PAUL THE CALVINIST; PAUL THE ANABAPTIST
by Bob Wheeler
One of the great scandals of the modern church, at least in America, is the sectarian rivalries that divide it. The church is divided into warring camps, each taking great pains to disavow the theology of the others. Lutheranism, Anglicanism, the Reformed Faith, Anabaptism, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism are all seen as distinct species of religion, with barely anything in common. Even the variety of Restoriationist movements (Plymouth Brethren, Church of Christ) display an extreme sectarian mentality.
And so it is that advocates of “the Reformed Faith” and the “Anabaptist Heritage” often eye each other with the deepest suspicion. The one is thoroughly Calvinistic in theology; the other just as thoroughly Arminian. Could both groups possibly be reading the same Bible?
They might both be surprised at what the Bible actually says. For example, when we look at the writings of Paul in particular and try to describe him in modern terms, we find that he was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist” at the same time.
Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. In the first half of the epistle Paul characteristically discusses doctrine; in the second, practice. The one flows from the other. There is no such thing as theology without practical implications; and there is no such thing as a Christian lifestyle that is not rooted in a Christian worldview. The two go hand-in-hand. And in Paul’s case the theology is thoroughly “Calvinistic,” if we can impose such an anachronistic term on a first century apostle. He begins in Chapter One, verses 3-14 with a breathtaking overview of the plan of redemption, ascribing everything to God’s grace. He mentions election and predestination, and repeatedly stressed that salvation was “according to the good pleasure of His will” (vv. 5,9; NKJV), and “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (vv. 6,12,14). He then prays that the Ephesian believers will come to understand the greatness of God’s power toward them (1:19,20).
In Chapter Two he goes on to describe human depravity (2:1-3) and salvation by grace through faith (2:8-10). He then goes on in Chapter Three to ascribe all to God’s eternal plan, which Paul describes as a mystery which has now been revealed. He finally concludes the doctrinal section of the book with a benediction (3:20,21) in which he exalts the power of God and gives all glory to Him. Thus the first half of the epistle is a veritable wellspring of Reformed theology.
But in the second half of the epistle one would have thought that Paul had changed denominations. He describes the church as a community of believers united to each other by a spiritual bond (4:1-16). This, in turn, requires a life lived in non-conformity to the world (4:17-24), and the practice of brotherly love (4:2,3; 4:29-5:2). It is, in fact, a thoroughly Anabaptist view of the church and the Christian life.
Significantly Paul begins the practical section of the epistle with the word “therefore.” The word signifies that what follows is the logical conclusion to what went before. This means that the Anabaptist ethics that Paul described in the second half of the book follows logically from the Calvinistic theology of the first half. Paul sums up his argument in 4:1: “I, therefore . ..beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” The “calling” is the plan of redemption described in Chapters 1-3. It is effectual calling, a calling which has the actual effect of drawing the sinner to Christ. The gist of Paul’s argument is that the “calling” should result in the kind of changed life that he describes in Chapters 4-6.
And the one does logically flow from the other. If the lost are totally depraved and in bondage to sin, and if the saved have been inwardly renewed by irresistible grace, the saved will live differently from the lost. Salvation is a change which makes a real difference, and it is a change which results from something that God has done inside of us. It is the result of God’s grace and power.
Paul was consistent with himself; his modern interpreters are not. Today we tend to think of Calvinism and Anabaptism as two separate and distinct belief systems, mutually opposed to each other. But this is largely because of the conflicts that arose during the Reformation. But in the context of the First Century church they were not. They are merely two different sides of the same New Testament Christianity.
The problem with Luther and Calvin is that, while they recovered the doctrine of justification by faith, they did so in the context of state churches. What they could not see was that if we are justified by faith, then we must have faith in order to be saved. Only believers are true Christians. But if this is true then only a church which is made up of believers can function like a true Christian church. The state cannot make someone a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can. By trying to reform state churches Luther and Calvin missed the clear implications of their own theology. On the doctrine of justification they were biblical and evangelical. On their doctrine of the church they were medieval.
The problem with the Anabaptists is that they had a natural tendency to react against the magisterial Reformers who were persecuting them, and thus we have the divisions that are typical today. But no such division existed in the First Century. It was all one and the same Christianity. Paul was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist”!