Talk of the ‘new Calvinists’ or ‘new Calvinism’ abounds online these days, and the movement has elicited critiques in print in Austin Fischer’s book Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed and in portions of Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism. Yet, one new blog post on Calvin’s Institutes – cast in the form of a break-up letter – is the most immediate occasion for the reflections offered here. Here are some loosely connected musings: one concerning the approach to the issues, one concerning theological issues themselves, one suggesting some practical ways forward for the curious.
I. ‘Calvinism’ is typically not a helpful descriptor
The term ‘Calvinism’ creates the wrong impression that one man is the focal point of Reformed and Presbyterian theology. He is not. Indeed, when one reads John Calvin’s own letters to other ministers and sixteenth-century leaders, one is struck by the spirit of brotherly collaboration and deference in which he interacts with figures like Heinrich Bullinger or Peter Vermigli, for example. This is the same Calvin who wished to be buried in an unmarked grave in order to avoid being a distraction to future generations of believers. For this reason, Michael Horton in his book For Calvinism is willing to grant ‘Calvinism’ the status of only a ‘nickname’ in referring to the doctrines of grace. For more on this, see Richard Muller’s excellent lecture here.
In light of this, one cannot pick out and criticize various unsavoury statements from Calvin’s Institutes and speak as though one has therefore swept aside an entire Protestant tradition. On the contrary, the really critical thing is to ask, not whether one man (i.e., Calvin) said some difficult things in particularly colourful ways, but whether the confessions or officially accepted documents of a given tradition (i.e., the Reformed here) are true to Scripture. In this case, we’re talking especially about the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. For Congregationalists like John Owen, we could add the Savoy Declaration, and, for particular Baptists like Charles Spurgeon, we could add the 1689 London Baptist Confession.
By the same token, ‘new Calvinists’ are not beyond criticism if they concern themselves with Calvin alone or even just Calvin’s understanding of God’s grace and election in soteriology. We cannot forget that Calvin was but one of many Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed leaders and that his own sketch of Christian doctrine is emphatically not reducible to ‘TULIP’ – a rather recent and, indeed, problematic distillation of Reformed theology – but includes lengthy expositions of the Decalogue, prayer, ecclesiological issues, and so on. Man does not live by ‘TULIP’ alone.
II. Reformed theology affirms divine permission
Contrary to some critical rehearsals of Reformed and Presbyterian thinking, the confessions and the major theologians of this tradition do have a place for divine permission. This point is often missed in polemics against ‘Calvinism’. One sometimes gets the impression that the Reformed tradition keeps claiming that God is not the author of sin but, given its view of divine sovereignty, offers no credible explanatory resources on how this could be. Some of Calvin’s comments on God’s sovereignty sound rather harsh (particularly to modern ears), but even he affirms that God permits certain things. His reservations about ‘permission’ are customarily qualified by the adjective ‘bare’ (so ‘bare permission’). God permits creaturely actors to have certain sinful intentions and to enact those intentions, but not as bystander taken aback by what creatures do. Instead, God always actively permits with a view to executing his (often mysterious) purposes.
Whether or not any given person (Reformed, Wesleyan, or otherwise) resonates with all of Calvin’s phrasing in the Institutes, the authoritative documents of the Reformed tradition duly recognize the place of divine permission in the history of sin and redemption. The Westminster Confession (5.4) declares that God’s providence extends even to sin itself and adds that this is not by a ‘bare permission’; rather, God ‘governs’ sin according to his own ends. Opposition to ‘bare permission’ is not opposition to permission per se; it only underscores that God permits with perfect wisdom and an all-encompassing, unwavering commitment to bring all things to their appointed fulfilment in Christ (Gen. 50:20; Matt. 10:29-30; John 19:11; Eph. 1:10).
One representative of classical Reformed thought, the early scholastic theologian Amandus Polanus (1561-1610), writes very plainly that we should distinguish between the will of God effecting (voluntas efficiens) and the will of God permitting (voluntas permittens). The former is that ‘according to which God effects only good things, either by himself or through others’. The latter is that ‘according to which God allows something to happen by creatures, whether it is good or indifferent or an evil of error or sin’ (Syntagma, II.19).
It is similar with the doctrine of predestination. In the conclusion of the Canons of Dort, the authors write that ‘the Reformed churches…detest with their whole soul’ – this might be important! – the notion that reprobation (God’s decision that some fallen persons should be condemned) functions in the same way that election (God’s decision that some fallen persons should come to saving faith) works. Reprobation is not the cause of unbelief and condemnation in the way that election is the cause of faith and salvation in believers.
As the Italian Reformed scholastic Francis Turretin explains, reprobation is a positive act of God’s eternal will, not in that he foreordains himself to effect the sin that warrants judgment, but only in the sense that God chooses to leave some sinners in their sinful condition, while he appoints others to eternal life (Acts 13:48) (Institutio, IV.14.4). In other words, reprobation doesn’t directly cause anyone’s condemnation; it’s the decision of God not to do for some what he does for others and only in this way to ‘prepare’ some ‘for destruction’ (Rom. 9:22).
One still has to deal with unconditional election, and that teaching will remain unacceptable for many. However, the point here is that the mainstream of Reformed theology neither explicitly nor implicitly envisions God effecting sin or forcing anyone to position himself or herself for his judgment. Of course, as any sound reading of Scripture should recognize, God and sinful human agents nevertheless can act concurrently so that a given work is wise and good on God’s part but sinful on the human persons’ part (so Gen. 50:20).
III. Read and listen to ‘regular’ Reformed stuff
If one knows only the big names of the ‘new Calvinism’, one’s view of what Reformed convictions look like on the ground can be skewed. My suggestion is that each person who is interested should read the major confessions of the Reformed churches and ask whether they faithfully encapsulate and illuminate biblical teaching. Sometimes those who have only a little familiarity with Reformed thought imagine that the system of old-school Reformed doctrine is deduced logically from a particular understanding of predestination. In fact, the ‘central dogma’ approach to the study of Reformed thought has been debunked by Muller and others. More to the point, the Canons of Dort, for example, are clearly an attempt to carefully set forth biblical teaching, so tolle lege!
Beyond that, it is helpful to get a sense of how ‘regular’ (for lack of a better adjective) Reformed ministers sound in the pulpit or in the classroom. Though they are well-known preachers with attention-grabbing Scottish and Welsh accents and are in that sense not typical, the likes of Sinclair Ferguson and Derek Thomas exemplify some of the best Reformed preaching done today. I have benefited numerous times from hearing them expound and apply Holy Scripture, and their sermons are readily available online.
Finally, if one is interested in reading some critical reflections in the blogosphere on the ‘new Calvinism’ from within the Presbyterian camp, the verbal panache of Carl Trueman at reformation21.org is tough to beat.