Friday, April 25, 2008

Reformed Theology - How Many Points?

On today's church scene embracing reformed theology is becoming kind of a hip thing. After all, Christianity Today had a feature article in the fall of 2006 entitled "Young, Restless and Reformed" detailing the resurgence of reformed theology among the up and coming generation. Men like Dr. Al Mohler, Dr. Mark Dever, Dr. John Piper, Dr. R.C. Sproul and Dr. Ligon Duncan are having an enormous impact upon the evangelical scene. The recent conference Together For the Gospel (T4G) brought together over 5,000 young people (most young pastors) to hear biblical teaching from these men.

From time to time I bump into people who tell me that their pastor is 'reformed.' They support that by saying "he quotes from Spurgeon, Piper, Sproul and even Calvin in his sermons." That's good but when I hear about those same churches following a course that is in lock-step with the broader evangelical culture (or the American pop culture) I begin to scratch my head because something doesn't add up. This raises an obvious question: What does it mean to be reformed? Does it involve embracing the Five Points of Calvinism? Does it involve more?

Dr. Richard Muller, distinguished professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids has written a profound paper addressing that very question. It was first published in the Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993). Recently it was posted on line (with permission) by Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California. Here is an excerpt:

"I once met a minister who introduced himself to me as a "five-point Calvinist." I later learned that, in addition to being a self-confessed five-point Calvinist, he was also an anti-paedobaptist who assumed that the church was a voluntary association of adult believers, that the sacraments were not means of grace but were merely "ordinances" of the church, that there was more than one covenant offering salvation in the time between the Fall and the eschaton, and that the church could expect a thousand-year reign on earth after Christ's Second Coming but before the ultimate end of the world. He recognized no creeds or confessions of the church as binding in any way. I also found out that he regularly preached the "five points" in such a way as to indicate the difficulty of finding assurance of salvation: He often taught his congregation that they had to examine their repentance continually in order to determine whether they had exerted themselves enough in renouncing the world and in "accepting" Christ.

This view of Christian life was totally in accord with his conception of the church as a visible, voluntary association of "born again" adults who had "a personal relationship with Jesus." In retrospect, I recognize that I should not have been terribly surprised at the doctrinal context or at the practical application of the famous five points by this minister — although at the time I was astonished. After all, here was a person, proud to be a five-point Calvinist, whose doctrines would have been repudiated by Calvin. In fact, his doctrines would have gotten him tossed out of Geneva had he arrived there with his brand of "Calvinism" at any time during the late sixteenth or the seventeenth century. Perhaps more to the point, his beliefs stood outside of the theological limits presented by the great confessions of the Reformed churches—whether the Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformed church or the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches or the Westminster standards of the Presbyterian churches. He was, in short, an American evangelical.

I am assuming, of course, that "Calvinist" and "Reformed" are synonyms: Although Calvin was certainly the most famous and, probably the most generally influential of the Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century, his views alone did not constitute either a church or a distinctive theological confession capable of sustaining a church over the course of centuries. His own theology, moreover, was intentionally "churchly" rather than individualistic, particularly in its confessional statements, like the Geneva Catechism. He recognized that there were other theological voices in the Reformed movement of his day, that his personal theology fell within the bounds of this larger movement, and that it remained in dialogue with the theology of other leaders and teachers — notably, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Wolfgang Musculus. Beyond this, the Reformed theology of later confessional documents, such as the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession, drew on theological antecedents other than Calvin's Institutes and constituted not a limited Swiss theological movement but an international community of belief.

Calvinism or, better. Reformed teaching, as defined by the great Reformed confessions does include the so-called five points. Just as it is improper, however, to identify Calvin as the sole progenitor of Reformed theology, so also is it incorrect to identify the five points or the document from which they have been drawn, the Canons of Dort, as a full confession of the Reformed faith, whole and entire unto itself. In other words, it would be a major error — both historically and doctrinally — if the five points of Calvinism were understood either as the sole or even as the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding the Calvinistic or Reformed faith. In fact, the Canons of Dort contain five points only because the Arminian articles, the Remonstrance of 1610, to which they responded, had five points. The number five, far from being sacrosanct, is the result of a particular historical circumstance and was determined negatively by the number of articles in the Arminian objection to confessional Calvinism...

There are, therefore, more than five points and — as far as the confessions and the Reformed dogmaticians from Calvin to Kuyper are concerned — there cannot be such a thing as a "five-point Calvinist" or "five-point Reformed Christian" who owns just those five articles taken from the Canons of Dort and who refuses to accept the other "points" made by genuinely Reformed theology. The issue here is more than simple confessional allegiance. The issue is that the confessions and the classical dogmatic systems of Reformed theology are not an arbitrary list of more or less biblical ideas — they are carefully embodied patterns of teaching, drawn from Scripture and brought to bear on the life of the church."

Muller is arguing for a distinction that is often overlooked in our day. It is a distinction between embracing reformed soteriology alone and being a person who is confessionally reformed because he or she embraces (subscribes) to the creeds and confessions of the reformed tradition.

You can read the rest here: Riddleblog - "How Many Points?"


Joseph G. said...

Dave, I believe the core of this problem is simply one of definition.

I can show you a church-produced classroom manual titled "reformed theology" that does not stray outside the five points. Nothing in it is untrue, but it is incomplete in a way that misleads.

Thousands of people who embrace the five points are being taught they are "reformed." And they are either surprised or offended when you tell them they're not.

This isn't the fault of the "taught." (At least not at first.) Correcting the definitional problem should be addressed at the higher levels of pastors, teachers, and leaders.


Dave Sarafolean said...


I agree that the problem is one of definition. We ought not allow the term to be hijacked by those who only embrace reformed soteriology. As we engage people we need to remind them that the reformed faith has its own view of worship, the sacraments, the church, end-times, etc. which are all found in the confessions.

This is not to cast stones at anyone -- Reformed Baptists who hold to the London Confession are much closer to us than say a person who only holds to the 5 points. There is a continuum between being a 5 pointer and being one who embraces a reformed confession. I want to be gracious to folks and encourage them to move from the minimal position to one that is more robust and faithful.

jprapp said...

Good question - “how many points?”

It’s a question that plagues me. I try in good faith to wrestle with the Calvinist-Arminian bric-a-brac. I find a continual allure in seeking the elegance of having just a few points (one point, two points, five points ...). A simple and quick heuristic. No less to say it’s true. Frugal heuristics (true or false) are almost always fast and robust If not elegant. Maybe my temptation to robustness and elegance through a few short, sweet points all boils down to what William James called ontological emotion, that is, I just feel good in sticking to a few points in order to index my beliefs, to test myself, and as a guide in joining or not joining some covenant community.

Any good feeling about having a handy few points doesn’t last very long. I look at the Calvinist-Arminian history of reception. I look at contemporary fissures. What looks so simple breaks down. The clean elegance of a few Euclidean-like axioms becomes a mess of weird Hilbert space in-fighting over the thousands of points of the five points.

Beats me what to do. I sometimes wonder whether both sides of the theologies (and all the rest) necessarily and unavoidably share in some minimal dimensionality in common with all the rest of human-engineered systems, namely, that a linear increase in working parts (say five) results in an exponential increase in complexity (complexity of 25) and then historical disputes multiplied by contemporary reception turns the exponent into a power function making theological formulae complex by thousands of propositions. It’s curious that Mandelbrot visuals present an apparent high-complexity that is really simple underneath because just a few simple rules work underneath it all. Maybe such an underlying unity of simple rules is really what keeps Reformed or Arminian families together (or sort of together) despite the confusing complexity in both contemporary camps.

Or, maybe there’s Something more at work?