Writing for a forum as public as the internet provides ample opportunity to receive criticism. While I rarely take the time to respond to people who post on other sites long, drawn-out criticisms of myself and what I write, I always respond to those critcisms when they are directed at me through the forums or through email. I make my contact information readily available for anyone who would wish to contact me and I am always genuinely thankful for brothers and sisters in Christ who take the time to exhort me. Though I rarely respond when criticisms are posted in other forums, blogs or web sites, today I will make an exception mostly because doing so will provide a lead-in to a topic I have desired to write about for some time. In a Yahoo mailing list, there has been some ongoing discussion of my review of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. Of course with a review as negative as the one I wrote I expected some people to be upset by it, and that is well and good. In this particular group, a person took the time to go through line-by-line and critique everything I wrote. Just about every sentence or paragraph receives a snarky response. His comments are largely ad hominem and others seem to show that he has not carefully read the book. For example, he even has a sarcastic response to a non-critical comment I made about McLaren’s writing style. This comment is close to the same evaluation McLaren gives of himself within that book. Here are some brief examples of this person’s comments, with the text in quotes being from my review and the following text being his response:
“He is able author who writes in a conversational tone, continually pokes fun at himself, uses many long sentences and, by his own admission, uses parentheses far too often.”
First of all, it should read “He is *an* able author…” If you want to criticize someone’s writing habits, you shouldn’t screw up your own idealized English. Secondly, this author must not have read the original Greek of some of Paul’s letters (the ones where one sentence is an entire chapter…i think 2 Timothy is an example) or any major philosopher where paragraphs and sentences are sometimes synonymous.
“He builds and then refutes straw-man arguments. He continually paints things in the worst possible light, often in a completely false light, and then seeks to be profound in refuting those arguments.”
OMG!!!!1!!1! Who would ever do such a thing??!?!?
“I suspect many of his readers have as little knowledge as he does of history, especially Reformational history, and will thus believe what he says, regardless of its truthfulness.”
Of course, an undergrad in history from McMaster University is far more compelling and authoratative.
“McLaren is evangelical (note the small “e”) because he cherishes an identity beyond a doctrinal array or practice.”
Because that capitalized “E” makes a difference! Next, he’ll be referring to God as “god” as if that word was a regular noun or something.
I’m sure you get the idea and I will not belabor the point any further. The majority of his comments do not interact with my review whatsoever. They are either personal criticisms or mere snarky comments. The comment which consisted soley of “OMG!!!!1!!1! Who would ever do such a thing??!?!?” is a clear example of this. I do read Greek, have done far more reading into Reformational history than one would know from an undergraduate history degree and pointed out the small “e” because it is a distinction McLaren made himself. But I digress.
In a subsequent post the author of this criticism wrote something that caught my attention. He said “no viewpoint is correct. Not Reformed, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Methodist, Baptist, Calvin, Arminian, Augustine, Emergent, etc. Each has flaws and each limits God in some way. It’s a fact of religion…[What I am] attempting is to say that by one group claiming to be correct (almost all do, by the way) is the exact proof that the group is not.” Another commenter took issue with the idea that “reformed theology is bibical theology.” He interpreted this to mean that “if you do not agree with us you are wrong and non-bibical – we have all the right answers and we control the way the bible is viewed – and his review, and the comments, support that view – scarry [sic].”
Many people take issue with the statement that Calvinist, Reformed theology is Biblical theology. Just yesterday a person posted a comment similar to that in the forums at this site. He said “…in reading through many of the comments on the site, there seems to be a pervasive sense that Reformed theology = Biblical theology. If that’s the case, then how can one ever question parts of the theology (including eschatology, etc.)?” That is what I intend to address today.
I will go on record here and now and say that I believe that Reformed, Calvinistic theology is Biblical theology. When I say this I am in good company with some of the greatest pastors and theologians of our day and of days gone by. Perhaps Charles Spurgeon said it best in A Defense of Calvinism where he wrote “If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, ‘He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord.’ I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this.” In the same article he further clarified his position. “I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.” Calvinism is the gospel. No other system of theology so captures the heart and soul of the gospel message as does Calvinism. With its high view of God’s sovereignty and holiness, realistic expectation of spiritually dead humans and exaltation of God through His works, only Calvinism truly portrays God as He reveals Himself in Scripture. I would contend that every other system of theology, without exception, has a lower view of God. This includes Arminian, Catholic, Orthodox and any other. They all portray God in a way that does not accurately reflect what we know of Him through Scripture.
I believe one significant stumbling block people encounter when considering Calvinism is that the system of theology bears the name of a man. Truth be told, many Calvinists struggle with this as well. I have no desire to be known as a follower of Calvin, for I am, as he was, a follower of Christ. Many Calvinists prefer to speak of the “doctrines of grace” to summarize Calvinist theology. Were Calvin’s name to disappear, but the doctrine to remain intact under a different banner, I believe we would all benefit.
Now I do wish to clarify that while “Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else,” this does not mean that the other systems of theology have no truth in them whatsoever. Further, it does not mean that God can or will not save others despite their systems of theology. Thankfully God does not require perfect doctrinal orthodoxy as a prerequisite to salvation. I have no doubt that ardent Arminians can be saved despite the errors in their theology. Similarly, I believe that there is some truth in the Roman Catholic Church because the Bible is present and honored. The fact, though, is this: these systems of theology do not encapsulate the truth as revealed in Scripture as thoroughly as Calvinism. I also do not believe that Calvinists have arrived at absolute truth in absolutely everything. Paul speaks for all of us when he says “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12). As long as we are in this sinful world, we will know the truth imperfectly. However, the fact that we cannot arrive at perfection does not preclude us from trying. Furthermore, it does not mean that I cannot have confidence in what I believe. God wants me to know Him and has provided His Word and His Spirit that enable me to. Why should I doubt what God has so clearly revealed? The foundational element of doubt in postmodernism is exasperating. Should we not have confidence in what we believe? Should we not believe that God can reveal truth even to a sinful man like myself?
Clearly the belief that Calvinism is more true than other systems of doctrine is at-odds with our relativistic postmodern culture and the pervasive postmodern influence in the church. Many people will no-doubt be uncomfortable with and insulted or angered by such a statement. The element of doubt in postmodernism is exasperating. Why should I have to doubt what God has so clearly revealed? We would like to believe, as do my critics, that all systems of theology are equally true and equally false. Like Brian McLaren, should we examine them all and take bits from this one and bits from that one? There may, indeed, be aspects of another system of theology that is superior to my own, but how can I know this? What measure can I use to determine what is theologically sound? A belief that Calvinist theology is Biblical theology does not mean I am above reproach and that I can never question parts of the theology. On the contrary, it means that I must “examin[e] the Scriptures daily to see if these things [are] so.” (Acts 17:11) Biblical theology is the theology revealed in Scripture. Scripture is the rule of my faith and I do not pursue absolute truth from any other place. I do not say that John Calvin had a complete grasp of Scripture and of God’s work of redemption, but I do say that the framework developed by the Reformers accurately portrays the person and acts of the God of the Bible. Their cry of sola scriptura is as true today as it was then. If anything is to be proven, it must be proven from Scripture. If anything is to be changed or learned, it must originate from the Word of God. Rather than being arrogant, the Calvinist should continually humble himself before the Word of God, always reforming through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I believe Calvinist theology is superior to any other because it is most thoroughly consistent with the Bible. Rarely does anyone criticize that aspect of the belief. They call it arrogance, but rarely interact with the theology of Calvinism, showing where it contradicts Scripture. People rarely want to expend the time or effort to refute the actual doctrines of Calvinism. It is far easier (and perhaps more satisfying) to simply chastise Calvinists for their arrogance than to actually dig into the Scriptures.
Now here are some questions I have for those who regard it as arrogance that I believe Calvinist theology is nothing more than Biblical theology. Do you not feel that your theology should be built on Scripture? Do you not desire to have the most thoroughly-Biblical theology? If you do not feel your theology is the most Biblically-accurate, then why do you not seek for something that is more accurate? I believe that if our theology is built on Scripture, and on the complete revelation of God it contains, we will have confidence. Paul writes about Epaphras who was “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” (Colossians 4:12) God wants to give us assurance and confidence in what we know. Not a cocky, godless arrogance, but a humble, thankful confidence in His clear revelation through Scripture of Himself and His purposes. The confidence that Calvinism is Biblical truth comes not from within, but from the Holy Spirit as He illumines the Scripture to our hearts, giving assurance that He has helped us to understand.
I say it again: it is my deep conviction that Calvinist theology = Biblical theology. I believe God can reveal the same to you, if you approach the Bible with an open heart and ask Him to open your eyes to His holiness, to His sovereignty, and to your fallenness. When you understand and believe this, you will respond not with arrogance or with self-assurance (attitudes many believe are part and parcel of Calvinism), but with thankfulness and joy, for you will understand the greatness of God and the depravity of man.
I am appending a paragraph based on some comments I have received since I posted this. I want to be clear on this. The reason I am Calvinist is because I believe Calvinist theology = Biblical theology. I place the highest value on the Scripture and it is my desire to adhere to the doctrines that most closely align with the Bible. This is what I have found in Calvinism.
I have written an Addendum to this post which you should read before commenting.