Personal Jesus Theology: A Small Primer on the History and Development of Reformed Theology

You may grow tired, you might be wearied by my constant references to the history of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, but check the name of my blog. I don’t do this gratuitously though, it comes from a heart that recognizes the need for people to be informed; and in many cases liberated from a received personal history that has them living in a world where they feel there are only binaries to inhabit and thus no space to grow. I am referring to, at least in the conservative evangelical Christian world, the binaries of Calvinism and Arminianism. What, at the very least I hope to do is alert people to the reality that even in the history and development of Reformed theology itself it was not a monolith; there were thinkers who were considered the orthodox who were not close to what we consider to be orthodox Calvinism or Reformed theology today (at least by way of emphasis). In an effort to continue to provide exposure in these directions let me once again, and quickly, refer to Janice Knight’s work on the history and development of English and American Puritanism. Here she is referring to Richard Sibbes as a touchstone thinker who represented a movement of Reformed theologians who challenged what we know as orthodox Reformed theology today; at least as that is given expression in federal or covenant theology.

When the Cambridge Brethren preached the covenant, they described an unconditional promise: the personal Christ, not the covenant bond, secured spiritual adoption. Reversing the emphasis of the Intellectual Fathers, Sibbes and his disciples invented a language stressing divine activity and human passivity in the work of salvation. Consistently, they favored metaphors of God as effulgent, a fountain of goodness overflowing, or an abundant river of graces pouring forth. The Brethren carefully qualified legalist language that might restrict the freeness of this exuberant flow.[1]

When Knight refers to the ‘Intellectual Fathers’ she is referring to William Perkins (as the figurehead of the movement), and those following his lead and style of federal theology. It is his style that has become synonymous with what people think of when they think of Reformed theology (proper) today. You see the way Knight construes the way Sibbesians reversed the emphasis of a contractual God to a personal Jesus. This fits well with Evangelical Calvinism; it fits well with Barth’s and Torrance’s theological emphases; and so Evangelical Calvinists have antecedent impulses within the theology of Sibbes and the Sibbesians. Some today want to simply gloss Sibbes and Perkins together, as if the distinction Knight is making is artificial; but just read Sibbes, read Perkins, and see if it is so artificial.

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 109.

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3 Responses to Personal Jesus Theology: A Small Primer on the History and Development of Reformed Theology

  1. Pingback: Personal Jesus Theology: A Small Primer on the History and Development of Reformed Theology — The Evangelical Calvinist | James' Ramblings

  2. Richard edwards says:

    I have been receiving your posts for a number of years now but have not often commented however today I just felt you should know how much these posts mean to myself and those who I share them with. The Lord has used these posts many times to answer questions and directed us to authors we were unfamiliar with. Thank you for your time and effort.

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  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Richard, thanks for being a reader, and thanks for sharing that you are a reader; that is encouraging to me. Blessings, to you!

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