Roger Nicole: An Open Letter to Dr. William Estep

rogernicoleMy dear colleague,

Your recent article in The Baptist Standard of Texas has come to my attention. I am grieved that you should have such a low opinion of Calvin and of Calvinistic Baptists. Although you hold that “most of the ardent advocates of this movement have only a slight knowledge of Calvin or his system,” I think that I am tolerably well acquainted with Calvin, not only through the Institutes of the Christian Religion, but through his sermons, commentaries and special treatises as well as through secondary sources. His collected works in 9 volumes in the 1667 Amsterdam edition are at my fingertips in my office. My personal library has more than 250 volumes by or about Calvin, and well above 1000 if you count those about Calvinism and the Reformed faith and history, including Particular Baptists.

A number of statements in your article are erroneous and others appear to me as needing to be challenged.

You give the date of Calvin’s death as 1554 instead of 1564. We were lamenting that Calvin should have died at the age of 55, and now your article cuts off erroneously another ten years of his life. If this is a typographical error, it should have been corrected in the galley proofs.
You state that the definitive edition of Calvin’s Institutes was published in 1559 in “four volumes.” This edition was in one folio volume, as indeed apparently all editions prior to 1800! The material was divided in four books, but bound in one volume.

Critical remarks are made concerning Calvin’s uncontrollable temper and his responsibility in Servetus’ execution and Bolsec’s exile, in the union of church and state in Geneva, and in the failure to advocate freedom of religion in the state. All of these are clearly irrelevant to the issue whether Calvinistic Baptists ought to be shunned, unless you can prove that they are necessary inferences from Calvin’s doctrines of sovereign grace, and that only those who agree therein with Calvin suffer from these defects.

You made a much too commendatory representation of the views of Bolsec: if his convictions were just what you describe, I could almost agree with him! You did not even mention his emphatic rejection of divine election nor his insulting accusations against Calvin’s doctrine and its Biblical foundation.

If you want to promote Bolsec and Servetus rather than Calvin as your theological heroes, you need not fear competition from me: I will even throw in Castellio for good measure!

You state that Calvin “seemed to erect a whole system of theology on eternal decrees without any reference to Christ or the love of God.”

This is patently false on three counts:

  • Predestination is discussed at the end of the third book of the Institutes. It is the climax of Calvin’s presentation of salvation by grace alone, not the foundation of the work!
  • Chapters 6-17 of the second book of the Institutes are devoted to the part of Christ in human salvation. Furthermore, in III. xxiv. 5 a very famous passage asserts that Christ is the “mirror of election.”
  • Throughout his treatment, Calvin emphasizes the grace of God in election and rejects human merit at its base.

You say that “it is difficult to state briefly Calvin’s view of predestination” and so you quote five lines from the Institutes III. xxi. 5 without making it clear that I. xvi-xviii, II. i-v and III. xxi-xxiv must be consulted in order to form a proper understanding of Calvin’s presentation. Furthermore, Calvin’s three treatises on predestination and providence, his “Articles on Predestination” and hundreds of references in his Commentaries and Sermons would help. You might as well say that the block of marble that was delivered to Michelangelo’s studio is the famous statue of David as to say that these two quoted sentences constitute Calvin’s doctrine.

You could have eased your task by quoting some paragraphs of the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Philadelphia Confession. These at least, written in agreement with Calvin, would be more reliable than one statement plucked as by hazard out of Calvin’s work by one manifestly hostile individual.

You claim that Calvinism is “a system of theology without biblical support.” In III. xxi-xxiv alone I count 173 biblical references, including 3 out of the 5 that you allege against him. How could a man who wrote commentaries on 18 books out of 39 in the Old Testament, and 24 out of the 27 in the New Testament ever be accused to be unbiblical? And his preaching program included expositions on the whole Bible, although he did not live long enough to fulfill that plan.

You deplore the influence of Calvin upon “Calvinistic Baptists.” None of these, however, accepted Calvin’s view of infant baptism, otherwise they could not be called “Baptists.” There must be, therefore, something else than Calvin’s authority that led them to follow him in his views on the doctrines of grace: I say it is the authority of Scripture and its teaching on divine sovereignty as well as human responsibility.

You say that Calvinistic Baptists have “only a slight knowledge of Calvin or his system.” My impression from your article is that you do not excel either in this area! Now if what you claim is true, why in the world do you attack them on the basis of an author of which you claim they are ignorant? This would seem to make the major part of your arguments irrelevant!

When you deal with the five greatest dangers by which you claim “unmodified” Calvinism threatens the Southern Baptist Convention, to wit lack of Biblical support, similarity with Islam, destruction of individual responsibility, intolerance and haughty spirit, and anti-missionary spirit, one is left wondering where you picked up this nightmare. Calvinistic Baptists have sent excellent missionaries to Islamic people, and they have greatly developed the sense of accountability historically and ethically. I cannot imagine where you have encountered anyone who fits your description, and I will say that in my contacts with hundreds of Calvinists I have never met any such person. There may be some in a murky corner of the vast territory of the Southern Baptist Convention, but even then they do not represent a threat to SBC, for such people do not reproduce themselves and thus are dying out in the first generation!

My colleagues will respond to other features that we deem objectionable. As one who has been influenced by Calvin for nearly 65 years, I accepted this aspect of our task. I do find comfort in the thought that although you may oppose Calvinism on this earth, you will be yourself a Calvinist when you get to heaven, for I say “Who will deny or seek to restrict the sovereignty of God when appearing before His throne?”

In this hope I remain,

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Roger Nicole
Mutch Professor of Theology, Emeritus
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Visiting Professor of Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

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  1. Yes! Roger spent much of his time in personal correspondence with like-minded and contrary brethren. I am glad and blessed to number him among my mentors and friends. He enjoys the fullness of what he believed in the presence of the Lord he loved and served. We need more men who are like him.

  2. Concentrating patently biblical doctrines in the person of one man, and then blackening the man, is underhand, but also an unintended compliment! Humanism must rail against sovereignty.

  3. When I was an undergrad at a secular university, a pastor I knew loaned me the Beveridge translation of the Institutes. About the same time, I read Williamson’s commentary on the Westminster Confession and Packer’s _Knowing God_. I was challenged to look a little deeper at what some of the Puritans and Calvinists themselves had to say when I took a course on Tudor and Stuart England. I became thoroughly convinced that 90% of what I had been told in High School, by disciples of Max Weber, and by pop culture was utterly false.

    Now that I am teaching history in a public high school, I start every lesson on the Reformation with the caveat “What you are about to study in the relevant section of your textbook is second-hand and generally misleading. You are responsible to get my notes.” To burnish my credentials, I let them see my copies of the “‘Tutes”, Zwingli on True and False Religion, and the Luther Bible–and thus remind them that the original sources are out there if they care to research them (and sometimes translated into their native languages, since most of my charges are English language learners).

    God grant that I be wrong here, but William Estep strikes me as someone who was raised in the thick obscurantist fog generated by the rawer forms of frontier Evangelical Arminianism when it meets the generally secular [mis-]education of our age.

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