I read with interest an online interview that Danny Fast did with Rob Schlapfer from The Discerning Reader and Christian Counterculture. I say I read it with interest because Rob has been a pretty staunch defender of Calvinism/Reformed Theology and now it appears he is abandoning Calvinism. Here are a few salient comments from the e-mail exchange between Danny and Rob:
3. (Question from Danny) In a letter published with your permission to Michael Spencer you said "We are abandoning Calvinism" and "The 16th century is over. We're not wasting any more time with such a dead issue." I think many of us, probably more who are Calvinists, and who enjoy the work of DiscerningReader and ChristianCounterCulture would like you to expand on this
(Rob's Answer) We need to focus on the world that is actually confronting us today. The students we deal with have needs that are real and cannot be helped by talking about abstract theological issues that were fought over centuries ago. One can talk about the reality of God's sovereignty (and all the related themes) without talking about Calvinism.
Calvinism is a great study for historical theology. But it is not the gospel — in ANY way. For awhile I thought we could deal with it along the periphery, all the while moving people on to being followers of Jesus and lovers of His Word — not being "Reformed." But most Calvinists can't do that. They have to identify with their cause. So we are leaving it well behind. Our cause is Christ and his kingdom. Not Reformed Theology.
(Question from Danny) 7. Final question. In Michael's letter you said "Besides, "Reformed" people are an embarrassment to the name of Christ." Can you expand on this as many may have taken it as an insult.
(Rob's Answer) I think I have written about this many times over the years. Reformed people have a reputation within the Christian community — and outside, even — that is easy to survey:
Why do you think Lance Quinn added all those appendices to the new edition of P&Rs "The 5 Points of Calvinism"? About a "kinder gentler Calvinism"? He wrote to tell me: it was because Calvinists tend to be nasty, mean-spirited people. One always has to qualify the 5 Points with some appeal . . .
The main reason we have discontinued the vast majority of Reformed books is becasue the people who buy them are disproportionately mean, nasty, hateful, judgmental and EMBARRASSING to the faith. We have had ENOUGH dealing with them. I am actually a very laid-back, easy-going guy. People who know me would tell you that. But this work has taken my blood pressure off the charts.
People who are offended by this ought to do some serious pondering here. Because it is just an empirical fact.
I'm one of those people who loves Reformed theology and the whole Reformed tradition, yet I also find myself agreeing with Rob in large measure, and, dare I say, I have to confess that I have fallen into some of the sins that Rob talks about here. Still, I thought I would share some of my own journey in the Reformed world to see if it is helpful to anyone else.
I was first exposed to "Reformed" theology through someone who was judgmental, self-righteous and arrogant. I was a Baptist at the time and when I first met this person they jokingly said "I hate Baptists - bwaaahaaahaaa - just kidding." I soon found out that this person was a Presbyterian who loved the Reformed faith. Since they knew I was going into the ministry they sought to convert me to Calvinism at every turn. They gave me books by R. C. Sproul and would ask "friendly" questions which usually turned into invitations for debate. Needless to say, I wasn't biting.
My next exposure to Calvinism came in seminary at Columbia Biblical Seminary and Graduate School of Missions. Columbia is not "reformed," it is an eclectic school with a broad range of folks - Reformed, Arminian, Covenantal, Dispensational, Presbyterian, Baptist, Bible Church, Independent, etc.. The "reformed" folks I met there were on a crusade similar to the person I just mentioned. Some of them were angry about it, and many were condescending toward those who weren't reformed. The professors who were reformed weren't, but the reformed students certainly were. Looking back, it seems to me that the reformed students weren't in a majority, although thye made up a significant minority, and they felt like they had to hunker down and defend themselves. So, they were always arguing and debating and generally turning people off.
Trouble was, I started reading some things at that time from reformed biblical scholars and began to see that there were some pretty good arguments for this stuff. But, even though I was warming up to reformed theology from a biblical standpoint, I couldn't bear the thought that I might become one of them.
My seminary career at Columbia was cut short and over the next few years I moved back into close proximity to the one who had first introduced me to reformed theology. At some point I decided that the whole system of theology had to be wrong because of the type of people it produced. So, I sought to disprove it. I read books by Arminians, one by a guy who was taking the Barthian position on election, and other things, in order to counter the reformed arguments. To be fair, I also read a couple of books by Calvinists. In reading these books I became convinced that Calvinism was correct, so I switched my theological allegiances.
Doug Wilson says that when someone becomes a Calvinist, they enter the "cage" stage, which means this is a stage where they should be locked in a cage and kept away from the general public. I was moderately cage worthy at the time. I didn't want to be like the other "bad calvinists" I had met, but I was in love with this stuff and wasn't afraid to tell you.
I did have a time where I kind of viewed everything through the lens of the TULIP and was quite zealous. My zeal lead me to Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. I went there, ostensibly to get better grounded in the reformed faith, but what I got was very different than what I expected to get.
It was at RTS that I got exposed to what Rob, via Lance Quinn, calls "a kinder, gentler, calvinism." I've tried to compare my exposure to reformed theology at RTS with my exposure to it at Columbia and the best way I can summarize it is this: At RTS, everyone was reformed and knew it, and didn't need to defend reformed theology against attacks from fellow students or faculty members - therefore, we seemed more relaxed about the whole thing and more willing to be self-critical. This wasn't the case with the reformed folks I met at Columbia (again, I'm speaking of students here). At Columbia the reformed folks were always on the defensive and/or attack. At RTS we attacked ourselves.
My biggest influences at RTS came from Richard Pratt, Al Mawhinney and Reggie Kidd. All of them were committed to the reformed tradition and all of them knew that the reformed tradition wasn't the last word in Christianity. Pratt was particularly influential. He would say things like "a final theological formulation is nothing more than a lack of imagination." This was his way of saying that the TULIP and the Westminster Confession weren't the last word in matters of theology. Lest I get him in trouble, he does affirm and agree with these things, but he knew that they weren't the last word. Pratt also said "I will have more trouble with someone who agrees with every jot and tittle of the Berkhof or the Westminster Confession than with someone who becomes an Arminian." His reason was that if you agree with every word from Berkhof or the Confession, you have come dangerously close to elevating those documents to the same level as Scripture. We must always keep in mind that these are man's summaries of the Bible, not the Bible.
Frank James was another good influence at RTS. He always spoke kindly of the theolgical opponents of reformed theology and would say that they have some good points. In one class with him, I had two major papers to write - one on the holiness of God and one on the nature of man. James said that, in theological debate, as long as someone wrestles honestly and diligently with those two issues he is happy with where they come out.
What I am saying is that at RTS we got reformed theology without the attitude. For that reason there are many reformed types who don't think we are pure enough. But, this helped ground me in a way I hadn't imagined. I came away from seminary more in love with the theology itself - I'm still as rabid of a TULIP guy as I was when I went in, I love the Westminster Standards and really, really love covenantal theology. On the flip side, I came away with a far bigger view of God and came away realizing that the TULIP, the confession and all of our theology doesn't come close to scratching the surface of who He is and how great He is.
Furthermore, I came away seeing the theological formulations as signposts pointing us to Christ. When I travel, the goal is to get to the destination, not to stop and admire all of the signs along the way. The signs are necessary - you'll get lost without them, but they aren't the destination.
I think this is what Rob was getting at, and I agree. Although I find myself defending reformed theology in my blog alot I hope that Christ comes out greater than Reformed theology. When Rob says that we can talk about the sovereignty of God without talking about Calvinism, I agree. John Frame said something to that effect when he said that most folks will accept reformed doctrine if we will not use all of the reformed buzzwords.
Still I find myself defending "reformed theology" and "Calvinism" on this blog because I want to set the record straight when I can. When someone says that "reformed theology" errs on a particular matter, if I am convinced that "reformed theology" accurately summarizes what the bible teaches on that particular matter, I will defend it - not so much to defend the tradition, but to defend the biblical teaching. As much as I would like to do so, it's difficult to not use the buzzwords at times.
I do think that, for the most part, the reformed tradition provides a rich resource for the church as a whole and I commend it to anyone - not so that we can exalt the tradition itself, but because much of it reflects biblical teaching.
But, we who defend this tradition have to remember that the T in the TULIP applies to us. Too often we believe that the T in the TULIP stands for the total depravity of arminians, or the total-depravity-of-people-who-spuriously-claim-to-be-reformed-but-aren't-because-they-aren't-as-pure-as-I-am. The T applies to all of us and it guarantees that we reformed types are as sinful as our opponents.
I think that, if we could grasp this, then people like Rob wouldn't have to lose sleep dealing with Reformed customers. A few years ago the Credenda/Agenda folks did an issue called "A Farewell To Calvinism," which I recommend highly. I'll close with a quote from that issue by Jonathan Edwards which explains why I will often use the term "calvinist" or "reformed" to describe myself, all the while sharing Edwards disdain for being considered to rely on Calvin:
They say, moreover, that the keeping up such a distinction of names, has a direct tendency to uphold distance and disaffection, and keep alive mutual hatred among Christians, who ought all to be united in friendship and charity, though they cannot, in all things, think alike. I confess, these things are very plausible; and I will not deny, that there are some unhappy consequences of this distinction of names...However the term Calvinistic is, in these days, among most, a term of greater reproach than the term Arminian; yet I should not take it all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinction's sake: though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines I hold, because he believed and taught them; and cannot be justly charged with believing in every thing just as he taught.Hat Tip - Mark Horne
The Freedom of the Will