The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Orthodoxy and/or Calvinism: A Question of Priority

In a previous essay (1) I showed how popular, Calvinist, evangelical theologian R. C. Sproul, out of concern that speaking of God dying in the crucifixion, as Charles Wesley does in his well-loved song “And Can It Be”, might lead people to think that in the death of Christ, God perished in His eternal being, went too far in his efforts to avoid this heretical pitfall and landed himself in another one, that of Nestorianism, the ancient heresy condemned by the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Dr. Sproul denied that the Second Person of the Trinity died on the cross and asserted that it was Christ’s human nature that made the atonement. This is a version of the Nestorian heresy, and one specifically condemned in the twelfth of the twelve anathemas which St. Cyril of Alexandria had proposed in a letter addressed to Nestorius and which were accepted by the Council of Ephesus. (2)

This illustrates something that I have long observed about certain Calvinist theologians, namely the tendency, in practice if not in theory, to rank the teachings of the Synod of Dort as being of greater importance than those of the early councils of the Church. They also, for that matter, tend to place the doctrines of the canons of Dort, collectively referred to as the “Doctrine of Grace”, above the Pauline-Augustinian doctrines of justification which had been the basis of the Reformation. In other words, for these theologians, Calvinism is more important than either the orthodoxy of the Apostolic Christianity of the early undivided Church or the teachings of the early Reformers, including John Calvin himself. More than one such Calvinist has followed C. H. Spurgeon in equating the doctrines of Calvinism with the gospel itself. The gospel, however, is not a set of doctrines about predestination and the sovereignty of God, but the basic Christian message of "good news" addressed to the world, the content of which is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again as attested by the Scriptures and witnesses of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15), and which functions as an invitation for all people to trust the Saviour so proclaimed.

If you will allow me to give another example, in the late 1980s a book came out which accused, with a great deal of justification, contemporary evangelicalism of having watered down the gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Entitled The Gospel According to Jesus, it’s author was John F. MacArthur Jr., popular radio Bible teacher, the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California and president of The Master's College and Seminary. It was heavily endorsed by Calvinist theologians such as John Piper, R. C. Sproul, John H. Gerstner, James Montgomery Boice and J. I. Packer. Packer and Boice even contributed forwards to the book.

This endorsement of The Gospel According to Jesus was bad enough, when the book is evaluated on its own merits. (3) My point, however, is that at the time MacArthur wrote this book – he has subsequently recanted, or at least changed his mind (4) – he denied the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ. (5) He had taught since at least 1983 that Jesus Christ, while eternally the Word of God, only became the Son of God in the Incarnation. This placed him outside the bounds of the orthodox Trinitarian faith. When the first ecumenical council of the Church was convened in Nicaea in 325 AD to address the heresy of Arius, the Alexandrian priest who taught that Jesus is neither eternal nor equal to God the Father, but the first created being, it asserted that Jesus Christ as the Son of God was of “one substance” with God the Father, that He was “begotten not made”, and that His having been begotten of the Father describes not an event in time before which He was not, but His eternal relationship with the Father for He was “begotten of the Father before all worlds.” That MacArthur did not accept Nicene orthodoxy did not appear to faze any of these Calvinist theologians who wrote glowing endorsements of his book. That MacArthur taught the canons of Dort and the Puritan doctrine of assurance through introspective fruit inspection was more important to them than that he could not honestly recite the Nicene Creed as a statement of his own faith.

There are at least three things wrong with the rather appalling failure to prioritize that this demonstrates: it places a regional, sectarian, synod above the councils of the early, undivided, church, it makes the doctrine of predestination, a secondary doctrine at best, if not tertiary, more important than sound Trinitarianism and Christology, and it places the emphasis on doctrines, such as particular redemption, the soundness of which is rather dubious.

The First Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in 325 and 381 AD respectively, and the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in 431 and 451 AD, were ecumenical (6) councils, that is to say, councils in which representatives from the entire church throughout the world had been invited to participate, at a time when this was still possible as the major schisms had yet to take place (6) Their conciliar authority, as such, is therefore considerably greater than that of the Synod of Dort, which was a national council of the Dutch Reformed Church, although a number of representatives from the German Reformed Churches and the Church of England also participated by invitation.

Jesus Christ had warned His disciples that false Christs would arise, meaning people who falsely claimed to be the Messiah, and before the writings recognized by the Church as the Christian Scriptures were completed, another kind of false Christ had arisen in that false teachers had arisen in the Church, challenging the authority and doctrine of the Apostle, and denying in particular the Incarnation of Christ. St. John wrote of these in his first and second epistles, calling these false teachers “antichrists”. They rejected the Incarnation because in their philosophy the material world was irredeemably corrupt, whereas the spiritual world was immaculately pure, so the idea of the divine Christ becoming flesh seemed an abomination to them. For the same reason they could not accept that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, Who created the material world, was the supreme and good God. Known to history as the Gnostics, these would plague the orthodox, Apostolic faith for centuries, but they were not the only heretics. If they rejected the humanity of Christ, that He was “come in the flesh”, others, such as Arius of Alexandria, stumbled over His deity.

It was against heresies of this type and for what St. John called “the doctrine of Christ” that the Church contended in these early ecumenical councils. This doctrine is the very essence of Christianity – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come in the flesh, fully God, fully Man in One Person. The councils did not invent this doctrine, which is found in the Apostolic Scriptures and Ante-Nicene Patristic writings, but they issued a clear and authoritative statement of the doctrine, and condemned the heretical deviations from it.

This required that similar clear and authoritative statements be made as to what orthodox Christianity teaches about the nature of God. The orthodox and Apostolic doctrine was that the God of the Old Testament was the same God Who is Father of Jesus Christ, as Christ Himself had said (Jn. 8:54) but the Gnostics denied, and so the Creed of the Council of Nicaea began by declaring that God, the Father Almighty, is “Maker of all things visible and invisible”, which the Council of Constantinople expanded to “Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisble.” The God of the Old Testament is notably One, (Deut. 6:4), but in the New Testament He has a Son Who is also God, and on the night prior to His crucifixion that Son promised His disciples that when He returned to His Father, the Father would send them a Comforter, the Holy Ghost, in His name (Jn. 14:16-26). Some took this as meaning that there were three Gods, others, such as the heretic Sabellius, that “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Ghost” were just titles or offices. The Church, therefore, had to defend the essential unity of God against the former, and the distinction between the Divine Persons against the latter, clarifying that God is One in His essential being, but Three in Person.

By contrast, when the Dutch Reformed Church called together its Synod in Dordrecht in 1618 AD, it was to deal with a matter which is best understood as being itself a footnote – or at most, a parenthesis - to one of the secondary doctrines dealt with by the ecumenical councils. When the Council of Ephesus convened to address the heresy of Nestorius of Constantinople in 431 AD it also confirmed the condemnation of the heresy of Pelagius by the Council of Carthage, a North African regional synod, in 418 AD. Pelagius, a lay monk, born somewhere in the British Isles, but who taught first in Rome, then in North Africa, and later in the Middle East, had denied the doctrine of Original Sin, i.e., that in Adam the entire human race fell as Adam’s sin and fallen nature has been passed down to us, and rejected the absolute necessity of God’s grace for salvation and good works. It was St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who had led the opposition to the heresy of Pelagianism, arguing in several works for the doctrine of Original Sin and that salvation only comes through the grace of God.

In the course of his combatting the heresies of Pelagius and his disciple Caelestus, St. Augustine developed a strong view of predestination, in which God decided whom He would give His saving grace to in eternity past before the creation of the world. While the Augustinian view of Original Sin and salvation only by the grace of God had been ruled to be orthodox by the Council of Ephesus, with the authority of the undivided Church, the same cannot be said of his later doctrine of predestination and whether this doctrine of predestination is logically required by Original Sin and salvation by grace has been a divisive subject. The Reformers, including the Lutherans and the English Reformers as well as the Calvinists, held to the Augustinian view of predestination, but whereas the Lutherans and the Anglicans insisted on contextualizing the doctrine, (8) the followers of Calvin prioritized it, and having done so, took it to extremes that invited the formation of opposite extremes. Thus, when Calvin’s disciple Theodore Beza, whose theology was as horrible as his politics (9), developed the harshest version of predestination possible in supralapsarianism (10), it met with resistance, and, unsurprisingly, when the young Reformed pastor at Amsterdam, newly appointed to his post, Jacob Arminius, was asked to defend this doctrine, he found himself reconsidering the entire idea of predestination. God, Arminius argued, had given men sufficient grace in Christ, for the entire world to be saved, and predestinated men in accordance with His foreknowledge of whether they would respond to the Gospel in faith or not.

The Synod of Dort was the Dutch Reformed Church’s response to Arminius, or, to be more precise, to the Five Articles of Remonstance against their own Calvinist view of predestination that his followers had published the year after his death in 1609 AD. While the Synod attempted, in the articles and catalogues of “errors” it put forth arguing for its own five points, to pin the charge of Pelagianism on its opponents, the matters in question were not those over which the early church condemned the teachings of Pelagius. The original condemnation of Pelagius at the Council of Carthage, later upheld by the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, found him in error on the following points: that death was the consequence of Adam’s fall, that new born infants possess Original Sin and so ought to be baptized, that God’s grace provides both forgiveness for past sins and fortification against future sins as well as strength to obey God’s commandments and not merely knowledge of them, that it is impossible rather than just difficult to please God apart from grace, and that the faithful speak out of truth and not just humility when confessing themselves to be sinners and praying “forgive us our trespasses”, which includes their own personal trespasses. Pelagius’ denial of all of these points was condemned as heresy, but none of these points was an issue in the controversy between the Calvinists and Arminians, only the way the Calvinist tradition had interpreted John Calvin’s interpretation of St. Augustine’s later teachings on predestination.

Yet, to hear many of the Calvinist theologians who winked at John F. MacArthur Jr.’s denial of the eternal Sonship of Christ in the 1980s and 1990s and turn a blind eye to R. C. Sproul’s Nestorianism, you would think that the greatest plague afflicting the Christian church today is a revival of Pelagianism (11), to be found in the rejection of one or more of the petals of the TULIP of Dort.

(2) The anathema reads “Whosoever shall not recognize that the Word of God suffered in the flesh, that he was crucified in the flesh, and that likewise in that same flesh he tasted death and that he has become the first-begotten of the dead, for, as he is God, he is the life and it is he that gives life: let him be anathema.”
(3) The problem MacArthur was addressing in the book was real enough – the way, many evangelical churches were making shallow converts, many of whom either fell away or showed little interest in the things of God thereafter. Unfortunately, MacArthur misdiagnosed the problem and so prescribed a cure that was as bad if not worse than the actual ailment. The correct diagnosis would be that much of the contemporary evangelical church often treats the gospel as an instrument for talking people into “praying the sinner’s prayer” and tells those who do so that they have by doing so ensured their place in heaven. Proclaimed properly, the gospel is a message of good news about God and what He has done in giving us His Son, Who died for us on the cross, was buried, and rose again, which invites people to believe the good news and trust the Saviour. Instead, MacArthur’s solution was to substitute a harder decision for “praying the sinner’s prayer” and to tell people they needed to be constantly looking for evidence of their regeneration in their daily lives.
(5) I explained and defended the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship at length here:
(6) Ecumenical comes from a Greek word meaning “the entire world”. An “ecumenical” council, therefore, was a council of the church throughout “the entire world” rather than a local or regional synod. It had a different set of connotations in the early centuries of Christianity than it does today. Since the early twentieth century it has been used by the movement to restore Christian unity which, unfortunately, has often demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice truth and orthodoxy for the sake of unity. In the early centuries, the ecumenical councils sought unity through the means of clarifying the truth and condemning heresy.
(7) Although one of those schisms was in response to the Council of Chalcedon, the decisions of which the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, and several other ancient near east churches refused to accept.
(8) The Church of England, for example, addresses the matter in Article VII of the Articles of Religion, eight articles after the one affirming Augustinian orthodoxy on the matter of Original Sin, having affirmed such matters as the Holy Trinity (Article I), the eternal Sonship of Christ and the unity of His “Godhead and Manhood” in “one Person, never to be divided” (Article II) at the very beginning. In Article VII, it is made plain that the doctrine of predestination, so affirmed, is “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons” but that for “carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ” for it to be “continually before their eyes” is “a most dangerous downfall” that serves the purposes of the Devil.
(9) Beza was an antimonarchist republican.
(10) Basically, the idea that God decided to allow sin to enter into the world in order to be able to damn people to Hell.
(11) The charge is not entirely baseless. Pelagianism has certainly influenced North American evangelicalism, but this was more through nineteenth century revivalist Charles G. Finney, ironically a Presbyterian minister, than through Arminius, Arminianism, or Wesleyism. I discussed this here:


  1. Fascinating stuff. I always learn a lot when I read these posts.

  2. (1) What did MacArthur's view on eternal Sonship have to do with his book /The Gospel According to Jesus/? In other words, whether or not he was wrong about Sonship, why should that issue prompt anyone to refuse to endorse the book?

    (2) Obviously Puritanism =/= the Gospel. However, the New Testament teaches rather plainly (especially in 1 John) that fruit *is* evidence of genuine conversion. This is unavoidable.

    1. (1) Suppose a Jehovah's Witness were to write a book on intercessory prayer that you agreed with. Would you write a glowing forward to his book, promote it and him, and invite him to speak in your church? MacArthur's 1983-1999 views on eternal Sonship were heresy on the level of the Arianism of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

      (2) Yes, fruit is evidence of genuine conversion. That does not mean either a) that fruit is to be the grounds and basis of the believer's assurance of salvation, or b) that we have been given a ministry of "fruit inspection". The history of Puritanism is a history of the damage these latter implications, drawn from the idea of fruit as evidence of conversion, have done. The former, generates either despair, among those with even the most basic spiritual awareness of their own depravity, or extreme hubris among the spiritually blind. The latter also generates hubris. The idea that the fruits of conversion were the basis of the believer's assurance was condemned by Martin Luther, and the Lutheran tradition has continued to be faithful to Luther's teachings on the matter i.e., that the believer's objective assurance is to be found in the Gospel message and its promises and his subjective assurance is the comfort drawn from that message by and as a part of faith itself. John Calvin taught the same thing, describing the idea that the believer must look to his fruit to assure himself of his being of the elect as a sure road to damnation, and teaching that Christ is the mirror in which we are to look through faith to view our own election. This is why I said that Calvinists, of the kind who endorsed MacArthur's book, tend to make the teachings that the Reformed Church developed in response to the Arminian controversy more important, not only than the orthodoxy of the ecumenical councils, but the teachings of the early Reformers as well.

  3. (3) Though I most definitely affirm the Trinity - one God in three Persons - I have to ask: where is "eternal Sonship" explicitly taught in Scripture?

    1. I guess that depends on what you mean by "explicitly". Both Gospels that give an account of the birth of Christ, clearly state that it is by the Holy Spirit that He was conceived by the Virgin Mary. Matthew 1:18, 1:20, Luke 1:35. The last verse, which is the angel Gabriel speaking to Mary, says "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." The words following the colon might be taken as supporting the Incarnational Sonship point of view, i.e., that Jesus was "The Son of God" by virtue of the miraculous nature of His conception and birth without a human father.

    2. If this is all that His being "The Son of God" means, however, this compromises the doctrine of the Trinity. In John 14:12, in which Christ is speaking to His Apostles on the evening of the Last Supper and His betrayal and trial, He says that He is about to "go unto My Father". A few verses later He says that He will "pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth". In verse 26 He says "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you." The Holy Ghost, then, is sent by the Father, int he name of the Son. Here the distinction of the divine Persons can be seen, as of course it could also be seen in the accounts of the baptism of Jesus in Matthew and Luke's Gospels, in which the voice of the Father speaks from Heaven announcing Jesus as His Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him like a dove. If, however, Jesus "Sonship" refers only to His having been conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, the distinction between the Father and the Holy Spirit is erased, and the Holy Spirit becomes the Father of Jesus. To confuse the Persons of the Trinity, is as much a heresy as to divine His eternal being or substance. The distinction Jesus makes between His Father and the Holy Spirit Whom the Father sends in His (Jesus') name, establishes that Sonship is the relationship between Jesus and the Father, not Jesus and the Holy Spirit, which means that that relationship could not have been something which began when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost. More explicitly, John 1:18 declares "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." This expression "only-begotten" is repeated, famously, by Jesus speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:16. While some have maintained, in recent years, that the word μονογενῆς, which is translated "only-begotten", should be translated "unique" or "one-and-only", and that "only-begotten" comes from a misunderstanding of the word as being derived from the adding of μόνος (only) to γεννάω (to beget) rather than to γένος (race, stock, kin, family, class). This reasoning is false. The noun γένος is closely related to the verb γεννάω and its primary sense is the idea of a line of descent from a common father rather than a generic category. μονογενῆς means "only one in a line of descent" not merely "only one in a category" and "only-begotten" would be how you would express that concept participally. The question then becomes when and how did Jesus descend from God. If this refers to an even in time, to which there was a "before", then Jesus cannot be said to be the "only" one, for the angels are spoken of as the sons of God in the Old Testament and all mankind are described as His offspring by St. Paul in his address to the Stoics and Epicureans on Mars Hill. Jesus is the Son of God in a way that cannot be said of any created being. Thus, to make this point clear against Arius, who had concluded from Jesus' Sonship that there must have been a time before which He was not, the Nicene Council declared Him to be "begotten of the Father before all worlds" and "begotten not made", i.e., "eternally begotten". This doctrine is required by Scriptures, and to that extent, is explicitly taught - as explicitly as the Trinity itself.

  4. Macarthur is a credobaptist, not in line with the historic Reformed faith which affirms paedobaptism (except for newcomers to the faith, as adults), and he isn't even in the vein of Spurgeon and the older kind of 'Reformed Baptists', since he's a grad of Dallas Theological Seminary, which requires everyone who graduates from them to hold to dispensationalist eschatology, also quite alien to the historic Reformed faith (and to that of Reformed Baptists, too, for that matter). I'm more disappointed in R.C. Sproul's aberrations in thinking than Macarthur's, because I expect no better from Macarthur.

    1. Yeah, MacArthur has a long record of teaching heresy. Dr. Bob Jones Jr. had accused him of heresy over his teachings on the blood as far back as the late 1970s. I believe the IFCA even held a heresy trial over his denial of eternal sonship. Sproul is a more careful theologian, which is what made these remarks of his rather surprising. I would have attributed it to a poor choice of words except that he went out of his way to include an explicit denial of the Second Person of the Trinity's death on the cross.