After I began writing this I listened to a talk about the life of C. S. Lewis by Earl Palmer. One of the things Palmer reminded us of was a passage from the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape complains that Wormwood’s subject is “merely Christian.” This was the first time Lewis used this term that would later become the basis for his famous book. Screwtape told Wormwood that his goal should be to make his subject a “Christian and . . .” Screwtape said that when people are “merely Christian” they are a great threat to his kingdom, but if they can become “Christian and . . . “ then they are of great use. Another way I have thought to describe the same thing is to speak of “Adjectival Christians.”
I became painfully aware that this whole discussion plays into the hands of ol’ Screwtape because we are talking about “Calvinistic Christians,” “Arminian Christians,” “Reformed Christians,” etc.. On the other hand, I feel a sense of frustration in that the adjectives seem to be inevitable. I am sure that C. S. Lewis would agree that theological debate is appropriate even for “mere Christians.” Even within the broad scope of “mere Christianity” God cannot be finite and infinite at the same time and in the same sense, salvation cannot be solely by grace through faith and not by grace through faith. In short there are legitimate and crucial theological debates within “mere Christendom” that must be engaged.
To engage in such debates we need words to engage the debate. There is a real sense in which terms like “Calvinist,” and “Arminian” and “Reformed” can fall under the condemnation of I Corinthians 3 as a form of “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos.” But there is another sense in which terms like “Calvinist,” “Arminian” and other words become technical terms that function as a kind of theological shorthand for discussion.
For example, let’s say I’m having a discussion with someone about the role of God’s sovereignty in salvation. I could launch into a three hour point by point explanation of what I believe about all of the questions and nuances surrounding the discussion. Or, I could say that I am Calvinistic in my understanding of these matters. If I speak to someone who is familiar with theology and history my identification of myself as a Calvinist in this regard is actually a courtesy to him. This one word helps him pigeonhole me and know where I am coming from. It can actually help narrow the discussion to particular points of interest. In that case I’m not identifying myself as a Calvinist in order to be a follower of man the way I would be a follower of my favorite football team. I am identifying a theological perspective which I hold.
Or, let’s look at this from a different perspective. Suppose I go ahead and launch into my three hour explanation of what I believe. I might start quoting Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 and passages like that to explain what I believe about these matters. Pretty soon, a knowledgeable person will say “hey, you sound like a Calvinist!” I might reply that I am not a man-follower, but he will say “yeah, but Calvin and the Calvinists have always taught what you are saying, you believe the same things they believe.” I might reply that I do not wish to give Calvin credit for something the Bible teaches. But, this person’s knowledge of history will force him to associate me with Calvin whether I want to or not.
There is a sense in which history is like a genie who has come out of his bottle and he can’t be put back in. For good or for ill these debates about the sovereignty of God in salvation are out there in history and they have historically been framed with terms like “reformed” “Calvinist,” “Augustinian,” “Pelagian,” and others. I would be happy if we didn’t have to use these terms, but they are out there and are the common parlance for the discussion. At the same time, if someone, through their own study of the Scriptures, comes to a conclusion on these matters that is similar to that of Calvin or Arminius, they shouldn’t be penalized or thought ill of because they hold to a position that was held by someone at some time in history.
So, I think using these terms as a theological shorthand is inevitable and inescapable in this particular debate. But, in doing so we constantly run the risk of crashing on the rocks of I Corinthians 3 so we have to be careful in our use of such terms. The advocates of such positions should remember that they are using these things to advocate a particular theological stance, not to build a party spirit. Furthermore, they should refrain from using terms in a hostile or pejorative sense. I have been around a lot of Calvinists who spit when they say the word “Arminian.” On the theological playground, for many Calvinists the term “Arminian” is the equivalent of saying “your momma’s ugly.” To call someone a “semi-pelagian” is the equivalent of “your momma’s ugly and she dresses you funny.” Then, when we want to really, really insult someone we call them a “Pelagian” which is the equivalent of “your momma’s ugly, she dresses you funny, and your breath stinks.”
This brings me to another thought. Those who are familiar with the history of theological debates understand what all of these terms mean. The average person in the pew doesn’t. Many times I have heard someone say something about choosing to believe in Jesus and a Calvinist will jump then and say “Aha, you’re an Arminian.” To which the person will give them a look that says “I’m an Ar-What-ian?” The fact is that people live very busy lives and few people have the time to think through all of the implications of what they believe the way pastors, students and theologians do. Most people believe what they believe and they don’t know what sophisticated theological labels to attach to what they believe and we do them no favors by throwing these labels at them. So, the theological shorthand is helpful in discussions amongst those who have learned shorthand, but we don’t need to be too quick to slap these terms on people who aren’t as familiar with them as we are.
So, with all of that, in this discussion I’m going to use the terms and ask forgiveness of God and my readers if and when I crash on the rocks of I Corinthians 3. Also, I will use the term “Calvinism” in a very restricted sense, referring to the five points. There are those “Calvinists” who use the term in a much broader sense, but I’ll use it here just for the five points as summarized in the TULIP acrostic.
Stay tuned Monday for the third part of this intro.
The rest of the series:
The Five Points of Calvinism
Part 1 - T - Total Depravity
Part 1a - Total Depravity and Free Will
Part 2 - U - Unconditional Election
Part 3 - L - Limited Atonement
Part 4 - I - Irresistible Grace
Part 5 - P - Perseverance of the Saints