On Behalf of Calvinism Explained
Using Labels With Good Manners
The following article is simply the result of my regular reading of good books. I learned something as I went along, which should be the case in reading. I share it not to bind others, but to explain what I learned. Learning both confirms true things as well as humbles us in excess. Here goes.
The label Calvinism has always been controversial. It has generated the idea that people are gathering their ideas on salvation from Calvin and not the Bible. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Many have struggled with whether they should retain the label or not. Jonathan Edwards was not immune from such contemplation. Yet, rather than discard it, he sought to explain it.
Hence those doctrines and schemes of divinity that are in any respect opposite to such an absolute and universal dependence on God, derogate from his glory, and thwart the design of our redemption. And such are those schemes that put the creature in God’s stead, in any of the mentioned respects, that exalt man into the place of either Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, in any thing pertaining to our redemption. However they may allow of a dependence of the redeemed on God, yet they deny a dependence that is so absolute and universal. They own an entire dependence on God for some things, but not for others; they own that we depend on God for the gift and acceptance of a Redeemer, but deny so absolute a dependence on him for the obtaining of an interest in the Redeemer. They own an absolute dependence on the Father for giving his Son, and on the Son for working out redemption, but not so entire a dependence on the Holy Ghost for conversion, and a being in Christ, and so coming to a title to his benefits. They own a dependence on God for means of grace, but not absolutely for the benefit and success of those means; a partial dependence on the power of God, for obtaining and exercising holiness, but not a mere dependence on the arbitrary and sovereign grace of God. They own a dependence on the free grace of God for a reception into his favor, so far that it is without any proper merit, but not as it is without being attracted, or moved with any excellency. They own a partial dependence on Christ, as he through whom we have life, as having purchased new terms of life, but still hold that the righteousness through which we have life is inherent in ourselves, as it was under the first covenant. Now whatever scheme is inconsistent with our entire dependence on God for all, and of having all of him, through him, and in him, it is repugnant to the design and tenor of the gospel, and robs it of that which God accounts its luster and glory.3
Now, to be clear, Edwards did not flaunt the term Calvinist, but as Carrick writes of his preaching here, he used the word for “distinction’s sake.”4 In other words, the Edwardsian method for dealing with the label of Calvinism was not to flaunt the term, but neither discard it.5 He retained it for distinction’s sake. He spoke of Calvinism as absolute dependence on Christ, and the contrary doctrine of Arminianism as both partial and opposite, all in this above paragraph without even mentioning the word of either.
Thus, we learn from Edwards that one is able to preach a particular doctrine from the Bible without using controversial terms. Clearly, everyone knew what he was talking about, yet they could not easily jump at the label. Rather, they had to deal with the text! Proof of this is in the following quote:
“I had thoughts of carefully avoiding the use of the appellation, Arminian, in this Treatise. But I soon found I should be put to great difficulty by it; and that my discourse would be too much encumbered with circumlocution, instead of a name, which would better express the thing intended. And therefore I must ask the excuse of such as are apt to be offended with things of this nature, that I have so freely used the term Arminian in the following Discourse. I profess it to be without any design to stigmatize persons of any sort with a name of reproach, or at all to make them appear more odious. If, when I had occasion to speak of those divines who are commonly called by this name, I had, instead of styling them Arminians, called them” these men“ as Dr. Whitby does Calvinistic divines, it probably would not have been taken any better, or thought to show a better temper, or more good manners. I have done as I would be done by, in this matter. However the term Calvinistic is, in these days, among most, a term of greater reproach than the term Arminian; yet I should not take it at all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinction’s sake: though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines which I hold, because he believed and taught them; and cannot justly be charged with believing in every thing just as he taught.6
Thus, we have here Edwards both using the term Calvinism where necessary (as well as the opposite term Arminianism), along with not using the term, yet preaching clearly on behalf of the term. We can learn from Edwards here when it comes to Calvinism to neither discard nor flaunt. This may be applicable to other controversial labels as well. Again, the wisdom is this: Neither discard nor flaunt.
The conclusion is this: Use good manners in the use of theological labels. Neither discard them nor flaunt them.
John Carrick, The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards, p.61.
“so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”” (1 Corinthians 1:29–31 ESV)
Jonathan Edwards Works 2.7, also quoted by Carrick on p.62 of The Preaching….
Jonathan Edwards Works 2.4, quoted in part by Carrick on pp.63-64.