In my last post, I introduced my recent (somewhat in progress) transition from classical, TULIP Calvinism (“TC”) to Evangelical Calvinism (“EC”). I did not elaborate much, of course. That is the point of the rest of the series. Before I get into all the details, I’ll give a quick history lesson about where EC came from. After all, no discerning believer is going to jump straight into novel doctrine. He’ll need to see roots in the tradition of the Church. Totally new ideas in theology are almost always wrong and lead to dangerous paths, after all.
A Brief History of Evangelical Calvinism
Like all Christian beliefs, EC seeks to have a root in Scripture. Every tradition has its own major texts, though, and EC is no different. Hebrews is a major resource for EC theology. Romans 4, Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1 are as well. These touchstone texts help form the basis for many of the fundamental ideas in EC.
A next major historical reference point for EC theology is Athanasius. He was a 4th century Christian apologist who did some great work on the Incarnation and the Atonement. His book On the Incarnation is still a classic. He is not alone among the Church Fathers in many of his ideas. EC theology makes good use of them.
In looking to historical documents EC identifies mainly with the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.
After that, there is some helpful influence within medieval theology. Not much of that is notable here. Naturally, being historically Calvinist and thus also Reformed, EC traces itself in a defining way to the Protestant Reformation. EC theology takes quite a bit from Martin Luther and John Calvin. This doesn’t include either of their ideas on election and predestination. Luther’s “theology of the cross” and Calvin’s use of union with Christ with the duplex gratia (double grace) of justification and sanctification are very important.
Next, EC follows along certain lines of Reformed theology that developed in Scotland. John Knox is an important theologian in this path. In looking to historical documents (as any good Reformed tradition does) EC identifies mainly with the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.
Evangelical Calvinism, like the Protestant Reformation, seeks to recover old truths and refresh their understanding, not to invent.
In modern times, EC draws quite a bit from Karl Barth (especially in the election department) and even more from Thomas Torrance. Both of these stand firmly in the Reformed camp, though not mainstream. Torrance is himself the origin of the term “Evangelical Calvinist.” It comes from his book Scottish Theology. There he sometimes referred to Scottish Calvinists who preached more on grace than predestination as “evangelical Calvinists.” This was because their theology and practice was naturally more evangelistic than that of classical Calvinism. Today, readers of Torrance including Bobby Grow and Myk Habets have taken that term and made it the designation for this overall theological direction.
I want this to make something clear. EC is not meant to be altogether “new.” Novelty is not always a virtue, especially in theology. While EC might say a few mostly new ideas, most of the EC project is pulling together different ideas that have roots all back through Christian history. Some of these EC refines or explains in new ways. All of them are brought into a sharply Christ-centered focus which has not always been used for them. But the EC movement, in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, seeks to recover old truths and refresh their understanding, not to invent.
A Brief Summary of Evangelical Calvinism
So, what do we get from this history? How did this kind of theology turn out? It seems, to me, to take every thought captive to Christ. It starts and ends with the Triune God of love. EC understands Him only through the way He has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ and then Scripture. We do not start with logical proofs for God’s existence, and a discussion of divine attributes. Instead we start with the revealed fact of the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the way God acts as seen in Jesus Himself—the exact expression of God’s nature—and recorded in Scripture. Any ideas about God’s all-power, all-knowledge, or all-presence are understood by how they are presented to us in this revelation, not by abstract philosophical reasoning. This, naturally, includes questions involving God’s sovereignty and electing plans.
For EC theology, Jesus is the center and the rule of understanding. As Bobby Grow often says, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.” Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.” God has spoken to us about Himself perfectly in His Son. So everything we know about God must be understood in light of what Jesus reveals about Him. Jesus says “Let the little children come unto me.” Therefore God the Father is not working deciding behind the scenes which of the children will not come to Him. “God so loved the world so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” This does not allow for “God secretly decrees which ‘whosoevers’ believe and which perish.” That would mean that God Himself still hides from us, showing in Jesus only some of what He is and what He does. In fact, in this case, it would seem as though Jesus is Himself not God as a man, but God partially revealed through a man!
We start with the revealed fact of the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the way God acts as seen in Jesus Himself.
Not only, though, is Jesus the perfect appearance of God. He is also the prototype human! All human nature is based on Jesus’ human nature. This might sound strange, but consider this. Humanity was created “in the image of God,” aka the imago dei. What is that image? It’s been debated for years, but in truth the answer was always in Scripture. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God!” Jesus is the image of God, and we are made in His image. Therefore Jesus’ own human life is the basis for ours. But what does that mean and what does it do?
Well, because of the last two paragraphs there is no nonsense in EC about a “limited atonement.” Jesus did not come and die only willing to save a handful of people. In fact, simply by coming as a human being Jesus is shown to working towards the salvation of everyone. In Jesus God Himself is joined to humanity in His very nature. So He redeems our fallen state through a life of sinless perfection and complete sanctification. Born “in the likeness of sinful flesh” He condemned our sin. He had a human nature like our own yet didn’t sin, showing us all as guilty. But He doesn’t leave us in our guilt. Instead He died, in His own human person summing up ours on a deep and real level. So He wrapped up all of our sin in Himself and died, taking it with Him. Even though His life proved that we deserved judgment, Jesus suffered that same judgment He brought on us.
Humanity was created “in the image of God.” Jesus is the image of God!
Finally, on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. In 40 days, He ascended to heaven. These events are the final guarantee of salvation for the human race. Jesus, as I said before, is the basis for human life. So when He died to sin, rose from the grave, and ascended to the Father, He accomplished this for all humanity. The death of our sinful natures, new Spirit-powered life, and communion with God are now part of human nature itself! All we need is to hear the Gospel preached with the power of the Holy Spirit working in it. Then we can be brought by the Spirit’s power into Jesus own human life, and so believe and be saved. When we are connected to Jesus by the Spirit through faith, we share His death to sin, His Spirit-powered resurrection life, and His intimacy with the Father. Amen, hallelujah!
Next Time on “The Nicene Nerd”
I hope all of this has rung true to you. I do imagine that it is not obvious how this differs from some things you may have always heard, or how it addresses the so-called 5 points of Calvinism. Rest assured I will answer these questions in the rest of the series. But I thought it was important to go ahead and explain why EC is not a new invention, and what the Gospel looks like from an EC perspective. In my next post, I will probably discuss what’s on everyone’s mind: election and the will of man.