Here is a response to my thoughts on Calvinism from a person who apparently identifies himself as Calvinist. I found it interesting. It offers good insight into how some Calvinists think. And it is a good example and verification of how for Calvinism, “sovereignty” is the thing. It’s also an interesting example of what is common among Calvinists, an assumption that they in fact know and understand the theology of Martin Luther. As one wag put it to me recently, “Calvinists really enjoy Lutherans but don’t like it when they start talking too much like Lutherans.” My observation is that many Calvinists read only a very, very little in Martin Luther and then assume they “get him” and so they assume that there must be a vast difference between Martin Luther and classic, confessional Lutheranism. I once again refer my loyal readers to the Book of Concord if they want to know what Lutheranism is.
Paul McCain has tried to collect his thoughts about Calvinism. This article is a great improvement over his hit-pieces.
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.
This is all rather odd on several grounds.
i) Dr. McCain seems to have very definite views of what Calvinism stands for when it comes to criticizing Calvinism.
To compare the variety of Reformed confessions with a single Lutheran
book is deeply misleading, for the Book of Concord is, itself, an
anthology of several different Lutheran credal statements, viz.,
Luther’s Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession, the Articles of
Schmalkalden, and the Formula of Concord.
iii) The reason for
the relative diversity of Reformed confessions has a lot less to do
with doctrinal diversity than with national and linguistic diversity,
reflecting the French, Dutch, and British wings of Calvinism.
only doctrinal diversity of note is between the Reformed Baptist
expression of Calvinism, represented in the London Baptist Confession
of Faith, and the more Presbyterian types of Calvinism.
is also some difference between Dordt and Westminster over the
assurance of salvation. Westminster is basically a Puritan document,
and reflects Puritan concerns and emphases.
As to Calvinism’s
view of how a person is saved, the question is ambiguous. Is the
question: “How does God save a person?” Or is the question, “What must
a person do to be saved?”
The short answer to the first question
is that those whom the Father chose, the Son redeemed, and those whom
the Son redeemed, the Spirit renews and preserves.
For an answer to the second question, the Westminster Confession defines saving faith thusly:
this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in
the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein…yielding
obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing
the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the
principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting
upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life,
by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14:2).
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
One of the problems with
framing the debate in terms of what is “central” to Calvinism or
Lutheranism is that this is not a quantifiable criterion. For
“centrality” is just a picturesque metaphor. So when Dr. McCain judges
Calvinism by this figurative imagery, what is the literal frame of
reference? Otherwise, McCain is the one imposing a Jell-O-like standard
of his own.
For Calvinists it is my opinion that what “centers” them is not the Gospel, so much as God’s eternal sovereign decrees.
Once again, we’re left with a metaphor.
as far as metaphors go, the atonement is not “centered” in the decree;
rather, the atonement is “grounded” in the decree. This is the “basis”
or “foundation” of the atonement.
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.
Since Jesus is divine, it’s a false dichotomy to drive a wedge between
the glory of God, on the one hand, and faith in Christ, on the other.
ii) It is also a false dichotomy to drive a wedge between God’s sovereignty and God’s grace, love, and mercy in Christ.
In Reformed theology, God’s grace is sovereign grace, his love is sovereign love, and his mercy is sovereign mercy.
Calvinism doesn’t come to the Bible with either a Christocentric or a
theocentric agenda. If the emphasis falls on one more than the other,
that’s simply an exegetical result of trying to do justice to the
entire witness of Scripture.
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.”
This is another vague predicate. In Hesychasm, you have the “Jesus
prayer.” At a linguistic level, that’s very Christocentric. But is it
the essence of Christian piety?
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
i) Here we are getting to a key difference between Calvinism and Lutheranism.
Ironically, it’s McCain who is coming to the table with a preconceived
agenda. This is the canon within a canon that you find in Lutheran
theology, where everything should be artificially shoehorned into a
Christocentric or really Christomonistic direction.
by contrast, doesn’t feel the need to massage and manipulate and
redistribute the data to that degree. Calvinism has no inner canon. The
entire canon is the functional canon in Calvinism. So Lutheranism is
far more system-bound that Calvinism.
iii) Calvinism sees an
opposing danger. And that is when the work of Christ drift free of the
Trinity. When the work of Christ becomes some impersonal, free-floating
thing which is not coordinated with the work of the Father in election
or the work of the Spirit in renewal and preservation. An autonomous
sufficiency insufficient to save anyone in particular.
We are not to try to peer past, or around, or above Jesus and try to look into the hidden counsels of God.
is another malicious misrepresentation of Reformed theology. Where does
Calvinism get the idea of predestination in the first place? From the
Bible. This has nothing to do the prying into the hidden counsels of
God. Rather, it has everything to do with the revelation of the decree.
Predestination is a divine disclosure—not some speculative inference.
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
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.
is more of the same. McCain is censoring the word of God. Muzzling the
word of God. Redirecting and reorienting the word of God.
systematic theology is going to reorganize the contents of Scripture.
That’s what’s involved in systematizing the teaching of Scripture. As
such, there’s no one “scriptural” place to begin. There are many
possible starting points. You can use the covenant, or the kingdom of
God, or the Trinity, or, Christ as your structuring principle.
doesn’t concern itself first and foremost with anything except doing
justice to the whole counsel of God. Calvinism doesn’t feel the need to
be more Christian than scripture itself, for you can’t be more
Christian than Scripture itself.
Now, due to its battles with
Arminianism and Catholic synergism, there has been a polemic emphasis
on the sovereignty of God since that is what the opposing positions
oppose—just as, in Lutheranism, you have a polemical emphasis on sola
fide and the law/gospel antithesis.
There’s a Barthian and
functionally Unitarian quality to insisting that we cannot know
anything about God apart from the revelation of God in Christ. The NT
is not all about Jesus. Salvation is Trinitarian.
It does not
honor Christ to peel Jesus away from his Father, or sever him from the
Spirit of Christ. It does not honor Christ to make him die in vain. To
die for the damned.
Compare what our Calvinist friend Alan has to say to how St. Paul talks in Gal. 2:20.
the reductionistic nature of this appeal. There’s more to the Gospel,
more to St. Paul’s theology, more to NT theology, more to Biblical
theology, than Gal 2:20. Not less, certainly, but certainly more.
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.
i) This goes
back to McCain’s initial failure to distinguish between two distinct
questions: (a) “How does God save a person?” And (b) “What must a
person do to be saved?”
The Bible answers both questions, and
it’s the sacred duty of a pastor or theologian to preach or teach both
answers—not one to the exclusion of another. We just say whatever the
Bible says. Repeat the teaching of Scripture.
ii) And there
are times when it’s necessary to get into the mechanics of how God
saves a person. For you have heresies and heretics like Pelagius and
Valentinus and Roman Catholicism which give the wrong answer.
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.
is pious nonsense. There is no saving knowledge of God apart from faith
in Christ. But Biblical revelation is a revelation of the Trinity.
Christ is not a mask, obscuring or concealing the Father.
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.
i) All-sufficient for whom and for what? Sufficient, all by itself, to actually save everyone? McCain doesn’t believe that.
I’d add, at the risk of kicking over a hornet’s nest, that as a
practical matter, Lutherans like McCain put their faith, not directly
in the Savior, but in the sacraments. They are not looking to Jesus,
but to the wafer and the font. By contrast, Reformed Baptists do trust
in Jesus alone.