True Calvinism – History & Theology, Part 79

We are continuing to use the basic concept from John Owen that Arminian theology has to make huge concessions and changes to the biblical teaching on the character of God to maintain their core belief of free will. It is true that this is dismissed in our day as nonsense, but this is an issue that we must think through again. While there are many people today who do not believe that there are any major differences in the various theologies and that both Arminianism and Calvinism teach the same Gospel, this was not the belief that was held years ago. Historical Arminian teaching and historical Calvinism start from differing points. Both use pretty much the same words and both use the Bible, but they do not start in the same place. It is possible for a professing Calvinist to profess to hold to the five points of Calvinism (so-called) and still start where the Arminian starts and in essence be an Arminian. The distinguishing feature of what a historical Calvinist was is not the five points of Calvinism. There is something far deeper that in fact determines what one believes about the five points.

Let me arrive at this point by using the writings of B.B Warfield:

“CALVINISM is an ambiguous term in so far as it is currently employed in two or three senses, closely related indeed, and passing insensibly into one another, but of varying latitudes of connotation. Sometimes it designates merely the individual teaching of John Calvin. Sometimes it designates, more broadly, the doctrinal system confessed by that body of Protestant Churches known historically, in distinction from the Lutheran Churches, as ‘the Reformed Churches’ (see ‘Protestantism’); but also quite commonly called ‘the Calvinistic Churches’ because the greatest scientific exposition of their faith in the Reformation age, and perhaps the most influential of any age, was given by John Calvin…For the roots of Calvinism are planted in a specific religious attitude, out of which is unfolded first a particular theology, from which springs on the one hand a special church organization, and on the other a social order, involving a given political movement. The whole outworking of Calvinism in life is thus the efflorescence of its fundamental religious consciousness, which finds its scientific statement in its theological system.”

What we want to see here is that the term “Calvinism” is used in differing ways. Indeed the term is used in an even broader way since the time of Warfield (this article I am quoting from was originally printed in 1908). This whole issue is something that should be stressed in our day. There is a basic idea of true Calvinism that one may have and yet the person may not hold to all the five points. On the other hand, one can hold to the five points without that basic idea and not be a Calvinist. Indeed the term “Calvinist” is perhaps not the best word, but then again it is hard to write history over again. I hope that anyone reading this will strive to get this point. It is utterly vital. Let us turn to Warfield again.

“Perhaps the simplest statement of it is the best: that it lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing-in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations-is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist. In Calvinism, then objectively speaking, theism comes to its rights.”

What is obvious from these quotes is that Warfield has the same starting principle as John Owen. We must start all of our thinking and all of our theology and life from the truth of who God is and from a profound apprehension of His glory. Let me make some pointed remarks at this point. According to Warfield, at least a deduction from his writings, a person can be an Arminian to some degree in theology and still be a Calvinist in what matters most, which is the religious attitude. A person can also be a Calvinist in terms of holding to the same expression or doctrinal aspects in an intellectual way that John Calvin did and still not be a Calvinist in terms of the person’s religious attitude. The heart of a God-centered Calvinism is that of a person who has seen and has engaged the living God. There are many Calvinists in terms of their doctrine today who have no idea of Calvinism in this sense. There is only one place to unite in our day and that is with people who have truly seen God and have tasted of His glory. Let me close with one more quote from Warfield.

“Whoever believes in God; whoever recognizes in the recesses of his soul his utter dependence on God; whoever in all his thought of salvation hears in his heart of hearts the echo of soli Deo Gloria of the evangelical profession-by whatever name he may call himself, or by whatever intellectual puzzles his logical understanding may be confused-Calvinism recognizes as implicitly a Calvinist, and as only requiring to permit these fundamental principles-which underlie and give its body to all true religion-to work themselves freely and fully out in thought and feeling and action, to become explicitly a Calvinist.”

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