This is the first in a series of posts in which I hope to suggest an Evangelical Calvinist corrective to what is typically understood as Calvinism in the classic sense, namely the five points designated by the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints). While I realize that many Reformed theologians would balk at this characterization, arguing that Reformed theology encompasses much more than the five points, TULIP represents the common conception of Calvinism (see, for example, Matt Chandler’s comments here) and constitutes the theological core shared by those who endorse a Reformed soteriology but not Reformed orthodoxy’s covenantal framework (e.g. John MacArthur). I am aware that for some people it may be difficult to grasp the corrective that we as Evangelical Calvinists are trying to promote, and so I hope that framing the discussion in terms of the five points, with which many are already familiar, will prove of some benefit in this regard.
To begin, I would like to quote a section from the introduction of Oliver Crisp’s book Deviant Calvinism . While the title may at first glance give the impression that Crisp will be condemnatory of any such deviations from so-called Reformed orthodoxy, his overall intention, while critical in places, is that of “broadening Reformed theology” in a charitable and constructive way. Crisp’s opening comments (pp.1-3) serve as a perfect introduction to what I hope to do in this series:
The dictum ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda is often taken to be a summary statement about the Reformed churches. They are “reformed” in doctrine and practice, according to the word of God. They are also “always reforming,” that is, always in the process of further refining their doctrine and practice in light of reflection on the word of God. It is vital that Reformed theology holds on to both of these things. Reformation of life and doctrine is not something that, once achieved, can be set aside as if the church this side of the grave can be confident that it has arrived at doctrinal and liturgical perfection. The Reformed churches have always regarded reformation as an ongoing process, a matter of continuing the work begun in the sixteenth century in the communities of the present.
We look back, informed by a tradition of rich theological reflection. But we also look forward, reforming our life under the word of God in preparation for the life to come. However, sometimes it appears that the popular perception of Reformed theology is rather more like a great shire horse stuck in the mud than a majestic Andalusian charging ahead with its rider. Often, Reformed theology is epitomized as a project that has reified the thought of one individual, John Calvin. All subsequent theology must nod in the direction of the great Frenchman and take its cue from his work. There is much to be said for the theology of Calvin, and a great deal that the student of divinity can learn from him. However, Reformed theology was never identified with the project of one person and was never supposed to be a straitjacket binding its practitioners. As a growing consensus of historical theologians at work on this area have argued elsewhere, the Reformed tradition comprises a variegated and diverse body of theological views even on matters once thought to be definitive of those churches bearing its name, including the doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement, – to name but two of the most obvious candidates.
If contemporary Reformed theologians often hold on to their heritage as thinkers in a tradition that has been reformed in doctrine and practice according to the word of God (that is, the ecclesia reformata aspect of our dictum), too often there is reticence to hold this together with the notion that the Reformed churches must continue to be reformed in light of the word of God. This is not a platitude; it bespeaks something substantive about method in Reformed theology, as the best practitioners of this tradition demonstrate. One need only consult the differences between, say, Zwingli and Calvin, or Edwards and Hodge, or even Schleiermacher and Barth, to see this is the case. Reformed theology is always being reformed in each new generation.
Crisp touches on a number of points here that are absolutely critical. Too often Reformed theology, particular as articulated in the Westminster Standards, the Canons of Dort, or the Three Forms of Unity, has come to function in a magisterial way (i.e what Crisp calls a straitjacket) rather than in a ministerial way that assumes the role of a servant to a living tradition that must reform itself in every generation. When this happens, Reformed theology as such ceases to be Reformed theology. It also ceases to be Reformed theology when the narrative of its history is written so as to exclude a priori the “variegated and diverse body of views” that have been present in some form from the beginning. Contrary to certain popular and even scholarly perceptions, Reformed theology, and Calvinism in particular, is not monolithic.
Moving forward in this series, I hope to be able to introduce some of these elements of Reformed theology that reflect the Evangelical Calvinist mood (see Scottish Theology by T.F. Torrance) and that, in my opinion, hold great potential for correcting some of the more problematic aspects of the five points traditionally conceived. My overall plan for this series (which of course will always be subject to change) is to provide a bit more introduction by way of methodology and theological groundwork, and then to tackle each of the five points and offer an Evangelical Calvinist alternative. I do not intend these alternate five points to entail a complete abandonment of the originals but a reification. Such is the nature of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda!
(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this series)