The Free Church, Calvinism, Karl Barth, Omnicausality, Southern Baptists…all in one post!

I’m re-posting a comment left on Bobby’s blog, at his suggestion. The general topic of discussion was on the parameters of the Reformed label. Bobby asked me if I considered myself, “Reformed.” Here’s my trajectory-laden response:

I usually describe myself as Reformed or Calvinist to other people, if they have any idea what that means. Otherwise, I just say “evangelical.” I always qualify my use of the Reformed label, since a lot of people instantly think about TULIP. I’m not entirely opposed to Dort. In fact, I think the Canons of Dort are rather oustanding in many respects: e.g., the problem of leaving the expansion of God’s kingdom to the contingency of human free will. As I’ve mentioned before, Barth is firmly within the Reformed scheme when it comes to omnicausality (the term he uses, and which John Webster uses) and a rejection of Molinism. This aspect of Reformed theology is where I’m in quite a lot of agreement, as long as it is adheres to a synchronic (or non-competitive) double agency of God and man. That was Barth’s view, and it appears to be the view of the 17th century orthodox. So, in this regard, my only real problem with TULIP is the L, along with rationalist presentations of the U and I. In other words, if we interpret U and I in regard to synchronic agency and replace L with universal atonement, then we’ve got a form of Reformed theology that I am happy to call my own. That’s a good example of working within the Reformed confessional tradition, pushing the boundaries, and not making the confessional standards on par with Scripture.

I do like the label, “free church.” Barth himself was both Reformed and free church in his approach to theology and his view of the church. His understanding of confessional subscription (vis-a-vis Scripture) is virtually identical with a lot of Baptist theologians, including Southern Baptist theologians. The Southern Baptist confessional heritage begins with the London Baptist Confession (17th century), then the Philadelphia Confession (18th century), then the New Hampshire Confession (19th century), and then the Baptist Faith and Message (20th century), now in its third revision in order to add complementarian gender roles and to affirm God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. This continual revision of confessional standards is a very good thing, and it is something I greatly admire about the SBC. Interestingly, the London and Philly confessions were strongly federal — essentially rewrites of the Westminster Confession — but this Calvinism was then mitigated with the New Hampshire Confession and then the BFM. If you read the BFM, you will see that it still stands within a broadly Reformed confessional tradition. Here is the article on election:

“Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility. [paragraph break] All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. ”

That’s pure Calvinism, if you ask me. The whole point about how election “comprehends all the means in connection with the end” is a classic Reformed qualification, going back to the Westminster Confession (article 3) and before that. This sort of revision and updating is exactly what the PCA, OPC, URC, etc. need, but I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

Unless you are a true theology nerd, you probably didn’t get half of that.

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2 comments

    • Yes. I suppose that “geek” has some connotation of intelligence, while “nerd” mostly denotes socially awkward.

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