Question 2: How would you respond to those who don’t think you’re a very good Calvinist?
It would all depend on the person’s intention. If the question came from a defensive or argumentative posture, I’ve seen enough to know that this will bear little fruit. Arguments about who is the better Calvinist tend to generate laser-like heat but precious little light.
If, however, the question is asked with a genuine interest in engaging me on how I see these things—with the understanding that both parties should be open to growth—then I am very interested in the conversation.
Just what it means to be Reformed has been a debated issue and the struggle continues to see who will win the right to define it. There are those who think of the Reformed faith—better, a particular articulation of the Reformed faith (19th century Princeton, for example)—as the only true expression not only of the Reformed faith but also of Christianity. Indeed, as some I know have put it, the Reformed faith (narrowly defined) is understood as “Christianity come into its own,” and that the Reformed “hold the truth in trust” for other traditions.
This is tragic, and if this is what it means to be Reformed, then I am not Reformed. If, however, one understands the Reformed faith as a particularly insightful and deep tradition that hits upon numerous biblical and theological issues with clarity and gospel-fidelity—even to the extent that other traditions will be richer for the interaction—BUT that is also, by virtue of its location in particular historical/cultural circumstances, as prone to sin and error as anything else under the sun, and is therefore in need of regular critical evaluation, then, yes, I am Reformed. The Reformed faith is for me, in other words, a means to Christian truth rather than the sum total of Christian truth.
The problem is that these two models of what it means to be Reformed are, for all practical purposes, incompatible, because parties on both sides hold tenaciously to their model. Still, I hope it is not too self-serving to point out that the latter model can incorporate a humble expression of the former and even benefit from it, but the former in principle does not seem poised to reciprocate. It cannot.
So, how would I respond? I would say I am a good Calvinist of the second sort. If the rejoinder is “Well, then you are no Calvinist” (speaking purely hypothetically of course J), I would likely nod, thank them for their time, and go on with my life.
It is an interesting conundrum. In my opinion, the Reformed faith is one of the richest Christian intellectual traditions (along with Roman Catholicism). I do not mean to take away from other Christian traditions, from which I have learned and continue to learn much, but the Reformed intellectual heritage has a rather impressive pedigree of working out theology with great precision. But, along with that, there is always the temptation to fixate on that past in unhealthy ways.
What is lost is the other side of the Reformed equation, that of rethinking and recasting past articulations according to Scripture. There is a tension—a healthy one, I think—between “always Reformed and reforming.” Of course, the question is always one of going ”too far” in either direction. A “good Calvinist” on my opinion is one who maintains that tension and works with charity and harmony with others in working toward that goal of employing the Reformed faith for the good of the gospel.
What is also very interesting to me, and directly related to this thought, is just how Scripture actually functions as being authoritative over the Reformed tradition. In Reformed theology, Scripture is the confessed standard by which all human articulations are judged, including the Reformed faith. “Exegesis is the lifeblood of theology” as some have put it.
The contemporary question, however, is “what exactly is exegesis?” which is to ask, to what extent does exegesis necessarily include interaction with new paradigms and information coming from the modern study of Scripture, and can in principle that type of exegesis rightly challenge pre-modern confessions (with all due respect to those confessions and in a conversational rather than adversarial tone)?
Simply put, one exegetes and therefore understands Genesis 1, for example, differently depending on whether he/she is seeing it in terms of ancient categories (i.e., historical setting) or in a more traditional manner (as part of an innerbiblical exercise of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture). I actually do not think the two approaches are mutually exclusive, for understanding a text’s background will, hopefully, bring greater depth to the text’s theology, and therefore yield a deeper innerbiblical (I would say, redemptive-historical, “Christotelic”) interaction. The problem, however, is that “Bible in context,” as is well known, can very quickly run up against transitional articulations of doctrine that were formulated before such matters of historical context were either known or appreciated.
I have clarified some of my own thoughts on this on my own webpage, if, for some reason, anyone would be interested. (“Some Reflections on I&I and the Reformed Tradition”) It is a bit of an in-house matter, but some might find it interesting or even applicable to analogous situations.