After the last post, I was pleased to find David Jackman’s wisdom on this.
Phillip Jensen of Sydney recorded a very useful interview about Calvin and Calvinism with Matt Perkins of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate in London. Calvin was a Bible man first and so was able teach the complexity of the Bible truth, whereas many Calvinists go to their simplistic systems first and are more interested in defending their systems. I thought he was quite nuanced in saying that this was a family quarrel about emphases, shibboleths, but recommended that we ask why moving away from expositional gospel ministry has led to unhappy outcomes.
Paul Levy of Reformation 21 then made a strange sneery comment about the video that contained no constructive argument and didn’t really engage with any of the points Jensen made. Elsewhere, Levy writes vaguely about the benefits of criticism, so perhaps he thinks that his gadfly-ing helps with the biblical ministry of others. Yet he simplistically assumes that all criticism is useful. His mockery is so incoherent that people (like Stevens and Ovey) generally have to help clarify his criticism before replying.
I would have dismissed him as yet another internet troll if he was not shepherd of the congregation at International Presbyterian Church, Ealing. Unfortunately, this appears to be his regular way of engaging with a certain tribe(?) of Christian brothers – a quick search turned up a not-very-nice comment on Lee Gatiss on the same Reformation 21 site, as well as a very gracious reply from John Stevens to his criticism of FIEC, and a generous response by Richard Perkins putting this all down to Levy’s Welsh wit.
Perhaps these are backhanded compliments? But he is quite complimentary about many others without a lot of nasty words. Even if we’ve misunderstood his “Welsh wit” (or precisely because it would be globally misunderstood all the way from America to Australia), James’ injunction about controlling the tongue comes to mind.
Family rows: Followers of Calvin and the Calvinists
‘… yet from those flames No light, but rather darkness visible…’ Paradise Lost Book 1, ll. 62-3
It is always a tad awkward when two people one highly respects have a go at each other’s positions on the Web. Thus, Phillip Jensen has drawn a distinction in a recent video between followers of Calvin and Calvinists, very much to the latter’s disadvantage, while Paul Levy has responded with a piece affecting to see this as advanced Australian satire. He suggests this is simply revisiting the tired and discredited old idea that the Calvinists are at odds with Calvin.
I admire and respect both men. As a further complication, my day job involves teaching systematic theology and it is difficult not to feel that I amongst others am in the Jensen crosshairs.
What to do?
Let me focus on what I think is the central and most important point Phillip raises: the risk of preaching a human theological system rather than the Bible. Phillip argues that Calvinists are not true followers of Calvin, because where Calvin was a Bible theologian first, Calvinists are systematic theologians first and when preaching the Bible end up preaching their system because they approach the text with that so strongly in their minds.
In particular, while we need to systematise when we teach, Phillip says, preaching the system does not allow for the rich complexities of the Bible. Followers of Calvin do what Calvin did, not what Calvinists do. Phillip goes on to argue that the outcome of Calvinism is to kill evangelism in favour of education and to commit us to presuppositional rather than evidential apologetics.
We must now distinguish several different issues of varying importance.
1. Is this a fair characterisation of Calvinists, who do, after all, labour under the impression that their views bear some passing resemblance to those of John Calvin and would count themselves precisely as ‘followers of Calvin’?
2. Does this capture what Calvinists think they are doing when preaching the Bible?
3. Who are these Calvinists anyway?
4. Does this capture what in fact happens when a Calvinist preaches?
Of these, the last is the most important. Do Calvinists preach a system rather than the Bible? Given that the Bible is to be our final authority in life and doctrine, of course this is the most important question and, since I am, as I type this, not yet perfect but am still tempted to disregard God’s Word, I do well to listen to Phillip’s challenge and examine it. I am after all, simul justis et peccator, both justified and sinful: mild apologies for letting my systematic theology peep out there.
Let me make some comments on this primary question.
First, yes, of course there is a risk that Calvinists preach their system and not the Bible. They are humans who are not yet perfected and that risk is therefore always there. Phillip is giving me a sharp but valuable warning.
Secondly, this risk is not confined to Calvinists. History is replete with those who end up teaching their systems rather than the text. The obvious contemporary example are Jehovah’s Witnesses. We may say that the risk Phillip highlights is not simply due to the fact that one is a Calvinist, but more to do with the fact one is human.
Thirdly, the risk is greatest for those who claim they do not approach the Bible with preconceptions but just allow the Bible to speak on its own terms. Again the church scene is and has been full of those who say just this: Open theists today and, come to that, various 19th century liberals would claim precisely that they were the ones handling the Bible ‘properly’. In fact, my blood runs cold when I hear someone say they just give me the straight Bible with no preconceptions: this is one of those cases where Phillip is right to remind us that the Bible gives us a complex picture.
Part of its complexity are those texts which remind us not just of the corruption of our hearts pre-conversion, but of the ongoing temptation and falling into sin we experience post-conversion (1 John 1:8, 2 Timothy 4:3). If I am to handle God’s Word rightly for others, I do well to examine my own heart and how I as a human creature in space and time continue to be affected by the world around me. I cannot assume I approach the Bible with purity.
Fourthly, a key issue is this: when am I preaching my system and when am I doing the necessary systematisation of which Phillip approves? There is a danger here. It is tempting to write somebody else off as ‘just preaching their system’ and vindicate myself as ‘just doing necessary systematisation’. This is dangerous because if I say ‘Squiggins is just preaching his system – again’, then I tend to stop asking if Squiggins is in fact right.
The language of ‘over-logical’, ‘logic-chopping’, ‘doing theology by numbers’ does not help clarify matters. I am very much afraid it sometimes serves us as a way of saying, ‘I don’t like this, but can’t see where it’s wrong, so I’ll just write it off without thinking properly by dismissing it as logic-chopping’. If we get to that point, then we are in real danger of becoming unteachable ourselves. And I am at my most unteachable when I hold opinions so deeply I am not aware even of holding them. The most uncorrectable systematic theologian is the one who denies he or she has a systematic theology.
What counts as over-logical? At its best, ‘over-logical’ describes a position I have deduced that does not fit with the teaching of the whole counsel of God. At its best, ‘over-logical’ arises when I am simply wrong because, for instance, I have disregarded the complexity of the Bible. I am completely with Phillip to that extent. My problem arises not simply because of questions asked about Calvinists – they should be asked. My problem lies in the very unfortunate implication that the ‘followers of Calvin’ do not face the same issues, and sometimes fall into the same traps.
*also, can’t seem to find any copyright info there. hope this is ok!
Stockholm was an easy and comfortable 5-hour train ride on the SJ X2000 (with in-train wifi) from Copenhagen.
The interior architecture of Stockholm C (Stockholm Central Station) was a good indicator of how the rest of the city would be: not ostentatiously design-conscious, but sort of like that conservative relative who has kept their understated 1970s stuff so well that it is ready for the return of the trend.
Chatted with S over very good fried herring (no excess oil or batter; fresh fish) at Nystekt Strömming (just outside Slussen station, Södermalm), about life as a Swede. Was very glad to hear about how instrumental the Nordic Chinese Christian Church summer camps had been in her coming to faith. Still, it’s not just starting the race that is important, but persevering and ending well. This comes not by clinging on to some historical commitment doggedly, but in learning more and more about this Jesus in whom we have put our trust. And his trustworthiness shines through very clearly in the Bible, but poor preaching and teaching unfortunately often obscures this!
An inspirational verse for the day here and a verse-hop through Scripture there to find back-up for my latest crackpot-or-not theory makes use of the Bible for our own ends rather than letting it show us the character of God and Jesus. Which is why expositional preaching and teaching (that is, working systematically through a book of the Bible) and a good grasp of biblical theology is important.
After lunch, we paid a visit to Drop Coffee Roasters a few streets away. It was crowded and hot, but both the flat whites and almond pastries were excellent. And I guess tasting that the Lord is good and trustworthy and glorious is just as plain from reading any bit of the Bible.
So, take the second bit of chapter 1 of John’s Gospel:
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
It amazes me how big the Bible is on giving more than sufficient evidence to enable us to trust that what Jesus claims of himself is true. After all that mindblowing stuff in the first part of John 1, you’d be waiting for John to back-up that bluster. Here, he names three incredible witnesses:
- John the Baptist (a big historical figure, mind. Josephus wrote about him in Antiquities of the Jews) – Herod might have perceived him as a threat, but missed the bigger threat to whom John the Baptist was pointing: Jesus. The whole aim of John’s ministry was to prepare people for the arrival of the king, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord” (as prophesied by Isaiah, oh, maybe 700 years before. See Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 4:5.).
- God the Father himself – now part of John the B’s witness was to observe and proclaim that God the Father himself had borne witness that Jesus was the Son of God, by the visible descent of the Spirit on him (this again had been prophesied by Isaiah. See Isaiah 42:1.)
- the Old Testament – not only did were these events prophesied by Isaiah. It was clear that the Jews had already been waiting for the fulfilment of other prophesies in the Old Testament (Moses and the prophets): the coming of the Lamb of God, the Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), the anointed one (the Messiah, Christ), the Son of Man (Daniel 7).
As we end this passage in John, Jesus says rather tantalisingly to Nathanael,”…you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”, a reference to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-12 where he saw angels going up and down from heaven on a ladder. So Jesus is promising to be the one who links earth to heaven, who is the path to God, who enables the fulfilment of God’s covenants.
But we’ll need to read on in the Gospel of John to see how all this panned out! Exciting stuff.