[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity. Below is my understanding of the Calvinist system, as gathered from R. C. Sproul’s “What is Reformed Theology?”, one of the books recommended to me. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series as I work my way down my reading list. Protestant commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction. The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Reformed faith, rather than to criticize or defend it (except against definite misunderstandings, of which there are unfortunately many).]
Sproul’s book attempts to explain the distinctive tenets of Reformed theology. It highlights differences with other Christians while avoiding a polemical tone. (Sproul tries hard to be fair to Catholicism. More often, he contrasts his classical Protestant positions with those of the Arminians; only they could say how fairly he characterizes them.) This is just right for our purposes.
The doctrine of forensic justification by faith is, of course, at the heart of the Reformers’ theological project. Luther called it “the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour…” This might sound excessive, even to those who accept the doctrine. However, one can’t understand the Reformed view of justification without grasping the basic principle it seeks to preserve, a principle that arguably is both unique and essential to the Gospel. To quote Luther again
Is not this righteousness an alien righteousness? It consists completely in the indulgence of another and is a pure gift of God, who shows mercy and favor for Christ’s sake…Therefore a Christian is not formally righteous; he is not righteous according to substance or quality…
Your righteousness is not in you. It’s in Christ and imputed to you. In yourself, you have nothing whatsoever to brag about, no claim you could make on God. Your redemption is entirely His gracious work. It is ironic that so many neoreactionaries both identify Leftism as a “holier than thou” status composition and blame it on Protestantism. The basic thrust of Protestantism is to deny any intrinsic claims to holiness, cutting the competition off at the beginning. Placing each person’s righteousness outside himself is also a profoundly non-individualistic position.
Forensic justification means God declares a sinner just, rather than reforming his soul and then recognizing that He has done so. Protestants certainly do believe that God reforms souls and dwells within them, but they separate this conceptually from justification, which is a change in one’s status before God, that is in one’s relationship to God, not one’s internal state or a decision of God constrained by this state. Critics say this reduces justification to a legal fiction, while Protestants would say that nothing else is true to Revelation.
However, the line between the Catholic “analytic” model of justification and the Reformed “synthetic” model is blurred later in the book (if I understand correctly). Justification is by faith, faith comes (logically, not necessarily temporally) after regeneration (otherwise, fallen man could have saving faith by his own power, making faith a work, and justification by faith a form of Palagianism), and regeneration is the work of grace.
Once one accepts the principle that salvation is entirely God’s work, other Calvinist positions follow necessarily. Logic compels one to go almost the full TULIP. Could salvation be a cooperative work of God and man? No, or else it would really come down to man’s decision to cooperate, allowing him to earn salvation. Could we allow that God offers saving faith to men, but we have the power to refuse it? No, that would make faith a work and salvation something merited by it. One cannot even allow man a purely negative power of thwarting the promptings of grace, since then salvation would again come down to us and our choice not to exert this power. Therefore, grace must be irresistible. If grace is irresistible, that means that those who are not saved were not offered it, so the benefits of the Atonement are limited to the elect.
Assurance of salvation
Calvinists believe that salvation is a thing that cannot be lost. A person who appears to believe and then apostasizes either never really believed or will certainly return to faith before death. This may be contrasted to the Catholic assumption that a man may be in a state of grace and then lose it by committing a mortal sin. (Catholics would, of course, agree that the man destined to fall out of grace was never predestined.) Most people probably find the Catholic position more plausible, so why does Reformed doctrine insist on perseverance? First of all, it would be a mistake to think that a Protestant bases his assurance of salvation on any confidence in himself and his ability to avoid sin. It is God Who he trusts to bring the work begun in his soul to fruition. The Protestant doesn’t imagine that he won’t sin between now and death or that his life is not now in need of serious rectification. He only trusts that God will win out in the end.
However, if God can with complete justice predestine or reprobate whomever he wants–and Calvinists certainly say He can–why should He not decide to grant a man grace for a time but then withdraw it before death? I doubt the Calvinists would claim that God is under some obligation not to do this. What they do say is that He has promised that He won’t do it. It comes down to a matter of Biblical exegesis. On matters like limited atonement and perseverance of the saints, one can admittedly find scriptural passages that seem to argue either way. Sproul makes a respectable case that the clearer passages support Calvinist positions, and the others can be interpreted in the light of the clearer ones without undue violence to the text.
Protestants worry that an official interpreter of the text quickly becomes de facto master of the text. How do they avoid this problem? They declare the Bible inerrant and the sole ultimate standard of faith. Inerrancy is not claimed for translations of the scriptures or even the selection of the canon. Now, knowing which books are in the Bible and that one’s translation is a fair representation of the original are necessary if one is to actually apply scriptural inerrancy. Thus, the Protestant relies on the fact that, although these were fallible human works (the choice of the canon and the work of translation, that is), the Church in fact did get them right, as can be determined by historical and textual study.
Many Protestants are happy to credit their principle of private interpretation as a blow for freedom. It might be better seen as a negative principle. Private interpretation is something forced upon them by the lack of a completely trustworthy official interpreter. The Reformers do provide some guidelines for the task of interpretation. They insist that each Bible passage has only one true meaning (although that one meaning may have many ramifications), the “literal” meaning. The literal meaning is the text’s natural meaning, which, depending on context, could actually be a figurative reading, although such interpretations should only be made when they are forced upon us.
Calvinism is well known for its “pessimistic” view of unredeemed human nature. Alternatively, one could say it has an expansive view of the effects of grace. Unredeemed man cannot perform a single virtuous deed. Of course, fallen men may act according to God’s law in some particular circumstance or another, but they never do it for the right reason, and so it is never ultimately pleasing to Him. Sproul gives two interpretations of this (without pointing out that they are distinct). The weaker one is that fallen man cannot act out of love for God, since in the absence of grace, he does not love God. The stronger one, attributed to Jonathan Edwards, is that all an unredeemed man’s apparently righteous actions are the work of enlightened self-interest (fear of the law, concern for reputation, etc). It was not clear to me whether other Reformers credit unredeemed man with an ability to unselfishly love other creatures–their mothers, for example.
As the Westminster Confession puts it, fallen man has “wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as a natural man, being altogether adverse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.” Absent grace, we cannot will salvation because we do not want it; we do not find it at all attractive. What’s more, our attitude toward God is not just an absence of love, but active antipathy. Sproul even criticizes evangelical Christians for saying that their unbelieving friends are “searching for God”. No, Sproul insists, they are fleeing God. God willing, it will be He Who finds them. Nor will Sproul allow that the existence of desires that can only be fulfilled in God constitute in themselves an implicit desire for Him.
One must credit the Calvinists with their commitment to honesty and logic. If the truth as they see it sounds harsh and unappealing, they state it clearly anyway. I could imagine positive-sounding rephrasings of many core Calvinist points. “Total depravity” might have been “the presence of God’s grace in all good deeds”. But the negative statement is clearer, so that’s what they’ve gone with.
I hope Protestant readers will accept that any misunderstandings in the above are unintentional, but I apologize in advance for them nonetheless.