Paul McCain has tried to collect his thoughts about Calvinism. This article is a great improvement over his hit-pieces.
In the process of trying to get to the bottom of Calvinism, I've learned that Calvinism is somewhat hard to define, but there does seem to be fairly universal consensus that the Canons of Dordt are the most commonly held principles of Calvinism...but....then you talk to other Calvinists who point you more toward the Westminster Confession. And then you have the Belgic Confession, and various other attending documents that go along with Westminster Confession which are apparently of some authority in various Calvinist churches. Of course, one could try to fathom a rather complex chart explaining Calvinism's view of how a person is saved.
I just feel sometimes that I'm trying to pick up jello with my hands, or herd cats when I try to pin down precisely what is the Calvinist confession of faith. I wish Calvinists could, like we Lutherans, point to a single book and say, "Here is our definitive and authoritative and normative confession of faith." I appreciate the fact that Lutheranism, though jello-like in its own unique ways, at least brings to the table a single book, called The Book of Concord.
This is all rather odd on several grounds.
i) Dr. McCain seems to have very definite views of what Calvinism stands for when it comes to criticizing Calvinism.
ii) To compare the variety of Reformed confessions with a single Lutheran book is deeply misleading, for the Book of Concord is, itself, an anthology of several different Lutheran credal statements, viz., Luther’s Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession, the Articles of Schmalkalden, and the Formula of Concord.
iii) The reason for the relative diversity of Reformed confessions has a lot less to do with doctrinal diversity than with national and linguistic diversity, reflecting the French, Dutch, and British wings of Calvinism.
The only doctrinal diversity of note is between the Reformed Baptist expression of Calvinism, represented in the London Baptist Confession of Faith, and the more Presbyterian types of Calvinism.
There is also some difference between Dordt and Westminster over the assurance of salvation. Westminster is basically a Puritan document, and reflects Puritan concerns and emphases.
As to Calvinism’s view of how a person is saved, the question is ambiguous. Is the question: “How does God save a person?” Or is the question, “What must a person do to be saved?”
The short answer to the first question is that those whom the Father chose, the Son redeemed, and those whom the Son redeemed, the Spirit renews and preserves.
For an answer to the second question, the Westminster Confession defines saving faith thusly:
“By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein…yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14:2).
In my opinion, based on my observation and reading of Calvinist materials now for many years, and most recently of course my exchanges with several ardent Calvinists, I am all the more firmly convinced that Calvinism simply does not put Jesus at the absolute center of their "system."
One of the problems with framing the debate in terms of what is “central” to Calvinism or Lutheranism is that this is not a quantifiable criterion. For “centrality” is just a picturesque metaphor. So when Dr. McCain judges Calvinism by this figurative imagery, what is the literal frame of reference? Otherwise, McCain is the one imposing a Jell-O-like standard of his own.
For Calvinists it is my opinion that what "centers" them is not the Gospel, so much as God's eternal sovereign decrees.
Once again, we’re left with a metaphor.
And as far as metaphors go, the atonement is not “centered” in the decree; rather, the atonement is “grounded” in the decree. This is the “basis” or “foundation” of the atonement.
The concern I have with Calvinism is that the fuel driving is train is not the dynamite of the Gospel of Jesus, the love of God, the kindness shown by God to us in Christ, but....in God's essence and glory, which Calvinists see most clearly in His "sovereignty" but not actually in His grace, love and mercy in Christ.
i) Since Jesus is divine, it’s a false dichotomy to drive a wedge between the glory of God, on the one hand, and faith in Christ, on the other.
ii) It is also a false dichotomy to drive a wedge between God’s sovereignty and God’s grace, love, and mercy in Christ.
In Reformed theology, God’s grace is sovereign grace, his love is sovereign love, and his mercy is sovereign mercy.
iii) Calvinism doesn’t come to the Bible with either a Christocentric or a theocentric agenda. If the emphasis falls on one more than the other, that’s simply an exegetical result of trying to do justice to the entire witness of Scripture.
Well, I say, "Then let's hear more about Jesus and the Gospel and God's life-giving love and kindness and mercy in Christ."
“More.” This is another vague predicate. In Hesychasm, you have the “Jesus prayer.” At a linguistic level, that’s very Christocentric. But is it the essence of Christian piety?
I believe that the New Testament clearly indicates that we can not, and must not, look any farther than Jesus Christ when we talk about God. All talk of God that drifts free of Christ and Him crucified leads in a wrong direction.
i) Here we are getting to a key difference between Calvinism and Lutheranism.
ii) Ironically, it’s McCain who is coming to the table with a preconceived agenda. This is the canon within a canon that you find in Lutheran theology, where everything should be artificially shoehorned into a Christocentric or really Christomonistic direction.
Calvinism, by contrast, doesn’t feel the need to massage and manipulate and redistribute the data to that degree. Calvinism has no inner canon. The entire canon is the functional canon in Calvinism. So Lutheranism is far more system-bound that Calvinism.
iii) Calvinism sees an opposing danger. And that is when the work of Christ drift free of the Trinity. When the work of Christ becomes some impersonal, free-floating thing which is not coordinated with the work of the Father in election or the work of the Spirit in renewal and preservation. An autonomous sufficiency insufficient to save anyone in particular.
We are not to try to peer past, or around, or above Jesus and try to look into the hidden counsels of God.
This is another malicious misrepresentation of Reformed theology. Where does Calvinism get the idea of predestination in the first place? From the Bible. This has nothing to do the prying into the hidden counsels of God. Rather, it has everything to do with the revelation of the decree. Predestination is a divine disclosure—not some speculative inference.
It is this "system" that has me worried for my Calvinist brethren, for it seems to me that this "system" is quite a bit more concerned first with an articulation of the eternal decrees and hidden counsels of God than with putting Christ Jesus at the heart and center. Please let me explain.
Calvinism concerns itself first with God's glory and making sure God gets what God deserves: glory. A noble goal! But, is this truly the New Testament presentation of what is at the heart of Christianity? It would, to me, seem to be working things from the wrong direction. We are not given, first, to know and contemplate God in Himself, but rather as He has chosen finally to reveal Himself to us, and that He has done through His Son, Jesus Christ. This is not a "system" this is a Person, the God-Man, Christ Jesus our Lord. Beginning with God's glory is stepping off on the wrong foot.
This is more of the same. McCain is censoring the word of God. Muzzling the word of God. Redirecting and reorienting the word of God.
Any systematic theology is going to reorganize the contents of Scripture. That’s what’s involved in systematizing the teaching of Scripture. As such, there’s no one “scriptural” place to begin. There are many possible starting points. You can use the covenant, or the kingdom of God, or the Trinity, or, Christ as your structuring principle.
Calvinism doesn’t concern itself first and foremost with anything except doing justice to the whole counsel of God. Calvinism doesn’t feel the need to be more Christian than scripture itself, for you can’t be more Christian than Scripture itself.
Now, due to its battles with Arminianism and Catholic synergism, there has been a polemic emphasis on the sovereignty of God since that is what the opposing positions oppose—just as, in Lutheranism, you have a polemical emphasis on sola fide and the law/gospel antithesis.
There’s a Barthian and functionally Unitarian quality to insisting that we cannot know anything about God apart from the revelation of God in Christ. The NT is not all about Jesus. Salvation is Trinitarian.
It does not honor Christ to peel Jesus away from his Father, or sever him from the Spirit of Christ. It does not honor Christ to make him die in vain. To die for the damned.
Compare what our Calvinist friend Alan has to say to how St. Paul talks in Gal. 2:20.
Notice the reductionistic nature of this appeal. There’s more to the Gospel, more to St. Paul’s theology, more to NT theology, more to Biblical theology, than Gal 2:20. Not less, certainly, but certainly more.
I trust you will notice a striking difference. I'm not saying we have to mention Jesus with every other word, but....please let me hear about Jesus, not just about the sovereign will of God. The lofty grandeur of the God high in the heavens is a wonder indeed. But that does me no good. No, talk to me of God who lies in the manger, for me, as a baby. Let me hear more about God who lived perfectly in my place, who walked this earth, in the same flesh and blood I have. Speak to me of God who fed the crowds, healed the sick, raised the dead and calmed the storms. Put my eyes on Jesus, God in the flesh, who took my sins on his shoulders, who suffered and bled for me, as the all-sufficient atoning sacrifice for my sins, and the sins of the whole world. That's the God I want to hear about more.
i) This goes back to McCain’s initial failure to distinguish between two distinct questions: (a) “How does God save a person?” And (b) “What must a person do to be saved?”
The Bible answers both questions, and it’s the sacred duty of a pastor or theologian to preach or teach both answers—not one to the exclusion of another. We just say whatever the Bible says. Repeat the teaching of Scripture.
ii) And there are times when it’s necessary to get into the mechanics of how God saves a person. For you have heresies and heretics like Pelagius and Valentinus and Roman Catholicism which give the wrong answer.
You see, God has come down in the flesh and now to all eternity, He is the only way I know the Father, no other way.
This is pious nonsense. There is no saving knowledge of God apart from faith in Christ. But Biblical revelation is a revelation of the Trinity. Christ is not a mask, obscuring or concealing the Father.
Put my eyes on Jesus, God in the flesh, who took my sins on his shoulders, who suffered and bled for me, as the all-sufficient atoning sacrifice for my sins, and the sins of the whole world.
i) All-sufficient for whom and for what? Sufficient, all by itself, to actually save everyone? McCain doesn’t believe that.
ii) I’d add, at the risk of kicking over a hornet’s nest, that as a practical matter, Lutherans like McCain put their faith, not directly in the Savior, but in the sacraments. They are not looking to Jesus, but to the wafer and the font. By contrast, Reformed Baptists do trust in Jesus alone.