Saturday, July 09, 2011


I think it was near the end of my Sophomore year, after a few people had suggested it, that I decided to visit Westminster Presbyterian Church. Westminster was a smaller church than Grace Bible Church, and only a few college students attended there, although there were several professors there. Westminster had no separate college Sunday school or any other specific college ministry. College students attended regular adult Sunday school classes, and Westminster spent money they would have use for their own college ministry to give to InterVarsity and some other campus groups. I thought this made Westminster a good fit with my own growing involvement with InterVarsity. I also liked being more involved with the whole congregation rather than being just with other college students.

Westminster was a Presbyterian church, but it was in a different denomination (PCA) than the church I had belonged to as a child (PCUS). In general, the PCA was more conservative and traditional than the PCUS. While I was there, I learned that the PCA had a strong missionary and church planting effort. They also had a high regard for the Protestant reformers, especially John Calvin, and they wanted to revive some of the principles of the Protestant Reformation that they thought had subsided in contemporary times.

After I graduated, and was on my own, I ended up continuing in PCA churches. At Arlington Presbyterian Church, I learned more about the theology of Calvinism, and it made a lot of sense to me. I found the strong emphasis on God's transformative power at work in the life of the Christian to be helpful in this question of whether a person can be saved without there being any change in their life.

Another thing I liked about Calvinism was its logical consistency. It was built on a few principles, including the sovereignty of God, and the sinfulness of man, and everything else in the system followed from these principles. Many Calvinists were masters of logical argument. One of my favorites in this regard was R. C. Sproul, who crushed opposing views with his logic and intellect.

However, after a few years, I came to be bothered by the realization that there were Calvinist doctrines, which although they seemed to follow logically from a system built on Biblical principles, they themselves did not seem to be Biblical. The primary example of this was the doctrine of "limited atonement," which states that Christ's death on the cross was only for the elect who were chosen by God to be saved. Although Calvinists could make this doctrine seem to fit with the Bible, it seemed a strain. I did not see how someone would come up with limited atonement by reading the Bible without the structure of the Calvinist system.

I came to form this mental image about Calvinism, and theological systems in general. I saw the truth of the Bible to be like a rugged mountain that was sometimes difficult to climb. Theological systems such as Calvinism or Dispensationalism were like scaffolding that was constructed on the mountainside to aid people in getting up the mountain. Although the scaffolding of Calvinism was firmly attached to the mountain at its base, the straight and orderly construction of the theological scaffolding did not always fit with the ruggedness of the mountain, and at certain points, there were huge gaps between the scaffold and the mountain. I came to decide that while Calvinism was one of the better built scaffolds, it still had serious problems. Unfortunately, I did not know how I could find a better system. Each system argued from Scripture, but interpreted the Bible differently.

After studying theology with excitement for a few years, I came to despair of such study leading to ultimate truth. I even came to believe that theological study could actually get in the way of a person's relationship with God. Therefore, after Toni and I married, and we had reason to consider going back to Mesquite Bible Church, I decided it would be fine, even though I had left the Bible churches a few years earlier based on theological problems. I was just going back to one flawed theological system from another flawed theological system, and I was unable to definitively rank one as superior to the other. We ended up back at Mesquite Bible Church because there were caring people there who had known us for several years, and it felt more like home.


rob said...

It does seem that Easy Believism is soft soap. Though maybe a good way to pad church rolls and fill pews for a time, it doesn't sound anything like people who were saved and given a new heart. Faith is only part of the package deal of our salvation.

As far as limited atonement goes: it seems that anyone who believes that some (many, most) people end up in hell believe in something that might reasonably be called limited atonement. Regardless of the atonement's sufficiency versus efficiency, the Father does not draw everyone to himself.

Greg Graham said...

What is commonly taught in Catholic circles today is that all are redeemed by Christ's work on the cross, and God offers saving grace to all. However, he respects human freewill (which he created) too much to force his grace on anyone, so it is possible for someone to obstinately refuse God's grace and salvation. Of course, this not only violates Calvinist limited atonement, but irresistible grace as well. This is all according to Molinism (named after 16th Century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina) which is just one view in Catholic theology.

St. Thomas Aquinas was closer to Calvinism in that he appeared to place God's election above human freewill. Aquinas preceded Calvin by a few hundred years, so it's hard to know exactly how he would have responded to Calvin. I wrote a paper about Aquinas on Predestination, and the differences I could pull out between him and Calvin on that were subtle. If you're interested, you can find it in the "Papers" section on my website at I will warn you it is long, and I couldn't explain it to you right now without reviewing the paper, which is a couple of years old now.

Greg Graham said...

By the way, the Jesuits (Molinists) and Dominicans (Thomists) fought about this question for quite a while, each side claiming the other was heretical until the Pope told them to stop it. Both are now accepted as within the bounds of Catholic doctrine as long as both freewill and election are maintained as true. How they actually relate to each other is not clear in the deposit of revelation that we have, so both views can be taught. My perception is that at this time, Molinism is much more popular.

Marvin H. Taylor said...

Greg, to think we met at Arlington PCA studying Calvinism, and are both now Papists! (I completed RCIA in April 2009.)

P.S. I was curious about Jansenism, which was an attempt to incorporate some of the Reformed doctrines within the RC Church. However, Jansenism has been declared a heresy, I understand.

P.P.S. I'm on G-Mail, too!

Greg Graham said...

Hi Marvin! I certainly remember you. I'm sorry that I don't know much about Jansenism except that it resulted in rather legalistic behavior, ironically. I picked this up from a book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux which remarked on some of the remnants of Jansenism in the French church of her day.

I could not find your GMail email, but you can email me at greg at I would like to catch up with you.