Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Controversial Calvinism

Calvinism is controversial. Further, the view that I will espouse in this blog will be controversial with many Calvinists. It is primarily those folks I wish to address. Calvinism as it is held in many conservative churches and denominations, is destructive of true doctrine and the Christian faith to a greater or lesser degree. I shall point out the deficiencies (as I perceive them) along the way.

I am a conservative evangelical, and hold to all the doctrines that label implies. I am a Baptist. I also call myself a Calvinist; that is, I hold to the doctrines of grace, as they are called: TULIP — Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. I must make an important qualification: I hold to the doctrine of limited atonement as it is defined by R. L. Dabney; I also hold to the doctrine of unlimited atonement as defined by W. G. T. Shedd. The first sign of life in the Calvinist mind is a willingness to grapple with the distinction made by these great American theologians of the 19th century between the work of Christ on behalf of the world and the application of that work to the individual believer. These men used different definitions for their terms and drew somewhat different conclusions. Wrestling with those definitions and distinctions will bring about a blessing, though one may be permanently afflicted with a limp. Much more on that to come in this space.

How would one label my position? The critic will be tempted to reach for the term “Amyraldian”; the difficulty with that label is that Amyraut’s work is not widely known, but his position has been vaguely equated with “four-point” Calvinism. I don’t know Amyraut’s position well enough to affirm or rebut this, but I doubt it is accurate. I am identifying more closely with Calvin, Shedd, Dabney, and Charles Hodge — would the critic call them Amyraldian?

How about “moderate Calvinism”? Certain authors, who shall remain nameless, have so abused that term as to make it useless. I oppose high Calvinism as held by many Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist theologians. I more strongly oppose the hyper-Calvinism of the Primitive Baptists and the PRC — as well as anything that has the whiff of hyper-Calvinism in it; unfortunately, much that is considered normal Calvinism these days has that malodorous essence. So I guess we’ll go with “historic Calvinism.” I hope to be able to explain and justify that label.

Enough for a brief introduction. We shall take up the cudgels tomorrow. I leave you with a quotation from John Calvin’s commentary on 2 Peter 3:9:

So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost.


Derek Ashton said...


This is quite an interesting blog. I really like the controversial concept and the way you clearly lay out your agenda and Biblical stances.

I have a question for you, just out of curiosity and because I enjoy the conversation. What do you do with the ***apparent contradictions*** created by embracing a Calvinism that includes the Dabney/Shedd limited/unlimited atonement, God's love for all mankind, and the free offer of the Gospel? My thinking on these points is probably similar to yours, but I haven't found a way to logically reconcile it all. Have you found unbreakable logic that properly balances all the nuances of these doctrines? If not, do you think you will? To what extent do we have to be able to "explain" our doctrine using laws of logic and non-contradiction? Big questions, I know.

Grace & peace,
Derek Ashton

Steve said...

Thank you for your kind words and your good question, Derek.

I think VanTil was right (at least partially) when he said, "human knowledge can never be completely comprehensive knowledge. Every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God. Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge."

Consider the contradiction that lies at the heart of Christianity (indeed, all history). I refer to the contradiction of the cross which is at once the most holy and most sinful act. We can construct sentences to reconcile the contradiction ... but we never lose the feeling. Some of this must be at the heart of the problem of God's love and reprobation of sinners.

Have I found solid logic to resolve the problems? No; though I am resolved to continue the struggle. To give in to contradiction is to allow oneself to suffer under ignorance. But I am also resolved never to pretend to reconcile apparent contradictions by rejecting plain Biblical statements. (The Clarkians won't like this, but the Clarkians' "resolution" of contradictions appears to me to be far worse than the simple admission of ignorance. Dabney was right when he said that ours is the more modest position.)

As far as a simple explanation, we can always resort to "senses." In "some sense," Christ died for all men; he reprobates those whom in "some sense" he loves; etc. The use of "some sense" is one of those logic weasel phrases that allow us to imagine ourselves to have worked through problems. But we must admit that when we use the words "some sense," we haven't figured out what sense.

It also bothers me to put qualifiers (i.e., some sense) on statements that are unqualified in the Bible. John 3:16 does not read, for example, "For God so ("so" being taken not to indicate a superlative, but a manner) loved the world that (in some sense such that it could be said that) he gave (this giving being primarily to the elect of all ages, but also in a sense for all men to a qualified extent) his only begotten son, that whosoever (whosoever referring to all sorts of men in one sense and to all men in particular in a different and lesser sense) ..." Yeaacch.

I am content to say that the motivation for the sending of Christ was God's great love for the world. I embrace Calvin's position on this point, while not sharing Calvin's desire to qualify and mitigate the language so as to avoid problems.

I do insist, however, that our hermeneutic ought to be simple and logical. Thus, some Calvinists imagine (or pretend) that they have a "logical" system, while they go through the most ridiculous and illogical contortions to rid themselves of the problems of 1Timothy 2:4, for example. Our logic ought to be applied first and most rigorously to the reading of the passage; secondly and less inflexibly to the problems of systematic theology.

We shouldn't give up on the problems of systematic theology, but we ought never to compromise the reading for the system.

At least that's my view. Thanks very much for your comment, Derek. Do some more. :-)

Derek Ashton said...


That's quite a good answer! As I suspected, we think a lot alike, but you're a few steps ahead of me. I'm glad I found your blog.