How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Where I stand on Reformed theology, Calvinism and the doctrines of grace

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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. 

Wright’s comment is brilliant. How can one read when fear makes the mind grasp for incomplete thoughts, or certainty requires all incoming ideas to conform? If we swam like this we would sink. If a bird flew this way, it would crash.

Scott Fairbanks | Sat, 05/12/2012 - 13:34 | Permalink

Living in the time that we do, we are accustomed to absorbing tectonic changes with little concern. Twenty years ago it seemed like there was TULIP protestantism and its small variations in points, non-TULIP protestants, and catholicisim. But once being freed from the systematic reading of the bible, those categories become irrelevant. Reformed and evangelical once seemed synonymous. Now I want nothing to do with the former label. And this has all happened while attending a church named Calvin. 

I wonder what causes people deep in reformed faith to find it completely cohesive, like me, and then others to find is disjointed.  It seems perfectly simple to understand that God simply chooses what he does and who he uses.  Enjoyed the thoughts.  Didn’t agree with them, yet enjoyed them none the less.

The problem is that nothing related to God, theology, and Christian life is that simple.  I have several Reformed friends and it’s pretty consistent between them that they don’t understand why non-Reformed Christians see a crisis in the implications of determinism associated with Reformed theology.  So, while you (and they) see it as a simple case of God choosing what to do and how, I see it as a quite complex situation balancing sovereignty, free will, eschatology being played out in history, etc.  And, I’m not comfortable with how Reformed theology answers those questions when it comes to deterministically making someone do something evil in order to accomplish God’s plan on time.  As a separate point, I’ve noticed that Reformed theology is completely ignorant (or completely dismissive) of the historical church outside of Europe, and I think this distorts their sense of relevance in the Christian tradition.  On the one hand, they are a subset of a subset of a subset of Christian doctrines.  On the other, they consider themselves to be the only ones who understand God correctly and the implication is that if you don’t approach Christianity from their vantage point then it’s impossible to be saved (whatever that means).  I’d feel more comfortable with Reformed theology if it’s leaders could explain in detail how churches such as the Ethiopian Orthodox (with its radically different canon of scripture) or Eastern Catholic Church (with its emphasis on Aramaic scripture) fit into their paradigm.


Good for you, Andrew!

One can seek to be thoroughly Reformed or thoroughly biblical, but not both.  It is the blind spot of the thoroughly Reformed that they think they are being biblical.

In fact, the entire Calvinist-Arminian debate ought to be called Calvarminianism so that both sides of the useless and antiquated debate can be avoided by those who seek the truths of Scripture.

new at this | Mon, 05/14/2012 - 22:45 | Permalink

Greetings Andrew—

I’ve been reading and enjoying your commentary on this site for for a few days now. I’ve “struggled” with interpretations of the Bible for a while now, and the concept of historical narrative theology is very intriguing to me, even if it does leave me with several questions.

The chief of those questions — that I’ve not been able to find an answer to in other posts (I apologize if it’s there and would happy accept your pointing in the right direction) — is:

How do we apply it to our lives?

Perhaps, more specifically, in light of viewing the the Scriptures through this lense, what exactly does it mean to be a Christian? Or, for that matter, a non-Christian?

I understand that this is a pretty big question, perhaps more than can be answered in a comment thread, but it has been sticking with me for  a while.

I appreciate the thoughts of Andrew and anyone else who might like to chime in.

Paul Hubert | Mon, 05/14/2012 - 23:48 | Permalink

I am curious about the purpose of theologies. If the most vital thing we can pursue is the salvation of souls, what then is the most important aspect of any theology?

It seems clear that belief or not in eternal reward and eternal punishment may be one of the great divides in “Christian” motivation.

I have never been a student of theologies, only of the Word of God as, first, revelation to myself and second as truth for the entire world.

Early in my faith walk I determined that, rather than my examining scripture, I needed to permit God’s Word to examine ME.

What do we most share with others? Our experience of God (His reality to us), supported by scripture?

I would think that a theology must strive to accurately represent what God has set out to communicate in His Word. Does THIS change over time, when He says He is the same “yesterday, today, and forever”?

Of late, I’ve been ‘preaching’ what I am calling “the rule of love”: love God, love your brother as yourself, love your enemies.

Love GOD powerfully. Seek Him with all your heart.

I recently commented on Facebook about the arguments I’ve seen so often in favor of same-sex ‘marriage’. Again and again people cite “love”.

My comment was that, indeed, God IS love, but we do not understand God by first understanding “love”, rather we only understand love by first knowing God.

Hi Paul,

Hi Paul, you may not be a student of ‘theologies’ but your comment contains presuppositions that appear to reflect other people’s theologies. For example, your appear to apply ‘God’s Word’ to the bible. This application originated in theological discourse. Many read such theology back into the bible and when they read the phrase ‘God’s word’ they misinterpret it to mean ‘the bible’ rather than appreciating what it means in the context. It is not as simple as “accurately represent[ing] what God has set out to communicate” — you only have to look at the massive theological variations amongst earnest Christ followers over the centuries to see that.

I do believe the Calvinist-Arminian debate is an older paradigm that is, or should be, coming to a close. It served its purpose for a time, as many movements and perspectives have. But it is time to move forward. I share more here.