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In some respects, I should not call myself a Calvinist. The real Calvinists would get upset. Who can reduce the sum of Calvin’s great theological contributions to five theological axioms dealing with the sovereignty of God in salvation? So for those “real” Calvinists out there, who accept the Genevan’s system to a much greater extent than a free church Baptist, please accept my apologies in advance.
In the heated debate of late, there has been the allegation that all Calvinistic Younger Fundamentalists have become enamored with the doctrines of grace because of the likes of Piper and MacArthur and Mahaney. The point of my post is to say that such generalizations, while likely holding a bit of truth to them, are not in every case so. (It does not offend me that such generalizations are made, for generalizations are inevitable. But at times it is important to see exceptions to the rule.) So what follows is a description of how I became a “4.5ish” Calvinist.
It began in college, at what is now Northland International University, before there were really any big blow-ups there over faculty or students propagating “hyper”-Calvinism. To my recollection, the institution did not teach the doctrines of grace. If anything, they taught a kind of soft middle-of-the-roadism (again, according to my recollection). The college really had very little to do with my initial push towards Calvinism. I had always struggled with the problem of God’s sovereignty; how is it “fair” that God chooses some while rejecting others? But I remember one day in my personal Bible study reading Romans 9, and these words stuck out:
6But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
19You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
With these words, I began moving towards an espousal of unconditional election. This passage convinced me that in some way God chooses some in a way that he does not choose others. Even if I had problems with this, the words of the passage were plain: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Still, I acknowledged that in some way men were able to choose God. I concluded that both must be true, and the resolution of this tension was shrowded in mystery. I was hesitant to call myself a “Calvinist” (for all the political baggage it seemed to represent), but I was heading in that direction. The Bible, as I understood it, demanded that I confess both that men chose God but that God sovereignly elects. Still, the trump card in this dynamic was that God chose men, not that men chose God. Around this time, I remember a roommate of mine–Jon Hutchens was his name–giving me a volume of sermons by Charles H. Spurgeon and recommended one on Calvinism (this good friend let me keep the book, and I still have it). (This same Calvinistic Jon Hutchens is now a missionary to Brazil–would you believe it?) Spurgeon’s reasoning from Scripture was too cogent to deny. I was still reluctant to take the label Calvinist, as I believed that my vague insistence that both man had a role and God had a role was incompatible with the Calvinist’s scheme. Still, I was also beginning to take great delight in reading old Calvinists. This takes us up through the late 1990’s.
After a couple years, I found myself at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. As I recall, I was starting to muse in my reflection on the subject that one of the important questions in the discussion was what foreknowledge meant in Scripture. Did the fact that God foreknew some to salvation mean that God foresaw in the future that the would-be elect would choose Him (and thereby elected them), or did it mean that God foreordained the elect to salvation unconditionally? Then, in one of my first couple years there, Kevin T. Bauder taught in a break-out at a Foundation Conference (straight from his theology notes, I would late find out) outlining different approaches to the question of God’s sovereignty in salvation. He argued (if memory serves) from Romans 8 that foreknowledge had to mean foreordain. He also said that Calvinists were, as he called it, the true “Compatibilists.” That is, Calvinists recognized that God was independently sovereign and that man had real responsibility for his actions. This was helpful for me and my thinking. One should not underestimate the influence of other seminary students around me. Calvinism was a strong presence among the CBTS M.Div. students in the early part of this decade.
Sometime in the midst of this I further observed that the Peter not only said that the murder of the Son of God for our salvation was “foreknown” by God (προεγνωσμενου μεν προ καταβολης κοσμου, 1 Pet 1:20), but that believers were also “foreknown” (κατα προγνωσιν θεου, 1 Pet 1:2). This helped further confirm that foreknowledge did mean, in fact, foreordain. Certainly Christ’s death was more than merely “foreseen” by God–it was eternal decreed before the foundation of the world. If the same word was used of the foreknowledge of the elect, I could not object that “foreknow” meant merely “foresee.” It was not long after all this that I accepted that it was a matter of theological transparency and integrity to call myself “Calvinist.” (My point here is not offer a defense of unconditional election and the other tenants of Calvinism, but merely to point out some of the arguments that, as I recall, were especially influential in moving me more towards the doctrines of grace.)
Later, after I had become a Calvinist, I began reading and listening to John Piper. But I would rank other factors as far more influential in my turning toward these doctrines: 1) my own study of the Bible, 2) my training in fundamentalist institutions (not just seminary), 3) the influence of C. H. Spurgeon, and 4) the influence of Calvinist friends. I should also note that I am extremely skeptical of the recent “faddishness” of Reformation theology. When a pastor or believer’s theology is the result of a fad, it should be the cause for significant alarm, even if that theology is correct.
My main point with this post has not been to argue for Calvinism, but to show that not every Calvinistic “young fundamentalist” became a Calvinist because of Piper or MacArthur or Dever or Mahaney. Although generalities can at times be helpful, they should always be used with caution and restraint. If anything, perhaps we can learn from my little narrative that if one wants to try to argue against Calvinism with “young fundamentalists,” one is going to have to do a lot more than throw grenades at these men and their ministries. The counter argument will need to be both biblical and theological.