Yesterday evening, Derek Rishmawy started a hashtag on Twitter called #keyCalvinistmoments. It is highly unusual for me to get into discussions of Calvinism nowadays. However, having earlier taken part in an exchange on the subject of divine and human will, the freedom of the will, and the phenomenology of ‘choice’, I was already reflecting on some familiar Calvinist discussions and doctrinal positions. When Derek’s hashtag appeared, I added a few tweets of my own.
Participating in the #keyCalvinistmoments hashtag gave me cause to consider once again what it is about the thought of Calvin and the Reformed faith more generally that has resonated with and been so formative for me. Perhaps most striking to me was the fact that hardly any of the things that came to mind were directly related to the so-called ‘five points of Calvinism’. Despite the fact that these points are presented by many as if they were absolutely central to the Reformed faith—and, indeed, to Christianity more generally—in the sort of Calvinism that captured my theological imagination, even when they were affirmed, these points exercised a far more muted role. Once again, I was struck by how little the sort of Calvinism that inspires me has to do with ‘TULIPism’, which is equated with Calvinism in the popular Christian imagination.
Calvinism is often encountered in the context of conflict, which tends to focus its presentation upon chief points of controversy. The ‘five points’ are an example of this effect, a bastardization of the teaching of the Synod of Dort, from 1618-19, against the followers of Jacobus Arminius. These controverted points have since become the centre of the presentation of ‘Calvinism’ for many. However, for those of us whose understanding of Calvinist thought isn’t framed by controversy, the relative prominence of various themes and doctrinal emphases can be quite different.
The following are a list of some of the things that have especially excited me about the theology of Calvin and the Reformed faith over the years. The points listed here are not exclusive to Calvin and the Reformed faith, nor do you need to read Calvin in order to learn about them. I believe that they are the common inheritance of all Christians and known and expressed by many brothers and sisters outside of my particular theological tradition. However, for me, as for many others, it was through studying the Reformed faith that I first came to understand and be gripped by these truths and realities.
1. The confidence and comfort in knowing that the God who has revealed himself to be for us in Jesus Christ works his gracious purpose in and through all things and that nothing can stop him from achieving his glorious end. It is such truth that allows me to say with the Heidelberg Catechism that my ‘only comfort in life and death’ is
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
2. The joyful solemnity that results from reflecting upon the holiness and glory of God. In a world preoccupied with the frivolous and trivial, a sense of the weightiness of God—the heights of his majesty and the depths of his love—can hit us like a sledgehammer. Spending time with such a God changes you.
3. The gift of God’s inspired and sure revelation in Scripture, a trustworthy guide in which we encounter Christ and through which his authority is exercised in his Church. Before the searching light of this truth all of the hobgoblins of superstition cower, all idols are brought low, and speculation must wither. As we submit to Christ’s rule through his word, we are released from those who would tyrannize our consciences and prey on our ignorance and taught to glorify and enjoy the Lord our God.
4. The truth that, in the words of Abraham Kuyper, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is over all earthly rulers, giving us confidence to live as his free people, whoever might try to persecute or suppress us. As all of creation belongs to our Lord Jesus we should fearlessly venture out into his world and serve him in it, living out the life of Christ in every area of life and activity. Creation is the theatre of God’s glory and we are God’s fellow workers, called to bring his life, love, and beauty wherever we go.
5. The fact that our salvation isn’t found in ourselves, but in Christ and in union with him by his Spirit. It is no longer I who live, but he who lives in me. My true identity is found, not by navel-gazing within, but by looking to the one who died and rose again and is now ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father. In him I have salvation in its entirety: justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification. He is the one who gives humanity’s true response to God and in him we are God’s beloved children.
6. The teaching that there is continuity in God’s purposes throughout history and unity between the people of God in the old and new covenants. These purposes reach their climax in Christ, in whom we are the sons and daughters of Abraham and the heirs of all of the riches of the covenant. The Old Testament is a book written for and about us, for our edification and instruction. It speaks of God’s effecting his salvation in history and of our forefathers, the Israelites. Christ is to be found throughout it.
7. That the Law of God is a delight and a source of grace, for in it we meet our Saviour, to whom it points, and learn of the character that God is forming in us by his Spirit. Through the ministry of the Law and the free gift of the Gospel the people of God are raised up into the full stature of Christ.
8. That Christ bore the condemnation that lay upon us on account of our sins at the cross, bringing the old humanity down to the grave, so that we might rise to new, holy, and glorious life in him. Christ did not die in vain, for by the power of his Spirit a new people is being formed through his shed blood. The death of Christ frees us from the guilt and power of sin and gives us confidence to come before the throne of God as those who have been fully forgiven.
9. That, through the mysterious work of his Spirit, we are given the presence of the risen and ascended Christ in the celebration of his Supper, where we feed on his flesh and drink of his blood.
Many other points could be mentioned. I could also discuss my appreciation of the Reformed tradition itself, of such things as its emphasis upon expository preaching. I could discuss the exciting breadth and catholicity of the historical Reformed tradition, a fact that might come as a surprise to those whose primary encounters with ‘Calvinist’ thought have come from more exclusive and ideological quarters.
Please add your thoughts in the comments. If you are Reformed, what are the things that you most appreciate about the tradition and its emphases? If you belong to a different tradition, what are the dimensions of your tradition’s teaching and practice that most powerfully resonate with you?