Calvinist Comeback

One of the things that happened to me when I was at LSU, were the debates with the 5-point Calvinists. This happened alot. I attended several of the campus ministries at LSU, and at the Baptist ministry I met a handful of real live Calvinists. At first, I thought it was some sort of strange coincidence, after all "there hasn't been a Calvinist in these parts in a hundred years!" But I met alot more than I expected.

Turn's out this trend isn't just isolated to South Louisiana. A large number of young seminary students, especially among the Baptists, are turning to classical "5-point" Calvinism. According to a Christianity Today article about this trend, there may be alot more young people connected with a resurgence of Calvinism than are involved with the much more widely publicized "emerging church movement."

To be honest this movement distrubs me a little, and makes me glad I am not Baptist (like the whole forbidding missionaries to practice "speaking in tongues" did awhile back). Reaction to this Calvinistic trend has been varied. Young and zealous Calvinists with their tight rational system with all of its certainty can come of as (and sometimes may actually be) arrogant and narrow, not respecting the rest of us. I have even met 3 or 4 Calvinists at Perkins School of Theology (and none of them among our Presbyterian students!) which is according to conventional wisdom the sort of liberal seminary where I would never find one.

Now, my own theological perspective is Wesleyan (meaning something like Anglo-Catholic + Charismatic + Evangelical + a hint of Progressive = Wesleyan), which on a couple points is very un-5-point-Calvinist. John Wesley preached a scathing critique of 5-point-Calvinism in his sermon "Free Grace", because he understood the logical repercussions of its teachings.

Here is a very brief run down of the teachings of 5-point (TULIP) Calvinism and why I find it problematic (I realize that this is a gross simplification focusing on the problems not the "pluses," but I think I cover the fundamentals).

Total depravity - this expression does not occur in scripture, but if it means that "every inclination of all the thoughts of their hearts were evil, and that continually" that causes me to wonder why so many non-Christians do so many apparently good (or at least refrain from even more evil) things. Calvin himself addressed this problem with what he called "restraining grace" which is in my opinion very similar to what Wesley called "prevenient grace." Both of them ended up saying the same thing: we are totally depraved in theory, but it doesn't play out that way in practice (Calvin says we are able to refrain from some evil and Wesley says we are also able to freely choose to accept/reject Christ) all because the grace of God is already at work in every person.

Unconditional election - those who are elected by God for salvation are not elected based upon any work or quality of their own. There are no conditions they must meet in order to become the elect, God simply chose them (apparently arbitrarily since "there is no partiallity with him," which is very problematic). This is necessary because our depravity and the corruption of our wills is SO total that if God did not choose for us, then no one would be saved at all. Unconditional election is aimed at the same problem (our broken will) as Wesley's prevenient grace. If Unconditional election is true, then surely God, who wants everyone to be saved according to 1 Tim. 2:4, would therefore act in accordance with his own will and elect everyone for salvation unconditionally, to do otherwise would seem to imply some imperfection in God if he wills one thing (universal salvation) and then acts to ensure it can never happen. Thus if I believed in unconditional election I would immediately be a universalist Calvinist. I am of the opinion that we are elected according to the foreknowlege of God on the condition of our faith in Christ and our consequent and necessary participation in the covenant and the covenant people of God, and that all humans are called to do that by the grace of God, though many reject this calling.

Limited Atonement - Since God chose before the foundation of the world who would be saved, then Christ only died to save those people. Otherwise Christ is dying to save people whom God ordained could not be saved and this would make no sense. This teaching is the one most likely to be rejected by Bible-believing young people who are otherwise tempted by Calvinism since it plainly contradicts explicitly several (and implicitly several more) verses of Scripture, most notably 1 John 2:2. I have never yet met a Calvinist who could explain this one away to my satisfaction.

Irresistable Grace - since God has already chosen who will be saved, they cannot resist his grace to the point of not being saved. They will be saved whether they want to or not (though, I would imagine they will always want to or would not be elected). Along with unconditional election this doctrine would essentially eliminate our freedom to accept or reject God.

Perseverence/Preservation of the saints - those who have been elected may not fall away from salvation, since God's decree cannot be annulled and since grace is irresistable. I tend to lean away from this idea, but with some humility and uncertainty, simply because there are a number of passages of Scripture that speak of Christians "shipwrecking" or falling away from Grace (such as Hebrews 6:4-6, John 15:6, etc.). Though many passages also seem to endorse it.

I think 5-point-Calvinism has erred in some other broad assumptions that lay behind the actual 5 points: 1) I think it is overly individualistic in its understanding of election. God elected Israel as a people (not a collection of individuals) and God has elected the Church as a people. It is no surprise that Calvinism developed after the emergence of Western individualism, but ancient Jews and Christians who wrote the Bible would not have shared our more recent individualistic assumptions. 2) Calvinists tend to assume that God is contained within time. I think it is important to remember that when we talk about God doing something or knowing something "pre" or "before" or "after" that this language is only a glimpse or an attempt to capture a reality that is for us incomprehensible: God, God's knowledge, and even (some of?) God's action transcends time - as bizzare as that seems. Thus the phrase "pre-destination" can be misunderstood to include the elimination of free action, but I think this is an error based upon an overly anthropomorphic view of God. 3) Five-point-Calvinism is too "neat" to be Biblical. As I pointed out above, 5-point Calvinism must simply ignore or explain away several passages of Scripture because they contradict the schema. Of course, the whole point of any schema is that it is neat and anyone can learn it. But the Bible is just not that neat and clean like some mathematical theorem. It is as messy and bewildering and wonderous as real life.

Though I am clearly no Calvinist, I think the re-emergence of Calvinism can potentially teach the rest of us some important lessons. Chief among them: doctrine really is important. I think Osama bin Laden has also begun (in a very different way!) to help those of us in mainline churches and seminaries remember that in theology an "anything goes" attitude toward doctrine really can be dangerous. The Calvinists, who take seriously the need to have a teachings that are Biblical and rationally coherent, will seriously challenge some of the less weighty theological teachers and ideas that are mindlessly accepted in many "mainline" circles.

Another thing that Calvinists can remind the rest of us is that election really is a Biblical doctrine that is at the very HEART of the Biblical story. I would like to see a greater emphasis on the relationship between election and covenant among Calvinists and a re-learning by most of us of the relationiship between covenant and sacraments (Scott Hahn, a Presbyterian turned Roman Catholic, is a worthy teacher along these lines). I think all of us need to reconnect the ideas of election (of a covenant people), covenant relationship, faith, and sacrament (as covenant oath) that all work together in classical Christian orthodoxy. This lesson (that I am admitedly still learning) will help us avoid the extremes of Calvinism (denial of freedom) on the one hand or medieval Catholicism (reliance on self-merit) on the other, and Scott Hahn's book Swear to God is as fine a place to start as any I know (though clearly, he is a Roman Catholic apologist).

Finally, the rest of us should learn to speak more of the "sovereignty of God." I understand this not simply to mean "God is the cause of everything that happens," as some Calvinists often seem to mean, but that God is rightly the Sovereign of the universe. The Kingdom of God is what this story really is about - it is about God, his glory, and his will, and his worthiness of our trust and worship, and really just his wonderous self.

God created the universe and we have misused our freedom (which God graciously allowed us) and have partiallly ripped it away from him by our rebellion (if sovereignty means "God strictly controls every thing" then the concept of "sin" loses its meaning since we could not do anything unless God willed it, in which case even our sins would be according to his will, which is a self-contradiction - this problem was explored by Milton in Paradise Lost). And yet, God's providence is still somehow seen in the various circumstances of our lives and even our past decisions. His will does already reign and yet will reign more fully at the restoration of all things. I freely admit this paradox, but I do not believe it is possible to clearly understand this mystery in a systematic and comprehensive way, the exact nature of the sovereignty of God is a mystery beyond our human comprehension a fact of which the failure of 5-point Calvinism to capture the mystery should make us aware.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

enjoyed your latest blog; however, even though calvinisim is a huge issue for my denomination, there aren't as many 5 pointers as you'd think at nobts. Our LSU friend is the only one I actually know of...bethany

12:51 AM, October 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up being very supportive of the doctrine of free will, for many of the same reasons that you have listed...however, the more I began to seek God in His word, the more I began to see that my beliefs and God's Word were in conflict with one another...I am encouraged by your desire to pursue a doctrine on salvation that honors God and His Word, but I find that God's unconditional election is the only end to that pursuit...I hope that these verses help you as you seek to grow in the knowledge of God and examine the five points of Calvinism...in Christ, John...

Exodus 33:19
Psalm 139:16
Isaiah 55:11
Jeremiah 24:7
Lamentations 3:37-38
Ezekiel 36:26
Matthew 19:25-26
John 3:27
John 5:21
John 6:36-37, 39
John 6:44
John 6:64-65
John 10:25-27 (John 10:15)
John 13:18
John 15:16
John 17:6-10
Acts 2:23
Acts 13:48
Romans 3:10-12, 18
Romans 8:7-8, 18
Romans 8:28-30
Romans 9:10-24
Romans 11:1-10
Roman 11:32-36
Romans 14:23
1 Corinthians 1:23-24
Ephesians 1:4-5
Ephesians 1:11-12
Ephesians 2:1-5
Ephesians 2:8-9
2 Timothy 1:9-10
Hebrews 11:6
Hebrews 12:2
James 4:14-15

11:19 PM, October 08, 2006  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Dear Anonymous
I gave up doing lists of scriptures like this long ago, since huge lists could be put up to support both Calvinism and "Arminianism." That sort of is the point I am making. As "neat rational systems," either of those views will have to simply ignore a whole lot of Scripture, while relying on a whole lot more. Some think that the Bible is simply contradictary on this point. I think the tension is quite deliberate in the Spirit's part and that the relationship between election and free will is simply beyond what we can grasp. It may be "paradoxical" or "mystical" or something, but it certainly is not 5-point Calvinism nor is it "total free-will-ism" (I am not sure if Arminianism really fits that or if perhaps we should look to Pelagianism for the opposite of Calvinism and Arminius someplace in the Middle).

I still think much of the argument misses the point. We need to go back and think of election in terms of a people not in terms of individuals and their salvation, and so we need to think of election in terms of covenant and covenant people (and this is where sacraments as covenant oaths will tie in).

11:08 AM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger Jason Woolever said...

hey daniel,
great post. I've been thinking about Calvinism recently because of the new ressurgence among younger people.

R.C.Sproul's Reformation Study BIble has a note on I John 2:2 which says, "of the whole world [means] Christ's sacrifice is sufficient not only for John and his immediate community, but is valid anywhere in the world. It is a sacrifice that requires no addition or supplement."

I think this is the basic Calvinist understanding of this passage. I don't find it persuasive.

11:09 AM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

My point really wasn't to open up the freewill vs. predestination mess on this blog (interesting as that may be), but to observe the return of classical Calvinism. My comments about it include my own analysis of its weakness by way of explaining why I think it is potentially a bad thing, but as I point out, there could come some good from it as well, especially for us in the Mainline churches.

11:10 AM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have recently encountered a 5 point calvinist in my own ministry here in louisiana at a Bible study I am leading. The interesting thing is that I did not realize that there where any five pointers left. Most other calvinist I know will maintain two or three of the five points, but not all. This gentleman throws out scriptures left and right to support his theology, but I believe that it does not help because all he ends up doing is making the class mad.

Its just suprising to me that there is this return to a calvinist mindset today. Maybe it is in reaction to something, or to help deal with a situation facing.

3:56 PM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger Stephen said...

Hey brother, I have enjoyed reading your blogs over the last couple months and from the amount of comments you have on this issue it seems that you have certainly struck a chord.

I suppose you could say I am one of those Baptist seminary students CT writes about. I think SBTS is not so much a "reformed hotbed" as it is a hotbed of reform. Every class is very pastoral, intent on engaging culture, and reclaiming creation for the Kingdom of Christ.

I'll make one comment in regard to your blog and then peace out. If you wish to continue, then I would be open--but maybe in December since we are both neck-deep in school.

I wrestled with predestination and election a bunch in undergrad as several of my profs were Open Theists and the rest Arminians. Such a climate made my class on Romans very engaging, as by that time I had settled down in the Calvinist camp.

My mentor, Bruce Ware, here at SBTS is a modified Calvinist. He is a 4 pointer because he thinks Limited Atonement is not sufficient in covering the intent of the atonement. I say this because despite what many say about Calvinism's resurgence in the SBC, alot of its own profs in its "flagship seminary" do not hold to Limited Atonement. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future of SBC churches.

Having said all of this, I want to try and take a stab at your comment about Limited Atonement and 1 John 2:2, knowing that I don't disagree with only you, but also my mentor and teacher whom I love and respect highly.

In 1 John 2:2 John is confronting a common Jewish misconception that the Messiah suffers, dies, and atones only for the sins of Jews.
We should keep this in mind and not think that "world" always means "every individual in the world." For example, John uses "world" in 2:15 to refer to a system. Surely, in this passage John does not have in mind every individual in the world for he says, "And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever" (2:17). So there is a distinction made between world and those who do the will of the Father as not being considered part of the world's system that is soon to pass away. Therefore, we can not say that "world" must always mean every individual who has ever lived.

Furthermore, look at the end of 1 John and notice how John uses "world". "We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one" --1 John 5:19. It is clear from the context that John does not think "world" to mean "every single person" because in the 5:18 he says, "We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him." If the "whole world" in 5:19 includes every individual in the world, then John would be contradicting his former statement concerning individual believers being so protected by God that Satan does not have any power over them.

Check out 1 Jn 1:3 and 2:2 in Greek. I got some help here from S.M Baugh's 1st John Reader. It is interesting to note John's use of the possessive adjective "hmeterwn" in both verses--sorry, this thing won't let me type in Greek.

These are the only two places in 1 John in which he uses this form rather than the expected repetition of the noun with the article serving in place of the possessive pronoun as in 1 Jn 1:9, "ean omologwmen tas amartias hmwn...tas amartias." Therefore, in 1 John 2:2 we expect: ou peri twn amartiwn de monon. However,
John chose the emphatic "hmeterwn" in 2:2 instead of the more common and simplistic expression for "our", namely 'twn.'

Why did John do this?

John wanted to stress the contrast between himself as a member of the apostolic circle (1:3) in conjunction with his readers ("even you [Gentiles]" 1:3), and any other group of people, see Acts 2:39. Again, John's point in 1 Jn 2:2 is to say that the work of Christ is not restricted to Jews, Greeks, or any ethnic, social, or racial group. And God's saving activity now is no longer restricted to a tiny nation in Palestine as it in the old covenant. It extends throughout the whole world, wherever Christ's people are to be found (Acts 18:10) and gathered into one flock (John 10:16). Again, John's point is not that every individual who has ever lived or who will ever live has complete or potential propitiation of all their sins.

In attempt to strengthen my argument look back at 1 Jn 1:3. The author uses "hmeterwn" instead of "hmwn." I think he does this to heighten the contrast between "your" and "our." The ESV (God's translation!)states, "that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you..." From the Greek we can easily translate "also" as "even." This is significant in that it implies his preaching is somehow unexpected and unusual. If John's original readers were Gentiles then the thought would be something to this effect: "We apostles have borne eyewitness testimony of these things to the Palestinian Jews, but now I, representing the apostles, bear witness and announce these things even to you Gentiles"

In sum, I think my argument from the whole of the letter and the immediate context shows we ought not to assume 1 John 2:2 teaches universal atonement simply because it says "whole world." We ought to catch the flow of thought from the immediate context. I humbly submit that my interpretation of 2:2 is consistent with the thought of chapter 1. We ought to then define our words (particularly 'world') as John uses them elsewhere in his letter.

Mark Driscoll warns of the danger of reductionism and I wish to heed his call. I admit there were thousands of things going on during Christ's death and I long to cherish everyone of them with Christ and his people. Maybe a continued conversation would help, I don't know. But what I do know is that John's theology tends toward what I have proposed, not only here in his first epistle, but also in his gospel. Comparing and meditating on 1 John 2:2 and John 11:51-52 has helped me much.

I hope this has been a clear and responsible answer to your objection. Moreover, I hope it is beneficial in your study and knowledge of God.

I also hope that you are not writing another blog right now and thereby overlook this incredibly long post.

Grace be with you. --Mysh

1:30 AM, October 11, 2006  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Where have you been????
We have GOT to catch up! What year are you know?

11:02 AM, October 11, 2006  
Blogger Brent Railey said...

Hey Daniel, it's Brent.

I've linked you on my blog, www.brentrailey.com

4:53 PM, January 14, 2007  
Blogger Brent Railey said...


I've begun a series on my site discussing your definition of Reformed theology. I'd love for you to interact with it, since this article is the occassion of the series.

Feel honored...very honored. ;-)

Also, shoot me an email brent _@_ brentrailey.com

2:01 PM, January 23, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey Brent!
I AM honored (whether I feel it or not) by your engaging my ideas. To anyone interested in reading Brent's critique of my critique and then, in the comments, My own critique of his critique of my critique - I urge you to visit that series he just mentioned above (see also http://www.brentrailey.com/) because I laid out there what I wanted to say in a way that is more concise and maybe just better than above.

6:36 PM, November 18, 2007  

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