Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Many Shades of Calvinism

This is the last of three short pieces that originally appeared in 'Table Talk'.

The term ‘Calvinism’ was first used by Lutheran theologians to refer to what they regarded as the peculiar views of the Christ’s real presence at the Lord’s Supper held by John Calvin and his followers. It is not used in this way nowadays. What does it refer to now? In some cases, to denote the entire theological system of Calvin himself as we find it in the four Books of hisInstitutes. In other cases, and more usually, to refer to the understanding of the doctrine of salvation as we find it in the first three books. What’s the difference? Well, the fourth book of the Institutes contains what Calvin may have thought to be the climax of his system, his doctrine of the church (and sacraments) and its relation to the state. Briefly, he sets forth a presbyterian system of church governance, and a close connection between church and state, one in which the magistrate is regarded as the minister of God, whose duty it is to uphold the true worship of God, worship according to the principles of the Reformed faith, and no other.

Two significant changes

Calvinism’ used in this sense has undergone two seismic changes since the final edition of theInstitutes saw the light of day in 1559. During the last part of Calvin’s life and afterwards Calvin’s teaching regarding the way of salvation through Christ was exported, it became international. This was due to the wide circulation of Calvin’s books, to his influential correspondence, and to the presence in Geneva of congregations of refugees from persecution; not only from France, but from Italy, Great Britain, and so on. As the refugees returned to their homelands, as Calvin’s Institutes and his commentaries and other works were translated into English and Dutch and other languages, so ‘Calvinism’ radiated across Europe.

But the circumstances of the receiving countries were often very different from Geneva, and as time went on, they became even more different. Perhaps Calvins overall teaching was received in its fullest form in Scotland, due to the power and courage of John Knox and others. But elsewhere Calvin’s understanding of the way of salvation through Jesus Christ, was accepted by people who were Episcopalians, like many of the Puritan party in the Church of England, including Bishops such as George Abbot, Edwin Sandys and James Davenant, and later by Independents (or congregationalists) such as the Puritan John Owen, and by Baptists such as John Bunyan. They willingly accepted Calvin’s teaching on the way of salvation, but declined his views on church government and on church and state. (According to Robert Letham, a Greek Orthodox theologian, Cyril Lucaris, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote his own Calvinist Confession in 1629, (Through Western Eyes, 264)).

That was the first seismic change. The second was the effect on Calvinists of the first tentative and hard -fought-for expressions of religious toleration that arose during the seventeenth century, particularly in Holland, in England and in the American colonies. This meant, in effect, a weakening of the church-state alliance which Calvin (along with the other magisterial Reformers) regarded as so vital. In England, for example, various Protestant groups arose, Baptist and Independent, loyal to the state, and tolerated by it alongside the Church of England which was ‘by law established’. And after a period of severe decline following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Calvinism was renewed in the Church of England, and in Dissent, through the evangelical revivals in England and Wales. So (for example) George Whitefield and Augustus Toplady and John Newton in the Church of England, and John Gill and John Fawcett (for example) among the Baptists, could all be said to be ‘doctrinal Calvinists’, though differing as a matter of principle over church government, and over baptism in the case of the Baptists, differences that in some cases proved personally costly. In America the matter of toleration became more clear-cut following the passing of the Constitution and the principled separation of church and state.

What is ‘Calvinism’?

What is the ‘Calvinism’ that all the ‘doctrinal Calvinists’ have in common? As we’ve seen, it is (in essence) Calvin’s doctrinal expression of the way of salvation through Jesus Christ refined through the controversies in the Reformed community that occurred after his death. And what is that? It is an expansion of the phrase ’salvation by grace only, through faith only’. Calvin followed Augustine (and of course both followed Paul) in emphasising that our salvation is through the grace of God only. That is, it is not on the basis of anything that God sees in us or that we do. We are spiritually dead, if not spiritually buried, and we need God’s grace to give us life, reconciliation with God through the work of Christ in its widest and deepest sense. But neither does our reception of God’s grace depend upon our own capacity to want it or to like it. We do not meet God half way, nor do we come to Christ for the reconciliation which he alone can give by a free decision of our wills (perhaps with some divine encouragement). We need the life-giving energy and enlightenment of Christ’s Spirit.

Rather the grace in question is powerful. Not only powerful to take us to glory. But also before that , powerful to renew our minds and especially our wills, bringing us to conviction of sin, to penitence, to exercise faith in Christ only, and so bringing about the renewing of our character which follows our justification by faith. Such powerful grace came to be referred to ‘effectual grace’, though this was a phrase (I believe) first coined by Augustine in his letter to Simplicianus in AD 396. Effectual grace is grace sufficiently powerful to bring us, kicking and screaming and struggling often enough, to God himself, and to keep us there. Grace here, and glory hereafter, as the Puritans used to say.

New Circumstances

Earlier on we noted how the world of Calvin’s Geneva transmuted into that of the seventeenth century as Calvinist churches were formed in ways that had not been anticipated. A similar thing happened in the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century. But compared with both these eras the Christian world of today is many times more complex. Different cultural forces, people with different backgrounds – pluralism par excellence, a nightmare for the tidy-minded and lovers of order, like Calvin himself seems to have been. In his sovereign pleasure God may instil his grace into people we might not have anticipated, and in circumstances that we could not have imagined. Calvinists can hardly deny such a right to the sovereign God. John Calvin bequeathed to the church an understanding of God’s grace that is more adaptable and flexible to new circumstances than perhaps he ever imagined!

We might ask, can such people and such churches, bearing the marks of these circumstances, be genuinely Calvinist, orthodox, Reformed? Perhaps they are the latest wave of ‘doctrinal Calvinism’, like the Baptists and Independents of the seventeenth century and the Calvinistic Methodists of the eighteenth? How can we tell?

Is there a test?

Is there a test for whether someone understands and accepts the gospel of the grace of God understood in this Pauline, Augustinian and Calvinist sense? Well, we must be careful of tests; we are all fallible, and besides that, tests can often come to be operated legalistically, erected as hoops for a person to jump over. A bad idea. Nevertheless, bearing in mind these qualifications, maybe we can think of what follows not as an infallible test, but as a reliable guide.

In his wonderfule letter to the Romans Paul reaches the peak of his exposition of God’s grace in Jesus Christ in Romans 8 Before that (in, roughly, Chapters 3-5) he expounded our salvation as founded on God’s justification of the ungodly. (Rom. 4.5) This is inseparably connected with our sanctification, a new life of union with Christ as we are buried with him in his baptism and raised with him in newness of life, (Ch.6). It is characterised by a never-ending struggle between the old sinful nature (the ‘flesh’ as Paul puts it) and the ‘new man’ (the spirit) (Ch.7).

The Romans 8 climax is like a chain (the ‘golden chaine’, as earlier Reformed types called it). Beginning in Romans 8. 29 with God’s eternal purpose

For those whom he foreknew (his knowledge of whom he will save),

he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

(His actual destining of his chosen ones to be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus Christ).

Paul goes on

And those whom he predestined he also called (effectually called, in the sense discussed earlier) ;

and those whom he called he also justified, (pardoned and reckoned righteous in Christ);

and those whom he justified those he also glorified…..

What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (ESV)

From first (foreknowing) to last (glorifying) Paul says that the work is God’s work, and the chain from the first to the last is unbreakable, (note the ‘also’s’), holding the people of God steady and secure in God’s grace from first to last. Is there a test of being ‘Reformed’ of being ‘Calvinistic’ in the muddled and confusing Christian world of 2010? I say that if we feel the need of one, there is. It’s the unqualified recognition of Paul’s golden chain of Romans 8.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Religious Affection: Jonathan Edwards's Strategy

In an earlier post on Edwards’s Religious Affections ( ‘Jonathan Edwards: Some Circumstantial Evidence’) I suggested that his choice of supporting authorities, the people whose names appear in the main text and especially in the footnotes, and who Edwards cites extensively, had not only a theological but also a political significance for him. The fact was that the awakenings in New England were attended by some novel and (to many) disturbing goings-on: bodily contortions, whisperings and other direct intimations which those who were subject to them took to be the voice of God, and so forth. And also, as Edwards points out, the extraordinary events were accompanied by swings in fashion: at one time the evidence of the revivals’ good effect is judged to be a heightened emotional state; then, due to ‘abuses’, the pendulum would swing, and the presence of raised affections would be held to be of no account.

Some evidence

One piece of evidence for the political nature of the work is Edwards wish to show that his account of true religious affection, first made known in his occasional writings on the revivals, and then in what was to be a magnum opus, had the backing of Puritan authority. Crucial to his argument is the distinction between natural and supernatural effects. And Edwards scoured the writings not only of his grandfather Samuel Stoddard, his forerunner in the Northampton pulpit, but also of widely – regarded New England divines such as Thomas Shepherd, and of English Puritans such as Owen and Flavel. He wished to show that Puritan orthodoxy had indeed made use of such a distinction, and had advocated a process of self-examination or self-testing to determine whether one’s states were naturally or supernaturally induced. . Edwards himself gave renewed emphasis to the distinction by employing terminology which he borrowed from John Locke (without letting on to his readers). He described true, supernatural regeneration in terms of the soul’s possessing a ‘new simple idea’, but (as far as I can see) he did not deviate from the tradition in his teaching. As we saw last time, the difference was chiefly terminological. Though there is evidence of the substantive influence of Locke in what Edwards had to say about the unity of the self in the Introduction to the Affections. (Nevertheless, for all the respect he paid to the tradition, it must be said that it is hard to imagine the likes of John Owen being as patient and tolerant of the new ‘phenomena’ as Edwards was.) This brings us to the second political point.

Some more evidence

This further political aspect can be identified in the overall structure and argument of the Religious Affections. It has to be said that this structure seems frequently to have been misunderstood. It is read as if the phenomena listed in Part II, such as being in an excited, emotional state, or experience great effects on the body, or that emotions are accompanied by texts of Scripture flashing into the mind, are for Edwards signs of the absence of saving grace, while those listed in Part III, such as ‘the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest’ are signs of the presence of true grace. But this interpretation is only half right. Certainly, in Edwards’s’ view the signs enumerated and explained in Part III are signs of the presence of grace. However, those similarly enumerated and discussed in Part II are, in his view, signs of neither the presence nor the absence of true grace. This seems to means that they are neutral, indifferent, marks, neither here nor there. Yet even this does not quite make the point, for if anything Edwards is even more generous and concessive to these various phenomena that being studiously neutral about the. For he states not only that such phenomena are ‘no signs one way or the other’, but goes so far, in the title of Part Two to indicate his desire to show that the phenomena to be discussed there are ‘no certain signs that religious affections are truly gracious, or that they are not’.

They are signs, but not certain signs of grace. Spots are signs of measles, but it is possible to have spots but no measles, but not possible to have measles but no spots. So the possession of spots is not a certain sign of measles, but greater evidence than is the fact that one has a sore left foot, which is no sign at all. And we find that Edwards’s reasoning in Part II follows this pattern. So he writes

Nor on the other hand, do I know of any rule any have to determine, that gracious and holy affections, when raised as high as any natural affections, and have equally strong and vigorous exercises, can’t have a great effect on the body….no such rule can be drawn from reason….none has ever been found in all the late controversies which have been about thing of this nature’. (Yale edn., 132)

Perhaps Edwards had in mind the experiences of his wife Sarah.

And so, it is implied, such bodily effects are to be tolerated in the churches, provided (one assumes) that their display does not threaten civil order, nor the decorum of services of worship. So those signs cited in Part III do not contradict those in Part II. Indeed in Edwards’s thinking they may complement them, they may coexist in the same person at the same time, just as instances of each kind may in turn exist in different people at the same time, just as some poor soul may have both measle spots and instances of the common pimple.

Why is Edwards view and the structure of his book, as sketched here, politically significant? Because it signals his desire to keep such people on his side. Edwards does not wish to alienate them. Whether in pursuing this strategy he had his New and old England Puritan friends on his side is a moot point…

The significance of the Religious Affections

It is safe to say that the Religious Affections is a chief text, if not the chief text, of the emphasis given in the eighteenth century and subsequently to what David Bebbington has called conversionism. This is a quarter of what has come to be called Bebbington’s ‘quadrilateral’, his claim that the emergence of evangelicalism has four marks (or ‘signs’, as Edwards might have called them): conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. (These claims have been recently discussed in a number of interesting essays in The Emergence of Evangelicalism, edd. Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart (Apollos, 2008), The Advent of Evangelicalism in the US.)

Not, of course, that stressing the need for personal conversion was an eighteenth-century invention. But it seems that at that time evangelical Christians came be more self-conscious about conversion. Reading the Religious Affections may certainly have that effect. In the next post on Edwards I shall briefly explore his central claim in the work, that ‘True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections’.

Effectual Calling

I’m beginning to think that effectual calling is one key biblical idea that is frequently misunderstood, as much among its supporters as its detractors. This state of affairs only leads to nervousness on the one side, and to caricature and misrepresentation on the other. Reformed theology has the Scriptural resources to meet this situation, I believe.

The Bible refers to a spiritual call which is brought about by God effectually, that is, a call that is due solely to God’s determination to make the change. It sometimes uses the term ‘call’ to denote this, sometimes other terms. God is said to work in men and women ‘to will and to do of his good pleasure’. But sometimes the same term, ‘call’, is used to refer to an ineffectual call, one which falls short of producing the spiritual change. So, on the one hand, Paul refers to God having called him by his grace, and refers to the Corinthian Christians who were called even though there were not wise etc. These appear to be two references, to the effectual call. On the other, Jesus refers to those who are called, many of them, and to the comparative few of those who are called as ‘chosen’, who are called effectually.

The formulation of the idea of effectual calling can be traced back – as so many things can be – to Augustine of Hippo. In his Letter to Simplicianus – On various Questions – Augustine outlines the basis of Gods sovereign grace from Romans 9 – long before the onset of the Pelagian controversy, much to the consternation of those who think that Augustine’s controversy with the Pelagians was due to the sclerosis of old age. He says this:

It is true, therefore, that many are called but few chosen. These are chosen who are effectually [congruenter] called. Those who are not effectually called and do not obey their calling are not chosen, for although they were called they did not follow. (‘To Simplician – On Various Questions’ in Augustine: Earlier Writings, Selected and Translated with an Introduction, John H.S. Burleigh, (London SCM Press, 1953), 395.

What, more exactly, is it to be ‘effectual’? An effectual call is one which ensures a positive response


A crucial element in the Reformed understanding of effectual call that the soul is, at the first, spiritually passive. A person may be active in all sorts of other ways, but in regeneration, the onset of effectual calling, he or she is acted upon. Biblical evidence - ‘A new heart will I give you….’

This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (Westminster Confession, X. II)
In the first paragraph of the chapter on effectual calling the Westminster Divines use a variety of strong expression to characterize the call. The Spirit (with and through the word) enlightens the mind to give understanding; takes away the heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh, renews their wills, and determines them to that which is good. (Does the Confession explicitly teach determinism? Occasionally it does, as here.) The call is unilateral, monergic.

Nowadays this leads to standard charges that in effectual call the recipient is manipulated, and comparisons are drawn with brainwashing, or the application of mechanical force, or (more recently) of being ‘programmed’, or other types of coercion. Those who think of divine-human relations in the exclusively ‘conversational’ pattern typical of much modern theology cannot consistently find a place for effectual calling as biblically understood. This is clear in Kevin Vanhoozer's new book The Remythologizing of Theology.

What are we say? To grasp effectual calling in its classical expression, we must note three elements.

First, those who respond to God’s effectual call ‘come most freely, being made willing by his grace’. The tailoring of the divine activity to the uniqueness of the total life situation of each recipient. There is warrant for this from the New Testament’s evidence of the variety of ‘callings’: Nathanael and Lydia and Paul and Zaccheus.....

Nevertheless, there is a tension here between congruence, the matching of grace with the traits and circumstances of character on the one hand, and the direct ‘supernatural’ nature of the divine calling and regeneration on the other. This has shown itself historically in rival schools of understanding:Pajonism, for example, and the more central view as expressed, for example, by John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. The danger lies in ‘naturalising’ effectual calling, of thinking of it as the mere rearrangement or reordering of already-present powers. The issue between the natural and the supernatural is similar to that noted by
Warfield in his writings on the inspiration of Scripture. For example

[T]here is the preparation of the men to write these books to be considered, a preparation physical, intellectual, spiritual, which must have attended them throughout their whole lives, and, indeed, must have had its beginning in their remote ancestors, and the effect of which was to bring the right men to the right laces at the right times, with the right endowments, impulses acquirements, to write just the books that there designed for them. When “inspiration,” technically so called is superinduced on lines of preparation like these, it takes on quite a different aspect from that which is bears when it is thought of an isolated action of the Divine Spirit acting out of all relation to historical processes. (Revelation and Inspiration, 101)

To be sure, the issue is not the same, but nevertheless it is analogous. It has to do with the meshing of the natural with the supernatural. In the case of inspiration, the meshing of the endowments and character of the writer with the inbreathing of the Spirit. In the case of effectual grace, the meshing of the endowments and character of an unregenerate person with the divine operations bringing new birth, new life, illumination to the darkened mind, and so o
n. Not the one without the other.

So we must think of the Spirit’s work in regeneration not as a work of a general kind, operating in a blanket fashion in all those who receive it. It is not the provision of grace of a ‘one size fits all’ type, but the one work of regeneration, essentially the same, operating as it is ‘tailored’ to the personality and history of each particular recipient of the effectual call. We cannot imagine that the relation of the Divine Spirit is less personal than relations between one human person and another. It is more personal. Just as he who made the ear can hear, so he who intricately wove the human personality is intimate with its its inner movements. How could it be otherwise. Paul seems to have this in mind when we links his call with being separated from his mother's womb. So we must recognise (more than we do?) that the supernatural work of God in grace is congruent with the personalities, circumstances, and the particular needs of the recipient. It touches the springs of the individual personality, as the manifold wisdom of God is seen in the gathering in of his elect.

This has been recognized by Reformed theologians in the language that they characteristically use. So Turretin:

[T]he omnipotent and efficacious operations of the Spirit is not opposed to that sweet method by which God acts through precepts, exhortations and other things of the same kind; by which God speaks after our mode, although with all these he acts after his own. (Institutes II. 526)

The outward call meshes with the inward call. Again,

The Spirit does not force the will and carry it on unwillingly to conversion, but glides most sweetly into the soul (although in a wonderful and ineffable manner, still most suitably to the will) and operates by an infusion of supernatural habits by which it is freed little by little from its innate depravity, so to become willing from unwilling and living from dead. The will so renewed and acted upon immediately acts, converting itself to God and believing. (II. 524)

Incidentally, we should not conclude that the work of effectual calling is always free from force (as in the conversion of Saul or Tarsus, for example). Yet often it is more gentle (as, perhaps, in the case of Nathanael, and Lydia of Thyatira). The change may even, in its first conscious beginnings, be unnoticed.

The second thing is to recognize the shortness of the period of passivity. This is not the passivity induced by anaesthetic. It is the onset of gestation, the first shining of a beam, inseparable in fact – though separable in thought - from the ensuing process of sanctification. It is not an event that is temporally distinct from it. For the divine action leads at once to the human reaction, though even here God is at work in us, to will and to do of his good pleasure.

The third element is to recognize that the call is the first step in a person’s life in which he is being returned to his true self. The effectual call is not a secular change, but the first movement in the return of the one made in the image of God to his Lord and Father. Part of this consists in the removal of the mists of self-deception. Is the change a good thing? What will the one called say to the question, ‘Would you rather not have been changed?’ The answer is obvious, for the ‘old man’ was set on a path that is objectively abnormal, a deviation, a rebellion, and the rebel's return through the effectual call is the return to his true self, and to his first destiny.