Monday, January 14, 2013

Knew Review: For Calvinism (2)

Part two of my review of Michael Horton’s “For Calvinism” looks at his first chapter entitled “The Essence of Calvinism.” Many theologically oriented books begin with definitions and so he’s trying to define Calvinism here, beginning by being clear about what it is NOT. It is NOT devoted to Calvin himself, he says. It is NOT built around the TULIP acronym. It is NOT a restorationist movement. It is NOT the outworking of a core belief in predestination. In fact, Horton goes on to say that “The truth is, there ISN’T a central dogma in Calvinism.”

Nevertheless, he does offer some suggestions of items that are close to being CORE elements of Calvinism. He talks about how Reformed churches aim at “recovering the clear teachings of Scripture.” He certainly recommends the “Solas” as “the key theses of the Reformation” (sola Scriptura, sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide, soli Deo gloria). He quotes Calvin as saying that the doctrine of justification is the “primary article of the Christian religion.” Covenant theology isn’t, he says, a central dogma, but does serve as an ‘architectural framework” to Calvinism.

Having established what he means by Calvinism, he moves on to briefly define Pelagianism, Semi-Pelegianism, and Arminianism and discuss how they relate to each other. I appreciate this, as it is too commonly the custom for Calvinists to simply label  Arminianism as Semi-Pelagian without being clear about what one means by those terms and how such is so.

Pelagianism, he says, is marked by the “denial of original sin and the necessity of grace.”  Semi-Pelagianism also denies original sin, insisting that “the initial act of responding to God is due to free will, but grace assists the believer in a life of faith and good works.” This makes Semi-Pelagianism almost an exact opposite of Horton’s Calvinism. In the former the initial step of salvation is wholly taken by humans. In the latter the initial step is wholly performed by God. Arminianism is a different beast for Horton. Arminians affirm total depravity and the necessity of prevenient grace.

After reading those definitions, I found Horton’s statement that “the Arminian system seems closer to Semi-Pelagianism [than Calvinism]. In fact, I would argue that it lists in that direction” a bit annoying. If Semi-Pelagianism is marked by a denial of original sin and an insistence that the first step of salvation is not dependant on grace… and if Arminianism rejects BOTH of those definining marks… for what reason would one write that Arminianism is “closer to Semi-Pelagianism”? Is it for pure rhetorical effect? 

He goes on to say that Arminianism, if followed to its logical conclusion, goes in a “Pelagianizing” direction, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. If a group believes in original sin and the necessity of initiatory grace, how is a denial of those doctrines a logical conclusion for that group? Even Horton admits that, “the crucial difference between Arminianism and Semi-Pelagianism is that the former insists upon the necessity of grace prior to all human response.

All in all, definition chapters are never riveting, but they are almost always necessary. It was good for Horton to define these key terms, but I'm left feeling like he didn't take his own definitions very seriously.

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