As usual, in the right online environs, the Calvinist-Arminian (Provisionist) debate has carried on unabated by not actually engaging with the actual entailments of a real-life Calvinist-Arminian theology. In other words, what the reader will find, are people who are in this interminable joust, oriented by the five points of Calvinism, or not. There is a free-flow exchange between favorite prooftexts, and their ostensible exegesis, and/or an intractable debate about this or that philosophical understanding vis-à-vis God’s sovereignty and human agency in freewill. I am almost positive that everyone reading here is well aware of what I am referring to.
What the above participants fail to ever break into, though, is actual and historic doctrine vis-à-vis the Reformed faith and its development. That is, in these debates you will never hear the words: ‘Covenantal’ ‘Federal’ ‘experimental predestinarianism’ ‘Divine pactum’ ‘pactum salutis’ ‘ordo salutis,’ so on and so forth. If a substantial critique is to be made of a classical Calvinism, and its sibling, Arminianism, what it actually teaches must be engaged with. That is, the best of that tradition, and its accurate representation, must be attended to over and again. In an attempt to alert folks, in these spheres, to what classical Calvinism actually entails let me refer us to a passage from C. G. M’Crie, cited by Thomas Torrance:
The Sum is objectionable in form and application. Detailed descriptions of redemption as a bargain entered into between the first and second Persons of the Trinity in which conditions were laid down, promises held out, and pledges given, the reducing of salvation to a mercantile arrangement between God and the sinner, in which the latter signifies contentment to enter into a relation of grace, so that ever after the contented, contracting part can say, ‘Lord, let it be a bargain’, — such presentations have obviously a tendency to reduce the Gospel of the grace of God to the level of a legal compact entered into between two independent and, so far as right or status is concerned, two equal parties. The blessedness of the mercy-seat is in danger of being lost sight of in the bargaining of the marketplace; the simple story of salvation is thrown into the crucible of the logic of the schools and it emerges in the form of a syllogism.
The Sum, as referred to by M’Crie, was a compression of the Westminster Confession of Faith for the Presbyterian church (kirk) in Scotland. Here is how Torrance describes it:
David Dickson and James Durham, both of whom emerged in expository activity, collaborated in compiling The Sum of Saving Knowledge, on the basis of sermons delivered by Dickson at Inverary. It was composed, Woodrow tells us, ‘so as it might be most useful to vulgar Capacities’. In that respect it was certainly very successful, for it supplied ordinary people with a simplified and formalised account of the plan of salvation according to the federal system of theology, expressed in the common language of the market-place. However, in this way the dynamic content of the Gospel was fused with the contractual means of putting into effect the eternal decrees held to issue from the Council of the Trinity, while the inclusion of ‘Kirk-government’ among the means of grace injected a strong presbyterian ecclesiasticism into theology. Ever since its publication in 1650, The Sum of Saving Knowledge has had an immense influence on the thinking of the Kirk by members and ministers alike. Although it was not officially authorised by the General Assembly it was long printed together with the Westminster Standards and associated with their authority. . ..
Some, in the know, in the Federal theology camp, might want to dispute M’Crie’s and Torrance’s characterization; go for it! Even so, the characterization of Covenantal or Westminster Calvinism, by these Scots, is indeed representative of the distillation of a classical Calvinism; particularly as that is embedded in Covenantal-Reformed theology.
At base, even in these short representations, what stands out is the informing theological framework for a classical Calvinism. Indeed, as noted by M’Crie, its character is legal, forensic, juridical, and even mercantile. In other words, the ground of historical Calvinist theology reflects the socio-cultural-economico milieu of the day. It was an agrarian based world, functioning on a bartering system, much like we might be familiar with even today in the 21st century; viz., in principle. It reflects a contractual (or transactional) system of salvation where the quid pro quo is central. That is to say: God presents a framework of legal obedience (covenant of works) for Adam and Eve to perform, in order for a continued relationship to remain in place between God and them. But they failed, which of course in this system God decreed to obtain, leading to an unbridgeable rupture between a sinful humanity (in Adam and Eve), and a Holy God. What was God to do? Thankfully God had already decreed this whole event, this whole economy, and as such, in eternity past had already struck a bargain with the Son (covenant of redemption aka pactum salutis) to purchase an arbitrarily elect group of people (based in God’s remote, hidden, or secret will) from Augustine’s massa of damned humanity. As the Son agreed to meet the conditions of the covenant of works, and prevail where Adam and Eve failed, it would be in His achievement, finally eventuating in His ultimate sacrifice and payment at the Cross, whereby this elect group of people would be purchased from eternal damnation, and brought into the eternal life of God. This, in the Covenantal (Federal) system, is known as the Covenant of Grace. As this covenant has been established, according to the categories of Federal theology, the ‘elect’ will enter into this covenantal framework, and be required to persevere in the good works they have ostensibly been created for in and through the instrumental work of Jesus Christ. Of course, there is a problem here for the elect: i.e., in this system you are never quite sure you really are one of the elect (you could actually be a reprobate). This system has operative what is called ‘temporary faith’ (even Calvin has this in his thinking, which I have published on in our edited book). Temporary faith is the notion, in this system, that it is possible to “look” like one of the elect for whom Christ died, but in the end the purported saint never really was; they didn’t have an effectual, persevering faith, and this by the decree of God.
Maybe if the Calvinist-Arminian debate squabbled with some of the above many would abandon the whole framework simply because they would realize how unlivable (and biblically foreign) it is. History of theological ideas, as you learn them have a way of bringing perspective that the parochial and un-informed debates cannot bring. I would suggest that it isn’t worth engaging in such debates at least until the debater has put in the appropriate work towards understanding the actual historical and theological bases that in fact fund what they are purportedly committed to, and arguing over.
For my money, as is no secret, there is a much better way. It doesn’t fully abandon the history of the Reformed development, but of course it constructively engages with that development, along with the teachings of the early Church, such that a genuinely evangelical and kerygmatic understanding of the Gospel is arrived at. The Gospel offers a freshness, a rest, and a hope that the oppressive system under consideration in this post cannot offer. I have detailed, pretty exhaustively here at the blog, and in our books, what informs this system; primarily as that relates to a doctrine of God and a prolegomena.
 C. G. M’Crie, The Confession of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: 1907), 72ff cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 122.
 Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 111-12.