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Calvinism: My History 1

Calvinism: My History 1 December 5, 2011

I was fortunate to have gone to college at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, and one of the high fortunes was that Grand Rapids was filled with bookstores and book-reading folks. As a student I came into contact with some Calvinist friends, and that set me off into reading Calvinism, and beside the standard textbooks and theologies, the theologians I read the most were Calvin and John Owen. After four years, Kris and I moved to Chicagoland for seminary. When I got to Trinity in the Fall of 1976 as a student, the first thing I noticed was how tightly the theological discussion was ratcheted. These folks knew what they were talking about, and they knew biblical texts and theological discussions, and the history of the Church. It took some work just to be conversant. It was a challenge for which I am grateful to this day.

Calvinism was not a front-burner issue, but was on the stove top waiting for someone to say something uninformed. I had some wonderful lecturers: H. Dermott McDonald was an eccentric theologian from London who told us that our syllabus was the library and we should get over there and read up on “God, Man, and Christ” and then come take his exam at the end. David Wells taught Sin and Salvation, and began by telling us that his wife said that he could teach the first half of the class by giving an autobiography. McDonald was not a Calvinist; Wells was. My NT teachers didn’t raise such topics: Norm Ericsen and Murray Harris. But, then Grant Osborne came to TEDS. (So, I can blame this journey on Grant, which he’d be happy to take credit for.)

Here’s what happened. Grant is famous for his handouts, and he had one on Eternal Security. It was a lengthy handout and he asked me to work through it, add some bibliography, and generally re-write it. It was a big task for me, but it was the first real chance I had to do something at that level. To prepare for it, Grant suggested I read I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God. Which I did. From cover to cover; underlined it; took notes; checked commentaries. It took a good long while. When I came up for air in Hebrews I had been persuaded that I was wrong about Calvinism. Like C.S. Lewis getting on a bus and then getting off converted, but not knowing when or how, so with me: from the beginning of working through Grant’s notes to reading through Marshall and arguing with him until he wrestled me to the ground and pinned me, I had become convinced that I was no longer a Calvinist. Which didn’t mean I gave up the architecture of Calvinism, but I did then consider high Calvinism an inaccurate understanding of the fullness of the Bible.

It was and still is my conviction that the five points of Calvinism belong together, and both Horton’s and Olson’s recent books have confirmed that view. You might be able to give up #5 (Perseverance) somehow (I don’t think so, but some think so) and you might need to add a #6 (Responsiblity), but if the Arminian understanding of “losing salvation” is right, that is, if the effectual calling can be abandoned or undone, then high Calvinism is not right. (I’ll eventually show why the expression “losing salvation” isn’t optimal.) Let me say this more clearly: if God’s saving, effectual grace can be resisted somehow, if believers can somehow choose to forfeit their salvation, then unconditional election and irresistible grace (and probably limited atonement) and surely perseverance (as preservation) of the saints are not right.

There are (so I think) two major weaknesses in Calvinism’s theology (and also a disorientation in its architecture): first, the emphasis of its architecture is not the emphasis of the Bible. Its focus on God’s Sovereignty, which very quickly becomes much less a doctrine of grace than a doctrine of control and theodicy etc, and its overemphasis on human depravity are not the emphases of the Bible. The overemphasis of these two in high Calvinism comes more from Augustine and later Calvinists than from the rhetoric of the biblical authors. I do not dispute the presence of these themes; I dispute their narratival centrality and they are where the gravity of emphasis is found in the Bible. Yes, we all have metanarratives that put things together, and Calvinism is one such metanarrative. It works for some; it simply didn’t work for me.

Second, the exegesis of Calvinism on crucial passages is sometimes dead wrong. I was once standing, years later when I was teaching at Trinity, outside my door talking with two professors about my view of Hebrews, when I simply asked one of them, “Who do you think best answers the Arminian interpretation of Hebrews?” That professor said, “Philip Hughes.” I had just read Hughes and I thought it was weak. In fact, what I thought was this: “If that is the best, then there is no debate.” The other professor said, “I agree, Scot. Hughes doesn’t answer the questions.” Then he said, “I’m not sure any commentary really answers it well.” (Both of these professors were Calvinists, and still are, God bless ’em.) What I’m saying is that the exegetical conclusions I was drawing (in all kinds of passages) were not answered adequately by the Calvinists I was reading. We all have to give them a fair shot. But at that time I had nothing to lose and it didn’t matter where I landed; I wanted to find out what the Bible said.

So this is where I found myself when I left for Nottingham to study for a Ph.D. in New Testament. I was reared among the eternal security Baptists who took what they liked from Calvinism and discarded most of the five points. Then I became more consistently Calvinistic by reading the Puritans and Calvin while I was in college.

Then I read the Bible from a different point of view, largely through the influence of Grant Osborne and Howard Marshall’s book, and that Calvinism all came tumbling down. If the Bible teaches that a human can be a believer and somehow forfeit that status, then the theology of high Calvinism cannot be right.

This left me with a strange mixture of theology: I was reared Baptist; I had done more than my fair share of reading the low church Anabaptists and considered myself one of those when it came to where theologizing ought to begin: with Jesus. And I was now studying the Bible with some Arminian conclusions on soteriology.

Following two years in England TEDS offered me a non-tenure track job to teach NT that lasted two years, and then (by the grace of God) it was ramped up to a full-time position when Wayne Grudem, in the providence of God, shifted over to Systematic Theology.

Within two years I was asked to teach Hebrews in a survey course, and I decided to spend my entire summer going through the exegesis of Hebrews and I was determined to concentrate on those dadgummed warning passages to see if I could settle the issues once and for all.

If the view to be presented in the posts ahead is right about Hebrews, (high) Calvinism is wrong.

Wednesday I’ll start on the warning passages in Hebrews, the most notorious of which is Hebrews 6:4-6.

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