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First Principles

Wrestling with Dort

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. 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.

That has been my experience at least. We’ve been told again and again that church goers have no tolerance for theology, let alone old confessions. But it’s not true. Many of them are ready for a theological meal, they just don’t know it. If their pastor was to lead them, guide them, and inspire them with rich doctrines that are the fruit of all their Bible reading, they would eat them up. Pastor, don’t underestimate the theological appetite of your people.

Here’s an idea, keep preaching and teaching the Bible. But at some point, in the life of your church—and you, the pastor, know best when that is—introduce your people to a confessional statement. Maybe’s it’s your own, the one your church already confesses. Or maybe it’s a historic confession, one your people have never heard of but will benefit from. Whatever the case, you will laugh when that church member, the one you thought was hopeless, tugs on your shoulder one morning to share with you all the rich theology they never learned in their morning devotions.

I realize this will sound crazy but there are few theological documents your people will enjoy more than the Canons of Dort. The impression many have—who’ve never read the canons themselves—is that these canons present arcane theological terms and truths that are for academic interests but incompatible with life in the church. Not so! Do the canons get into the nitty gritty of theology? Of course. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t respect them in the first place. But you may be surprised to also learn that these same canons present the gospel with unprecedented clarity and not only have sentences but entire paragraphs on Christian godliness. Remember, as much as these canons addressed a theological debate involving professional theologians, those who wrote them did so for the church. Canon after canon not only looks at what the Bible teaches but demonstrates why these doctrines of grace matter for the Christian life.

Will your people wrestle with the canons, like Jacob wrestling with God? I hope so. But will many of them walk away not only with a deeper understanding of God’s sovereign grace but how that grace changes their perspective on the Christian life? They will, and with a limp to show for it. But I bet, when all is said and done, they limp away with a smile, knowing they’ve encountered the living God and yet, somehow, their life has been delivered.

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is the editor-in-chief of Credo Magazine, director of the Center for Classical Theology, and host of the Credo podcast. He is professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Simply Trinity, which won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in Theology/Ethics. His new book is called The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. He is currently writing a Systematic Theology with Baker Academic.

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