Five Things Calvinists (and non-Calvinists) should know about the Five Points of Calvinism

Some of my Calvinistic brethren (usually those of the “young, restless, and reformed” variety) act as if  The Five Points were written by the finger of God when in reality they were the result of doctrinal development over time. What I just said already has some people upset and the rest is guaranteed to make more upset. I didn’t write this to pick a fight, however, simply to point out some things that I do not often hear that I think need to be said.

1. John Calvin did not write the Five Points of Calvinism

This is easily verifiable historical fact. Calvin died in 1564. The Synod of Dort published the Canons of Dort, from whence the famous Five Points are derived, in 1618. (My supposedly graduate-level seminary church history textbook got this wrong. And that’s what we call sloppy scholarship.) More about Calvin’s relationship to the Five Points later.

2. There are Five Points of Calvinism because the Arminians had Five Points

This, too, is easily verifiable historical fact. In Holland at the end of the 16th century, the Remonstrants, following the teaching of James Arminius, put forth five points of disagreement with the Reformed teaching then en vogue in Holland. (This means that, technically speaking, there is a “Reformed” Arminianism.)

In 1618 the Synod published its canons articulating what they considered the true doctrine which they expected to be taught in the churches and schools of those participating.

Two things about these canons:

  1. The five canons don’t follow the TULIP order everyone is familiar with. The U is first and the T & the I are together which means…
  2. There are five points or four points depending on how you look at it. The Canons articulate five points but combine the third and fourth heads of doctrine (as articulated by the Remonstrants; we would know them as the T and the I of the TULIP) and even named that section “Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine” even though it’s only one section.

3. Reformed Theology is about more than the Five Points

People call the church where I serve all the time and ask if we are a “Reformed Church.” I have learned to respond by asking, “What do you mean by Reformed?” Sometimes the person on the other end answers me like I’m stupid (one guy told me that since I asked I must not know) but I’m asking because the term “Reformed” is one of those words that now seems to have as many meanings as there are people who use it. Some are simply looking for a Calvinistic church. Others are looking for a Calvinistic church that is not seeker-sensitive or that has traditional worship. Still others want something like a strict Presbyterian church but that doesn’t baptize infants. My experience is that most of them don’t know what they want because they don’t have a firm grasp of what it means to be “Reformed.” (This is a common problem with what has been termed the “young, restless, and reformed” movement.)

Being Reformed has a certain set of identifiable markers (historically speaking). I’ve been saying for years that no Baptist can be “Reformed” in the historic sense because Baptists, by definition, do not baptize their infants. But there are other sticking points.

Scott Clark, in his book Recovering the Reformed Confession, makes a case that being “Reformed” (historically speaking) also embraces things like voices-only singing and only singing Psalms or Scripture-songs.

Still others points out that covenant theology and covenant amillennialism are also part-and-parcel with the historical development of reformed theology.

I would also include such things as the Three-fold Office of Christ, since it was first articulated by Calvin. Still others would include the rejection of natural theology. And still more would include some form of elder-led church government.

In addition, there are different Reformed & Calvinistic traditions, historically speaking. The Scottish Reformation was instrumental in bringing us Presbyterianism and Evangelical Calvinism while the English Reformation brought us Congregationalism and the Baptists (contrary to what some “Trail of Blood” Baptists keep asserting).

4. There are still questions about how Calvinistic Calvin himself was

I know this is a tricky subject. Bear with me, please. The most widely-known proponent of the view that Calvin was less Calvinistic than his successors is R. T. Kendall who wrote Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. Kendall asserts that later Calvinism, beginning with Beza, was revisionist so that we end up with a Calvinism/Reformed Theology as espoused by the later Reformed Scholastics and even the Puritans was more Calvinistic than Calvin himself. Paul Helm took Kendall to task but focused primarily on Calvin’s Institutes (he cited the Institutes 46 times while only citing Calvin’s other works 17 times, with only 8 references to Calvin’s commentaries and only two to Calvin’s sermons). Yet he criticizes Kendall and others for using only a handful of references to make their case (see P. 39 n. 20). Perhaps those few references should be given more weight.

While Kendall’s work did contain some errors, I don’t think Kendall’s main thesis has been taken seriously enough nor has it been adequately answered. Despite Kendall’s errors, there is ample evidence that Calvinism/Reformed theology underwent development or some sort after Calvin’s death and I really don’t know why that alarms some people (especially if we’re supposed to be “always reforming”).

5. Rejecting Calvinism does not equal rejecting the Gospel

The Gospel is pretty well spelled out in the New Testament and it doesn’t encompass predestination or the extent of the atonement. The gospel as Paul lays it out in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 involves the following:

  • Jesus is the Christ, the Son of David
  • Jesus died in place of his people in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy
  • Jesus was buried, verifying his death
  • Jesus was brought back to life from the dead, again in fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture
  • Jesus’ life after his death, burial, and resurrection was verified by those who knew Jesus most closely, namely his disciples.

(For more see this post where I discuss the elements that comprise the Gospel proclamation: What “the Gospel” is and what it means to “Preach (or Proclaim) the Gospel”)

One who receives and believes (yes, the New Testament actually says we must “receive “ it) stands justified before God.

We can debate whether one who receives and believes this proclamation was chosen beforehand or not, whether Christ’s death secured it or simply made it possible. We can discuss the natural state of the person who believed, we can dispute whether or not the person receiving it had an ability to resist the Gospel call, we can debate whether or not this person can later lose this faith and hence their salvation, we can discuss whether this Gospel should have been offered to them in the first place.

All of these are relevant and necessary points for discussion to be answered by Scripture. But none of these points which can be discussed make up the Gospel itself. There are people on both sides of each one of these questions who have genuine faith in Christ. To make a particular answer to one of these questions the basis for whether or not one has genuine faith is to go beyond the Gospel and to add to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Please note that comments are moderated.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Calvinism, History, The Five Points, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Five Things Calvinists (and non-Calvinists) should know about the Five Points of Calvinism

  1. Good article, the question should not be whether a believer in a Calvinist or Armenian, but rather is he is a Biblicist.

  2. That should be IS a…

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Great post, Michael.

    Brian Armstrong’s book: Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France is even more to blame 😉 for the thesis that Kendall and others have argued about scholasticism Reformed, and Calvinism after Calvin. Also, as I’ve already noted with you, Richard Muller’s After Calvin is a must read for anyone interested in the development of Calvinism after Calvin. Of course, Muller argues that Calvinism and Calvin’s teaching, in principle, are continuous; the difference, he argues, is only because of the cultural difference and circumstance facing the post-Reformed orthodox and Calvin. The difference, Muller argues, is that the Reformed orthodox, unlike Calvin, needed to actually teach and defend the great Reformed truths, and thus they appealed to Agricolan & Ramist logic and methodology; or the locus methodology, which is what has become associated with the scholasticism that seems so different from Calvin’s Confessional style (see Charles Partee’s book ‘The Theology of John Calvin’ wherein he argues that this is certainly a primary example of the distinction that should be understood to be a reality between Calvin and the Calvinists). Anyway, much more to say, but good introductory post.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Bobby; I was hoping you would and I was interested to hear your thoughts. As I’m sure you guessed, this post grew out of our discussion on your blog on roughly the same topic.

      I noticed that Helm cites Armstrong along with Basil Hall (“Calvin against the Calvinists”) in this respect and wondered where exactly this came from or who was the first to notice it or to write about it.

      Of the five points above, I think this one (point four) and point three are the ones most in need of fleshing out. I’ve written a little on the need for a better understanding of what it means to be “Reformed” and I think I’ll develop that a little bit and post it soon. The problem we have with it is similar to the problem we’ve been discussing: How does development occur and what do we make of it? With regard to what makes someone Calvinist or Reformed, on one extreme are people like Scott Clark, who don’t want to abandon the historic meaning, and on the other are people like the YRR movement who want it to mean whatever they use it to mean. There’s got to be some middle way that values the history while still allowing for others to come into the fold, but I don’t think the extremes will even agree on where the middle is.

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Michael,

        I think Karl Barth in his Theology of the Reformed Confessions makes a good distinction; either one can follow the letter of the what is perceived as the Reformation mantle, or one can follow the spirit of the Reformation mantle. So the former seeks to repristinate what they perceive as the historic Reformed faith, and the latter seek to be always reforming according to Scripture and God’s Self-revelation in Christ. I am Reformed in the latter scenario, and I think this is actually honoring the principles of what it means to be Reformed; i.e. seeing all creeds and confession making as subordinate to Scripture. Those who follow the ‘letter’ of the Reformed faith (Scott Clark, btw, when Clark had his blog running he banned me from it 😉 ) have stultified the meaning of what it truly means to be Reformed by calcifying it through its adoption of a certain reading of Scripture through a certain reading and understanding of how some Reformed Confessions ought to function (like their ‘3 forms of Unity’ the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort). Us Evangelical Calvinists are operating from the ‘best’ of the Reformed faith, in its spirit. Here’s a post I once wrote about Karl Barth in response to a fellow’s dissertation thesis that Barth wasn’t really Reformed. I write a bit on the distinction of ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ in the Reformed faith: http://growrag.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/karl-barth-the-pietist-he-wasnt-reformed-silly/

  4. Pingback: Link: Five Things Calvinists (and non-Calvinists) should know about the Five Points of Calvinism « Johannes Calvinus

  5. Colin says:

    The five points of calavisn is nothing to do with Calvin he was dead this was wrote by group of unknown men who used his name in reading his books he never would agreed to them this one ot the greatest untruth in christitian theogly colin lennox

    • The five points of Calvinism were written after Calvin died but they are all stated in various forms in his writings (especially his commentaries). The group of men who write the Five Points is not unknown because they kept records, named themselves, and recorded their results which are published under the name The Canons of the Synod of Dort. Perhaps you should do a little research and learn how to type and write complete sentences before you comment.

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