I had never met a living, breathing Calvinist until the fall of 1968, when (newly married) I entered Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, as a junior. The first day of classes, I saw four or five deeply tanned guys with surfboards heading for the parking lot. Alas, I lacked the prerequisites to join the surfer crowd, but I did become acquainted with a circle of earnest Calvinists.
The most articulate of the group, the most learned—yes, learned, even as an undergraduate—and the most dismissive of those outside the fold was Greg Bahnsen, later to become the leading Orthodox Presbyterian theologian of his generation before his untimely death. When I met Greg, I had never read a word of Calvin, and only that fall did I learn of the TULIP mnemonic and what it stood for, useful information imparted by way of a Survey of English Literature course taught by a young Calvinist professor, Ed Ericson.
In my first conversations with Greg and his circle, I assumed I must be misunderstanding what they really believed. I knew how easy it was to get bogged down in differences over terminology. But then I began reading Calvin myself. What monstrous teachings!
But wait a minute. Ed Ericson was one of Them (maybe a semi-Calvinist, a counterpart to the semi-Pelagians), a gifted teacher who migrated to Calvin College, where—while making a lifelong impression on a couple of generations of students—he clarified and celebrated the achievements of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And Alvin Plantinga, a brilliant young philosopher from Calvin College who visited Westmont to give a lecture in 1968 or '69 and who went on to lead a renaissance in Christian philosophy.
And many others I have come to know in the 40 years since: the historian Mark Noll; the theologian Jim Packer, whose regular visits to the Christianity Today hallway have been one of the great perks of this job; Rich Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; and Timothy George, both Baptist and Reformed. Calvinism comes in different flavors.
And if you read the Bible from a certain angle—as Calvin did, surely one of the greatest interpreters of Scripture the church has known—there's a logic that leads straight to the Synod of Dort. Much of "Calvinism," of course, is simply Christianity, like much of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, not to mention Saddleback Church and the Fire-Baptized Holiness Temple. You can still rouse me to argument about the add-ons, but I am much more interested in what we share today in Christ and our common hope for a new heaven and a new earth.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.
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This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Christianity Today as part of the series "What Calvin Gets Right: Even those who vigorously disagree with the Reformer are still impressed." Other articles in the series include:
Man of the Bible | When it comes to careful exegesis and consistent theological systems, Calvin set the bar high. By Ben Witherington
Theologian of the Spirit | Calvin was no charismatic, but he was closer to it than some Reformed people readily admit. By Roger E. Olson
Other articles on Calvin appearing in the September 2009 issue include:
John Calvin: Comeback Kid | Why the 500-year-old Reformer retains an enthusiastic following today.
The Reluctant Reformer | Calvin would have preferred the library carrel to the pulpit.
Calvin's Biggest Mistake | Why he assented to the execution of Michael Servetus.
More on Calvin is available in our full coverage area.
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