Last Wednesday, Dr. Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary) posting a very fine, interesting response to a John Piper interview about the perceived arrogance and negativity of Calvinists. Having been raised in, studied in, and served in Calvinistic circles for many years before coming to Lutheranism, I found some of Dr. Witherington’s comments both striking and brilliantly perceptive. He writes:
For whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.
As an engineer, Air Force officer, and otherwise pretty anal-retentive and over-analytical person, the “intellectual certainty” was a very big draw of Calvinistic theology for a very long time. I wanted answers. I wanted precise answers. I wanted a black-and-white, crystal clear understanding of not only the Bible but of God too. Reformed theology offers just this sort of approach in many areas and really fit me quite well. The trouble is, as Dr. Witherington continues:
But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.
A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae.
As much as it hurts to admit it…I think Dr. Witherington is spot on. Yes, the Reformed world does a marvelous job forming a precise, logically coherent, systematic theology, but it draws “the circle much too small” and leaves out “all the inconvenient contrary evidence.” It doesn’t take much looking over the prooftexts of the Westminster Confession (for one) to see that many inconvenient passages of Scripture speaking to a certain tenet are conveniently left out. I discovered this truth primarily while working on my ordination paper and personal confession of faith required for my Ordination Vicinage Board. As I poured over the great Reformed confessions in order to style my own in a fashion similar to the WCF, the Three Forms of Unity, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and others, I found that all too often, they simply failed to acknowledge passages that failed to fit into “the system.”
Does the Book of Concord provide a wonderful explanation of what it means to be Lutheran? Yes. Is it always tidy, neat, and logically coherent? Not really. That said, I’d rather hold to a confession that holds closely to the testimony of Scripture, even at the expense of 100% logical coherence. As Dr. Witherington also writes:
While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God so we could be certain God exists and form that body of knowledge into a self-sustaining fully coherent theological system with one idea leading to another idea, and so on.
The best professors I had in seminary, Calvinists many of them, were humble enough to recognize this great truth and cling more tightly to their copy of Scripture than to their Confessions. We would do well to be of the same mindset as these!