Reformed Theology: Presented, Defined and Defended – Part I (Introduction)
Over the years, the same questions on reformed theology keep coming up – including, but not limited to questions on the warning passages (which I’ve covered already in posts 121 and 135), a few historical questions (i.e. did John Calvin burn Servetus at the stake and use green wood to make it last longer, Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner so he couldn’t have been a Christian, etc….) and various theological questions regarding the doctrines of grace. Well, after years of referring folks to Monergism, GOL, Ligionier, The Sovereignty of Grace, etc…. I’m finally writing up my own series. Eventually, it’ll become video. My goal is to knock this out
in a week over time as I go along….so here goes!
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 (to be extended…..)
Reformed Theology Presented and Expounded – Part I (Introduction)
As the Facebook and message board requests piled up, I figured the smartest way to address them all in one shot was to simply write articles, post them to my site and allow folks to roll forward from there. Facebook ‘post discussions’ are very unhelpful with regard to serious theological discussions, since they tend to be in a cramped and condensed space, which make for difficult reading. In addition, there are always folks who like to drop in and drop off a grenade or two to get things riled up and really don’t contribute to the discussion.
In this series, I’ll be addressing issues and questions brought up by folks who I’ve deemed to be either directly hostile to the doctrines of grace, downright ignorant of them (one person said they heard the ‘U’ in TULIP stood for unlimited, for example…) and/or both. In passing, I’d also like to hit up some of the historical claims and attacks against John Calvin as a person (i.e. “Calvin burned Servetus at the stake and used green wood to make it burn longer!” and other foolish non-truths). These things are secondary, though (the system is only named after Calvin, just like Weslyanism/Methodism is named after him, Arminianism is named after Arminius, Lutheranism is named after Luther and so on – so don’t get caught up on the people…the labels are just there to describe the system…nothing more). The major issue will always be “what does scripture teach on the issue ?” With that said, let’s begin this foray into reformed theology.
Opening Points and Suggestions
A few words before we begin. First, if you’re ‘against’ reformed theology, please make sure you actually understand what you are critiquing before you attack it. I highly suggest that folks who want to learn what reformed theology is take time and learn it from reputable sources, primary source documents (such as reformed creeds, confessions, and mainstream reformed authors) and not secondhand (such as critics of reformed theology). My experience has been that most ‘critics’ of reformed theology usually misdefine (some on purpose) some or all of it and then proceed to attack their misunderstandings and then claim they’ve ‘defeated’ reformed theology.
Case in point: one gentleman in a Facebook discussion referred to the Perseverance of the Saints (POTS) as ‘Once Saved, Always Saved’ (OSAS). While the concept of OSAS is popular in many non-reformed circles, virtually no one in reformed circles uses the term as a synonym for POTS. Proponents of OSAS like Charles Stanley, Zane Hodges, Robert Wilkin and Charles Ryrie believe that one can be a true believer can continue living in sin and even deny Christ verbally as well as with their lifestyle, yet still end up going to heaven because of a decision they made one day to ‘invite Christ into their heart’. This is not the Perseverance of the Saints. POTS states that there may be seasons where true believers may fall into sin, but because the Holy Spirit dwells in them, He will cause them to persevere (continue) in faith and eventually turn from sin. Both parties would agree that the Holy Spirit seals and preserves the believer (courtesy of John 10:28-29, Ephesians 4:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). The OSAS position, however, does not credit the sanctifying work of the Spirit as a part of the process of salvation.
This is simply one example. Many more could be cited (and a few will be), but it would be a better use of article space to simply define reformed theology (particularly reformed soteriology) properly and in such a fashion that answers all those questions along the way.
That brings us to the topic of resources. Several excellent works on reformed theology are available online. These include, but are not limited to:
- Lorraine Boettner’s classic work The Reformed Faith – http://www.reformed.org/calvinism/trf/index.html
- The Sovereignty of Grace by Arthur Custance – http://www.custance.org/Library/SOG/Index.html
- (My only caveat with this book are chapters 17-21, and the problems with those chapters will become obvious to anyone reading them.)
- The Sovereignty of God by Arthur W. Pink http://www.reformed.org/books/pink/index.html
In addition, there are several websites which cover reformed theology which I highly recommend:
- Monergism – http://www.monergism.com
- Reformed Answers – http://www.reformedanswers.org
- Grace Online Library – http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org
- Ligionier – http://www.ligonier.org
- Desiring God – http://www.desiringGOD.org
- CRTA – http://www.reformed.org
If you’re not a website person and you want something in print, there are several good books in print that I recommend on the doctrines of grace:
- The Doctrines of Grace by Philip Graham Ryken and James Montgomery Boice
- What Is Reformed Theology by R.C. Sproul
- Knowing God by J.I. Packer
- Five Dilemmas of Calvinism – Craig Brown
- Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims by Daniel R. Hyde
- Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition by James K. A. Smith
- Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism by Joel R. Beeke
- An Unexpected Journey: Discovering Reformed Theology by W. Robert Godfrey
- Who Saves, God or Me?: Calvinism for the Twenty-first Century by Erroll Hulse
Most of these books are a good starter for getting one introduced to the doctrines of grace. If you feel that I don’t cover something here, I highly suggest you visit one of these sites to get an extended read on a particular topic.
Second, reformed theology is not a ‘one verse and done’ discussion. There’s a reason John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is 1059 pages long. Reformed theology isn’t something that you ‘learn the verses for’ and then move on to another topic in fact, it isn’t even something that you may quickly ‘learn and understand’. Some individuals (Phil Johnson for example) take years (almost a decade and sometimes more) before they are finally able to even understand, much less defend, the doctrines of grace. Other individuals get introduced to the doctrines of grace and within a few months, find themselves actually believing them and understanding them well. For this author, the ‘trip’ took somewhere in the neighborhood of two years and a month. I wish I could say that I instantly grasped the doctrines of grace and wasn’t simply offended by them. Still, others (like my good friend Mike) come to believe the doctrines of grace because initially he came at them to attack them, thinking he could easily disprove them. Like a good Berean, he studied scripture intensely on the subject and made sure that he actually understood what reformed folks believed (not a caricature of what we believed) before he went about trying to critique it. To his (pleasant) surprise, he found that the bible did indeed teach these truths.
Thus, as a general rule, I let folks know ahead of time (including you, the reader) that reformed theology is not something that one walks into easily, the same way an one does not go into a game of Angry Birds, defeat the first page (20 levels) and think they have mastered the game. To use a musical illustration, one does not learn to play the first five notes on a wind instrument and then, thinking they know the basics of how the instrument works, assume to have mastered it. In like fashion, reformed theology, even when well-explained, isn’t something you come to understand in a day. Or two. Or ten. There are a myriad of areas of your Christian walk that are affected by reformed theology – from how you worship, to how you live, to how you evangelize. Reformed theology is intrusive: when you realize that the bible does teach certain things, you will not be content with simply ‘going to church’ on Sunday. You will see your neighbors in a different light and you will see your mission as a Christian in a different light. God Himself will appear bigger to you, your worship deeper, His grace sweeter, your salvation more precious and your sins more heinous than before. Yeah, it’s like that.
One final, final point on this introduction, if you’ll bear with me. Generally speaking, most of the time people use the words ‘reformed theology’, they are specifically referring to what is commonly called the ‘Five Points of Calvinism’. Historically (and more technically), the five points alone are not the sum and total of reformed theology. They are part of reformed theology, but not all of it. They are an introduction to reformed theology, the same way biology is an introduction to medical science but isn’t the equivalent of being a doctor. Reformed theology, as a whole, is creedal (meaning we generally hold to historic creeds and confessions – doctrinal statements – which we believe accurately summarize what the bible teaches), historical (meaning we do look back to past generations and realize that God has taught other godly men before us, so we also look to them for wisdom and not simply think we are the smartest Christians to ever live) and most importantly, biblical (the bible is the starting and ending place for all beliefs and practices for the believer, per 2 Tim. 3:14-17).
Some people I greatly admire are Calvinistic (meaning they believe the five points), but not reformed (because they do not hold to a particular creed or confession, covenant theology or infant baptism). So you may, from time to time, hear a reformed person refer to a confession or a creed as a summary of what they believe on a topic. Those creeds and confessions don’t take the place of scripture in any sense. In fact, looking them up, you’ll see (just by reading them) that they are based upon scripture (remember: RT is biblical).
Why this discussion ? Simple. It’s important to have your terms defined properly so that you communicate accurately. So all that said, the next article will get into discussing, defining and defending reformed theology (specifically reformed soteriology – how a person is saved) from scripture. Grab your bibles, prepare to do some digging in the next few articles.