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Wrestling with Dort

The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on Dort at 400. The following is an excerpt from Matthew Barrett’s column, On First Principles: Wrestling with Dort. Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God; 40 Questions About SalvationGod’s Word Alone: The Authority of ScriptureReformation Theology: A Systematic SummarySalvation by Grace, and Owen on the Christian LifeHe is the host of the Credo podcast where he engages top theologians on the most important theological issues today.

Do you remember the first time you heard the five points of Calvinism? Many meet Calvinism like Jacob met God in Genesis 32, wrestling with each point until the sun rises. I understand why: these points are a shock to our default theological instinct, which is to hold on to human autonomy for dear life. Plus, we’ve been told by so many that these points are the enemy; when we meet them, we are ready for a fight. As many will testify, looking back on their first encounter, Calvinism won in the end, and they have the limp to prove it.

But my experience was different. Although I grew up in a church that was not sympathetic to the doctrines of grace—to my recollect, they were never talked about—my pastor was serious about one thing: preaching through the whole Bible. Year after year, Sunday after Sunday, I was taught to wrestle with the text until it gave up its blessing. This had an ironic outcome: when I met Calvinism for the first time, I embraced this old doctrine like a long-lost brother, much like Esau hugging Jacob after years apart. The reason is simple really: by taking my pastor seriously and reading the Bible cover to cover, I knew the doctrines of grace long before we were formally introduced. Meeting in person only gave me a label to slap on to what I knew for so many years as…Bible.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do wish someone would have taught me theology as a young Christian. The popular method in the church today is to teach the Bible and leave theology for the academics. That is a colossal pastoral misstep. Thanks to a college theology professor, I was able to catch up on all the theology I was never taught. But for every one of me there are a hundred, maybe a thousand other church goers who never catch up, and the world of theology forever remains an undiscovered land of mystery and danger.

As I look back on my early days as a Christian, I can’t help but wonder whether the dots between Bible and theology might have been connected sooner if those entrusted with preaching and teaching had the Bible in one hand and theology in the other. But I realize how overwhelming that challenge can be. I’ve been a pastor before and most weeks the average pastor is just trying to keep his head above water. It’s hard enough to make sure your people learn the Bible at all, let alone theology. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the pastoral task is incomplete if theology is not the outcome. The pastoral task is incomplete if theology is not the outcome. Click To Tweet We can move from one verse to the next, but unless we draw out the theological implications, not just for that verse but the whole Bible, our people will fail to see how the Bible makes any difference for worship and the Christian life.

But isn’t theology cold and cerebral? Sure, my people can handle being spoon fed one verse at a time, but can they handle a theological meal? The other day I stopped in a new bookstore—it’s my favorite thing to do when I visit a new city. As I stood there, reading the dust jackets of all the books fresh off the press, and looking around at everyone else so eager to get their hands on the latest release, it occurred to me that these people, who are not Christians, have no problem at all diving into a four hundred, sometimes even a five hundred page book. That made me wonder, Are we treating our people like idiots? Are we selling them short with all our pastoral assumptions about what they can and cannot take? Maybe. If our people can spend weeks eating up the latest New York Times Bestseller and do so on their own, surely they can pick up a twenty page confession of faith and with their pastor’s help learn it…even love it…

Read Matthew Barrett’s entire column in the new issue of Credo Magazine: Dort at 400.

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is the author of Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Baker), coming this March (2021). He is the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo podcast. He is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Canon, Covenant and Christology; None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God; and God’s Word Alone.

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