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Calvin, Beza, Supralapsarianism and the Puritans (J.I. Packer on the Puritans)

September 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Continuing through RTS’ (Reformed Theological Seminary) iTunes University collection, my current study is an interesting and informative series done by J.I. Packer, on the English Puritans and their theology, a set of 16 lectures done in 1988.

Having already studied this subject at a basic, overview level, including volume 1 of the Puritan Papers (see this previous post), it is nice to see that this series presents much additional information. Among the interesting features of the Puritans: they were Reformed Medieval, in several ways different from Reformed Moderns. Their view of church and state was still like that of Medieval times, understanding the difference in theory though not in practice. The Puritan era did not consider “plagiarism” as any offense; it was common, accepted practice to borrow from the writings of others without giving them credit – such a contrast from our day, that Packer observed that modern-day scholars are perhaps too “provincial” about their own contributions. The Puritans also were far more homogeneous in their thinking as a group – more interested in learning from and respecting the views of others within their “tradition,” not so individualistic as today’s evangelical scholars accustomed to “critical thinking” in terms of studying out issues for themselves and sometimes coming to different conclusions on particular doctrinal matters.

The earliest Puritans were greatly influenced by the early work of William Perkins, who popularized Calvinist teaching in the late 16th century. Perkins borrowed heavily from John Calvin’s successor, Beza (again, the Puritans were not concerned about plagiarism) and popularized Beza’s presentation of God’s sovereignty in election, complete with diagrams with bubbles, publications intended for the common man who in many cases was illiterate.

An interesting consideration here, a point developed by Packer through a few lectures: the order of presentation of theology matters. Calvin’s final version of the Institutes for the Christian Religion (1559) presents doctrines in the same order as Paul in Romans, starting with man’s depravity, later the topics of justification by faith and sanctification, coming to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in election (Romans 9-11) only after these other other points have been presented. However, Calvin’s successor, Beza, preferred the idea of classical Greek thinking, that what is first in intent is last in execution.  Therefore, since God’s glory, and His election of His people is the first intent, this teaching should be presented first. In this way Beza introduced the concept known as supralapsarianism: that the decree of God to save some and damn others, came before the creation and the fall.  Perkins followed this, as the first to present the idea in English and popularize it, and thus supralapsarianism took hold of the Puritans for the next 50 years. Later Puritans, including John Owen, were infralapsarian, but the first generation held without questioning (again, Reformed Medievalism) to Perkins’ idea.  Packer also notes that John Calvin himself really cannot be classified as either infra- or supra-lapsarian, since neither idea itself was yet defined as a particular category and this just wasn’t an issue.  Calvin taught both God’s sovereignty in election, and God’s love and the promises of God to sinners who come to Him in repentance, and thus the argument can be made (and has by some) for Calvin being infralapsarian — but the issue wasn’t defined in such terms (infra versus supra) in his day.

From Packer’s explanation of this history along with his own pastoral ideas, I now better understand the differences between the two ideas (supra- and infra- lapsarian), in how it affects the presentation of gospel truth.  Perkins’ approach to assurance focused on the evidences a person could look to, the fruit in their own lives, as to whether a person is truly saved. Yet his approach neglected the scriptural truths of God’s love in providence (reference Acts 17:25-27, He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything), and ignored the “whosoever will” promises of scripture: the promise that those who come to Him, who look to Him for mercy, will never be turned away; the one who trusts in Him shall never be ashamed. Packer well summarized the infralapsarian approach (his view): to the unsaved we present the truths of the first part of Romans – man’s depravity, justification, atonement, God’s mercy to the sinner; we don’t begin with the teaching of election, telling unsaved people about God’s saving some while giving some over to reprobation. We teach election and what it means, to the family of God, those already saved. People understand assurance based on the scriptural promises, rather than wondering “if I am one of the elect or not.”

Packer’s lectures include more details about this issue and much more, the above is a brief summary of a few lectures up through number 7 in the set.  I look forward to the remaining lessons in this RTS iTunes series.

Charles Spurgeon: Salvation Experiences

September 10, 2015 2 comments

Charles Spurgeon often preached about the experience of salvation — as in answering possible objections of unbelievers, urging them to move past those objections or obstacles to come to Christ; or overall consideration of how people come to Christ.  From my recent reading come two sermons (#559 and #570) from 1864 (volume 10) on this topic. The first one (sermon #559) describes various unbelievers and their different responses – how they are kept lame, as with this excerpt:

Some are still lame, though they have faith, through ignorance. They do not know what being saved is. They entertain wrong expectations. They are trusting in Christ, but they do not feel any surprising emotions; they have not had any remarkable dreams, or visions, or striking emotions of excited joy, and therefore, though they have “faith to be saved,” they have not the faith of a present salvation. They are waiting for something, they hardly know what, to embellish their faith, or to fortify it with signs and wonders; now, poor soul, why do you wait? These things are not necessary for salvation. In fact, the fewer you have of them, I think, the better—especially of things which are visionary. I rather tremble for those who talk much about sensible evidences; they are too often the frivolities of unstable hearts. Beloved, though you may have never had any ecstatic joys, or suffered any deep depression of your spirits, if you are resting on Christ, it does not matter one whit what your feelings have been or have not been! Do you expect to have an electric shock, or to go through some mysterious operation? The operation is mysterious, too mysterious for you to discern it; but all that you have to do with is this—“Do I believe in Jesus? Am I simply depending upon Him for everything?” If you do, you are saved, and I pray you to believe this!

One observation from this sermon: all the people he describes at least have a basic worldview of belief in God – and then various “religious” reasons for fearing to come to God. Very likely this reflected the actual worldview backgrounds of the people of Spurgeon’s day, Victorian England. In all his sermons to this point, indeed, he never considered the case of people who professed atheism, those who had so suppressed the knowledge of God as to really think in naturalist, anti-supernatural and anti-theist terms. Even today the majority of unbelievers are not of the atheist type (and even less likely to be reading such a sermon in the first place), but after so many years of modernism and even post-modernism I suspect it is more common than in Spurgeon’s day.

Also from reading this sermon, the thought: how amazing it is that God saves each of us in different ways, dealing with us and our own personality and background. We don’t all have the same experiences in the process of conversion (from the time leading up to it through the time of regeneration / saving faith), and thus we observe great variety of people and their conversion/salvation experiences. Some cannot point to a specific moment when they came to saving faith, but instead a gradual process and general period of time (as for instance, those in Christian homes with childhood conversions), while others (as with my own case, and also the testimony of Spurgeon himself) recall a specific point in time. While, as in the Spurgeon quote above, people should not be “looking” to “feel any surprising emotions; they have not had any remarkable dreams, or visions, or striking emotions of excited joy,” yet in my own case God graciously did provide the sudden understanding and sudden, excited joy.

Where sermon #559 prompted these thoughts, Spurgeon comes through – as though in answer – a few sermons later, with #570 to specifically consider the variety of means used in conversion. A very helpful sermon, with a longer text than is usual for Spurgeon’s textual style preaching  – John 1:37-51 – Spurgeon here provides many insights into the experiences of “The First Five Disciples,” and their four different types/methods of conversion. Were you, however, to examine any five persons, I suppose you would find similar disparity. Pick out five Christians indiscriminately and begin to question them how they were brought to know the Lord, you will find methods other than those you have here; and probably quite as many as four out of the five would be distinct from the rest.

  1. Andrew and John – the fruits of preaching
  2. Simon Peter – Private instrumentality, not by the preaching of the Word
  3. Phillip – without either the public Word or private instruction, but directly by Jesus, and
  4. Nathanael – partly through private instrument, but also the preparation and Christ’s divine word to convince him.

An excerpt, describing the third case:

in some cases no apparent instrumentality is used. We have known some who on a sudden have felt impressions, from where they came or where they tended they did not know. In the midst of business we have known the workman suddenly check his plane—a great thought has entered into his brain—where it came from he could not tell. We have known a man wake up at midnight—he could not tell why, but a holy calm was upon him, and as the moon was shining through the window, there seemed to be a holy light shining into his soul, and he began to think. … We cannot tell, brethren, when God may regenerate His elect, for though we are to use means, and cry to God to send forth laborers into the vineyard, yet the sovereign Lord of all will frequently work without them. The Word which has been heard in years gone by, the Scripture which was known in childhood, may by the direct power of the Holy Spirit, without any immediate apparent means, turn the man from darkness to light. …What preparation of heart there had been before, I cannot tell. What still small voice had been speaking before this in Philip’s ear, we do not know. Certainly the only outward means was this voice of Christ, “Follow Me.” And there may be in this House some who will be converted this morning. You do not know why you are here, you cannot tell why you strayed in; but yet it may be—God knows—Christ would have you come here because He would come here Himself.