In light of my last post, and to help set up some of my next posts (which will be to review an interview that John Piper did with Matt Chandler on Chandler’s appropriation of 5 Point Calvinism, and how he now preaches it in every sermon he gives) I want to provide some clarification on where Calvinism came from. I have blown this trumpet for years, and this has become common fare in the theological literature (in other words this is not news to the theologian); but I don’t think I can sound this alarm enough, nor do I intend on necessarily speaking to the theologian. I want to speak to folk who don’t have exposure to this kind of stuff on a daily basis; I want you, the lay or even pastoral Christian to get a better grasp on the history of Christian ideas, as it has bequeathed what we know as Calvinism and Arminianism today.
My personal chapter for mine and Myk Habet’s forthcoming edited book has to do with an aspect that involves the particular issue that I am addressing in this post. The issue is what has been called classical theism. Classical theism is basically what happened when Thomas Aquinas (medieval theologian par excellence) synthesized Aristotle’s philosophical categories with Christian doctrine. This, in general, is what has given shape to most of Western Christianity in the centuries following; and what has given us the ongoing battle between Calvinism and Arminianism (which is an interesting battle because they are just two different sides of the same doctrinal coin). To help clarify and establish what classical theism is; and my assertion to what effect classical theism has had on ‘your’ Christianity today, I am going to appeal to Kevin Vanhoozer’s comments on the same subject. Vanhoozer writes:
“Evangelical theologians live in the house that Thomas built.” While this is too simplistic, it is true that most evangelical theologians embrace some form of classical theism of which Thomas Aquinas was the leading medieval exponent. Classical theism began when Christian apologists of the second century somewhat necessarily used then dominant concepts of Greek philosophy to commend the faith, and the Scriptures, to the cultured despisers of religion. Theists define God as being of infinite perfection.: all-holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present.
Classical theism refers to what has long been presumed as a synthesis worked out in the ancient and medieval church between biblical Christianity and Greek philosophy, and in particular between “God” and Aristotle’s notion of the “Unmoved Mover” (or Uncaused Cause). The Unmoved Mover is a perfect being: self-sufficient, eternal, and pure actuality (actus purus). From the latter — that God has no unrealized potential — Aristotle deduced that the Unmoved Mover must be immutable, because any change would be either for better or worse, and a perfect being is already as good as it can, and will for ever, be. God must not therefore have a body, because all bodies can be moved, so God is not material but immaterial. So: God sets the world into motion yet nothing moves God.
Thomas Aquians did not appropriate Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover wholesale. He realized that philosophy (a.k.a. “natural theology”) takes us only so far. Reason yields knowledge concerning the world of nature and, by extension, its Creator, but only revelation gives knowledge of the realm of grace and hence of the Son and Spirit. Nevertheless, by employing Aristotelian categories (e.g. substance, form, essence) and by conceding some knowledge of God to reason alone, the die of classical theism was arguably cast.
The first part of Aquinas’s Summa discusses the “one God (de Deo Uno) and treats themes accessible to natural reason — doctrines that would be held in common by Christians, Jews, and Arabs alike. Here we find discussions of God’s existence, unity, nature, and attributes. Aquinas treats the “three persons” (de Deo Trino) second, when he turns to the truths of revelation. He consequently presents the divine attributes before he even begins referring to the Incarnation and passion of the Son; in brief, he has been read as thinking about God apart from the gospel.
Seven hundred years later Charles Hodge would define theism in a way that seems to recall Aquinas: God is the ens perfectissimum (“most perfect being”) and theism is “the doctrine of an extra-mundane, personal God, the creator, preserver, and governor of the world.” Hodge also cites the Westminster Catechism, which gives what is “[p]robably the best definition of God ever penned by man”: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The triune God of the Gospel, in The Cambridge Companion To Evangelical Theology, edited by Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier, p. 19-20)
My personal chapter for our book, interestingly, develops some of what Vanhoozer here sketches in his own chapter (I hadn’t read this until after I had already submitted my chapter, I probably would’ve at least footnoted Vanhoozer here). Anyway, What I would like you to see is that there is a history; and there is also a linkage between Thomas Aquinas, and then through a post-Reformation theologian named Francis Turretin, and then to Charles Hodge who translated Turretin’s Latin ‘Elenctic Theology’ which became what he taught from, and the ground for most Reformed and Evangelical theologies following through even into the present. Classical Theism’s reach is deep and wide, and whether you know it or not; you most likely have been and/or are being affected by its reach right now.
There is no doubt that the so called Young, Restless, & Reformed like Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor and their mentors like Tim Keller, John Piper, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, et al. have all been heavily influenced by—in fact are steeped in it—by classical theism. This is the philosophical basis that has been given both academic and popular expression in what we know as Calvinism and Arminianism today. It will not be until someone grasps this, that there will be the ability present for pastors, theologians, and lay folk alike to disentangle the actual gospel from the captivity the Gospel has been in, in the clutches of classical theism.
Stay tuned for a brief engagement with Matt Chandler’s Calvinism as we watch a video interview of him with Piper on his appropriation of Calvinism; in the days to come. Not only will I use what we just described here as classical theism to understand what informs Chandler’s (et al.) Calvinism, but I will also expand the discussion out to critique something else that Chandler just barely mentions (I’ve heard him give a whole sermon on it in the past); that is, what he believes are ‘the two wills of God’—something Chandler feels he must have to deal with what he perceives as two mutually exclusive movements of God that cannot be reconciled without appealing to two wills. I will show how this comes from not only classical theism, but from an even more focused perspective; how it flows from the nominalist understanding of God’s ‘absolute power’ V. his ‘ordained power’. It would be great if Chandler and other guys in his movement would read along, but I doubt that! I hope you’ll read it though!!