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joy of Calvinism

Interview with Greg Forster


What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “Calvinism?” Perhaps “glorious,” or “cantankerous,” or maybe “heartless”? How about “Joyful”? If you are slightly skeptical, let me introduce you to Greg Forster.  It may seem like a tall order, but Forster has managed to write a winsome, personable, and (of course) theologically stimulating apology that makes the dogma of the dour Swiss Reformer appear positively heart warming. I’ve been waiting for a C.S. Lewis of Calvinism to come along. I think Dr. Forster might be it.  I invite you to be surprised by The Joy of Calvinism.

Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) is the author of five books and numerous print articles, and a regular contributor to First Thoughts and The Public Discourse. He is a program director at the Kern Family Foundation and also a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation.

What moved you to write this book?

 I was dissatisfied with the way the world misunderstands Calvinism. We tend to talk about Calvinism in terms of technicalities and jargon, and we focus on negating what other people believe rather than on the positive reasons why we think the truths we’re upholding are so important. Technicalities and negations are important, but if that’s the only way we ever talk, it tends to create a very limited and skewed perception of Calvinism. I wanted to show that Calvinism is about having the joy of God by knowing how personally God loves us, and all that flows from that.

You suggest that Calvinists should reconsider the usefulness and propriety of TULIP. Why is that?

TULIP is a recent innovation (it wasn’t widely used until the late 20th century) and it doesn’t adequately communicate historic Calvinist theology to contemporary audiences. It does have some advantages – for example, it’s very Trinitarian. It goes from the state of man before salvation to the saving work of each person (Father, Son, Spirit) to the state of man after salvation. But it has two major weaknesses that stand out to me. First, it emphasizes the negative rather than the positive. It’s more about saying what we don’t believe (we don’t think Jesus atoned for all people, we don’t think regenerating grace is offered to us such that we can choose whether to cooperate with it). That’s important, but it isn’t what we should focus on. I’d rather focus on what we do believe: God loves you personally and saves you personally. Also, TULIP uses phrases in very technical and counter-intuitive ways. We end up invoking TULIP, then apologizing for invoking TULIP, then explaining that TULIP doesn’t really mean what it seems to mean and isn’t really saying what it seems to be saying. This can’t possibly be the best way to introduce people to what we believe.

In speaking of the exegetical warrant for Calvinism, you suggest that only Calvinism takes into consideration the “full meaning” of Scripture (19). how do you mean?

 Well, every theological tradition thinks that it does a better job of embodying the full meaning of scripture than others. I’m a Calvinist because I think Calvinism is the most natural way to account for all the biblical data. And since I’m a Calvinist, I think that passages like I Peter 1:3-7 reveal a much deeper meaning when read in light of how Calvinism understands God’s love. Of course no theological tradition can convey the “full meaning” of scripture in an absolute sense, given that on this side of death we still see through a glass darkly, and I don’t claim anything like that. But I do think Calvinism does the best job of making sense of scripture.

You argue that Calvinism is robustly Trinitarian, perhaps more so than any other branch of the Christian church. How is that so?

 Calvinism is famous for upholding a particularly “strong” or “high” view of predestination. All Christians affirm some doctrine of predestination, but the Calvinist version is “higher.” What you’re really doing there is affirming a particularly high view of the Father’s work in salvation. You’re saying the Father’s choice is effectual, not just confirmatory. But that’s not really the most important thing about Calvinism; it was Augustine in the 5th century who laid out this high view of predestination. We just inherited it. Dig a little deeper and you discover that Calvinism also upholds a particularly high view of the Son’s work in salvation, saying that the atonement was effectual, not just hypothetical or conditional. But that, too, is not Calvinism’s distinctive contribution; we got the high view of the atonement from Anselm in the 11th century. The new and unique contribution of Calvin and his followers was to add to the mix a distinctively high view of the Spirit’s work in salvation. Once you had that, all three work together. You get consistent and coherent view in which the work of each person is integrated with the work of the others. This gives Calvinist theology its historically unique clarity, stability and coherence. That’s why today it’s called Calvinism rather than Augustinianism or Anselmism. Calvin put in the missing piece that gave us the whole Trinity.

Calvinism often seems to get billed as reactionary or excessively argumentative. Tell us how you envision a more positive interaction between Calvinism and other Christian traditions.

We need to work harder to cultivate our brotherhood with all gospel-believing Christians. Paul writes: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). He was talking about unbelievers and heretics; how much more “gentleness,” should we show to our brothers? In the book I point out that in addition to the disagreements, there’s also a great deal of continuity between Calvinism and other theological traditions. There are ways we can build on our common commitments, not only to cultivate brotherhood in spite of disagreement but also to discover (I believe) that we don’t disagree quite as deeply as we sometimes think we do.

How does the doctrine of “definite atonement” set Calvinism apart from all other theological traditions?

 This is really the lynchpin issue, in my opinion. Chapter 1 of the book is called God Loves You Personally, and that’s what’s really at stake here. The question is, does Jesus actually save you at the cross and the empty tomb? Or does he just create a salvation system that makes salvation available to you? It’s like the difference between a man who manufactures life vests and a man who actually pulls drowning people out of the water. The people who make life vests are doing good and important work, but it’s just not the same as pulling drowning people out of the water. The difference between how Calvinism sees Christ’s work and how other traditions see Christ’s work contributes to a difference in how people informed by these traditions respond experientially to Christ. That’s why Calvinism makes such a huge difference to your everyday walk with God and your experience of joy.

When C.S. Lewis says “free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having,” many think that’s common sense. How would you respond?

 Well, on its face that’s a true statement and I have no trouble agreeing with it. If we define “free will” to mean a morally responsible will, which is the way it has been predominantly defined since about the 18th century, then Lewis is obviously right: only a morally responsible will can commit evil (by definition) and only a morally responsible will can enter into meaningful relationships (because otherwise you don’t have personal identity – there’s nothing in a machine or a tree that’s capable of entering into a relationship).  Yet the use Lewis makes of this concept in his book The Problem of Pain is inadequate to his purposes. Where his line of reasoning really goes wrong is where he says that you can’t have free will unless God compromises his omnipotence. Lewis actually writes those words: “God gave them free will: thus surrendering a portion of his omnipotence.” I’m a huge Lewis fan, but I think once you start talking about a “God” who isn’t omnipotent you’ve clearly taken a wrong turn.

Why should a Calvinist be the most joyful of any kind of Christian?

 All Christians have the joy of God, of course, and any given Calvinist you meet may well be a backslider while any given Arminian you meet may well be an extremely holy man who’s living ecstatically into the joy of God every day. That said, Calvinists have a unique piece of equipment for living into the joy of God that other Christians don’t have: we have a way of understanding God’s love for us that shows just how high and powerful it is. God doesn’t merely agree to save you provided you jump through the right hoops so he can fit it into his larger set of plans for the universe; he is bound and determined to save you and will smash through all obstacles to do it. Calvinists may not use this tool the way we should to live into the joy of God, but nonetheless we have it and it is one of the most powerful ways of finding God’s joy that there is.

If a Christian whom you know is critical of Calvinism asks you your thoughts on it, what would be your first response?

 I would proceed relationally. I would ask this person about his concerns and try to hold off on arguing about them until I’d really heard them. (I said I would try – unfortunately I don’t always succeed!) Then I would begin by affirming as much as I could of his position. Anything he says that I agree with, I want to leap forward to make it clear that we have common ground. Then I would acknowledge that Calvinism is asking us to swallow some ideas we don’t want to swallow. I have always subscribed to the adage “hang a lantern on your problem.” To the extent that I can honestly sympathize with his reluctance, I want to say so. And then I would lay out the reasons why I think Calvinism is true.

I have a friend who isn’t Calvinist, whom I was in dialogue with as I wrote this book. It wasn’t until after many conversations that he opened up to me about a serious personal tragedy he had suffered years before. At the time, people had tried to ham-handedly tell him to cheer up and be happy because God works all things for good. That had a huge negative impact on him and turned him off to Calvinism. We’re supposed to weep with those who weep, not use other people’s tragedies as an opportunity for cheap apologetics. He’s still not Calvinist, but I was able to affirm the painfulness of his grief from a Calvinist viewpoint, and I think that was good for both of us. We built some bridges. Yet I didn’t learn this about him until we’d had a lot of conversations. So you have to talk to people as people, not try to win debate points.

You state that your book is not a “ traditional apologetic” for Calvinism. What kind of book is it?

If you’re looking for technical arguments or careful exegesis of biblical passages, that’s not what I’m offering. Lots of other books are already out there doing that, and I’m not a trained theologian so I don’t have much to add to that conversation. My book is for people who want to know what these doctrinal arguments have to do with their daily walk with God. I think about all the people out there who hear these technical disputes about doctrine and ask, “what does this have to do with me?” I want to show you what it has to do with you, in practical terms. I want to help you understand why your pastor thinks this is so important – it’s because this offers you a whole new experience of God’s love. And for those who already know their theology and care about it, I want to help them think about how to live it out and make it heart-changing. We all say that we don’t just study theology to have head knowledge, yet as much as we all say that, it’s hard to do in practice.

Thank you Greg for joining us here at Credo. For those of you reading this who might want to see Greg interact more on this topic, here is an interview Justin Taylor did with Greg that you may enjoy:

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has two children, Alec and Nora.

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