So here’s the deal: I’m not really a five-point Calvinist. I debate the whole limited atonement thing. I’ve not made up my mind on it, but I sure keep turning to unlimited atonement in my study of Scripture and my reflection on the nature of God shown there. I’m surely a four point Calvinist, insofar as I see the point of the concepts of Total Depravity, divine Unconditional Election, God’s Irresistible Grace (though this is complex, and always needs some conversation about the freedom/bondage of the will…cue Luther) and the Perseverance of the Saints. These all point to a rather low anthropology and a rather high Christology, which I hold. Justification by faith through grace and all that. I am thoroughly protestant here, and deeply reformed.
But that limited atonement matter always catches me. See, I think God’s graceful actions on the Cross were not limited in intent; Christ died for everyone. This either makes me something close to an Amyraldist, or a five-and-a-half point Calvinist, depending on why we think some people resist the grace of God. Sometimes I think Arminus deserves a hearing. Point is: the concepts of limited vs. unlimited atonement each have biblical foundations, and even with a totally deprived humanity and an all sovereign God, there is something about God limiting God’s grace that doesn’t jive with God’s entire project. I get humans somehow rejecting that grace (see above on total depravity, and Calvin on the human predilection for idols). But I think God intends salvation for everyone. At least as I read it in the life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those wikipedia links offer something of the debate between the two, along with some scriptural proof texts on both sides if that floats your boat.
Calvin, it is often pointed out, never formulated his thinking with the ostensible “doctrines of Calvinism” that get labeled as TULIP. They came from the Synod of Dort. Dort is an important part of reformed history, for sure, but it is not synonymous with Calvinism, with Reformed theology or doctrine. Reformed theology is much more than that, and diverse on this aspect, too.
Adhering to Dort is not in the Book of Order anywhere (pdf). Its not in our confessions that Dort’s canons are an essential of reformed theology. I didn’t take an ordination pledge to uphold the canons of Dort as a doctrine of the church.
But there are
many some Presbyterians, mainly those who are “conservative,” or “classical,” or “traditional,” who are TULIP calvinists. And they certainly fit under the Presbyterian tent. Its a clear branch of reformed thinking, not the entire river.
So it gets my attention when my brother in Christ argues that, in fact, TULIP is part of the essential doctrines of the church that he, and others, think must be at the heart of church “renewal”:
The words Presbyterian and Reformed also carry with them certain connotations – so much so that the use of these words without the underlying beliefs they describe is dishonest. For example, Protestant doctrine by definition includes the five ‘solas’ – Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone, by Christ’s work alone, by grace alone, by faith alone. These are not random observations, cute Latin slogans unimportant to the Reformation – they are the Reformation. Similarly, Reformed doctrine by definition includes total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. One may quibble on the words, on shades of meaning, but to claim the decision of the Synod of Dort contains only minor points of Reformed theology beggars credibility. It is a question of truth in labeling. Christian indicates certain things; Reformed indicates certain things; Presbyterian indicates certain things. Whether or not members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) desire to affirm traditional Presbyterian doctrines, their use of the name indicates a relationship to those doctrines. It is nonsensical to retain the name and ditch the meaning of the name – though this has clearly happened.
(I’d commend to anyone interested in the struggle going on in the PCUSA to read Will Spotts’ series on reform in the church. A good summary of which, with pointers to the original posts, he offers here. A few quick asides: I know that this is not the main, principle, or sole basis for the call to reform, and I don’t mean to lift it up as such. I’m picking out one small part of a long and complex post. And I should stress that I admire much about the man who wrote this and other meditations, and respect his integrity, advocacy, and faith greatly. … And if, like me, you don’t call yourself a ‘traditional’ Presbyterian, you need to know what this major voice on that side is saying. There’s actually a good chunk in there that I think is worthy of approval.)
So here we are at the heart of the matter: at least this “traditional” presbyterian is making a push for a set of doctrines he thinks are essentially Presbyterian, but which I clearly differ from in a few, but important, aspects. I can only gather that if he had his way, our denomination wouldn’t really have me as a pastor. Me, I think our church is big enough to allow us both in. But that’s the issue in a nutshell, isn’t it. Ecclesiology. What is the nature of this church: is the tent small, or is it bigger? Maybe that mirrors the debate over that pesky L in TULIP: is the extent of God’s atonement intended to be small, or is it intended to be bigger?
When we get down to it, I think our differences come down in large measure to differences in our understanding of what the church really is and should be. Our differences are ecclesiological. And I’m afraid, ultimately, that this denomination’s vast center is less about requiring everyone to adhere to fundamentals that aren’t really essential to reformed doctrine. Those five solas, as essential to protestantism, are essential. Reformed doctrine points to the Sovereignty of God, the seriousness of human sin and the abundance of Divine Grace, the covenantal body that is drawn together around the Word proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered, the election to service not just to salvation. But we aren’t a denomination that requires everyone to be subscribers to Dort. Sorry. Its not a question of membership or of our ordination vows. And it shouldn’t be.
Or if it becomes a part, I guess I’d be something else. But for now, I remain proudly Presbyterian.