Monday, June 7, 2010

Should I Call Myself a Calvinist?

I started perusing Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism and found myself challenged as to whether I could legitimately claim to be a Calvinist. In the Introduction David Allen and Steve Lemke raise the fact that Calvinism comes in many forms. Some Baptists, like me, consider themselves “Calvinists” of some form since they hold to four or five points of the TULIP. I thought I was on safe ground with this given the history of groups like the Particular Baptists and having read works like By His Grace and For His Glory by Thomas Nettles. But Allen and Lemke quote Richard A. Muller to prove that this is wrong. Here’s the quote from Muller in its entirety:
“I once met a minister who introduced himself to me as a ‘five-point Calvinist.’ I later learned that, in addition to being a self confessed five-point Calvinist, he was also an anti-paedobaptist who assumed that the church was a voluntary association of adult believers, that the sacraments were not means of grace but were merely ‘ordinances’ of the church, that there was more than one covenant offering salvation in the time between the Fall and the eschaton, and that the church could expect a thousand-year reign on earth after Christ’s Second Coming but before the end of the world. He recognized no creeds or confessions of the church as binding in any way. I also found out that he regularly preached on the ‘five points’ in such a way as to indicate the difficulty in finding assurance of salvation: He often taught his congregation that they had to examine their repentance continually in order to determine whether they had exerted themselves enough in renouncing the world and in ‘accepting’ Christ. This view of Christian life was totally in accord with his conception of the church as a visible voluntary association of ‘born again’ adults who had a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’”
“In retrospect, I recognize that I should not have been terribly surprised at the doctrinal context or at the practical application of the famous five points by this minister—although at the time I was astonished. After all, here was a person, proud to be a five-point Calvinist, whose doctrines would have gotten him tossed out of Geneva had he arrived there with his brand of ‘Calvinism’ at any time during the late sixteenth or seventeenth century. Perhaps, more to the point, his beliefs stood outside of the theological limits presented by the great confessions of the Reformed churches—whether the Second Helvetic and the Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches or the Westminster standards of the Presbyterian churches. In short, an American evangelical.” (6-7)
Allen and Lemke further comment that Muller “disdained ‘Particular Baptists’ such as John Gill because Gill did not embrace the rest of the Calvinist doctrines. To be fully Calvinistic [Reformed] requires much more than the five points often associated with the Synod of Dort. For Muller, to be truly a Calvinist requires the affirmation of other beliefs such as the baptism of infants, the identification of sacraments as means of grace, and an amillennial eschatology.” (7)

So should I still call myself a Calvinist? It would seem that Muller would say it is void of its historic meaning for me to do so. I think he’s right. But must Calvinism retain its same shape and form as it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Again, I think to some degree it should. I don’t think it’s fair for people to claim to be Christian when what they believe is nothing like what the New Testament describes as Christian. Maybe I should just say I’m a Baptist who believes in the five points of Calvinism. Muller might say I’m inconsistent at best or at least very confused. I know many people don’t like labels. Just call me a “follower of Christ” they insist. Labels are, for me, nothing more than a convenient way to identify myself and others theologically. Nothing more, nothing less. It saves time rather than going through a long of list of saying, “What do you believe about . . .?” I’m certainly a follower of Christ first and foremost but I see no disparity between being a follower of Christ and calling myself Baptist, Calvinist, Wesleyan or a host of other labels. I don’t lose sleep over this sort of thing but do want to convey the right information with the right label. Before moving to West Michigan I could call myself a Calvinist and a Baptist without raising much ire. But West Michigan is home to a strong Reformed community which has definite ideas about what qualifies someone as a Calvinist. Perhaps I’ll just tell people I’m Baptist first and let the conversation go from there. I’m not sure if they would understand if I said I’m Baptist with a five-point pinch of Calvinism.


Terrance Tiessen said...

Hi Louis, like you, I’ve encountered Muller’s complaint about “Reformed/Calvinistic Baptists” and pondered it. I think that it is the monergist/synergist divide that most of us have in mind when the Calvinism/Arminianism question comes up. And I think this ia a very important area of distinction. Where one stands in this regard is much more far reaching, I believe, than ecclesiological differences. You could call yourself a “monergistic baptist” but so few people know what “monergism” means that he would not communicate well. “Calvinism” on the other hand does carry the monergistic message and that is what makes it scandalous to non-Calvinists/synergists.

The fact that that Baptists formed the London and Philadelphia Confessions from the Westminster Confession is very significant I think. Its ecclesiology is Baptist but otherwise it is the same as the Westminster Confession. Perhaps, therefore, you could say something like “I am a Calvinist in the general shape of my theology but a Baptist in my doctrine of the church.”

Keep reading. I enjoy hearing what you are thinking about.

Louis said...


You're right about "monergistic baptist. Many would probably tune me out at that point. By the way I'm not sure I ever thanked you for introducing yourself the day you were in the store. Thank you so much and thanks for chiming in from time to time on the blog. I always appreciate your thoughts.