Posted by: gmscan | April 16, 2012

Calvin and Horton

Included in my Lenten reading was “For Calvinism,” by Michael Horton.

Horton is an impressive guy. He is a professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California, the author of 20 books on theology, the editor of “Modern Reformation” magazine, and co-host of the White Horse Inn weekly radio talk show.  The slogan he uses to unify all this is, “know what you believe and why you believe it.” He is trying to restore the principles of the Reformation to the modern church. It’s an uphill climb.

He makes a couple of pertinent points in the introduction to the book. One is that in 2009, “Time magazine named ‘the new Calvinism’ as the third of ten trends shaping the world today.” The other is that, “A recent Pew study reported that atheists and agnostics know the Bible and Christian doctrine better than evangelicals.” In all of Horton’s work he bemoans the idea that so many “Christians” seem to believe that Christianity means that Jesus will help them live a better life – period.

This particular book was written in response to a book by Roger Olson, “Against Calvinism,” which advocated an Arminian theology. Olson writes a preface to Horton’s book and it is clear that these two gentlemen have been having this conversation for a very long time, and have tremendous respect for each other. I make no claim to be able to keep up with their theology, but it is interesting to drop in on the conversation. But it would have been helpful if the book had included a glossary to translate some of the terminology that may be familiar to them but is Greek (literally in some cases) to us amateurs.

Still, I think I have been able to sift out a few essential ideas, and if I understand them correctly I think Calvin has the better part of the argument. Let me share some of this with you, and you can tell me if I am off base.

It seems to me the essential point of dispute is that Calvinists (which includes traditional Presbyterians and the Reformed church) believe that faith is a gift from God. We do nothing to earn it. We don’t even seek it. In fact, it is God who seeks us out, and when He does, He will not be denied. That certainly describes my own experience. If anything, I was trying to avoid getting involved in all this “Jesus stuff.” It wasn’t my choice, but God’s (or the Spirit’s) tapping on my shoulder became more and more insistent.

The Arminians (which includes most Methodists and a lot of Evangelicals) think that God gives us the capacity to believe, but we have to accept it – and we are able to reject it.

This may seem a small distinction, but it is not. It is a profoundly different understanding of the sovereignty of God and that has implications for everything we do.

Many Christians believe we can earn our salvation by doing good works or living righteously. Calvinists believe there is nothing we can do to earn salvation, our good works are a consequence of being saved, not the cause of it. We do it out of the joy and love we feel for our savior. As Phillip Yancey says, “there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make Him love us less.” We don’t have the power to “make” God do anything.

This distinction makes a difference in our view of missions. One view is that we have to go out and save people’s souls. If we don’t, they will be condemned to eternal damnation. This was the theme of an annoying little book by David Platt, “Radical,” which I need to critique one of these days.

Calvinists believe it isn’t we who save souls, but God and only God. Horton writes –

“The doctrines of grace also motivate a missional outlook in terms of their message. There is no greater good news that we can bring to our loved ones, friends and neighbors than that the triune God has accomplished everything for our salvation from sin and death. We are not inviting people to cooperate with God in their redemption or new birth. We are not telling them that if they clean up their lives sufficiently, display enough zeal, and exhibit a perfect faith, they will be saved. Rather, we are given the privilege of announcing to them, like a herald returning from a battle, that God has achieved victory over Satan, death and hell. And because God has chosen and redeemed and is effectually calling a people for himself, we are assured that our witness will not be in vain.”

Witness, yes. We are called merely to witness to others what God has done for us.  I heard a pastor explain that a witness in a courtroom is only supposed to describe what happened, not extrapolate or interpret the event.

Horton also explains that we are passive in our relationship to God. God gives and we receive. There is nothing we can give to God. But having received these gifts, we can turn to our neighbors and share with them what we received. In that sense, we are ambassadors from the Lord.  Ambassadors deliver the message given to them by their government. They are not supposed to embellish.

Whether someone accepts that message is beyond our control. Maybe they don’t accept it today, but in a week, or a month, or ten years from now, they will. Thirty-five years ago I was working in a big commercial print shop in Maine. One of my coworkers, whose name I don’t remember, was a devout Christian who often said, “There are none righteous, no not one.” I mocked him at the time, but it has stayed with me all these years. He will never know that I heard him. Horton says –

“The Word that is externally proclaimed by the lips of the preacher is made effectual in the hearts of the elect whenever the Spirit chooses. Everyone is called to Christ, but only the sheep hear his voice.”

How do I wrap up this little essay? I’m not sure I can, other to encourage you to find out more about Michael Horton at The White Horse Inn.



  1. Greg,

    I am not a Calvinist, and I am not Armenian, but would like to comment on your sentence:
    “It seems to me the essential point of dispute is that Calvinists (which includes traditional Presbyterians and the Reformed church) believe that faith is a gift from God. We do nothing to earn it.”

    A related core question to the Calvinist is if man has free will. What seems amiss is the view that faith is a gift from God. The verse in Ephesians says that “for by grace you are saved through faith and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God. “ Is this verse saying that faith is the gift, or that grace is defined as a gift of God, and not a work of man?

    I just happened to have a recent on-line conversation with someone who is studying how decisions are made. I pointed out that we often explain our decision process as a branched tree logic, when in reality we form a composite conclusion. For example, when you meet someone new, you may immediately like or dislike that person. When asked to explain, you may use logic, but the decision was an automatic process that was shaped by a composite of past experiences and associations. This shows up in medical roundsmanship when interns present a complex case to the attending, who based on past experience, can make the right “intuitive” diagnosis.

    This is analagous to the word PISTEUO, which is translated tp English as “faith” or “belief.” I can read the logic of a Calvinist or or a Armenian, but that does not mean that I PISTEUO it. In the epistle to James the meaning of the word PISTEUO is further clarified as needing action. It is not just an intellectual “belief.” The first Christians actively and publicly demonstrated their conversion to their new faith.

    Gerald N. Yorioka, M.D. (Jerry)

  2. Thanks, Jerry. I agree that much of this is intuitive. Is that the Spirit talking?

  3. Hello Greg,

    I think its important to remember that Calvin was trying to show why and how one did not need to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church in order to be saved. Not until the end of the 20th Century did the doctrines of the RCC allow for the possibility of salvation outside the membership and hierarchy of the RCC.

    Calvin made use of the all the best tools of science and philosophy available in his day to make his case, but it would still be another 200 years before David Hume would formalize the modern principles of causality!

    Without even a clear idea of causality, Calvin was trying to explain the what and how of Salvation! It boggles the mind.

    If Calvin were alive today, I’d like to think he would be as eager to throw the best of modern science and philosophy at answering today’s questions as he did back then. But he might also go back to the Scriptures and take a different run at things. Perhaps a run based more on the biblical principles of relationship and personal witness than the mechanics and causality of Salvation.

    My own witness then, is two fold.

    The first is that God is in relationship with His people and invites us to participate in the process of Him further developing that relationship. That participation can be a very mystical experience, and should be thought of in the same category as prayer. All of your senses come to life in ways you might never have thought possible. You start seeing the other person(s) the way the Holy Spirit sees them, and loving them the way the Holy Spirit loves them, and if only for a brief moment a door opens into a Universe we can’t normally see, and, at least for that moment, it all make sense with incredible clarity.

    God treats every person differently, and touches him or her in a unique and tailored way. To be part of the process is more of a privilege than a duty. Just to be a part of it once in a while is a gift.

    The second is that the focus Calvin and the Arminians put on the how of salvation causes us today to lose sight of the most important aspect of all of the Gospel, and that is what we are saved FOR.

    Jesus uses the metaphor of a wedding to establish the beginning of the relationship he has with us. The price he pays is a wedding dowry. The words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper are borrowed Jewish marriage vows. A man had to purchase his wife from her father and they would drink from the cup of a new covenant at their marriage. In Paul’s mind, the marriage between a man and a woman is only a metaphor for the marriage of Christ and the Church. And the purpose of a marriage is not so much to free her from her father, even though that is a necessary first step that must happen, but it’s for the life together that comes after the wedding.

    I think perhaps that is what the Church needs to grow into, moving forward. The sometimes-hard work of relationship in a really good marriage. It IS for a better life and for a new and better way of living it. And for that we may need to move beyond Calvin and the polemics of his day.

  4. Lovely statement, Jodie. Thank you. My only reservation is that I question whether we have really changed at all since the days of Calvin (or Jesus or Moses, for that matter.) Yes, we know more science and that has helped us develop technological wonders. But it has also brought us a level of hubris that I think alienates us from being able to listen to the voice of God. Too many of us think that WE are in charge — and that never works out well.

    The wonder of Christianity, in my view (and it seems you agree) is that we are dealing with something beyond space and time, something that is beyond the limits of natural science. I am not yet there. I keep reverting to rationality. But it is pretty humbling.

    • Thanks. True, but science fills me with almost as much wonder and humility as those occasional mystical experiences that transcend all space and time. The Universe and how it works is really cool, and what we keep learning of it just gets better and better.

      I find that power and money is more cause of hubris than science and technology (although one could argue that technology is all about money and power and not so much about science).

      On a theological note, the incarnation is God’s embrace of all things human. We sometimes talk about having Spiritual experiences, but the incarnation of Jesus Christ is God’s human experience. I think that gives us at least some permission to be rational humans if we want to.

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