I Confess: Evangelical Calvinism is not a New Way, but Resourcing an Old Way in the spirit of the Reformed Faith

Theology is a deep complexity. To self-identify as an evangelical Calvinist, personally, means that I affirm certain theological contours of thought (Myk Habets and I have listed and developed fifteen of these in thesis form in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church). The reality is, is that what I affirm, personally is not as innovative as one might think; and this is part of the point, the point that Myk and I have been attempting to drive home. We aren’t reinventing Calvinism, or offering a new-new-Calvinism or even a neo-Calvinism; what we are offering has rootage in the grand tradition of the Reformed Christian faith, and a rootage that precedes the Reformed faith by reaching back further into the ecumenical halls of Patristic theology and the theological grammar (Trinitarian and Christological) therein. The point of evangelical Calvinism (well one point of it) is not to be polemic, per se, but it is to point people to Jesus and to do so ecumenically. I think the polemical character that EC might present only comes because at a material level it butts heads with other forms of Calvinism. But what I would want to make clear is that EC is actually offering a positive way forward to think about Reformed doctrinal characteristics, and of course it is doing so in a personal versus decretal (thinking of God through decrees) way. It would be a mistake, though, to presume that EC represents a new path or new way of Calvinism, it does not. All it is doing is recognizing that the Reformed faith cannot be reduced to a monolithic understanding of what that faith entails. In the history and development of the Reformed faith there is one more than one school of thought, and Westminster, while important to a particular strand of Calvinism or the Reformed faith, is not the be-all/end-all of the Reformed faith; as so many today seem to presume (even well known scholars and theologians make this presumption). What evangelical Calvinism embodies, in spirit and form, if not in theological material (at many points), is a resourcing of voices in the Reformed past who were not just a minority report, but in fact operated as the Voice, and as the Orthodox representative of the Reformed faith (see Janice Knight in re to the English Puritanism and the House Divided therein).

ecumenical

So while EC is a offering a kind of modified mood of Calvinism, it is a resourcing of old voices, not new ones, per se. While we, or I should say at least I (and Myk), learn heavily from Thomas Torrance (and even Karl Barth), this is not to say that we don’t also learn from Calvin, and others in the developing years of the Reformed Christian faith. So it would be wrong to caricature us as a new path, or a new way in Calvinism, even materially. Our theological views might take some notes, especially on election, from Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, but one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that Barth and Torrance are purely modern in orientation, and not drawing from seminal thoughts that were present in the ecumenical past of the Patristic church and the grammar developed during that time. It would be wrong to use the Protestant Reformation as the standard of what it means to be ‘Reformed’ since the Protestant Reformation, self consciously, and historically was an ad fontes (back to the sources: i.e. the Greek New Testament, the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Patristics) movement, inspired deeply by the Christian Humanist movement (which Valla is well known for fostering in the medieval past). EC recognizes her heritage in the Reformed faith, and instead of wanting to repristinate or absolutize the letter of the 16th and 17th centuries and development of the Reformed faith, as the gold standard of what it means to be Reformed, we prefer to, in conversation with that period, and in periods following (in particular the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries), to hearken back to the theological categories and thus biblical categories that inspired the Protestant Reformation to begin with; back to the Bible, and its reality, Jesus Christ. I think you will be very surprised to find that what EC is actually doing, even if someone wants to try and caricature it by its relation to Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth (and appeal to the people’s misunderstanding of their theologies and the caricatures built up around those), what you will find materially theologically, is that EC is deeply rooted and resonant with the ecumenical Patristic past in its theological trajectory. I confess, this makes EC a very ecumenical (V polemical) frame for theological consideration, and it makes EC something worth considering given its deep rootedness in the best of what the Reformed faith has to offer given its ad fontes approach, and trajectory.

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5 comments

  1. This is excellent. However, I think what makes the YRR (neo-Calvinism) so impactful is it’s accessibility. There are many voices amongst the YRR leaders who are saying complicated things in a simple way. In my readings of the voices of EC I have yet to find the same degree of accessibility. As a laymen theology nerd, much of this content requires me to search latin, word meaning, etc. It would be helpful to send the plentiful parentheticals to the footnotes section. It would be helpful to reach down to the laymen, who are the majority of those who would benefit from this excellent content.

    I really would love to be able to direct my friends here, but I know they would be lost. All I’m saying is you’re all too smart for your own good. Make this information a bit more accessible and you will witness the levee breach.

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  2. Bill, accessibility is important, but I think growing and stretching is more important.

    Typically, on the blog, though, Bill, I am just reflecting on where I am at or on what I am reading at the moment. I wish I had more time to devote to being “accessible,” but I don’t, and that takes work, a lot of work! If I was able to talk to folks face to face it would be different, but the written word takes space.

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  3. I resonate with what Bill said but also with Bobby’s response. I know that when I first discovered EC that I was completely lost. I loved what I got but so much of it was over my head. Bobby did direct me to a few older posts that served as a good introduction, but for the most part I just had to trudge through it. But man has it been worth it. I’m still a work in progress of course but a whole new world of vibrant Christian thought has been opened up to me. I may have never engaged with the likes of Torrance, Barth, Jenson, McCormack, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Brunner, and Jungel (and not all uncritically of course) if things had been readily accessible.

    That said, I would love for some of this stuff to be easier to grasp for the layman. But perhaps the movement (mood?) isn’t ready yet. Perhaps the pastorate (as opposed more to theologians proper) needs to be the means that this richer (in my opinion) theology trickles down to the masses.

    Just thinking out loud here.

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  4. Well I agree, but “teachable moments” can happen without being esoteric or completely technical. THAT is the challenge. The greatest communicators stoop down to the level of the uneducated and cause them to understand without them having to completely understand (Reformation). Most American Christians will not care to do the work involved in interpreting latin or put up with complex rhetoric on a blog. So you have to ask yourself what is most important, confronting anti-intellectualism or having God’s people blessed by the content. Elitism is always looking for the teachable moment without ever simplifying the content, without EVER pandering to the ‘deficiency’ and preference of the uninformed. I know this because I was a former elitist. What I love about this theology (EC) is the Christ-centeredness, so with the goal of making Christ all-in-all let’s not leave out relishing and participating in His condescension and humility.

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  5. Bill,

    I understand your concern, but it isn’t what I am doing with my blog primarily. I tried to do something like what your are getting at awhile ago (see http://evangelicalcalvinist.blogspot.com), but it just takes too much effort. I primarily use my blog for selfish reasons–for me to learn, and with the hope of exposing others to what I am currently learning at that point as well. I have no intention at the moment of trying to author a blog that is primarily intended as a teaching tool for the church — as valuable (or not) that that might be.

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