An Evangelical Calvinist Critique of the Theology that Funds 5 Point Calvinism: A Critique of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Discussion about Calvinism (and Arminianism) really hasn’t waned, even if my blog posts in that regard have. The original motivation for this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist, was to be a place where I offered critique of what I have called “classical Calvinism,” in line with the classical Theism it is derived from. I originally started this blog as a 2nd blog, where, indeed, my aim was to only discuss things revolving around all things Calvinism; and then to offer an alternative account of Calvinism, so: Evangelical Calvinism. After awhile though this blog turned into my primary and only blog, and as a result it morphed into a catch-all where I discuss a variety and sundry things theological. I say all that to simply note that this post will be an old-school Evangelical Calvinist post where we look at T.F. Torrance’s critique of an aspect of classical Calvinism as codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Just recently I offered a spate of posts (three of them: 1, 2, 3) where I offered criticism of the idiosyncratic form of John MacArthur’s 5 point Calvinism. Even though his appropriation of a “soteriological” Calvinism is indeed idiosyncratic, where he appropriates it from is not.[1] MacArthur et al. take their marching orders from the theology articulated and codified, indeed, in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. It is this Confession that can be said to kind of represent the flowering of Post Reformed Orthodoxy as that developed post-magisterial Reformation (i.e. Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, et al.). It is a Confession oriented around a concept of God that is decretal—that God relates to his creation as the impassible/immutable one through impersonal decrees [decretum absolutum] in order to keep him untouched and “unmoved” by his creation—wherein God predestines out of the massa[2] of humanity that some particular and individual people are elected to eternal life while others are reprobated and condemned to an eternal conscious torment in hell (some of the classically Reformed hold a passive idea in regard to the reprobate). J.N.D. Kelly comments on the ancient theo-logic provided for by St. Augustine, it is this type of logic that gets further developed in the medieval and Post Reformed orthodox periods, which finally blossoms in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. Kelly writes critically of Augustine and his view of predestination:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[3]

Here’s how the Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this type of thinking as it was resident in 17th century Puritan England and in parts of the surrounding continent:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

  1. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
  2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

  1. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
  2. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto;  and all to the praise of His glorious grace.
  3. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[4]

This is hard teaching! That’s what the Federal/Westminster Calvinist would want you to think; i.e. that the reason this might cause people to stumble is because the Gospel itself causes people to stumble. They might want you to think of John 6 when Jesus just finished teaching about the requirement of his disciples to feed on his flesh and drink of his blood, when the text there says:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Manascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

If you have a hard time at the teaching offered by Augustine, and the theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith, just like those fickle disciples of Jesus in John 6 you must not be a true disciple who has been granted to come to Christ by the Father.

But what if the teaching on election and reprobation as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith is causing you to stumble at its harshness because instead of fickleness you have theological and spiritual discernment? That’s what us Evangelical Calvinists contend, and believe; you stumble at this Westminster teaching because you should, it is theologically unsound and anemic. This is what Evangelical Calvinist par excellence, T.F. Torrance thinks; here he offers critique of the WCF in this regard, his critique on this comes on the heels of prior critique he had just offered on the doctrine of God offered up by the WCF. His critique on its doctrine of God has to do with its lack of Trinitarian character as it separates the Oneness of God from the Threeness, which in turn, as he argues, creates an abstract impersonal concept of God which leads to this harsh and impersonal and abstract understanding of election and reprobation as articulated in the WCF. This section, in particular from Torrance, is focusing not only on election, but how the concept of covenant within the Federal system ended up lending itself to a contractual and rigid understanding of God and his relation to creation as exemplified in an impersonal and individualistic understanding of election. Torrance writes:

The ideas that the relations between God and mankind were governed by covenant had both a disadvantage and an advantage. On the one hand, through the notion of a covenant of works it not only altered the biblical notion of law (torah) and covenant (berith), but built into the background of Westminster theology a contractual framework of law (understood in the Latin sense as lex) that pervaded and gave a forensic and condition slant even to the presentation of the truths of the Gospel. On the other hand, the primary place given to the covenant of grace directed the focus of attention upon the fact that God calls people into fellowship with himself, addresses them personally asks for their response in worship and love, within a covenanted correspondence of the whole universe to its creator. At the same time the way in which God’s eternal decrees and the effectual calling of grace were conceived, in terms of election narrowed down to the selection of only some people for redemption, meant that the relation between God and man was conceived in a particularist or individualist way without adequate attention to the corporate nature of salvation in Christ. While the doctrine of election rightly entailed a view of grace as objective and unconditional, the hard conception of double predestination was biblically and evangelically unfortunate. On the one hand, it rested on a mistaken Calvinist interpretation of the teaching of St Paul, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ taken out of its context of the doctrine of the remnant in Old Testament salvation history. On the other hand, it introduced a deep-seated uncertainty into faith which was not adequately met by the later chapter ‘Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation’. As the history of theology in Scotland was to show again and again the lack of assurance in saving grace was due to the idea, as expressed by David Dickson, that ‘Christ died only for his own sheep, viz. intentionally and efficaciously’. The rigidly contractual concept of God as lawgiver together with a necessitarian concept of immutable  divine activity allied to double predestination, with its inescapable implication of a doctrine of limited atonement, set the Church with a serious problem as to its interpretation of biblical statements about the offer of the Gospel freely to all people. Moreover, through a strictly forensic notion of justification in which a judicial relation substituted for an intimate union with Christ, faith failed to be grounder properly in the Person of Christ and inwardly linked in him with the assurance of salvation which he embodied.[5]

According to Torrance et al., and what we as Evangelical Calvinists affirm, Westminster Calvinism because of its lackluster conception of God (i.e. not starting with the Triunity of God in its Confession[s]) ends up offering a rigid conception of God wherein he relates to his creation through, as we noted, impersonal decrees within a juridical or forensic relationship of law-like execution (which is concordant with, and flows directly from the Aristotelian concept of God that informs the theology of Westminster—an impersonal non-relational non-love understanding).

The reason the WCF’s and 5 point Calvinism’s understanding of election and reprobation comes off so harshly (and indeed is harsh), is because its understanding of God, the brute Sovereign conception that typifies their theology, is equally harsh. Contrariwise, Evangelical Calvinists emphasize and start with God’s Triune life of love and grace as the basis for his reason to create, and this basis then colors everything else.

Conclusion

I still think this matters immensely. In many ways, particularly through movements like The Gospel Coalition, and through the winsome personality of someone no less than Tim Keller et al. Westminster theology is making a serious comeback among evangelicals in the main. This has impact, and not positively so, upon many real life people (not just academics and scholars) who are sitting out in the pews. It has impact on how people think about sanctification, spirituality, and just how they go about their daily lives before God. If they think of him in a Westminsterian way, even if only from subtle hues, this conception will have deleterious effect upon their lives. How one thinks of God determines everything else following; that’s why this remains a vital issue of contention.

 

[1] This post is not intended to engage with MacArthur any further.

[2] See Augustine.

[3] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

[4] WCF/III, accessed 03-07-2017 from CRTA.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 136-37.

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12 comments

  1. Bobby — there is too much here to respond to, so I’ll only seek clarification on some of the post.

    It is a Confession oriented around a concept of God that is decretal—that God relates to his creation as the impassible/immutable one through impersonal decrees [decretum absolutum] in order to keep him untouched and “unmoved” by his creation—wherein God predestines out of the massa[2] of humanity that some particular and individual people are elected to eternal life while others are reprobated and condemned to an eternal conscious torment in hell (some of the classically Reformed hold a passive idea in regard to the reprobate).

    Why would he assume that the decrees are impersonal and that they are somehow kept impersonal in order to keep Him untouched and unmoved by his creation? In fact aren’t they quite the opposite, they are extremely personal and actually individual (in the sense that they are directed toward individuals). God doesn’t need to do something to keep himself untouched and unmoved.

    The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels.

    I have never heard before anywhere in all that I have read that suggested that the number of the elect is exactly the number that was required to replace the fallen Angels. I would really like to know if you have any idea where this notion came from.

    Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.

    There is so much that is troubling in his understanding of the Westminster Confession in this passage. First of all, he answers his own question with scripture in how God decides to justify this man rather than that. Isn’t Paul’s point to show us that God doesn’t need to have a reason other than whatever reason is within himself? The comment that “He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it.” I find troubling. If God’s revelation is true, some are elect from the foundation of the world; these will necessarily eventually find themselves in a condition where they will except Grace. Why would God put the reprobate in a condition where they are more likely to accept it, when he has no intention of offering it to them?

    I think this speaks of a real misunderstanding of the five points of Calvinism. The statement that “they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given is equally troubling. Is he implying here that other graces have been given but the one that gives them assurance of persevering has been removed? Don’t all five points of the tulip acronym fall into place and meet together to achieve the same end? What would be the point of atoning for someone that couldn’t persevere to the end?

    My understanding of the Westminster Confession in the tulip acronym is that until someone is a believer they are not sons of God, they are children of disobedience, destined for wrath. No one has the grace of perseverance until they first become a genuine believer, so they don’t have it before they are born.

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  2. There’s no misunderstanding of the WCF here at all. You can argue with JND Kelly all you like, and then look up who he is. You can also go read Richard Muller and many others to verify what is communicated here. I’ve done my homework on this and haven’t misrepresented anything. You don’t seem aware at all of the history behind all of this. I.e. Experimental predestinarianism, practical syllogism, concepts like temporary faith, ineffectual call, divine pactum, etc etc. Look all of that up, Rick. The TULIP itself is a late development and in no way represents the total framework of Calvinist theology, I only mentioned it because of its popularity. The number of the elect is to replace the fallen angels? That’s not what WCF says, that’s what some patristics believed, read what is being communicated a little more slowly. I said that the Theo-logic from Augustine was developed later by the medieval sand post Reformed orthodox. Your whole comment is pretty circular and fragmented though, which is why my response is. Let me come back later and try to respond more fully. The misunderstanding here I think is coming from you presuming that the theology of the TULIP just is self evident biblical reality, which that is hardly ever and rarely the case. I haven’t misrepresented anything. You don’t seem to be aware of Federal theology, and that’s what this post is really about.

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  3. If you decide to come back to it — just come back to these questions:

    Isn’t Paul’s point [in Romans 9] to show us that God doesn’t need to have a reason for his preparing some for vessels of wrath and others for vessels of mercy — other than whatever reason is within himself?

    Why would God put the reprobate in a condition where they are “more likely to accept [grace]”, when he has no intention of offering it to them?

    What would be the point of atoning for someone that couldn’t persevere to the end?

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  4. Rick,

    Honestly, your questions are very hard to answer because you are doing so as if your position is simply the self-evident “biblical” one. If anything my post, at the very least, should have illustrated that things just aren’t that simple, and that there is actually a history of ideas behind all of this that you are choosing to ignore in order to ask the questions you want me to come back to. Paul’s point in Romans 9 is to show how God’s choice works relative to vocation in regard to mediating salvation to the nations while maintaining the integrity of his promises to the nation of Israel (the remnant). It is an illustration of how the freedom of God’s choice works relative to his unfolding of salvation history vis a vis the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant and bringing salvation to the Jews. But you seem to be reading that passage through a lens provided for you by someone like William Perkins and his Golden Chaine (look him and that up). You need to deal with the reality of that, and the metaphysics of that, and the doctrine of God that informs that reading of Scripture; that’s what my post is critiquing. I’m not critiquing some sort of purported prima facie straightforward read of Romans 9 or any other passage of Scripture; which your questions are premised upon. I’m critiquing the history of ideas and problematizing this all for folks like you who seem to be unaware of the development of ideas behind your reading of Scripture; i.e. the theological assumptions and preunderstandings you are bringing to the text. That’s the level that this post is aimed at, it gets behind the exegesis and into the informing theology that leads to your exegetical conclusions. So I would like you to take the time to engage with me at that level instead of thinking there is a self-evident reading of Roms 9 that’s going to answer all of this.

    Your question about the reprobate makes no sense to me. By the way, I don’t hold to that view of election/reprobation; i.e. the Augustinian individualistic understanding. I hold to the way Barth reformulated it by seeing both election/reprobation in Christ. I.e. that Jesus is the electing God, and elected human, and that in his election to be human he assumed our reprobation for us that we might become elect in him in the resurrection/recreation (II Cor 5.21/II Cor 8.9). I’m referring to what has happened in what is called the mirifica commutatio or ‘wonderful exchange’. So your question about the reprobate, again as if it has a stand alone universally affirmed understanding (which it doesn’t), just doesn’t really work. You’re presuming that all of this is self-evident, apparently based upon how you perceive all of this relative to how you’ve been taught and discipled over the years. But again, my post, at the least,, should illustrate the complexity to all of this, and that there is way way more to this than you’re apparently aware of in the history of ideas themselves.

    Again, your question about perseverance in logic is petitio principii, or circular. You’re presupposing your position and understanding of all of that as if it just is. And the very basis of my post is to illustrate that things aren’t as self-evident and “Biblical” as you seem to think. There is a history of ideas where your view has come from, and it’s that level that I am challenging, which you are not engaging with at all. You have previously asserted that there is misunderstanding, but you haven’t even come close to demonstrating how there is misunderstanding. Like I noted, I’ve spent a long time both formally (like in grad studies) and now informally since then researching and studying all of this for 15 years straight (and almost everyday). I’m just saying that because I want you to know that I have been doing my homework on this, and have been trained by others who have as well (PhDs in historical theology etc.). I’m not using that as an argument, but simply to note that you aren’t giving due weight to the fact that there is more to this than your questions portend of. In other words, things are deeper than you seem to think, and simply asserting that I have misunderstood something here or there doesn’t demonstrate that I have. I’ve provided resources and bibliographic information in my post, all you’ve provided is an assertion and a hand wipe that there is misunderstanding and then you’ve moved on as if that was enough for you to continue on with your received position; but it is not Rick!

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  5. And Rick,

    Of anybody, you should be able to appreciate the power of preunderstandings when we come to the text of Scripture; after all you have an MA in Exegetical Theology from Western.

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  6. Actually Bobby, I actually think Scripture *is* self evident and nowhere near as complicated as you find comfort in imagining. I think you’re working overtime Bobby. Go out on the street and find someone who doesn’t know Jesus and talk to them for awhile, it will do you good.

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  7. Rick, you don’t know me. Don’t! It helps your cause to decomplexify things, I get it. But then I’m not really sure why you’re commenting here at all. You’re just a typical MacArthurite who isn’t actually interested in thinking theologically (which is pretty ironic, because in actuality you are steeped in a particular scholastic theological tradition). You’re not welcome here any more.

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  8. The blurb to Rick Brownell’s book, Recovering Our Lost Theology: The Sovereign Grace of God:

    Are you bothered with how shallow and superficial the way we think about theology has become? It seems it’s become more important to share some condensed, peanut-sized version of the gospel at the simplest, most juvenile, least thought-provoking level with our culture rather than let people wrestle with the theological difficulties and search out how they might be rectified logically. Author Rick Brownell has had enough. In his book, Recovering Our Lost Theology: The Sovereign Grace of God, Brownell poses the tough questions and challenges readers to reevaluate their theological thinking. How does God loving the world yet destroying a group of its inhabitants work itself out in your theological framework? Is God so detailed and powerful in his sovereign plans that he controls not only the creeping of a single aphid over a rosebud but the flight patterns and boundaries of a billion locusts? If God is so sovereign in the natural world, would he leave the salvation of a lost sinner to his own apostate will and determination in the spiritual world? These are just a few of the questions Brownell addresses so that readers will focus again on God’s grace and mercy in the salvation of men. He hopes readers will recapture a biblical perspective on evangelism and abandon the tired advice of many theologians who suggest Christians ‘don’t get bogged down with profound theological concepts’ when sharing the gospel. Recovering Our Lost Theology is a daring and moving challenge to readers to reaffirm their commitment to God’s sovereignty in salvation, evangelism, and theology to the glory of God alone. Rick Brownell lives in Aurora, Oregon, with his wife of twenty-seven years, Sheila. He has a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a master’s degree in exegetical theology from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. He can frequently be found engaging believers and unbelievers alike in discussions of theology and the sovereignty of God in the Christian faith.

    I see, Rick, so you’re only interested in thinking deep when the theological framework you think from is the one affirmed; I get it. But I’m “working overtime?” Funny! The reality is you just can’t handle what I’ve presented you with, and so you’re evading by ad hominem. Typical. Like I said, our interaction isn’t going to go anywhere, ever. You typify (even the same demographic) the types of interactions I used to have constantly over at the Pyromaniacs blog when it was active back in the day. Not really interested. I would have been interested if your interaction was genuine, but it is clearly not. The blurb to your book demonstrates that you’re willing to think deeper and theologically when, again, it comes to affirmation of your position. But you’re unwilling to think deep when that is challenged, and when you don’t know how to respond to that. So I will save you the trouble and disallow you from responding in the future.

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  9. One more thing, Rick,

    I actually did give you a response to how Romans 9 should be read, which you ignored. Again, this illustrates the disingenuous nature of your commenting. That is all.

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  10. Rick,

    One final thing. I’ve been skimming through the intro to your book, and now it’s really all clear to me why you’re so up in arms with me; and it only further illustrates how problematic your tact has been with me. You laud the importance for a sound theological framework, it’s just that you don’t like the fact that I’m challenging the basis of that. It’s not that you’re uninterested in digging deep, it’s just that you don’t like the conclusions I’ve come to in my digging deep. You also apparently think that the theologians you rely on are above critical scrutiny, and thus when that is done (which I’ve done of some here in this blog post) it throws you off and you attack my character.

    For anyone interested in seeing where Rick is coming from it is all on display in his book. Click here.

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