Friday, July 20, 2012

Why I am Not a 5 Point Calvinist

I am not a so called Five Point Calvinist for various reasons, but one of those reasons, a primary reason, is that the theology behind the acronym TULIP was never intended to be the sum or end all of what Calvinism was to be known for, doctrinally. Myk Habets and I, in our recently released book, have commented on this reality in the introductory chapter of the book:

Numerous recent attempts at defining the Reformed or Calvinist tradition have been offered. A number of these treatments have tended to present in objective fashion what is, ultimately, only a subjective judgment. Earlier popular works at definition, still in vogue amongst seminary and university students on campuses today, look to the five points of Dort—the so-called “doctrines of grace”—as the essence of what it means to be Reformed.25 Dort, however, as with most if not all of the Reformed confessions, is a localized and contextual document. The Canons of Dort give a detailed and skilled reply to Arminianism; hence “TULIP” represents a response to the Arminian five-point Remonstrance. It was never intended as a sum of Reformed thought. The Canons of Dort are still to be consulted for a Reformed reply to Arminianism, but they should not be thought to represent the sum of our belief. As Muller has written:

In other words, it would be a major error—both historically and doctrinally—if the five points of Calvinism were understood either as the sole or even as the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding the Calvinistic or Reformed faith. In fact, the Canons of Dort contain five points only because the Arminian articles, the Remonstrance of 1610, to which they responded, had five points. The number five, far from being sacrosanct, is the result of a particular historical circumstance and was determined negatively by the number of articles in the Arminian objection to confessional Calvinism. [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 9-10.]

So even Richard Muller, Calvin and Calvinist scholar renowned, would agree with us, that the five points should not be seen as universally binding for the faithful; instead their regional and occasional nature should be understood as their primary context of meaning. Thus, when we say that we are 'Evangelical Calvinists' we are free to eschew the five points in favor of other emphases that have also developed within the history of the Reformed faith, in general, and Calvinism in particular.

PS. Make sure to check out my other blog: The Face Of Christ


  1. So, a knee-jerk reaction to a knee-jerk reaction is used to bludgeon people to a doctrinal pulp? I get your point, Bobby.

    Lately I've been thinking about election and predestination being used by Paul for pastoral concerns. New Gentile converts might be encouraged to know God thought about them beforehand. "You didn't just stumble into this, but I planned it out." I don't see Paul using these doctrines as ammo.

  2. Interesting read, but I must be missing something. I agree that the Canons of Dordt don't represent the totality of Reformed doctrine, but how does that fact serve as a basis for rejecting one or all of them?

    1. Hi Bill,

      It understands the contextual, occasional, and particular nature of any and all of the Confessions, Canons, and Catechisms. In this way then, the relative force that any of these might have are place in relief relative to their subordination of scripture and then in that truly 'Reformed' mode of 'always reforming' per the dictates of Scripture and God's self revelation in Christ. So, for us (Myk and I) this understanding of the Canons of Dort become relativized and something that we can look back and agree that this, historically, was a Reformed or Calvinist response to the Remonstrants. Which, in effect, simply then sees the so called 5 Point theology in its proper historical and periodized context (or it contextualizes the Canons). So the theology of the five points is not universally binding, then, for a Reformed person; it is simply representative of theology that was present in a strand of Reformed theology in the 17th century. Does that help?

    2. I think this point you made here is a succint way of putting a profound thought/answer to the question of tradition.

      Is it restraining chains or guide-posts?

      Rome and Constantinople vie for the first, the principle of Reform (be it Peter Waldo or Aerius; Petr Chelcicky or John Calvin; Claudius of Turin or Conrad Grebel) is for the latter.

      The road to the first is to decontextualize tradition and make it a club. When one takes Arius out of Nicea, Nestorius out of Chalcedon, or (as you say) Arminius out of Dordt, the decisions become nothing but weapons to fragment groups and bind people artificially.

      Too many Reformed have dug their heels in at a handful of councils and judge by adherence to the form. This happens without thinking through what they meant in their own time and allowing a breadth of liberty on emphasis.

      It's more complicated than this merely, but a lot of folks are superficially for the Reform and are really building a pseudo-Rome out of Geneva. I think Calvin would be ashamed.

      Your thoughts got me inspired to write something! Thanks Bobby :)

    3. Hi Cal,

      Thanks. I think you would really appreciate Barth's Theology of the Reformed Confessions, his general thesis in that book is that the spirit of the reformed faith (the best of the reformed faith) sees all of the confessions and canons in subordination to scripture, for real. He contrasts this reformed principle with the Lutheran one, and its approach to elevating the Augusburg Confession to a level that is on par with the scriptures, in function. This same critique, ironically, could be levied against the post Reformed orthodox of today, with their 3 Forms of Unity etc.

    4. "So the theology of the five points is not universally binding, then, for a Reformed person; it is simply representative of theology that was present in a strand of Reformed theology in the 17th century."

      The Five Points qua the Five Points are not binding - you are absolutely correct. But, if the Five Points correctly reflect the teaching of Scripture then they are binding because the Bible is binding (derivative authority, perhaps?). Christ has substantiated the teachings of the Bible with His birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascenscion and because He says the Word is binding then they are binding. Thus, any doctrinal statement that reflects those teachings would also be binding - not beacuse of their historical context but because of their dependency on the right teaching of the Bible.

      Thus, if you want to explain away one or more of the Five Points it needs to be on the basis of teaching of scripture not because of the context in which it was formulated.

    5. But of course, Bill, we are also saying that the 5 points do not reflect the teachings of scripture, which we develop and establish in the remainder of the book. So our point in contextualizing the "theology" of the 5 points is an exercise in description and not prescription. We are simply noting the historical context that fostered the giving of the 5points, and saying 'yes, they do represent A reformed reponse to the remonstrants'. It is another category to also say 'and yes, the 5 points reflect the teachings of scripture'. Me and Myk are not saying this. It is true, of course, that contextualizing tge5 points is only half of the equation, but then that's why there are 449 more pages in our book.

    6. Then I shall have to get the book and see what those 449 pages say.


    7. Bill,

      What's your background, theologically? Are you a proponent for 5 point Calvinism?

    8. I have a hodge podge of background so let me explain...wait, there is too much, let me sum up.

      I grew up Southern Baptist with very strong Arminian flavorings but with a heavy emphasis on proof-texting beliefs. However, I started to notice that some of the teachings did not seem to align with my understanding of the Bible (hello there context).

      I eventually was led to adopting classic reformed theology (via the Presbyterian Church PCA) but knew nothing about the Westminster Confession. Later studies led me closer to the Dutch branch of Calvinism (represented today as the Christian Refromed Church). However, there was some teachings in Lutheran (of the Missouri Synod variety) that I thought was quite helpful - namely the two kingdoms and the Law/Gospel distinctives.

      So the best I can tell I am a Reformed Baptist with Lutheran tendencies. However, to answer your question, I do believe the Five Points properly reflect the teaching of scripture so I would say they are doctrinally correct (but, as we have agreed, not a complete theology).

  3. Bill,

    Thank you for sharing. So you sound like a perfect 'Evangelical', a theological mutt; which is where I am, in some ways ;-) ... although this EC thing has become quite definitive for me theologically, but not eccelsiologically.

    We disagree over the theology embedded in the 5 points at a fundamental level. I don't think they represent scriptural truth, ultimately, because I think on closer inspection they kick against the theology that funds scriptural truth. But I have already made my points clear over and again through my blogging, and now our book :-). Blessings.

  4. Bill:

    Would it be better to say that the 5 points are accenting certain aspect of Scripture to refute the Remonstrants?

    I could affirm TUIP (and maybe, L) but only if I redefine from what was originally understood by those who wrote Dordt. Everyone does it and it creates another chain. Most people who subscribe to Westminster are not adhering to it in the same way that the authors did.

    Essentially, the 5 pts become a test to see if people have "right doctrine". When you can take baptists, traditional Reformed and Barthians and have them agree, that should raise an eyebrow. Definitions are changing.

    1. I grant that the 5 points need to be understood entirely in light of the historical circumstances and the danger of not doing so is that they become a theological litmus test (and thus they become a replacement for the Bible and that is wrong).

      When focusing on any particular doctrinal point (or 5 in this case) any treatment of them necessarily over-emphasizes the biblical teaching on that point or points and will also simultaneously de-emphasize other points. So what is important to the authors in Dordt were the Remonstrants teachings which they felt were not in alignment with the truths of the Bible. Emphasis has changed since then - our current Evangelical culture (at least in the US) is not so much driven to emphasize those aspects of theology but rather is much more apologetically and missionally focused. This emphasis will downplay the economics of salvation, which is what Dordt is addressing, to focus instead on the efforts to justify the rationality of Christian belief and then emphasis the rightness in "joining" Christianity over against a competing salvific path (be it another religion, science, philosophical school, or devotion to sociological or environmental cause).

      However, that shift in focus and de-emphasis on the economics of salvation should not cause us to put aside what the right economics of salvation are even though that is precisely what happens practically speaking. Not needing to emphasize them does not justify the leap that they are not important, needed, or that their status as truth has changed (because God's truth does not change).

      Now, I am with Bobby that these topics are profoundly important for current theological dialogue because ignoring them can distort the message being taught and believed. However, I would argue that they should not be the opening salvo of any dialogue as they once needed to be. They are now the "meat" that Christians should move to once they have had the "milk" of salvation and apologetics. So my support of them is not to classify them as a litmus test but to provide a portion of the framework for understanding the message of salvation that I would now couch in the terms of apologetic and missional emphasis currently required to engage the unbelieving world.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.