Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Evangelical Calvinism", Bethlehem Baptist Church and me

Ever since I began attending Bethlehem Baptist Church three years ago, I have had a nagging question.  "How does Bethlehem's "Reformed Baptist" theology compare to a traditional covenantal Reformed theology?"  It has seemed since the beginning that all of this just doesn't add up.  I'm not sure I would call it "cafeteria style theology" but it has seemed like the parts don't necessarily equal the whole.  I haven't ever really gotten a good answer to this question.  Maybe I haven't been able to articulate it very well.  Maybe it's a question with which people aren't very comfortable.

My thoughts have been like this.  When I was at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a Christian Reformed college, I didn't always agree with their stance on some theological issues, but the arguments always went back to a traditional Reformed theology.  That theology was consistent across the board from Baptism to the Lord's Supper to their overall hermeneutic.  At Bethlehem, I agree with almost everything, but I can't always trace our stances to a traditional Baptist theology.  It's hard for me to understand where the Baptist ends and the Reformed thought begins.  It doesn't always feel consistent. 

Michael Horton from the White Horse Inn and Westminster Seminary California, just wrote a great blog post articulating this exact question and argument.  Horton encourages people who have become interested in the doctrines of grace and God's sovereignty to call the movement "Evangelical Calvinism."  This makes sense to me.  It's not that I'm Reformed.  I don't agree (yet) with infant baptism or some or the other outgrowths of covenantal theology.  I think I'm a Baptist who is excited about God's sovereignty and is thrilled with the doctrines of grace.  If you go to Bethlehem or if you consider yourself part of the "New Calvinism" movement, I'd love to hear what you think about these comments and Horton's article.

UPDATE:  Here is another very interesting article about the New Calvinism.  My reaction to the article is this.  I continue to hesitate with many of the things articulated in the article that are Reformed.  Therefore, I hesitate to call myself Reformed.  The implications of all that the other things mean, i.e. the cultural mandate and the sacraments, I'm not real comfortable with yet.


Sharon said...

I'm with you...I'm a Baptist who is excited about God's sovereignty and thrilled with the doctrine of grace!

MikeInIowa said...

I was with you. I'm indebted to John Piper in the way he encouraged me to look to the Puritans. Especially Edwards. That led to reading other Puritans and eventually the Reformers. I was in a study once of Piper's book, "50 Reasons Christ Came to Die." The other folks were dispensational in their theology and we had many disagreements. As a result of the frustration of going through that (I thought maybe I was missing something)I began to study dispensationalism and covenant theology. Over time, I not only subscribed to the doctrines of grace, but also the reformed doctrines of the church, the sacraments etc. This did not happen overnight, but I'm now Presbyterian and my children have been baptised. (Covenant baptism) Many of my baptist friends believe I "went too far" It was okay while I was a "five pointer" but now I'm over the edge since I baptised my kids. I will say, household baptism didn't make sense to me UNTIL I understood Covenant Theology. I went through many adjustments and wrestled with alot of things, but began to see that as I subscribed to Covenant theology in some areas, other areas needed to follow. Anyway, God bless in your following Him.

Abigail said...

"It's not that I'm Reformed. I don't agree (yet) with infant baptism or some or the other outgrowths of covenantal theology."

Andy, are you saying in order to be reformed you have agree with infant baptism or presbyterian covenantal theology? I've never understood it that way. There is strong and long tradition of reformed Baptists.. they go back to 1689. Their roots are puritan and their champion is Charles Spurgeon.

My understanding is that reformed baptists do believe in covenantal theology, it's just a more biblical (in my opinion) and less systematic approach. For instance they don't believe that baptism is the exact replacement for circumcision. Birth into a Christian home coupled with outward signs (baptism) does not guarantee election.

I don't put a ton of stock in tradition alone, but if you're interested in the reformed baptist tradition, check out the Particular Baptists of London and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. This might give you the coherency you're looking for.

"It's hard for me to understand where the Baptist ends and the Reformed thought begins."

I would say that's because they are in no way separate or exclusive. They go together because they don't draw mainly from tradition, but first and foremost from a reverence for what the Bible says. Of course, I'm very biased. But there's my 10cents anyway. :)

Anonymous said...

While I agree with Dr. Horton that appropriating the label "Reformed" just because one is a five (or in some cases 4, dropping L or one of the other considered 'less important' than T letters) is wrong, one doesn't have to believe in infant baptism in order to have a strong covenant theology. The earlier mentioned 1689 Baptist Confession is a perfect example of this. Does that make it Reformed? Potentially not. But it does open the doors for a view that IMHO is strongly supported Scripturally where one upholds the definite connection between faith and baptism as well as the thread of the covenant running throughout God's word.

Bobby said...

Sorry for adding a comment a bit late.

I appreciate your comments. As someone who grew up in a Reformed communion (not too far from Grand Rapids), I'm often frustrated with the banal use of the term "Reformed" among Baptists who simply want to say that they concur with Spurgeon's soteriology.

The sacraments, particularly infant baptism, are central to the identity of Reformed people. We believe that God's grace is objectively present in the sacrament and that its presence is independent of the believer's subjective experiences of that grace. Few of us who've grown up in Reformed communions can point to a moment of conversion. We were simply raised as covenant children, and were presumed to be be believers unless there was strong outward evidence to the contrary.

I was recently thinking about this again. I recently moved from Chicago to the South. I found a job I liked, and wanted to have a longer outdoor cycling season. I recently met with a PCA pastor to learn more about his church. After talking with him for about an hour, he told me that he wouldn't feel comfortable accepting me into his church because I was unable to articulate a conversion experience. As we talked further, it was apparent that he strongly disagreed on his own denomination's teaching on the sacraments. He referred to John Piper as his"hero". I asked him why he wouldn't call himself a Baptist. He responded, "I like beer too much."

I fear that too many Baptists are calling themselves "Reformed" for no other reason than that (1) they want to be in a denomination free of Arminians, and (2) they want to consume alcohol. They have little concern for historic Reformed teachings on the covenant, the sacraments, the centrality of parish life, etc.

So, I'm glad that there are at least a few beer-drinking, five-point baptists who are not joining with Collin Hansen in trying to strip our tradition away from us.