In recent years there has been an upsurge in Calvinist (or Reformed) teaching among evangelicals in the USA, with Southern Baptists and Charismatics being to the fore, (Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, 2008, Crossway Publishers, Wheaton, IL). At the same time there has been a robust reaction against this teaching. However, this response sometimes disagrees with doctrines which have been “most surely believed among us” in assemblies, which are based, we believe, on “the whole counsel of God,” (Acts 20:27 RV). Given these circumstances, we shall be examining the teachings of Calvinism in a series of seven articles, seeking to compare and contrast them with what has been traditionally taught in assemblies for nearly two centuries. Other current doctrines, which diverge from the conventional position, such as corporate election, will be critically examined.
What is Calvinism?
Calvinism is a form of systematic theology worked out by the French reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) and later expanded by his followers. Calvin was a great devotee of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) who had himself worked out the equivalent rational theological system which highlighted the sovereignty of God, setting aside human responsibility as of any consequence in the matter of salvation. (It is the very same Augustine and Calvin whom we have also to thank for spiritualizing away an earthly millennium, teaching that there was no future for the nation of Israel).
The Problem Exemplified
If any readers are wondering what the furor is all about, they only have to read one of Calvin’s own statements:
“All things being at God’s disposal, and the decision of salvation or death belonging to Him, He orders all things by His counsel and decree in such a manner, that some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death, that His name may be glorified in their destruction” (John Allen, ed., Institutes of the Christian Religion. Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, 1841, p. 169).
Then, no doubt, they will quickly reach for their Bibles to turn up their favorite gospel verses which contradict such unscriptural teaching!
Arminianism and “TULIP”
Calvin’s teaching was generally well received by the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, but it was strongly opposed there by a prominent theologian called James (Jacobus) Arminius (1560–1609). His arguments were centered mainly on human responsibility. Shortly after his death, his followers issued a summary of his teaching in five statements (The Five Articles of Remonstrance, 1610), which, for our purposes, we can simplify as:
(1) election was determined by the faith of the believer, which God foreknew;
(2) the atonement, while adequate for all men, is efficacious only for believers;
(3) unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will;
(4) grace is not irresistible;
(5) believers can fall from grace and lose their salvation.
(For a full version see www.theopedia.com/Five_articles_of_Remonstrance).
To counter the spread of the teaching of Arminius, the Synod of Dort (Dordrecht, Holland) was convened by the Dutch Reformed churches in 1618. The outcome was The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands, commonly known as the Canons of Dort, conveniently summarized some time later in English (following re-arrangement of the order) by the acronym/mnemonic “TULIP.” This five-point statement has served as a summary of Calvinism (or the so-called Reformed position) ever since. It spells out:
T – Total depravity
U – Unconditional election
L – Limited atonement
I – Irresistible grace
P – Perseverance of saints
In succeeding articles we will use these points to construct a critique of Calvinism.
Arminianism and Calvinism
Arminianism flourished alongside Calvinism and the two often became – and still are – the reason for considerable disputes among Christians. One outstanding example of this is the rift that occurred within early Methodism. This movement polarized into two groups under the respective leadership of John Wesley (1703–1791) and George Whitefield (1714– 1770); the former being an Arminian and the latter a Calvinist – hence Wesleyan and Calvinistic Methodists. Both were active in preaching in the UK and North America. (The well-known preachers Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) of North America and Howell Harris (1714–1773) of Wales, were close associates of Whitefield.) The present writer well remembers his own boyhood in Wales, with English and Welsh language variants of both kinds of Methodist chapels.
A Balanced View
The generally accepted view in assemblies has been that divine sovereignty and human responsibility coexist, however illogical this might seem to our limited human minds. A summary of the outcome of such an interpretation might be stated as:
• Unsaved people are spiritually dead, but still responsible/able to repent;
• Our election is personal and not just dependent on God knowing about our faith beforehand;
• The death of Christ was on behalf of all, but is only effective for believers;
• Men are dependent on, but can refuse, the striving of the Spirit in the gospel;
• Once a person is truly saved, he can never be lost.
In terms of the continuing war of words between Calvinists and Arminians, “there is nothing new under the sun” in the arguments they use, but it is nevertheless well worthwhile restating the assembly position on this matter. One thing is clear – the prayers in the prayer meeting before the gospel meeting usually highlight divine sovereignty, asking that God would work in the hearts and minds of the unsaved, while the gospel preaching itself emphasizes the responsibility of the sinner to repent and believe.