Calvinism Isn’t Enough
by Burk Parsons
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote in his classic A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps years from now historians will reflect on the state of Calvinism at the beginning of the twenty-first century and offer similar commentary about the historico-theological tale of two, three, or four different shades of Calvinism. Perhaps the future thoroughgoing Calvinist editors of Time magazine will come out with a top-ten list called “Ten Ways God Changed the World as He Sovereignly Worked Through the Secondary Cause of Our March 12, 2009, Top Ten List.” And perhaps, years from now, Collin Hansen at Christianity Today will write a follow-up book titled We’re Neither as Young Nor as Restless as We Used to Be, But We’re Still Reformed.
Recovering the Meaning of Reformed
It’s hard to know what may come of this so-called “New Calvinism.” However, we do know that if the New Calvinism does in fact endure, it will endure only because it becomes firmly established on the old Calvinism of John Calvin himself — the same Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Augustine, and the apostle Paul, which is nothing less and nothing more than the all-encompassing gospel-religion of our eternal and triune God — a religion, in the best sense of the term, existing in and among people of every tribe, language, and nation whom our Lord has sovereignly called into an eternal relationship with Himself through the redeeming work of the Son and the applying work of the Spirit.
The Calvinism I’m describing is an historically and ecclesiastically grounded Calvinism established within and upon that which our covenant Lord established and against which the gates of hell shall not prevail — the church of Jesus Christ. And we, the called-out ones, are the confessing church of Jesus Christ, and have been given ordinary means of God’s grace (the Word, prayer, and the sacraments, that is, all aspects of worship for all of life) through which God has promised to convict, convince, convert, equip, purify, discipline, sanctify, and sustain to the end, that we would love God, glorify God, and enjoy God forever.
Against such, there’s no argument. However, argument does exist over the very meanings of some of the words I have used to describe this old Calvinism. Words such as covenantal, church, confessing, and sacrament represent particular doctrinal affirmations of historic, confessional Reformed theology to which I adhere, but to which many churchmen, past and present, do not adhere while at the same time using the words Reformed and Calvinist to refer to themselves. As to whether or not this phenomenon of Reformed classification is appropriate, many have disagreed, and they disagree on reasoned grounds and on all sides of confessional Protestantism: Anglican, Baptist, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, and Presbyterian. On the one hand, the words Reformed and Calvinist are historically and ecclesiastically rooted in confessional Reformed “theology, piety, and practice,” to employ the language of R. Scott Clark in his helpful epilogue, “Predestination Is Not Enough,” in Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008). Yet, at the same time, there is a foundational doctrinal element that is common to all our confessions and to which all confessional Protestants adhere. It is the overwhelming, overarching, and oftenunderrated doctrine of God.
Calvinists new and old, around the world, have been convinced biblically of this one crucial tenet of historic, confessional Calvinism: God’s sovereignty over all — life, death, pain, disasters, relationships, salvation, condemnation, the good things, the bad things, the big things, the little things, the in-between things, and all the things we don’t even know about or can’t even see — over all. Simply put, we believe that God is God.
A Younger, New, Old Calvinist
For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, I am a confessional Presbyterian. When I say “confessional,” I am referring to the confessional standards I affirm as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, namely, the Westminster Standards, which I believe contain carefully worded, helpful, and generally accurate summaries of biblical doctrine. As such, while I don’t officially represent the Dutch Reformed Calvinist churches, I do nevertheless consider myself a “Reformed” churchman. And although I’ve never been much for “isms,” I do consider myself a Calvinist who has been entrenched in the so-called “New Calvinism” for about fifteen years. Allow me to explain.
Not only was I not raised going to church regularly, I wasn’t raised around Presbyterian and Reformed circles. In fact, when I became a Christian at fifteen, it was through the ministry of a gospel-preaching but decidedly anti-Calvinist Southern Baptist church where I later went on staff. For the most part, I thought all Presbyterians and all those who got babies wet were just plain liberal, unbiblical, and, generally speaking, bound for hell. I didn’t realize there were entirely different types of Presbyterians — those who believe the Bible and those who don’t. And later on, much to my disappointment, I realized there were different types of Baptists too — those who believe the Bible and those who say they do but actually don’t.
Although my first pastor didn’t teach me Reformed theology, he did nevertheless teach me a great deal about how to study the Bible and why I should love the God of the Bible. Although he may not have realized it at the time, that godly man of the Word was teaching me to know and love the God of Scripture, who, as it turns out, is the same God of Reformed theology — the same God of Calvin and, perhaps I should add, the same God of Charles Spurgeon and John Bunyan.
Of course, Calvin, Lut her, Cranmer, Edwards, and Spurgeon disagreed on various doctrinal matters. And while there are obvious doctrinal differences among men like Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll, Sinclair Ferguson, Mike Horton, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul, just to name a few, we nevertheless confess the same sovereign God over all — as well as all that confession carries with it in every area of doctrine. And while we are all fully aware of the doctrinal differences that exist among us, there does exist a significant doctrinal thread that binds us together. For the past few generations that thread has been somewhat uncommon and hard to find among professing evangelicals throughout the world, but is now, as Time magazine, Hansen, and others have rightly pointed out, a very common thread weaving together men and women, young and old, black and white, South and North American, Dutch and British, who have come to understand, affirm, and teach biblical doctrines of God, man, sin, and salvation, even when it means real turmoil, real persecution, and real ecclesiastical and familial division.
Calvinism Isn’t Enough
When I finally came to affirm the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty after fighting against it with all the free will I could muster, I found it wasn’t merely predestination that governed my theology. Rather, it was a more biblical knowledge of God Himself that began to change every aspect of my theology, starting with my knowledge of our gracious and just God and my knowledge of my dead and depraved self, which is precisely where Calvin started his Institutes of the Christian Religion and where the synod of churchmen at Dordtrecht (1618–19) hung their doctrinal hats in combating the Arminian Remonstrants.
In essence, the Reformed doctrines of grace as taught by Calvin and by every other faithful student of God’s Word throughout history, gave me a new hermeneutical lens through which I began to interpret all of Scripture. At the time, it wasn’t my foremost concern to wear a particular label, and because of the great respect I had for men on all sides of the Reformed camp, it was my foremost concern to study the Word of God and to study the theology of men of God throughout history who studied the Word of God to the end that I might rightly preach and teach the Word of God and submit myself to the ecclesiastical body that I believe to be in closest accord with Scripture.
My desire then, as it is now, is to think, speak, and act biblically and not to base my doctrines, my affiliations, or my allegiances on a respected name, a “successful” ministry, or an historically faithful or unfaithful denomination. This, in essence, is the predominant mind set of the New Calvinists, just as it was the mind set of Calvin himself, who was concerned neither with keeping up unbiblical appearances nor with keeping the Roman Catholic status quo.
A Really Radical Reformission
Although I very much want to preserve and define the words Calvinism, Reformed, and Presbyterian carefully and appropriately along historical and confessional lines (as do confessional Baptists, Lutherans, et al.), I also want to recognize and rejoice that so many young, restless, and reforming New Calvinists are so incredibly passionate and so gloriously gospel-centered as they are being reformed by our mutually worshiped sovereign God, according to Scripture, in God’s sovereign timing and for God’s sovereign glory.
In truth, day by day we’re all growing a little older, a little more willing to settle down and listen to our faithful forefathers, and a little less eager to jump on any sort of personality-driven bandwagons. And for what it’s worth, I think this is precisely the way Calvin (and all the old and New Calvinists) would want to see true, lasting reformation take place in the church and around the world. However, considering he wanted no stone ever to mark his grave, Calvin would likely raise the more radical question of whether we should employ his name at all in our doctrinal shorthand. He would probably prefer instead that we simply employ the name of our sovereign and gracious Lord, who is sovereign over the New Calvinists, the old Calvinists, and all the Calvinists yet to come — all of whom desire simply to be known as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.