As a Cumbelrand Presbyterian, I’m often asked if we are Calvinists or if we hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and I always give an answer that sounds something like this: In some ways, and no. We are Calvinistic in some ways, and we reject Westminster Confession of Faith. (Sadly, many Cumberland Presbyterians today have never read Westminster to know why they should reject it. They just know that our founders rejected it and that they probably should too, and they don’t feel the need to look into the matter any further than that.)
Though we are Calvinistic in some ways, Cumberland Presbyterians as a whole wouldn’t label themselves Calvinists. To be a Calvinist generally means to hold to all five points of Calvinism (which you can read about here if you are unfamiliar with them), and Cumberland Presbyterians reject the Calvinistic views of reprobation and predestination while emphasizing both the need for and the power of God’s grace in salvation with the same zeal that Calvinists would.
The Preface to the 1883 Confession of Faith lists what I might call the Four Points of Cumberland Presbyterianism.
The Cumberland Presbytery, which was constituted at the time of the organization of the church, and which originally consisted of only three ministers, was in three years sufficiently large to form three Presbyteries. These Presbyteries, in October, A.D. 1813, met at the Beech Church, in Sumner County, Tennessee, and constituted a Synod. This Synod at once formulated and published a “Brief Statement,” setting forth the points wherein Cumberland Presbyterians dissented from the Westminster Confession of Faith. They are as follows:
1. That there are no eternal reprobates.Preface to the 1883 Confession of Faith
2. That Christ died not for a part only, but for all mankind.
3. That all infants dying in infancy are saved through Christ and the sanctification of the Spirit.
4. That the Spirit of God operates on the world, or as coextensively as Christ has made atonement, in such a manner as to leave all men inexcusable.
What this amounts to is what T.C. Blake and many of the other early Cumberland Presbyterians would call Medium Theology. To explain what Medium Theology is, I’ll include an excerpt Blake’s work The Old Log House: A History and Defense of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church:
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church claims to occupy what it denominates as the “Medium System of Theology” – a middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism. The two latter systems (Calvinism and Arminianism) as we all know, are regarded as the extremes of theology. It is also claimed by the advocates of these systems that there is no medium ground; that every one must either be a Calvinist or an Arminian in his religious belief, else he is nothing; but such an assertion, when we analyze it, is absurd – might as well say that there is no territory between the North and South Poles, or that there is no space between the extreme ends of a platform! How could those two systems be the extremes of theology without having this intermediate area- this medium ground?
But let us examine those systems (Calvinism and Arminianism), and see if there is not a theological medium ground.T.C. Blake, The Old Log House: A History and Defense of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church
1. The Doctrine of Election. Calvinism teaches that election is unconditional. Arminianism teaches that there is no election in this life. Medium System teaches that there is an election, but that it is conditional.
2. The Doctrine of Salvation. Calvinism teaches that salvation is unconditional to sinners, but certain to Christians. Arminianism teaches that salvation is conditional to sinners, but uncertain to Christians. Medium System teaches that salvation is conditional to sinners, but certain to Christians.
3. The Date of Election. Calvinism teaches that the date of election is before man was created. Arminianism teaches that the date of election is not prior to the death of the Christian, if indeed it occurs then. Medium System teaches that the date of election is the moment when the sinner is regenerated.
4. The Extent of the Atonement. Calvinism teaches that Christ died for only a part of the human race – that salvation is not possible to all, and that none but those who were “elected from the foundation of the world,” will be saved. Arminianism teaches that the atonement of Christ was made for all mankind – that salvation is possible to all; but, as Christians may fall from grace, it is not certain that any one will be saved. Medium System teaches that the atonement was made for all mankind – that salvation is possible to all, and that every one who has been truly regenerated will be saved.
5. The Perseverance of the Saints. Calvinism teaches that perseverance depends principally upon the immutability of the decree of unconditional election. Arminianism teaches that perseverance depends principally upon good works of the creature. Medium System teaches that perseverance depends, not upon the immutability of the decree of unconditional election, nor upon the good works of the creature, but upon the love of God, the merits of Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and the covenant of grace.
Other points could be given wherein these three systems differ, but surely these are sufficient to show any unprejudiced reader that there is a medium ground between Calvinism and Arminianism. On that medium ground the Cumberland Presbyterian Church stands; and it rejoices to know that its foundation is broad and secure. Nor do we hazard the truth in saying that not only the Cumberland Presbyterian Church stands upon this medium ground, but that nineteen-twentieths of the Christian world to-day really occupy the same position. How rare to find a Calvinist who adopts all the sentiments of Calvin? And how rare, too, to find an Arminian who adopts all the sentiments of Arminius? Instead, then, of finding no ground upon which to stand between these extremes, we find a vast area – an area large enough to hold not only Cumberland Presbyterians, but also the great body of professing Christians throughout the world. The people can find that medium ground, although theologians may not be able to do so.