Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Problems of 5-Point Calvinism

What are the dangers of classic Calvinism? This is just off the top, as you'll see; but I would like to brainstorm about what I perceive as the dangers of Westminster or 5-Point Calvinism.

Theodore Beza
  1. 5-Point Calvinism starts with the wrong view of God; it assumes, because of its theological methodology, that God is a God primarily defined by brute Creator power---which de-emphasizes God as Triune, relational, and personal.
  2. 5-Point Calvinism works with a faulty understanding of the God-world relation---this is related to point 1---since God is brute Creator, and untouched by his creation, God must relate to his creation through impersonal Law-like decrees.
  3. 5-Point Calvinism has a faulty view of the Incarnation. Meaning that Bezan Calvinism subordinates God's Son to these impersonal decrees, such that in the process the Son becomes an instrument of God's salvation thus de-emphasizing and detaching the person of the Son from the Person of the Father as the Son has now become determined and shaped to be what the decrees in and for creation have determined.
  4. 5-Point Calvinism misunderstands humanity because it fails to see Christ as the archetype of what humanity is. This has to do with Dortian Calvinism's embrace of a bipolar view of election wherein there is a disjunction between the elect and the reprobate; such that the former are somehow represented by the Son while the latter are not. What does this say about humanity in general?
  5. 5-Point Calvinism errs in the area of salvation since it believes that God is defined by brute-Law-like-Creator-Power, and thus God then provides a salvation that is shaped by Law keeping and performance instead of Love making and rest.
What do you think? Do you have any to add? Do you have problems with any of my suggestions?


  1. In response (and I'll use CRT as an acronym for "classical Reformed theology"):

    1. I agree, but I wouldn't say that CRT makes brute power to be "primary." Rather, it is held alongside the personal-relational aspect, intending to treat both in equal measure. Yet, these two aspects are not thereby integrated -- they are just held alongside of each other. Thus, the personal-relational attribute is not allowed to define the power attribute, which is another way of saying that Christ does not define God. That's a massive problem in CRT, so I agree with the gist of what you're saying.

    2. Once again, I agree, but I think CRT would hold both a law-defined and a personal-defined God-world relation, yet without properly integrating the two. In other words, CRT is certainly correct that there is a law dynamic at play in the biblical covenants, but CRT does not properly subordinate this law dynamic to the personal-relational dynamic that is rooted in Christology.

    3. This is solved by the pactum salutis, which is a noble attempt by CRT to make election a Christological doctrine. There's still the problem of a hidden decree that is not assimilated by Christ's work of atonement, but we should at least recognize that the pactum salutis does indeed introduce a much-needed personal and Trinitarian dynamic to CRT's doctrine of election.

    4. Yes! This is at the heart of my concerns about CRT.

    5. I touched upon this in response to the first two points. I largely agree, but we really must be careful not to forget that there is a genuine law dynamic that is not necessarily opposed to a personalist model of atonement. I think Barth makes this clear, and Brunner was even more insistent (in reaction to Barth's reversal of Law-Gospel to Gospel-Law). If we do not define the work of Christ in terms of law-keeping, then the work of Christ itself is severely undermined and divorced from its Hebrew cultic setting. There is a temptation to make a personalist philosophy into an ideology upon which a "messy" and "strange" Hebrew cultic apparatus must fit.

  2. I'm not sufficiently up on Dort and Westminster (and I'm not about to dive back into them this AM) to cross-examine you, but I do note some similar tendencies across a wide popular spectrum. And among the places I'm conditioned to notice them is the Kirchenkampf. And so it's no surprise that I also see 5-point Calvinism under most of the current crop of cultural Christianity in the US.

    We like a certain degree of Creator-legalism precisely where we use it to (in)validate social orders. And if the primary emphasis is Creator-legalism, the primary de-emphasis of such a theology is the reality of sin. Ironic, since such theologies tend to focus most heavily on sin and reprobation, but the central failure I see in such theologies is that the elect are unconditionally reprieved, namely us. Our sin, however we bemoan it in lip service, is comped in ways their sin will never be. And so the discussion of sin inevitably turns on them, not us. And the axis of rotation is socially conditioned -- the us/them axis is primary, attributed to God's choice but actually chosen by us.

    I see Creator-legalism as a form of natural law theory -- unsurprising, since that's exactly what it is in Aquinas -- but as such it's also a form of natural theology. And inevitably it insists on disbelieving the Fall while yelling loudly about it to others. It insists on connecting Moses to Eden in ways which are ultimately untenable. The Creator encodes desired original orders, which are therefore universal, into scriptural codifications as a means of restoring original order. And therefore redemption comes not principally through covenant with Noah, Abraham, and onward graciously through Christ to all the world, but through the extension of particular stipulations meant to guide particular covenant peoples in particular contexts. I dislike this concept everywhere I see it. The Creator does not save by law. The Creator saves, and instructs -- but the instruction is not the salvation, nor has it anything to do with God's total desire for the creation.

  3. I'll just say this is as a clear explanation of your differences with 5 point Calvinism as I've seen. Thanks.

  4. @Kevin,

    1. :-)

    2. What would you say it is about CRT's Christology that hinders it? Would you agree with someone like TFT who correlates it with the Nestorian heresy?

    3. Yes, the Pactum Salutis is an "attempt," but since it still moves within the decretal system I think it flounders for the Christological reasons you've already noted previously in re. to CRT's problem of integration (and I think this problem illustrates a deeper fundamental flaw wherein God needs the absolute decrees to relate to creation ... and thus the absolute decrees and creation have a shaping influence on God).

    4. :-)

    5. I think TFT does a good job of this when addressing "active obedience;" of course grace precedes Law in this construal, but grace conceived in certain Covenanting way (not as a 'pure nature'.

    Thanks, Kevin, I appreciate your perspective; I hope your time at seminary is proving fruitful. How have some of your Barthian influences been received amongst the faculty and fellow classmates?


    I'm glad you have chosen to take off our prosecutor's hat ;-), and decided not to do a cross-examination; I'm innocent anyway ;-).

    @Your 2nd paragraph: That is a great insight---it reminds me of something Peter Leithart recently wrote in a critique of Michael Horton (this is in Leithart's recent book on Athanasius). There is an us V. them mentality set up in the classic binary of election/reprobation; I've seen this first hand in a URC (United Reformed Church). How ironic, as you note!

    @Your 3rd paragraph: In gist, this sounds like you are critiquing an unwary form of Nominalism and the kind of de potentia absoluta/ordinata God thereof. When you write: "I dislike this concept everywhere I see it. The Creator does not save by law. The Creator saves, and instructs -- but the instruction is not the salvation, nor has it anything to do with God's total desire for the creation." Your self-description at your blog says Barthio-Lutheran ... so I would expect nothing less from you! And I agree, God's grace comes before Torah, and after, and even within!

    Thanks, Matt.


    Good, I am glad this was clear!

  5. Bobby,

    I'm not really sure about the Nestorian accusation. I know why Torrance makes that claim, but it seems that the motivations behind Nestorius' Christology are quite different from the issues at play in the Reformed doctrine of election. It seems a bit of a stretch, and it demonstrates Torrance's penchant for over-categorization! I'll have to go back to Torrance in order to interact any further on this point, and unfortunately I've got loads of school work.

    Speaking of school, yes, as you can imagine, I'm alone among the students when it comes to Barth. The only faculty member who even appreciates Barth is Dr. Kelly (systematics). Barth is very much viewed with suspicion among the few students who know anything about Barth, and, not surprisingly, his rejection of inerrancy and his near-universalism are pinpointed. Of course, they have not actually read Barth himself. Yet, we do have a Lutheran-leaning Anglican who believes everything Barth believes about election and salvation -- he got it from his Lutheran sources, not from Barth. I've happily informed him that he's basically a Barthian! His Lutheran arguments against double predestination (and pro universal atonement) are strikingly resonant with Barth.

  6. @Kevin,

    Yes, TFT's appeal to it is more by way of analogy, I think, rather than actually a univocal usage of it from what it was/is originally intended to signify. I understand on the lack of time to engage this further ... no probs.

    Your account of your experience at school does not surprise me. Your presence there ought to provide some good balance for folk to be exposed at a certain level, to at least, Barthian themes (i.e. the ones that have shaped your own views).


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