In the process of trying to get to the bottom of Calvinism, I’ve learned that Calvinism is somewhat hard to define, but there does seem to be fairly universal consensus that the Canons of Dordt are the most commonly held principles of Calvinism…but….then you talk to other Calvinists who point you more toward the Westminster Confession. And then you have the Belgic Confession, and various other attending documents that go along with Westminster Confession which are apparently of some authority in various Calvinist churches. Of course, one could try to fathom a rather complex chart explaining Calvinism’s view of how a person is saved.
I just feel sometimes that I’m trying to pick up jello with my hands, or herd cats when I try to pin down precisely what is the Calvinist confession of faith. I wish Calvinists could, like we Lutherans, point to a single book and say, “Here is our definitive and authoritative and normative confession of faith.” I appreciate the fact that Lutheranism, though jello-like in its own unique ways, at least brings to the table a single book, called The Book of Concord. No, I’m not saying all Lutherans actually adhere to the Lutheran Confessions, just as I would not suggest that the Presbyterian Church USA is a paragon of Calvinist confession. We have our liberals. Calvinists have their’s. I’m not concerned about either right now.
In my opinion, based on my observation and reading of Calvinist materials now for many years, and most recently of course my exchanges with several ardent Calvinists, I am all the more firmly convinced that Calvinism simply does not put Jesus at the absolute center of their “system.”
Am I suggesting that Calvinists don’t believe in Jesus? No. That they don’t love Jesus? No. I’m simply saying that in the Calvinist system of theology the “warm beating heart” is not to be found, first and foremost, in Christ Jesus and the love and mercy of the Gospel, the good news of forgiveness and new life and hope in Him. For Calvinists it is my opinion that what “centers” them is not the Gospel, so much as God’s eternal sovereign decrees. Am I saying God is not sovereign? No. Am I saying God does not act sovereignly toward His creation? No.
The concern I have with Calvinism is that the fuel driving is train is not the dynamite of the Gospel of Jesus, the love of God, the kindness shown by God to us in Christ, but….in God’s essence and glory, which Calvinists see most clearly in His “sovereignty” but not actually in His grace, love and mercy in Christ. Of course, they protest this assertion. They say, “But that’s what we mean when we talk about sovereignty.” Well, I say, “Then let’s hear more about Jesus and the Gospel and God’s life-giving love and kindness and mercy in Christ.”
I believe that the New Testament clearly indicates that we can not, and must not, look any farther than Jesus Christ when we talk about God. All talk of God that drifts free of Christ and Him crucified leads in a wrong direction. Jesus Christ is the only way we know God as He wants to be known. We are not to try to peer past, or around, or above Jesus and try to look into the hidden counsels of God. And his is precisely where I think Calvinism as a system is highly problematic.
Is referring to Calvinism as a system unfair? I’m sure it could be so in some senses, but, as one Calvinist web site puts it succinctly:
Calvinism is the name applied to the system of thought which has come
down to us from John Calvin. He is recognized as the chief exponent of
that system, although he is not the originator of the ideas set forth
in it. The theological views of Calvin, together with those of the
other great leaders of the Protestant Reformation, are known to be a
revival of Augustinianism, which in its turn was only a revival of the
teachings of St. Paul centuries previous. But it was Calvin who, for
modern times, first gave the presentation of these views in systematic
form and with the specific application which since his day has become
known to us as Calvinism.
It is this “system” that has me worried for my Calvinist brethren, for it seems to me that this “system” is quite a bit more concerned first with an articulation of the eternal decrees and hidden counsels of God than with putting Christ Jesus at the heart and center. Please let me explain.
Calvinism concerns itself first with God’s glory and making sure God gets what God deserves: glory. A noble goal! But, is this truly the New Testament presentation of what is at the heart of Christianity? It would, to me, seem to be working things from the wrong direction. We are not given, first, to know and contemplate God in Himself, but rather as He has chosen finally to reveal Himself to us, and that He has done through His Son, Jesus Christ. This is not a “system” this is a Person, the God-Man, Christ Jesus our Lord. Beginning with God’s glory is stepping off on the wrong foot.
Consider this explanation of Calvinism’s “beating heart”
The central thought of Calvinism is, therefore, the great thought of
God. Someone has remarked: Just as the Methodist places in the
foreground the idea of the salvation of sinners, the Baptist the
mystery of regeneration, the Lutheran justification by faith, the
Moravian the wounds of Christ, the Greek Catholic the mysticism of
the Holy Spirit, and the Romanist the catholicity of the church, so
the Calvinist is always placing in the foreground the thought of God. The Calvinist does not start out with some interest of man; for
example, his conversion or his justification, but has as his informing
thought always: How will God come to His rights! He seeks to realize as
his ruling concept in life the truth of Scripture: Of Him , and
through Him, and to Him are all things. To whom be glory forever.
Here’s an example of what concerns me, from a self-described Calvinist gadfly I’ve come to know. Alan
is an earnest and sincere Christian young man who writes this about himself:
I am a sinner saved by God’s grace alone. He didn’t save me by
trying somehow to “woo” me by whispering in my ear hoping that I would
cooperate. He saved me when I was spitting in his face. God took my
creaturely rebel heart and sovereignly penetrated my will and performed
the miracle of regeneration by raising me up to spiritual life. It was,
and is, amazing grace.
Compare what our Calvinist friend Alan has to say to how St. Paul talks in
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ
liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the
faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
I trust you will notice a striking difference. I’m not
saying we have to mention Jesus with every other word, but….please
let me hear about Jesus, not just about the sovereign will of God. The
lofty grandeur of the God high in the heavens is a wonder indeed. But
that does me no good. No, talk to me of God who lies in the manger, for
me, as a baby. Let me hear more about God who lived perfectly in my
place, who walked this earth, in the same flesh and blood I have. Speak
to me of God who fed the crowds, healed the sick, raised the dead and
calmed the storms. Put my eyes on Jesus, God in the flesh, who took my
sins on his shoulders, who suffered and bled for me, as the
all-sufficient atoning sacrifice for my sins, and the sins of the whole
world. That’s the God I want to hear about more. You see, God has come
down in the flesh and now to all eternity, He is the only way I know
the Father, no other way. I can ponder the “sovereign will” of the
grand Creator, but I prefer to ponder God in the face of Jesus Christ,
who is, my Lord and my God. Let me hear of Jesus. He is the One who
shows us the Father. Please put Jesus back where He belongs.
The quotations in this post are from an essay based on the book The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, Chapter I, pp. 29-40 (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1939).