Some Reasoning On Why I Reject ‘Classical’ Calvinism

Calvinism, I haven’t really offered any posts on Calvinism lately; not of the sort I used to. This will be a brief post on classical Calvinism, and I why I repudiate it.

Before I repudiate it, I ought to provide some of the positives I see obtaining from Calvinism. 1) It emphasizes God’s grace, de jure. 2) It emphasizes God’s sovereignty and providential care. 3) It attempts to be Christocentric. 4) It starts from a theology of the Word. 5) It has roots in the catholic tradition of the church. 6) It operates from the extra Calvinisticum relative to Christological and Eucharistic reflection. So, I see some very positive contours in the Calvinist tradition; indeed, I am a “Calvinist.” These are some of the important loci that keep me Reformed, and ‘Calvinist.’ But the way they are situated, developmentally, or lack thereof, is what also keeps me from identifying as a classical Calvinist; and it is for this reason that I repudiate it.

I repudiate it because it fails to operate in what Barth calls the ‘spirit’ of always reforming, and instead works in the ‘letter’ of always repristinating (even if its proponents reject that characterization). This is a formal reason for repudiation. A material reason is its continued commitment to certain ‘classical’ style of double predestination and the so called absolutum decretum. Indeed, it is this one locus that has kept me from classical Calvinism for the entirety of my Christian life (which started when I was 3). But I have never seen this one locus in isolation, I knew, even tacitly, that there had to be a systemic framework within which this locus took shape. Through study what I came to realize was that, indeed, the framework, or metaphysic which gave this locus development, was the substance metaphysics that the post reformed orthodox imbibed. Sure, this took more forms than just appropriation of Thomas; but someone no less than Richard Muller has labeled what took place in Protestantism in the 16th and 17th centuries as Christian Aristotelianism.

Before I ever got into theology, formally, I was and continue to be a voracious Bible reader. This discipline of Bible reading built into me, not to mention the pietism of the faith of my youth, an attentiveness to relationality and intimacy with God. Yes, in the history of ecclesial ideas even this has a heritage; one that I just mentioned in fact (i.e. pietism). BUT, it was this that kept me alert to the over reading of systems into the texture and reality of the biblical text. What I concluded, rather analytically, ironically, was that reading the Bible, and its reality in Christ, through a system like Christian Aristotelianism, does damage to the text; not to mention that it is eisegetical. Yes, the inner-logic of the text of Scripture needs a grammar to help explicate it (i.e. ‘trinitatis’); but that is not good enough reason to collapse that logic tout court into the medieval iteration and development, and its post developments in scholasticism reformed, as if this is the absolutely ‘catholic’ way to read and understand Scripture and its reality. What is and ought to be determinative of this task, is what the Protestant Reformation so rightfully recognized; that is, Holy Scripture AND its REALITY in Jesus Christ, ought to be determinative for the reader’s task. But this isn’t what has happened. Instead the dialectical tradition of scholasticism, the one the magisterial reformers (and Christian Humanists) protested against, has been re-cycled, and the protestant retrievers of today are simply absolutizing the 16th and 17th centuries of Protestant theological development, as the ONLY way to faithfully live as a Christian Protestant in the 21st century. In other words, the only way, according to this approach, to be a ‘conservative evangelical’ Christian, is to imbibe the thematics of the 16th and 17th centuries, expelling all other offerings—especially those that developed in the monstrous modern period—to the trash bin of devilish and Socinian ideas.

But, I think as a Reformed Protestant evangelical, it is possible, and necessary to be more constructive than that! As Protestants committed to a warm hearted love of the living God in Jesus Christ; as Protestants in love with God; it is imperative that we allow that reality, the reality of Jesus Christ, to shape the way we read Him. As such, our theologies shouldn’t be slavishly bound to certain periods of theological development, or systems of thought therein; but instead we should be slaves of Christ. So: Evangelical Calvinism.

I have more to say, as usual; but gotta run!

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5 thoughts on “Some Reasoning On Why I Reject ‘Classical’ Calvinism

  1. Bobby, great summary as usual. A couple of things I have sensed, and I can’t call these conclusions so much as observations. (i) I am not so sure Muller has settled the question of Reformed Scholasticism as some might think. Of course there is an Aristotelian mode of discourse, but the metaphysic was also heavily influenced by Duns Scotus and Occam. I think this greatly affected how the Reformers viewed sovereignty and their great miscalculation on the question of election that wasn’t really dealt with adequately until Barth, who did offer a far better biblical reading on the issue sans a traditional metaphysic (which you know I have less of an issue with). I think Hart is right, that the early Reformers had a highly voluntaristic view of Divine sovereignty that reduced God’s providential acts in history, especially in saving and damning into an act of pure (perhaps even arbitrary) power. iiThe over-reliance on metaphysics (regardless of my sense that some metaphysical reasoning is unavoidable esp. in matters of Theology Proper) lead to an overly elaborate system of doctrine wherein any error in the system tended to reduplicate leading to the danger of systemic collapse due to internal contradictions – namely how could God properly be called good if by electing some to salvation and others to perdition given the reasonable conclusion that perdition is not good for any creature. Again, Barth solved this by his insistence on a Christocentric reading of Romans 9-11 and demonstrating the universality of election in Christ.

    This leads me to a couple of tangentially related questions. i what do you make of Crisp’s work in Deviant Calvinism? My sense is he is opening up valuable questions that may be useful in further reforming Calvinism while remaining within the most valuable trajectories for both Barthian and Augustinian Calvinists. I don’t have designs on being a theologian myself, even if I am an avid reader of theology, but I do find his analytic approach to be interesting which is strange because I generally can’t stand analytic theology. Do you get the sense that more or less Classical Calvinists are bogging themselves down in useless debate? I have followed the union debates between Westminster East and West, and come to the conclusion that NAPARC churches in general are so caught up in warring over theological minutiae that it is demonstrably hurting their evangelical witness and creating a general spirit that is so inwardly focused that it will eventually argue itself into near irrelevancy. This is somewhat the case, though more muted in the Gospel Coalition crowd, that cannot seem to capture the evangelistic spirit that marked ministries like Keller at Redeemer. My concern for the Classical Calvinist crowd and those on the margins like GC’ers are essentially an amen corner that has little relevancy to the church at large or to the extension of the Kingdom. Even where I cannot fully get on board with all of Evangelical Calvinism, I see it as far more promising in the future of the church, so long as its adherents can avoid liberalism (which some have not). Thoughts?

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  2. Jed, Muller is pretty definitive in this area. His thesis is in fact that the period is multivalent, made up of various *scholastic* streams—inclusive of course of Scotism, Nominalism, etc—he’s very aware of ALL of that. His label of Christian Aristotelianism is meant to identify the broad characteristic of the period, and in that sense he is right; which he demonstrates over and over again. I’ve read DBH on Calvinism, and honestly he is very weak here. He actually creates caricatures of various strands of Calvinism, not even recognizing its various streams; which is the exact opposite of Muller. Period speaking, I think they all, BACK THEN, did the best they could with the material they had available. My critique is of those who seemingly—in the 21st century—fail to recognize how their situadedness was just that; thus, again, absolutizing something that should be approached with a constructive eye. Yes, voluntarism potentia theology etc is all problematic. Indeed, decretum absolutum actually leads to a collapse of the Creator into the creature just as God incarnates in Christ under the conditions of the decrees; insofar as those decrees are contingent upon creational realities.

    Crisp is a friend of Evangelical Calvinism, which becomes obvious as he endorsed our latest book. And yes, his analytical theology is helpful and in fact different say from what counts as analytical theology in the Talbot school etc. I do think that the debate is so insular that it is actually defeating their ostensible desire to be *catholic* in certain ways. IOW, it is so internecine that I think it does take away from their ability to focus on more constructive witness and theologizing. IOW, they are certainly battling over artificial or idiosyncratic constructs to the point that catholic Christianity itself has never heard of such things. As far as liberal evangelical calvinists, there are probably none of those. I can think of maybe one who leans that way, as far as contributors to our books.

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  3. Thanks Bobby. I haven’t (and probably won’t) read PRRD, so the interviews of Muller along with reviews I have read have probably given me a somewhat truncated understanding of what he means by Christian Aristotelianism, so this helps. I’m not so much anti-Aristotelianism as I am suspicious of its overall value. As a means of analysis Aristotelian logic is pretty helpful, but even with my openness to Christian metaphysics in general I think that employing Aristotelian categories ends up ossifying questions into unwarranted conclusions. I know we aren’t fundamentally in agreement on the place of Christian metaphysics, but I am sympathetic to your critique of Muller and of Reformed Scholasticism and the contemporary repristination movement. Personally I’d be more interested in a Barthian/Classical Theism synthesis, but even remaining more or less Barthian is probably a better route theologically than trying to retain Classical Calvinism as a whole.

    I realize that the likelihood of liberalism infiltrating Evangelical Calvinism is low, but it is somewhat alarming how many Barthians end up more or less liberal, in spite of Barths actual theological program. I know you have dealt with this in your interactions with Barthians at large.

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  4. Jed, TFT’s work is pretty much a Barthian/”Classical Theism” synthesis. So you don’t have to look too far ;).

    As far as ‘Barthians,’ they are plentiful, and of various shapes and sizes. Actually the only Barthians I know of who end up ‘theologically liberal’ (they’d prefer ‘radical’) are pretty much always associated with the Princeton school (and its attachments in continental Europe (i.e. non-Anglophone; and of course you’ll find pockets of that in the UK and Aussie). But EC isn’t mostly made up of “Barthians” (I’m as close as you’ll come to that among the ECrs I know); most are staunchly Torrancean or Calvinian in orientation.

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