Can Calvinism Accommodate Other Systems of Thought?

Kevin DeYoung had an interesting little post last week. He essentially riffed on E. Brooks Holifield’s contention that, to a large degree, American theology for the first couple of centuries, “was an extended debate…about the meaning and the truth of Calvinism.” After filling out the historical picture a bit, DeYoung then gave his own four reasons why it’s unsurprising that American theology still is consumed with wrestling with Calvinism, or rather, Reformed theology:

1. It is an all-encompassing worldview which, when handled with consistency, does not easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.

2. It is a scandalous theology, utterly at odds with later American ideas of egalitarianism and self-determination.

3. It is so absolutely other-worldly–either in glory or in shame, depending on your perspective–that it begs for a response. It’s almost impossible to be indifferent to Calvinism.

4. When pastors, theologians, churches, denominations, and movements are gripped by the vision of Reformed theology, they tend to be dogged in their persistence to perpetuate it, defend it, and celebrate it.

The whole thing’s worth reading. I find myself mostly nodding my head at his four observations. Reformed theology is pretty comprehensive, definitely scandalous, demands a response, and commands loyalty. That’s part of what has drawn me in. I do find myself wondering about part of the first point, though, as to Reformed theology’s inability to easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.

I guess I’d have to ask, which rivals are we speaking of here? Are we talking about rival systems of thought in general like Buddhism or Marxism? Or just rival systems of theology like Thomism, or, Lutheranism, or something? If the first, well, yes, but then again, I’d say that’s a feature of Christianity in general, not merely its Reformed iteration.

If the second, then I’d say, well, maybe. From what I’ve come to understand (and I’ll easily concede DeYoung’s expertise here) certain types of Reformed theology are a little more open to taking on shared insights and emphasizing commonalities with, say, Thomism on the doctrine of God, or Lutheranism in justification and so forth. So, a post-Van Tillian, or Kuyperian might really emphasize the distinctness of the systems, while those steeped in post-Reformation orthodoxy might want to emphasize the catholicity and continuity of thought at points. Also, it may depend on what we’re referring to when it comes to the term “Calvinism.” Is it only Dordtian soteriology, or the broader framework of thought? Either way, that shifts the discussion. Again, these are just my novice impressions.

Certainly, I won’t dispute DeYoung’s closing judgment:

Although Calvinism is certainly not the dominant theological tradition like it was in the early days of this country, it continues to be a potent strain of religious devotion. Read through the most popular blogs and you’ll see the debate has not died down. When it comes to assessing Geneva, one person’s city on a hill is another person’s pit of hell.

Final question: What do ya’ll think? I’m particularly interested in those of you who have some familiarity with the Reformed tradition. How accommodating can Calvinism be?

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: My buddy Dr. Brian Mattson weighed in on the question here. The response is excellent and worth the read. His big takeaway:

Calvinism, as an all-encompassing worldview, and when handled with consistency, is superior to its rivals in the act of accommodating rivals.


14 thoughts on “Can Calvinism Accommodate Other Systems of Thought?

  1. Like you said, it depends on how you define ‘Calvinism’. Guys like Torrance, Bloesch, Barth, Alister Mcgrath, Plantinga, Wolterstorff and others all identify with Calvinism, but none of them really identify with the 5-points or typical Westminster soteriology.

  2. As one who has came from an Anabaptist tradition, I would affirm that Calvinism is largely opposed to the circle I grew up in. While most of the leaders in the Anabaptist tradition would consider themselves “Biblicists” and thereby deny both Calvinism and Armenianism, they would get very defensive when the term Calvinism was mentioned. I always find this to be odd. I think that most Anabaptists would claim that human freedom trumps God and his sovereignty. I became more convinced (through being a good little biblicist) that the Synod of Dort was the correct understanding. To that I can only thank God and be grateful.

      • The biggest influence was just reading the Bible. I understand your question to be asking if there were any teachers that had a significant influence on me. I’ll answer that and if you want more you can be more specific. Without a doubt John MacArthur’s daily radio program was huge in my early years as a new Christian. John Piper also played a role in shaping my soteriology. Also, Greg Koukl who is a Christian apologists from California was really influential through all my college years. He helped me to think through the debate over the freedom of the will. All of them and countless others that I have interacted with through the years all played a key role.

  3. I think the question turns on your definition of “accommodate.” Calvinism is doggedly biblical, among other things, and so accommodation can often look like compromise, like syncretism. On the other hand, Calvinism embraces the doctrine of common grace, that all truth is God’s truth, etc. So in another sense, it feels free to borrow and even celebrate insights from very disparate sources. As a Calvinist, I can applaud and agree with Marx’s incisive critiques of capitalism and his heart for social justice without agreeing with his views on God or religion. I can applaud the Buddha’s understanding the spiritual change requires whole-hearted, existential commitment, without endorsing his monistic presuppositions. I think it depends on how foundational and embracing the insights are: the more foundational they are, the less likely Calvinism will be willing to accommodate them simply because it is at that foundational level that they become idolatrous. Van Til has been very helpful to me here: I can appreciate truths from even non-Christian thinkers because they are “borrowed capital,” removed from their natural context of glorifying God, and placed in an interpretive framework that is hostile to the knowledge of God. It’s not an either/or, but a both/and. Whether you call it accommodation depends on what you mean by it.

  4. This is the kind of narrow Reformed identity that I find really hard to reconcile with the broader history of our tradition. The Reformed faith has never been defined exclusively by any one theologian or even one city. Early on it was Bucer, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius–none of whom are quite Calvinistic. (If anything, Zwingli is closer to the Anabaptists than to what became the Reformed tradition.)

    Then it becomes Bucer, Calvin, Bullinger, and co. and they have lengthy debates about a host of issues (including predestination, which Zurich was never quite as keen on as Geneva and which Bucer didn’t take a real strong position on). And as the tradition develops you get the Dutch Reformed, the Huguenots, the Scottish Presbyterians, the Reformed Anglicans, the English Puritans, the Southern Presbyterians, the New England Puritans, etc. etc.

    So to answer question about how accommodating “Calvinism,” can be I’d begin by saying that a better question is “how accommodating can “Reformed Christianity,” be?” And if that’s the question, the answer is actually extremely accommodating, provided you take your cues from Bucer or the Reformed Anglicans or certain Dutch Reformed theologians. (Read the piece in First Things on Berkouwer.) For me, I’d much rather pitch my tent with the irenic humanism of the Bucer-strand of our tradition. (Wedgeworth’s recent piece on Van Til is a pretty fantastic statement of what being Reformed ought to mean, I think:

  5. As has been mentioned by a few other lads in the past year or so (DeYoung, Trueman, etc.) “Reformed” or “Calvinistic” is used by many non-Reformed denominations as a descriptive of their theology. So it seems that the shoes fits on many different sorts of feet. That said, they also pointed out that what many people mean when they say “Reformed” or “Calvinistic” is predominantly referring to Soteriology, and thus, still completely rejects the Ecclesiology and infant baptism pieces altogether (some of the very distinctives of that tradition).

    I think looking at it from a historical standpoint, most different Protestant traditions are going to be able to draw *something* from Calvin and the other Reformers in their Sunday morning service (even if they don’t realize they are) simply because … well, we’re Protestants. But there is also a narrowness that – if we’re using the word correctly – would keep many who currently use the word Reformed from applying it to themselves.

    Coming from a Regular Baptist circle, i know our churches would never accommodate Reformed Ecclesiology fully and certainly not infant baptism. That said, my own personal study has made me much closer to those positions and certainly sympathetic towards them.

  6. First, I love your blog. Found it last night and I foresee many hours of great reading in front of me.

    I great up Catholic, left the church in collage and, a little later on discovered Calvinism at a bible study (we were going through the book of Romans.) Although I am not very well read on Calvin, I do see the stark difference between my understanding of who God is from my upbringing and who actually is. My understanding of Calvins major points, and vetting those through the Gospel, has only made God bigger in my eyes.

    The Church I attend is a non-denominational Church of about 3,000… So you see many people on either side of the Calvinism fence. I certainly see the difficulty that some people have with swallowing the Calvin pill… It isn’t until they take his points and vet them through scripture that they see how they are truly aligned in accordance with it.

  7. Interesting post. I think the accommodating factor can vary. I don’t consider it to be so much an issue of the doctrinal views itself as much as the individuals in it. I have met a small handful of strong Calvinists who I would not consider to accurate depict the first point. They were quite the opposite. However, I would say the majority I have run into do certainly fit the bill on all four of these points. I think it is a mistake to label that on the Calvinism view though. It comes more down to how the individual processes that view and chooses to interact with others.

  8. Pingback: Why Calvinism Not Lutheranism? Books | Reformedish

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