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 hybrid 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.