Saturday Book Review: Habets and Grow and Evangelical Calvinism

Saturday Book Review: Habets and Grow and Evangelical Calvinism November 10, 2012

Evangelical Calvinism

This post is written by Wes Vander Lugt

Featuring: Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Wipf and Stock, 2012).

You are mistaken if you think Calvinists are all cut from the same cloth. As Habets and Grow explain in their introduction, evangelical Calvinism seeks to chart a middle way between conservative (or federal) Calvinism and liberal Calvinism. Evangelical Calvinism is not to be confused with the new-Calvinist or neo-Reformed movement. Rather, they explain it more as a mood than a movement, one that shares a common boundary with evangelicalism in terms focusing on Christ, valuing the witness of Scripture, and making much of the gospel. They also point out that while conservative Calvinists prefer the Westminster Confession, evangelical Calvinists find most affinity with the Scots Confession and Heidelberg Catechism.

In the second chapter, “The Phylogeny of Calvin’s Progeny,” Charles Partee similarly distinguishes these three types of Calvinism according to the Reformation rubrics of Scripture alone, Faith alone, and Christ alone. Conservative Calvinists champion Scripture alone, as represented by Charles Hodge. Liberal Calvinists champion Faith alone, especially as interpreted by Schleiermacher through the lens of religious experience. Evangelical Calvinists champion Christ alone, represented by Karl Barth and many Scottish theologians. In fact, based on the theologian most often quoted in this book, it would seem that T. F. Torrance deserves the title of ‘patron saint’ for evangelical Calvinists.

There are many brilliant essays in this book that explore various aspects of evangelical Calvinism, and it would be impossible to summarize them all. Perhaps it is most helpful to list the fifteen theses offered by the editors in the final chapter. They are careful to point out that not all the contributors to the book would agree with every thesis, but this is the editors’ attempt to develop evangelical Calvinism as a “definable position within the Reformed tradition.”

  1. The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship.
  2. The primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”
  3. There is one covenant of grace.
  4. God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealing with humanity.
  5. Election is christologically conditioned.
  6. Grace precedes law.
  7. Assurance is of the essence of faith.
  8. Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.
  9. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialogical/dialectical theology.
  10. Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.
  11. Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.
  12. Universalism is not a corollary of universal redemption and is not constitutive for Evangelical Calvinism.
  13. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.
  14. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.
  15. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition.

It should be pointed out that both liberal and conservative Calvinists, depending on how conservative or liberal they are, would affirm many of these theses. The spectrum within these two camps means that, for example, some conservative Calvinists might only affirm a couple of these theses while others might affirm a majority. Certainly, each thesis deserves to be unpacked, but in just reading all of them listed here, I am curious to your responses to the following questions:

  • What theses are most surprising, and how does this change, if at all, your conception of Calvinism?
  • Do you see this proposal for evangelical Calvinism as a legitimate ‘middle way’ between conservative and liberal Calvinism? Why or why not?
  • For conservative Calvinists who are closer to the center but still would not endorse each thesis, which ones would cause them the most concern?

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  • CGC

    Wow Scot,
    As an Arminian, I could hold hands on most of these with Calvinists. Two points (1) I am surprised at the more balanced views on the atonement. I live near Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Calvinists around here are very monolithic in their less than multifaceted approach to the atonement; and (2) Assurance is the essence of faith? Is this a belief in the doctrine of “once saved, always saved” is the essence of faith? Some kind of pyschological assurance or what? What are they saying on this point?

  • scotmcknight

    CGC, hope you saw that Wes wrote this post, not I.

  • I’ve said in the past that I’m Reformed, but not fully. Most of the time I sound like a full-blown Calvinist, but there are edges that I’m–shady on the whole question, so when I read about this I’m interested. I do have some trouble with a few of these theses:

    “There is one covenant of grace.” I’m sorry, but I do think there is biblical warrant for understanding the presence of the covenant of works. And G.K. Beale has just represented it in his biblical theology.

    “Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.” Eh…I agree that in some way Christ’s death and resurrection was for all humanity, but there are some senses in which it was not. I believed that as an Arminian.

    “There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.” Meh…again, I’m up for talking about this, but there does seem to be some biblical warrant for the traditional understanding.

    “The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.” I’m all for being multifaceted in our approach to the Cross, Christ got a lot done there, but I’d be curious to see how they work it out. Often-times calls for moving beyond “one culturally-conditioned theory” is some strawman attack on penal substitution.

    These are some concerns. Otherwise, looks like really great stuff.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I did understand that Wes wrote it but I was addressing you in thanks for posting this as well as asking you if you knew what #7 meant specifically as “assurance is the essence of faith?” Can you or someone else unpack that some more?

  • James Petticrew

    When I was at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester Dr Tom Noble, who studied under one of the Torrances in Edinburgh, taught me dogmatics. I recognise most of these points so there must be considerable overlap between this and Wesleyan Arminianism

  • Hey Wes, thanks for this helpful review. How do the authors define liberal calvinism?

    I am excited to see that TF Torrance is considered a primary source for evangelical calvinists. Is there any discussion of Colin Gunton (thesis three neatly summarizes the main thrust of Gunton’s project)?

  • Oops! I meant to say thesis ONE rather than thesis three. I was doing some Trinitarian thinking, and slipped in three for one!

    The idea that the Trinity is the ground of epistemology, theology and worship is such a recurring theme in Gunton’s writing, and so that is why I ask. Gunton, I think, would also want to throw ‘ontology’ into that list of big categories, and do you think that evangelical calvinists would want to do the same?

  • Steven

    I’m curious about 11, 13, and 14 more than anything. I can agree outright with all of the others, but I’m not sure how to take these three. Are they rejections of Limited Atonement? I would like to stand by that point, so I would think I could not hold to 11 and 14 in that regard.

    Further, I’m not sure what is meant by “double predestination.” If the rejection of Limited Atonement is wrapped up in a rejection of double predestination I understand, however, I’m not sure why people get so upset with either concept. Maybe if you could unpack that a little bit?

  • I went to school with Bobby Grow and have discussed Evangelical Calvinism with him on his blog. I still not sure why they want to call it “Calvinism”. I actually agree with most, if not all of what I understand, I just get hung up on the label “Calvinism” and would prefer to leave it behind, because I think it just confuses both friend and foe. I don’t have a huge problem with John Calvin, but I do want to distance myself from many of his followers.

  • Joel

    Yes, Nathan! I second what you said. I have been studying the Torrences, Gunton, Deddo, etc., for longer than the “evangelical calvinist” nomenclature has been around. I would definitely fall into this camp, as far as my current theological leanings go, but don’t subscribe to the label – I too think it creates unnecessary confusion. Not that I have a solution to offer… The people at Grace Communion International (the only “evangelical calvinist” denomination out there, by the way) call it simply “Trinitarian Theology” (which also creates confusion, I find). How about post-calvinist evangelical? Or maybe evangelical Barthian? Maybe post-neo-pre-reformed? 😉 Labels are necessary evils aren’t they?

  • Bev Mitchell

    When Grow first announced this book on his blog along with an outline I had the temerity to suggest they drop the word Calvinism from the title so as to avoid confusion. There was no response. Agree that it is great to see Torrance highlighted. Elmer Colyer (“How to Read T.F. Torrance”) is working on a similar treatment for Wesley and says (per. com.) he sees many similarities between Torrance and Wesley. In answering a comment on his recent post on open theism, Roger Olson says “The first use of the phrase “openness of God” that I can find is in Torrance’s Space, Time and Incarnation……..I’m not saying he’s an open theist in the John Sanders, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd sense. But he does seem to open that door in the quote..”

    Go figure. In the words of one of our best known prime ministers in these northern parts “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

    P.S. What gives with the supralapsarianism (point 8). More info needed.

  • Beakerj

    Well, I’m delighted to see 11 & 14…their corollaries are the things that make me shudder most about Calvinism & prompt questions about what the goodness of God could possibly mean.

  • Beakerj

    Oh, that would be 11 & 13, not 14.

    Long day at work!

  • Timothy

    The aspect of Evangelical Calvinism that intrigues me is 4.
    Douglas Campbell divides exegetes of Romans into three camps. The first of these emphasise Justification by Faith and so he calls them JF. I think he equates them with typical traditional evangelicals. He argues that they are strongly contractual. Yet in the above analysis the Calvinists are covenantal rather than contractual. Is this true for the other versions of Calvinism? What is the essential difference between covenantal and contractual?

  • Casey

    I’m OPC (for what that’s worth). I guess I would be most concerned with 12 & 14.

  • Wes,

    Thank you for the review!

    I will just make this short for now. Myk and I came upon the language of Evangelical Calvinism not by our own thinking, but instead it comes directly from Thomas Torrance in his book ‘Scottish Theology’; it is the way that he would describe in his kind of Calvinism in contrast to Federal/Westminster Calvinism.

    We claim to be Calvinists because we work and think from that particular history in the Christian history of ideas; not from an Arminian framework. We realize as we engage history, Myk and I do, that Calvinism is not a monolithic thing, but a multi-valent reality made up of many layers and trajectories. Nevertheless, Calvinism has certain identifiable contours of belief that help clarify it as “Calvinism.” Myk and I believe that our trajectory, theologically, fits in this line of theological reflection; as did Torrance, as did Barth … both of whom we would are indebted.

    The authors in our book are either more Calvinian, Torrancian, Barthian or a combo of all to one degree or another. Myk and I happen to fall towards the Torrancian on that spectrum, and w/o Torrance’s book ‘Scottish Theology’ this book project of ours never would’ve happened.

    We are supralapsarian because we believe that God’s life has priority, both logically and chronologically to his creation (e.g. Covenant precedes creation etc.). We see pre-destination in reference to God’s intra-triune life and the choice that he made to be for us, in Christ, in election. We see election, primarily as the external exemplification of God’s eternal pre-destination to be for us in the incarnation of Christ. There is more to be said (and we have said it in the book and under that Thesis, and in one of Myk’s personal chapters) on this, but I will have to leave it here for now.

    I think it would be wrong to suggest that there is even an inkling of “Open” theology in the theology of Thomas Torrance. When Torrance speaks of God’s openness he would be referencing God’s life in himself (in se), and then how that works itself out (ad extra) in the economy of his life in salvation history. Given the fact that God’s life is open toward the other (between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), it is this reality and dynamism that we are taken into through the mediation of God’s life in Christ and our union with that life by the Spirit. Given the ineffable nature of God’s life, our relationship with him in Christ is in an constant state of openness; in the sense that his life is inexhaustible relative to our knowledge and participation in him.

    To try and read Torrance through classical lenses won’t ultimately work. He is neither a classical Calvinist nor Arminian since he consciously and intentionally seeks to constantly eschew the classical theistic categories that serve as the touchstones for both classical Calvinism and Arminianism. And so it would really be better to understand that Torrance is operating from a totally different prolegomena or theological method, and thus it is best to read and interpret his thought on those terms, and through those categories. He works in what Barth called the ‘analogy of faith’ tradition, and more idiosyncratic to Torrance, he works in and through his Theological Science or kata physin approach to theological endeavor. Which means that he believes that the best way to understand anything, and in our case, God (so anyOne), is to allow our object (and subject) of consideration to impose himself on us in a way that this object/subject opens up to us its own categories and emphases for consideration (Torrance called this an epistemological inversion in contrast to a foundationalism or something). Which is why we, following Torrance, accept Revealed theology and reject philosophical/analytical theology.

    There is more to say, and it has been said in our book; so you all must get a copy and read it :-).

    Blessings, and thanks again, Wes!

  • Thanks for everyone’s comments, and I apologize for not being to respond earlier. Thanks in particular to Bobby for responding and directly addressing some questions and comments. Bobby, I appreciate your desire to portray the breadth of the Calvinist tradition, and for presenting Evangelical Calvinism as a possible third way. In my opinion, I think ‘Reformed’ may be the better label to use for the spectrum, because I think this term encompasses a greater breadth of positions that may not be comfortable with a Calvinist label. That being said, what you and Myk have done is very helpful and these essays are a brilliant contribution to the ongoing conversation.

    Just a quick reply to some of the other comments. Regarding those who see similarity between EC and Arminian theology, there may be some specific points of overlap, but there are many points of divergence and EC is a distinct theological vision as Bobby and Myk have presented it.

    There are several references to Colin Gunton, which makes perfect sense given other conversation partners.

    As I read it, in the book liberal Calvinism is described as theology starting from human experience (ala Schleiermacher) rather than divine revelation (ala Barth). Should it then still be called Calvinism? Maybe not.

    Regarding assurance of faith as the essence of faith, the book seeks to connect this doctrine with union with Christ, as Calvin does. As such, the root of assurance is Christ himself as mediated by the Spirit.

    Thanks again for all your responses, and I too would encourage you to pursue answers to further questions by reading the book for yourself.

  • Hi Wes,

    Thank you. There are some among our authors who would prefer the label of ‘Reformed’ to ‘Calvinist’ as well; but as I noted, we took the language directly from TF Torrance’s designation in his book ‘Scottish Theology’; for better or worse :-). Most folk who move and breath within the realm use Calvinist over and against Reformed anyway; culturally we all seem to understand that this symbolizes a particular move made within the broader Reformed tradition (it could be argued that Arminians are also Reformed).