‘Calvinism’ and its Discontents: a Plea for Understanding

John CalvinTalk 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.


7 thoughts on “‘Calvinism’ and its Discontents: a Plea for Understanding

  1. I think these are some fair points, especially the importance of recognizing that Calvin (though influential) is not the sum total of Reformed thought. If forced to define the doctrine by a man, I actually prefer “Augustinianism,” since he seems to me the true forefather of many of the distinctive teachings of Reformed theology. Nevertheless, Reformed thought clearly is much too broad and rich to be confined to a single theologian.

    However, I suspect that when Reformed theologians use the category of ‘divine permission,’ they are often borrowing this concept from a foreign theology. At least as far as I understand, many (most?) Reformed thinkers don’t affirm the possibility (much less the actuality) of libertarian, counterfactual free will for creatures. And, if creatures do not have libertarian free will, then the whole category of ‘permission’ collapses into ‘determination.’ In such a scenario God really does determine everything that happens.

    If creatures have libertarian free will, then the concept of divine permission is quite explicable. I understand the desire for Reformed theologians to maintain this concept, because it is a plausible way to affirm that God is not the author of sin. Moreover, it makes the concept of unconditional election much more palatable – since we can affirm that God elects some and simply permits the damnation of others. Reformed theologians NEED the concept of divine permission, and indeed they often say they have it. But it seems to me that they must let libertarian free will sneak in the door if they hope to hold on to this vital concept.

    • Hey Kyle,

      Thanks for stopping by and reflecting on the post. It’s been too long since we’ve talked! We’ll be in MI this summer for just a bit; the time is always too short.

      I think it’s a good question to be asking: is divine permission in fact an alien element in the system of Reformed thought? However, I don’t think that it is. The Reformed reservation on the freedom of the human will centers on the fact that everyone’s will is shaped by various factors and is not absolutely indifferent in relation to its potential objects. The corruption of our nature, the sanctifying work of God, the judgments of our intellect all shape the movement of the will. This is an issue especially in connection with moral choices.

      Yet, having made that qualification about the freedom of the will, the Reformed recognize the place of contingency in creaturely events and recognize that God genuinely permits human beings to act according to their will, even if things are complex as he chooses to act in various ways to guide our lives. Far from coercing Adam and Eve in the first act of sin, God, according to the Reformed, actually created Adam and Eve with a (mutable) inclination toward good.

      The question of how the terms ‘compatibilism’ and ‘libertarian freewill’ fit into all of the this is another issue.


      • Hello Steve, you’re right that it has been too long! I have heard through Facebook about your recent accomplishments and would like to congratulate you! We may not agree on certain aspects of Reformed theology, haha, but I’ve always considered you an absolutely critical mentor in my life and I’ve been blessed greatly through you! If it’s possible to meet while you’re in MI that would be great, although I am only there periodically (I’ve moved to Chicago).

        If I read you correctly, you seem to be saying that many factors (our inclinations, desires, the promptings of God, etc.) guide our actions, and therefore the will is not utterly free. I suppose the question would boil down to this – was it actually possible for Adam to choose not to sin, given the exact circumstances obtained in which he actually chose to sin (the same beliefs, desires, inclinations, promptings from God, appeal from Eve, etc.)? Is there a possible world in which all of the pre-fall conditions obtained and Adam chose not to sin?

        If yes, then it appears that we have contingency, and therefore the category of divine permission is established. For, certainly, God did not desire Adam to sin. And, certainly, God could have stopped Adam from sinning (either by interfering with his will or even by annihilating Adam). However, instead of interfering, He permitted Adam to sin for whatever reason.

        • Hey Kyle,

          Thanks for your reply and the congratulations!

          I think I knew you guys moved to Chicago. You know then how quick the visits to Michigan go.

          From a Reformed view, the answer is, Yes, Adam could have avoided the sin. That is, nothing in his nature pushed him to it, and God didn’t tempt him to do it (James 1) or effect it. Adam was even disposed to good when he was created by God. However, given God’s decision to permit the sin, and given God’s infallibility, it couldn’t happen otherwise – what the old-school guys would call a necessity of supposition.

          I’m not too keen on possible worlds talk because it seems to create a system that encompasses both God and creatures and operates independently of God’s (effective and permissive) will, furnishing him with various sets of options from which he must choose. That seems to undermine the ultimacy of God and dependency of creatures.

          Necessity and contingency, in my view, shouldn’t be construed as a function of sheer modality but a function of the natures of things and the supposita acting with those natures. I’m definitely more a theologian than a philosopher, but David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism, coming from a purely philosophical take, is good on that issue. I’ve probably now managed to take us a bit off topic :)

          Someday hopefully we can catch up and wax theological at a pub somewhere.

          All the best,

  2. It comforts Mankind to believe that God thinks like us, so that it then becomes possible to fathom and, in faith, predict His will and direction for existence, our own and for the rest of His creation. If we and God DO think alike, then perhaps He has shared our kind of existence from time to time. History is filled with people having severe cases of “Divine Madness.” Such people tend to be the founders of our major religions and/or philosophical movements.

    “What if there have been a number of gods and Gods, their numbers fluctuating
    over time. These positions, or [Gg]odships, would have been captained by a series
    of anonymous Life Units, perhaps with mixtures of good and bad intentions. Such
    a collection, mixed in with the goings-on of normal Life Units, could account for
    much of history and its tides as we know them, and for occasional incongruity and
    hints of evolution we detect in that Being we call God.”
    From my essay “Captaincy of the Godship”

  3. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – June 2014 | Reading Acts

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