I have never understood Calvinists. “Mild” Calvinists are not too bad, but hyper-Calvinists are downright wacky. Coincidentally (or perhaps it was predestined…), two of the blogs I read regularly have current posts dealing in some way with Calvinism. So, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about it as well. Calvinism, by the way, is also known as Reformed theology, and is named after John Calvin, who greatly influenced Reformed Theology. Calvinism is popularly equated with its belief in predestination.
A few months ago – if I recall correctly – C. Michael Patton (a “mild” Calvinist) admitted that Calvinists have more of a tendency to be mean-spirited than other Christians. I found that refreshing, as I’ve found from visiting a number of theology-focused blogs that those who identify themselves as Calvinists do, indeed, seem to stand out in this fashion. Now, as reported by Ben Witherington, John Piper tries to answer the question of why this is the case:
Personally, I think Piper’s answer misses the point completely. He blames the arrogant attitude on grace; a non sequitur if I’ve ever heard one. If Calvinists are so impressed by grace, why is it that they fail to demonstrate any grace to others, and why do their condemnation of other points of view have such a ring of “protesting too much?” Piper makes a very interesting comment that addresses this question: he thinks that people can be committed to a theology of grace without being saved at all. That is, they can hold to a theology founded on grace, without ever having experienced it. Personally, I don’t think so. To quote from a book I’ve been writing,
Many evangelicals have been taught that the definition of grace is “God’s unmerited favor.” However, when we insert this phrase in place of the word “grace” in many places, we find that the sentence no longer makes sense; look, for example, at Paul’s comment in 2 Cor. 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.“ What does God’s unmerited favor have to do with power? The Eastern Orthodox have a different definition of grace, which I think is more appropriate: God’s power, at work in our lives. God’s grace – His powerful presence – provides the power to live. Therefore, a life without grace is powerless, and often even worse; it becomes compensatory and controlling.
So, I disagree with Piper; I don’t think that Calvinists are hung up on grace. I think C. Michael Patton is more correct when he says,
You see, the issues of Calvinism primarily center on one issue: predestination. While the sovereignty of God has its place, it does not ultimately determine where one lands. An Arminian can believe that God is sovereign to a similar degree as a Calvinist. But an Arminian cannot believe in predestination the same way as Calvinists.
Although, I’ve actually run into both those focused on predestination, and those focused on the sovereign nature of predestination. A focus on predestination is one thing; a focus on sovereignty is another. Many Calvinists give the impression that God is like Eddie Murphy’s version of Gumby: “I’m God, dammit!” (By the way, this really turns off non-believers.) I don’t hear much about grace from the more hard-core Calvinists (aside from Piper), but I do hear about the sovereignty of God; it’s as if they have traded “saved by grace” for “saved by the sovereignty of God.” I suspect that most Calvinists would argue that they are the same thing. Sola gratia, “grace alone,” has a much different connotation to Calvinists from sola fide, or “faith alone,” as faith can be seen as a “work.” This parsing of grace from faith is, I think, telling.
Ben Witherington, who is not a Calvinist, writes
… for whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.
And all too often, the apparent intellectual coherency of a theological system is taken as absolute and compelling proof that this view of God, salvation,the world must be true and all others be heresy, to one degree or another.
Witherington also mentions that this is true any theological system, including Arminianism (held to be the antithesis of Calvinism, holding that man has free will, and therefore some control of his own destiny). One of the issues with Calvinism is that it seems to require the system more than many other types of positions. They have gone way beyond grace, in creating a systematic theology that reminds me somewhat of a game of Jenga; remove one of many seemingly isolated pieces can cause the whole system to crumble. Perhaps this is why Calvinists seem so adamant on preserving the system.
It’s probably obvious from the title of this post that I am not a Calvinist. However, neither am I an Arminian. From an historical perspective, the Calvinist-Arminian debate came some time after Luther rediscovered Ephesians 2:8 (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith …”), and divurged in a number of areas from the Lutheran Evangelical movement. For Lutherans, who also hold to the sovereignty of God, etc., sole fide does not stand apart from grace; how can it? It is, as Paul writes, by grace we are saved, through faith.
This is where I stand, not saved by predestination or saved by sovereignty or saved by my decision or my ability to believe, but saved by sola gratia through sola fide. A true focus on grace and the work of Christ done on my behalf is sufficient. It all seems so easy.
I still don’t understand Calvinists …