February 02, 2008

Was Jesus a Calvinist?


n yesterday’s post [Hyperbole in action], Daniel L. Aiken commented on some statements that he has heard recently that he found to be irresponsible. Most of the statements had been made by the new breed of virulent anti-Calvinists. These folks make irresponsible statements regularly on many topics. Ergun Caner of Liberty University is quite likely the leader in this crowd of irresponsible statement makers and was the one who proclaimed: “Calvinists are more dangerous than radical Muslims.” I would agree completely with Mr. Aiken that the first four of the statements he listed were irresponsible and hyperbolic.

But the fifth statement he declared as irresponsible was the statement, “Jesus is a Calvinist.” I’d like to consider that statement while discussing what it truly means when someone says, “I am a Calvinist.”

There are at least three ways people respond to the statement, “I am a Calvinist.” They think it means:

  1. Calvinists adhere to John Calvin the man
  2. Calvinists adhere to the totality of the teaching of the man John Calvin
  3. Calvinists adhere to a particular set of doctrines that over time have come to be associated with the name of the man John Calvin

Let’s look at each of these in historic context and determine whether it is irresponsible to say, Jesus is a Calvinist.

Calvinists adhere to John Calvin, the man

This may have been true of a few people who lived in Switzerland at the time of John Calvin. Mentors are a good thing and a protegé could be described as adhering to his mentor. However, John Calvin has been dead for a long time. Everyone who hears someone say, “I am a Calvinist” knows that Calvin is not mentoring that person. So I don’t think anyone makes the mistake of thinking this way.

Is Jesus a Calvinist in this manner? Obviously not. In fact, Calvin was a Christian, not the other way around.

Calvinists adhere to the totality of Calvin’s teaching

This is the most common misunderstanding proclaimed by those who want to vilify John Calvin and the people called Calvinists. I think the vast majority of them know that this is not what those who are called Calvinists are proclaiming. But they say it anyway.

Quite often these folks will say, “How can you be a Calvinist? He believed in burning heretics to death,” or something similar to that. These folks will also argue the other side of this coin, saying that those who are “Calvinists” follow the teachings of a man. They often follow this up by saying, “I’m not a Calvinist. I’m not an Arminian. I’m a Biblicist.”

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
—1 Cor. 1:11–13

This line of reasoning is completely wrongheaded. First, the vast majority of those who claim to be either Calvinist or Arminian have come to that position because of their understanding of scripture, making them de facto Biblicists. This line of argumentation is actually unscriptural as it is exactly the thing the Apostle Paul was decrying in 1 Corinthians 1:11–13 (seen in the callout box to the right).

Saying I follow Calvin or I follow Arminius is this exact thing. This is not what either of those statements means though.

The reason for saying, “I am a Calvinist” or “I am an Arminian” is theological efficiency. It is no different than saying “I am a Baptist” or “I am a southerner.” It is a shortcut, laden with meaning so we don’t have to waste time explaining Baptist distinctives or geographic features of where we’re from. In typical conversation, folks understand that when you say, “I am a Baptist,” you mean: I hold to Believer’s Baptism, I am a Christian, I oppose a state-run church, and other Baptist distinctives. When a person says, “I am a Calvinist,” he is not saying that he holds to every single teaching or activity of the man John Calvin. In fact, he may be strongly opposed to much of John Calvin’s teaching. What he does mean by saying that he is a Calvinist brings us to our next definition.

But first, Was Jesus a Calvinist in this way—did Jesus hold to all the teachings of John Calvin? Of course not.

Calvinists adhere to a particular set of doctrines that are associated with the name John Calvin

Labels are useful shortcuts. They allow us to describe ourselves quickly. Baptist is a useful label. Conservative or Liberal are somewhat useful labels. American is a useful label. Biblicist is a totally useless label. It means nothing at all. There is not a theological shortcut provided by claiming to be a Biblicist. More likely it means, “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I can’t prove my point with scripture so I’m going to vilify you by implying that you are NOT a Biblicist.” Not a particularly useful way of arguing a theological point.

Labels must be defined by those who use them, not by those who oppose them. So Calvinists must be the ones who define the term Calvinism and Arminians must be the ones who define the term “Arminian.”

When a Calvinist claims that label he means, “I hold to the peculiar doctrines that over time have come to be associated with the man John Calvin.” Those doctrines are:

  • Total Inability, sometimes called Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Particular Redemption, sometimes called Limited Atonement
  • Effectual Calling, sometimes called Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance and Preservation of the Saints, sometimes inaccurately described by the phrase "once saved, always saved"

These doctrines are scriptural and would require a great deal of time to explain in detail, thus the reason for the theological shortcut—I am a Calvinist. But is it appropriate to use this theological shortcut to describe Jesus Christ? I guess the answer to that question is to determine whether or not Jesus holds to those doctrines.

The main doctrines under contention in Daniel Aiken’s list are Unconditional Election, Particular Redemption, and Effectual Calling. So to determine whether Jesus can be described as a Calvinist, we should look at what Jesus himself taught:

John 6:44
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

In this verse Jesus teaches Total Inability (“no one can come”) and Unconditional Election combined with Effectual Calling (“unless the Father ... draws him. And I will raise him up”). They can’t come (Total Inability), the Father draws and those he draws (Election) will be raised up (Effectual Calling and Perseverance of the Saints).

So Jesus believed in Total Inability, Unconditional Election, Effectual Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. He’s pretty close to being a Calvinist. But the most hotly contested doctrine is Particular Redemption. Where did Jesus stand on that one?

When he prayed his High Priestly prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was fulfilling the role of the High Priest. When he sacrificed a lamb, the Jewish high priest would pray for God’s chosen people—Israel. He did not pray for the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, or any of the other people around. The sacrifice was not made for them. In fact, God has specifically told some people that they would not receive the offer of atonement for their sins (the very defnition of “Limited Atonement”). For example: Isaiah 22:14— The Lord of hosts has revealed himself in my ears: “Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die,” says the Lord God of hosts.

So the high priest prayed for a specific group of people who were to recieve atonement for their sins based on the sacrifice.

As Jesus prepared to become that sacrificial lamb, he prayed: I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (John 17:9). Jesus knew who he was going to the cross to make atonement for. He was doing it for the chosen ones—the elect. Jesus believes in Particular Redemption. And just in case anyone might not completely get the point, he said, “I am not praying for the world....” There was no doubt in Jesus mind for whom he would be making atonement.

So what is the answer to the question: Is Jesus a Calvinist? I think the answer, quite clearly, is a resounding yes.

Jesus is a Calvinist

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