Friday, July 3, 2009

How Many Points Makes One Young, Restless and Reformed?

According to Time Magazine, there is a resurgence in Calvinism, so much so, that it is one of the ten ideas changing the world right now. In addition, this month marks the quincentenary of John Calvin's birth (July 10, 1509), which has led to many articles, books and seminars. With all this revived attention to Calvin and his theology, one would think that the people riding this new band wagon might have some idea about Calvin's teaching; yet, when you read much of what is being said, the emphasis does not seem to be on "Calvinism" but on what is called the "Five Points of Calvinism" or TULIP, and on the correlative doctrine of God's sovereignty.

As a Reformed Presbyterian I am on the one hand quite glad to see the renewed interest in the teachings of John Calvin. But on the other hand, I am struck and concerned by the lowest common denominator character of the interest. Among those heralding this new Calvinism and the young, restless and Reformed crowd, I have not seen articles heralding his views on baptism and communion as means of grace, the spirituality of the church, vocation, worship, eschatology, etc. Apparently one can be a Calvinist because he or she agrees with him on a couple of things, while rejecting and even repudiating the overwhelming majority of what he had to say, including the very framework of his theology and his hermeneutic, which constrained the teachings he produced.

How many points does one have to believe to be a Calvinist? Can one really hold to the "Five Points" while at the same time rejecting the rest? Richard Muller asked and answered this question back before all this new hype hit the fan. Back in 1993, Muller wrote "How Many Points?" for Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 28: 425-33. Muller writes:
There are, therefore, more than five points and - as far as the confessionas and the Reformed dogmaticians from Calvin to Kuyper are concerned - there cannot be such a thing as a "five-point Calvinist" or "five-point Reformed Christian" who owns just those five articles taken from the Canons of Dort and who refuses to accetpt the other "points" made by genuinely Reformed theology. The issue here is more than simple confessional allegiance. The issue is that the confessions and the classical dogmatic systems of Reformed thoeology are not an arbitrary list of more or less biblical ideas - they are carefully embodied patterns of teaching, drawn from Scripture and brought to bear on the life of the church. They are, in short, interpretations of the whole of Christian existence that cohere in all of their parts. If some of the less-famous points of Reformed theolgy, like the baptism of infants, justification by grace alone through faith, the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent upon our faith and justification (the "third use of the law"), the identification of sacraments as means of grace, the so-called amillennial view of the end of the world, and so forth, are stripped away or forgotten, the remaining famous five make very little sense.
Being a Calvinist or being Reformed is not just about holding to the "famous five," but is about embracing an entire system of interpretation of the Bible for understanding the Christian pilgrimage as a whole. One cannot divorce the famous five from the rest of Calvin's teaching and credibly claim to be a Calvinist. This is not to denigrate those who do, but merely to suggest that a better adjective may be required.

But, there is more at stake than a bad label. When persons decide to hold to the famous five while rejecting the rest, they put the famous five and the rest in jeopardy, which endangers the health of true Calvinism and Reformed theology; Muller writes, "when that larger number of points taught by the Reformed confessions is not respected, the famous five are jeopardized, indeed, dissolved - and the ongoing spiritual health of the church is placed at risk."

Evangelicalism is already wearied and mommicked (that's an expression from where I grew up which means, "slam tore right out the frame," which I think best describes modern Evangelicalism) because of their theological minimalism. Let us not allow that same minimalism to shape and effect Calvinism and Reformed theology.

Read Muller's article; you can read it here.

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