I must say from the outset that I am not an Arminian (that is, a follower of the theology of Jacob Arminius who was considered a heretic by those who were followers of Calvinism in the 17th century).  I am historically a Wesleyan-Arminian which I will explain in a later article. As an Arminian-Wesleyan, I would like to address certain Calvinistic claims about salvation and how God bestows it upon His children.

This issue of salvation is central to Christian theology. Some of the most hotly contested disputes among Christians arise over it.

Although the following did not derive from Calvin himself, the familiar acrostic stems from 3rd generation Calvinists who rejected Arminius and his followers.  This is merely a summary of the Calvinistic view of salvation: It's called the "TULIP."

Recognize that acrostic?  It stands for:

  1. Total Depravity - the desperate condition of fallen sinners apart from God's grace.  The issue with this arises when one asks how God deals with sinners in this despairing condition;

  2. Unconditional Election - Wherein God, in His sovereignty, has chosen to rescue certain specific fallen sinners from the helpless condition while leaving the rest of humanity to perish eternally;

  3. Limited Atonement - That Christ died for the chosen few (the elect) and not for the entire human race;

  4. Irresistible Grace - That is, if He chose you, you cannot resist it;

  5. Perseverance of the Saints - If election is unconditional and the death of Christ is necessarily effective to save for all persons for whom He died, and if saving grace cannot be resisted by these persons, then it follows that those who are chosen will persist in the faith.  Historically, among many Baptist's today, this doctrine is known as eternal security or "once saved, always saved."

In Christendom today, Presbyterians, Lutherans and those of Reformed tradition churches (such as Congregationalists) adhere to 4 or all 5 of these points.  Lutherans and Presbyterians are not dogmatic in there views so as to say that man has no free-will as are those of the Reformed tradition.  Among Baptists of various denominations (Southern Baptist being the largest) many adhere to the last point.  Yet Calvinism (4 or all 5 points) is growing among Southern Baptists and many of their number truly believe it will be the next divider of this largest denomination in America.  I am a Southern Baptist, but my Wesleyan-Arminianism as modified by years of biblical research, forces me to come to the conclusion that it is impossible, both logically, philosophically and, by extension, theologically, to believe in any 1, 2, 3 or 4 of the previously noted points of Calvinism without adhering to all 5.  That it to say, modified Calvinism is a contradiction. 

Simply put, God either predestines everything and everyone or He allows man a freedom of choice (note the use of the word "choice" instead of "will").  This does not deny that God knows how we will choose, but merely states that God will not interfere with our choices by manipulating, determining or in anyway programming our decisions for us.

Although these five points represent the core of what is distinctive about Calvinism, they are hardly exhaustive.  Underlying them is a particular understanding of divine sovereignty that is also characteristic of Calvinism of which I have no problem. Yet, the issues I will discuss in later articles stem from these five points.

Many Southern Baptist leaders claim that "Calvinism is nothing more and nothing less than the simple assertion that salvation is all of grace, from the beginning to the end."  These are the words of my friend Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and the seminary graduating more Calvinist minds than any other among Southern Baptists.  Whereas I have no problem with Mohler's statement, I will quickly point out this is highly misleading because Calvinism is a whole lot more than that! I agree that salvation is by grace alone and from start to finish, but that does not make one a Calvinist.  In fact, Arminians and Wesleyans believe the same thing.  The really interesting questions are how grace is given and how it effects our salvation.

These issues must be dealt with by an informed interpretation of Scripture and careful philosophical analysis.  It must be approached by looking at the full context of the Bible, as well as fully understanding the nature of God.  Unfortunately, Calvinists are quick to say that their view is based on Scripture while Wesleyans and Arminians base theirs from reason and philosophy.  This serious misunderstanding unfairly slants the issue in favor of Calvinism before the discussion is started.

As I pointed out in the beginning of this article, Calvinism derives historically from Augustinianism, which is a Greek philosophical presupposition that all things are determined.  The roots of Calvinism, in and of itself, is philosophical. Passages of Scripture which speak of "predestination," "election," and God's "calling" or "choosing before the foundation of the world" are approached with Platonic glasses on.  Any theological issue that is approached with preconceptions is merely a preconception of itself in the least, and an assumption at best.  In other words, it doesn't prove a truth.

The articles to come, I will address each of the five points of Calvinism in simple detail, but more importantly, will present the implications if Calvinism is the Biblical truth.

Let me conclude this mere introduction by telling of a most disturbing event.  When my wife an I first visited Westminster Theological Seminary, before my becoming a student there, we stayed with a young couple who had recently became the parents of a baby girl.  The father was a student at the seminary, the wife a social worker.  We entered into a discussion of God's sovereign grace and its implications.  He, of course, argued from a Calvinist point of view.  The young man was deeply entrenched in Reformed theology and I would consider him more Calvinist than Calvin was.  When I asked him what would he think if he were to find out that his little daughter was predestined by God to hell.  His response, though logical for a Calvinist, still caught me by surprise.  He said (in words I will never forget), "God is sovereign and if He determined that my daughter should be consigned to perdition, then praise be to Him, for He alone chooses the ones He loves!"

Next time, I address the issue of whether God is the author of sin and, by extension, is the devil himself.

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