In Consideration of Calvinism / Ronnie Rogers

February 6, 2014

by Ronnie Rogers, pastor
Trinity Baptist Church
Norman, Okla.

During the last couple of years, I have quite unexpectedly been involved in conversations with many Calvinists through writing, e-mails and talking, one-on-one. I have enjoyed many of the discussions with my Calvinist brothers and sisters during this time. I can only pray that my thoughts have been even minimally as helpful in contributing to their knowledge and love of God as theirs have been for me. However, I must admit that, at times, I have found my interactions with some Calvinists quite frustrating because of the great difficulty I have often experienced when trying to discuss a particular point without being misread, when I am given a standard response (as I did as a Calvinist) that is the very response I am trying to move beyond, or when they simply do not engage my specific point and scurry to something I am not even addressing.

For instance, I have given precise examples of various disquieting realities of Calvinism to only, at times, have them either distortedly generalized, which, ipso facto, moves the discussion off topic, or summarily dismissed as “emotional arguments.” This is unfruitful for the Calvinist and those who do not understand the seriousness of the entailment mentioned because, while these disquieting realities do affect us emotionally, they are not merely jejune emotional arguments to be dismissed by such paplike[1] indictments. They actually have for their substance the very nature and plan of God and the nature of man as portrayed in explicit Scripture. Consequently, I thought I would share three distinct levels of consideration that I find helpful in properly evaluating Calvinism. These distinctive levels do operate as a unit, but considering them separately seems to be helpful in the process of consideration.

First, to illumine the disquieting realities and double-talk within Calvinism in order to elucidate the actual beliefs and entailments of consistent Calvinism so that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can evaluate Calvinism more accurately; to fail at this point is to fail to thoroughly examine Calvinism. This includes encouraging Calvinists to speak, pray, and write in such a way that these beliefs and entailments are neither elided[2] nor easily misunderstood.

Disquieting realities are the often lesser known inescapable harsh realities, sine qua non, or entailments of consistent Calvinism. Disquieting realities can also include Calvinism’s extraordinary definitions of ordinary terms such as love, responsibility, choice, freedom, evangelism, whosoever, etc. Additionally, I would include its unduly narrow definitions of such biblical concepts as sovereignty and depravity, and its significant reliance upon speculative theology, philosophical assumptions, and general hermeneutical approach to Scripture.

By double-talk, I specifically and only mean thinking, praying, writing, or speaking in such a way that obscures the disquieting realities of consistent Calvinism. I believe much of the double-talk is unintentional, but unfortunately, not all of it. If a person accepts and clearly and unabashedly articulates these realities, then he can be a knowledgeable and consistent Calvinist; if one is unwilling to do so, he cannot be a consistent Calvinist. Since I use the term double-talk in this specifically limited way, the problem of inconsistencies that I am addressing cannot be ameliorated[3] by referring to inconsistencies due to the frailty of man that may be present in others’ approaches to Scripture—as well as in Calvinism. Additionally, I am not calling anyone a double-talker, nor is my use of this term intended in any sense to be personally depreciatory; but rather I use it in order to draw attention to this rhetorical reality.

This first level does not primarily seek to determine whether Calvinism is biblically true or the most helpful system of soteriology (understanding God’s salvific plan). Here, I am mostly concerned with spotlighting and transporting these lesser-known essentials of Calvinism into common conversation regarding Calvinism in order to facilitate an uncluttered understanding of Calvinism. For the sake of argument, the system with the most disquieting realities could theoretically end up being true. What is not acceptable is any obscuration of such disquieting realities that either facilitates or encourages one to embrace or espouse Calvinism without a true understanding of them.

Second, to examine whether Calvinism’s interpretation of Scripture, necessary concepts, assumptions, and entailments offer the most biblically helpful approach for knowing God, understanding the gospel and His eternal plan as revealed in His Word.

The second and third levels primarily seek to determine whether Calvinism, with all of its disquieting realities and assumptions, is biblically true and therefore the most helpful system of soteriology and hermeneutical approach. Without painstaking illumination of the disquieting realities and double-talk as described in the previous level, this level is doomed to either insubstantial or inaccurate evaluation of Calvinism as a plausible system.

Third, to offer a more biblically reflective alternative that neither elides the perplexities of some Scriptures nor complicates (as Calvinism does) the massive amount of simple and lucid Scriptures regarding the nature of God and His salvific plan.

This approach seeks reliance upon a simple (not simplistic) reading of the Scripture. It recognizes that the deconstruction of one perspective must include a biblical alternative. To wit, it is dreadfully inadequate to merely highlight what one finds fault with (although necessary), without giving consideration to a better alternative. Better does not mean that it is or will be accepted by all, particularly by committed Calvinists, nor should it seek to fit within biblically unnecessary and Calvinistically-nuanced definitions that necessarily presuppose and lead inexorably to Calvinism. Rather, better simply means more congruent with the entire warp and woof of Scripture. Additionally, it seeks to reflect the unambiguous teachings of Scripture consistently and comprehensively.

As mentioned in a previous article, while others (who are actually far more capable than I in addressing Calvinism) describe themselves in various and equally appropriate ways, I refer to my approach as Extensivism. I adopted the term Extensivism for a number of reasons (it is not named after a person, it is not inherently controversial, and it arises from Scripture, etc.), but one of the primary reasons is that it encapsulates the essence of the debate, which is how extensive the good news is. An Extensivist believes that man was created in the image of God with libertarian free will (otherwise choice) and that God’s salvation plan is comprehensive, involving an all-inclusive unconditional offer of salvation and eternal security of the believer; reception of which is conditioned upon grace-enabled faith rather than a narrow plan involving a limited actually meaningful offer of salvation restricted to the unconditionally elected, or any plan that, in any way, conditions salvation upon merely a humanly generated faith from fallen man.

Many Calvinists not only believe their approach to interpreting Scripture is the best way, they do not even properly evaluate whether any other approach could be considered biblical, much less right. This seems due to either an unwillingness or inability of many Calvinists to consider an alternative without doing so through the grid of Calvinism, with all of its restrictive presuppositions, definitions, and causal understanding of scriptural concepts and the reality conveyed therein. This results in Calvinists actually evaluating whether the opposing view is consistent with Calvinism rather than the Scripture, and those are not the same.

When I was a Calvinist, I viewed objections to Calvinism through the same grid for 20 years; thereby beclouding objective evaluation of contrary claims. Further, many Calvinists would deny that they do this; as a Calvinist, I would have denied the practice as well (I do not attribute malice to me or any present Calvinist). Nevertheless, upon reflection, I did believe so strongly in Calvinism (which was the order of the day within Calvinism) that I unwittingly did in fact view counter claims through the lenses of Calvinism.

When I began to face the disquieting realities of Calvinism by rejecting double-talk as a satisfactory way of palliating[4] them, along with interpreting both the difficult and simple Scriptures without the presuppositions of Calvinism, I gradually became convinced that, while Calvinism did seek to handle the perplexities of Scripture, it resulted in biblically unwarranted and unsustainable assumptions about God, man, the gospel, and a host of unambiguous Scriptures. This was due in part (as it seems to me) to Calvinism’s reliance upon biblically unnecessary philosophical assumptions, definitions, and strained reinventions of the clearest verses in Scripture—e.g. compatibilism, excessively causal sovereignty, John 20:3-31. The nurture of my eventual disenchantment with Calvinism was due almost exclusively from reading Scripture and Calvinist authors. They helped me through over a decade-long process to realize there was a better way that did not require additional mysteries (generated solely from Calvinism and not the Scripture), defending very harsh and unnecessary entailments (which disappear when one doffs the spectacles of Calvinism), and obscuring the beauty of the clear Scriptures and the fullness of God’s attributes.

As I have stated many times and in many ways, I respect most Calvinists, especially the ones who are straightforward about Calvinism’s entailments, disquieting realities. I have actually interacted with some here at SBC Today who do that. I believe that most Calvinists and those who reject Calvinism are seeking to know and represent God accurately. I am presently meeting regularly with such a knowledgeable Reformed five-point Calvinist, which makes our meetings both delightful and spiritually rich. In light of that, I believe we all benefit by accurately portraying our own beliefs as well as those with whom we disagree. During the past couple of years, I have found myself not only engaging Calvinists, but also either clarifying Calvinism’s actual claims or defending my love for Calvinists to some of my non-Calvinist brothers and sisters.

I desire to accurately portray Calvinism so that people can make a more informed decision about whether to don the label Calvinist. In order for this to happen, contrary perspectives must be clearly presented, and then Calvinists must consider such in light of Scripture and not merely in light of Calvinism with all of its assumptions; recognizing that the two are not the same.


[1]1) soft food for infants, as bread soaked in water or milk; 2) an idea, talk, book, or the like, lacking substance or real value.
[2] elide: 1a) to omit or slur over (a syllable, for example) in pronunciation; b. To strike out (something written); 2) to eliminate.
[3] ameliorate: 1) to make or become better; improve.
[4] palliate: 1) make (a disease or its symptoms) less severe or unpleasant without removing the cause.

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Norm Miller

Pastor Ronnie:

You have been reading my mail, except my mail doesn’t have footnotes in it.HA! (Actually, I placed the footnotes in your essay, and am grateful to have my theology and vocabulary honed when I read after you.) Anyway, I resonate with what you have written, for my experiences with Calvinists have been much like yours. Just like Traditionalists, or Extensivists, Calvinists have a full complement of commenters– from the sincere to the acidic. I therefore think your essay is instructive, generally, to all who would engage in discussions from their varying viewpoints, and is specifically apropos to the discussions on theological issues in the SBC.

As blog moderator/editor for 18 months, I have learned much about myself and others, and am grateful to those who have been patient with me — and continue to be. In the past I engaged in discussion about tenets of Calvinism with my only source of Calvinistic info having been largely only Calvinists. So, no, I have never read the Institutes – not entirely. But about a year ago I began reading selections on some of the matters frequently under discussion, and I discovered Calvin was not a Calvinist — at least considering the extent of the atonement. I mention this as illustrative support for your essay’s seminality and practicality.

Thank you for encouraging all of us to think before we speak, and when we speak, to do it with transparency. — Norm

    Rogers RW

    Norm
    Thank you for your encouragement. I actually get all of my ideas from your e-mail. So, keep up the good work!

Johnathan Pritchett

I think the issue of definitions that Pastor Ronnie keeps coming back to, coupled with the certain philosophical presuppositions, is the biggest roadblock to any discussion regarding Calvinism.

However, sometimes that can cut both ways, and part of that problem is that those who are not Calvinists sometimes fall into the same trap, the same language problems, etc., precisely because too often they unwittingly fall into the same trap of using similar sounding language and terms in ways and using definitions of terms that are foreign to the Calvinist, who simply assume words mean certain things, when they don’t necessarily do. That also holds the same with the non-Calvinist.

I think a productive solution by both sides is to always define one’s terms prior to getting too deep into conversations, or otherwise, it becomes ships passing in the night, or whatever.

Like Pastor Ronnie hints at, I prefer simple (not simplistic) definitions and readings of Scripture. The Bible doesn’t determine if one’s definitions are “Biblical”, and this is a common misunderstanding, but an assumption people make, and results in mistaken (sometimes pompous, though perhaps sometimes even well-intentioned) accusations like “that isn’t the Biblical definition of X.” Definitions of terms is the problem of doing theology from Scripture, especially after 2,000 years of both reflection AND embellishment of particular Bible words. What makes it even harder is the specific assumed grid of one particular and popular Western theological paradigm established briefly in the 5th century with the Augustine-Pelagius thing, then more so with the Reformation, and then buried under a pile of Evangelical theological jargon.

The danger of this approach, is that the conversation leaves out the majority of the Church who didn’t go to seminary and get caught up in the language game. One of the things I appreciate about the work of men like Dr. Yarnell at SWBTS is the adamant insistence that the Church folk confirm interpretations, and have a participatory role in the theological enterprise. The seminary types, like myself, can pat ourselves on our backs for having gone through the rigor of theological training, reading all the books, picking up the jargon, etc., but the Holy Spirit moves and dwells in the midst of the people of God, and if we operate in such a way where they are mere spectators to the dialog, or are talked at only as students of our own learning, as opposed to dialog partners, then we are doing it wrong anyway.

    Max

    ” … if we operate in such a way where they are mere spectators to the dialog, or are talked at only as students of our own learning, as opposed to dialog partners, then we are doing it wrong anyway.”

    Amen Johnathan! To date, the “traditionalist” pew has been largely unengaged at this critical juncture in SBC life. The majority of SBC members appear to be either uninformed, misinformed, or willingly ignorant regarding Calvinist belief and practice. Most are not even “spectators to the dialog”, nor aware of the nature of the dialog that is taking place in academia and certain SBC entities which will impact the way Southern Baptists “do church” in the years ahead. As I observe this, I am quickly becoming a disenchanted non-Calvinist who is disquieted to the point of mental and spiritual discomfort. Leadership at SBC’s 45,000+ churches are simply not addressing the theological shift and ecclesiological shift heading their way as Calvinism picks up steam, particularly the New Calvinism thread. We need to have 45,000+ “family talks”, but I don’t see much motion in that direction. What would you recommend in this regard … to educate the pew and effect the dialog partnership you refer to? How do we reverse “doing it wrong” when it comes to the millions of non-Calvinist Southern Baptists?

      Johnathan Pritchett

      What would I suggest in that regard? Nothing right now. There are a bunch of more important things the leaders and pastors of the Trad churches in the SBC should be doing.

      I don’t necessarily think the folks in our pews should become experts on this one issue right now. They get enough unwarranted blame for so many other things.

      As for reversing the “doing it wrong” and “dialog partnership” in mission, theology, and ecclesiology in general, and not necessarily the Calvinism issue only or even in particular, it starts with the leaders doing it right.

      To be quite honest, the Traditionalist churches in the SBC need a reboot, not revival. We need to become more Heavenly minded so we can start doing more Earthly good.

      We need to get back to the fundamentals of what it means to be a citizen of Christendom as competent souls holding a priesthood. We need to get back to what sane Congregationalism is. We need to get back to what Biblical leadership is within that model. We need to get out of the old mentality that operates under an America that had a cultural conservatism favoring Christianity (this is plaguing the Trads right now), and recognize that the cultural conservatism (by conservatism, I don’t mean political/theological, but “natural disposition” of folks in culture) no longer favors Christianity, and old ways of engagement with the outside, and building churches up from within, are a part of the problem of the decline of Evangelicalism in America, and need to be done away with (and some churches in our camp are, in fact, doing this…see Lee Park Baptist Church in Monroe North Carolina for the best example).

      If we continue to sell our churches that our best days are behind us, more and more folks will rightly leave our congregations and embrace other churches, like the Calvinist ones.

      I honestly think, if we start fixing all that, then the Calvinism thing would be much easier to grok with internally, along with a million other things plaguing the Evangelical church right now in general, and the SBC in particular.

      Honestly examining those things, and just digging deep in to the soteriology that our churches already have, Calvinism won’t matter as much.

      There is too much richness in the meat of our theology to bother point/couterpointing all the time with Calvinism. To be quite honest, it is becoming a distraction from more important things.

      To be more frank, Calvinism is making bigger inroads in our culture during this decline of Christianity than other streams of Evangelicalism like ours, and from where I sit (contra their own claims), it has little to do with their particular theology, and more to do with their approach to grasping at a holistic worship, service, theology, missions, and evangelism, even if they get some things wrong. God honors their heart, and their fruit is both visible, and well deserved on that front.

      So, I say, dig into our own theology, which we should since it is correct, then, later, dealing with Calvinism, if that is a priority, will be much easier.

        Max

        “To be quite honest, the Traditionalist churches in the SBC need a reboot, not revival. We need to become more Heavenly minded so we can start doing more Earthly good.”

        Interesting that you should phrase your reply in such a way. I was recently asked if it was possible for the church to be so heavenly minded that it could be of no earthly good. My response: absolutely not … if we were more heavenly minded we would be of more earthly use! (a point you note).

        Thank you for your perspective Johnathan. I am in agreement. Rather than entertain the Cal vs. Trad debate much longer, we need to shift our focus back to our real business. We have been saved out of the world to go right back into the world to win people out of this world … and that’s the only business we have in this world! Unless traditionalist ranks go through the “reboot” you mention, we will never see genuine revival. We can have a discourse on what that reboot would look like, but in my estimation it needs to run the course of 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Rick Patrick

Ronnie,

Having read “Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist: The Disquieting Realities of Calvinism” from cover to cover, I appreciate not only your depth of insight as a former Calvinist, but also your precision of thought, graceful literary style and delightful vocabulary. My words for the day include jejune, paplike, elide and palliating.

This is an absolute gem: “What is not acceptable is any obscuration of such disquieting realities that either facilitates or encourages one to embrace or espouse Calvinism without a true understanding of them.” Thank you for turning over the most infuriating Calvinist charge of all—that those of us disaffirming Calvinism possess an inadequate comprehension of it. Indeed, the reason many who DO affirm Calvinism are able to do so is that THEY have not grasped the fullness of its implications. Many who champion Calvinism misconceive it, while many who forsake Calvinism discern it clearly. Perhaps the BETTER most people understand Calvinism, the LESS LIKELY they are to embrace it.

Your excellent term “Extensivism” has officially moved into second place on my soteriological description list—clearly superior to the lowest ranking “Everybody’s A Calvinist Of Some Sort” and “Semipelagian.” However, I remain disinclined to abandon the term “Traditionalism” used by Fisher Humphreys in “God So Loved The World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism” (Insight Press, 2000) and Eric Hankins in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (SBC Today, 2012). Clearly, some of our theological opponents dislike the term, but their rationale is consistently based upon claims we have never made—that ours is the “true” or the “only” or the “earliest” Southern Baptist tradition. In fact, quite a few statements by the Founders come remarkably close to making these very same claims for themselves. I refuse to abandon a term because of the psychological projection of theological opponents. The fact remains that we do have a soteriological identity, a rich tradition clearly expressed by our Baptist Faith and Message Confessors—E.Y. Mullins (1925), Herschel Hobbs (1963) and Adrian Rogers (2000). If our Calvinist friends, however reluctantly, are forced to identify us with a term acknowledging that we too possess an acceptable Southern Baptist theological tradition, the humility produced thereby is certain to result both in their greater good and in God’s greater glory.

    Ben Simpson

    Rick,

    I’m think I’m record as not being a fan of the term “Traditionalist.” However, I have to admit that your term “Savabilist” has grown on me for you and your cohort’s soteriology. From the Calvinistic side, I also am increasingly in favor of the term “Gracian.”

      Norm Miller

      Gracian may be acceptable to Trads as well. But how you get there is at issue.
      It’s that “Gracian Formula” we have trouble with (wink, wink).

rogers rw

Hello Johnathan
I agree. I meet regularly with a five-point Calvinist friend of mine, and we clearly define terms (as opposed to superimposing definitions upon each other), which always proves to be very fruitful. When I teach on this subject, I take whatever time necessary to distinguish between what words mean in Calvinism and elsewhere.

Ronnie W Rogers

Hello Rick
Thank you for your kind words. I truly believe your statement, “Perhaps the BETTER most people understand Calvinism, the LESS LIKELY they are to embrace it”. Consequently, I appreciate articles by you and others that shed light on the actual beliefs of Calvinism. I also believe that “Traditionalism” is a great descriptive, and clearly the go to term.

Thanks

Allen Rea

Thank you brother for your continued insight during our sojourn through these waters.

Ben Simpson

Ronnie,

I believe that you are asking Calvinists to do nothing less than poison their own well by asking them to put forth the disconcerting aspects that people have with their theology first. Seriously, who does that? Do you do that when you present your Extensivism? The intended result is captured perfectly by Rick Patrick’s comment in this thread, “Perhaps the BETTER most people understand Calvinism, the LESS LIKELY they are to embrace it.” We certainly don’t want anybody to reject a doctrine before they consider its biblical validity, and I don’t think you’re advocating that, but you and I know that most folks will just stop with the disconcerting and never really consider if it’s biblical. I’ve witnessed that many times. I’m not saying that disconcerting aspects should not be brought into the equation. They should be, but I’m afraid you have your categories out of order. The very first question is “Is this biblical?” Then the disconcerting aspects have to be wrangled with in light of the biblical text. Otherwise, I’m afraid it never gets past the philosophical, presuppositional level.

    Johnathan Pritchett

    On this, I agree.

    For instance, Open Theists don’t come right out and say from the start, “this means God has no actual knowledge, and certainly no certainty, of what you will eat for breakfast.” Despite the fact that all of us think they should, they are under no obligation to do that, nor are Calvinists, or anyone else for that matter.

    There is little virtue in putting what others think are the worst foot forward first, or even second. Moreover, in any theological orthodox system (sorry open theists, you don’t qualify here in my estimation), the richness and depths of what is good, true, and beautiful about them that are there deserve better than that anyway. How sad are the people on one side or other who find absolutely nothing good, true, beautiful, or edifying in any regard in the other system of theology? Surely there is something in the other system worth positive reflection!

    But, given that these are theological issues, they presuppose some things already. The question “Is it Biblical?” will often depend on the philosophy, and presuppositions (and as importantly, definitions of terms) of both the defender and critic doing the examination. So…it already is a vicious circle in that regard. No help there, because there is likely to be too much disagreement at this base level regarding our philosophy, presuppositions, definitions, hermeneutics, exegesis, etc. “Is it Biblical?” is an important question, and I rejected Calvinism because I asked it at even this base level, since I think that question must be asked at this level, and for me, Calvinism came up well short of that. I am quite certain that Calvinists, who also ask that question at this fundamental level of presuppositions and so forth, feel the same way about other systems. So again, that is of little help, since that very question when asked at this level doesn’t actually yield what we all hope it would.

    Then, the next problem is that what Ronnie and others find disconcerting about Calvinism, Calvinists may not (and as a former Calvinist, I can actually understand and sympathize with this, since I do understand Calvinism, and I can see, and did once see that the flip sides to many of those same coins can be heart-warming, or reassuring, or whatever). What Calvinists find disconcerting about other systems, those holding them may not as well. We all have our reasons and defenses for why that is.

    That is why in my initial response, I jumped on the definitions thread in Ronnie’s post, since that portion seemed aimed at everyone having better and more productive conversations. I didn’t relate to the issue you addressed, Ben, though that was the main point. Bro. Ronnie has his reasons though for thinking Calvinists should be speaking about what others, or even they themselves, find disconcerting about Calvinist theology. I can’t fault him for that if those issues bother him to the extent they do, even if I agree with you that it isn’t all that necessary for Calvinists to do what he is asking, or even think it is appropriate. Like you say, I wouldn’t approach presenting my theology that way, and your own mileage may vary on whether you, like Bro. Ronnie in reverse, think I should.

    But, given all this, I do think you are right, Ben, in that no one needs to put up front what either they may themselves, or more likely, what others do find disconcerting about these various views we hold.

    We all already have the other side to do that for us, and, for both good and bad, we are all pretty good at it too.

    Ronnie

    Hello Ben
    Remember that I did not separate these components, but rather I distinguished between them. Separating these, as opposed to distinguishing between them, seems to suggest that they happen independent of considering whether the position is biblical, but that is not my view. The distinctions are to insure that our evaluation of whether something is biblical is based upon a proper and clear understanding of what we are evaluating. To wit, lack of clarity about what is being evaluated (including how terms are used) to be biblical or not seems to lead to hackneyed and inaccurate evaluations.

    Consequently, my point is to first address the question “Is it biblical?” I do not think that we can do that when we use terms that are either not properly defined or the speaker and listeners understanding of the terms are significantly different. For example, if we are talking about the love of God, man’s choice, or whosoever will may come, and we have understandings of that which are quite different (even mutually exclusive) than the ones with whom we are speaking or seeking agreement, should we not make sure there is sufficient understanding of what we are seeking agreement on. How can we explain the meaning of the passage without assuring that we clarify the meaning of the words we use as well?

    A specific example might be, Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam and Eve. Our interpretations of that passage, when all relevant material is considered, involve ideas regarding the nature of God, nature of man, nature of sin, predestination, sovereignty, etc. Some of our views that would necessarily be involved in proper exposition include mutually exclusive ideas. While we both can tell our listeners that Adam made a free choice, should we leave it at that and utterly elide what we actually mean by free choice. I say not! Thus, I do not believe teaching a passage in such a way that elides these essentials is acceptable. I trust that you can see that the three components of my article work synergistically in explaining the passage.

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