Saturday, May 26, 2012

Following Calvin and the "Five Points"

Calvinism is a variegated thing, but in its American instantiation, it has come to be most 'popularly' identifiable by its unbreakable relationship with that ubiquitous acronym, TULIP, or the Five points. Not just that, but there has always been a question related to how far Calvinists, today, proximate the actual teaching of their name-sake, John Calvin. Indeed, to the surprise of many an American Calvinist, there are many more layers and strands that make up Calvinism in general; indeed, one of those strands is what we are calling 'Evangelical Calvinism,' a strand that presses and develops one of Calvin's most endearing themes; his teaching on union with Christ, and double grace theology. Nevertheless, the Five points of Calvinism continue to retain the most glaring meaning for what it means to be a Calvinist; at least in America. Yet, as so many Calvinists want folk to know, the Five points ought not be understood as what it means to be Calvinist, in toto. Instead, as many a Calvinist are prone to press; they would rather be defined by what they call 'The Doctrines of Grace' shaped by God's unrelenting Sovereignty. It is this reality that is well articulated by Dewey Wallace:

The 'Young Calvin' painted by Theologian, Oliver Crisp
[T]he extent to which later Calvinists were faithful to Calvin has been a matter of considerable argument. Calvin wrote his theology in the context of the excitement of the striking insights of the early Reformation, and a later Reformed scholasticism developed that was methodologically at some remove from Calvin and sometimes less flexible in its formulations. Nonetheless, Reformed theology was a living tradition and not just the theology of Calvin, so that development, both as the unpacking of the implications of the early Reformed theologians, including Calvin, and as the need to adapt the Reformed outlook to new conditions and challenges, was inevitable. Thus Calvinism came to stand  for a position that emphasized the doctrinal points enshrined confessionally in the most international of the Reformed statements of faith, the Canons and Decrees of the Synod of Dort of 1618. And while the decrees of Dort as a definer of Calvinism can be exaggerated, insofar as there were many strands of Reformed theology, this doctrinal statement articulated what came to be known as the "five points" of Calvinism: unconditional election (predestination), total depravity, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints, that is the indefectibility of the elect---what some later Calvinists called "once saved, always saved." But these points were a kind of carapace surrounding and protecting the softer body of Reformed religiosity and teaching, which consisted of an overwhelming sense of divine sovereignty and of the pure gratuitousness of the saving grace of God, both of which were soteriological in focus. [Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Shapers of English Calvinism 1660-1714: Variety, Persistence, and Transformation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12-13]

As Dewey notes, for one thing, there are more strands that make up the Reformed Faith, and/or Calvinism, than many people think (which is where you can insert 'Evangelical Calvinism' or 'Scottish Theology'). But, it is also a reality (esp. in America), that "five point" Calvinism is the most dominate and recognizable and apparently self evident of the Calvinist expressions around today. Something that Dewey highlights, that I think is very significant, is taken up in his last clauses, when he writes; 'which consisted of an overwhelming sense of divine sovereignty and of the pure gratuitousness of the saving grace of God, both of which were soteriological in focus.' This is where the contours of Evangelical Calvinism (the kind we advocate in our book and here at the blog) touch in common with all the varied strands of the Calvinist tradition. Yet, as Evangelical Calvinists, we see God's sovereignty and saving grace shaped by who he is as Triune Love. We have a unique way of articulating and emphasizing this; such that God is seen in a very intimate personal way, wherein the decrees and any such talk are all reduced and collapsed into the person of Jesus Christ. This subtle, but profound difference in shaping the way we understand God's sovereignty and grace makes our approach primarily christological in focus V. the soteriological (that Dewey notes) focus of the "five point" variety of Calvinism.

Anyway, just trying to draw continued attention to how Evangelical Calvinism works a bit differently than its "five point" cousin. We take many of our cues from Calvin, just as much, if not more so than our "five point" brethren---of course this is a contentious assertion ;-).


  1. I would like to reaf this, but the tree in the background drowns the print.

    1. I think maybe the page didn't load correctly for you. There is usually a white background where the words are.

    2. Anon.,

      Michael is right. Try again and let me know if it continues to be an issue.

  2. Bobby:

    It makes five-pointers so mad (and I know because for years I self-identified as a "five-pointer") but it is a historically verifiable fact that

    (a) "The Five Points of Calvinism" were not formulated as such until more than half a century after Calvin's death (Calvin died in 1564 and the Synod of Dordt published their canons in 1618) and

    (b) There is no mention of the "TULIP" acronym before the early twentieth century. I don't have the notes handy but 1913 was the first recorded usage and Lorainne Boettner made it popular after using in 1932.

    My graduate-level church history textbook got both of those wrong, btw.

    Calvin was my spiritual mentor for many years so the notion (popularized by R T Kendall but attacked by Paul Helm) that later continental Reformed teachers were "more Calvinistic than Calvin" made perfect sense to me.

    Btw, I purchased and am reading Torrance's Scottish Theology on your recommendation and am looking forward to seeing how it developed in Scotland. I'm already liking Knox's Trinitarian approach. My own thinking on the nature of God the Trinity as front-and-center rather than an add-on has come to dominate my thinking over the last couple of years. I'm looking forward to finishing it and may review it on my blog when I'm done. (If you don't mind sharing Torrance with someone else!)


    1. Thanks for sharing some of your background.

      Yes, Kendall's book Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 was one I appreciated quite along time ago now. I know Helm (who came to my school once when I was there) takes Kendall to task, and rightly so in some areas (like on some of Kendall's history); but Kendall does get Calvin's thinking contra the so called reflexive theory of faith, right.

      And, you are definitely right about the acronym of the five points; although I think there were 5 points conceptually (which is why we see Dewey placing the "U" in his order before the so called "T" etc. at the Synod of Dort, in order to counter the 5 points offered by the Remonstrants.

      The term semper reformanda is also a late addition to the Reformed faith as well.

      Have you read Muller's book 'After Calvin' (I have a review of it at my other EC blog--I'll find that for you later)? He critiques the 'older scholarship' which followed Brian Armstrong, Barth's, Torrance's, Kendall's, et al thesis that there is major discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists. Anyway, if you peruse my 'EC' archives at my wordpress EC blog, you'll find that I have dealt with the history on this pretty exhaustively, for blogging that is.

      Great, glad to hear you have Torrance's Scottish Theology! I have a review copy (and have had it for 2 yrs now) of Scottish Theology from T&T Clark; I still need to write that review, I better get that up before you get yours up ;-)! By the way, Robert Letham, in his book 'The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context', takes Torrance and his book 'Scottish Theology' to task throughout his book (Letham's). Letham's book would've been good if not for his rantings against Torrance (he misread Torrance, I also have a review of Letham's book at my EC wordpress blog, which I'll find for you as well).

      I look forward to seeing what you think of "Scottish Theology," it has been the impetus for what Myk and I have done with our book, and what I do with my blog (in general). Yes, I guess I'll let you play with TFT too ;-)!

    2. Yes, I realized after I published my last comment that I had neglected to point the connection between the Five point of Calvinism and the Five Points of the Remonstrance. And it's interesting that structurally there are only Four points of Calvinism because they handled the Third and Fourth points as one but preserved the numbering which is how we end up with five. either way, I admit that I love the looks I get when I explain to people that Calvinism has five points only because the Arminians had five first.

      Btw, I taught through the Canons of Dort last year in a Bible class at the church where I serve and I remember thinking that they are clearly the product of Scholastics (I note that TFT similarly points out their "strict logico-causal thinking" in Scottish Theology, p. 60).

      The Canons are vastly different in tone, and I acknowledge it's hard to read tone in a written document, especially in translation, but their tone seems vastly different from Calvin's passionate Institutes just as the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms lack the pastoral warmth of the Heidelberg Catechism.

      (In fact, an older pastor once told me that to introduce people to Calvinism, he found it better to use the Heidelberg rather than Westminster because it was more "warm and pastoral." So I'm not the only one who has noticed.)

      I found the two reviews you mentioned on your WP site (Google is awesome!). I have not read Letham or Muller but I have heard of Muller's book. I'll be poking through the WordPress archives this week to find more on that history.

    3. Michael,

      Great points.

      Yes, my chapter for our book does a comparison between the Belgic & Westminster Confessions V. the Heidelberg Catechism and Scot's Confession, 1560; I suggestively argue that the Heidelberg and Scot's do exactly what you note. I argue that the formation of the Belgic and Westminster spring from theology that is provided ground in the analogy of being and/or natural theology, in general.


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