Calvinism in Color

How a Charismatic Baptist Became Reformed

A Calvinist friend once asked me what writing projects in history currently occupied my attention. I hesitated to answer as I was certain he would find my present historical focus quite outré. But answer I did (and I was not wrong about the initial response).

I told him that I was writing a variety of essays on the theology of color — not the question of race, I was quick to add, but actual colors. By that point, I had written essays on the colors white, red, and pink, and was hard at work on the color green in the literary corpus of Jonathan Edwards, who believed that green was God’s favorite color. My friend looked at me with some amazement, and I could sense from his face that he thought my interests quite odd.

This small exchange made me realize that for far too many, being a Calvinist was mainly about soteriological matters and not the glory of God in the entirety of life.

Studying in the Spirit

My conversion took place in the mid-1970s in a North American evangelical world convulsed by what has come to be called the Charismatic Movement. I encountered the movement early in my Christian life, and it gave me an abiding interest in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It should not be surprising, then, that when it came to my doctoral dissertation (written at Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto), I could think to study only something in the realm of the Spirit (pneumatology).

Ultimately, my thesis dealt with what some might regard as an arcane topic: the Pneumatomachian controversy in the fourth century, which was centered on debates about the deity of the Holy Spirit. Specifically, I examined how Scripture shaped the way that two fourth-century Greek theologians, Athanasius of Alexandria (c.299–373) and Basil of Caesarea (c.330–379), thought and wrote about the Spirit’s godhead.

When I graduated from the University of Toronto with my doctorate in 1982, I was extremely blessed to be hired to teach church history at Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto.

What Five Points?

Ted Barton, the academic dean responsible for hiring me, was a tremendous mentor in the first few years of my teaching. When he interviewed me, he asked me, among other topics, what I thought of the “five points of Calvinism.” Amazingly, despite the fact I had earned a doctorate in church history, I had no particular knowledge of these doctrines.

I told Ted that if he let me know what they were, I would be able to answer his question. He said that was fine and quickly passed on to another question without giving me any particulars about these doctrines. The school had been having some problems with Calvinism, and in Ted’s mind, it must have been a good thing that I had no idea what these doctrines were! Within a few years, though, the doctrines had become a very familiar part of my Christian world.

During the 1980s, as I read Puritan authors like John Owen (1616–1683) and Banner of Truth books like The Grace of God in the Gospel, I came to a careful consideration of Reformed truth. Most significantly, at some point in the academic year 1985–1986, I encountered the Calvinistic writings of the Particular Baptist Andrew Fuller (1754–1815).

Fuller not only deepened my understanding of Calvinistic truths about salvation, but he also deepened my commitments as a Baptist (some who become Calvinists gravitate to paedobaptism). He did this by showing me, first of all, that Baptists had a rich heritage: his literary corpus is a robust collection of spirituality, rich in Christ-centeredness and crucicentric, ardent about holiness and the importance of the affections, and aflood with love for the lost, family, and friends.

I had questioned why on earth God had saved me among Canadian evangelical Baptists whose heritage seemed to be limited to an embattled and fissiparous Fundamentalism. Fuller, whose thought drew from the minds of men like John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, showed me that Baptists had a far deeper lineage than the twentieth century.

Ideas in Stone and Color

Most importantly, though, Fuller’s overriding passion to live his life full-out for the glory of God has been central to my own spiritual formation as a Christian and as a historian. For me, that passion for the glory of God in all of life has involved a keen interest in art and architecture.

Now, while Fuller helped me understand that all of life must be lived for the glory of God, he himself could be quite dismissive of various fields of human endeavor. For instance, on one occasion, a friend — probably James Hinton (1761–1823), the Baptist minister of Oxford — was taking Fuller around Oxford University and showing him some of its architectural features. After a while, Fuller apparently turned to his friend and suggested that they return to Hinton’s dwelling to discuss justification by faith, which was far more interesting to the Baptist pastor-theologian.

Well, I think Fuller was wrong to be so dismissive of architecture, which has rightly been described as ideas in stone. As a Reformed church historian, my interests, research, and writing need to take in all of life and not just theology proper, for the simple fact that the entire universe and its various elements are of deep concern to their Creator. He made them and moment by moment sustains them. A growing philosophical interest in the subject of aesthetics helped to make me aware that, in addition to questions of truth and goodness (on which Reformed thinkers and theologians have spent so much time and effort), we who confess divine sovereignty in every sphere of life need to spend energy and time reflecting on the impress of divine beauty on our world.

And here, Jonathan Edwards, the theological mentor to Andrew Fuller, has been enormously helpful. His linkage of the Holy Spirit to divine beauty brought together my interest in things pneumatological with this fascination with created beauty and color — even if I dissent from his estimation of God’s favorite color!

And as to God’s favorite color, that glorious refraction of white light called the rainbow might well offer a clue.