Rev Dr David Peterson reviews "More Calvinistic Than Calvin?" | CERC News | Christ Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC)

Rev Dr David Peterson reviews “More Calvinistic Than Calvin?”

12 May 2024

A review of the book “More Calvinistic Than Calvin? Hardline Reformed Theology & The Malaysian Church” authored by Hwa Yung, Lee Soo Tian, Lee Tat Yan and Lim Kar Yong.

When Christians Differ

When Christians differ over matters of biblical interpretation, doctrine, ethics, or pastoral issues, it is important that they speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15, 25). A necessary foundation for this is to discover what others actually teach and practice and to evaluate this in the light of God’s revelation to his people in Scripture. Sadly, this foundational work has not been done by those who have written to criticise the ministry of the Gospel Growth Fellowship (GGF) and Christ Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC) in the Klang Valley, Malaysia.

Hwa Yung, Lee Soo Tian, Lee Tat Yan and Lim Kar Yong published More Calvinistic than Calvin? Hardline Reformed Theology & the Malaysian Church early in 2023. The authors have good academic qualifications and have all taught in seminaries or Bible Colleges, but their work is poorly argued, without proper research into the beliefs and practices of GGF and CERC. There appears to have been no questioning of the leaders of those ministries and little attempt to interact with their published views. Only second-hand assessments by people outside the ministries are cited at the beginning and end of the book, reflecting a range of disgruntled opinions. But no serious dialogue seems to have taken place with those actually accused of doing wrong! Consequently, their argument in places is incorrect and disrespectful.

The first chapter, ‘Why This Book?’ is the only one attributed to a specific author. Hwa Yung, Bishop Emeritus of the Methodist Church, tells of his written encounter with one of the leaders of GGF, who requested permission for the publication on the ministry’s website of an article the bishop had written about biblical preaching. However, when he learned more about GGF and its link to CERC and saw that his photograph had been attached to postings of the article without his permission, he asked for both to be withdrawn. As a visitor from Australia to these ministries many times over the last ten years, I would agree that this issue was badly handled and that there should have been better communication from the GGF side. I am also aware of various accusations about these ministries from different quarters that need answering. However, I am well acquainted with the people who lead GGF and CERC: their sincerity, humility, love of God and his people, passion to know more of his revealed truth from Scripture, and their commitment to share it with others. Wrong motives have been quickly attributed to the individuals and ministries involved. I don’t think this has been acknowledged by Hwa Yung and he does not appear to have forgiven those who offended him.

It is not honouring to God and the way he has blessed these ministries to attribute base motives to their leaders and picture them in the worst possible way. What is happening is manifestly a work of the Holy Spirit through the faithful teaching of God’s Word. Hwa Yung and his co-authors repeatedly speak of CERC/GGF as advocating ‘a rather rigid or hardline version of Reformed theology’ (p. 7), being ‘exclusivist and divisive’ (p. 8), ‘not as faithful to the Bible as they claim to be’ (p. 8), not ‘truthful’ (p. 8), advancing ‘a rigid and exclusive Reformed theology’ (p. 10), which is ‘propagated aggressively’ (p. 10). But the evidence for this is derived from what a few over-zealous supporters of these ministries have said or what those strongly opposed to it have written. Where is the fairness and academic rigour in this approach?

Hwa Yung even takes aim at the ‘long wordy and hours-long sermons’ that he has heard take place at CERC. But what right does he have to criticise this? The growing congregations at this church seem to appreciate the teaching and the encouragement they receive from it. I have heard of Pentecostal churches where they have hour-long sermons and more! A large percentage of CERC is well educated and keen to learn from God’s Word. It is out of order to imply that the length of sermons is a display of human wisdom by quoting 1 Corinthians 2:4–5. Long biblical expositions have featured in many strands of Protestantism since the Reformation.

Chapter 2, ‘The Historical Emergence of Reformed Theology’, is mostly factual, although it introduces the erroneous claim that in Reformed theology predestination is the ‘starting point and controlling principle’ (p. 19). At this point, it is worth recalling the structure of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), which reveals his approach:

Book 1 – The knowledge of God the creator

Book 2 – The knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, first disclosed to the Fathers under the Law, and then to us in the Gospel

Book 3 – The way in which we receive the grace of Christ: what benefits come to us from it, and what effects follow

Book 4 – The external means or aids by which God invites us into the society of Christ and holds us therein

At one level, this magisterial work shows how we can know and experience God as Creator and Redeemer in the fellowship of his people. At another level, it explains how God has acted throughout history to reveal himself and bring human beings into eternal relationship with himself. As such, it offers a holistic theology of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, with a focus on Christ and the gospel.

The authors of More Calvinistic than Calvin speak of a more ‘hardline’ version of this theology in terms of the acronym TULIP. This stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. John Piper is cited as an example of someone who teaches that only those who hold this view have a sufficient grasp of the gospel. The unnamed author of Chapter 2 concludes that, in practice, TULIP ‘is asserted in a manner that encourages and promotes division and breakdown of fellowship with Christians who do not share the same theology.’ There are many such unsubstantiated generalisations in this chapter. However, J. I. Packer, who held these views and argued vigorously for them, is cited in Chapter 5 as ‘Principled Yet Generous: A Paradigm for Life in the Body’. There is a disconnect in the argument of the book here.

Chapter 3 provides ‘An Overview of Reformed Theology’. The unnamed author claims that many Christian groups could accept four fundamental features of this tradition: the priority of Scripture, the historic confessions of the faith, the scholastic method of theologising (really?), and the centrality of the doctrine of God. The five ‘solas’ – Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, glory to God alone – would also be widely affirmed by Protestant churches everywhere. However, we are told, ‘It is only when those in the Reformed tradition teach God’s sovereignty in such a manner that completely denies human freedom that other Christians have difficulty with such a position’ (p. 29). But who does this? It would be contrary to Scripture and a serious misrepresentation of Reformed teaching to argue this way. Jesus himself taught that God must sovereignly reveal himself to people, while clearly calling upon his hearers to obey the call and come to him in repentance and faith (e.g., Matthew 11:25–30). No proof is offered that a simplistic determinism is taught at GGF/CERC, though this is implied by the argument of this book.

A similar error occurs in Chapter 4, ‘A Response to Reformed Theology’, where it is claimed that, ‘Reformed theologians who hold to a strict predestinarianism allow no place at all for human freewill. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to speak of those who are not saved as being morally responsible for their own condemnation.’ (p. 35). No sources are given for this argument, though the implication again is that it is the position of GGF/CERC. The author then contends that, if double-predestination is true, evangelism is unnecessary: God will save his elect without human intervention. But how can this unsubstantiated accusation be levelled at CERC, a church which is characterised by evangelistic zeal and effective gospel outreach? There is a further disconnect in the argument here, both theologically and practically. This chapter also maintains that limited atonement can only be established by human logic, rather than Scripture, although there are biblical texts relevant to both sides of this argument (e.g., compare John 3:16 with John 10:14–18). Finally, it is suggested that the way forward is to hold predestination and human responsibility together, but this is precisely what Reformed theology has sought to do in different ways.

Chapter 6 is entitled ‘Reformed Theology and the Supernatural’. The Cessationist view that miracles ceased at the close of the apostolic era comes under fire here. Many in the Reformed tradition prefer to speak of contemporary answers to prayer as signs of God’s providence and care for his people, rather than as miracles with the same authenticating power that the apostles enjoyed. Some go further and describe contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic ministries as counterfeit and distorting the gospel. Rather than presenting a rebuttal to these arguments, the author of this chapter outlines the more open position of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer. This recognition of differences in the Reformed tradition invites continuing reflection and discussion. But the views of CERC are presumed on the basis of silence in their Doctrinal Statements about the issue, so that the argument is somewhat academic in their case. The author concludes that debate should take place with reference to miraculous claims associated with gospel growth in the Majority World.

Throughout this book, it is implied that CERC propagates a form of Reformed theology that is more philosophical than biblical (p. 15), offering ‘a strongly rationalistic and spiritually dry form of Christianity’ (pp. 39-40). Pentecostalism, however, is presented as ‘spiritually alive’ and the way Christianity should advance in the non-western world (p. 78-82). But this characterisation is divisive and unhelpful. People are saved by believing the gospel and putting their trust in the Lord Jesus through the Spirit’s enabling power. The biblical focus of the teaching at CERC fosters a spiritual dynamic that includes uplifting corporate worship, zealous evangelism, a hunger for growth to maturity in Christ, and lives devoted to his service.

Two related questions in Chapter 7 draw the argument of the book to a close. ‘First, does CERC assert its position in a hardline manner?’ (p. 89). The authors have searched through 28 pages of the church’s Doctrinal Statements and can only conclude that ‘the church understands salvation in strongly Reformed terms.’ My problem is that they have not proved their point by the simplicity of their argument. ‘Strongly’ equates to ‘hardline’ here, because the second question asks, ‘is a hardline Reformed theology justified in thinking of itself as the most adequate expression of the gospel or doctrine of salvation?’ (p. 89)

Surely every pastor, church, and Christian denomination should be committed to finding ‘the most adequate expression of the gospel or doctrine of salvation.’ This can be done by studying the Bible carefully in company with other believers, assembling and relating various aspects of its teaching, and considering this in the light of historic creeds and confessions. Biblical Theology is a way of studying the progressive revelation of God’s plan of salvation in Scripture and its fulfilment in the Lord Jesus Christ. As argued above, John Calvin was an earlier exponent of this holistic approach to the Bible. Unfortunately, the value of Biblical Theology is dismissed with an out-of-context quote from Don Carson about the discipline being marked by ‘highly divergent’ and ‘conflicting definitions’ (p. 90). But the problem identified by Carson in this article motivated him to establish helpful guidelines for a salvation-historical interpretation of Scripture. Biblical Theology is now a valued discipline in colleges and churches of different persuasion around the world.

The comments recorded on pages 90–92 suggest that CERC may need to teach members how to argue more carefully and humbly with those who think differently about the Bible and their own theological understanding of its message. The gospel can be defined very simply from the New Testament by citing passages such as Mark 1:14–15, John 3:16; Romans 1:2–4; 1:17; 1 Corinthians 15:1–8. But, once you begin to assemble this evidence, you see the need for theological reflection and integration of the different themes presented in these contexts. You can preach the gospel in a simple way that will win people for Christ. But the gospel is a profound message that needs to be exposed and proclaimed extensively, as it is in the New Testament as a whole, to bring people to maturity in Christ (Colossians 1:28).

This can be seen in the way the argument in Colossians develops. Paul first acknowledges the faith and love of the readers ‘that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have heard in the true message of the gospel’ (1:4–5). Then he prays for God to fill them ‘with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,’ so that they might ‘live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving thanks to God the Father’ (1:9–13). This is the pathway to maturity in Christ, which the apostle urges upon all believers. The Spirit is envisaged as giving a deeper knowledge of God and his will to enable fruitful Christian living and strength to endure faithfully and joyfully to the end. The focus here is not on the need for signs and wonders but on the Spirit’s powerful work through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word.

Two final challenges are presented by the authors. The first is for CERC and others ‘to reproduce in the Malaysian church what characterised the historic Reformed tradition at its best’ (p. 96). I commend them for their desire to see good theology and ministry multiplied in this way, but this is a strange sequel to the evaluation of the Reformed position in previous chapters. The authors list a number of writers who could be consulted to this end. Doubtless, many of those listed are already admired and read by GGF/CERC people. It is also worth recalling that the Gospel Growth Fellowship was established to be a place where Biblical and Reformed theology could be presented and debated in the company of others in the Klang Valley. The aim of this ministry is to invite speakers from different parts of the world to reflect on important biblical themes and methods of interpretation, and to explore the implications for Christian life and ministry today.

The second challenge is to Malaysian Christian leaders and pastors who might be concerned with the specific work of CERC. The authors ask an important question: why are so many young people attracted to CERC (p. 97)? Their answer is that ‘CERC is making a real attempt to teach the Bible to the young people, both on Sundays and throughout the week, and that is something that appears to be lacking in many churches in the Klang Valley.’ After all the criticisms that have been made, this is a generous, and surprisingly affirming view of what is taking place in this church.

Rev Dr David Peterson reviews "More Calvinistic Than Calvin?"

David Peterson

Emeritus Faculty (Moore College, Sydney)
Former Principal, Oak Hill Theological College, London
ThL (ACT), BA, MA (Sydney), BD (London), ThSchol (ACT), PhD (Manchester)