Friday, April 12, 2013

God Is Love As The Starting Point

It has been too long since I posted here at EC In Plain Language. Let me remedy that now. This post will be less ordered than others, and more of a reflection upon what has drawn me into the mood of what Myk Habets and I have labeled 'Evangelical Calvinism'.

What I am afraid of is that I am becoming what I don't want to be. Evangelical Calvinism is identifying a mood within the Reformed tradition that has a full court positive theology to offer. This means that the ultimate end of Evangelical Calvinism is not to find our self identity by what we are against; instead Evangelical Calvinism is about who and what we are for (Christ and His kingdom). I have too often reverted to the Fundamentalist mode of constructing theology from what I am against, or at least so using other expressions of Reformed theology in a way that makes it look like Evangelical Calvinism is nothing more than a negation of whatever that particular expression of Reformed theology is.

In Evangelical Calvinism edited book Myk and I end the volume with 15 theological theses that state what we are for, theologically. For the most part they are positive in orientation, and only identify where we differ from others in order to provide foil and better context for what we are actually for without demeaning, per se, the theologies that are necessarily at odds with our own stated approach. Here are the Fifteen Theses:

1. The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship.
2. The primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”
3. There is one covenant of grace.
4. God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealings with humanity.
5. Election is christologically conditioned.
6. Grace precedes law.
7. Assurance is of the essence of faith.
8. Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.
9. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.
10. Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.
11. Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.
12. Universalism is not a corollary of universal redemption and is not constitutive for Evangelical Calvinism.
13. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.
14. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.
15. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition.

Now of course each statement as given in the book is provided with elaboration and further development coordinate with each of the statement's sentiment.

What I want to emphasize through this is that Myk and myself are identifying something has a vibrant life and trajectory of its own. In other words it is a positive approach to thinking theologically and biblically.

And as far as I am concerned, the first two theses are indeed the most important. God is love.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Comparing John MacArthur's Salvation with English Puritanism's

Below I am going to provide two quotes, the first will be from Theodore Dwight Bozeman discussing the emergence and factors that shaped the thinking of the yet to come English Puritans; and the second will be from John MacArthur, and his discussion on the role that changed behavior and moral values have in a genuinely “saved life.” What I am highlighting, and want you all to see, is the striking correlation of thought and practice that both camps share, relative to emphasizing the importance of outward moral behavior in the “elects” life. Here is Theodore Bozeman discussing the early factors that led to English Puritanism:

"English penitential teaching expressly echoed and bolstered moral priorities. In contrast, again, to Luther, whose penitential teaching stressed the rueful sinner’s attainment of peace through acknowledgment of fault and trust in unconditional pardon, several of the English included a moment of moral renewal. In harmony with Reformed tendencies on the Continent and in unmistakable continuity with historic Catholic doctrine that tied “contrition, by definition, to the intention to amend,” they required an actual change in penitent. For them, a renewal of moral resolve was integral to the penitential experience, and a few included the manifest alteration of behavior. They agreed that moral will or effort cannot merit forgiveness, yet rang variations on the theme that repentance is “an inward . . . sorrow . . . whereunto is also added a . . . desire . . . to frame our life in all points according to the holy will of God expressed in the divine scriptures.” However qualified by reference to the divine initiative and by denial of efficacy to human works, such teaching underscored moral responsibility; it also adumbrated Puritan penitential and preparationist teaching of later decades." [italics mine] (Theodore Dwight Bozeman, “The Precisianist Strain . . . ,” 20-21)

It is important to keep in mind that Bozeman is not even discussing actual English Puritanism yet, rather he is highlighting the streams and emphases, present within England just prior to the full-fledged emergence of Puritanism, that actually brought shape and form to the disciplinary “religion” known as Puritanism. Notice the correlation he makes between this kind of Protestantism with Roman Catholic spirituality. . . . Conversely, John MacArthur sounds very much like this incipient Puritanism described above by Bozeman. You will notice this similarity as MacArthur, like these early penitentialists, emphasizes the function and necessity of moral reformation in the life of the “truly saved” individual; notice:

. . . They’ve been told [Christians in the typical evangelical church in the West] that the only criterion for salvation is knowing and believing some basic facts about Christ. They hear from the beginning that obedience is optional. It follows logically, then, that a person’s one-time profession of faith is more valid than the ongoing testimony of his life-style in determining whether to embrace him as a true-believer. The character of the visible church reveals the detestable consequence of this theology. As a pastor I have rebaptized countless people who once “made a decision,” were baptized, yet experienced no change. They came later to true conversion and sought baptism again as an expression of genuine salvation. [brackets mine] (John MacArthur, “The Gospel According to Jesus,” 17)

Striking is it not? Both English Penitentialism (early and full blossomed English Puritanism), and MacArthur’s approach are intended to curb moral laxity, by emphasizing the moral conduct and “performance” of the truly “saved.” As MacArthur underscores, as a good follower of the “English Puritan” (and for that matter Roman Catholic) ethic and spirituality, genuine salvation is only noticeable and discernible via an “. . . an ongoing testimony of his life-style.” Bozeman speaking of the moral laxity within England (in the 16th century and onward) notes how this affected the “Reforming spirit” of that locale, he says: “. . . There the Reformation emerged in a period of deeply felt concern about social order. . . . (Bozeman, 13) This motivation similarly, and unabashedly, motivates MacArthur’s emphasis on performance, duty, and obedience, as he states: “. . . Why should we assume that people who live in an unbroken pattern of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, deceit, and every conceivable kind of flagrant excess are truly born again? . . .” (MacArthur, 16-17) In other words, the remedy for both camps (i.e. between the 16th and 17th cent. and 20th and 21st cent.) is to hang people over hell in order to foster an supposed environment of holiness and moral uprightness, this is by way of EMPHASIS. Both of these camps spoke and speak of solifidian (faith alone), but this is not enough, external moral transformation needs to accompany “faith alone,” otherwise there was never any faith to begin with (i.e. later on we will discuss how this thought came to be tied to concepts like “preparationism” and “temporary faith”).

 All of this is contrary to Martin Luther’s approach, which is to emphasize the need of a changed heart, and the objective Word of God as the motivation and reason for holiness. Luther did not hang people over hell in order to engender holiness of life, and neither did the later antinomists (i.e. Sibbes, Cotton, et al) who we will discuss later. Did Luther think moral transformation was needed within the church, indeed . . . but we do not hybrid the gospel in order to achieve this end (i.e. MacArthur and the Puritans); rather we emphasize the winsome love of Christ disclosed at the cross, grave, and right hand of the throne of the Father as the motivation for purity and holiness. This was Luther’s, Cotton’s, Sibbe’s, and my aim, I hope it is yours.

 I have provided this brief comparison in order to further establish the corollary and continuity between English Puritan salvation themes and motifs, and in this case, John MacArthur’s themes and motifs, relative to articulating the gospel. I am not sure how anyone who has read anything on Puritan spirituality, and its formation, can deny the similarity between that and the outlook that MacArthur (and others like him) is articulating today. At minimum my hope is to expose this, not to smear MacArthur (or others), so that folks who have bought into such teaching can see it for what it is, and realize that this kind of doctrine leads away from an emphasis upon Christ; and focuses upon self (and “my transformed life”). Jesus said it best, “. . . Seek ye first, His kingdom and His righteousness . . . ," in other words, keep your eyes ON HIM!

**This is a repost that I wrote years ago, way before I was an Evangelical Calvinist, or had ever really even heard of Thomas Torrance.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Doing EC Evangelism in Contrast to the 'Lordship' Style of Ray Comfort

Ray Comfort
We have a pastor friend, I should say he has been one of my dad's best friends ever since Bible College (for my dad), back in the 70s, and he has pastored a smallish Baptist church in Oregon for close to 30 years now. This friend of my dad's (and he is a friend of mine too :-) apparently has been dealing with a guy who has just recently become a zealous 5 point Calvinist. Apparently this guy who has been a member of this church for over 20 years, and who has been a 5 point Calvinist for many of those years, has just recently gotten a hold of Ray Comfort's (and Kirk Cameron's) evangelistic ministry (Way of the Master). Ray Comfort has been a street Evangelist (something I have been involved in too, esp. in the past, for many years) for years and years; and he has built his ministry up around the supposition that usage of the "Law" to preach the Gospel is really the best and only way to engage in the proclamation of the Gospel (i.e. so he will use the James passage that says if you have broken one part of the Law you have broken all parts and thus are guilty and need salvation). Well, this guy in this church has really been challenging our friend (the pastor of this church), with a need to engage in this kind and style of ministry; with 5 point Calvinist shape.

So this pastor friend of our's (my dad and myself) has been trying to call me, and has been talking to my dad. My dad has told this friend about our Evangelical Calvinism and our book, and so our friend would like to get some "counsel" from me on how to maybe handle this situation he is currently being faced with in his church (which in a smallish church could threaten to cause some real damage ... I've seen it happen before!). I am not totally sure, yet, what all the exact details are, but I am betting what I just recounted to you is, in general, what is going on. So how might I counsel this pastor friend of our's?

I think first I will explain how the Bible obviously speaks of God as Love, and Triune; that He is not a God of Law, and that He is not a God who is an 'Angry God hanging sinners over hell if they don't turn, and thus avoid the burn'. In fact, just the opposite. God came for us, in Jesus Christ, because He is a God of love; and salvation isn't a policy that He purchases through charging the 'debit card' of His Son as payment. Instead, salvation is the 'kind' of life that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always known in themselves and for each other; of which God created (and now re-created us in the Son) to participate in for all eternity. In other words, 'eternal life' isn't someTHING 'we' get because God bought it, and now can give it to us; instead eternal life, by definition, is God's life, and He has graciously invited us to participate in it through the Son's priestly life for us. So God has chosen to be God with us, thus allowing us to be us with Him for all eternity as participants in His kind of life---i.e. eternal life.

I think in conversation, I will also discuss some of the background of Calvinism's development, and philosophical foundations; and try to inform this pastor friend how Calvinism is not 'Gospel truth' as his church member, I am sure, uncritically believes it to be. And I think an important place to start for this pastor, with his congregant, will be to talk about who God is (as I just described, a bit); since how we conceive of the Gospel starts there, and nowhere else. His congregant is developing evangelistic methodology based on the symptoms provided by the 'cause' which is his conception and doctrine of God. He needs to critically reconsider how He thinks of God, and then this will reorientate the way he proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ. It will come out something like this:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour." ~T. F. Torrance, "The Mediation of Christ", 94.

EC Doctrine of Scripture

I as an Evangelical Calvinist hold that Scripture should be understood instrumentally or as 'spectacles' as Calvin held. In other words EC for me believes that Scripture is something that God uses through its human words and contexts, as His ordained Spirit shaped place where he encounters us afresh and anew every time we open, read, and study it.

Scripture in the classic position is understood from a philosophical vantage point, or to get technical, in the realm of epistemology. Which is to say that it is the place that tells us how we know what we know, but the emphasis of this approach places the onus on us; i.e. how "we" know, and what "we" make of it.

In contrast to this, I see Scripture in the realm of soteriology, or "salvation", and in particular (along with John Webster) in the realm of sanctification. In this order of things, then, we don't come before scripture (as if we give it its reality by our exegesis etc.); instead God in Christ comes before Scripture, just as He did/does before creation itself (Scripture). This placement keeps things in proper perspective, and it ensures that Scripture is not something that we can manipulate, but it keeps its reality in charge of things, so to speak (i.e. He can contradict our thoughts etc. through His written Word).

So Scripture is not the ultimate place where God has revealed Himself (which is the classic emphasis); Scripture finds its reality when it bears witness to, and finds its substantial meaning in Jesus Christ; just as the rest of creation. The difference with Scripture (from the rest of creation), is that the Holy Spirit inspired it and illuminates it in a special way, which again finds its orientation in Jesus Christ and in His high priestly humanity for us.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The General Distinction of Evangelical Calvinism's Conception of God as Love: He is Not Law After All

Here is my opening post at the new and improved 'The Evangelical Calvinist In Plain Language'.

The way, when in person with someone, that I have tried to describe what Evangelical Calvinism is, is to contrast it with what most people think of Calvinism today (as represented by The Gospel Coalition, or more explicitly by the acronym TULIP or 5 point Calvinism). So that is the way I will engage to flesh that out with you as well.

In general Evangelical Calvinism emphasizes and starts from the idea that God is love! We know this to be the case because He has revealed that to us in and through His Son, Jesus. One of my (still) favorite Bible verses is:

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life." ~John 3:16


 "7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." ~I John 4:7-12

So we know that God is a personal God who does what He does because of who He is, He is love. And we, as Evangelical Calvinists, use this belief to shape everything else that we articulate in regard to how we think of the way that God relates to us.

This means that we do not think that God primarily relates to us through Law, or us keeping the Law (which is the basic underlying premises upon which 5 point Calvinism is based on); we believe that God has always related to us, first, because He simply loves us (because that is who He is). And within that relationship He has provided expectations that He knew we couldn't even uphold; so because He is love, He did that for us too, through Christ (Christ thus has become the end of the Law for all who believe Romans 9:5).

I would submit that the imagery and reality of marriage is the better way to think of our relationship to God in Christ (that's what the Apostle Paul thought in Ephesians 5, and this is a common theme throughout all of Scripture, especially in Revelation). We don't relate, humanly speaking, to our spouses through a set of codes and laws (even though there are expectations within the relationship); no, ideally, our relationship is based upon love (or self-giveness for the other). I think this is the better metaphor (and reality/our union with Christ) to think of our relationship with God through. Richard Sibbes, a Puritan thought so, as did Martin Luther.

So in general, then; Evangelical Calvinism holds that God is Love and thus dynamic and personal. This is in contrast to Classical Calvinism's and Arminianism's belief that God relates to us through impersonal decrees and laws.

Let me know if this post has been accessible and understandable for you.