What’s Bobby’s Problem? Why Is That Guy So Antagonistic Toward classical Calvinists? What a Chump!

What is it that makes me tick? I don’t know ;-)? But I am sure people have often wondered why I am so drawn—probably more so than anyone else I have ever encountered in the sphere—to making critiques of classical Calvinism.

I grew up, as I have noted more than once, in the home of a Conservative Baptist (CBA) pastor; and my doctrinal influences, as a result, were largely dispensational (hermeneutically) and Calminian (soteriologically)—so a bobbygrowbobbyhybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism, we preferred to call ourselves Biblicists. So I grew up in the apex of what it meant to be an American Evangelical (with some Fundy tendencies early on in my life, that changed as American Evangelicalism began to mature a little). One issue that really stood out in my tradition was the issue of salvation, and more pointedly, assurance of salvation. We repudiated what we thought (and in some cases rightly so) was the sine qua non of Arminian theology; viz. the belief that a person could “lose” their salvation. And we affirmed the “good side” of what we perceived Calvinism had to offer; viz. the belief that once a person was genuinely saved, they were always saved “Once Saved, Always Saved!” So in a way, I always grew up within a dialectic of sorts between popular conceptions of what Arminianism and Calvinism represented; in fact it might be said, that we believed as Biblicists, that we had charted a via media (‘middle way’) between Calvinism + Arminianism, thus ending up as Calminians (we had never heard of Amyrauldianism at that point).

So this is largely my background, in a nutshell. Then I attended Bible College at Multnomah. Nothing really changed for me at that point. I moved from being a classic Dispensationalist to a Progressive Dispensationalist, but my views on salvation only really hardened; and they were given a bit more grammar through the writings of Joseph Dillow, from his book ‘Reign of the Servant Kings’ (which is a book rooted in ‘Reward Theology’ and what others have called Free Grace theology a la Zane Hodges and contra John MacArthur’s “Lordship Salvation” construct—so I was stuck in this binary). I finally began seminary back in 2002, and my lights were turned on by being introduced to the wonderful world of Historical Theology, by Dr. Ron Frost. Ron Frost was (and is) a Puritan theology expert who wrote his PhD dissertation on Richard Sibbes and English Puritanism. A major part of his thesis identified that English Puritanism was a “divided house,” or, that there were at least two major trajectories that made up the Puritans; he constructively and historically built on the work of Janice Knight (and others), and her identification of these two major movements within English Puritanism. She (and he) identified one strand as The Spiritual Brethren, championed by Richard Sibbes; and she identified the other strand as The Intellectual Fathers, championed by William Perkins. The former group, as she argues, and Frost expands upon (by way of nuance, ecclesiologically in particular), The Spiritual Brethren, were non-Westminster and considered the orthodox version of Calvinism for quite some time; the latter, The Intellectual Fathers, were the Westminster tribe. They became the orthodox version of Calvinism over time, but not until the Puritans made their way to America, at which point William Ames became Perkins’ counterpart (while John Cotton became Sibbes’ counterpart, theologically, in America). Anyway, it is this, and the impact that Aristotelianism (Thomism) had had upon ‘The Intellectual Fathers’ (and what we consider Calvinism today) that began to play such a sharp role in my own thought life about classical Calvinism. Further, Ron Frost had had a lively exchange in The Trinity Journal (96-97) with famed Calvin and post-Reformed orthodox Calvinist scholar, Richard Muller. It is, largely, and mostly, this background that has given shape to my engagement with classical Calvinism (and classical theism) into the present. My antagonism has been informed by this grid that I inherited and have since cultivated from the time of seminary until the present. I have read plenty of others, now, along the way, that have also inculcated this same kind of ire for what I perceive as the wrong path, the wrong trajectory to be on in regard to Reformed theology. Beyond all of this, and this is more of the positive side, Ron Frost also introduced me to Trinitarian theology; Frost did his PhD at the University of London, King’s College when Colin Gunton was there, and Gunton came and gave the Staley scholarly lectureship at my alma mater while I was in seminary, and so I became exposed to something else that was really taking on steam back then. Beyond that, I also had a class and exposure to Paul Metzger, whose doktorvater while at King’s College, as well, was Colin Gunton; and Metzger had done his doctorate on Barth’s theology of culture (which we studied all semester, i.e. Metzger’s dissertation).

It is all of the above exposure—my growing up years, my undergrad training, to Historical Theology, Puritan Theology, Trinitarian Theology, Karl Barth—that opened me up to be available to hear from someone, in more depth (post-seminary now), like Karl Barth. Once I began to read about him (secondary literature), and then read him (this started back probably in and around 2006), and I was blogging and making contacts and connections at the same time, I also ran across Thomas Torrance. I began to realize, and found in Thomas Torrance, someone who embodied everything I was already totally opened to given my prior life and theological experiences. He was a “Trinitarian” theologian; he was antagonistic to Federal Theology (or Covenant Calvinism, classically construed); he was a historical theologian (even if one of retrieval at that); he was focused on Jesus, methodologically; he did not think in deterministic terms, but more dialectically (which I was already prone to growing up as an Evangelical); he still had a pastoral and evangelistic heart (given his own background); and coming back to the Trinitarian point, he saw God as Triune love who gave His life in Christ for ALL of humanity. I have now been cultivating this growth and knowledge of Barth, Torrance, and Calvin (who by the way was someone I began following quite heavily under Ron Frost’s tutelage, along with Martin Luther) over these last many years now. Torrance in particular was quite antagonistic toward classical Calvinism (Federal theology), what he called (flowing from Augustine) the Latin Heresy (Torrance identified, along with Barth, a faulty dualism at play in classical theism).

Anyway, I highlight all of this, not to make excuses for why I am so passionately antagonistic toward anything that I perceive as classical theology (which ironically many Barthians still consider Torrance’s theology still to be located within); but simply to let you all know that I know that I am a bit hyper in this direction; and also to let all of you know why, background and experience wise, why I predisposed in the direction and tone that I am. I am working on becoming a bit more balanced in my approach, but honestly, I can never imagine, ever, that I could ever be buddy, buddy with classical theism/theology/Calvinism/Arminianism; and I don’t mean personally (like with people who hold to these positions, I am friends with many classical theistic Christians), but theologically. I am what I am. And I am still in progress (like all of us).

PS. I think one thing that I might try to explore further with you all, a bit, is Ron Frost’s thesis. It is a historical one, but one that I think needs to be exposed more. At the least, it should make people aware, who are Calvinists (or not), that Calvinism has a much deeper history than just the Westminster or even Princeton line. Indeed, Evangelical Calvinism itself is appropriated from a line of development within Calvinism that is also non-Westminster in its history, and could find corollary in what I earlier identified as The Spiritual Brethren on the English side.

Advertisements

24 comments

  1. You are no chump Bobby, you are one smart cookie. I understand your passion, just wish some of us non-academic types could understand you better! 🙂

    And you know you do catch more flies with honey….. 🙂

    Like

  2. Ron Grow · ·

    Hi Bobby! I truly enjoyed how you constructed where you came from and what you believe today! I know many people who read this will somehow believe you are a Classical Calvinist in that they can’t decipher where you are, because they can’t move further than the name and that scares them! Yet I know where you are and am in confirmation to what you believe! Trust more could study Evangelical Calvinism and get it. Keep up the good work! Your Dad

    Like

  3. Hey Steve,

    I was kind of playing with the chump thing. Although I have received feedback from some over the years who think I am a little chumpy about all of this :-).

    Yes, raw honey is really good for you ;-)!

    Dad,

    Thanks :-)! I don’t think the problem for most (and it isn’t really what I am addressing in the post, per se) is that they don’t understand that there is something different about the style of Evangelical Calvinism, or that I am different that way (although this is the initial issue with many readers); but what I really wanted to communicate here is my history (which thankfully you are a necessary part of 🙂 ). I want people to understand a little better what stands behind some of the critiques I make of Calvinism, and let them know it isn’t just because I want to argue or win the day (although I do like both of these things 😉 haha). I am just trying to layer who I am a little more.

    I will send that EC copy to you soon … sorry for being so slow on that.

    Love, Bobby.

    Like

  4. Just to tie into your TGC post:

    TGC has in the past warmly recommended Ron Frost’s work. I’m of the opinion that the lines that, functionally, divide evangelical and westminster calvinism are murky and unclear. Tim Keller is hardly a hard-nosed federalist.

    Like

  5. Tim Keller’s personality definitely is warm hearted,no doubt, Cal.

    Do you have a link where TGC recommended Frost’s work? I’d love to send it to him!

    I don’t think the lines are murky at all. Evangelicalism, historically can be traced back to Federal/Covenantal Calvinism, or Reformed theology. You can make the genealogical trace from something like Grudem’s Systematic Theology back to Hodge to Turretin’s theology etc. Anyway, Frost makes a convincing case for this, historically. So there is somewhat of a natural bent for many Evangelicals to head back to the watering hole, so to speak. My own school, Multnomah, while very pietistic, is also very ‘Reformed’ in orientation (salvifically).

    Like

  6. You’re the only guy I know rivaling Arminian biblical scholar Roger E. Olson in your efforts against classic Calvin, albeit Evangelical Calvinist contra Olson’s Arm…

    Like

  7. Thanks for sharing a bit of your journey Bobby. I always find one’s theological pilgrimage to be fascinating and enlightening. Each of us develop our own theological framework in association with and reaction to the exposures we have including the scriptures. It makes for a wonderfully diverse yet often chaotic theological landscape in the body of Christ.

    Like

  8. http://thegospelcoalition.org/resources/a/ron_frost_puritan_expert_on_richard_sibbes (It’s a link to Theological Network)

    I didn’t mean the origins were murky, rather how some scholars seem to float in between. You can affirm the Westminster Confession and not quite be in the same spirit of Westminster. At that point, what is a confession? However, that’s another discussion.

    Like

  9. Cal,

    thanks for the link. Ah, yes, Mike Reeves is the connection that was probably the one who drew TGC to Frost; but no matter, this is good!

    Do yo have examples of people who affirm Westminster, but also aren’t in its spirit?

    Jon,

    Thanks. Yes, out of the chaos God is able to bring beauty in Christ 🙂 … in all of us!

    TC,

    Thanks, I appreciate that. Although, Olson has a much bigger following :-).

    Like

  10. So the obvious example is the fact that the Confession was altered in American during the 18th century so that civil magistrates could not call elder assemblies. Obviously, this was so American congregations were not beholden to the English crown while they were in the midst of a revolution. But, how can you change a confession? That’s a departure from the idea of a standard spirit.

    That may not seem to be knocking up against the covenantal spirit but the fact that this is allowed shows the fact that it is possible to edge away. Not necessarily in such a way that is so obvious, but in little things. I very much doubt that the Westminster divines would find themselves in complete agreement with PCA or OPC elders who sign onto the Confession. This all sounds sort of vague, but I have my doubts that the Westminster divines would necessarily have great things to say about someone like VanTill who has impacted much of the Presbyterian world in terms of thought. He sort of hacks away at Aristotle’s assumptions of mere logic.

    You also have the aquittal of Peter Leithart, someone accuses of being too Sacramental. I think he has a good understanding of Sacraments, but this runs against the very invisible, baptist-like feel that a lot of the Reformed world looks like.

    While this may not all be the same wedge that divides the “Spiritual brethren” and “intellectual fathers” (using Frost’s terms), it demonstrates that it is not necessarily such a homogenous set of ideas.

    Cal

    Like

  11. That should be: homogenous spirit of ideas to the same confession.

    Like

  12. Bobby,

    Now that you are exploring Presbyterianism, you will find that in subscribing to a confessional document, you are allowed to take exception. I’d be curious to see how this changes your view of the Westminster family, especially since not all share the same exceptions (i.e., covenant works, creation, Sabbath, etc.).

    Like

  13. Cal,

    I have suggested in my personal chapter in my edited EC book that there are various ways to read the confessions of the past (theologically instead of ecclesially, as Westminster etc.), and this ‘spirit’ ought to inform confession making for Reformed Christians in the present.

    Hi Casey,

    That may or may not be the case. I know of instantiations of Presbyterianism that do not allow the latitude that you speak of (PCA OPC etc.). I would not suggest that even those within the Westminster family are w/o distinction, but instead, there is still a general resonance and even submission to the Westminster Catechisms, at least in the direction of endorsing the theology that stands behind Westminster Calvinism; and I mean endorsing the prolegomena. I think my association with a conservative PCUSA church will probably not change me much at all in the way you seem to be suggesting. In fact, my association with the PCUSA is because I resonate with the theology (versus sociology) that stands behind its history and association with Princeton theology, or the New Princeton theology that it is associated with (e.g. Barth and Thomas Torrance in particular).

    If either one of you want to understand what informs the way I think about confessions then two books that have had great impact on me are: Barth’s Theology of the Reformed Confessions and Rohl’s Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen (Columbia Series in Reformed Theology).

    Like

  14. Bobby, I found it interesting that you got more “grammar” for free grace from Dillow et al while at Bible college. I was only exposed to that strain in the late 90’s with a Philly call in radio program that had Bob Wilkin what’s his name as a guest. I became a Christian in the late 70’s under the progeny of a Florida Bible college strain of free grace, which I believe is less straight-jacketted than the Bob Wilkin tribe. I would be interested how most of the EC gang responds to free-grace soteriology, esp. to “believe and thou shalt be saved” versus commitment, baptism, etc.

    Like

  15. Duane,

    the EC gang, whoever they are ;-), would look at Free Grace as an idiosyncratic reading of Scripture associated with Dispensational and probably Fundy hermeneutics.

    Like

  16. Ok then, according to EC what must “I” “do” to
    be “saved”?

    Like

  17. Hey Bobby,
    Whenever I have the time, I will check out your recommendations.

    With regards to subscription, the PCA has its boundaries for sure, but each Presbytery has its own culture too and its preference for particular seminaries (Covenant, WTS, WSC, RTS, Redeemer, etc.). I know of faculty at RTS, ordained in the PCA, who are very critical of Barth and some are also very appreciative. One in particular is writing a book on Robert Jenson. Then there is Charles S. MacKenzie, RTS faculty, ordained PCUSA. Check out his two lectures on Barth on RTS itunes U.

    I say all that because the broad strokes you make, I don’t see. In fact, I see an increasing desire among ordained men and faculty to have a greater catholic sensibility and encourage a theology of retrieval.

    Like

  18. Casey,

    I’m not surprised that anyone from the PCA is critical of Barth, but I am also not surprised that the PCA, the PCUSA are on a continuum of belief relative to their clergy.

    I am unaware of the broad strokes I have made. I have simply identified a general reality about PCUSA (which is simply the fact); i.e. that it is the part of Presbyterianism that is associated with the new Princeton Theology (in general) V. the old Princeton Theology. I am noting this from a generalization, but not suggesting that there isn’t a continuum of belief w/o distinction at the same time. The church we attend for example is on the conservative side of the PCUSA spectrum, so when I take notice of this this should illustrate that I am not speaking in the kind of “broad” terms you seem to be suggesting.

    You speak as if a theologies of retrieval are done out of a vacuum, they aren’t. What we are doing with Evangelical Calvinism is a resourcement project, one of retrieval (for example most of our edited book is made up by essays around Calvin’s theology). But we are intentionally doing so through a Barthian (but not full fledged Barthian) matrix. Just as others like R. Scott Clark, Richard Muller, Carl Trueman do so through a mode that is retrieving, but instead of a Barthian matrix they are using what they perceive as pure historical reconstruction and thus repristination of the past into the present. My point is that to use retrieval as you have here, really does not help to specify how your reading of my reading of things in Presbyterianism is wrong, or overreaching. I don’t think I have overreached in the way you are suggesting in any way. You don’t really know me well enough to come to such a conclusion.

    Like

  19. Duane,

    Repent and Believe; and of course this has already objectively been done for us in Christ’s vicarious humanity. So say Yes, from Jesus’ Yes for us.

    Like

  20. Yes. Thank you Bobby. 🙂

    Like

  21. I have a friend, both of us formerly from a Bible church we used to belong to. He left irritated at the marketting model he thought they employed to get the gospel out and grow the church. He rightfully objects to the notion that any “marketting” (my word) can attract and cause a person to be saved. So since we have re-connected, he’s hooked up with some classic-calvinists and is leaning that way. I’m trying to draw him in this direction. He’s becoming more invested in classic “election” theology. I just shared as best I could “Jesus is the Elect One” in a facebook reply last night. It’s such a vastly different paradigm, a different fork in the road. A person really needs to apply themselves to study to take that fork. I know you and I have taken it from the “Biblicism” trail, but I wonder if any committed classic calvinists have taken this fork and found it more palatable?

    Like

  22. Hey Bobby,
    When I spoke of broad strokes, I actually had in mind your previous comment to me regarding “endorsing a certain prolegomena.” I was challenging the notion that we are all funded by the same prolegomena that you seem to be suggesting.

    As for “theologies” of retrieval, you are right; they are not done in a vacuum. Anyway, I have some affinity with your critique of classical Calvinism, but I am too catholic to read the tradition through one particular matrix.

    Like

  23. Casey,

    I am not naively suggesting that all of the PCUSA is funded by a certain prolegomena; all I am–at minimum–identifying, is that PCUSA is normally (but not w/o exception) not the same in theological method as say the PCA or OPC; and I don’t think this is a controversial claim on my part. As I already noted in my last comment, I am generalizing, but not without some sort of precedent.

    I like to think that I am rather catholic myself. But there is a way to be catholic, and a rule of faith that shapes catholicity. I think TFT has identified the rule of faith accurately, that is that all of history and theology is circumscribed by God’s Self-revelation in Christ; and starting here (in faith and in this relation) is what it means to be catholic. When competing accounts of how to be catholic are provided, then my criteria is to ask whether or not they serve this ‘in Christ’ rule of faith, or hinder it?

    Like

  24. Duane,

    Many have, I think.

    Like