Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Calvinism is a Red Herring

red herring (n) - the invoking of "Calvinism" in any theological discourse.

Having scoured the internet for several years as a means of gaining a broader understanding of the popular theological notions found in modern Christendom, I have arrived at a very solid conclusion: Calvinism is a Red Herring. In fact I would make that even stronger. I would go so far as to declare that this conclusion is utterly unassailable. I submit for your consideration the follow reasons:

POINT ONE:  There is no consensus definition of Calvinism.

This point alone will cause many Calvinists to bristle, since most of them have strong opinions on the matter. But strong opinions do not a consensus definition make. I submit for your consideration a sampling of some of the definitions of Calvinism that flood the marketplace:
  1. Reformed Presbyterianism
  2. Covenant Theology
  3. TULIP - Canons of Dort
  4. Whatever Calvin believed
  5. 4-Pointism (TUIP) - because "Calvin didn't believe limited atonement"
  6. Predestination
  7. Absolute Predestination of All Things
  8. Supralapsarianism
  9. Infralapsarianism
  10. Election
While I will admit that it is technically possible to construct an argument for or against Calvinism without having a consensus opinion so long as one provides an explicit definition of the Calvinism they have in view, the strident insistence upon one's own preferred definition usually centers the debate around terminology rather than around biblical truth. Many may respond by saying that "Calvinism is just a handy shortcut." But apart from an agreed upon definition, Calvinism proves itself more handy for stimulating vain contention than for establishing biblical truth.  

POINT TWO:  Calvinists do not agree upon the particulars of Calvin's theology.

This point is a variant on point one. There are many so-called "Calvinists" today who deny that Calvin taught limited atonement. It is common in these circles to hear the proclamation that "the Canons of Dort were more Calvinistic than Calvin." Many would object to referring to such men as "Calvinists" at all. To such, I would refer you to point one. Having examined Calvin's works, I believe them to contain irreconcilable assertions regarding the atonement which make a definitive proclamation of his position on the matter doubtful at best.

I would consider these first two points to be strong arguments as to why it is ill-advised to invoke Calvinism in a theological discourse, but would also admit that given enough leg-work defining one's terms it is still technically possible to do so, albeit horribly inefficient. The remaining points form the basis of the irrefutable assertion that Calvinism is a red herring for any bible believing Christian.

POINT THREE:  Proving that one believed what Calvin believed does not establish any biblical truth.

Even if one could get past the first two objections and provide an ironclad proof that their views are in lock-step with John Calvin, this would do precisely nothing to substantiate that such views are biblical. The truth of any theological position is founded in the word of God, not in secondary sources. For a bible believing Christian, it follows that the truth of any theological position must be directly founded upon the right division of the bible itself. Calvin would have probably said it this way - Sola Scriptura. That said, Calvin was a fallible man - not an apostle or a writer of scripture. Paul, on the other hand, well, you see my point... (II Timothy 3:16-17)

This point has two other ramifications:
  • This is true not only of Calvinism, but also of Arminianism, Methodism, Anglicanism, or any other extra-biblical historical figure or theological position (including Primitive Baptist). Establishing that one believes as some previous group believed establishes precisely nothing so far as biblical truth is concerned. It is therefore irrelevant in establishing biblical truth.
  • Neither does proving that one rejects some historical belief establish that one's belief is biblical.
To establish truth on something stated by Calvin is like trying to prove that the team's uniforms were blue because the field goal was good. They simply don't have anything to do with one another.

POINT FOUR:  The vast majority of those who profess Calvinism do not believe numerous doctrines that Calvin affirmed.

This is really a variant on point three. To draw this point out more explicitly, consider this:  It does a Reformed Baptist no good whatsoever, in the eyes of any rational observer, to prove they believe what Calvin believed, because they openly deny what Calvin believed in other areas. Such men reject Calvin's teaching on church government, the mode and candidates for baptism, and a host of other doctrines. Lest one believe that the Reformed Presbyterians dodge this bullet, I would call their attention to Calvin's position on mechanical instruments of music.

Simply stated:  If proving that "Calvin believed X" establishes the truth of X, then Calvinistic Baptists must repent of their baptism and church government, and there will be some absolutely killer deals on second-hand, church organs available on Craigslist under the search term "Presbyterian." The very practice and stated beliefs of such men is sufficient to undermine the sincerity of any authoritative appeal to Calvin on their part.

POINT FIVE:  The Calvinism / Arminianism construct forces the horns of the dilemma fallacy.

Much of what I have read over the years centers the debate regarding man's eternal salvation between the "polar opposites" of Calvinism and Arminianism. This construct forces one, perhaps unwittingly, to accept that the biblical doctrine of salvation is an either/or proposition that runs along a one dimensional continuum. But the right division of the word of God is not found along the narrow continuum that runs between Calvinism and Arminianism for a number of reasons.
  1. There are nuances in the definitions of TULIP that go beyond the dumbed-down, binary propositions represented in the classical Calvinism vs Arminianism construct.
  2. There are additional doctrines that influence TULIP which are not considered in the Calvinism vs Arminianism construct.
    • The extent of predestination:  absolute or not?
    • The effectual work of regeneration:  through means or immediate?
    • Bedrock Justification - by the imputed righteousness of Christ or by faith?
    • The nature of the gospel - an offer or a proclamation?
Apart from a more refined definition of what is intended by TULIP as well as the questions listed above, the debate lacks the granularity and nuance that is required for a proper and thorough understanding of the salvation by grace taught in the bible.  While Primitive Baptist do affirm TULIP, what we mean by four of these precepts (ULIP) differs from Calvinism. PB TULIP is defined in such a way that salvation is attributable to the sovereign mercy, will, and actions of God alone, apart from any actions or responsibilities on the part of man whatsoever. That makes us distinct from either Arminianism or Calvinism.

POINT SIX:  To the extent that one relies on Calvin, they deny Calvin (Sola Scriptura).

One who truly believes in the so-called reformation principle of Sola Scriptura should not waste any time basing a doctrinal argument on something stated by Calvin. This is akin to making assertions regarding the Code of Hammurabi based on the testimony of Moses. Ironically, Sola Scritpura betrays the very principle it intends to promote. If we truly embrace that precept in its fulness, we are forced to admit that those who reference this non-scriptural language as a guiding principle in so doing deny the self-same precept. Bible believing Christians should rather say that we believe, "Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God." (Matt 4:4)

In my experience this point is usually dismissed as a technicality by believers in Christ who consider themselves "Reformed." To that I can only say - it is a technicality upon which their entire movement was based. This technical blunder was the first drop in a massive tsunami of extra-biblical documents, confessions and catechisms, which compete for and often eclipse the light of truth that comes directly from the scriptures.

We are all too quickly enamored of our own words and too prone to placing them ahead of the scriptures themselves. Let us all endeavor to follow Peter's admonition, "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God." (I Pet 4:11)


Given these six undeniable issues, I would implore God's people everywhere to base what they believe directly upon the scriptures themselves. The issue of "Calvinism" or "not Calvinism" is an utterly meaningless distraction that serves only to provide carnal comfort among the Reformed and unnecessary vitriol among the non-Reformed. Regardless of your theological convictions, if you don't have a sound biblical argument for what you believe, based on rightly divided scripture, then know this:

You simply have no sound basis for what you believe.  

Armed with this unpleasant but unavoidable reality, TETH's advice is to examine what the word of God says on the matter, not what Calvin or Arminius or anyone else said. Proving that John Calvin believed what you believe is no more an affirmation that what you believe is the truth than proving that John Denver believed what you believe is.

Finally, lest there be any confusion, feel free to create your own version of this truth using the following template by substituting the theology, theologian, or denomination of your choice for X:

X is a red herring.  

If Paul's statement that the scriptures are able to "throughly furnish" us unto every good work (II Tim 3:16-17), we should base what we believe on the right division of scripture. Period. End of story.

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