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Post-Calvinism: Trinity Student Days

posted by xscot mcknight

When I got to Trinity in the Fall of 1976, the first thing I noticed was how tightly the theological discussion was ratcheted. These folks knew what they were talking about, and they knew biblical texts and theological discussions, and the history of the Church. It took some work just to be conversant. It was a challenge for which I am grateful to this day.

Calvinism was not a front-burner issue, but was on the stove top waiting for someone to say something uninformed. I had some wonderful lecturers: H. Dermott McDonald was an eccentric theologian from London who told us that our syllabus was the library and we should get over there and read up on “God, Man, and Christ” and then come take his exam at the end. David Wells taught Sin and Salvation, and began by telling us that his wife said that he could teach the first half of the class by giving an autobiography. McDonald was not a Calvinist; Wells was. My NT teachers didn’t raise such topics: Norm Ericsen and Murray Harris. But, then Grant Osborne came to TEDS. (So, I can blame this journey on Grant, which he’d be happy to take credit for.)

Here’s what happened. Grant is famous for his handouts, and he had one on Eternal Security. It was a lengthy handout and he asked me to work through it, add some bibliography, and generally re-write it. It was a big task for me, but it was the first real chance I had to do something at that level. To prepare for it, Grant suggested I read I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God. Which I did. From cover to cover; underlined it; took notes; checked commentaries. It took a good long while. When I came up for air in Hebrews I had been persuaded that I was wrong about Calvinism. Like C.S. Lewis getting on a bus and then getting off converted, but not knowing when or how, so with me: from the beginning of working through Grant’s notes to reading through Marshall and arguing with him until he wrestled me to the ground and pinned me, I had become convinced that I was no longer a Calvinist. Which didn’t mean I gave up the architecture of Calvinism, but I did its theology.

It was and still is my conviction that the five points belong together. You might be able to give up #5 somehow (I don’t think so, but some think so) and you might need to add a #6 (Responsiblity), but if the Arminian understanding of “losing salvation” is right, then Calvinism is not right. (I’ll eventually show why I don’t like the expression “losing salvation.”) Let me say this more clearly: if God’s grace can be resisted somehow, if believers can somehow choose to forfeit their salvation, then unconditional election and irresistible grace (and probably limited atonement) and surely perseverance/preservation of the saints are not right.

I found two major weaknesses in Calvinism’s theology (and also a disorientation in its architecture): first, the emphasis of its architecture is not the emphasis of the Bible. Its focus on God’s Sovereignty, which very quickly becomes much less a doctrine of grace than a doctrine of control and theodicy etc, and its overemphasis on human depravity are not the emphases I found in the Bible. I do not dispute the presence of these themes; I dispute this is where the gravity of emphasis is found in the Bible. Yes, I know we all have metanarratives that put things together, and Calvinism is one such metanarrative. It works for some; it simply didn’t work for me.

Second, the exegesis of Calvinism on crucial passages I found wanting and sometimes dead wrong. I was once standing, years later when I was teaching at Trinity, outside my door talking with two professors about my view of Hebrews, when I simply asked one of them, “Who do you think best answers the Arminian interpretation of Hebrews?” That professor said, “Philip Hughes.” I had just read Hughes and I thought it was weak. In fact, what I thought was this: “If that is the best, then there is no debate.” The other professor said, “I agree, Scot. Hughes doesn’t answer the questions.” Then he said, “I’m not sure any commentary really answers it well.” (Both of these professors were Calvinists, and still are, God bless ‘em.) What I’m saying is that exegetical conclusions I was drawing (in all kinds of passages) were not answered adequately by the Calvinists I was reading. I think I gave them a fair shot.

So this is where I found myself when I left for Nottingham to study for a Ph.D. in New Testament. I was reared among the eternal security Baptists who took what they liked from Calvinism and discarded most of the five points. Then I became more consistently Calvinistic by reading the Puritans and Calvin.

Then I read the Bible from a different point of view and it all came tumbling down. If the Bible, so I concluded, teaches that a human can be a believer and somehow forfeit that status, then the theology of Calvinism cannot be right.

This left me with a strange mixture of theology: I was reared Baptist; I had done more than my fair share of reading the low church Anabaptists and considered myself one of those when it came to where theologizing ought to begin: with Jesus. And I was now studying the Bible with some Arminian conclusions on soteriology.

Following two years in England TEDS offered me a non-tenure track job to teach NT that lasted two years, and then (by the grace of God) it was ramped up to a full-time position when Wayne Grudem, in the providence of God, shifted over to Systematic Theology.

Within two years I was asked to teach Hebrews in a survey course, and I decided to spend my entire summer going through the exegesis of Hebrews and I was determined to concentrate on those dadgummed warning passages to see if I could settle the issues once and for all.

If I’m right about Hebrews, Calvinism is wrong. The number of students who wrote midterm essays agreeing with me made me nervous. It was no coincidence that a well-known Calvinistic prof, whom I often called “DA what’s his name?” in class, began teaching Hebrews shortly thereafter.

Tomorrow I’ll start on the warning passages in Hebrews, the most notorious of which is Hebrews 6:4-6. I think I can prove that the author believed “believers” could forfeit their salvation.



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ScottB

posted July 29, 2005 at 10:19 am


“Its focus on God’s Sovereignty, which very quickly becomes much less a doctrine of grace than a doctrine of control and theodicy etc, and its overemphasis on human depravity are not the emphases I found in the Bible.”Well said, very well said indeed. I think it’s hard to hold sovereignty and grace in tension. On some level, I think you have to struggle with the questions of a God who could save everyone, but (apparently) does not – universalist approaches notwithstanding (but I think Christian attempts at universalism are actually just another way of attempting to resolve the tension, because such an approach still has to deal with the theme of judgment). The thing that I’ve always struggled with in thinking through Calvinism’s approach doesn’t start where you’re starting – with eternal security – but rather with limited atonement. There just seems to be too much in scripture that argues against limited atonement, and I think that causes a number of issues for the theology as well – as you said, the five points are woven together pretty tightly.I’m very much looking forward to reading your thoughts on Hebrews.



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Michael Daling

posted July 29, 2005 at 10:51 am


Scot,Thanks for your thoughts on this. As a raging Calvinist myself, I am not always happy with the manner Calvinism is carried through. Honest exegesis and humble commitment to God’s Word are vital in every area of theology, so I appreciate you taking us through your journey. I have heard a very highly respected Calvinist NT scholar say that if all he had was Hebrews, he would be Arminian. The texts in Hebrews are not to be taken lightly, so I look forward to your discussion.I hope that you are also able at some point to talk about the Cavinist overemphasis on total depravity. It has been my experience that it has been emphasized wrongly (in an inappropriate manner), but I wouldn’t say overemphasized. I have found this discussion to usually bring out the worst in people (at least as far as debate is concerned). I think this will be a good forum for it though.



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richImages

posted July 29, 2005 at 10:53 am


I really enjoyed reading this article.



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J. B. Hood

posted July 29, 2005 at 11:10 am


Thanks for this Scot. I agree with Michael’s comments–I’m a Calvinist but there sure better be room for more in one’s tent. I love your autobiographical approach and you tenor.



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Sivin Kit

posted July 29, 2005 at 11:52 am


this is so good … especially after late nigiht supper and finishing a small group training … I don’t think I was ever a Calvinist .. so no post-calvinism for me. But, re-looking at Luther has been helpful for me, and Early German Pietism and Bonhoeffer.



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martyduren

posted July 29, 2005 at 11:53 am


Scot,Thanks for this input. I could not accurately classify myself as a Calvinist, but your “architecture” formation helps me delineate my own theology more clearly.I noticed at eSBLC that you were going to do these posts and appreciate the time that you have put into doing it.



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Gerald

posted July 29, 2005 at 1:01 pm


Scott, I am sympathetic to your concerns here. It is very difficult to suppose that Hebrews teaching anything other the Arminian view of perseverance. This is one of the reasons I moved from being a Calvinist to an Augustinian. You wrote, “but if the Arminian understanding of “losing salvation” is right, then Calvinism is not right.”Agreed. But to say that Calvin is wrong about perseverance—and I think he is—does not necessarily mean that Arminians are correct about election. At the risk of telling you something you already know (but perhaps others here don’t) Augustine was an Arminian regarding perseverance and a Calvinist regarding election. Augustine believed–like Calvin–that election was unconditional (and grace infallible, not irresistible as Calvinists typically state). All whom God preordains for final salvation are in fact saved. But unlike Calvin, Augustine believed that one could—and many did—lose their salvation. Calvinism, with its legal forensic doctrine of atonement, makes the loss of salvation (i.e. judicial cleansing) impossible. But Augustine’s doctrine of justification is ontological and grounded in regeneration. Those who do not persevere under the healing hand of the physician lose the benefits of their initial healing. One final salvation is not secure until the end. For Augustine, God does not give the grace of perseverance to all Christians. Why this is so he did not pretend to know. In my mind, the Calvanism/Arminianism paradigms bifurcates these two elements of Augustine’s thought. It is Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement, not Calvin’s view of election that creates difficulties for the Reformed position when it attempts to grapple with passages such as Hebrews 2, 6, 10, etc. Augustine, I believe, provides a better way forward, and still allows us to retain his (and Calvin’) emphasis upon unconditional grace. Further, I think that Augustine’s understanding of depravity was much gentler than that of Calvin’s. More can be said on Augustine and depravity, but perhaps not here. Incidentally, Luther (and I think Lewis) holds a similar view on election and perseverance. Here’s hoping you come back to the fold!Look forward to reading your future posts.Gerald



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Mike

posted July 29, 2005 at 1:04 pm


Wow, this is a great flashback to your ‘leftovers’ class at Trinity. You got me thinking about Hebrews then, and I’m just agreeing with you all over again. It is especially helpful to hear more of your biographic background to your conclusions. Those probably weren’t kosher at TEDS, but they are quite compelling here. To steal one of your phrases from another NT context, it is good to hear from someone who is (or was) “a loyal critic”. Thanks.



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john alan turner

posted July 29, 2005 at 2:08 pm


Seems to me that approaching this conversation through the lens of Hebrews is absolutely perfect. In fact, it kind of gets close to the root of the problem — reading/projecting Greek Rationalism into Hebraic texts. Fantastic series here Scot.



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graham old

posted July 29, 2005 at 2:22 pm


Amen to all ‘dat!To me, as I think you suggest, Calvinism simply asks the wrong questions. And Arminians give the wrong answers.I appreciate this discussion of “Post” – rather than “ex” – Calvinism for that very reason.



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Len

posted July 29, 2005 at 3:06 pm


Intriguing reading this today after reading McLaren’s light.. but appealing.. treatement of the five points near the end of “A Generous Orthodoxy.” He rewrites the five points completely.. essentially discarding the content while retaining the framework. Kind of tongue in cheek I suppose, but I liked it..



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Derick

posted July 29, 2005 at 3:09 pm


I am interrested in reading the rest of your comments. It seems you have set up this debate to be rooted on who has a better argument of Hebrews 6, which is unfortunate. As well, there seems to be a lot of inferences without much substance in this post. I am unsure if these posts are rooted in an exegetical study or a testimonial. From this point, it is purely testimonial.Yeah, I am a calvinist and proud of it… yet, many friends of mine are not. A couple of things you mention about are very good, including the interrelationship between the various aspects of the reformed belief. This is an honest understanding of the debate. Thank you for including this. I await the other posts.



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fr'nklin

posted July 29, 2005 at 4:15 pm


I think I stopped being a “Calvinist” because they had all the answers…they could make the ends of Hebrews 6 and 1 John 2 meet perfectly! All you had to do was put on the right “glasses”…the tulip colored ones;). Guess I’ve found that anyone who seems to have all the answers…doesn’t…and this, I think is true of Calvinism.



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John Mark Hicks

posted July 29, 2005 at 5:02 pm


Post-PelagianWhen I entered Westminster Seminary in 1977, I was, for all practical purposes, Pelagian. When I finished my Ph.D. there in 1985, I talk my dissertatin interrogation committee that Westminster had been a blessing for me. I entered a Pelagian, and am leaving a fairly “classic” Arminian (my dissertation was on the development of 17th century Dutch Remonstrant theology). They were graciously amused–at least they had made some progress. :-)I look forward to your series. I still recommend your article on “Warning Texts” to those who want to understand Hebrews in the context of this historic discussion.



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Christopher Hodge

posted July 29, 2005 at 5:52 pm


Scot, Calvinism teaches that believers can reject the faith as per the doctrine of perseverance (which is not the same as once saved always saved and often confused). It does teach that the elect will never reject the faith. Are you making a distinction between believers and the smaller group within them that are the elect believers?



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Gerald

posted July 29, 2005 at 6:26 pm


Christopher, A good question, but as I understand things, though Calvinism might allow for “believers” to reject the faith, this is not the same things as saying that a justified believer–one to whom the righteousness of Christ has been imputed–can loose his salvation. If you disagree, this would be the first time that I had heard of it and would really value seeing some texts.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 29, 2005 at 7:28 pm


Chris and Gerald,The issue here is whether there is such a thing as a categorical distinction between “justified” believers and non-justified believers. For my take, this is an imposition on the texts. What I hear you suggesting is that believers can lose their faith but justified believers can’t. If there is no distinction… I’ll get to this in the Hebrews blogs.



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Bob Robinson

posted July 29, 2005 at 9:32 pm


Scot,Your story is somewhat the same, somewhat different than mine:1. I Came to faith in a baptistic Bible church (“once saved, always saved,” and dispensational).2. They sent me to Trinity for my M.Div.. While there were some dispenstationalists teaching there (2, I think, maybe 3), and a few wacky profs talking about Arminianism (Grant Osbourne and yourself), most of the heavy-hitters were near-calvinists (I call them this because we did not learn any of the catechisms or confessions of the Reformed tradition, and they rarely talked about the five points).3. The influence of Wayne Grudem and DA-what’s his name and Doug Moo and Dennis Magary (as well as reading John Piper) shifted me out of my dispensationalist background to what I felt was a more biblical view.4. After TEDS, I began reading more in the Reformed Tradition—becoming more familiar with the classic confessions and catechisms and reading the major theologians and Bible commentators. I thought I found THE truth!5. But after a while, it started to taste stale in my mouth. It was not answering many of the hard questions that you raise here in this post. That’s when I read Brian McLaren for the first time, and realized that I was going too narrow into a single tradition when I actually needed to go broader—learning from other voices in the Christian community as well as those struggling through the ramifications of postmodernity.6. I am now at the place of exploration—and since I am no longer pastoring a church, I need not pretend to have all the answers (what a relief!). I’ve discovered Tom Wright, and I am immersing myself in the emerging church movement as we explore the church in a postmodern age. And I have rediscovered that wacky professor who taught me the Synoptic Gospels back at TEDS. I am now in an organization (the CCO) that has its history firmly rooted in the Reformed Tradition, but that is purposely becoming more ecumenical and accepting of other voices (we’ve hired our first Roman Catholic Area Director this year, and have brought on board people outside the Presbyterian Church— including myself, “the emerging, postmodern guy”). All this to say that Calvinism is still very treasured to me, but it is just one of the major voices I am now listening to. I like your “architecture” metaphor. I think it is the architecture that I am drawn to the most in Calvinism (for instance, the meta-narrative that a Cornelius Plantinga offers, for instance is still very appealing to me).



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Scot McKnight

posted July 29, 2005 at 9:37 pm


Bob,What a story! Love it.Do you remember when I called DA “What’s his name?” (Which goes to WGN when Bob Collins called Wally Philips “Wally What’s his name?”Then I called DA “EF Hutton” because when EF Hutton talked, everyone listened.Well, it was fun. No harm meant; actually, it was a compliment to the respect DA had around TEDS.Who was I?



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Scott Slayton

posted July 29, 2005 at 9:43 pm


Scot,Writing as a fully committed five point Calvinist, I am thankful for your post. While at the end of the day I still disagree, your posts have made me go back to the Bible and examine why I stand where I do theologically.I wish that more people could learn from your way of discussing these things. You know that in the SBC we have a difficult time with people caricaturing Calvinists. I appreciate the fact that you actually interact with what we are teaching at state biblically why you disagree. Thanks for the post. I look forward to reading your posts on Hebrews.



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S.

posted July 30, 2005 at 1:05 am


I read this in the comments:Intriguing reading this today after reading McLaren’s light.. but appealing.. treatement of the five points near the end of “A Generous Orthodoxy.” He rewrites the five points completely.. essentially discarding the content while retaining the framework. Kind of tongue in cheek I suppose, but I liked it..There’s another McLaren reference in the comments as well. You, Mr. McKnight, are, I estimate, about the 3,000th prominent or semi-prominent ‘former’ Calvinist with an internet presence announcing the fact of his now-settled state of being a former Calvinist. I suspect some ‘now former’ Calvinists are really merely just in necessary stages of development and understanding and they weren’t really Calvinists (with understanding) at all prior. There’s another category of these folks, though, that strike me as literally falling away from the faith. I.e. giving their allegiance to intentional fuzziness (McLaren, and similar influences) merely out of a motivation to meet the demands of their vanity, and worldly pride, and self-will and to rebell from God’s will. I can’t say, obviously, which category you’re in, Mr. McKnight. Most likely most of you are in the former category of still being in stages of growth and development of understanding and you were never Calvinists (with understanding) prior to your public confessions of ‘former Calvinist’ status.



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Kerry Doyal

posted July 30, 2005 at 3:01 pm


A littel more on Grant… He is one of the best blends of pastor / theologian I ever had the honor of having. His pastoral experience was a ongoing part of his traiing us furture shepherds.And, did I read that a fromer TEDS guys called you “whacky”? Pleading the fifthAnd, did you ask “who was I?”You were the guy that almost bet milkshakes over author’s middle initials and fooled us one Halloween with a piece about Alexandria – some of your best writing ;-) . Some students were wiping tears while you were suppressing a grin. And, lastly, you were the guy with the misspelled name – Scott McKnight.



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rob pendley

posted December 24, 2005 at 3:07 pm


Scott: love your blog… i’m a weekly reader…. forgive me if this is rehashing something someone already raised… but i think your wording below says something that most calvinists i know don’t say… you write:
“Let me say this more clearly: if God’s grace can be resisted somehow, if believers can somehow choose to forfeit their salvation, then unconditional election and irresistible grace (and probably limited atonement) and surely perseverance/preservation of the saints are not right.”
–so it seems like you are deducing e’thing from “if God’s grace can be resisted somehow.” i think calvinists believe it can be resisted somehow… but not ultimately effectively by His own… am i wrong in seein a difference?



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Scot McKnight

posted December 24, 2005 at 3:41 pm


Rob,
Haven’t been to this post in some time.
Irresistible grace teaches that God’s gracious work can’t finally be thwarted by human will. If I am right on that, then I think Hebrews teaches something contrary to that. Humans cannot finally resist God’s gracious work of redemption. I see Hebrews teaching that believers can resist grace and throw it away.



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Tyler

posted February 3, 2006 at 4:37 pm


Hey, this isn’t the forum for a general comment, so I hope you’ll be gracious and forgive me. But I just had to commend the group that contributes to this blog. I just came from the CT Leadership Journal blog where Brian McLaren talked about homosexuality, and the vitriol there on both sides ruined my entire week.
Isn’t there any kindness in God’s church?, I asked. Certainly that particular fruit of the Spirit must be evident somewhere in America today. And ah, what a breath of fresh air this blog is. It is good to be among brethren whose love is greater than their intellectual disagreement. After all – thus we know that Christ is made manifest in us.
With manifest gratitude,



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