Toward a Catholic Calvinism
Posted on March 22, 2012
I put myself on guard whenever I observe speakers and writers neatly classifying individuals into distinct, mutually exclusive, and seemingly airtight categories. One factor that makes individuals what they are is their own distinctiveness, a fact that renders most attempts at classification somewhat arbitrary. Nonetheless, the Bible itself classifies individuals again and again (saved and unsaved, carnal and spiritual, Jews and Gentiles, weak and strong, foolish and wise, and so forth), and any attempt to chart characteristics and trends that involves individuals demands classification of some sort. The categories of blond-haired people, self-taught people, two-income people, and gregarious people are relevant categories. The fact that these categories have fuzzy edges, and the fact that they can be used for foolish or malicious purposes, do not detract from their usefulness.
My concern in this essay is briefly to set forth three identifiable sectors within today’s conservative Reformed camp. By “conservative,” I mean conservative theologically — holding to the time-honored tenets of the Christian Faith, such as the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, His sacrificial atonement, His bodily resurrection, His second advent, salvation by grace through faith, and so on. By “Reformed,” I denote those who maintain an allegiance to the Calvinist tradition springing from the Protestant Reformation and crystallized in the Reformed confessions of faith hammered out during the 16th and 17th centuries. Its chief theological distinctives are the sovereignty of God, the final authority of Scripture, the unity of the Biblical covenants, salvation wholly by the grace of God, and the application of the Faith to all areas of life. From the standpoint of a belief system only, this is what it means to be “conservative Reformed.”
The conservative Reformed camp is not a denomination, though several denominations are — or wish to be considered — both Reformed and conservative (I am including here many Presbyterian denominations).
Within this broadly aligned camp, three identifiable variations exist today. I have denoted them the TRs (Truly Reformed), the BRs (Barely Reformed), and the CRs (Catholic Reformed). I am intending in this essay, first, a description, delimiting the leading characteristics of each group. Second, I would like the first two groups to consider a third alternative (Catholic Reformed), which holds firmly to the essentials of the Reformed Faith and which assimilates the best in both of the other camps but which jettisons some of (in my view) their less attractive features. I do not wish to further divide the Reformed camp. Indeed, this essay constitutes a proposal to further unite that camp (and other Bible-believing Christians) for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom.
The Truly Reformed (TRs)
While there are certainly variations in this company, it is fair to say that the TRs are conservatives of the most intense sort; and they are fervently committed to the scholastic, Reformed orthodoxy of the 16th and 17th centuries. Almost all are “strict subscriptionists,” holding that statements of faith like the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons and Decrees of the Synod of Dordt, the Belgic Confession, or the London Baptist Confession are virtually summary duplications of Biblical teaching. They are strongly committed to the scholastic formulation of Calvinist doctrine as it comes to the fore, to take an example, in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
The Great Doctrinal Defection
TRs see the great crisis of the modern church as a deviation from this formulation of doctrine or theology. The great enemies of this doctrine are, first, evangelical Arminianism, the almost perpetual opponent of Calvinism, which originated in its midst, and particularly today as it is manifested in a form of evangelicalism within Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. This Arminianism is often linked with a dangerous revivalism, especially the Second Great Awakening, most notably with men like Charles G. Finney, and more recently D. L. Moody and Billy Graham.
To the TRs, the second great enemy is Protestant liberalism as it sprung from the pietistic tradition in men like Friedrich Schleiermacher. This liberalism completely transformed the older orthodox Protestant tradition by questioning or denying the infallibility of the Bible, the miraculous character of our Lord Jesus Christ and His great redemptive work in history, and a God-centered understanding of salvation.
The third great enemy to the thinking of the TRs is Roman Catholicism. TRs perceive Rome to have changed little since the Council of Trent (1545-63), convened to counter those pesky Protestants. Trent anathematized the leading Protestant distinctives of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone). This opposition created a chasm in the relation between the two sectors of Christianity that, despite dialogue pressing for reunion, remains to this day. TRs radically oppose this dialogue. They believe that today’s Rome is an enemy of the Faith, and that she deserves nothing other than opposition, obloquy and exclusion.
TRs see in evangelical Arminianism, Protestant liberalism, and Roman Catholicism the most pernicious forms of religious humanism and believe that they are perpetual enemies of the Faith — including within the Reformed camp. TRs thoughtfully and rigorously fight the battle to preserve strict, confessional Calvinism; literal, six-day creation; male church leadership; the regulative principle of worship (only that which is commanded in public worship is permitted); Presbyterian church polity (government by elders); the soteriological doctrines of sovereign grace (the so-called Five Points of Calvinism); and so on. They believe that to lose these battles is to lose critical aspects of the Faith itself.
To the TRs, the chief solution to the pervasive evils within the church and the world is a return to the doctrine and practice of 16th- and early 17th-century scholastic Reformed orthodoxy.
The TRs, it should be mentioned, are highly suspicious of any doctrinal or theological development later than the seventeenth century, and they are particularly suspicious of any such development within the last hundred years. They would allow exceptions for Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics, and Gordon H. Clark’s “axiomatic” apologetics, either one of which many TRs affirm. In matters of “pure theology,” though, the TRs are committed to the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, TRs tend to believe in the doctrinal development that the Reformation engendered, but none or little since (more on doctrinal development below).
The Barely Reformed (BRs)
I do not intend the expression “Barely Reformed” to be pejorative, but simply to denote that this group within the Reformed camp are much more committed to a broad evangelicalism than the confessional form of the Reformed Faith. In any case, this is what the TRs often label them, and the label has stuck. It is not that they are uncommitted to the Reformed Faith and the Reformed church as an acceptable ecclesiastical and sociological tradition, or even that they repudiate the tenets of Reformed orthodoxy. Rather, these are not matters of great concern to the BRs, for whom the preaching of a simple, earnest gospel of the Bible is the true commission of the church.
The BRs are pragmatists (and sometimes admittedly so). They are strongly committed to reaching the unsaved, and therefore the evangel, the gospel, means a great deal to them. They often pastor or attend the largest conservative Reformed or Presbyterian congregations in the United States, and they are tireless in their efforts to win souls and increase the size of the congregation. They tend to be less concerned with what they consider secondary doctrinal disputes over literal, six-day creation; women in the ministry or in other church leadership roles; the inroads of Arminianism; evangelistic strategies; the nature of the sacraments; and so forth.
The BRs are not to be confused with the truly “liberal” wing of the Reformed camp associated with certain mainline Reformed or Presbyterian denominations committed to Biblical higher criticism, female elders, theistic evolution, tolerance of homosexuality, and so on. The BRs are more accurately identified as evangelicals within the Reformed camp than as liberals. They are more interested in an irenic denomination and warm-hearted Christianity than in haggling over theological niceties. They are inclined to believe that the TRs are not so much wrong as wrong-headed: the latter need to get about the real business of preaching the gospel, discipling the saints, supporting the weak and weary, and building larger churches.
In most conservative, Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, the TRs and BRs are avowed foes.
The Catholic Reformed (CRs)
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am saying up front that I occupy a third sector. I have tried to describe the TRs and BRs as accurately and objectively as possible before describing my own view and that of this more recently emerging group of Calvinists. By “catholic,” it almost goes without saying, I do not denote Roman (or Eastern) Catholicism, but the manifestly Biblical notion of the universality of the Faith and church (Eph. 4:4) and their description in the Nicene Creed and among the patristic church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” While there may be (and certainly are) variations and sectors of orthodox Christianity, there can be only one Christian Faith. This is what Catholic in “Catholic Reformed signifies.”
Affirmation and Dissent
Now, where do the CRs agree and disagree with both the TRs and the BRs? We CRs agree with the TRs in identifying three main problems in the modern church as evangelical Arminianism, Protestant liberalism, and Roman Catholicism. We agree that evangelical Arminianism has undermined the gracious character of the gospel; that the European Enlightenment, joining later with Romanticism to produce Protestant liberalism, precipitated a great crisis in the Western church; and that Roman Catholicism undermined the catholicity of the church by insisting on its hegemony and subverts a gratuitous soteriology by insisting that man in some way merit salvation. We agree with the BRs, however, in wanting to focus attention on the preaching of the evangel, the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We agree that incessant dispute over comparatively secondary doctrines to the exclusion of the energetic preaching of the gospel has things just backwards, though we by no means consider any Biblical doctrine unimportant. We are not latitudinarians.
Conservative and Progressive
We CRs, however, disagree with both the CRs and the BRs. While we hold with the TRs that evangelical Arminianism, Protestant liberalism, and Roman Catholicism are big problems, we do not agree that the restoration of Protestant scholastic confessionalism is the only (or perhaps even the best) solution. We are more conservative in that we do not wish to throw overboard the great gains of the pre-Reformation period — the patristic and medieval eras. We do not wish to perpetuate the errors of those eras, but neither do we wish to perpetuate what we believe to be certain errors of the Reformation era. We are more progressive in our willingness to explore new, Biblical ways to meet today’s challenges to the Faith. This distinguishes us from the TRs, who are reluctant to talk about or acknowledge such errors from the Reformation era, and who are convinced that a return to — or adoption of — the Reformed confessions is really about all that the church needs.
Theological and Dogmatic Development
CRs are committed to the fact of theological and dogmatic development. For instance, it is evident that the sub-apostolic church did not have an entirely clear picture of the relation between the Persons of the Godhead or between the divine and human in Jesus Christ; if they had, the early church councils setting forth that teaching would have been unnecessary. In other words, the sub-apostolic church did not fully grasp what we today would call orthodox Trinitarianism or Christology. This does not mean that they “denied the Trinity,” or that they did not see Jesus as the God-Man sent from heaven to redeem us mortals from sin. It simply means that they were not afforded the opportunity to participate in the later doctrinal debates that clarified the Biblical teaching on these (and other) matters.
The same is largely true of the Reformation’s innovative definition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. No one until the era of the Reformation expressed it quite like Luther and Calvin, and particularly like the Protestant scholastics. This is not to imply that salvation by grace was “lost” in the sub-apostolic era and only “rediscovered” at the Reformation. Augustine, for one, highlighted justification by faith alone in his battle with Pelagius. But his formulation of this doctrine was not that of the Reformers (for one thing, he included infused righteousness in his definition of justification), and he warred against synergistic soteriology (God and man cooperating in man’s salvation) without benefit of a Protestant-type doctrine of justification. It was given to the Reformers to revisit this doctrine in an intense, sweeping way; and we can grateful for the product of their theological labor.
The truth expressed in the Bible does not change, but Christians’ and the church’s views about what the Bible teaches do change. Usually this occurs because a certain controversy erupts which forces Christians to go back and re-examine what the Bible actually teaches. Often they find not that they were flatly wrong, but that they had inherited certain teachings that do not give full justice to the full sweep of Biblical evidence. It often takes controversies to force the church to a deeper understanding of the Bible. This is how the church’s understanding of the Bible deepens over time. We thus know more about the Bible today than the Church Fathers did, not because we are inherently smarter or more spiritual, but because those who have gone before us have blazed the trail a little further than their predecessors. Likewise, we should expect that the faithful who follow us would enjoy a greater understanding of the Bible than we do today. This is how theological progress is possible.
Of course, not all new understandings of the Bible are progress. Protestant liberalism, for instance, has warped the Christian message by denying the truthfulness of the very Book from which we learn that message, not to mention the supernatural character of Christianity, without which it cannot exist. This is not progress, but apostasy. The problem with liberalism is not that it is new (actually, it is quite old by now!), but that it is anti-Biblical. Gnosticism, by contrast, is a very old teaching; but it is not legitimized simply by virtue of its antiquity. Similarly, new understandings of the Bible are not to be excluded merely because they are new. Old does not necessarily make right, and new does not necessarily make wrong.
We do enjoy an inherited Christian orthodoxy (expressed in the early ecumenical creeds) not alongside, independent of, and coordinate with the Bible, but a dogma, in the language of Philip Schaff, which flows out of the Bible itself. We CRs hold to this dogma as good, Biblical theology. We believe it delimits the dogmatic structure of Christianity. We hold it not because it is inherited church dogma (though we do give universal ecclesiastical consensus great weight), but because it is a summary of Biblical dogma. We do not believe that the Bible contradicts orthodox Christianity.
How does this understanding of doctrinal development apply to the CRs’ view of the Reformation? We heartily affirm the form of doctrine set forth in scholastic, Reformed orthodoxy — the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace alone (monergistic soteriology), the centrality of the covenant, the unity of the Old and New Testaments, and so on. Nonetheless, we are convinced that the scholastic formulations of these and other doctrines, while useful and necessary at the time, are less useful and necessary today and, in any case, a few do not accurately duplicate Biblical teaching. Some examples include the identification of the papacy with the Antichrist in the original Westminster Confession of Faith; the isolation of the doctrine of justification from an earthly, covenantal context and from “the obedience of faith”; the over-emphasis on the theoretical and judicial elements in the Bible and an under-emphasis on its practical and experiential side; and the general lack of acknowledgement of the broad, orthodox catholic tradition.
We CRs are less critical of the scholastic Reformed tradition than we are critical of the attempt to reproduce that tradition today without any conservative, cautious, critical, revision in light of the Bible. We CRs are opposed to abandoning the confessional tradition, but we are in favor of cautiously asking whether certain elements of that tradition are in need of revision. We are less interested in changing any doctrinal assertions than in reformulating those assertions in light of the world in which we presently live, and challenges we immediately face.
Moreover, we CRs are not convinced that doctrinal deviation alone is the church’s problem. We are not “doctrinalists,” that is, those who see the Faith in almost exclusively doctrinal terms. Unlike most TRs, we do not believe that the great defection within the Reformed church we observe today originated in an erroneous theology or deviation from a confessional tradition. Rather, we see these problems as the effects of a more profound problem — coldness or apostasy in the heart (Ezek. 6:9). If theological deviance is not the core problem, we do not believe that recovery of theological accuracy, essential though it may be, is the core solution. If men apostatize first not in their intellect but in what some Puritans called their “affections,” our initial concern for the church must be those affections.
Because we see man as a “holistic” being, we see his problem as a holistic problem. It is not enough to attack just one part of the problem; we need to get to the source of the problem, and that problem is apostasy of the heart — refusing to love God with all one’s being, and his neighbor as himself (Mt. 22:37-40). In the words of my late friend Rev. C. L. Stover, “If loving God with all your heart is the greatest commandment, what do you imagine the greatest sin is?” We therefore accent Biblical piety, and give it no less attention than we do Biblical theology. We do not see these two facets of the Faith as competing, but complimentary; and we do not believe true reformation is possible without both. We want a fervently Christ-centered rather than theology-centered Faith, though we fully recognize that there can be no legitimate Christ-centeredness without accurate theology. We seek a delicate but Biblical union of doctrine and practice, creed and obedience, theology and life. We want to be intensely practical and pastoral.
A Fervent Charity
Part of that practicality is the calling to charity toward our brothers. And we CR’s believe that this has been grievously lacking in much of the Reformed camp, whether TR or BR. As noted above, the first great commandment of the law as defined by our Lord is loving God with the totality of our being. The second great commandment is loving our neighbor as ourselves. We believe this has been given inversely proportional emphasis in much of today’s Calvinism. In other words, while Jesus Christ put it near the top of the priorities for His disciples, we have often placed it quite low on our list of priorities. At least we act as though we do.
We CRs want to correct this in our own lives, and we want to inspire the church to greater charity. Steve Schlissel once asked me how it is possible that love was never considered as one of the “three marks” of the Reformed church. After all, love is given a huge place in the Bible. The Reformed “marks” traditionally have been considered the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, and the maintenance of discipline. One might wish to argue that love is an aspect of discipline, but this is not what we see in many Calvinistic churches today. The centrality of love in the Bible is undisputed (1 Cor. 13; 1 Jn. 3:16). This compassion within the church values fellow believers as brothers in Christ and as brothers of the human race made in the image of God. It does not see people as part of an agenda, or a means to some end. People are an end in themselves.
We CRs want to manifest this love as a true mark of the church. We believe that the day the Reformed churches are as disturbed by the absence of love in their midst as they are the presence of heresy, they will have approached a more Biblical balance in their churches. When we are as troubled by the evil of lovelessness as we are the evil of Arminianism, we will come close to the Bible’s requirements of the saints.
A Full-Orbed Gospel
Just as we both agree and disagree with the TRs, so we agree and disagree with the BRs. While we agree with the BRs on the centrality of Jesus Christ and the gospel, we do not believe that the BRs often understand or at least preach and teach that gospel in its Biblical fullness. We believe that in the attempt to win as many people as possible (particularly in the so-called Church Growth Movement), they often sacrifice theological integrity and Biblical (Calvinistic!) soteriology. We believe that the BR gospel is often truncated; we believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ must be full-orbed, a heartfelt, compassionate, even emotional gospel message to the unbeliever that nonetheless requires repentance and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and which seeks to bring all areas of life and culture under His authority. We see the omission of this comprehensive faith as a serious defect in the BR sector.
The objective of the Great Commission is worldwide Christian civilization. We are called not merely to evangelize, but also to disciple (Mt. 28:18-20). And we are called to not only to evangelize and disciple all possible individuals, but also all nations. This is nothing less than Christian culture and, eventually, Christian civilization. This means that we must preach a full-orbed gospel and practice a full-orbed faith.
The Orthodox Christian Tradition
TRs often identify BRs as operating within “broad evangelicalism.” In many cases, this charge is accurate. We CRs have a broadness of our own, but it is the broadness of the orthodox Christian tradition itself. We are committed to what Thomas Oden terms “classical Christianity,” the early ecumenical orthodoxy of the undivided church as set forth principally in the Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian Creeds. We believe that this broad consensus must underlie the more narrow (though also more specific) Reformed dogma. We do not see Reformed orthodoxy as the foundation of Christianity. We see Jesus Christ as the foundation of Christianity (1 Cor. 3:11), Christian orthodoxy laid upon that foundation, and the Reformed Faith as the apex of the Christian building. We see Biblical Calvinism, therefore, as the logical conclusion, and not the presupposition, of Christianity. We CRs are fervently committed to the Bible as a pre-creedal, pre-dogmatic, primal, divinely inspired and infallible revelation. It is the very living Word of the living God. We do not claim that the Bible does not teach a binding theology; it surely does. We simply claim that it is necessary constantly to mine that revelation in terms of new events, experiences, and ideas and to judge all of them by the Bible. We don’t mean by this that the Bible could ever be pitted against the form of doctrine in orthodox Christianity. Indeed, we believe that orthodox Christianity is the paradigm within which we should understand the Bible and right theology. In this sense, we are ardent traditionalists. However, we believe it is necessary for us today to maintain the same frame of mind as did the original Reformers. They met the theological and ecclesiastical crises of their age with a fresh study of the Bible and a reformulation and reapplication of its doctrine — always within the bounds of orthodox Christianity, of course. We believe that we are in no less of a crisis today — indeed, that we are in more of a crisis — than were the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century. Therefore, we must mine the Bible for truth as it applies specifically in our day.
We CRs, therefore, are willing to explore the entire orthodox Christian tradition for Biblical truth that can be legitimately and effectively employed in today’s world. Commitment to Reformed Christianity does not prohibit — no, rather it demands — such a catholicity of doctrine. For instance, if traditional Wesleyanism is somewhat incorrect in its doctrine of sanctification but correct in its stress on the experiential nature of Christianity, we have no qualms in “borrowing” that emphasis (even with attribution!), if it is Biblically justified. If the Eastern form of Trinitarian dogma (which is where orthodox Trinitarianism developed) cannot be improved on within the Reformed tradition (and we don’t believe it can!), we have no problem championing the Eastern view; in other words, we do not feel it necessary to create a “Reformed version” of every doctrine (which may easily lead to heresy). Just as the Reformation church assimilated the Latin view of the Atonement (the satisfaction theory of Anselm), so we today are eager to launch out and employ Christian teachings which we believe are in line with the Bible, even if they did not originate within the Reformed tradition. The CRs, that is, are committed to a theological eclecticism, as long as its components are Biblically legitimate. We do not claim to possess all of the truth, and we are willing to find Biblical truth wherever it is located. We do not believe that Calvinists hold a monopoly on Christian truth.
The CRs are distinctively Reformed, therefore, not in assuming that Biblical Christianity flows from 16th century Calvinism, but that the leading themes of the original Reformation are essential to a healthy Christianity. We are further Reformed in that we do not believe that the need for reformation ended in 1540. We believe in ecclesia reformata quia semper reformanda est — “the church reformed because it must always be reforming.” The cautious, principled eclecticism of the CRs was a part of the Reformed Faith from the very beginning. In fact, had it not been willing to unite the inherited Latin view of the atonement with its innovative view of justification, Calvinism as we know it would not have been possible. This eclecticism presupposes that Calvinism is interested primarily in fidelity to the Biblical faith and not any particular historical manifestation of it — 16th century scholastic Calvinism included. We believe the latter is a striking example of Biblical Christianity, but we do not believe it is infallible, and we do not believe it is above revision, any more than we believe today’s CR view is above revision. The Bible alone is our final authority. We must champion — and practice — sola Scriptura.
This leads naturally to the issue of catholicity. We are catholic in spirit, or intensity — at least we try to be. We do not try first to cut off other Christians who don’t agree with us on all points, but we want to work with them in whatever ways we can. We could not, for instance, invite a dispensationalist to teach his distinctives at our Bible conferences, but we could work with him in establishing a city rescue mission. We would never ask a Roman Catholic priest to lecture to our congregations on the primacy of the Pope, but we would work with him diligently to decrease and eventually eliminate abortion in our society. We would not invite an Arminian to champion his synergistic soteriology in our publications, but we would work with him in getting sound science curricula in his Christian day school. We want to work with our brothers and sisters as closely as we can on as many ventures as we can without compromising our distinctives.
Our appreciation of and sensitivity to the development of dogma in the history of the church renders us less combative than others in the Reformed tradition. A good example of this is the development of soteriology in different branches of the church. Soteriological synergism is surely very bad (just as pharisaic Calvinism is), but it dominated both branches of the church for about a thousand years; and the church, while severely weakened, did not become non-Christian as a result of this error. Erroneous, yes; anti-Christian, no. If soteriological monergism is essential to Christianity, then, of course, there was no Christianity of any kind until the Protestant Reformation (even Augustine did not hold Luther’s view of justification). The same is true on issues as diverse as eschatology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, epistemology, and so on. I am not suggesting that these are in any way unimportant issues, only that the position one takes on these issues, as long as he is otherwise within the orthodox Faith, in no way disqualifies him from that Faith.
We see ourselves, in addition, as catholic in extensity. We believe that the Faith should dominate all of life. We are thus committed to Christianity as a means of transforming culture. This is also true of some TRs and BRs, but there is a somewhat different element among the CRs. Like the TRs, we believe in purging and reforming the church, and like the BRs we believe in preaching the gospel to all men; but we do not believe that the battles of yesterday are the battles of today, and we do not believe that an ecclesiastical gospel will suffice. We cannot agree with those who say, “Just reform the church; everything else will take care of itself.” This was largely true in the 16th and 17th centuries, when society itself still carried on the medieval notion of a church-dominated culture. The battle today is not between 16th century scholastic Reformed orthodoxy and 19th century non-supernaturalistic Protestant liberalism, but between a relevant, Biblical Christianity, and relevant, pagan postmodernism. This latter error does not stand outside the professing Christian church, but often finds welcome within the professing church. While during the medieval era, religious error moved from within the church out to the culture, today the religious error moves from the broader secular culture back into the church. At the time of the Reformation, reforming the church would largely guarantee the reform of society. This is simply no longer an option. The evil of secular society is too pervasive. We CRs believe, therefore, that we do not have the luxury to battle only on the narrow ecclesiastical front. We are committed to a full-orbed Faith that must dominate in the individual, family, church, and the wider society.
In summary, the CRs attempt to be catholic in doctrine, in spirit, and in culture.
It has not been my objective to malign either the TRs or the BRs, but simply to set forth a description of all three sectors within the conservative Reformed camp. Obviously my own sympathies lay with the CRs, and I hope that this brief essay has outlined why I believe what I describe as the Catholic Reformed approach is a viable and valid one within today’s Reformed context.