Dr. Timothy George is a widely respected theologian and church historian. He serves as the Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Among Dr. George’s many published works are Theology of the Reformers and John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform. I conducted this interview in May of 2000 and am happy to be able to make it available again.
Reformed Theology and the Church: An Interview With Dr. Timothy George
May 4, 2000 Beeson Divinity School of Samford University Birmingham, Alabama
1. How would you define the term “reformed theology” to someone who attends church, but maybe does not possess a great deal of knowledge concerning church history or the nuances of Christian theology?
Well, there’s nothing magical about the word “reformed,” and I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it. It’s closely related to the Reformation, of course, and, in the Reformation, there was a recovery of the Holy Scriptures. There was a return to the theology of the early church and the Bible, particularly as related to God’s grace and salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, on the basis of the Scriptures alone. Those were some of the distinctives of Luther and Calvin and Cramner – a whole array of Reformers in the 16th century. So when we talk about “reformed theology,” we’re really talking about Biblical theology – Biblical theology that has been refracted through or seen in the prism of the great debates of the 16th century, hence the word “reformed.” There’s nothing magical about that word and we don’t mean to say anything other than sound Biblical teaching related to God and His grace and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son. That’s really what we mean by it.
2. Are there any drawbacks to calling this system of theology “reformed”?
Well, another “bad word” that we have to use very cautiously is “Calvinistic.” Some people equate reformed theology with “Calvinism.” Calvinism covers a broad array of different interests. I am, for example, a reformed Baptist, and I would agree with Calvin because I think Calvin agrees with the Scriptures on a lot of issues related to God’s grace and salvation and election. I don’t agree with Calvin, because I think Calvin doesn’t agree with Scripture, on a lot of other issues, for example, the baptizing of infants or the particular arrangement of church government he proposed. So, a Calvinist is not someone who agrees with John Calvin or holds him up in some sort of saintly way as a person above and beyond critique, but we do see in him a lot of the truths of the gospel. So, in that sense, I am happy to be called a Calvinist if I can define it. The same would be true of “reformed theology.” I think a lot of people use it in a very narrow way to refer to a particular understanding of Calvinism or a particular understanding of reformed tradition, and I would rather have a more generous reading of reformed theology than that.
3. Do I understand you to mean that a person can consider themselves to be a reformed theologian, or an adherent to reformed theology, and not hold to all five of the traditional tenets of Calvinism?
Yes. What you call the five tenets of Calvinism is a post-Calvin development. Calvin never talked about five points. I sometimes think, “Am I a five-point Calvinist?” I like to think I’m a “66-point” Calvinist because I think it’s in every book of the Bible. But, in one sense, there’s only one point, and that is that God is the source of our salvation from first to last. And if you believe that, then the points become ways of understanding or explaining this or that dimension of it but not a rigid grid through which everything has to be filtered.
The five points of Calvinism actually refer to the five heads of doctrine, or canons of the Synod of Dort, which was a reformed international assembly meeting in Holland in 1618 and 1619. They defined traditional Calvinist theology over against a view which had arisen within the Dutch reformed church challenging it, called the “Remonstrant” view, later called the “Arminian” view because of Jacobus Arminius, one of their teachers. The five doctrines of Calvinism were total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. That’s the anglicized acrostic, spelling “TULIP.”
Now, rightly interpreted, I can affirm all five of those points of doctrine, but, as a matter of fact, they have not often been rightly interpreted. So, I’m a little cautious. For example, take total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that there’s absolutely nothing good about anybody anywhere. I know God’s common grace extends to everybody in the world, and the fact that there’s any good anywhere is a result of God’s sustaining and preserving and common grace. But total depravity really means that, vis-a-vis God, there’s nothing we can do, in and of ourselves, to make any contribution to our standing before Him. We are totally and hopelessly and eternally lost apart from God’s radical intervention in our lives. That’s what it means, and, if you put it that way, then, yes, I believe in total depravity. And I could go through the other five doctrines that way.
Limited atonement is one of the most, I think, controverted of the five heads of doctrine. And, again, it’s a horrible term, limited atonement, because it makes it sound like there’s something wrong with it, something lacking in it, that somehow God hasn’t provided enough for it. It’s like if you have a big church picnic and the people who bring the food don’t bring enough chicken for everybody! It’s limited. It’s a limited picnic. Well, there’s nothing limited about the atonement in that sense. In fact, the atonement, what Christ did on the cross, is fully sufficient to pay the penalty for every sin that has ever been committed in the history of the universe. It’s infinite in its sufficiency. But, unless you’re a universalist, which I think is a clear contradiction of Scripture, then you do believe, in some sense, that it’s limited in its efficacy. Not everybody is going to be saved. So that raises the issue of what is the definition of that limitation of atonement.
So all of these doctrines are nuanced, and I think sometimes, if I can speak charitably to my fellow Calvinists, we beat people over the head with these doctrines and we forget that it’s only by the grace of God that any of us understand it. You know, no one is born a Calvinist. Everyone is born an Arminian, or worse, and it’s only by God’s grace that our eyes are open to it. We ought to take an attitude towards our brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t see this just the way we do: “Oh Lord, open their eyes, just as you have opened ours.” So we’ll come at it in an attitude of humility and an attitude of openness and Christian fellowship and charity, and not so much, “I’ve got a stick I can beat you over the head with.”
4. A few years ago, I purchased the Complete Works of Arminius so that I could try to understand his theology. When I told a reformed friend of mine about this purchase, he responded, “Well, I guess it’s good to know what the enemy thinks.” Should men such as Arminius, Wesley and Moody be considered enemies of those who call themselves reformed? Why or why not?
Well, certainly not. I think that, here at Beeson Divinity School, for example, we have the kind of school where I think both Calvin and Arminius, both Whitfield and Wesley would be happy to be on our faculty, and we would be glad to have them both. We don’t have a straight-jacket view that this is a test of fellowship. Now, I’m a reformed theologian and others at Beeson are too. Some are not. We have a Methodist, for example, who teaches here. And not every Baptist would agree with me on all the points of Calvinism. I’m trying to persuade them, but I haven’t been totally successful yet. So I don’t think that calling people like that “enemies” or “enemies of the truth” is a helpful way of talking about it.
I do think that reformed theology is a faithful Biblical representation of the teachings of God’s grace, and, because I believe that, I’m an advocate of it. I’m willing to be challenged and taught by others who think differently. So I think the discussion ought to go on in a context of collegial fellowship and discussion and honest study of the Scriptures, just as we would disagree with Presbyterians about infant baptism. Well, I think they’re dead wrong about that. I can’t find one ounce of Scriptural support for it, but I don’t consider all Presbyterians my enemies or enemies of the truth. I think they are in error. I think they are misled. I think they are, to some extent, blinded to the truth of baptism for believers by immersion only. But I want to talk with them and pray with them and work with them towards a better understanding of the truth, and I hope they will have the same kind of charitable attitude toward me, whom I’m sure they also see as a person who doesn’t see the truth completely.
5. So, in your definition of “reformed,” can men such as Arminius and Wesley operate beneath the broader sense of the term and can they be considered “reformed theologians?”
That’s a really good point. Not in the strict sense of “reformed,” but it’s interesting that the two people you mentioned, both Arminius and Wesley, were very indebted to the Reformation. Arminius, in fact, was ordained in the church of Geneva by Theodore Beza. And Beza, who was Calvin’s successor, said of Arminius that he had written some of the finest works, expositions of Scripture, that he had ever read. So these are people who came from within that tradition.
Wesley was deeply indebted to the Puritans, for example, and read them avidly. And even though he came to disagree with traditional Calvinism on the matter of predestination, he nonetheless has a very reformed doctrine of original sin. He has a very strong understanding of God’s prevenient grace. In fact, I could wish that all contemporary Arminians were as Wesleyan as Wesley. I would be delighted with that. That would be a tremendous step in the right direction.
So they are Reformational figures who come out of this tradition. They challenge it at certain points. I would not consider Wesley and Arminius “reformed” in the sense that I would use that of myself, as a reformed Baptist theologian, but I certainly think they are my first cousins and are related to me by the doctrines of grace.
6. Would it be fair to say that the church in America is currently experiencing a revival of interest in reformed theology? If so, why do you think this is the case?
I’m asked that question a lot. I think the answer is “yes.” I think there’s a growing interest. “Revival” may be too optimistic a term to call it, but there is a resurgence, there is a growing interest in reformed theology, not only among Baptists, but among many different denominations.
Why is this? Well, I think there are four or five reasons that come to mind. For one, particularly now I’m thinking about Southern Baptists, there is a renewed interest in the Holy Scriptures and a renewed commitment to the Bible. You know, we fought for a number of years over inerrancy in the Southern Baptist Convention. That battle has more or less kind of been settled. If you really believe the Bible is the authoritative, inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, then it becomes very important, if you take that seriously and it isn’t just a political slogan or a shibboleth, to know what the Bible actually teaches, what it says about grace, about salvation, about predestination, about all of these things. And so I think one of the things responsible for the revival of interest in reformed theology is a high view of Scripture and a return to a serious engagement with the teaching of Scripture. That’s a good thing, and I think this is one of the results of it.
Another thing, I think, is the emptiness in so much of conservative and even evangelical worship. When I think about reformed theology, I really don’t think, first of all, about the five points of Calvinism. I think about a view of God, a full-sized transcendent God before whom we come in awe and worship and praise and adoration, and that’s missing in much contemporary worship and contemporary church life. It tends to be very shallow, very sentimental, very syrupy. So reformed theology challenges the dogma of a user-friendly God and it points us back to the true real God that Isaiah saw in the temple high and holy and lifted up, before whom we all have to say, “Woe is me! I am undone!” And in so far as there is a vacuity, an emptiness in the contemporary church, reformed theology offers a sturdier alternative.
And then there’s something to be said about the fact that reformed theology takes very seriously the idea of the covenant and our covenantal relationships, not only with the individual and God, but within the church and within the family. And again, you look at our culture today, these are institutions that are under attack, especially the family. I think a reformed understanding of theology can offer some good strong theological underpinnings for a doctrine of the family that takes very seriously what Scripture tells us about how we should live together as husbands and wives and children and parents in a covenantal family relationship.
7. So reformed theology, then, is not opposed to church growth? It is possible to have the two together?
Well, yes, indeed. True church growth, I think, would be a good result of reformed theology. I thank God, myself, for all of the churches that are truly growing. Now “growth” I would not equate with “numerical expansion.” Those are two different things. Growth is spiritual growth, growth in the understanding of God and His mission and His work, and that can also very often lead to numerical growth. I mean, there is a book in the Bible called Numbers! So I’m not against that. But I think reformed theology would challenge some of the presuppositions of the church growth movement as it’s been defined in this culture traditionally, and point us back to, I think, a more God-centered, Scripture-based understanding of church growth. But there’s no contradiction between reformed theology and true, biblically-based church growth
8. Do you think that a growing number of young people are, in fact, being drawn to reformed theology, and why would young people in particular be drawn to it?
That’s a good question. I think I find the same thing here. You know, students who come to our school and others schools where I visit and lecture very often come up to me and tell me that they are reformed or they’re interested or they’re reading reformed theology. I talk to them a little bit – “Why did you get interested in this? Are you following some guru?” And, inevitably, they come from all over the place. Some of them haven’t read anything by R.C. Sproul or any of the famous reformed apologists that are out there today. They’ve just been reading the Bible, and reading it with an open mind and an open heart and this is where they’ve come. So, yes.
And, again, I think it’s an encouraging sign to me that among young people especially the older denominational paradigm of, “Let’s build a great church. Let’s put up our fences. Let’s say that we’re the biggest and the best,” you know, that old “Rah! Rah! Rah!” ecclesiology, doesn’t sell very well. I think, in particular, we spend too much time building fences around our backyard and not tending to the foundation on which the building stands. We paint our fences, we hold them up – “I’m this, not that!” – and, in the meantime, the foundations are being eroded. And what you sense and what I’m sensing, I think, is a renewed interest in the foundations. Reformed theology is a way of talking about that. It’s a way of getting in touch with the reality of the faith, with God, with the Scriptures, with Jesus Christ and salvation, with the mission of the church in the world. Reformed theology, at its best, is about those things. It’s not about, “I’m a Baptist, not a Presbyterian,” or, “I’m this kind of Baptist, not that kind of Baptist,” or, “I’m a conservative, not a moderate,” or, “I’m a moderate, not a conservative.” Those types of old-fashioned political distinctions, I think, no longer have the bite they used to. And what’s taking its place among many, not all – we shouldn’t exaggerate this – is this growing interest, and I think reformed theology is one of the things that people can latch on to. They sense it’s real, it’s substantial, you can build your life on it, you can raise a family with it. And I think it is a good thing.
9. Does Calvinism have the potential to create another major controversy in the Convention?
I’ve been hearing that for about ten or twelve years – “Once we get rid of the liberals, we’re going after the Calvinists.” I used to say, “Well, it wouldn’t take very long to do that. You could corner us all in a phone booth and take care of us pretty quickly.” But that’s not true anymore. I think there is this growing awareness of it.
No. I think, in my own view, I do not foresee Calvinism becoming the next great wave of controversy and battle in the SBC. I could be wrong. I know that there are some people that would like for that to happen. Some people, I think, who aren’t very happy about the Southern Baptist Convention would like to see, particularly, Southern Baptist conservatives killing one another over their differences on Calvinism. And while there are some people who would lend themselves to that, I think that this is not any kind of the burning controverted issue that some people would like to make it.
Now, I would also have to say a word of counsel to my fellow reformed Southern Baptist brothers and sisters, and that is that we have a very important responsibility to be committed to evangelism and missions. I think a lot of people fear Calvinism, rightly so, because what they really fear is hyper-Calvinism and they confuse the two and often equate the two in a very naive and misinformed kind of way. But I’m against hyper-Calvinism. I think it’s a heresy. Hyper-Calvinism says, “We don’t preach the gospel to everybody everywhere. It’s the private reserve of just a few people.” They are opposed to traditional views of Christian education and theological seminaries and so forth and so on. They oppose missionary sending agencies. If you look at hyper-Calvinism in the 19th century, it left tremendous scars on Southern Baptist life, and a lot of people still remember that. Particularly in Texas, for some reason, there seems to be some of the worst kind of misinformed anti-Calvinism. And I think what they’re doing is simply remembering this kind of old hyper-Calvinist ghost that floats around. They think that anybody who talks about reformed theology is a hyper-Calvinist. But anybody who understands our Baptist history and knows a person like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of my great heroes, or William Carey, the father of modern missions, of whom I wrote a biography, knows that these people were reformed Baptist leaders. They believed in the doctrines of grace – in all of the doctrines of grace, but this was a motivation for them to go into the world and preach the gospel to everybody, to be concerned about the lost, to reach out to the lost. And that’s the model we need to follow, not the kind of Calvinist that hunkers down in a bunker, the holy huddle, and says, “We’ve got the truth and nobody else does.”
You know, there used to be a little ditty:
We’re the Lord’s elected few, let all the rest be damned.
There’s room enough in Hell for you, We don’t want Heaven crammed.
Well, you know, I have to say that I’ve met a few Calvinists that kind of have that attitude. That is not, repeat not, n-o-t, historic, reformed Baptist theology. And those of us that are reformed Southern Baptists need to make that very clear.
10. Some have suggested that increasingly fragile and confusing social conditions seem to usher in revivals of interest in reformed theology. Do you agree with this idea?
I think that’s a shallow interpretation. I wouldn’t say there’s absolutely nothing to it. The fact that we live in a time of disintegration and doubt, and that there’s all this hunger for certainty; I think that that is, in some sense, a true analysis of our times, but I wouldn’t see the revival in reformed theology being, necessarily, the answer to that problem. In some ways, you could see this as an explanation for Facism or Nazism in Germany or Communism, any kind of ideology that comes on the scene and offers to meet that hunger in so many people’s lives. That’s there in our culture today, and there’s lots of options other than reformed theology that try to meet it – the New Age movement, etc. No, I think the revival in reformed theology has deeper and more substantial roots than that.
11. What are the major pitfalls that must be avoided in order for reformed theology to continue to gain influence and popularity in the American church?
Well, first of all I want to say that I don’t think gaining influence and popularity in the American church is necessarily a goal to be sought or an end to be desired. Once we begin to talk like that, we’re not talking like reformed theologians, we’re talking like people that put pragmatism above truth. So I reject the premise of the question.
But having said that, I would say a couple of things. One is just to repeat what I said a moment ago about missions and evangelism being the heart of the Christian movement. And I would say two other things also. One would be an ability to work with other Christians across lines – denominational lines, ideological lines – that do not compromise the gospel. There is a kind of ecumenism of accommodation that says, “Let’s find the least common denominator and settle on that and just be happy and together and forget about other matters.” I’m against that kind of ecumenism. But I believe in an ecumenism of conviction which takes seriously those irreducible, evangelical essentials that we cannot compromise, but, having affirmed those, are willing to reach across some other boundaries and work with other believers in Jesus Christ in a common cause. I think reformed theologians should be in the forefront of an ecumenism of conviction. I’ve tried to do that and others as well. So that was one thing I would say. Don’t become a sectarian movement. Don’t isolate yourself from the wider body of Christ.
And then the third point is the attitude that we bring to it. There’s no room for pride, for arrogance, for hubris among anyone who is truly reformed, because we recognize that we’re saved by the grace of God and that it is only by the grace of God that we even understand one-millionth of the meaning of any of the doctrines of grace. And if you really believe that, then 1 Corinthians 4:7 becomes a very important verse in your life. That verse contains three questions. It says, “Who made you different than anybody else?”, “What do you have that you did not receive?”, and “If you received it, why do you boast as though you did not receive it?” And I think that’s a marvelous verse, a life verse, for every reformed theologian. We have nothing that we did not receive. If you have that attitude, then I think your life and your approach to others is going to be characterized by humility and a graciousness and not by, “I’ve got the truth and you’d better duck or I’ll hit you in the face with my theological pie.” That’s the way it sometimes comes across. There’s no place in the body of Christ for graceless debates about the doctrines of grace. Too often that’s been the case in the past. I think that’s changing. I think that’s changing for the good.