What is Paleo-Orthodox Ecclesial Calvinism?
Though the term is perhaps unhappy in that it may connote a stodgy focus on the past, a contextual understanding suggests that much more is involved, and that a concern for contemporary relevance and application to life of the Reformed tradition is central.
Paleo-orthodox ecclesial Calvinists sense that something is amiss. They are convinced, first of all, that the Reformed tradition at its best is both broader and deeper than the late school-text tradition with its: Nominalism as expressed in certain forms of covenant theology that undercuts the biblical conceptions of solidarity in sin and salvation; Virtualism that tells us we receive the effects of Christ’s saving work rather than Christ himself, and that salvation is merely on the basis of what Christ has done rather than “in Christ”; and its Abstraction of justification from the life of faith and obedience and the corporate life of the church.
POECs are unhappy with the popular reduction of the tradition to the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism.” Missing here, of course, is the ecclesial/sacramental dimension so central to the Reformation. In addition, they are uncomfortable with the separation of faith and reason evident in some contemporary Reformed thinkers and groups that are drifting toward fundamentalism. We find a better path in the Augustinian and Anselmian stance of fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.”
In short, POEC is a form of critical realism that takes the church and its means of grace as well as the life of the mind seriously.
From what antecedents does POEC draw? POEC finds much to appreciate in the seminal work of John Calvin, but it is a critical and contextual reading of Calvin. This is no simplistic effort to pit “Calvin against the later Calvinists” (as some have recently alleged). Rather, it recognizes that the Reformed tradition has always been diverse and that realism in the trajectory of Calvin has always had its exponents. We also find much to ponder in critical appropriations (as opposed to mere parroting or repristinating) of Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century, John W. Nevin of Mercersburg, James Henley Thornwell and John B. Adger of Columbia, and W. G. T. Shedd in the nineteenth, and Geerhardus Vos, Thomas F. Torrance of Scotland, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. in the twentieth.
As an “ecclesial Calvinism,” POEC emphasizes the corporate solidarity of Christians in the church and the priority of the church over the individual. To paraphrase John W. Nevin, we as individual Christians do not make up the church; rather, we as individuals become Christians by being incorporated into something much grander and greater than ourselves—the church as the mystical body of Christ.
Moreover, the church is not constituted, as some today curiously allege, by its confession, though what the church believes, confesses, and teaches is extraordinarily important. Rather, it is constituted by its spiritual union with the great Head of the church—Jesus Christ.