Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Reflections on Reformed Theology

john-calvin The second of my Level 4 systematic theology modules was this one: Reformed Theology.  Now, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this module, but that was more down to me.  I’ve come from a fairly narrow, very conservative (Reformed with a capital R) background, heavily influenced by the Puritans and dominated by systematics.  My encounter with biblical studies at HTC was really a kind of awakening for me, and I thank the Lord for that.  So, what was I to make of going back into the world of Reformed dogmatics, right into its heart, with the Reformed Theology module?  Well, I’m so glad I did.  Why? Because this module restored my faith in Reformed theology, and expanded my horizons. And I thank the Lord for that!  Oh…and the tutor: Dr Rob Shillaker!  Here are some of the reasons that this course was still a highlight for a biblical studies person like me…!

  • Calvin and the Puritans – I read Calvin’s Institutes (well, most of it) when I was maybe 19 or 20.  Around the same period of my life I was living on a diet of Puritan Paperbacks (this may mean very little to you – they are published by the Banner of Truth) and Berkhof.  So, let’s just say I had a particular take on things back then!  During the module you look at the debate about Calvin and the Calvinists, as Paul Helm put it, in response to RT Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism.  Now on the face of it, this might seem a particularly dry and academic debate.  However, for me it opened the possibility that the English Puritans were not the true guardians of Calvin’s thought.  This would have been anathema to me before, but how things can change.  So, I read Calvin through fresh eyes, proving that our presuppositions have such a significant impact on how we understand and interpret what we read.  Now I don’t happen to sign up to Kendall’s particular version of pseudo-Amyraldianism – far from it.  But the wider context of Kendall’s argument is the point.  The module also brings in the debate on Calvin and Westminster theology at the hands of the Torrance brothers.  I don’t concur with the Torrances, but again, for me, this invited me to read Calvin with fresh eyes.
  • Calvin on Election – There were many points at which Calvin came alive to me again in a fresh way.  Perhaps one of the most interesting was reading Calvin on election.  I’ve already posted several times on this.  Suffice to say here that later developments of Calvin’s thought did not keep his particular emphases in election.  That’s interesting to me in the context of Welsh evangelicalism.  Why is it that evangelical independency today, whilst claiming deep roots in Calvinistic Methodism, is almost exclusively Baptistic?  I think it likely that, at least to some extent, Puritan developments in election and soteriology, so influential in Wales, undermined the doctrine of the covenant, such that even Presbyterians struggled to delineate a satisfactory doctrine of the covenant and the church.
  • Dutch Reformed Theology – Before I moved to Scotland, one of the first major influences that I came into contact with through reading Scottish theology was the work of the Dutch Reformers.  There are strong connections between the Scots and the Dutch (and, as an aside, I was privileged to study alongside a Dutch student this year on the course – he taught me how to pronounce Hoekema!).  Kuyper’s initial proposal on the importance of common grace has several difficulties.  Bavinck provides a better delineation (of course!), placing less emphasis on an antithesis between nature and grace, and rooting all common grace in Christ; he is closer to Calvin in proposing a more moderate assessment of the unbeliever.  The overall Dutch Reformed emphasis on common grace is a desperately-needed corrective in some traditions.  One of the great legacies of this Dutch tradition is that Calvinism is not just about soteriology, it is a total worldview.  The anabaptist ‘flight from the world’  is still around today sadly.  The Dutch tradition invites a full involvement in all of life and society for the cause of the Kingdom.
  • Federal Vision – As well as looking at important historical debates in the development of Reformed Theology, modern debates are part of the mix in this module.  That is fantastic, because Reformed Theology, probably more than most is open to the accusation of being stuck in the past.  One whole unit on the module is given over to Semper Reformanda.  We looked at two areas: first, Franke’s proposals for Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics; but the one I really enjoyed was the second: the Federal Vision.  Suffice to say (this post is already too long) that in my view the FV central proposition of a more objective covenant needs to be listened to.