Several years ago, a fellow theologian made a startling declaration to me that he believed “all theological problems can be traced to Calvinism.” That conversation took place as the resurgence of Reformed theology in Baptist life and in the wider church was in its early stages. Even then, I never imagined that Calvinism would make such a comeback, but indeed it has. From the Founders Ministries to the Acts 29 Network to the Gospel Coalition, Reformed theology continues to grow in influence and adherents.
Baptist life in America was deeply shaped by the Reformed tradition, but what has been coming back is not the recovery of the theology of Luther and Calvin. It is something very different — something more radical and extreme. It is a strange conjuring up of a Synod of Dort, Five-Point TULIP, Strict and Particular, Primitive Baptist, Infant-Damning, Hyper-Calvinistic Sectarianism. Who could have ever imagined? But it is no small thing. A 2007 LifeWay survey found that a third of the graduates from Southern Baptist seminaries identified themselves as Five-Point Calvinists. Still, I have not worried much about this Neo-Reformed theology because I did not perceive it to be part of the Baptist life I inhabited — or so I thought.
Yet the impact of Neo-Reformed theology in Baptist life is not only in its attraction to a growing number of adherents. It is also shaping the habits of mind and theological discussions in churches — conservative, moderate and liberal. The subtle influence of Neo-Reformed theology has created the widespread assumption that there are mutually exclusive binaries pitting God’s freedom over ours, grace against faith, election versus free will.
I recently participated in a Bible study on Romans,chapter 9. There were a surprising number of big theological words tossed around in the group like predestination, election, grace and agency. It became clear that, like my theological colleague, many in the group were operating under the assumption that the chief source of theological problems was something named “Calvinism,” which threatened something they took to be sacrosanct called “free will.” It was clear they presumed human freedom to be a given — something like an unquestioned axiom, and they seemed to regard the freedom of God as a matter very much in question because “Calvinism” (as they understood it) excluded human freedom altogether.
I have heard many impassioned speeches by liberals and evangelicals on why free will is essential, and indeed self-evident. Such preoccupation with “freedom” often ironically masks latent assumptions of white middle-class privilege. But the theological basis of these arguments is also often much closer to the ancient heresy of Pelagianism — the belief that humanity can exercise the will freely and wisely without divine assistance — than any sort of orthodoxy, Baptist or otherwise. It helped me to see that the need to have serious theological conversations about divine and human freedom, on the basis of Scripture, was being negatively impacted by Neo-Reformed theology in my own little Baptist world.
I offer the following reflections for other small groups discussing the interrelation of divine and human will as they read Scripture together. These 10 points are meant to serve more as a set of hermeneutical rules than a list of theological conclusions.
- No one is as free as they think, nor is God as un-free as most people are comfortable with.
- God is not just one agent acting among other agents, but rather is the condition, cause and course of all freedom.
- Whether there is something called predestination is not a question, though understanding how and to what end God predestines is.
- Predestination is not synonymous with fate, nor is it exclusive of freedom.
- Election is a term that describes and signifies the story of God’s relationship with entire communities (viz., Jacob-Israel, Christ-Church) rather than the mechanism of determining the destiny of distinct individuals.
- The participation of Gentiles in the elect community of Christ’s Body, the Church, remains forever linked with God’s chosen people, Israel.
- The key to the work of God’s election is Jesus Christ, who at one and the same time is the electing God and the elected human.
- For Christians there is no election apart from Christ, so that being part of “the elect” is another way of talking about being “in Christ.”
- Election is meant to be construed retrospectively and doxologically, never prospectively or speculatively.
- Election is particular in focus (viz., Israel, the Church), but universal in scope (viz., the world).
The Christian consensus from the time of the Second Council of Orange in 529 A.D. has been that human willing and divine sustaining are not at odds, but are compatible with one another. Salvation is God’s gracious gift meant to be received by faith and worked out in faithful living. The gospel is truth that frees, and freedom in turn seeks to explore the truth in Christ that is its life and being. There are no easy answers, but receiving the gift of freedom in Christ means being released from the false binary that would force us to choose between God’s freedom and ours. Thanks be to God, that is not a choice we have to make!