• Are you a Calvinist? Rethinking Theological Labels

    The organ was playing. The choir was in the loft. Church members were seated and still. My Bible was in hand and I was prepared to take the platform. In moments the worship service would begin. It was at this instant an elderly gentleman introduced himself to me by stating, “I am so glad you are here to preach for us today. I have looked forward to meeting you. Before you preach, though, I have one question for you. Are you a Calvinist?”

    That question is not an uncommon one, but it’s a question that might be more difficult to answer than first thought. To this gentleman, I reflexively replied, “To be honest, sir, I have no idea what you mean by that question.” He smiled and responded, “I have no have idea what I meant by the question either.”

    We both chuckled, then I retorted, “I’ll be happy to discuss this as much as you’d like after the service, but know that I believe in preaching the gospel to all people and that anyone who repents of their sins and embraces Christ as Lord and Savior can be saved.” Reassured, he smiled and said “that is all I wanted to hear.”

    That conversation, like so many others, reminded me of the challenge of theological labels. This seems especially so when discussing the often controversial topic of Calvinism.

    The Difficulty with Labels

    In the midst of the Southern Baptist Convention controversy Dr. Jerry Vines quipped, “The moderates use our vocabulary, but not our dictionary.” Similarly, when it comes to discussing Calvinism everyone seems to use the same vocabulary, but with their own dictionary. What exactly is meant by, “Are you a Calvinist?” A belief in depravity, sovereignty, providence, perseverance, election, and much more, all could prompt one to answer in the affirmative. At the same time, that question may imply adherence to fatalism, church splitting, elder rule, or even a reluctance to offer the gospel to all.

    Of course, the challenge with labels is not exclusive to Calvinism. Similar difficulty arises when asked “Are you an evangelical?” In his The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Carl Trueman notes this predicament, “When asked if I am an evangelical, I generally respond with a question: What exactly do you mean by that term? In a world in which everyone from Joel Osteen to Brian McLaren to John MacArthur may be called an evangelical, I want to know into what pigeonhole that answer will place me.”[1]

    When it comes to theological labels, we should do better and I believe we can. I want to suggest three principles for doctrinal discourse, especially when describing one’s own beliefs. Let’s seek to define ourselves by what is most biblical, what is most forthright, and what is most wise.

    What is Most Biblical

    As people who believe the Bible, the benefit of using biblical terms is obvious. God inspired his Word, not our favorite systematic theology. Not only does using biblical terms self-evidently put the conversation on a healthier, more biblical footing, but it also helps to standardize the theological dictionary.

    Using biblical language also injects the conversation with an element of grace that might otherwise be lacking. It’s easier to get worked up over some dead theologian’s prose than Paul’s definition of “foreknowledge,” Jesus’ definition of “called,” and Peter’s definition of “elect.”

    What is more, theological labels are often compilations of biblical terms or concepts. Thus, they inherently have more complexity—and often more baggage. I’m not suggesting we jettison expressions that don’t appear in the Bible. On the contrary, there are many theological terms that are indispensable to Christianity, including words like “Trinity” and “inerrancy” that do not appear in the Bible. Nor is it inappropriate to bundle biblical, doctrinal words and concepts into descriptive categories. The point is to make our categories as biblical as possible, and to beware of theological innovations foreign to scripture. After all, if necessary, I’d rather bear the reproach of men for a specifically biblical doctrine than for an unbiblical abstraction.

    What is Most Forthright

    One can be accurate without being forthright, and, the truth is, if one desires to be intentionally ambiguous, it’s not too difficult to be truthful—yet unclear. While this game might assuage the conscience, in the end it will help neither the church nor the minister that seeks to serve it.

    In the pursuit of clarity and forthrightness, short answers rarely suffice. For example, theological categories often overlap, leaving a person of good conscience genuinely vexed as how to best place himself. To deny a label if one doesn’t embrace the totality of its system might be appropriate, but appear disingenuous. At the same time, to embrace the label cart blanche might in its own way be misrepresenting. Though our world—and many of our churches—are ill-equipped for an in-depth theological discussion, integrity, and the burden of leadership, often necessitates we nonetheless embark on one in order to be forthright.

    Truth in advertising is a standard we expect of the world; let’s expect even more of ourselves. When it comes to a pastor’s rapport with his congregation, trust rides out of town on horseback, but returns on foot. The best way to get off to a good start is by being relentlessly biblical and forthright about one’s beliefs.

    What is Most Wise

    When dialoging about theological convictions, one owes it to others to be honest and forthright, but one also owes it to himself to be wise. To sign on to a label that has morphed in meaning beyond one’s own comfort zone, or has been hijacked by others altogether, may be unwise and, in its own way, misrepresentative.

    For example, a century ago the title “Fundamentalist” was a helpful descriptor, simply referring to one who embraced the fundamentals of the faith. Yet, now it conjures up images ranging from Islamic jihadists to abrasive, Bible-thumping preachers. While in a historical sense, I am a fundamentalist, I’m disinclined to sign up for that label because of what it implies culturally and temperamentally. Though I know the history and technical meaning of the term, prudence demands I qualify it, or avoid it altogether.

    If someone else has hijacked the term or loaded it with freight you never intended, to embrace it might not only be unwise, but downright foolish. Instead be forthrightly biblical and not foolishly sign on to a label that was divorced from its true meaning long ago.

    Conclusion

    Theological conversation is most always good, but it can be improved when it takes place on higher ground. To conceal one’s theological convictions is at once disingenuous and cowardly, and no self-respecting minister should be either. Rather, let’s be Bereans, studying the Scriptures and articulating our convictions in ways that are most biblical, most forthright, and most wise.


     [1] Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 21.

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