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The Salisbury Conference

Category Articles
Date November 1, 2000

On September 2 Dr Joel Beeke, Minister of the Netherlands Heritage Reformed Congregation, Grand Rapids, gave three addresses to the Salisbury Conference at Emmanuel Church, Salisbury, England, on the theme, “Calvinism: Doctrinal, Practical, Experimental.” The Conference as chaired by the pastor of the Emmanuel Church, Malcolm Watts. The following report was published in the English Churchman.

Doctrinal Calvinism

Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said that “there was nothing upon which men needed to be more instructed than the question of what Calvinism really is.” Dr Joel Beeke of Grand Rapids opened the first of his three addresses with this quotation and then embarked on an historical survey.

The 16th Century Reformation was anticipated by Waldensians, Wycliffe, Huss, Bradwardine and others, who nevertheless did not fully grasp the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone. It was born out of a public reaction to the abuses of Rome. At the heart of the Reformation were five battle cries: Sola Scriptura against Scripture plus tradition; Sola fide against faith plus works; Sola gracia against grace plus merit; Sola Christus against Christ plus Mary and the saints; Soli Deo gloria against glory to God plus Mary, the saints and the church hierarchy.

Both Lutherans and Zwinglians agreed on these things but they parted in 1529 on the question of the physical presence of Christ in the sacraments, which Luther maintained, although he did not believe in the transformation of the elements. Zwingli was the father of Calvinism which was, so to speak, the Reformation reformed. Calvinism divided into two systems – the continental Reformed (represented by the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and Synod of Dort) and the British-American-Presbyterian based on the Westminster Confession.

By the end of the 16th Century, Calvinism differed from Lutheranism in several respects. The Lutherans maintained the doctrine of Consubstantiation and saw the function of the law as negative, condemning and driving men to Christ while Calvinists saw it as also a fence to the believer’s path. Lutherans stayed in the realm of justification, while Calvin pressed on to develop the doctrine of sanctification. Calvinists taught double predestination, Lutherans single predestination. Most Reformation denominations are founded on Calvinism and agree for the most part on its principles.

Dr. Beeke insisted that Calvinism was a much broader thing than just the five points. It embraced the deity of Christ, objective atonement, the person and work of the Holy Spirit etc. If we wished to reduce Calvinism to one principle it was theocentricity. Our chief end is to bring glory to God.

Practical Calvinism

In his second session Dr Beeke stated that the heart of practical Calvinism is living the holy life and that this was best exemplified in the Puritans and their theology of sanctification, which was Calvinistic in its fullness and balance. Its best exposition was to be found in Questions 35 & 36 of the Shorter Catechism.

The Puritans saw sanctification as a divine work of renewal, expressed in repentance and righteousness. It is progressive, operating through conflict, imperfect though invincible. It is the special domain of the Holy Spirit. Dr Beeke discussed at length the relative roles of the Spirit and man in progressive sanctification, its measure, methods and motives.

Experiential Calvinism

Dr Beeke said that if we can get the preaching back we can get the living back. Experiential preaching defines clearly between the Christian and the non-Christian. opening heaven to the one and shutting it to the other. It is always applied, and to every aspect of the Christian life. It teaches us that the Christian faith must be lived. It is never divorced from Scripture, always theocentric and always addressing the Christian’s relationship with others in the church and the world. It saw its mission as transforming the believer.

The preaching of all texts must lead to Christ. Preaching must be theological. Words, grammar, syntax and historical meaning do not make a sermon. It needs application. Preaching is not notions but experience. Without experiential preaching we shall all perish.

Some of the essential characteristics of experiential preaching are that it is centred on the Bible. It leads to self-examination, it equips the Christian for the battle: it stresses heart knowledge: it is Christ-centred; it has as its aim to glorify the triune God.

Calvinistic preaching maintains a balance between the subjective and the objective. It never separates the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man and it balances the doctrinal and the experiential.

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