Try out the new BibleStudyTools.com. Click here!

Calvinism and the Bible

XIV.

CALVINISM AND THE BIBLE

The question, What is the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession, and what is essential to its integrity? is more important than ever, now that the Presbyteries have voted in favor of revision, and the General Assembly has instructed its committee "not to propose any alterations or amendments that will in any way impair the integrity of the Reformed or Calvinistic system of doctrine taught in the Confession of Faith." The vote of the Church in answer to the overture of the fifteen Presbyteries shows that sixty-eight Presbyteries desire no revision at all of their Standards, and that ninety-two desire no revision that would alter the doctrinal system contained in them. This vote evinces that at least threefourths of the Northern Presbyterian Church wish to be known as a Calvinistic denomination, in distinction from a Broad Church, tolerating all varieties of "evangelical" belief; and the general tenor of the discussion in the late Assembly was strongly against the dis-Calvinizing of the Confession.

Some advocates of revision object to this decision of the' Assembly to make Calvinism a test of revision, and demand that Scripture be the test. Of course Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. But this particular way of appealing to Scripture is specious and fallacious. In the first place, it assumes that Calvinism is not Scriptural, an assumption which the Presbyterian Church has never

granted. This Church does not accept the alternative— the Bible or Calvinism—presented in this appeal. Its watchword is, The Bible and Calvinism. Secondly, this kind of appeal to Scripture is only an appeal to Scripture as the reviser understands it. "Scripture'' properly means the interpretation of Scripture; that is, the contents of Scripture as reached by human investigation and exegesis. Creeds, like commentaries, are Scripture studied and explained, and not the mere abstract and unexplained book as it lies on the counter of the Bible House. The infallible Word of God is expounded by the fallible mind of man, and hence the variety of expositions embodied in the 'denominational creeds. But every interpreter claims to have understood the Scriptures correctly, and, consequently, claims that his creed is Scriptural, and if so, that it is the infallible truth of God. The Arminian appeals to the Articles of Wesley as the rule of faith, because he believes them to be the true explanation of the inspired Bible. For him they are the Bible in a nutshell. The Calvin ist appeals to the creeds of Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster as the rule of faith, because he regards them as the accurate exegesis of the revealed Word of God. By the "Bible" these parties, as well as all others who appeal to the Bible, mean their understanding of the Bible. There is no such thing as that abstract Scripture to which the revisionist of whom we are speaking appeals; that is, Scripture apart from any and all interpretation of it. When, therefore, the advocate of revision demands that the Westminster Confession be "conformed to Scripture," he means conformation to Scripture as he and those like him read and explain it. It is impossible to make abstract Scripture the rule of faith for either an individual or a denomination. No Christian body has ever subscribed to the Bible merely as a printed book. A person who should write his name on the blank leaf of the Bible and say that his doctrinal belief was between the covers, would convey no definite information as to his creed. He might be a Socinian, or a Calvinist, or anywhere between these extremes. The only question, consequently, before the Presbyterian Church is, Whether the Confession shall be kept conformed to Scripture as the Calvinist understands it, or as the non-Calvinist or anti-Calvinist understands it; whether it shall continue to present that interpretation of Scripture which goes under the names of Augustine and Calvin, of Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster, or that which goes under some other name, say th at of " modern exegesis," or of " progressive theology." The Presbyterian Church has decided in favor of the first proposition.

The question, What is Calvinism? is mainly one of \ reasoning and discrimination. It relates to a matter of fact. This question will answer itself in the discussion now going on; for this theological system possesses as distinctive features as the Copernican astronomy, and it will be as impossible to confuse and unsettle the religious world respecting the former, as it would be to confuse and unsettle the scientific world respecting the latter. The essential parts of this system are the well-known five points of Calvinism, namely, total depravity in distinction from partial; unconditional election in distinction from conditional; irresistible regenerating grace in distinction from resistible; limited redemption (not atonement) in distinction from universal; the certain perseverance of the regenerate in distinction from their possible apostasy. !No one of these points can be rejected without impairing the integrity of Calvinism, any more than one of the points of the mariners' compass can be omitted and the scheme be complete; any more than one of the contrary five points

of Arminianism can be deleted and the theory remain un\ altered.

s The "Institutes" of Calvin, after all the development of the Reformed or Calvinistic type of doctrine by later theologians, still remains one of the best statements of this powerful system. The keen and aquiline eye of the most scientific theologian of the Reformation saw the fundamental truths of revelation with an accuracy and precision that required no correction on his part. The great work of his early manhood remained essentially unchanged by him to the end of his career, and since his day it has laid at the foundation of all subsequent theologizing of this class, as the Principia of Newton has under all the succeeding mathematics of Europe. While, however, a revision of the Westminster Standards that shall be true to their structure and system does not require that the peculiarities of individual Calvinists, even of Calvin himself, or of Calvinistic schools should be followed, it does require that all of those constituent and formative tenets by which Augustinianism differs from Semi-Pelagianism, and Calvinism from Anninianism, shall be reaffirmed and maintained. The revision must be conformed to the historical Calvinism as stated in the principal Reformed or Calvinistic creeds, and not to Calvinism as constructed by any particular theologian, however able or popular in his

\ own day and denomination.

,/f The Christian religion contains certain truths that are ('so indisputably taught in the Christian Scriptures, that their acceptance is necessary in order to be a Christian in the sense in which the first disciples were so called at Antioch. They are the doctrines of the trinity and incarnation, of apostasy and redemption, as they are generally and largely enunciated in the Apostles' and Nicene creeds. Respecting these, there has- been little disagreement in ancient, mediaeval, and modern Christendom. The Christian religion also contains certain other truths which, both in the Scriptures and in the doctrinal systems constructed out of them, are implications and deductions from these cardinal doctrines. It is in reference to this class of more strict and precise tenets, that evangelical Christendom has from the first been divided into two great divisions. In respect to them, the ancient theologian was either Angustin ian or Semi-Pelagian; the modern theologian is either Calvinistic or Arminian. The difference between them relates principally to the more exact definition of original sin, of human freedom and ability, and of the Divine sovereignty and decrees. So long as Christian believers see through a glass darkly, there will be a speculative difference between them on these abstruser parts of revelation that will affect more or less the style of the religious experience, and make separate religions organizations desirable. This difference has for fifteen centuries crystallized into two sharply-edged types of theology, and there are no signs that one will ontreason and conquer the other. Calvinism and Calvinistic denominations will probably continue to exist to the end of time; and so will Arminianism and Arminian denominations. In the future, as in the past, all evangelical believers will belong either to one dogmatic division or the other. It is better, in these circumstances, that both shall live and work side by side in frank and respectful recognition of each other, than to destroy the self consistence of each by an attempt to combine both in a single system. Only these two general schemes of Christian doctrine are logically possible; for schemes that deny the trinity and incarnation, the apostasy and redemption, are Deistic, not Christian. Both scientific theology and dogmatic history evince that there is no tertium quid between Calvinism and Arminian ism, and that the choice of an individual or a denomination, consequently, lies between one or the other. Seuii-Pelagianism was a real mid-point between the tenets of Augustine and those of Pelagius; but there is no true intermediate between the system of Calvin and that of Arminius. In the history of doctrine there are sometimes semi quavers, but demi-semi-quavers never. / Such being the facts, it is of the utmost importance to the Presbyterian Church that it retain the historical Calvinism upon which it was founded, and by which it has prospered. But it is of even greater importance to the whole world. It is a common remark of historians and philosophers, that Calvinism lays very deep the foundations of religious belief, of moral order, of civil society, and general intelligence and virtue, and that forms of government and social institutions which rest upon it are invincible, and " cannot but by annihilating die." Should this type of doctrine and this form of the religious experience disappear, Christendom would lose its balance-wheel. For it is no disparagement of the energy of evangelical Protestantism of all varieties, in the defence of the common faith, and the war upon the common unbelief, to say that the Genevan theology is always in the front whenever a fearless position has to be taken in behalf of an unpopular but revealed truth; whenever the Christian herald must announce the solemn alternatives of salvation and perdition to a sensuous, a pleasure-loving, and an irritable generation; whenever, in short, the stern and severe work of the perpetual campaign on earth against moral evil has to be done. The best interests of the Christian religion and Church require the continual existence and influence of that comprehensive and self-consistent creed which Augustine formulated out of Scripture, and Calvin reaffirmed and re-enforced. Evangelical Arminians who do not adopt it feel its influence, praying it in their prayers and singing it in their hymns; and nationalists of all grades while recoiling from it acknowledge its massiveness and strength. It may, therefore, be confidently expected that whatever be the fortunes of a particular Church, or the tendencies of a particular time, this form of doctrine will perpetually survive in Christendom like the Scriptures out of which it was derived.