Periodically, an article is published to which I am compelled to respond. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to respond with nastiness or even direct disagreement. A response is not a reaction. The following article is an attempt at a friendly response to an article published today over at RAANetwork. The goal here is not to discredit the article or punch holes in its reasoning. My goal isn’t even to correct anything I believe to be improperly stated. Rather, my goal here will be to offer an alternative viewpoint, or perhaps to approach the subject from a bit of a different angle.
Defining Our Terms
Many well-intentioned articles have been written to persuade Reformed Christians to go easy—fly under the radar—in the discussion over Calvinism and non- (or anti-) Calvinism. Let us take a moment before diving into this discussion ourselves to discuss some important definitions. It’s important that we all understand from the outset that, when we say someone is Reformed or Calvinistic, we don’t all mean the same thing. Some equate Reformed Theology with Calvinism. Others recognize that Calvinism has come to be defined in Evangelicalism as a much different thing from Reformed Theology. For the purposes of this article, I will be using the two terms to describe two different, but related, concepts.
First, when I say Calvinism, I will mean the minimalistic adherence to the five points of Calvinism as outlined in the Canons of Dort. Second, when I say Reformed, I will mean a much more comprehensive approach to the Christian life that certainly affirms the five points of Calvinism, but also holds to historic Reformed expressions and formulations of both belief and practice as outlined in the historic Reformed confessions of faith. By this definition, many among the Dutch Reformed, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and even Baptists fit comfortably under the heading Reformed.
(Note: I believe the article mentioned above does a decent job of using the historical definitions of these terms.)
It Is Biblical
One area where you might say I agree that we should not be in the business of pushing Reformed Theology is in regard to pushing “mere Calvinism.” If all that a man ever seems to talk about is the five points of Calvinism to the expense of the other godly wisdom we’ve inherited from the early Reformers, Puritans, and Particular Baptists, that man will inevitably exhibit a certain imbalance in his life and doctrine. Reformed Theology is holistic, touching every part of the Christian life.
Q.6: What things are chiefly contained in the Holy Scriptures?
A. The Holy Scriptures chiefly contain what man ought to believe concerning God, and what duty God requireth of man (Collins, The Baptist Catechism of 1693).
Reformed Theology is holistic because it is biblical, and the Bible is holistic. This is where Calvinistic Christians have often gone wrong in recent decades. We have often focused on the academic aspect of the Christian belief system without demonstrating the connectedness of Christian thought with Christian practice. We have failed to maintain an element of the Christian life that was essential for the Reformers, Puritans, and Particular Baptists: that knowledge not coupled with understanding and wisdom (right knowledge that does not lead to right action) is not biblical knowledge.
The problem with Reformed Theology is a PR problem more than anything else. The problem isn’t that Reformed Theology isn’t biblical. The problem is that the acquiescence and application of Reformed Theology on the part of many Reformed Christians has not been biblical. Many of us have accepted Reformed Theology because it is true; it lines up with Scripture (knowledge). That’s a good thing. However, how many Reformed Christians apply themselves to imbibing these teachings as they are found in Scripture (understanding) and actually walking them out in their everyday lives (wisdom)?
It’s not enough merely to affirm Reformed Theology as true and biblical. When our Christian and non-Christian friends hear us discussing Reformed Theology, if they only hear platitudes and well-structured arguments, but they see lives unaffected by these truths, they rightly recognize that something is “off.” What’s “off” is the fact that we have biblical knowledge, but we have not coupled that knowledge with biblical wisdom and understanding (Eph. 1:17-18).
One Church United in Truth
When properly acquired and applied, Reformed Theology is more powerful than any other Scriptural, theological formulation in uniting Christians with one another. For many of our readers, this assertion doubtless seems odd. After all, we’ve been told, it’s doctrine that divides, and especially that dreaded Reformed doctrine (queue suspenseful music).
On the contrary, the Bible teaches that proper doctrine unites the church. When Christ ascended, Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, He bestowed gifts upon the church. He not only led captivity captive (freeing us from our slavery to sin, the traditions of men, the world, the flesh, and the devil), but He also gave godly men to the church to unite us in proper Christian doctrine. The result of this unity would be that we would no longer be as babes in the faith carried about by every current of doctrine, but we would be built up like a man of full stature able to stand with feet firmly planted on the riverbed of the world, immovable and complete with the strength that every part supplies, and with Christ as our Head (Eph. 4:7-16).
Now for a sober thought. To undervalue unity in truth (and that’s what Reformed Theology is: truth) is to weaken and divide the church where God has ordained that ought to find our true unity. Is the church divided? We sure are. Is it proper that we should point to true doctrine as the source of that disunity? May it never be! Rather we should pray, as Paul and Timothy did for the church at Colossae, that God’s children would grow in knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (Colossians 1:9).
Real Sources of Disunity
What then is the source of our disunity? There are several sources to which we can and should point. First among them are divisive brothers. The Bible is riddled with warnings against divisive brothers. They are called an abomination to God in Proverbs (6:16-19). Paul wrote to Titus: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Tit. 3:10-11; NASB). The problem with these men is not the doctrine being taught from the pulpit, but a divisive spirit that has gone unchecked within them.
Another source of disunity in the church is an unteachable spirit. This isn’t solely the fault of individual congregants. All too often, churches leave their doctrinal positions undefined. As people join their ranks, they come in with the assumption that the church is fluid where they are fixed. They are allowed from the onset to believe that they, as an untrained, non-ordained member of the church will be able to sway the church this way or that on their pet doctrine. Rather than being shaped by the word preached, they desire to shape the word preached through their human influence. They prefer to accumulate for themselves teachers that tell them what they want to hear, turning their ears away from the truth (2Tim. 4:3-4).
Once a man allows this presumption to fester in his heart, a hostile environment is inevitable. The moment the pastor authoritatively opposes his pet doctrine, a wound is opened within his soul and the infection of bitterness begins to set in. In this way, the unteachable spirit is not unlike the discontented spirit. Both can lead to disunity if unchecked, and both will use Reformed Theology as an occasion to sow division within the body. We would be wise to keep in mind, however, that Reformed Theology is not the cause but the occasion of this division.
A third source of disunity is immaturity in the faith. Reformed Christians have affectionately coined the term cage-stage Calvinist to describe these immature believers, but it’s important to recognize that this phenomenon is not unique to Reformed Theology. Truth in the hands of an immature man is always a dangerous weapon. Wise parents don’t hand scalpels to their toddlers and leave them unsupervised. However, in the hands of a skilled surgeon, a scalpel is a necessary tool. The same is true for sound biblical knowledge, such as Reformed Theology.
Lusts (or passions) can also be a real source of disunity within the body. James points out that the cause of all quarrels is unchecked passion (Jas. 4:1-3). We want, but we do not have, so we steal, murder, slander, and destroy. We bite and devour one another, when we should be building one another up in the faith.
These are all sources of disunity. They all point to man’s universal, sinful condition. Note, however, that nowhere in Scripture does the Bible point to truth properly acquired and applied as a source of unity. In fact, it is the exact opposite.
Reformed Theology Is High Theology
So is it wrong or unwise to contend for Reformed Theology with our brothers and sisters in the faith? It depends. It depends on your heart and on the heart of your listener. If your heart, or the heart of your listener, is to win an argument rather than to demonstrate and share the rich spiritual benefit that is to be found in an affirmation of biblical truth, then your heart is not in the right place to be discussing Reformed Theology. There is a time and a place for swordplay: among parties who agree. The problem often comes when we take that playfulness and try to employ it with people who diametrically oppose our understanding of Scripture. We must approach these conversations with much more prayerfulness and seriousness, because much more is at stake.
What is it that’s at stake? What is it that Reformed Theology can grant our non-Reformed brothers and sisters that they don’t already have? In a word: consistency. We don’t deny that Arminians, and all other forms of non-Calvinists, can and do have a high view of God. The fact is, however, that Reformed Theology offers the highest view of God there is.
Our non-Calvinistic brothers and sisters will not care to hear from us that we believe their high view of God to be inconsistent with their approach to biblical interpretation. However, that is precisely what we believe as Reformed Christians. Yet it should be noted that they have the same critique of our theology. Why not just be honest about it? Much as it would be unloving for me to have a prolonged relationship with a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon without ever sharing the gospel with them, it is (to a drastically less significant degree) likewise unloving for us as Reformed Christians to think we have the richest, most deeply rewarding view of God and then to withhold it from our brothers and sisters in the faith. Why would we deny them this rich heritage that we have found so rewarding to our faith and practice?
Might it be because we have not truly found it rewarding? Might it be that we have not thought out how truly holistic Reformed Theology is and applied its teaching to every aspect of our life and our doctrine? See, our zeal for truth tells those who disagree with us how truly committed we are to that truth. If we have no zeal for truth we are telling others, whether we intend to or not, that we find it neither true nor beneficial. This has not been our experience, though. We affirm Reformed Theology not simply because we have been logically convinced; we affirm it also because we have been experientially convinced. That is, unless we haven’t. Our actions will tell.
The Necessary Contrast between Christianity and Rome
Not only do our non-Reformed brothers and sisters miss out on the benefit of a high theology, but often they also fail to see the very necessary contrast between Christianity and Rome. There are many pastors and theologians in the church today who, as a result of their abandonment of Reformation theology, have completely abandoned the Reformation! Everywhere you look, there are pastors, seminary professors, theologians, and biblical scholars who claim to represent a Protestant tradition or denomination while simultaneously holding out a hand of fellowship to Rome. These men and women speak of three orthodox groups under the umbrella of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism.
As Reformed Christians, we recognize only one of three groups just listed as truly Christian according to the Bible. I have had professors that would view this statement as divisive. Well, with all due respect to my professors, the Council of Trent was just as much to blame for this division as any Reformer, Puritan, Baptist, or Reformed confession or catechism. When the papacy holds a council that takes an essential doctrine such as Justification by Faith Alone and calls any who teach it accursed, this act alone is enough to place Rome squarely outside the pale of biblical orthodoxy.
Yet we have “Protestant” Christians claiming that those who have called us anathema (and have not retracted it) are under our same umbrella. We shouldn’t merely push Reformed Theology because of its high view of God. Reformed Theology is also a necessary guard from adopting heterodox views of our relationship to Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church.
Again, why do I push Reformed Theology? I push Reformed Theology because it’s biblical. I push Reformed Theology because biblical truth, when rightly acquired and applied, unites. I push Reformed Theology because it offers the most consistent interpretation of the Bible with a truly high view of God. I push Reformed Theology because it keeps us from erroneous, though perhaps well-intentioned, attempts at unity with groups with whom the Bible requires we disagree. For all of these reasons, it would be both unloving and a disregard for the unity of the church for Reformed Christians not to push Reformed Theology.
Edit – After getting some feedback from the author of the article that inspired this one, I wanted to offer the following statement as a kind of second conclusion:
It seems to me that the heart of the article’s author is in the right place, wanting to bridge gaps between disparate Christians and break down barriers. I would prefer that Reformed Christians with such a heart boldly use the terminology we believe to be the most biblical, but do so in such a way that we utterly destroy the stereotypes people have erected of us in their minds. That is to say that we should employ Reformed terminology (early in our conversations) in such a way that our non-Reformed friends are completely disarmed by the love and tenderness behind it.