Evangelical Calvinism, Reforming the Reformation with Christ

Evangelical Calvinism is a Reformed iteration within Protestant orthodox theology. As such we respect the reformed confessions, catechisms, and creeds; particularly the Scots Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. That said, unlike what counts as Reformed theology today—a repristination of the 16th and 17th centuries, from a certain angle—evangelical Calvinists, such as myself and Myk Habets, are not bound by the reformed confessions as if they are regulative towards interpreting Scripture and/or doing constructive theology. We work from what Karl Barth calls the ‘spirit’ studiteof the Reformed faith, rather than the ‘letter’; we take the reformed semper reformanda (always reforming) to heart, and attempt to continue on, from within the Reformed faith, in our growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

In our volume one book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (2012), Myk Habets and I wrote in the introduction, this:

Others appeal to the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith and lift this up as the subordinate standard of doctrine to which the whole church must subscribe in detail. Now it is true that it is a subordinate standard of doctrine for Presbyterians in many countries, but it is not a universal document intended for all. Although this Confession is much broader it too is a historical document located within a specific context and, when shorn of this context, it too fails to represent Reformed faith in any comprehensive or definitive fashion. Westminster was largely the result of English Puritans and hardly represents the breadth and depth of the Reformed faith or theology at the time or since. A further attempt to define the Reformed faith is by means of the five solas of the Reformation-sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus/ solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria. This has more merit, given that the five solas are abiding marks of Reformed theology. These are, we suggest, as least integral to the sine qua non of Reformed doctrine.

Writing in the context of the earliest Reformed theologians, Richard Muller argues for a series of theological issues and conclusions that may be identified as essentially Reformed, notably, the priority of Scripture over tradition as the sole, absolute norm for theology, the unity of the message of Scripture and the covenant of God, sacramentology (specifically that there are two sacraments and both are viewed as signs and seals of grace), a Chalcedonian Christology which affirms the integrity of two natures in the one person of Christ, and an understanding of salvation by grace alone, with a corresponding emphasis upon God’s gracious election to eternal salvation. Evangelical Calvinism remains true to the sine qua non of the Reformed faith and then feels the freedom to explore the adiaphora within their traditional commitments.[1]

But what exactly does this mean? For example, do we really affirm things the way they might appear prima facie? Do we really affirm an emphasis ‘upon God’s gracious election to eternal salvation’? Yes, we do, but of course not in the way that classical Calvinism does; as so many of you already know. We see Jesus Christ, de jure/de facto, as both the elect and reprobate in his humanity for us, pro nobis (cf. II Cor. 5.21; 8.9). Along with Barth we take the grammar of Reformed orthodoxy, and reify it in Christ; i.e. we see Jesus as the concrete reality of election, reprobation, the sacraments, the unity of Scripture, the covenant of God (ad extra), so on and so forth. This is no surprise to anyone who has been reading here for any amount of time, but I think what is important to communicate at this point is the catholic intention of evangelical Calvinism.

Classical Calvinism, or Reformed theology, for the most part, finds its roots in the Western church, and/or Roman Catholic theology; as such it is deeply cemented in the Thomistic reading of Augustine’s theology, and the trajectory that provides for. Evangelical Calvinism, contrariwise, is truly an ad fontes reforming of Reformed theology movement. We think (or at least I do) that Reformed theology, or what is commonly called Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy, has become as static and received, and has become bounded to its own layered commentary-tradition, that in many ways, both formally and materially, makes it look very similar to the mediaeval Roman Catholic theology and church that it originally sought to Reform. We believe that, early on, this slippage back to Roman mode happened to Reformed theology; as such as an evangelical Calvinist it is my belief that the reformation needs to come to Reformed theology itself—evangelical Calvinism seeks to be that in some ways.

Along with our reformed brothers and sisters, like I noted, we do affirm the value of the Reformed confessions, and we see even more value in the five solas; but we think that in order for the Reformed faith to be truly catholic it must genuinely see Jesus Christ as the center. When I say center, I mean Reformed theology’s frame ought to see Jesus Christ as the ontic ground of everything. Meaning that the dualism, which has been fostered by the Thomist-Augustinian frame (not the Bible), needs to be repudiated in favor of seeing Jesus Christ as truly prime and teleological over all created reality. We believe, as evangelical Calvinists (Myk and I), that the primacy of Jesus Christ, as a doctrine, needs to be the resourceful fount that reifies and contextualizes all of Reformed theology.

In closing, David Fergusson, as he reflects on the Hellenistic wisdom tradition, and its evangelization and reification in Christ, offers a helpful insight on what I think should take hold in the reforming process of Reformed theology if it is truly going to be a Christ-centered and church catholic movement:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94).[2]

Do I personally think that those who today self-identify as the heirs of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy are going to heed the call of evangelical Calvinists to continue on in the process of always reforming per the reality of Holy Scripture? Probably not; at least not in the way we as evangelical Calvinists think that should happen. But we press on, and for those with eyes to see and ears to hear: come and join us! Pax Christi

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 10.

[2] David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Calum,

    Thank you! Oh, I fully intend on continuing blogging; I’ve been theoblogging since 2005 consistently, so that’s not going to stop. And I’ve decided to leave my FB account open, but it is only going to serve as a feed where my posts from here will show up. I have my blog integrated with FB so that when I post here it will automatically link on my FB page. 🙂

    Like

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