This post is part of my series Life as a Calvinist in the SBC.
Clark Pinnock died on August 15, 2010. Upon his death, many blogs and media sources reflected on the life and times of this great evangelical scholar. Wait – evangelical scholar? Despite his influential conservatism in his early years, Pinnock shifted quickly and fully into liberal brands of theology, eventually becoming one of the great defenders of open theism. Was he really evangelical? The short answer is no, Pinnock was not an evangelical. But the term evangelical has been twisted and expanded to embrace a wide range of people who were once simply called liberal. The term evangelical has been distorted almost beyond usefulness.
While it is a necessary truth that language will change and evolve over time, it is not true that the evolution of language means we can take a casual approach to the meaning of words. With all due respect to Alanis Morrisett, the word ironic does not mean the same thing as the word coincidence. And with all due respect to a surprising number of Southern Baptists, the word Calvinist does not mean the same thing as non-Calvinist.
It is possible to have variations of belief within a single label. Most labels are not monolithic in that you must take the whole thing or you canâ€™t claim any of it. Calvinism is no exception. Limiting our focus to soteriology, not all Calvinists believe the same thing about every aspect of salvation. Nonetheless, there comes a point when variation becomes so great that a personâ€™s beliefs are better described by a different label.
In my last post, I differentiated the Baptist usage of Reformed versus Calvinist and said that the term Calvinist has come to mean a view of salvation similar to that of John Calvin or, more specifically, to the later canons of Dordt which established the five points of Calvinism. To be a Calvinist is to believe that God sovereignly chooses whom he will save from among human beings, all of whom are completely sinful. Godâ€™s choice is made without regard to anything in that person – no merit of work or belief causes God to choose him. Because he is chosen, he receives the atoning work of Christ at the cross, is irresistibly drawn to Christ through the regeneration of his will, and is kept eternally secure. There is a little room for variation, but not much.
Some variation is possible for those four-point Calvinists who reject Limited Atonement. Personally, I am surprised that this point catches so much controversy. I suspect that much of the disagreement is based on a misunderstanding of what limited atonement really means. I consider the doctrine to be essential for both Calvinists and non-Calvinists (Iâ€™ll say more on this in a few posts). But a person might reject this point yet hold to the rest of the Calvinistic view of salvation and still be a Calvinist.
On the other hand, the person who claims to be a three point Calvinist has usually deviated from any meaningful use of the term Calvinist. Three pointers (who sometimes refer to themselves as moderate Calvinists and call the five pointers extreme Calvinists) usually reject Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace and the other three points are redefined. Total depravity is given a large footnote. Unconditional election becomes conditional foreknowledge. Perseverance of the saints is generally maintained in a Calvinistic form. The result is a system of theology which resembles neither the canons of Dordt nor the teachings of Calvin.
A person cannot reject the view that God chooses whom he will save, regenerates them, gives them faith, and does all this despite their ongoing rejection and rebellion, while claiming to be a Calvinist. There is no meaningful way to claim Calvinism while believing that election is God choosing those who choose him. This view of salvation contradicts the views of Calvin and Dordt.
I donâ€™t know why some people wish to refer to themselves as moderate or three-point Calvinists. It would be helpful for these beliefs to be given a different label, one which articulates their views while showing the distinction from Calvinism. In my next post, I will talk about some possible labels and why one label – Baptist – should not be seen as the preferred alternative to either Calvinism or Arminianism.