Divine Sovereignty, Evil, Mystery, and “Calvinism” (2)

the so-called Five Points were a reply by the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles to a particular challenge on a limited number of doctrines.

Some might know about the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and perseverance of the saints) but relatively few seem to know that the TULIP acrostic was a late 19th-century invention and that the five points were really the Five Heads of Doctrine or the five Canons, rulings, of the Synod of Dort (1618–19) in the Netherlands, in response to the (1610) five points of the Remonstrants (Arminians).

 

In part 1 we looked at the what of the problem of evil and at the way Psalm 73 talks about it. Now we want to think about who is talking about the problem of evil in our time.

The number of those in the world who subscribe a Reformed confession (e.g., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, or the Westminster Standards) is relatively few. In North America there are probably not more than 500,000 people who either subscribe such ecclesiastical documents or who belong to congregations that do. Outside the North America there are rather more. In Nigeria, the Church of Christ in the Sudan Among the Tiv (NKST) reports one million members. There are millions of confessing Presbyterian and Reformed Christians in South Korea. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil has more than one million members, many of whom heartily confess the Westminster Standards. Still, in North America, where evangelical Christianity has been dominated by revivalism, Pentecostalism, and Arminianism for most of the two centuries, the Reformed theology, piety, and practice is largely unknown.

When evangelicals and fundamentalists do encounter Reformed theology, it is usually the doctrines of grace, i.e., the doctrines of unconditional election and particular redemption that they meet. These are widely described as “Calvinism.” Virtually anyone in North America who espouses unconditional election is immediately called (or calls himself) “a Calvinist.” The assumption seems to be held widely that these doctrines (with perhaps the perseverance of the saints) are Calvinism. It seems to be widely assumed that Calvin himself invented these doctrines in the 16th century and that they were unknown to the church prior to Calvin. Some might know about the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and perseverance of the saints) but relatively few seem to know that the TULIP acrostic was a late 19th-century invention and that the five points were really the Five Heads of Doctrine or the five Canons, rulings, of the Synod of Dort (1618–19) in the Netherlands, in response to the (1610) five points of the Remonstrants (Arminians).

In other words, the so-called Five Points were a reply by the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles to a particular challenge on a limited number of doctrines. They were never intended to be taken as the summary of the entire Reformed faith. All the churches who sent delegates to Synod already had confessions of faith. The Dutch Churches at Synod already confessed the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The Swiss Churches already confessed the Second Helvetic Confession (1566). The English Churches already confessed the Anglican Articles (1571). The French Churches had the Gallic Confession (1559). The Genevan Church had Genevan Confession (1537) and a sizable catechism (1541). The Palatinate Church confessed the Heidelberg Catechism. In short, all the churches represented at Dort (or, in the case of the French, who were not allowed by the French crown to attend but who adopted the Canons after Synod) came to Synod already confessing much more than the Five Points.

For example, these churches all confessed

  1. Sola Scriptura (e.g., they were cessationists);
  2. A Trinitarian doctrine of God and his sovereign providence;
  3. A certain doctrine of humanity (image, fall etc), a certain Christology (e.g., the Calvnistic extra);
  4. The Protestant doctrine of justification sola gratiasola fide, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and that there are two kinds of words in Scripture, law and gospel;
  5. A certain doctrine of the church and sacraments. Every single one of them confessed infant baptism and a certain view of the Lord’s Supper;
  6. They all agreed that there is, in redemptive history, one covenant of grace with multiple administrations.

There is much more that could be said but this is enough to illustrate the considerable gap between much of what is called “Calvinism” as practiced by the so-called “New Calvinists” or the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement(s). The New Calvinists/YRR affirm some of these things but flatly reject others. As I have been saying since the publication of Recovering the Reformed Confession few of the leaders of these movements, who have been so widely identified with “Calvinism” in print and online would have been permitted to attend a Reformed synod or even to attend a 16th or 17th century Reformed congregation. Few of them would have been permitted to participate in the Lord’s Supper under the Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort, the same synod which gave us the Canons. Article 51 of the Church Order of Dort restricted admission to the table to those who “profess the Reformed Religion,” i.e., one of the confessions listed above.

The New Calvinist movement has created something like Dr Frankenstein’s monster. It has taken a piece from this body (e.g., Charismatic piety) and from that body (e.g., predestination), sewn it together and plugged it in (to an amplifier) and sought to present it to the world as “Reformed” or “Calvinist.”

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