Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yes, I Am a Calvinist

There are admitted risks to using theological "short-hand" in discussions. That is to apply certain nomenclature to yourself or others without an exhaustive definition of what exactly you intend by a specific term. Or, put another way, what happens when you and a friend (or a whole group) are saying the same word but using different dictionaries?

John Piper recently answered this question with the oft-repeated refrain to forget labels and to use biblical explanations or, as he put it - "Saying What You Believe Is Clearer than Saying 'Calvinist'":
We are Christians. Radical, full-blooded, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, God-centered, mission-advancing, soul-winning, church-loving, holiness-pursing, sovereignty-savoring, grace-besotted, broken-hearted, happy followers of the omnipotent, crucified Christ. At least that’s our imperfect commitment.

In other words, we are Calvinists. But that label is not nearly as useful as telling people what you actually believe! So forget the label, if it helps, and tell them clearly, without evasion or ambiguity, what you believe about salvation.
In short, Piper advocates saying the following (abbreviated here; see Piper's statements with attendant Scripture-proofs here):
  • I believe I am so spiritually corrupt that I would never have come to faith without God’s sovereign victory over my rebellion.
  • I believe that God chose me to be his child before the foundation of the world.
  • I believe Christ died as a substitute for sinners and that he had an invincible design in his death to obtain the assembly of all believers.
  • When I was dead in my trespasses, God made me alive, and united me to Jesus.
  • I am eternally secure not mainly because of anything I did in the past, but because God is faithful to complete the work he began.
At one point, I too advocated this "no labels but the Bible" position. But, I have since given that up as impractical, postmodern (or modern!), and even a bit dangerous.

It is impractical because you cannot stop with these bullet points, you have to keep defining and articulating their interrelationships You have to define "corrupt" and "substitute" and "obtain" and "dead" and "alive" and "secure" and et cetera. Classic Arminians, for example, might use the very same bullets and still mean vastly different things. The point of labels is to make conversations efficient when lunch is getting cold.

Secondly, it can tend to cater to the spirit of the age that considers labels and terms as open-license for whatever you want to make of them (i.e., write your own dictionary). I don't think that is true, helpful, and quite frankly I just don't want to be a part of it. Label me naive, but I'm holding my ground here... "Calvinist" has a classic, historic, and objective definition. And that is exactly what I mean when I use it. The "no label but the Bible" position can tend toward the unintended consequence of making labels themselves futile. If that is true, then let's just throw-out "Christian," "Reformed," and "evangelical" while we're at it, because those terms suffer horrendous misuse as well.

Finally, it may even be a bit dangerous because it can subtly communicate the failure to separate what God has spoken and what you believe God has spoken. (And, let me assure you, if you do not know the difference between those two propositions, you are in for a lot of trouble and difficulty getting along with practically everybody).

So, here's my general approach with all its admitted pitfalls and problems:
  • "Yes, I am a Calvinist" (note the puzzled, frustrated, bemused or some other facial expression on the evidently non-Calvinist).
  • Let's get together, have a cup of coffee, and discuss what God has spoken, comparing what you believe God has spoken and what I believe God has spoken; and hopefully you'll discover you're a Calvinist too or become one along the way.
So, that's where I am. I suppose it's not too far from Piper, but I just do not like the advocacy of ditching labels. In the end, it seems to defeat the recognized need throughout millennia of human discourse to having, well, labels! Yes, I am a Calvinist.


  1. I am reading Ian Murray's Forgotten Spurgeon. I suspect this little pamphlet would be a several hundred pages if we ditched labels.

    Anybody using Arminian and Calvinist probably has a pretty good idea of what you are talking about. But Evangelical?

    If someone asked me if I were an evangelical I'd have a defensive reaction. To many heretics have embraced the fuzzy definitions of certain labels to hide their infidelity.

    At what point has a label lost enough meaning that you would be willing to ditch it? Does the word evangelical fit in that camp?

  2. Great book! I need to grab a copy of the new reprint, I have the older small one with tiny print.

    Yes, "evangelical" is a tough one... I agree (and am usually defensive as well) and it may in fact be worth ditching.

    The real problem is that we do not have a great alternative (FYI, this issue was at the center of the initiation of the Together for the Gospel movement / statement, but even all those guys couldn't come up with a better label... so not much hope for you or I on this blog!)

    I also generally avoid it in self-descriptions generally, preferring "Protestant," especially with nonbelievers (usually starts good questions about Gospel and difference with RCC).

    The difficulty is that "evangelical" is used so profusely throughout Reformation and post-Reformation (Puritan, et al) writings (e.g., A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology).

    So, there you go... I am open to suggestions.