Thinking That Matters

On the morning of last week’s THINK conference our satirical blogger, Saint Stuffed Shirt, tweeted: “Gathering with Calvinists today to consider ‘Is Calvinism incoherent?’ Can't for the life of me imagine what the answer will be!”

He joined 99 other delegates in a church in south London to consider questions under this heading, such as:
- Is Calvinism consistent?
- Why are so many people Calvinist in exegesis, but Arminian in apologetics? Does it matter?
- Is “five point Calvinism” biblical?
- Does God ordain all things, including evil human choices? If so, what happens to theodicy?
- Do the Scriptures teach double predestination? So what?
Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have spotted that one bone of contention was, predictably, the issue of Limited Atonement (and thus the validity of TULIP as the perceived essence of Calvinism), and Matthew Hosier and Andrew Wilson have been continuing the discussion on this point for the last couple of days. Suffice it to say that, despite St Stuffed Shirt’s cynicism, the delegates found plenty to disagree over. I won’t enumerate all the points and counter-points aired through the day (not least because you’ll be able to watch and listen to them for yourself in these pages shortly), but wanted to look at the bigger picture: was this conference worth holding in principle, and did it work in practice?
“Deep theological reflection is something to be aspired to,” wrote Andrew Wilson in his blog post advertising the conference. The idea of the day, he explained would be “to take one important topic, invite one guest speaker who knows the issue inside out, and then spend the day exploring it, through a combination of plenary sessions, panel discussions, small group interaction and Q&A.” The speaker chosen to tackle this year’s topic was Mike Ovey, Principal of Oak Hill College, and he certainly displayed a formidable knowledge of the subject. His style wasn’t confoundingly dense, though, but achieved a good balance between challenging depth and engaging clarity. I found him a warm and witty speaker, and would have loved to have heard more from him than the hour and 40 minutes he was given.
Having worried that the level of thought would be completely over my head, I was pleasantly surprised to find it comfortably within my understanding – though that leaves me wondering whether the greater minds than mine assembled in the room may have found it less stretching than they had hoped.
Am I just brighter than I think I am? I don’t think so. I think in Andrew’s desire to keep the day moving along, with different types of content (small groups, panel discussion, Q&A) the opportunity for really digging deep into the topic was a bit lost. (Sorry Andrew. You did make me promise not to write a sycophantic review…!) Restructuring the day to have more in-depth teaching up front and raising specific difficult questions for the small group discussion would probably have solved this – the fact that Matthew and Andrew have felt the need to continue the panel discussion in these pages illustrates that there is much more to explore and to be said than the day gave opportunity for.

For me there were a couple of particular highlights and questions I’d have loved the opportunity to dig deeper into and reflect on. Things like the implications of a doctrine of God which affirms his freedom (if God is free, that must mean he is able to act arbitrarily, so it becomes incoherent for us to demand or expect ‘fairness’ from him); and the very practical, pastoral question explored (all too briefly) in the panel discussion about the Preservation of the Saints. I love thinking in depth, but I love it even more when, like these two examples, it has a practical implication for the way we relate to the church and the culture and the way we frame and conduct our apologetics.

So was THINK worth holding in principle? Absolutely, and this topic was well worth exploring, not least for the reminder that any human construct is inevitably going to lack perfect coherence, and any simplified schema (TULIP, FACTS, STUPIFAT) will be even more vulnerable to the danger of sacrificing truth on the altar of beauty. Did it work in practice? More or less. A little tweaking of the order of events, and a little more time given to the main speaker, and you’ll have a day in which pastors, teachers and interested others can engage together in thinking that really matters.

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