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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why I am No Longer A Calvinist, Part 3

1 Corinthians 2

As I have previously stated, I have real problems with several elements of the "Doctrines of Grace"* AS THEY ARE STATED in "traditional Calvinism." Labels such as "traditional Calvinism" are difficult because a term can mean different things to different people. What I mean by traditional Calvinism, is the system of belief represented by John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, John Piper, John MacArthur, and R. C. Sproul (and others). I realize that even within that camp there are some important variations and perspectives, but overall these writers represent the core five points of what have been called the "Doctrines of Grace," (TULIP) while avoiding going down a road of anti-missions/evangelism. Indeed, those who go down that road are too easy to answer and don't represent traditional Reformed theology anyway.

In the future blogs I will examine what I believe to be biblical problems with each of the points of Calvinism, but I believe there is one more basic element to address that is significant before I do so - The Problems of Systems.

Calvinism is a system, there is no question about it. Ask any learned Reformed theologian and they will tell you that each of the components of the 5 points stand in tension and relationship with the other. To deny any one of them is to leave the others without important support and incomplete. I often hear people say "I am a 4 point Calvinist" because of all the points, there is a natural objection in Baptist life to Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption. However, you really cannot be a "Calvinist" and not accept all 5 points - Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption is a logical and NECESSARY corollary to Total Depravity/Human Inability, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace/Effectual Calling, and Perseverance of the Saints/Final Perseverance.

Systems are not inherently bad. In fact, they can be immensely helpful in organizing thought, seeing how various texts work together, and gaining a big picture of important concepts in Scripture. However, they do have some tendencies to them that are potentially problematic and which consistently rear their head especially in the system known as Calvinism.

- A System often becomes more important than Scripture:This problem can manifest in a couple of ways. First, the system becomes the criteria by which all Scriptures are interpreted. Any text that doesn’t seem to fit into the conclusions drawn by the system must be molded to the interpreter’s bias. Of course we all come to the text with a bias and we all are affected in our interpretations by our world view, but there is an added barrier to letting the text speak when we start with the idea that “God has to work this way.” Whenever I hear someone say, “I know it seems to say that, but . . .” with any passage I get defensive. What’s more, if they can’t support the “but” in that sentence with historical and literary contextual observations it becomes more apparent that it is more about the system than the text. A second place where this problem occurs is when preachers become more preachers of the system, than preachers of the Word. There is certain almost idolatrous nature to how some people hold to their system. In Reformed theology, this comes across most clearly in the phrase, “Calvinism IS the Gospel!”** I understand conviction about one’s beliefs, I am arguing as much in this series of blogs. However, an all or nothing approach to any system seems to me to leave little room for paradox, tension in history, and the mystery of God. Especially, when there are texts, concepts, and presentations (as I believe there are with Calvinism) that undermine positions taken. Which brings me to the next problem with Systems,

- A System almost always devolves into an “either, or” mentalityThere is no concept more significant to shaking me up as a Calvinist, and ultimately getting me out of the system than the rampant “either, or” arguments present within it. In particular, the idea that you are either a Calvinist or an Arminian – that there are only a few ways an issue might be dealt with. For example, a fellow blogger was recently commenting on the extent of the atonement. He summarized the nature of his argument and position with the following statement:

“In other words, through the death of Christ, which sinners were forgiven and reconciled with God? There are only three possibilities [regarding the nature of atonement].(1). Every sinner that has ever lived (universalism).(2). Elect sinners--those whom the Father has chosen and given to His Son.(3). Believing sinners--those whom the Father foresaw would believe on Jesus.”

He then goes on to write in the same blog:

“Most evangelicals would answer that question in this manner: For every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live. If the person who holds to this view is then asked, "Will every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live be in heaven?" The answer given is "No. The sinner must accept what Jesus has done. The sinner must believe. The sinner must take hold of the atonement that has been offered." So most Christians, when pressed, would have to say the atonement of Jesus actually saves nobody. It is the faith of the sinner in Christ that saves (because of this prevalent belief we ought to consider changing the title of the hymn "Have Faith in God" to "Have Faith in Faith"). The modern evangelical has a belief in a very weak, impotent atonement performed by Christ. God, they believe, actually saves nobody through the cross; sinners are only actually saved through their belief in the cross. I believe the greatest challenge we face in the modern evangelical world is moving people toward a stronger, more biblical and powerful view of what Christ actually accomplished at the cross.”***

Are those really our only options? Is there no room for tension in the text? Are there no other ways to relate the atonement to the believer? Is one really suggesting that “God actually saves nobody through the cross?” if he or she believes Christ died for everyone, but not all will be saved? I will deal with the issue of Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption later, but the point is made that sometimes systems create a mentality of overconfidence in what our reason can do and leaves us with a perspective of, well if you’re not this, then you must be that. The choice is not ONLY between Calvinism and Arminianism, which are viewpoints created within a certain philosophical worldview that does not necessarily line up with the biblical worldview, or other ways of dealing with reality that have been conceived of since that time.

- A System often leads to making up concepts to try and preserve the system.Sometimes, instead of admitting a flaw in the system or simply trying to hold to a more balanced perspective of the overall picture of a situation given in Scripture, systems will lead people to create concepts and practices not expressed in Scripture, but necessary to maintain if one is going to keep his system and also explain other known circumstances. In Calvinism, these types of creations include the two wills of God (a necessary loophole to absolute Sovereignty), the two types of morality (a necessary loophole to Total Depravity), and the two types of atonement (a necessary loophole to Limited Atonement). I have already argued for maintaining tensions in where one is, so this is not an attack on paradox, but when a system requires you to create concepts in order to protect a concept, there is a problem with the system.

- A System allows "acceptance" without understanding its basis
Finally, a major problem with systems is that people come to accept the system without understanding the basis of it. Because the basic premises of the system say things that people like about God, themselves, or life in general they “buy into it” without really realizing all the baggage that they are bringing with it. For instance in Calvinism, I meet people all the time who want to hold to the system without acknowledging Double Predestination. As a Calvinist I did not (and still do not) have a problem with God being able to have predestined people to hell if that is His desire (I don’t believe it is the biblical presentation – something to be looked at later, but I have no problem suggesting He is fully within His rights as God to do as much – He is God), but there are a lot of “Calvinists” who do have problems with it even though the system itself requires it. A similar thing could be said for the “4 point Calvinists mentioned above. Finally, this phenomenon could also be applied from an interpretative and philosophical standpoint as well. I am amazed at how many people who claim both Dispensationalism and Calvinism I come across; though at their heart they are completely incompatible from an interpretation standpoint (because the basis for both systems in their conclusions are completely at odds). Systems lend themselves to this sort of divorce between basis and conclusion because so often they express only the conclusions, without relating or identifying where those conclusions come from. They argue that they are just applying the Bible, when in fact they are proof-texting through a lens of a certain philosophy or worldview.****

A big part of my journey out of Calvinism was a journey of discovery of its basis and the way the system didn’t deal with the greater picture of God’s relationship to man. It was also a discovery of how Calvinism had become in many ways its own sort of idol for me – the irony being that at the very moment I was speaking words about the “greatness of God” I was actually enthralled by the greatness of my own intellect. John Newton (A Calvinist) put it well when he wrote:

“And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self- righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.”*****

The difference between me and Newton is that I see this as almost an inherent part of the system of Calvinism, because I believe that systems themselves have inherent dangers, and when placed together with some of the content of Calvinism, such is almost unavoidable. In the weeks ahead I hope to outline more specifically where I believe the system of Calvinism has eclipsed some of the content of Scripture as it pertains to Grace and in so doing, stepped into an untenable position biblically speaking.

*I place the words Doctrines of Grace in quotes because I don't believe they rise to the level of Doctrines AS THEY ARE STATED in Calvinism. Doctrines are central tenets of the faith that can render one orthodox or heretical.
** Spurgeon wrote: “It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus.” Spurgeon, “A Defense of Calvinism.”
***http://kerussocharis.blogspot.com/2009/09/atonement-in-plain-english-god-saves-us.html I have a lot of respect for Wade on many levels and do not wish to cast aspersions on his overall character at all.
**** Augustine and Calvin’s understanding of reality itself is problematic and fed into the system they both adhered to in relation to the “Doctrines of Grace.”
***** John Newton, quoted in Credenda Agenda, Vol. 5 No. 2, p. 2, from The Works of John Newton, Vol 1, Banner of Truth, p. 272.