Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Influence of R. T. Kendall

I was talking with a friend of mine recently (the unnamed one), and we discussed the rise of moderate Calvinism among modern evangelical theologians. I'm not speaking of the 4-point Calvinists (who tend to reject limited atonement outright), the dispensationalists, or nearly Arminian fundamentalists, but the Calvinist scholars who actually influence the community of TULIP Calvinists. I asked my friend if he didn't think R. T. Kendall was one of the first of his kind in the late 20th century.

My friend said that Kendall may not be the first, but was certainly early, and has been very influential. He said that there is a great irony here, because without the vociferous (and seemingly endless) criticism that Kendall has received, he would not have been influential at all.

This is probably true, but I find it most telling that Kendall seems to inspire a constant impulse to refute him.

This, to me, speaks of the power of his thesis. The power of Kendall's argument comes not from his historical analysis (which some have criticized ... though I have no strong quarrel with Kendall on this point ... though I'm no historian), but from his analysis of the issues involved in the question of Calvin's theology. The question, of course is this: did Calvin teach limited atonement? Kendall answers that question not by directing us to statements about the atonement itself, but by looking at Calvin's doctrine of faith and the subsequent development of the doctrine of faith and assurance in English Calvinism.

Kendall's thesis is, in my view and as I have said before, devastating. And that is what (in a way) engenders the constant desire to refute him. He strongly shows that Calvin could not have taught limited atonement ("limited atonement" meaning "Christ did not die for some men") while teaching the doctrine of faith that he did. But what has not been analyzed (though Nicole does mention it) in these critiques (as far as my limited historical knowledge permits me to make this statement) is the question of Calvin's doctrine of faith. The analysis of Kendall tends to be about Calvin's doctrine of the atonement, while very little is said about Calvin's doctrine of faith. Do today's evangelical churches and seminaries hold Calvin's doctrine of faith?

One corollary of Kendall's thesis is that insofar as modern Calvinism holds to certain forms of limited atonement, they cannot teach Calvin's doctrine of faith. This ought to rock us to our core. But the question seems to be ignored by diversion to the more controverted question of Calvin's doctrine of the atonement. But I believe it is Kendall's strong argument that puts the burr under the saddle of his critics -- or at least it ought to be.


Sean Gerety said...

... I find it most telling that Kendall seems to inspire a constant impulse to refute him. This, to me, speaks of the power of his thesis.

How on earth does this follow? By this warped logic the power of the Federal Vision’s thesis must be beyond question due to all those inspired to refute Federal Visionists from Dough Wilson to James Jordon. In Kendall's case, I would suggest it only seems that there is a “constant impulse to refute him” because of the blinders you happen to be looking though.

From what I see the vast majority of Reformed theologians simply ignore Kendall as irrelevant and as someone who’s thesis has been sufficiently refuted.

He strongly shows that Calvin could not have taught limited atonement ("limited atonement" meaning "Christ did not die for some men") while teaching the doctrine of faith that he did.

Considering Kendall has failed to establish his first premise, except to the satisfaction of Amyraldians or closet Arminians like that ubiquitous universalist, David Ponter, I confess I fail to see what's so "core" shattering? Maybe you'll make a better case in future posts.

While Calvin certainly said things that, at first blush, seem to support Kendall’s and your thesis, the fact is Calvin had much bigger fish to fry. Unambiguously expounding on the extent of Christ’s death certainly wasn't high on his list. Beza more than crystallized this doctrine and made up for any deficiencies in Calvin's teaching on the atonement. That said, Calvin was by no means unclear:

Through Isaiah he still more openly shows how he directs the promises of salvation specifically to the elect: for he proclaims that they alone, not the whole human race without distinction, are to become his disciples (Isa. 8:16). Hence it is clear that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be reserved solely and individually for the sons of the church, is falsely debased when presented as effectually profitable to all. Inst. III.xxii.10

Whence it comes about that the whole world does not belong to its Creator except that grace rescues from God’s curse and wrath and eternal death a limited number who would otherwise perish. But the world itself is left to its own destruction, to which it has been destined. Meanwhile, although Christ interposes himself as mediator, he claims for himself, in common with the Father, the right to choose. ‘I am not speaking’, he says, ‘of all; I know whom I have chosen’ (John 13: 18). If anyone ask whence he has chosen them, he replies in another passage: ‘From the world’ (John 15:19), which he excludes from his prayers when he commends his disciples to the Father (John 17:9). This we must believe: when he declares that he knows whom he has chosen, he denotes in the human genus a particular species, distinguished not by the quality of its virtues but by heavenly decree. Inst. III.xxii.7.

Hence we read everywhere that Christ diffuses life into none but the members of his own body. And he that will not confess that it is a special gift and a special mercy to be engrafted into the body of Christ, has never read with spiritual attention Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Hereupon follows also a third important fact, that the virtue and benefits of Christ are extended unto, and belong to, none but the children of God. A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God

Steve said...

All I can say, Sean, (without indulging the strong temptation to speak evil) is ... thanks for posting your comments.

I will probably answer your argument in a separate post for the edification of those who are actually trying to understand Calvin and the issues I'm addressing. But I am working on a Nicole post first, and I'll get to you next week, most likely.

Steve said...

I posted a response to Sean Gerety in the blog: Whose Afraid of R. T. Kendall?