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For and Against Calvinism 4

For and Against Calvinism 4 October 24, 2011

Finally, Michael Horton’s book arrived: For Calvinism. I agree with Roger Olson, whose companion volume in this series ( Against Calvinism) has so far been the focus of the first three posts, that Michael Horton is a fair-minded proponent of Calvinism and a fair-minded, firm critic of Arminianism.

Before I go forward I would like to register a disagreement with both Olson and Horton in the endorsement of terms like “synergism” and “monergism.” I understand that many are willing to say Arminianism is synergistic while Calvinism is monergistic, but I find the terms loaded and creative of a false dichotomy. They seem to emerge when Calvinists set the agenda. Michael Horton, in the opening introduction, says as much: Arminians don’t think they contribute to salvation one bit and Calvinists believe in the necessity of a human acting in faith. The so-called “co-operation” in Arminian thinking is not equal: it is not the God does one part and we do our part, nor is the Calvinist denying the human is an actor in faith. There are differences here, to be sure, but I for one would like to register that I don’t think these terms help much.

Is Calvinism’s focus on justification an indicator of a soterian approach to the gospel?  Which of Calvinism’s five (TULIP) give you the most trouble? Do you think the “synergism” and “monergism” labels help us understand each of these systems of thought?

Michael Horton points out something I hinted at, and something that needed more development in The King Jesus Gospel, namely that revivalism of the Second Great Awakening combined evangelistic zeal and modernity and American pragmatism to create a reduced gospel, and that form led to what I call “pragmatic” soterianism. The Reformation emphasized soteriology, but it was only later in revivalism that the seed that had taken root flourished into a soterian gospel that is severely reductionistic.

Michael prefers, instead of TULIP’s typical categories, total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, effectual grace, and perseverance of the saints.

Michael refers to these as the “doctrines of grace” and “the richest and most faithful exposition of the gospel” (20), and I want to slow down to respond to this before I get to how Michael understands the “essence of Calvinism.” The first expression is typical for Calvinism, and I know why they like such terms (because they think their Calvinism exalts grace and is saturated by grace), and that is fine — as long as it is not suggested that they alone, or even most especially, teach true grace. (They think that; that’s fine; others of us disagree, and that’s worth saying).

That Michael Horton can refer to the five points as the “richest and most faithful exposition of the gospel” simply means to me that he’s got a soterian approach to the gospel, and not enough of the Story gospel of 1 Cor 15:3-28 (or 3-5), the sermons in Acts, and the Gospels themselves. Once one thinks the gospel is soterian, and Michael is what I would call a covenant soterian, one can then deepen one’s theology of salvation through Calvinism, but this only works if one is a soterian. I would want to push back by suggesting that the richest and most faithful exposition of the gospel” is the one that exalts the person and Story of Jesus the most and makes it fully central. A soteriological system, then, for me can’t be the the richest or the most faithful understanding of the gospel.

Now back to Horton’s book, and chp one is exceptionally helpful: he has a nice sketch of the breadth of the Reformed faith (actually, Horton says the Reformed expression of the Christian faith) and, with Olson, he observes that the New Calvinism is not the one and only expression of the Reformed faith. In fact, the Reformed faith is much bigger than that group and Reformed theology is bigger than the five points.

Thus to be Reformed is to be catholic in that it affirms the creeds. Reformers are not restorationists. To be Reformed is to be evangelical, in the sense of being committed to the gospel (not the movement). To be Reformed is to adhere to the solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fidei. This is Horton’s way of talking about what it means to say to be Reformed is to be evangelical.

Horton asks if there is a central feature of Calvinism. It is not predestination. Calvin wasn’t the first Calvinist, and he suggests that Aquinas is close to being a Calvinist, and neither was he the only shaper of the Reformed tradition. Nor did Calvin see predestination as central. For Calvin the essence was justification, and election/predestination became more prominent because of debates. He sees Calvinism as God-centered but especially Christ-centered.

This led to covenant theology as the architectural framework.

Michael sketches Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism, and sees Arminianism as leaning toward semi-Pelagian. To me, calling Arminianism semi-Pelagianism is unhelpful because the former teaches prevenient grace and the all-pervasiveness of grace. (Same reason why I don’t like synergism.)


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