Sunday, October 11, 2009

David Chen: Francis Turretin and Calvin's doctrine of election

Calvin versus the Calvinists — a common charge thrown against historic Dordtian Calvinism is that Dordtian Calvinists especially the Reformed scholastics in the 17th century have distorted the real teachings of the French Reformer John Calvin. This charge has continued to this very day, starting with Jacobius Arminius in the Netherlands, John Cameron and his student the French Huguenot theologian of the school of Samur Moise Amyraut (or Amyraldius), and into the modern times by "calvinists" such as R.T. Kendell, successor of Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, London.

In this paper, Pastor David Chen has written an article on this very subject, dealing with the Reformed scholastic theologian Francis Turretin. Has Turretin been faithful to John Calvin's theology and especially his doctrine of election? Chen wrote:

The Bible is the eternal Word that doesn’t change, but human beings do change from generations to generations. New cultures, new ways of thinking, new methodology of scholarship, new ideas have always prompted a new generation of seekers to re-raise questions on the teachings of the Bible. Sometimes old doctrines need to be reformulated in new ways for new generations to appreciate what is being taught. At the same time new challenges will also force the revisiting and sometimes reframing of old doctrines to more properly clarify, rebuke, or simply elaborate what was left unsaid by earlier generations. The same applies to Calvin’s teachings. This paper will focus on Calvin’s Doctrine of Election, and how Francis Turretin two generations later had used and improved on Calvin’s doctrine. In what aspects had he followed Calvin’s teachings faithfully? Does he at the same time also further elaborates or reframes what was said by Calvin to address his own culture and the challenges of his era? In comparing and contrasting Calvin and Turretin, will there be any deviations between Turretin and Calvin that can be used to support the Calvin versus the Calvinists theory? Or will one appreciate the reasons for the changes as being faithfully Calvinistic in the core and following the trajectory that Calvin had set?


Pastor Alex Tseng has reviewed this article as follows:

A very fine paper on Turretin’s doctrine of predestination has been written, owing to efforts of my friend David Chen. I am especially thankful for his defense of 17th-century scholasticism and his critique of the “Calvin-against-the-Calvinists” thesis, which, in fact, did not end with the Amyraut Controversy, but has persisted well into recent theological scholarship, as shown in the works of E. J. Dowey, J. B. Rogers, R. T. Kendall, etc. Since Calvin and Puritan studies are still in their infancy stages among Chinese Christians, works such as Chen’s are especially important in challenging innovative re-interpretations of Calvin and Reformed theology that explicitly or implicitly oppose Reformed orthodoxy, as found in the works of popular Chinese writers like Hong-Hsin Lin.


This paper and its review are now open for discussion.


PuritanReformed said...

I disagree with Alex's construction of the lapsarian controversy. We must always remember that the lapsarian controversy centers on the logical order of God's eternal decrees, not temporal order. Since God transcends time, it is utterly meaningless to say that God decides to decree for example Election only after he decrees Creation. There are no temporal elements whatsoever in God's decrees, which exist eternally in God's mind. In eternity past before the Creation of the World, all these decrees have already existed in God's mind, and there is not a "time" whereby one decree exists in God's mind while the other does not yet exist.

Therefore, when Alex Tseng quotes Turretin as saying that "if
God determined to reject some of God’s creatures while they are not considered in God’s mind as
fallen and thus worthy of reprobation (be it a positive damnation or negative dereliction), then
“the first act of God’s will towards some of his creatures [would be] made to be an act of
hatred.”, the whole lapsarian question is misconstrued. What can we mean by "first" when all just IS in eternity? The terminologies of "first", "after" etc is utterly vacuous and meaningless when discussing the lapsarian question.

Along the same line, when Tseng quotes Turretin as saying that in supralapsarianism, "the object of God’s merciful election is “neither miserable nor guilty; yea, who are not even
conceived of as yet existing,” then such mercy would be quite void of meaning.", the entire objection is vacuous, being based on temporal elements like "not even conceived" etc.

Turretin's last point against supralapsarianism, that "the supralapsarian order of divine decrees renders creation and the fall subservient to
election and reprobation, which would imply that God caused Adam to sin simply because God
willed to reprobate some of God’s creatures", is a strawman. Firstly, election is always primary, while reprobation is secondary. Secondly, even if true, such an objection presupposes that the decree of reprobation is simply arbitrary and serve no purpose at all except to fill up hell.

PuritanReformed said...

Tseng's fascination with utilzing the phrase in Christ (εν Χριστου - en Chiristou) in the Lapsarian scheme is certainly a curiosity. Does that particular phrase en Christou need to be mentioned always in order for Christ to be in the center? Historically, Calvin's theology was known to be God-centered, while Luther was more "Christ-centered". Does that mean that Calvin did not revere Christ? I certainly do not think so.

God as a Trinity consist of all three persons in one essence/being: co-eternal, co-equal. By so "elevating" Christ, are we saying that the other two people in the Trinity are not likewise to be equally revered as God? When we worship God, and state that the lapsarian scheme is for the glory of God, then isn't the second person of the Trinity automatically included since He is God? Shouldn't we be focusing on God in all three persons, instead of insisting on attaching the en Christou formula in all areas of theology, as if Christ is not also present when God is glorified?

PuritanReformed said...

David Chen's article is certainly interesting btw. As stated in the introduction in this blog post, it is a good introduction to debunk the persistent myth of "Calvin vs the Calvinists", with consistent Calvinists being called "High" or even "hyper" Calvinists while Arminians and Semi-Arminians of all kinds, "4-pointers" etc insist that they are the true heirs of Calvin.

Timothy Peng said...

Hi Daniel, I think your disagreement with Alex on the order of decrees is not so much Alex's problem; Turrentin is the person to blame. His attack on Twisse and supralapsarinism is entirely focused on the arrangements of orders, yet Twisse (the champion of Supralapsarianism) cared not so much about the orders of decree but stressed on the differences between decrees of means and ends.

but yes, I do agree with you that it is futile to argue between the "temporal" orders of the decrees.

PuritanReformed said...


I would agree if Alex was only quoting Turretin and not approving of his arguments.

CREDO500 said...

Thanks for all these excellent thoughts.

I’m most grateful to David for his well-researched and compelling theological portrait. There is much that is admirable about Turretin as an“orthodox scholastic” whom was also a“truer Calvinist” than his four points opponents.

Meanwhile, I’m delighted to see Alex’s review with his critical perspectives on Turretin, at any rate, is better than any uncritical repetition of him. Though I’m not sure whether Owen's infra symphaties is more scriptural than Augustine and Calvin.

Nevertheless, I’ ll agree with Daniel that an effective assesment of the lapsarian logic will have to take (much more) seriously the doctrine of God(Trinity) and the eternal decrees. Calvin saw further into this while he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Alex Tseng said...

Tim knows me well. I am very critical of Turretin (as is he). However, I believe that one should be generous in responding to an article--especially an article written by a theological ally--so maybe it might not have been easy to pick up my critical evaluation of Turretin. I wouldn't blame anyone for mistaking my quotes from Turretin as a representation my own thought, though a friend like Tim who knows my theological position well enough wouldn't have wasted the time to write long comments to criticize me for things that I do not stand for. The same may be said of some of the comments on my article on Barth, but again, perhaps I am the one to be blamed for not presenting things in ways that are easier to understand.

And yes, subconsciously treating the lapsarian schemes as a "temporal order" is Turretin's problem.

Alex Tseng said...

"Historically, Calvin's theology was known to be God-centered, while Luther was more 'Christ-centered'"--Is this statement accurate? I would like to see references cited to support this claim.

What about the term "union with Christ" that pervades Calvin's Institutes, Bk. III? Isn't it normative scholarly consensus that union with Christ lies at the heart of Calvin's theology? And please don't say that I got it from Princeton again, because that's one of Richard Gaffin's biggest emphases in his classes at Westminster. And yes, Gaffin takes "in Christ" to mean "union with Christ." Why is "union with Christ" central to Calvin's theology? Until one can answer this question, one would not be able to understand my "fascination" with the phrase "in Christ," as one would not understand why Calvin's supralapsarian tendencies are to be fixed in light of his much greater emphasis on union with Christ.

And on technical terminology: "High" or "hyper" Calvinism refers to supralapsarians like John Jill. No sound scholar who knows his or her technical facts would label "consistent Calvinists" or Five-Point Calvinists like Owen, Twisse, Maastricht, Edwards, Bavinck, etc. as "hyper." See L. Boettner on the lapsarian controversy in The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.

David Chen said...

Hi my friend Alex:

I was once under the impression that the mainstream Reformed Soteriological view is Dr. Gaffin's "union with Christ" paradigm. However, upon graduation, and exposure to various Reformed teachers out there, I was shocked that Gaffin's formulation of "union with Christ" is not only NOT appreciated, but many called his work unhelpful and confuses Soteriological matters. They believe Calvin teaches the tradition ordo salutis: Justification prior to Sanctification; rather than Gaffin's emphasis on "in Christ"

While there are many defenders of Gaffin, however, equally renowned Reformed scholars out there do not appreciate this.

Of course I myself remains a Gaffin disciple, however, just wanted to point out my shock when I was exposed to the greater Reformed world.

PuritanReformed said...


thanks for the clarification. Your review not only cites Turretin, but do so with approval, thus the confusion.

"Historically, Calvin's theology was known to be God-centered, while Luther was more 'Christ-centered'"--Is this statement accurate? I would like to see references cited to support this claim.

I cannot come up with anything off-hand. I think the remark was made in a WHI (White Horse Inn) show or Issue Etc radio show that I have heard before when the [Lutheran and Reformed] professors were mentioning their differences. But you can find some elements of this here ( Although Wikipedia is not reliable, it references a book which may be of help in this regard.

With regards to the idea of "union with Christ", I would have to check my copy of Calvin's Institutes to see if this is so. But as David Chen has pointed out, Gaffin's focus on the "union with Christ" concept is not mainstream Reformed thought. In John Murray's book Redemotion Accomplished and Applied, the concept of Union with Christ, althougb mentioned, was stated as one of the concept of redemption, not THE central concept.

I do not want to digress too much, but I would just like to mention that certain segments of the Reformed community has not only said that Gaffin's concept is not helpful, but have even slammed it as being heretical. They also take note of Gaffin's support of the Neolegalist heretic Norman Shepherd when he was still in WTS-P, and states that Gaffin's idea of an existential union is mystical gibberish that undermines the Gospel {cf John W. Robbins, In Christ (The Trinity Review, Sept 2004)} (