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Family rows: Followers of Calvin and the Calvinists

‘... yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible…’
Paradise Lost Book 1, ll. 62-3

It is always a tad awkward when two people one highly respects have a go at each other’s positions on the Web. Thus, Phillip Jensen has drawn a distinction in a recent video between followers of Calvin and Calvinists, very much to the latter’s disadvantage, while Paul Levy has responded with a piece affecting to see this as advanced Australian satire. He suggests this is simply revisiting the tired and discredited old idea that the Calvinists are at odds with Calvin.

I admire and respect both men. As a further complication, my day job involves teaching systematic theology and it is difficult not to feel that I amongst others am in the Jensen crosshairs.

What to do?

Let me focus on what I think is the central and most important point Phillip raises: the risk of preaching a human theological system rather than the Bible. Phillip argues that Calvinists are not true followers of Calvin, because where Calvin was a Bible theologian first, Calvinists are systematic theologians first and when preaching the Bible end up preaching their system because they approach the text with that so strongly in their minds.

In particular, while we need to systematise when we teach, Phillip says, preaching the system does not allow for the rich complexities of the Bible. Followers of Calvin do what Calvin did, not what Calvinists do. Phillip goes on to argue that the outcome of Calvinism is to kill evangelism in favour of education and to commit us to presuppositional rather than evidential apologetics.

We must now distinguish several different issues of varying importance.

1. Is this a fair characterisation of Calvinists, who do, after all, labour under the impression that their views bear some passing resemblance to those of John Calvin and would count themselves precisely as ‘followers of Calvin’?

2. Does this capture what Calvinists think they are doing when preaching the Bible?

3. Who are these Calvinists anyway?

4. Does this capture what in fact happens when a Calvinist preaches?

Of these, the last is the most important. Do Calvinists preach a system rather than the Bible? Given that the Bible is to be our final authority in life and doctrine, of course this is the most important question and, since I am, as I type this, not yet perfect but am still tempted to disregard God’s Word, I do well to listen to Phillip’s challenge and examine it. I am after all, simul justis et peccator, both justified and sinful: mild apologies for letting my systematic theology peep out there.

Let me make some comments on this primary question.

First, yes, of course there is a risk that Calvinists preach their system and not the Bible. They are humans who are not yet perfected and that risk is therefore always there. Phillip is giving me a sharp but valuable warning.

Secondly, this risk is not confined to Calvinists. History is replete with those who end up teaching their systems rather than the text. The obvious contemporary example are Jehovah’s Witnesses. We may say that the risk Phillip highlights is not simply due to the fact that one is a Calvinist, but more to do with the fact one is human.

Thirdly, the risk is greatest for those who claim they do not approach the Bible with preconceptions but just allow the Bible to speak on its own terms. Again the church scene is and has been full of those who say just this: Open theists today and, come to that, various 19th century liberals would claim precisely that they were the ones handling the Bible ‘properly’. In fact, my blood runs cold when I hear someone say they just give me the straight Bible with no preconceptions: this is one of those cases where Phillip is right to remind us that the Bible gives us a complex picture.

Part of its complexity are those texts which remind us not just of the corruption of our hearts pre-conversion, but of the ongoing temptation and falling into sin we experience post-conversion (1 John 1:8, 2 Timothy 4:3). If I am to handle God’s Word rightly for others, I do well to examine my own heart and how I as a human creature in space and time continue to be affected by the world around me. I cannot assume I approach the Bible with purity.

Fourthly, a key issue is this: when am I preaching my system and when am I doing the necessary systematisation of which Phillip approves? There is a danger here. It is tempting to write somebody else off as ‘just preaching their system’ and vindicate myself as ‘just doing necessary systematisation’. This is dangerous because if I say ‘Squiggins is just preaching his system – again’, then I tend to stop asking if Squiggins is in fact right.

The language of ‘over-logical’, ‘logic-chopping’, ‘doing theology by numbers’ does not help clarify matters. I am very much afraid it sometimes serves us as a way of saying, ‘I don’t like this, but can’t see where it’s wrong, so I’ll just write it off without thinking properly by dismissing it as logic-chopping’. If we get to that point, then we are in real danger of becoming unteachable ourselves. And I am at my most unteachable when I hold opinions so deeply I am not aware even of holding them. The most uncorrectable systematic theologian is the one who denies he or she has a systematic theology.

What counts as over-logical? At its best, ‘over-logical’ describes a position I have deduced that does not fit with the teaching of the whole counsel of God. At its best, ‘over-logical’ arises when I am simply wrong because, for instance, I have disregarded the complexity of the Bible. I am completely with Phillip to that extent. My problem arises not simply because of questions asked about Calvinists – they should be asked. My problem lies in the very unfortunate implication that the ‘followers of Calvin’ do not face the same issues, and sometimes fall into the same traps.

 
Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey
13 March 2015




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