The state of the soteriological controversies online is a shambles.
It seems like most want to build brand recognition through “gotcha!” mudslinging and memes. I like memes as much as the next guy, and they can be useful rhetorical tools, but when the dialogue never goes deeper that is indicative of a wider problem.
In the spirit of being the change you want to see, the following will be a continuation of a deeper-than-memes dialogue. It seems like my interlocutor, a Reformed fellow by the name of Josh, is likewise concerned by the shallow state of the present online discourse.
Specifically, Josh’s criticism is that Soteriology 101 only critiques a modern, popular-level Calvinism that does not accurately reflect historical, confessional Reformed theology. This is what leads Calvinists to not take our criticism seriously and to push back with the ever so frequent YoU DoN’t UnDeRsTaNd CaLvInIsM.
His main criticism is summarized thusly:
Moving forward, I’m going to call Josh’s criticism The Standard of Seriousness. That is, since Soteriology 101 does not intend to deal with standardized, confessional Reformed orthodoxy, therefore our criticism aren’t all that serious. He’s not making a value judgement, as he goes on to say…
…he is merely claiming our criticisms are shallow and inaccurate, hence the justified push-back we receive. Like he says:
Our focus on “strictly modern positions” is what leads to the criticism.
Purpose of My Pushback
What I hope to show in transferring this dialogue to a blog post, which allows for more flexibility in how I address the criticisms, is that Josh’s Standard of Seriousness is irrational, over-burdensome, and internally inconsistent.
Specifically, on the one hand Josh is claiming that what orthodox Reformed Theology is is objectively, and apparently easily, knowable. Yet, on the other hand, Josh claims this knowability is simply a matter of linguistic and historical evaluation and interpretation. Do you see the problem? Historical and linguistic evaluation are not that easy!
When I asked him how I could know what orthodox Reformed Theology is, he answered:
But don’t those require interpretation and evaluation? How do I know that Josh is interpreting and evaluating that historical literature accurately?
Josh repeats this claim about the confessions:
It isn’t enough to understand and evaluate how contemporary Calvinists are reading and using the confessions, you have to understand the language and rational categories in their historical context. Let us summarize these requirements in bullet points. In order for Provisionist criticisms of Reformed Theology to be taken seriously, Provisionists must:
- Understand the Bible in the language and categories in its historical context
- Understand the Reformed confessions in the language and categories in their historical context
- Understand the theological development performed by contemporary (to the confessions) and later Reformed theologians in their language and categories in their historical context
To catch a glimpse of what the third point means, this dialogue with Josh began when he cited the writings of some of these post-confession Reformed theologians for a definition of free will. Let’s see how you do parsing out the lexical and grammatical use of English-long-past in these definitions:
How are you doing with the definitions of the voluntas discreta and the connaturalis? Feel like you need a few years of reading historical theology in your free time after work to catch up?
Is it a rational standard to hold that every Provisionist who critiques Reformed theology online must first reach the knowledge level of a professional Reformed historian?
Is it a consistent standard that you also hold Reformed teachers to when they criticize Arminian theology or the Greek Orthodox?
I cannot see how that is the case.
This is the part where I want to be clear what I’m not saying.
This Is Not An Appeal to Relativism
As if anticipating this follow up Josh pre-fired with:
No, I’m sure there are many objective historical truths I would learn by doing the historical study he suggests. The point is that the Standard of Seriousness he is attempting to hold Provisionists to is over-burdensome, irrational, and inconsistent.
Over-burdensome because it disqualifies everyone except professional Reformed historians from ever writing a sentence in criticism of Reformed Theology, lest they not be taken seriously. I can see how that would work in his favor.
Irrational because it possible for a criticism against Reformed Theology to be valid without the person having done Ph.D-level study into Reformed theological history.
Inconsistent because he does not hold Reformed teachers to the same standard re: libertarian philosophy and the use of its jargon nor to understand the technical academic work of William Lane Craig nor demand they engage with the likes of Alvin Platinga nor recount with the entire history of the Greek Orthodox break with the Reformed Church.
I’ve done graduate level research. I know what it takes to fully grasp the concepts he is front-loading “I’ll only take you seriously if you first do this” with. For the professionals, it would take years of Ph.D study to become as versed as he wants us to. For the layman, this would take longer years of free-time study and, since the layman probably won’t do the languages, we would still be relying on translations.
Another thing I am not saying is that Provisionists have no burden at all to rightly understand Reformed Theology. Nor am I saying that it would be a waste of time for a Provisionist to delve waist deep into the historical development of Reformed orthodoxy. I’m sure there is much value there. What I am saying is that this cannot be a rationally expected down payment on engaging in the soteriological controversies.
There are two other aspects of this criticism I would like to address. I hope you can see how these aspects interplay.
Speaking Another Language
It seems axiomatic to me that every field of study comes with its own language. “Jargon”, terms those known only to the few who engage in the field, are developed and shared among the literate. This is broadly true about the soteriological controversies where words like regeneration and predestination are common while outsiders may have been lost at the word soteriology. This is especially true of a highly specialized field of study like Reformed historical theology. Only those on the inside will readily understand the language being spoken.
Josh rather tips his hand that his standard is that we must become fluent in that language before we can even talk about Calvinism. He intends to say that anyone on the outside can understand what the Reformed mean by “decree” but ends up actually claiming the opposite.
He means to say that even children can understand what decree means while adult Provisionists apparently cannot. But this is not surprising to any first generation immigrant. The first generation struggles to adopt the new language, and many never do. The second generation, their children who grow up in the new language, have no trouble at all and end up translating for their parents. So, yes, children being catechized in Reformed churches rather proves my point that it’s an internal language Josh is expecting outsiders to speak before he will entertain them.
Further, “people seeking ordination in Reformed churches are rigorously examined orally by their regional presbytery on these things…” is a strong point in my favor here. A naturalized citizen is just as much a citizen of a country as the native. Josh is using the example of the ordination-seeking Reformed as an example of the technical, linguistic knowledge required of us for citizenry among The Serious. Without realizing it, Josh is suggesting we must become Reformed before we can critique Reformed theology.
What follows is that this standard, of course, only goes one direction. Notice that when Josh is lamenting that Provisionists didn’t know the historical Reformed definition of decree, what he’s really claiming is that we couldn’t identify the technical jargon of the catechism. Not being able to identify the technical jargon of the catechism means you fail the Standard of Seriousness. It doesn’t matter to Josh if we understand the concept, or say it in a different, perhaps un-preferred, way. Josh isn’t doing a deep dive into our language and jargon to see what we really mean.
Josh does not hold himself to that standard.
See, we have to make our intentions known to the satisfaction of the Reformed. The Reformed don’t have to understand our criticisms in their own context. They do not have to extend the charity that our criticisms are worth understanding and engaging with on their own merits. No, first, we have to prove to the satisfaction of the Reformed that we’re really “concerned with truth, accuracy, and clarity” by accurately relaying Reformed technical jargon. We have to prove our own innocence before the Calvinist will deign to take us seriously.
But Josh doesn’t do that. He’s not steeped in the history of the Greek Orthodox and the Anabaptists. He doesn’t know the ends and outs of E.Y. Mullins‘ theology. You will notice I’m not demanding that of him. I’m not rebutting his criticism on the basis that he hasn’t reached the prerequisite knowledge about our history.
My suggestion to Josh would be this: If he wants to see more productive dialogue than YoU dOn’T uNdErStAnD cAlViNiSm, then seek to understand our reasons for rejecting Reformed soteriology and the arguments we’re making on their own merits. If you discern we’re responding to a form of Calvinism you don’t subscribe to, then tell us how the Reformed sources we’re reading are wrong and do not represent Calvinism.
In other words, have that deeper dialogue instead of gatekeeping. Be the change you want to see.