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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Thursday, September 07, 2006

CT on Calvinism

The latest issue of Christianity Today has as its cover story an article entitled “Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church.” I’m always glad when Reformed theology gets press, so I picked up the issue. I was tempted to put it back when I saw that the cover features a guy wearing a t-shirt that says “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy”, but I bought it anyway.

The article looks at the influence that Reformed theology has in portions of the church today, and especially its draw on the younger crowd. The author even states that the Calvinist movement may be “larger and more pervasive” than the oft talked about Emergent movement, citing conference and church membership statistics in support of the claim.

I found a couple of things in the article especially interesting. While the author clearly is attempting to represent “Reformed theology” and its influence in the church, the article almost exclusively deals with Calvinistic Baptists. There is a picture of PCA minister Ligon Duncan beside four Baptist ministers, though the article doesn’t mention him at all. R. C. Sproul and J. I. Packer are both mentioned in passing late in the article, as are some long deceased paedobaptists. And there is a sidebar (I don’t know if it was written by the same author)that lists some paedobaptist ministers and ministries, but they are mixed in with a group of Baptist ministers and ministries. On the flip side, the article revolves around the author’s discussions about and conversations with John Piper, Joshua Harris, Al Mohler, and Mark Dever, all of whom are Baptists. The author also spends time discussing the distress that Calvinism is causing among the Arminian contingency in the Southern Baptist Convention. Whether or not the author realizes it (and I’m not sure he does), his real concern in the article is with Baptist culture, not with the whole church. That’s fine, of course, but the article might have been more aptly titled.

Another thing I found interesting was the statement by one Southern Baptist seminarian that he “had never even read Calvin”, eventhough he claims to be a Calvinist. The article goes on to state, “(i)ndeed, the renowned reformer [that is, John Calvin] appears not to be a major figure among the latest generation to claim the theology he made famous.” The author cites George Whitfield as having said he had never read Calvin either.

Now I’ll admit that I haven’t read much Calvin myself. I’ve read some of his Institutes, as well as some from his commentaries on the Scriptures. But it baffles me for someone to claim to be a Calvinist and to not have read him at all. I imagine part of the problem here stems back to C. H. Spurgeon. When Spurgeon talked about the Doctrines of Grace, he spoke of them as being nicknamed “Calvinism”. I can’t say that that means of naming began with him, but inasmuch as he is sort of the patron saint of “Calvinistic Baptists”, I suspect him to be the popularizer of this. I like Spurgeon myself, and have benefited from him immensely, so I don’t intend to just trash him. But he was a Baptist. And besides the issue of baptism, he and Calvin would have disagreed on a number of key doctrines.

When I was first wrestling with the Doctrines of Grace, I had a friend who was raised Dutch Reformed, in a place where “Calvinism” was understood to include more than just the “Five Points”. I, being raised in a Baptistic setting where “Calvinism” only referred to “TULIP”, would use the term in that way, and he would have to adjust his thinking to understand what I was saying. Becoming aware of this, it was the first time I began to think of the term “Calvinism” in a broader way.

A couple of years later, in a conversation with an acquaintance of Michael Scott Horton, I discovered Horton’s distaste for this use of the term. Horton had told this acquaintance that he preferred to refer to so-called Calvinistic Baptists as “Classical Baptists”, referring to the original Baptists who wrote the Baptist Confessions of 1646 and 1689. These Baptists held to predestination as do those who call themselves Calvinistic or Reformed Baptists today.

I have also found it interesting at times to hear some Baptists say they hold to the Canons of Dordt. I can only assume that those who say this haven’t actually read them, or else they would have noticed this in the First Head of Doctrine, Article 17:

We must judge concerning the will of God from His Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents. Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.


I still use the term “Calvinism” to refer to the Doctrines of Grace for the most part, because that’s the way it’s generally used in my still mostly-Baptist Southern culture. And I appreciate the strong stance that these “Reformed” Baptists take on the Doctrines of Grace, and consider them close allies in the fight against the autonomy of man. But I think I would side with Michael Horton in wishing that they be referred to by a different name. And while they’re deciding what they should call themselves, maybe they can read some Calvin and begin to see the more Biblical approach found in what he actually believed and taught. For that matter, I need to read more of him myself.

Having offered these critiques, I still appreciate the article. Even if these men are all Baptists, I can only regard an increase in the acceptance of the Sovereignty of God to be a good thing.

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