Reformed Theology – (Part 1 of 6)

25 04 2008

Anyone seen Gangs of New York? Martin Scorcese at his bloodiest? If you have you may remember a scene where Leonardo Dicaprio’s Character engages his nemesis in a challenge, who eloquently conveys the message to both sides present. At the appointed time the gangs would gather to fight for control over the five points of New York City. A bloody battle ensued and afterwards it wasn’t particularly clear (at least to me) who won. Perhaps I should watch the movie again.

Today we face a similar challenge in our faith when it comes to reformed theology and in particular Salvation. At times it has resulted in a few battles. Some have left the Church over it, and some have come to appreciate the truth for what it really is. Many times it is not clear who has won, if indeed there is any victory to be had at all.
 
Reformed theology has been around for quite some time and is often referred to as Calvinism. The term was coined after a John Calvin wrote his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”. Next to the Bible this is considered by many to be the best summation of the Christian Faith. However the battles are said to have started much earlier with a prayer by St Augustine of Hippo:

“Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” (Confessions 10, 29)

For some reason this angered a British, or possibly Irish, monk named Pelagius. He expressed his disdain at the  need for a divine gift to be able do what God commanded. He assumed that if the human race had responsibility to obey Gods Law they also had the capacity with which to do so. His arguments logical conclusion was that man could chose to follow the example of Adam or the example of Christ. Pelagius believed that those who emphasised a persons inability to live the perfect Christian life were not trying hard enough. Augustine pushed the concept of original sin, while Pelagius rubbished it and said there was no such thing. The fruit of Pelagian doctrine was that many well intentioned and well behaved Christians began to believe they had earned their salvation. While the followers of Pelagianism may have distorted his original line of thought, they are none the less presenting a logical conclusion to his arguement.

Somehow the debate would not go away, and grew in intensity. Today is no different and we still the see the debate raging throughout the Body of Christ. At the heart of this debate is the issue of Divine Grace vs. Human Freedom. After Augustine and the middle ages, there arose a similar debate between two other men. Erasmus and Luther. Erasmus was first thought that have been sympathetic to Luther who was fighting his own battles with the Catholic Church, until Erasmus published his book “A Diquisition on the Freedom of the Will”. Luther responded with fire, publishing his “Bondage of the Will”, in which he attacked Erasmus vehemently. Luther argued that the mans fallen nature enslaves him to sin and he is unable to do good in the sight of God. Fast forward another debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. Unfortunately Calvin did not live long enough to debate with Arminius, he died when he was five. Calvins Institutes had been publsihed for some time at this stage. Arminius was called by Amsterdam city officials to settle a debate over a form of High Calvinism, in which he claimed that scripture does not support Calvinism. The debate simmered for some time until nearly fifty years after Calvins death, when Arminius received a doctorate and professorship to Leiden University. The debate roared back to life, but Arminius died in 1609 leaving the debate in the hand of his successors.
Arminius successors, called the remonstrants, put five doctrinal points forward known as the Five points of the Remonstrance. This lead to Calvinists putting forward the Five points of Calvinism in response.
After the council the remonstrants were condemmed at heretics. A crime which carried a heavy penalty in those times. Some were imprisoned, others were banished from their home country and at least one was beheaded. But in the years that followed, after many political calvinists had died, the state awarded the remonstrants the freedom to practice their religion in peace.

The debate however has not gone away. To this day it still rages within the Church. Some have claimed that this is not the way the Church should function, but others take Galatians 1 to heart “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!

Personally what I feel is lacking in many churches today is firstly, an historical understanding on the formation of doctrine. Secondly there is a large scale biblical illiteracy among Church goers today, and it is not limited to members of the congregation but also pastors and teachers of the Gospel. I’ve covered the second point a lot in previous posts, but to set a lot of the first point straight I’m going through the five points of Calvinism one by one. I will be using a lot of scripture to back up each point, but what I want to make clear is that this will not be a “This is my point and here is the proof text”. Rather I want to take each “proof texts” in context of the bigger picture of scripture as one story. As I have said in some other posts, Culture and History play an important part in interpreting scripture. The pitfalls of proof texting is that one tends to make scripture say what it one wants it to say, rather than letting the text, context, culture, and Holy Spirit speak. What I will do is pose each of the points of Calvinism and see whether scripture confirms or denies each point. It may not be an easy task but a worthy one none the less.

After this I hopefully will counter some age old objections to Calvinism. Buts lets not get ahead of ourselves here. For reference sake here are the five points of Calvinism:

1. Total Depravity
2. Unconditional Election
3. Limited Atonement
4. Irrisistable Grace
5. Perseverance of the Saints

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