Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Catholic Calvinism

P. Andrew Sandlin has written many informative articles. This summer he published an article that was "all the rage" entitled Toward a Catholic Calvinism. I have been meaning to comment on this article for some time.

Sandlin attempts to describe three types of conservative, reformed Christians: Totally Reformed (TR), Barely Reformed (BR), and the newly emerging Catholic Reformed (CR). In the latter, Catholic refers to the universal church, not the Roman Catholic Church.

I appreciate that it is an impossible task to breakdown such a diverse group into three categories. However, I must say that Sandlin did a particularly poor job. Mainly, I think, because he wanted to spend most of his time describing the CR position, he created an inaccurate caricature of TRs, briefly stated how BRs differ, and then used the bulk of the article to explain Catholic Calvinism. That is understandable, given the purpose and title of his article, yet in describing CRs is where Sandlin truly fails, for, as I hope to show, he resorts mostly to empty platitudes. If Sandlin's article is your only source of information about CRs, you are left with absolutely zero insight in to what they actually believe. You will learn far, far more about CRs by reading some CR blogs such as this and this. (If by chance those I have identified as CRs object to the designation, I apologize.)

Sandlin starts with the TRs, beginning by describing the three avowed "enemies" of the TR: Arminianism, Protestant Liberalism, and Roman Catholicism. In the sense that he means enemy, namely as one whom the TRs believe is teaching an incorrect gospel, then he is of course correct.

Sandlin goes on to give this description of TRs:

TRs thoughtfully and rigorously fight the battle to preserve strict, confessional Calvinism; literal, six-day creation; male church leadership; the regulative principle of worship (only that which is commanded in public worship is permitted); Presbyterian church polity (government by elders); the soteriological doctrines of sovereign grace (the so-called Five Points of Calvinism);

In my experience, TRs are not monolithic about all these topics (although about sovereign grace, yes, even though the TULIP acrostic is so "last millennium"). In particular there is great diversity on preserving strict, confessional Calvinism (otherwise there could be no reformed Baptists), literal six day creation and the regulative principle. By this definition I am not a TR. Neither is Francis Schaeffer. Nor even the poster child for the TRs: R.C. Sproul.

He is mostly correct that TRs oppose dialog with Roman Catholicism (until The Roman Catholic Church revokes her anathemas of the solas). Even here, however, it is easy to find exceptions to his generalizations—for example, we think of J.I. Packer and his participation in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).

Sandlin writes that 'The TRs, it should be mentioned, are highly suspicious of any doctrinal or theological development later than the seventeenth century'. Again, true enough—although I would say this is a feature, not a bug. And TRs are not absolute about this—otherwise you would be hard pressed to explain the devotion to Jonathan Edwards and Francis Schaeffer (just to name two) that you find in many TRs.

I remember when Sandlin’s article first came out Joel Garver made a comment to me somewhat along the lines of "So I suppose you are a TR". I told him that I didn't know. A more accurate response would have been: yes, but not according to Sandlin's description.

On the BRs, Sandlin spends little time. He describes them as 'more interested in an irenic denomination and warm-hearted Christianity than in haggling over theological niceties'. In other words, they are not dogmatists like the TRs. Sandlin lauds the BRs evangelical zeal, but later adds 'we [the CRs] do not believe that the BRs often understand or at least preach and teach that gospel in its Biblical fullness'.

The Catholic Reformed

Sandlin then launches into what he calls a description of his own view, the recently emerging Catholic Reformed. Here the article deteriorates, for while Sandlin can be excused for stereotyping TRs and BRs, given the brevity of his essay, he at least ought to have something substantive to say about what CRs stand for—for example their view on justification and how it differs from a TR’s view. Instead we get platitudes such as:

  • we do not wish to throw overboard the great gains of the pre-Reformation period — the patristic and medieval eras. We do not wish to perpetuate the errors of those eras, but neither do we wish to perpetuate what we believe to be certain errors of the Reformation era.

  • CRs are committed to the fact of theological and dogmatic development.

  • We [CRs] do not believe that the Bible contradicts orthodox Christianity.

  • Part of that practicality is the calling to charity toward our brothers. And we CR’s believe that this has been grievously lacking in much of the Reformed camp, whether TR or BR.

  • We do not see Reformed orthodoxy as the foundation of Christianity. We see Jesus Christ as the foundation of Christianity.

  • We [CRs] do not claim to possess all of the truth, and we are willing to find Biblical truth wherever it is located. We do not believe that Calvinists hold a monopoly on Christian truth.

  • We are further Reformed in that we do not believe that the need for reformation ended in 1540. We believe in ecclesia reformata quia semper reformanda est — “the church reformed because it must always be reforming.”

  • The Bible alone is our final authority. We must champion — and practice — sola Scriptura.

These descriptions are essentially worthless—any person claiming to be Reformed-- TR, BR or CR would affirm each of them. (As for the paucity of charity, if Sandlin thinks that it is only a problem for TRs and BRs, I can show him a few uplifting comments on my blog and some below-the-belt posts on other blogs that should alert him to the fact that it can also be a problem for the CRs).

The bottom line is that Sandlin’s article is nothing more than a Goldilocks argument. The TRs are too cold with their dogmatism. The BRs are too hot with their commendable quest for souls-- as they suffer from preaching an abbreviated gospel. The CRs are just right.

I would like to offer another definition of TRs that Sandlin could have used, and from which he could have based an informative essay on the Catholic Reformed. Now, this is only my definition, no other TR may agree. I speak for no one—I get a measly 100 hits a day, the majority of which disagree with me.

I would say that TRs are those who elevate the solas of the Reformation: faith-alone, grace-alone, Christ-alone, and scripture-alone into the rarefied domain of Christian essentials, about which there can be no deviation without slipping into apostasy. This explains our general disdain for ecumenical dialog with Roman Catholics. And, up to now, we are unconvinced that anyone has demonstrated anything substantively incorrect with either the Reformer's teachings on the solas or with our understanding of what the Reformers taught. We are willing to listen (and yes, more charity is in order), but the burden of proof is on those who would say that our views are in need of an overhaul.

That is, I think, a fair description of TRs. Not the Ichabod Crane caricature that Sandlin presents. And I think it would be a great place from which to start a discussion of the CR position that was more than one dimensional.

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