Home > Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics > I’m A Calvinist, but…

I’m A Calvinist, but…

I’m a Calvinist, but that does not define who I am.  Let me explain.

Those of you who read this blog and are reformed in your Soteriology will remember when God opened your eyes to the Scriptures to see his sovereignty over all things.  I remember when I was in seminary I began to read several books and articles that challenged my thinking on the Doctrines of Grace.  Coming to embrace the sovereignty of God was not only a challenging process, but has often been the source of great scorn and rejection by others.  Although there are great challenges in holding to the Doctrines of Grace, the rewards of seeing God’s sovereignty over all things far outweighs any struggles.  With that said, let me say that I fully embrace the Doctrines of Grace and am truly grateful for what they represent and how they impact my life as a Christian.  However, I am not defined by them.

In recent years a resurgence has began among young adults with regard to Calvinism.  Christianity Today wrote an article about this resurgence and many of you know that Southern Seminary is a flagship school for Calvinism, although the leadership may not identify itself as such.  As great as it is to see Calvinism make a resurgence among people, it should not define us. At times I fear that people and churches take pride in their Calvinism rather than the gospel.  What should define us is the gospel.  I realize that the Doctrines of Grace represent the gospel, but even our understanding of the these wonderful truths of God’s grace cannot be divorced from the greater plotline of Scripture.  Let me make two points here.

1.) Proof-Texting and the Calvinist.  One of the favorite passages of Scripture for the Calvinist to demonstrate the absolute sovereignty of God is Romans 9:6-18.  Typically, this passage is used to show God’s electing purposes from both the life of Jacob and Esau and Moses and Pharaoh.  While it is true that God’s sovereign election is clearly understood from this passage; Paul is making an argument from the Old Testament to demonstrate God’s election in regard to his purposes for Israel.  In other words, Romans 9:6-18 should not be merely viewed as a proof text for individual election, but should be interpreted and applied according to how Paul is using God’s electing purposes within redemptive-history.  Ultimately Paul is demonstrating that God’s purposes are never based on flesh, but based on promise (or faith).  Paul then goes on to show how the Gentiles are chosen by God to receive this wonderful salvation.  Even those who advocate a corporate view of election from this passage are missing the point.  Paul is not trying to establish the doctrine of election from a personal or corporate sense, but he is showing God’s purposes for Israel and the Gentiles, which inevitably involves the doctrine of election.  As Calvinists let us be faithful to properly understand the contexts that these sorts of passages are found in and be faithful to explain the text properly.

2.) Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology.  This point picks up off my last point. Every one of the wonderful points of the Tulip should never be divorced from how Scripture understands them within the flow of redemptive-history.  If we take any doctrine within the study of Systematic Theology (e.g., Theology Proper, Anthropology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, etc.) we must first develop that doctrine according to the Bible’s own contours and categories.  In other words, the Bible is not a Systematic Theology textbook, but God’s redemptive purposes revealed in human history. We must be careful to formulate the various points of Tulip in the same way.  For example, the doctrine of perseverance does not come to us neatly packaged in a single chapter, but we must follow the warp and woof of Scripture allowing it shape our thoughts about the doctrine.  We see perseverance developed all throughout the Old Testament with God’s people living in strange lands, under foreign rulers, and persecuted by ungodly nations.  Those who possessed genuine faith continued to press on and believe God’s promises.  The writer of Hebrews tells of these saints’ perseverance in chapter eleven.  Those of the church must persevere as well, but how much more confident can we be “upon who the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11).  Thus, if there was judgment under the first covenant for ignoring it; how much more judgment do we face when we have seen and heard God’s final Word (Jesus, cf., Heb 2:1-4)?  As we read books like James, 1-2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation we see God’s wisdom for his people on how to live and persevere among a perverse and idolatrous world.

We all proof-text our beliefs.  This is called theological shorthand.  However, just as we would scoff at others for illegitimately using the text to establish their doctrines (i.e., taking a text out of context), we must be wise in how we use Scripture to defend our beliefs, knowing that these truths from Scripture are never divorced from their redemptive-historical setting in which they are first given and then later developed.  While I am grateful for coming to understand the Doctrines of Grace, I am even more grateful for the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, which not only encapsulates the Doctrines of Grace, but shows us so much more when we read and understand our Bibles according to the way Jesus and the apostles did.

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  1. ken
    July 2, 2007 at 6:29 pm | #1

    “At times I fear that people and churches take pride in their Calvinism rather than the gospel. What should define us is the gospel.”

    Couldn’t agree more! So true! Calvinism can be (not always) a distraction from the Gospel.

    Thanks, Chad, for taking the time to post your thoughts. My wife and I are benefitting much from your efforts. Mucho Thanks!

  2. John Meade
    July 3, 2007 at 6:29 am | #2

    Chad,

    Good correction for all of us. The doctrine of total depravity is one that needs to be critiqued according to this point.

    It’s not that we would go on to deny original sin or total inability or the like, but we would go on to describe total depravity as union with Adam, the first man. Adam surely died, and we as his children are dead in sin as well. He as our represenative brought death to us, just as if we ourselves sinned. The sin of the first man was all-pervasive, reaching even the heart with its desires and lusts, so that humanity can be described as children of wrath by nature.

    I am describing Eph 2:1-10 as one can see. The exegetical/theological “pay off” to seeing “TD” in this framework may easily be seen by Paul’s description of the glorious salvation “in Christ,” which Paul has been describing since 1:3. But now Paul comes right to the point. Jews and Gentiles have been made one through Christ’s death. Consequently, Christ has made peace, and he has made “one new man or humanity (i.e. ADAM)” (Eph. 2:15).

    Chad your point is well taken. I don’t hear you saying that all those books written by Edwards, Luther, and Calvin on the will of man were useless or even unbiblical. But you are suggesting that their theological method could be tied to Scripture more closely if they had began with the Scriptural categories in the first place. Is that what you are suggesting?

    John M

  3. Chad
    July 3, 2007 at 7:02 am | #3

    John,

    Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Well stated.

    Chad.

  4. July 7, 2007 at 9:51 am | #4

    Excellent post. I didn’t find myself coming to a Reformed understanding of theology based on reading reformed theologians, but rather by reading the Word and seeing the common thread of a sovereign God throughout. I fear some of our brothers base too much of their Calvinism on the writings of Sproul and not enough on the writings of Scripture. As much as I love Sproul and company, great Reformed writings supplement Scripture, but ought not supplant it.

  5. July 8, 2007 at 12:10 pm | #5

    Thank you Chad for so eloquently stating so clearly that theologians and students should be wary in holding to the “Calvinist” label.

  6. Tim Hawkins
    July 12, 2007 at 4:29 pm | #6

    You know some people may ask you to turn in your Calvinist membership card for this post. But I agree whole-heartedly with your post and the comments of your readers. I sometimes wonder if some who carry the label of Calvinist are more faithful to theological systems rather than the Bible’s storyline. I appreciate your ministry to me in those early years as I began to learn of God’s unfolding plan of redemption and how to properly understand and apply the Bible.

  7. Jason
    July 15, 2007 at 4:28 pm | #7

    Good post Chad. It’s the Gospel that defines us, not our “Calvinism”. This is a good reminder to us all–especially those of us who are “redemptive-historians”. We can get so excited and caught up in our Biblical Theology and lose sight of the One to whom our Biblical Theology looks. Arrogance and Pride can so easily entrap us as we come to know our Lord in greater detail through a better hermeneutic. But our goal should be greater intimacy with our Savior (which our Redemptive-Historical hermeneutic enables), not simply better or more knowledge for knowledge sake. We who know our Lord are Christians-not Calvinists! Thanks for the reminder.

    Jason

  8. November 19, 2007 at 7:51 pm | #8

    Chad,

    If you have the time and interest to do so, I would be grateful to hear how you would respond to Spurgeon’s “A Defense of Calvinism” (http://www.spurgeon.org/calvinis.htm) in which he says, for example:

    “It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”

    His,
    Zach

  9. Chad
    November 25, 2007 at 9:40 pm | #9

    Zach,

    Thanks for the link. Sorry I did not respond sooner. I read what Spurgeon wrote and I don’t necessarily disagree with his statements. The gospel is bound up with the notion that salvation is completely a work of God and that justification is by faith alone, but the gospel does not come to us in five points, it comes to us in redemptive-history. Therefore, I think it is better to define our understanding of the TULIP the way the Bible presents it, which is in the context of redemptive-history, not a five-bullet outline with proof texts.

    At times, I think some Calvinists take more pride in being able to defend and argue the TULIP rather than showing Christ from all the Scriptures.

    I hope that helps. What are your thoughts?

    Chad

  10. November 26, 2007 at 9:26 am | #10

    > What are your thoughts?

    I don’t know.

    Well OK, here’s one thought. I have a friend who I see on and off but we don’t have a lot of common background of shared experienceds. When we get together and he talks he frequently emphasizes things that I would not emphasize. Sometimes it drives me crazy. He makes a big deal out of issue X, and even though I agree with his perspective on issue X, I just feel that X isn’t really that big of an issue. Then I talk about issue Y, which seems important to me but he goes back to X, and I think, “What’s your problem buddy?”
    But then he’ll tell of some of his experiences of what he has been through, and what he has seen and heard others do, and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s quite different from my experience. Gosh, if I was surrounded by so many people who were denying X and it was having those kind of consequencews then I would probably be as passionate about defending X as you are.”
    Anyway that’s what I thought of when you said:

    “At times, I think some Calvinists take more pride in being able to defend and argue the TULIP rather than showing Christ from all the Scriptures.”

    Well gosh, that situation just sounds a bit foreign to my experience. In the wider circle of my Christian friends and churchmates I think most don’t know what TULIP is. Most of my closest Christian friends are Reformed, but only two or three would be prepared to defend the five points. And of those two or three I think they would rather show Christ from all the Scriptures.

    So I guess if you are seeing a lot of people for whom Calvinism defines who they are, then I can understand your sentiments.

  11. Chad
    November 26, 2007 at 9:42 am | #11

    Zach,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think a lot of these issues of emphasis depend on the “air you breathe.” However, with that said, I do agree that most people don’t know anything about Calvinism and what they do know if often a gross misrepresentation. Therefore, while Calvinism does not define me, I hold to the teaching and think we should defend and clarify it for others who don’t understand it or have never heard of it.

    Chad

  12. gmcastil
    February 1, 2009 at 12:34 am | #12

    I think if Calvinists spent as much time studying the gospels as they did studying MacArthur, Piper, and Sproul, they might conclude they weren’t really Calvinists.

    To people that have lashed themselves so firmly to the mast of Calvinism, I think that is all they can see when they look at Scripture. All they see in the text is their system, because they’re tied to their system.

  13. mark schafersman
    March 29, 2009 at 7:32 am | #13

    When I was arminian I know I read the bible with arminian bias. Now I know I read the bible with a calvinistic bias. I now fear that I now may emphasize God’s will of decree more that God’s will of command at bible studies. Are there any specific pitfalls that I could be alerted to when studying Dever’s OT core seminar?

  14. April 1, 2009 at 9:27 am | #14

    great post!

  1. July 6, 2007 at 10:37 am | #1

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