Timothy George and John Woodbridge’s The Mark of Jesus: Loving In a Way the World Can See

What a unique and interesting book Timothy George and John Woodbridge’s The Mark of Jesus: Loving In a Way The World Can See is.  The title and content are meant to pay homage to Francis Schaeffer’s tremendous little book, The Mark of a Christian, and to Schaeffer’s idea of love as the “final apologetic.”  Maybe it’s best to see this book as an update and extension of Schaeffer’s work.

Much has changed since Schaeffer wrote, and yet so much has not.  What has not changed is the need for the Christian witness to be grounded in love and borne on the wings of love.  With the rise of Islam and an increasingly tendentious religious scene in the United States (and around the world, for that matter), there has never been a better time for a renewed call for the final apologetic.

Love is the final apologetic because it cannot be refuted or argued against.  Our arguments for Christ or against other religions can be bandied about, debated, and dissected, but genuine love for people cannot be.  This is the case that George and Woodbridge are making, and they do it well.  This is not, by the way, a lapse into sentimentalism.  Strong arguments and truth claims are needed.  But when these are buttressed by love, how much stronger they become.

Anything by Timothy George is worth reading (and I’m sure by Woodbridge as well, though I’m not as familiar with him).  It is nice to see a popular level book by Dr. George, and I do hope he will do even more of these.  Of course, being from the pens of two academic, this book occasionally wanders in fields that some might find a bit tedious.  The long chapter on the rise of fundamentalism was fascinating, but I did occasionally wonder, while reading this chapter, who exactly this book’s target audience is?  Regardless, that chapter in particular is important and helps explain a great deal about media terminology in covering religious realities in North America as well as about how people view evangelicals and fundamentalists.  Furthermore, the authors do a good job in this section of questioning the oft-repeated supposed linkage between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

There’s helpful and practical wisdom here about what Christian ecumenism should look like.  The authors refuse to sell doctrine down the river in exchange for dialogue and peace.  No, we are to hold to our biblical convictions and seek to communicate them clearly.  But we communicate our convictions with hearts of love and understanding.

Personally, this is a word I needed to hear.  I suspect it’s a word we all need to hear.  I highly recommend this book.

Timothy George’s (ed.) God the Holy Trinity

I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this collection of essays on the Trinity was.  Edited by Timothy George, these essays were originally delivered at The Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.  The contributors are an impressive lot:  Alister McGrath, Gerald Bray, James Earl Massey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Frederica Mathewes-Green, J.I. Packer, Ellen T. Charry, Cornelius Plantinga, and Timothy George.

The essays approach the Trinity from a number of interesting starting points.  James Earl Massey (a prince of a man!) discusses the Trinity and African-American spirituals.  Avery Cardinal Dulles discusses the Trinity and Christian unity.  In a brief and fascinating essay, Frederica Mathewes-Green discuss the Trinity in the Old Testament.  J.I. Packer gives a very interesting look at Trinitarianism in the thought of John Owen.  Timothy George has penned a very helpful essay on the Trinity and Islam.

As I say, these are compelling essays, and each of them, to varying degrees, is helpful.  The highlights for me are (in this order):  (1) Cornelius Plantinga’s fascinating and soul-stirring sermon, “Deep Wisdom”, (2) Alister McGrath’s balanced and level-headed overview of and cautions concerning modern Trinitarianism, and (3) Timothy George’s careful but clear call for courageous Trinitarianism in the context of conversing with Islam.

I found Ellen Charry’s essay, “The Soteriological Importance of the Divine Perfections”, to be tedious initially, but it ended well and I think I get what she was driving at.  Furthermore, James Earl Massey’s essay, “Faith and Christian Life in the African-American Spirituals”, was good but I do wish it would have been longer.

Get this book.  It will sharpen your thinking about the Trinity.

Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers

[The following is an essay on Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Menno Simons that is based on Timothy George’s tremendous work, Theology of the Reformers.  I wrote it while a student in Dr. George’s seminar on the Reformation at the Beeson Divinity School.  I highly recommend Dr. George’s book.]


The sixteenth century was a time of massive societal and religious turbulence and upheaval.  The movement known as the Protestant Reformation would forever change the theological, ecclesiastical, and ideological landscape of the Christian church in Europe and, subsequently, around the world.  The key players in this grand drama are often grouped beneath the umbrella moniker of “reformers,” and this is not without reason.  While the leaders of the Reformation do not represent a pristinely monolithic philosophical entity by any stretch of the imagination, they nonetheless share enough overall similar characteristics to warrant the single term “reformers.”  That being said, it must be acknowledged that there were enough divergent opinions, incompatible theologies, and strong personalities among Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Menno Simons to lead to sharp disagreements and, tragically, even to bloodshed among the different “strands” of the Reformation.  Therefore, the Reformation presents a picture of unity yet disharmony, filial affection yet sometimes sharp and even deadly contentions, as well as singularity of purpose yet dissension.  To see this, it is perhaps best to see how these four representatives of the Reformation comply and dissent with and from one another on the popular theological maxims that have emerged from the Reformation:  sola Christussola scripturasola fidesola gratia.  Furthermore, the reformers’ understanding of the Church’s relationship with the state needs to be explored since these understandings helped shape the direction and history of the Reformation itself.

Before any comparisons of thought should be entered into, it is of paramount importance to realize that the reformers did not envision themselves as having revolted from the Church.  Rather, they felt that they were promoting and restoring the true Church by ridding it of the excessive, unnecessary, damaging, and superfluous elements of theological error, soteriological misunderstanding, ecclesiastical corruption and abuse, and unscriptural practices and customs that had grown up, through time, in the church to the point of blotting out the purity of the Word of God.  This becomes evident when one considers Luther’s dismay over the term “Lutherans,” Zwingli’s removal of “unnecessary” elements from the décor of the churches as opposed to building “new” churches, the social and religious structure of Calvin’s Geneva, and even the staunchly literal hermeneutic which Menno Simons employed in his effort to restore the Church to the “purity” of the apostolic model (53,131, 286-7).  While Simons was the most extreme in his rejection of the vestiges of the Roman church, it still must be noted that none of these four reformers envisioned themselves as founders of new churches on the basis of new revelations.  Rather, they all saw themselves, to some degree or another, as returning to the biblical picture of the Church.

It would appear that the maxim sola Christus was the cornerstone of the Reformation, even more so than sola scriptura or sola fide.  While the Reformation must not be seen as merely a movement of negation, a movement defined solely by what it rejected, it cannot be denied that the reformers were actively involved in the stripping away of theological excesses.  To this end, all four reformers argued for the primacy of Christ and His atoning sacrifice over and against the earthly “vicar of Christ,” the penitential system of the Roman Church which seemed to suggest that a whole host of external rites and passages were necessary in addition to the cross, and a eucharistic system which had been denigrated to a form of commerce, abuse, and popular magic.

Undoubtedly, these four reformers made their most visible and shocking arguments for “Christ alone” in their rejection of the Pope and the Roman mass.  By the sixteenth century, the church of Rome’s arguments for the papacy had elevated the pope and the necessity of adherence to his word and office to salvific proportions (32-33).  To this, the reformers reacted with a vitriol that sounds shocking to modern ears.  Luther equated the pope with “spit, snot, pus, feces, urine, stench, scab, smallpox, ulcers, and syphilis” in terms of his relationship to the Church, the body of Christ (88).  Zwingli, Calvin, and Simons would all concur with Luther’s rejection of the papal system as it stood, if not the particulars of his language.

While the reformers undoubtedly had political reasons for opposing the rule of the pope, it was primarily for theological reasons that they did so.  Luther was no doubt incensed, for example, about the funneling of German money to the construction project of St. Peter’s basilica.  Yet his nationalistic anger paled in comparison to his sense of outrage over the doctrinal illegitimacy of the theological underpinnings of the entire papal system.  The same can be said of Zwingli, who spent much of his life, including the last moments of it, enmeshed in the political struggle for the freedom of the Protestant lands of Switzerland against the church of Rome.  His wielding of the two-headed axe against the enemy Catholic soldiers was fueled as much if not more so by his rejection of the false doctrine behind the Papacy than by his desire for political independence.

By claiming that Christ alone was the head of the Church, the reformers were reacting to the office of the Roman pontiff.  To all four of these men, the Word of Christ bore more authority than any papal bull.  Furthermore, salvation was in Christ alone.  The Pope did not bear the keys of heaven and hell in regard to the eternal destinies of man.  Nor did the vestiges of the entire commercial system of salvation (relics, liturgies, chants, et al) have any place in the ordo salutis.  Christ was sufficient.  In this regard, even the magisterial reformers warrant the adjective which has come to be applied to the Anabaptists and their kin:  radical.  They were radical in their Christocentric understanding of the Church.

As clear as the reformers were on this point, it is difficult to understand why some of today’s Protestant believers, denominations, and churches are still, in essence, seeking to establish a Pope.   Be it a favorite author whose notions are slavishly adhered to, a denominational champion whose word is rarely tested by the scriptures, or a pastor who has gathered, and/or has been given, nearly incomprehensible power of the life of a congregation, many Protestants today seem to be crying out, like the children of Israel, for a king.  Against all such exaltations and near deifications of earthly figures stand the reformers’ theological arguments against the papacy.  As such, the reformers’ attacks upon the papacy still stand as crucial to the ongoing life of today’s churches.

Closely wedded to the concept of sola Christus was the concept of sola Scriptura.  In so many ways, the Reformation appears to be as much of a general intellectual revolution as a theological one.  The Reformers returned the Bible to the people and, in so doing, made a dramatic philosophical statement concerning not only the right of men to read the scriptures but even their ability to do so.  To be sure, the reformers would recoil in horror at the hermeneutical anarchism and isolationist interpretative approaches of much modern Protestantism.  In truth, that the widespread dissemination of the scriptures along with the Protestant teaching that all should search the scriptures resulted, in some cases, in such unfortunate eisegetical practices is clearly seen in the bemoanings of Thomas Hobbes as well as, tellingly, of the reformers themselves (80).  In a move that is strikingly relevant to many discussions surrounding the authority of scripture today, Calvin argued against those who were promoting individualistic experience over the Bible’s teachings (197).  The magisterial reformers were united in their condemnation of such practices among the more exotic strands of the radical reformation as was Menno Simons himself.

Yet, such individualistic interpretations are merely the opposite extreme of the hermeneutical hubris of a pontifical system which saw the scriptures as the sole property of the Pope, priests, fathers, and councils.  For all of its potential abuses, the Protestant return of the scriptures to the people, aided in wide measure by the new printing press, led not only to the moving sight of the uneducated learning to read the Word of God, but also to scenes of boldness on the part of the laity in the face of the Bible “experts” that cannot help but move even the most cynical heart (273, 291).  Thus, sola scriptura, while not itself insulated from abuses, was offered by the reformers as an essential corrective against the captivity of the scriptures to the Roman church.

The reformers argued that the scriptures stand above all human proclamations, be they by pope, council, or creed.  Luther’s own “conversion” came from his personal encounter with the Holy Spirit through the study of scripture, notably Romans 1:17 (69).  Zwingli demonstrated his belief in sola Scriptura through a homiletical move which shocked the people.  On January 1, 1519, he set aside the lectionary for good and began preaching through the book of Matthew in the Great Minster church in Zurich, thereby illustrating his conviction concerning the primacy and centrality of the Word of God in the operation and instruction of the Church (113).  Calvin likewise lashed his preaching to the Word of God and also developed a full-orbed theology of scripture.  Calvin viewed the Bible as the inspired Word of God, which had been given to men through men inspired by the Holy Spirit.  As such, it stands above all other human utterances.

In Menno Simons’ approach to the Bible, we find a consensus with the views of the magisterial reformers yet a variance as well.  It has often been said that Luther hatched the egg which Erasmus laid.  What is meant by this is that Luther took the Erasmian approach to reformation to its conclusion.  It might also be said that Simons hatched the egg that Luther laid regarding sola scriptura.  Simons agreed with the other three reformers in their emphasis on the authority of scripture above all other human utterances.  However, he developed what might be called the most thoroughgoing hermeneutic of literalism among the three.  Infant baptism proved to be “ground zero” for Simons’ departure point from the magisterial reformers.  Through his study of the scriptures, Simons became convinced that infant baptism is nowhere taught or seen in the Bible and should therefore be rejected (260).  He came to similar conclusions concerning transubstantiation.  Thus, Simons articulated a theology of scripture not only against the church of Rome, but also against Luther, Zwingli, and the other reformers.  While Simons’ hermeneutic opened the door for the abuse of hyper-literalism, he must be commended for carrying sola scriptura to its conclusions.

That the reformers posited a theology of the primacy of scripture over all other human utterances is evident.  Yet, it is important to note that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli did not thereby shun the importance of the historic witness of the church as it was articulated in the patristic writings, creeds, and councils.  On the contrary, it is clear that Augustine contributed heavily to the harmatalogy and soteriology of Reformation theology and was widely esteemed among most of the reformers (48, 74).  Luther called for and practiced a renewed study of patristic writings, used the Apostle’s Creed, and spoke in the language of Nicea and Chalcedon (57, 82).  Zwingli likewise showed an affinity and appreciation of the Church’s historic statements of faith (128-129).  Calvin also made frequent use of the early fathers and appears to have been heavily influenced by Anselm (197, 220-223).  Even Menno Simons, who chastised Luther and Zwingli on their mingling of patristic and creedal statements with the statements of scripture, could not avoid, on occasion, using the theological language of the councils or even appealing to the patristic sources when it would support his own position (275).

Thus, while the reformers argued for the primacy of scripture, they were not arguing that the historic witness of the church was without merit or that it could not be used to the edification of the Church.  Rather, they were arguing that this witness should not be granted the authority which is rightfully afforded only to scripture.  This is important not only because it brings the maxim of sola scriptura into sharper focus, but also because it stands as something of a corrective to much modern Protestantism.  The magisterial reformers especially would have found the widespread modern denigration of the importance of knowing the historical witness of the church to be tragic.  They would rightly point to the scandalously fragmented horizon of Protestantism as the result of fostering an almost arrogant hermeneutic in which the modern believer approaches the Bible as if their individual  experience with it is what is most important with no recourse to the historic witness of the church.  They would perhaps be suspect of any extreme anti-creedalism which divorces itself from the history of God’s people and their articulations of doctrinal and theological verities as well.  To be sure, the magisterial reformers would point out to many Protestant denominations and churches that simply ignoring the wisdom of our fathers is almost as scandalous as elevating their writings to the stature of holy writ.

What is more, there is evidence that the reformers would have issued clear rebukes of any types of theological narrowness concerning specific theories of the inspiration of scripture.  While all of the reformers argued for the authority of the Bible, Luther and Calvin show evidence of having read the scriptures with a critical eye.  This is seen, for example, in Luther’s relegation of James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation to an appendix of his Bible and in Calvin’s emphasis on the humanity of the biblical writers as well as his occasional conclusions concerning scribal errors and copyists’ mistakes in his discussion of seeming contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical text (84, 195).  Menno Simons took issue with Luther’s view of James, yet he accepted the full inspiration of the apocrypha (277).  Thus, the reformers showed a unity on the authority of the scriptures, but, with the possible exception of Menno Simons, they further revealed that they were able to approach the scriptures with some measure of freedom and openness concerning issues of canonicity and inspiration.  It is not too presumptuous to assume that they might find our occasionally stupefying arguments concerning the subtleties of differing theories of inspiration to be a little pedantic.

If the reformers all shared some affinity for the concept of sola scriptura, the same can certainly be said of the idea of sola fide.  Perhaps more than in any other reformer, salvation by “faith alone” looms over all of Luther’s works.  Luther’s rite of passage from a monk desperately trying to please a God of wrath through obedience to a variety of legalistic tenets to a champion of grace who argued that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to believers who put their faith in Him has perhaps been oversimplified at times, but is, in essence, a matter of history.  In many ways, sola fide stands hand in hand with sola Christus as the cornerstone of the Reformation.  In his formulation of a forensic view of justification, Luther argued that Christ’s righteousness was imputed to the believer not through the purchasing of indulgences, or severe acts of penance, or an austere life of mortification, rather, believers were proclaimed righteous on the basis of the finished work of Christ.  He even argued that the sacraments were not salvific in nature (93).

Apparently, the concept of sola fide was fairly quickly abused by those who used it as a cloak for licentiousness, for Luther himself spoke clearly against such misuses of the doctrine (61).  Zwingli seems to have felt some uneasiness about the abuses of this concept.  Therefore, while he did not dispute sola fide, he defined “faith” in such a way that it could not claim authenticity if it did not produce fruits of righteousness.  For Zwingli, faith was a way of living (133).  Calvin agreed with the Lutheran concept of sola fide but did also stress that faith did not mean mere intellectual assent to a series of theological and historical propositions.  Rather, it meant an acceptance of Christ into one’s very life which resulted in the outworking of the Holy Spirit (225).  Menno Simons quite clearly felt that Luther’s emphasis on sola fide had opened the floodgates of loose living among those who claimed it and attempted to create a synthesis between faith and works that would hold the believer morally responsible for his life (270-272).  Even so, however, Simons did not teach salvation through works or return to the yoke of legalism.  He still attempted to appeal to the grace of God as it is accepted in faith as the basis for salvation.

A perusal of the writings of modern evangelicals shows that the tensions among the reformers on this point have been carried down to the modern day.  This is most clearly seen in the “lordship salvation” debate.  It would appear that many Protestants are still quite uneasy about oversimplified statements ofsola fide which almost everybody agrees have been used as licenses for loose living among many believers while at the same time they are equally uneasy about lapsing into “works righteousness” and legalism.  Perhaps one should find in the reformers’ own struggles in articulating the particulars of sola fide an important sensitivity concerning the dangers of “works righteousness” on the one hand and cheap grace on the other.

The concept of sola gratia stands in close soteriological proximity to the concept of sola fide.  Sola fidewas adhered to as a corrective against the entire system of works righteousness which formed the presuppositions undergirding the Roman eucharist and penitential system.  Sola gratia represents the magisterial reformers’ conviction that salvation was all of God, from beginning to end, and could not be bought or earned in any fashion.

Luther and Calvin stood closest to one another in their expressions of sola gratia.  Luther expressed a thoroughly Augustinian understanding of providence and predestination in his famed debate with Erasmus.  Luther argued that the will was bound and destroyed in the fall and so faith itself was a gift of grace (75-76).  Thus sola gratia stands behind sola fide in the ordo salutis.  Calvin, of course, is most well known for his statements on providence and predestination.  He essentially agreed with Luther, and, before him, Augustine, though he placed his discussion of providence within the context of creation and God’s purposes and continuing work in it.  Calvin argued that God has decreed before the foundations of the world the elect and the reprobate, that the will is not free, and that man is yet morally responsible for his life (208-209).  His purpose in doing so was not to argue theological intricacies, but rather to stress that all of the glory belongs to a God who is not absent or distant from us.  Zwingli also agreed in essence with Luther and Calvin and posited predestination within his discussion of the providence of God (124).

On the point of sola gratia, Menno Simons departed from the overall consensus of the magisterial reformers.  Arguing that Luther’s doctrine of double predestination impugned the righteousness of God by making Him the author of sin and leads to antinomianism, Simons argued that God has allowed free will to survive in man (271-272).  One must be cautious to say that Simons did not believe in sola gratia.  Undoubtedly he would argue that it was solely through God’s grace that human beings are created and given free will in the first place, but certainly such an argument would be a variance with the understanding of sola gratia expressed by the magisterial reformers.

Again, it is not difficult to see that a thorough reflection and interaction with the reformed concept ofsola gratia would be more than helpful for the modern Protestant church.  On the one hand, the magisterial reformers’ emphasis on the initiative of God’s grace would serve as a sorely needed corrective to a prevalent soteriology which seems to be more anthropological in nature than theological.  Regardless of where one stands on the questions of election, predestination, and reprobation, it must be admitted that salvation in too many churches has been reduced and diminished into a sort of contract agreed upon between God and man, who presumably stand on equal footing at the time of negotiation, and which is largely non-binding on the believer’s life.  The sheer and utter hubris of such an understanding must be encountered with a theology which sees God as the author and finisher of our faith.  It must somehow be communicated again that God is not our “pal” or “buddy.”  Rather, He is the holy God of eternity past, present, and future to whom we owe great praise for all of His works, including our salvation.  On the other hand, even if one disagrees with Menno Simons, his views in this regard offer a much-needed caution against an excessive fatalism and an antinomianism which is no more honorable to God than arrogant theological humanism.

No discussion of these four reformers would be complete without a consideration of their respective approaches to the question of the relationship between the Church and the secular government.  Obviously, the “magisterial” reformers bear some common characteristics.  The term derives from the magisterial support granted to, and solicited by, the reform movements of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin (20).  Yet, there was great variety in their views of Church and state as well.  Menno Simons would represent the most serious departure from the views of the magisterial reformers.

Luther argued that the Church and the state were the “right hand” and “left hand” of God.  They were separate entities.  The Church should not lord over the state nor the state over the church.  Yet they were not radically separate entities.  Civil power, after all, was established by God as a concession to the fall.  Leaders should even protect the Church.  Christians, on the other hand, should obey the state insofar as the state is not asking them to disobey God (98-101).

Zwingli rejected Luther’s distinction between Church and state and argued for and sought to institute a societal order in which the Church and state worked in harmony with one another.  The Kingdom of God was visible and extended to every facet of society in Zwingli’s mind.  Thus, in Zurich, politicians and clergymen worked together.  While there were checks and balances of a sort, Zwingli sought to wed the two entities together.

Calvin argued that the rule of Christ should extend to society as a whole, including the Church and the state and encouraged believers to pray for godly magistrates.  He did not argue that leaders within the Church held any authority over civil leaders.  Yet, he stated that it was the responsibility of the magistrates to protect and aid the church in its task of transforming society along the dictates of God’s word.  However, if civil leaders did not do so, and if indeed they were wicked, Calvin urged the Church to submit to their rule and be willing to suffer in obedience (244-246).  In this regard, he differed from Zwingli who allowed for the overthrow of tyrannical rulers.

Menno Simons established the most radical dichotomy between the Church and the secular government.  For Simons and the Anabaptists, the Church was a separate entity.  Christians were to obey the civil rulers insofar as they could do so without being disobedient to God.  Yet, where the state would have the Church disobey God, as in baptizing infants as opposed to believers, the Church must obey God even if it meant, as it often did for the Anabaptists, death and torture.  Furthermore, Simons did not look to the civil authorities to help or aid the church in any way (286-287).

In truth, it is difficult not to see the position of the magisterial reformers as extremely problematic in light of the sordid and often bloody scenes which seem to have resulted from close unions of the Church and the state throughout history.  It would seem that such unions almost always end in the corruption and misuse of the church.  Yet one is right to wonder if the sometimes extreme separatism of the Anabaptism is not equally problematic.  An examination of the reformers’ positions and our own social and political context suggests that the church should be “involved” enough with the state so as not to abandon wholly hope for godliness among civil authorities yet distant enough so as to avoid the lure of political intrigues and power and the distraction of the Church from its central task of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  As such, there should be a tension in the relationship between the state and the Church.

The magisterial reformers’ use of the civil authorities in killing dissenters on theological issues stands as one of the truly dark chapters of the Reformation.  This is difficult to understand in light of the New Testament.  Whatever else Christ must have meant by it, He certainly presupposed some degree of separation in his admonition that we “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).  Whether it be the state’s coercion on matters of Church teaching in the official church of Hitler’s Germany or today in the official church of modern China or the Church’s false assumption that the hearts of men can somehow be changed by legislation, as in the assumptions behind the intense flirtation between some parachurch or denominational groups and secular political parties, close unions between the Church and the secular government almost always lead to the corruption of the Church and almost never to spiritual renewal in the government.  In this regard, the Anabaptist vision of the Church in the world is perhaps closest to the New Testament design.

In the final analysis, it might just be proven that the greatest lesson the modern Church can learn from the reformers is that it is incumbent for the Church of Christ to live in theological integrity.  It was on the basis of their theological convictions that Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Simons sought to reform Church and society alike.  Thus, theological conviction stands as the fountainhead for practical church and social life.

It is scandalous that the modern Protestant churches seem, with some exceptions, to have forgotten this fact.  Theology has been sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism, and doctrinal fidelity has been substituted with a minimalist theology of reduction.  As a result of this lowest common denominator theology, churches are not seeing themselves, or the lives of their parishioners, changed.

In this regard, we might even find a lesson in the schisms of the reformed churches from the Roman Church and even among the Protestant churches themselves.  For all of their excesses, which we must truly lament, it must be admitted that men willing to separate, suffer, and risk life and limb for theological convictions are preferable to an excessively permissive ecumenism that sees theology as somehow secondary to external harmony.  The reformers were above all men of conviction concerning God and the truths He has bequeathed us.  To this end, they stand united as examples of that type of conviction which the Church is in desperate need of today.

Reformed Theology and the Church with Dr. Timothy George

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.