I write this in deep fear that I’m going to get a poke in the nose from Rick Patrick.
Actually, his light-hearted complaint about being labeled a Calvinist made me think about a problem with the whole debate. I left a comment on that post, but thought I would expand the concept as a separate post and ask the question I think we need to answer.
What do you mean when you call someone a Calvinist?
As I watch the sometimes intense discussion of Calvinism here and elsewhere, I can’t help but think that one root of the problem is often the definition of the term. I mean one thing when I use the term and you mean something else. So we argue based on our different definitions when our views are not all that different.
Dr. Al Mohler got a lot of this going with comments he made at the 2006 Pastor’s Conference suggesting that all Southern Baptists, in one form or another, are Calvinists. If ever a statement has been taken out of context, it was that one.
Can we agree that Mohler is not a stupid man? He knows that there are many Southern Baptists who are do not believe the tenants of strict Calvinism. He wasn’t saying that. In fact, these comments were made within the context of the debate with noted non-Calvinist, Dr. Paige Patterson. Thabite Anyabwile has a loose transcript of the debate available here, for those who are interested in what was actually said.
Mohler’s point was not that all Baptists should be labeled Calvinists or that only Calvinists are true Baptists. The point he was making is that all Southern Baptists share theological roots with Calvinism. He was not trying to assert the ridiculous, contrary to how some have painted his comments. Again, he’s not stupid. He knows that there are many Baptists who reject the “doctrines of grace” as defined by Calvinists.
You can read some of the quotes from the debate and what Mohler was actually trying to say here.
When Mohler said that all Baptists share theological roots with Calvinism, he was casting a wide net. So, here’s my point: If you accept his presuppositions and definitions, Mohler was right. The vast majority of Southern Baptists have a theology that owes much to Calvinism, even if they do not subscribe to the Calvinist system. That’s what he was trying to say.
But that brings us back to the original question. What is a Calvinist?
But I still have doubts as to whether or not I’m a Calvinist. I don’t have doubts about what I believe – I’m fairly comfortable with my theological understanding, even though no human doctrinal system codifies truth completely. I know what I believe, I just don’t know if it makes me a Calvinist or not.
Where I Stand on Calvinism
The issue of God’s sovereignty in salvation and human responsibility is one of those logical antinomy issues like the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. The Bible often affirms as true two things that cannot both be logically true. Isaiah 55:8-9 is key to my theological understanding. His ways are higher and his thoughts are higher. God has a logic and understanding which we fallen human beings cannot grasp. Our job is not always to understand God but to trust him and his Word. Here are some examples of these antinomies.
- God is one. God is three. You don’t understand that and neither do I. If you think you understand it, you probably have accepted a simple solution to an unsolvable logical problem.
- Jesus was fully man and fully God. Huh? Trying to completely understand that will sprain your brain.
- And I believe that the sovereignty/responsibility debate is just such a conundrum.
So, do I believe that God chose before the foundation of the world those who would be saved, based solely on his sovereign grace and not on any merit or anticipation of action on the part of the chosen one? Yes.
Do I believe that human beings are responsible moral agents who must make a genuine, free choice to trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to repent and believe? Yes I do. As I read scripture, God’s sovereignty over salvation is pretty clear.
How can both be true? How can God choose me but I must also choose him? I don’t know. Ask God. I’m just not sure I can completely buy into the monergistic systems some have presented.
I think the problem comes when our love for human logic makes us want to choose one side of this or the other. Some want to embrace a radical monergism (certainly not all Calvinists fit this bill) that makes the faith of man just a programmed response to the sovereign call of God. Why then did Peter exhort the Jews with many words to make a choice on the day of Pentecost? And those who say, “God chose those he knew would choose him.” Really? That’s nonsense. We love him because he first loved us. Any system that ignores the fact that God’s choice came first doesn’t match the biblical evidence.
So, I’m caught in between. I cannot deny the sovereignty of God in salvation, but I cannot reduce man’s choice in a way that some Calvinists I’ve known do. I’m kinda in between Calvinism and and Baptist non-Calvinism and I’m not completely sure where I fit.
What is Your Definition?
I’ve read hardcore Calvinists who have claimed that you are not really a Calvinist unless you buy the whole system – infant Baptism, covenant theology, Calvinist ecclesiologies, all five points of the TULIP system, etc. Certainly, by their definition, I am most certainly NOT a Calvinist.
At the other extreme are those who say that if you hold to some form of eternal security you are basically living in Calvin’s world. By that system, of course I’m a Calvinist.
For most, I think, the watershed issue is whether God’s choice or man’s is the root of salvation. Do we choose God because he chose us, or does he choose us because he foresees that we will choose him?
So, here’s my question today. When you say, “He’s a Calvinist,” what do you mean? What makes someone a Calvinist or not a Calvinist?
How can we have a civil and productive discussion of the TRUTH of Calvinism if we can’t even agree on the ESSENCE of Calvinism?
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to give a clear, concise and comprehensive definition of Calvinism. Warning, this blog post will self-destruct in 5 seconds…