Evangelical Calvinism?

Evangelical Calvinism? July 5, 2012

“Evangelical Calvinism?”

I have been reading a new book about Calvinism entitled Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church edited by Myk Habets and Bobby Grow and published by Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock).

I hope my blog followers appreciate the fact that I actually read primary Calvinist material and not just Arminian books and articles about Calvinism. Over the years I have read literally scores of books about Calvinism by Calvinists. And I try to keep up. I have reviewed several recent books about Calvinism by Calvinist authors here.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Calvinists would read books about Arminianism by Arminians instead of only books about Armianism by Calvinists? That seems rare, however. In my experience, most Calvinists get their “information” about Arminius and Arminianism from Charles Hodge or some similarly biased Reformed source.

Whenever I pick up a book about Calvinism or Arminianism, after perusing the table of contents, I turn to the index to see what authorities the author or authors have consulted. In the case of the present book, Evangelical Calvinism, Arminius is mentioned only once as a “worthy” who was excluded from the conservative, orthodox Calvinism. “Arminianism,” however, is mentioned numerous times. For example, on page 196 in the chapter “There is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ: Christologically Conditioned Election” Mark Habets relies on Calvinist theologian David Fergusson for his information about Arminianism. (Has he bothered to read Arminius or any standard evangelical Arminian theologian to find out what Arminians really believe?)

According to Fergusson (and by implication Habets), what separates Barth’s viewpoint “from that of synergistic semi-Pelagianism, or Arminianism is his employment of something [Thomas] Torrance also utilizes, the recognition that ‘there is no symmetry between acceptance and rejection, and no sense in which the trust we show is of equal weight to God’s mercy’.” I would ask both Fergusson and Habets to justify from Arminius’ own writings or from any leading classical evangelical Arminian theologian the claim that Arminianism gives “equal weight” to “the trust we show” and “God’s mercy.”

A few Arminian theologians do show up in the book (e.g., John Wesley, William Abraham), but they are rarely, if ever, used as sources or authorities for supporting claims made about Arminianism.

One reason this matters to me is that I believe these authors would discover, if they plumbed deeply enough into classical evangelical Arminianism that their “evangelical Calvinism” shares much in common with the former and may even be closer to it than to what usually goes under the name “Calvinism” in Britain and America today.

Evangelical Calvinism consists of fifteen essays (including the editors’ introduction) on a variety of subjects relevant to Calvinism and Reformed theology from Scripture to original sin to election to the sacraments and infant salvation. One “string” that ties most of the essays together is the name “Torrance.” Clearly most of these authors are disciples of brothers Thomas and James Torrance, two of the leading British interpreters of the theology of Karl Barth.

The editors and authors make clear that there is no uniformity among what they are calling evangelical Calvinism. One thing they share in common is misgivings about so-called classical, orthodox or “federal” Calvinism stemming especially from Beza and channeled through Gomarus, et al. In other words, scholastic Calvinism. So far as I can tell, having read much but not all of the book, none of the authors ascribes to limited or particular atonement.

Before continuing, let me say that I highly recommend the book and am very glad it is published. We need other voices among Calvinists—other than the often loud and shrill and harsh voices of those associated with the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement. (Here I am not speaking so much about the run-of-the-mill young people associated with it as about its theological “gurus.”) So-called evangelical Calvinism, as represented by this book’s editors and authors, is a breath of fresh air that will probably be dismissed as revisionist by the die-hards among the high federal, TULIP Calvinists.

According to this book’s editors and authors, Calvinism comes in several flavors and theirs, evangelical Calvinism, has been handed down primarily by Scottish chefs. As mentioned, the two main ones are the Torrances. Many other names are mentioned, but I won’t go into all of them. Suffice it to say that this flavor of Calvinism has a Barthian taste but is not limited to Barth or the “Barthians.” For example, British turn-of-the-century evangelical theologian Peter Taylor Forsyth is treated by some of the authors as a forerunner of contemporary evangelical Calvinism who was not influenced by Barth (because he wrote before Barth).

I should mention that one theme running throughout evangelical Calvinism is an emphasis on union with Christ as the heart beat of Calvinism. Of course, classical, high, federal Calvinists will claim that as their own heart beat as well. Arminians could say the same (although I like to say that the character of God as unconditionally good is what drives Arminianism).

When I see a book like this I always look for the chapter on salvation. That’s the heart of the dispute, is it not? I mean the dispute between classical Calvinism and classical Arminianism and even among various branches of Reformed theology. So, I read with special interest Habets’ chapter “’There is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ’”—a sentiment with which I heartily agree!

Here is what Habets says about salvation according to evangelical Calvinism:

What then happens in salvation? When confronted with God, humans for the first time become free to decide for God. “The personal encounter of Christ with forgiveness on His lips, singles out a man…and gives him freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’…freedom is only possible face to face with Jesus Christ.” [Quote from T. F. Torrance] If there is a universal atonement, as we shall consider shortly [there is], then surely it is a corollary that all who are confronted with God’s forgiveness, and as a consequence are free, will repent and receive salvation. Torrance disagrees. [So does Habets.] While freedom is possible face to face with Jesus Christ “the mystery is—and this we shall never fathom—that such a man may commit the sin of Adam all over again.” (p. 181)

How is this different from classical, evangelical Arminianism? I don’t see that it is different at all. It is only different from a distorted image of Arminianism.

Am I saying that evangelical Arminianism and evangelical Calvinism are identical? No. But, then, there are varieties of evangelical Arminianism, too. There are so-called “Reformed Arminians” and there are Wesleyan Arminians. There are Arminians who believe in inamissable grace and ones who believe in the real possibility of apostasy. And so on. So “identical” would not be a felicitous word when comparing any two theologies.

I’m not trying to place evangelical Calvinism under the Arminian umbrella anymore than the other way around. I’m not trying to place evangelical Arminianism under the “Calvinist” umbrella. (Although I think a good argument can be made that classical Arminianism is a flavor of Reformed theology broadly defined.)

Apparently, however, evangelical Calvinism and evangelical Arminianism share much common ground. (I’m sure that makes some people in both camps shudder.) Both believe in total depravity in the sense of utter helplessness to do anything spiritually good apart from supernatural grace. Both believe Christ died for all people. Both believe election is conditional IN ITS ACTUALIZATION for the individual who must freely accept the saving grace of God. Both believe even people for whom Christ died can resist grace.

Wherein exactly lie the differences (besides history and ecclesiology)? I suspect the MAIN difference lies in evangelical Calvinists’ distorted ideas about Arminianism. For example, on page 280 Jason Goroncy (Chapter 10 on the atonement) rejects both “monergism” (salvation is “all of God, nothing of humanity”) and “synergism” (I assume he is thinking of Arminianism) (“partly God, partly humanity”). That is not, of course, what Arminian synergism believes. We believe salvation is all of God involving humanity.

Could evangelical Calvinists and evangelical Arminians talk to each other and perhaps find our common ground and forge an alliance to oppose the dominance of high federal Calvinism in contemporary American evangelicalism? (By “dominance” I don’t refer to numbers but to books published, voices loudly heard, etc.) Or will evangelical Calvinists continue to view evangelical Arminians through jaundiced eyes, looking down on us as (biblically and theologically) weaker brothers and sisters?

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