I still don’t understand Calvinists

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 …

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12 Comments

  1. Mike Haubrich, FCD wrote
    at 1:31 pm - 21st November 2008 Permalink

    No need to feel lonely.

  2. Quixote wrote
    at 1:34 pm - 21st November 2008 Permalink

    I would characterize myself as a hyper-Calvinist and a hyper-Arminian (if we must use these labels). I do believe that the Scripture establishes a categorical divine sovereignty along with a strong reading of predestination. It is my opinion that any theology or philosophy that rejects or fudges these veers from the Biblical text.

    Having said that, I also affirm a full and unbounded human free will which, I believe, the Scripture also clearly affirms.

    The difficulty lies in any theological or philosophical attempt at reconciling these concepts. If taken at face value, they simply cannot be reconciled. They are, however, compatible. Like the nature of light, which can be shown to be either a particle or a wave (depending upon which one tests for) both sovereign predestination and free will can coexist peacefully within the same context. It is we who turn it into a Hatfield/McCoy consideration.

    I have written about this issue here.

  3. me wrote
    at 4:07 pm - 21st November 2008 Permalink

    Believing in predestination doesn’t necessarily make you Calvinist; Lutherans and others do, too, but perhaps not in the Westminster Confession sense that God “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Much of the problem with Calvinism seems to lie in how things are defined. I personally have a problem with some of the 5 points of the Calvinist TULIP, at least in how they are framed. I think the success of Calvinism was not theological, per se, but that it was more clearly divergent from Roman Catholicism than Lutheranism.

    The problem in reconciling the two apparent extremes – where parts of both are true, but in another sense are not – supports my point that the Calvinist-Arminian controversy presents a false dilemma, created specifically by the 5 points (which specifically countered the teachings of Arminius). The attempts by both to take the mystery of justification by grace and shove it into narrow categories created, in my opinion, error.

  4. Quixote wrote
    at 4:19 pm - 22nd November 2008 Permalink

    A plausible explanation for hyper-Calvinism?

  5. me wrote
    at 4:31 pm - 22nd November 2008 Permalink

    That’s it!

  6. dudley davis wrote
    at 9:05 pm - 29th November 2008 Permalink

    I am a convert from roman catholic to Protestant. I began a study of the Protestant Reformation about 3 years ago, however in the process I began to believe in the principles of the Protestant reformers. I explored the Lutheran and Episcapal churches and at first I became an Episcapalian. However when I began studying John Calvin and the Reformed theology I experienced as what Calvin called of his own conversion “a true Protestant Conversion” “The reformers and the Protestant Reformation, particularly John Calvin and the Reformed Theology returned the church to its true foundation. They rescued the Gospel from the pagan corruption of “papist traditions and heresies.” I became a Reformed Presbyterian Protestant in February 2007. I am no longer a roman catholic because I believe the reformed Protestant faith is the church that was intended by Christ. It is why I am thankful I am now a Reformed Presbyterian Protestant. I was fortunate to be elected by the grace of God to the truth and the true faith “The Reformed Protestant faith.”

    I am now a Reformed Calvinist Presbyterian Protestant and I believe John Calvin was the greatest theologian of the protestant reformation.John Calvin is noted by historians as the founder of Presbyterianism and a profound Protestant reformer. That may be so to historians. I now believe he was one of the great theologians of this world and a great teacher of the Reformed Protestant faith. While he may be the founder of the Presbyterian Protestant fold and as the above qoute below shows he is also a defender of the true faith. I also believe that “God is the author of Calvinism”.

    To be a Protestant in the tradition of Calvin and the great Protestant reformers means we are for the truth and the true Gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ. We are Protestants because we protest heresy and false teachings and the corruption of the true faith and gospel of Our Lord. The two pillars of Protestantism I think are namely a positive witness for Christ, and protest against error.

    “After all, there is a Protestantism still worth contending for, there is a Calvinism still worth proclaiming, and a gospel well worth dying for” CH Spurgeon

    In grace,
    Dudley

    Thge following is a qoute from Calvin:

    “That my doctrine has many adversaries, is neither unknown nor astonishing
    to me: for it is no new thing for Christ, beneath whose standard I contend,
    to be the object of abuse to many babblers. On this account alone I grieve,
    that though my side is pierced the sacred and eternal truth of God, which
    ought to be reverently esteemed and adored by the whole world. But when I
    see that from the beginning, truth has been subject to the many calumnies of
    the wicked, and that Christ himself (for the Celestial Father has so
    decreed) must needs be the mark for contradiction, this also should be
    patiently endured. The virulent assaults of the wicked, however, shall never
    make me repent of that doctrine, which I am assured has God for its author.”

  7. me wrote
    at 9:28 pm - 29th November 2008 Permalink

    “God is the author of Calvinism”?

    I think you’ve elevated Calvinist doctrine above the Gospel, or at least confused the two. Calvin wasn’t even the sole author of Calvinism.

    I appreciate your sincerity, but my point remains.

  8. dudley davis wrote
    at 10:45 pm - 29th November 2008 Permalink

    Your point is well taken. I did not mean to elevate calvinist doctrine above the Gospel.ileft the roman church because I did no longer believe in her teaching of scripture and tradition. I Left the roman catholic church in January 2006 I was an Episcopalian for a while but in February 2007 I began practicing as a Presbyterian and I am now a confessed and communing Presbyterian Protestant.

    Not many years ago I never would have thought I would leave Roman Catholicism and become a Protestant. My faith Journey from roman catholic to Presbyterian Protestant was a gradual shift. At first I became an Episcopalian because I felt at home with its sacramental structure, its governmental system and its liturgy, which is done at an altar and like the roman mass. However as I began to study Protestantism and the reformation and the reformers I discovered that I was in heart and soul a Protestant.

    I think God has led me to become a Protestant and Presbyterian. What started as a study on the Protestant Reformationled to a conversion to Protestantism for me.

    Why I became a Protestant and why I am studying to become a Presbyterian was a evolving process.I began doing an extensive study of the Protestant Reformation from the perspective of Protestant writers and Theologians. I centered a lot on the reformers Luther, Calvin and Knox. I studied Luther’s Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone and I began concentrating on the Reformed Theology of Calvin and Knox. I then read the Westminster Confession of Faith and the short and long catechisms of the Presbyterian Church and as I attended Lutheran services while studying Luther and Episcapal services while studying the Anglican tradition I started to attend services a 3 different Presbyterian churches and a Baptist congregation while studying Calvin, Knox and Zwigli. The PC usa congregation invited me to join in the Lords Supper even before I became a presbyterian. I than began to look deeply at the presbyterian teaching of sacrament and The Lords Supper. I discovered that I believed in the Presbyterian reformed teaching of The Lord’s Supper. That it was instituted by Jesus the same night he was betrayed, to be only a symbolic remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death and for our spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, and as a bond and pledge of our communion with him, and with each other. I now submit and believe as a Protestant and a Presbyterian that there are only 2 sacraments, Baptism and the Lords Supper, not 7 as I was taught in the Roman Catholic Church. I use to believe as a Roman Catholic that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ at the mass. They call that Transubstantiation. It is a Roman Catholic doctrine, which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, commonly called transubstantiation, by consecration of a priest. I now renounce that belief and I now believe it is repugnant not to Scripture but even to common sense and reason. It destroys the true nature of the ordinance or sacrament of the Lords Supper. I now am able to see the notion and teaching of Transubstantiation, the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ is ludicrous and a denial of Christ dying for all our sins. Once I understood the Protestant doctrine of Justification I could also see the apostasy and of the Roman Catholic Eucharist and the Mass. Roman Catholicism says the Mass is a reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. The adoration of a “bread wafer” in a monstrance is in itself idolatry. I now believe as a Protestant that the Mass is the greatest possible blasphemy of the “once for all”; all sufficient, all atoning, all completed blood shedding of Christ on the Cross. The teaching of Transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass I now renounce the practice of both, as did Calvin and many other reformers.

    I now believe and it is my experience that Reformed worship as done in the Presbyterian service is beautiful. It does not have the sensual rituals of Romanism; its beauty is in its simplicity.
    Ps. 29:2 “Ascribe to the Lord the Glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness ” I find its beauty in the preaching of the Word of God in a simple but unadorned manner. The administration of the Lords Supper is also done in the same simple manner. The rituals of the roman mass and the symbols surrounding it I now believe detract from the revelation of Christ’s simple teachings and truth. The Presbyterian way of worship and celebration of the Lords Supper is biblically sound and the way I believe Christ intended it. It is the most spiritually nourishing service and sacrament of any Christian church, another reason Idecided to become a Presbyterian. the Episcapal and Luthern service was too much like the roman catholic mass.

    I now believe the Reformed Faith and doctrines of the Presbyterian Protestant fold to be the most solidly Biblical. I also believe calvine anf the Reformed theology explain salvation history and covenants better than any other method of theology.It was all very logical and really simple.

    As a Roman Catholic I always thought it was the Protestant fold that strayed, I now see that the Roman church strayed. I believe I am born again in the Gospel of Christ. I believe I am a better Christian. I now stand for the truth of salvation by faith alone, through free and sovereign grace alone, by the finished work of Christ alone. I Believe Rome is wrong in not accepting the doctrine.

    To me being a Protestant has no political meaning. I believe a Protestant is one who believes in the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation i.e. the authority of the Bible alone in all matters of faith and practice and that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

    I continued to study the Protestant Reformation with fervor and I became convinced and a believer in the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. When I accepted the authority of the Bible alone in all matters of faith and realized that salvation is by grace alone could no longer say I was a Roman Catholic or an Episcopalian. I renounced also the ecclesiastical authorities of both churches. I renounced the authority of the Bishop of Rome as Christ’s head of his church on earth. I fully understood that only Christ heads his church. When I renounced the Ecclesiastical structure, I searched and found Calvin, Knox and the Presbyterian denomination. I knew I was a Protestant but not yet a Presbyterian. I wanted to find a Protestant denomination that I believed had the purest form of the Gospel.

    It was in that search I became a Presbyterian in faith not only a Protestant.When I began studying John Calvin and the Reformed theology I experienced as what Calvin called of his own conversion “a true Protestant Conversion”

    I found and I also now firmly believe that the reformers and the Protestant Reformation, particularly John Calvin and the Reformed Theology returned the church to its true foundation. They rescued the Gospel from the pagan corruption of “papist traditions and heresies.” I became a Reformed Presbyterian Protestant in February 2007. I am no longer a roman catholic because I believe the reformed Protestant faith is the church that was intended by Christ. It is why I am thankful I am now a Reformed Presbyterian Protestant. I think God has led me to become a Protestant and Presbyterian. What started as a study on the Protestant Reformation has led to a conversion to Protestantism for me.

    As a Presbyterian calvinist Protestant

    I believe in One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and I confess anew the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, and acknowledge Him Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body.

    I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God; they are the only infallible rule of faith and practice

    I sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures and I submit to the teachings of the Presbyterian Protestant tenets and doctrine.

    I believe the Bible as the word of God and the only and final authority and path to salvation I submit in discipline to the doctrines of John Calvin and the teachings of the Presbyterian Church in doctrine and life.

    I believe it is Christ alone who is salvation to our souls, not the Church of Rome or the Pope”

    I believe I was fortunate to be elected by the grace of God to the truth and the true faith “The Reformed Protestant faith.”

    In grace,
    Dudley

  9. dudley davis wrote
    at 11:14 pm - 29th November 2008 Permalink

    I meant to also add to the above that the reason I became a Presbyterian is because I became of the belief as did John Calvin that the roman ‘sacrifice of the mass was an insult to Christ finished act of redemption on Calvary. I renounced the mass and the roman teaching on sacraments and also renounced the idea that the bread and wine were transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus. I believe that they remain bread and wine and the Lords Supper is a remembrance of his saving act for us. I did not become a Baptist because they see it as an ordinance, only symbolic, I believe like Calvin that Christ becomes present in the celebration to us as a mystery but I renounce the roman catholic teaching of “how’ that they call transubstantiation. However after the service the elements remain bread and wine. I became a Presbyterian because we a re mainline Protestant and reject the mass, the sacramental system and its ecclesiastical form of Government. It is more Protestant than Lutherans and Anglicans whose liturgy and structure is more like roman catholicism. I wanted a denomination that was totally and authentically Protestant.

    In grace,
    Dudley

  10. Steve wrote
    at 11:03 pm - 9th December 2008 Permalink

    Early on in my Christian walk, I discovered a book by Kenneth Boa entitled “God I don’t Understand” that talks about the mysteries (Ken introduces the concept of “antinomies”) of the Triune God.

    Here is an example touching on the topic of this blog entry:http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=4040

  11. Victor wrote
    at 5:39 pm - 25th December 2008 Permalink

    What I find obnoxious, is the way such ungraceful behavior is manifested. Its not simply that that some of these Calvinists get argumentative and regard any disagreement as an error. What really gets me its that any disagreemet, however small or trivial, is regarded as a “Heresy”. So if you disagree about them you are a heretic. Whats really nutty about this tendency is that its often mixed with appeals to the Council of Dort, as if it had authority over all Christendom. For the record, the Council of Dort was not an eucomenical council.

  12. Enepeowenly wrote
    at 1:06 am - 31st January 2009 Permalink

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