A Different Way: A Calvinism Where God is Love not Law

God is love. For evangelical Calvinists such as myself and Myk Habets this is determinative for how theology ought to be done, and the shape which Christian spirituality should have—the shape of love, Triune love. One of the theses Myk and I wrote for our Evangelical Calvinism book (vol. 1) states in part:

The primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”

Hugh Binning (1627-1653), a young Scottish theologian, spoke of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation. Speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation he wrote:

Our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all—“God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son.” Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

This is the character of evangelical Calvinism, and we believe it is in contrast to what I have termed classical Calvinism (other terms might be: TULIP Calvinism, Federal/Covenantal theology, Westminster Calvinism, Bezan Calvinism, neo-Puritanism, Lordship salvation, so on and so forth). In a general way classical Calvinism’s character is an outflow of its conception of God, just as ours is (or any theology’s is). The classical Calvinist conception of God starts with a God, I would contend, that is Law based, instead of Love based. This conception subsequently leads to a different understanding of salvation, and a God-world relation than what we will find in an evangelical Calvinist conception.

I was set on the evangelical Calvinist trajectory, contrary to popular belief, not through Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; but instead, through some Puritans (like Richard Sibbes), John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other historical theological characters. My historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Ron Frost, set me, by and large, on the trajectory I find myself today. In his own PhD dissertation he develops the kind of distinction I have just noted relative to the God of love that we find in evangelical Calvinism versus the God of law we find funding classical Calvinism. I will share two quotes from Frost; one highlighting how Calvin fit into a love based conception of God, and the other highlighting the flowering of classical Calvinist thought in the theology of English Puritan William Perkins. You will notice that in Calvin’s approach love of God, and affections are front center; and you will conversely notice how duty, cooperation, and law of God are most prominent in Perkins’ theology. Both of these vignettes can serve as windows for us and illustrative of what distinguishes an evangelical Calvinist ethos  from a classical Calvinist ethos, respectively.

Here is Frost on Calvin:

 Calvin’s rejection of habitusCalvin also rejected the notion of grace-as-a-created-quality, insisting instead that grace is always relational. He was sharply critical of the scholastic discussions of grace, charging in the Institutes (1559) that by it the “schools” have “plunged into a sort of Pelagianism”. In book three of the Institutes,Calvin developed his own doctrine of grace. His view that faith is relational and a matter of the heart—a personal certainty of God’s gracious benevolence—is implicit if not explicit throughout the exposition. The Spirit is the “bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. He cited Rom. 5:5, the verse so important to Augustine’s affective theology, that the Spirit pours God’s love into the believer’s heart. He readily associated this with the affective language of moderate mystics: as the Spirit is “persistently boiling away and burning up  our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion.”

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection.”[2]

We quickly run into some pretty technical stuff in this quote, but what ought to stand out for our purposes is the relational and love ground we see in Calvin’s theology; a ground that is critical of the law based and impersonal ground we are confronted with in classical Calvinism, and it’s Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding.

In Contrast to evangelical Calvinists and John Calvin himself (according to Frost), William Perkins typifies the classical Calvinist feeling and theology. Again, here is Frost, this time on William Perkins:

Perkins’ moralistic assumptions. The Old Testament moral law was fully engaged with Perkins’ supralapsarian theology. Obedience to the law served to display God’s glory among the elect and God’s glory is the goal to which every aspect of the supralapsarian model moves. In Perkins’ view, a person’s ability to achieve God’s glory through obedience requires that the moral quality of every action should be well defined. To this end Perkins offered a taxonomy of sins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Calling of Men that looked to the Mosaic Decalogue. A closer examination of the law as part of Perkins’ theology of God awaits chapter two but some initial comments will introduce Perkins’ place among English theologians who elevated the law.

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[3]

Again, there are many threads left dangling in the quote, but what’s important for our purposes is to notice the ethos of law based, and duty driven spirituality present in Perkins’ theology (according to Frost).

What should stand out, hopefully, are some distinct trajectories available within the Reformed tradition. Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk Habets and I have presented it, is a resource project; as such we seek to resource theology, primarily from within the Reformed tradition (with roots in Patristic and catholic theology), that flows from the hermeneutic provided for by the reality that God is indeed love. This is contrariwise to what we find currently in the resource work of classical Calvinists of today. They are starting with a conception of God wherein God’s law is primary, not love; as such the way they read and retrieve the history will follow accordingly. Furthermore, then, the type of Christian spirituality that this latter type of retrieving will lead to, if taken beyond the academy, will lead to a Christianity that is shaped by an ethic of duty, and decision(intellect)-based spirituality. Evangelical Calvinists offer a different way.

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 428-30.

[2] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 165-66.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes. God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 47-8.

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One thought on “A Different Way: A Calvinism Where God is Love not Law

  1. Pingback: A Different Way: A Calvinism Where God is Love not Law | The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

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