This question was put to me via the contact form. It’s brief and I’m not entirely sure where it’s coming from. My guess is that the questioner is from a Calvinist background and wants to know whether my writings are safe to read, but I could be wrong, and it doesn’t much affect my response.
I found an article on your website and noticed it mentioned the word “Reformed” but I couldn’t tell from the context if you hold to Reformed theology or not. Can you please explain where you stand on Reformed theology, Calvinism and the doctrines of grace?
I should say that I have only a very limited, unsophisticated grasp of Reformed theology and Calvinism; and I’m sure that something more is meant by “doctrines of grace” than I commonly understand by the concept—there is a compulsion and inflexibility to Calvinist notions of the sovereignty of God that I am not really comfortable with. I am also writing this from a magical carpet shop in Doǧubeyazit in eastern Turkey, so don’t expect anything too coherent.
First, I do not think that our self-understanding as the people of God under Christ as Lord is bound to be determined by any historical formulation of Christian belief—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, Arminian, Pentecostal, Evangelical, or whatever. I regard these all as relative attempts to formalize Christian identity and belief under particular cultural and historical conditions.
So I view Reformed theologies as the product of a particular historical worldview and set of concerns—those of the 16th century “reformation” of Christendom. But they are also instances of the much wider European rationalization of the New Testament narrative, which I tend to think of as the Christendom-modern paradigm—not a very elegant construct, but it will have to do. This is equally true, of course, for all these other “orthodoxies” in their respective contexts.
To my mind the Christendom-modern paradigm and the various theologies that come under its umbrella no longer work—or at least, work only in a very limited sphere of religious interest. On the one hand, they are unable to provide satisfactory answers to the questions that our cultures are asking of them; on the other, it is becoming increasingly apparent that they offer rather unhelpful guidance to the interpretation of the New Testament and our understanding of Christian origins.
I recognize that in many parts of the world the church is flourishing, and that in some Western contexts Reformed theologies are proving resourceful and resilient. I spent the last couple of years in a church with a moderate but effective Reformed theological basis and despite numerous theological reservations would warmly commend its (male) pastors and elders for their passionate and courageous leadership. But I still maintain that we need to shift from a reliance on systematic theological constructs, such as Calvinism or modern Evangelicalism, to a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament that respects the contingency of its theological content.
Much of what Calvinism has raised to the level of formal dogma (eg. TULIP) actually makes moderately good sense within the narrative framework of the New Testament. This article on election may illustrate the point. But there are enormous difficulties involved in moving ideas or beliefs or doctrines backwards and forwards between the two contexts, between the limiting horizon of the New Testament and the limiting horizon of the 16th or 21st century. The term “gospel”, for example, does not have the same meaning in the New Testament as it does in the preaching of Mark Driscoll.
New Testament thought presupposes a particular narrative-historical framework. As soon as we extract the thought from this framework and attempt to make it work under the universalized rational schemas of the dominant European worldview, we inevitably introduce distortions; and it is these distortions of New Testament thought that have given rise to the highly fissile nature of Western theology. Wright makes roughly this point in How God Became King, which I have been reading recently:
It isn’t just that we’ve all misread the gospels though I think that’s broadly true. It is more that we haven’t really read them at all. We have fitted them into the framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources. (9)
So where do I stand on Reformed theologies and Calvinism? To be honest, I think that, for all that has been and is being achieved under these banners, they constitute a theological and hermeneutical dead-end. I think that we have to learn to read the New Testament historically rather than theologically, and quite possibly derive new trajectories from that re-reading for the self-understanding of the church as the Western theological paradigm disintegrates.