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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Who is the "Real" Calvinist?

There is a resurgence of Calvinism among American evangelicals. Al Mohler, President of the flagship Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, John MacArthur, President of the Master's Seminary in Southern California, John Piper, Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis are some of the leaders of this "neo-Calvinism" (see "Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church," Christianity Today [September 2006]). (The movement even has T-shirts, see on the right).

Many of these folks are proud to identify themselves as Calvinists but are they "true" Calvinists? Would John Calvin have accepted them? Listen to Richard Muller, Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids:

I once met a minister who introduced himself to me as a "five-point Calvinist." I later learned that, in addition to being a self-confessed five-point Calvinist, he was also an anti-paedobaptist who assumed that the church was a voluntary association of adult believers, that the sacraments were not means of grace but were merely "ordinances" of the church, that there was more than one covenant offering salvation in the time between the Fall and the eschaton, and that the church could expect a thousand-year reign on earth after Christ's Second Coming but before the ultimate end of the world. He recognized no creeds or confessions of the church as binding in any way. I also found out that he regularly preached the "five points" in such a way as to indicate the difficulty of finding assurance of salvation: He often taught his congregation that they had to examine their repentance continually in order to determine whether they had exerted themselves enough in renouncing the world and in "accepting" Christ. This view of Christian life was totally in accord with his conception of the church as a visible, voluntary association of "born again" adults who had "a personal relationship with Jesus."

In retrospect, I recognize that I should not have been terribly surprised at the doctrinal context or at the practical application of the famous five points by this minister — although at the time I was astonished. After all, here was a person, proud to be a five-point Calvinist, whose doctrines would have been repudiated by Calvin. In fact, his doctrines would have gotten him tossed out of Geneva had he arrived there with his brand of "Calvinism" at any time during the late sixteenth or the seventeenth century. Perhaps more to the point, his beliefs stood outside of the theological limits presented by the great confessions of the Reformed churches—whether the Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformed church or the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches or the Westminster standards of the Presbyterian churches. He was, in short, an American evangelical
("How Many Points," Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993): 425-26).

I find it humorous that some Christians fight over "who is the real Calvinist" as if that was somehow a badge of honor. Personally, I find Calvin's theology to be demeaning to God (assuming for a moment that he really does exist). Calvin's God created the world in order to save a chosen few and damn the rest to hell for eternity. Why? Because it brings him glory (Romans 9:22-23) !  Roger Olson, Professor of Theology in the George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University says: "The God of Calvinism scares me; I'm not sure how to distinguish him from the devil." Thomas Jefferson said:
I can never join Calvin in addressing his god... his religion was Dæmonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a dæmon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin (Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
Most Calvinists that I have encountered are haughty and arrogant (see Tribalogue and Pyromaniacs). They and they alone have the truth and every other poor soul, including the majority of historical Christianity, is deluded.


  1. I found Calvinism to be the "thinking man's religion". Compared to my Independent Baptist days it was a huge upgrade intellectually. Many of the Reformed Baptists I met were former Independent or Southern Baptists.. While they embraced Calvinism they usually held on to their fundamentalism to some degree or another.

    Several years before I left the ministry I pondered for a good while the "god" of Calvin. I came to the conclusion I could not serve nor preach that God. I still think the OT God is best represented by Calvinist theology. Of course, now it doesn't matter because I don't think there is any God at all.

    You are right about Tribalogue and Pyromaniacs. Used to be part of the club.

    Question? DO you think Calvin subscribed to limited atonement to the degree that many Calvinists now do? There was always a lot of internal debate about whether or not Calvin would have made a "good Calvinist" today.



  2. My thoughts are along the same lines. I came from IFB in NC to Calvinism in PA. Wow! Talk about a whole new world. I, also, perceived it to be much more intellectual. It's appealing in that way.

    It's also appealing if you are a worrier, which I definitely tend to be. With Calvinism, I could finally stop worrying whether I was saved or unsaved. I could relax and know that it's all up to God. He can handle it. That part was very appealing. And made a lot of sense. I could rest, knowing that I was of the elect and so were my children. Well, that lasted for awhile. Now I'm agnostic and so are most of my children.

    But in spite of these appealing parts, there were also the horrible parts. I noticed those at the beginning and came back around to them at the end. Like Bruce, I could not respect and accept the God of the Calvinists. He's too awful. No compassion for us limited, vulnerable human beings.

    I agree also that the Calvinists do think they are pretty darn smart, and the rest of Christianity and all the world just don't get it. At least that's the attitude of some.

    So looking back at Christianity from the outside now, the Calvinists have this awful secret, and the Arminians seem nicer, in that at least their God loves everybody. I think the Calvinists are more in line with the Bible definitely.

    So you've got "right, but mean" and "nice, but incorrect."

  3. I have had several run-ins with the "reformed" on forums and blogs. It has gotten very easy to recognize their particular faith even before doctrine is discussed simply by observing their attitude toward other believers. The vast majority that I have encountered are just plain mean. Obviously evangelism is not high on their priorities list.

    "To know a person's religion we need not listen to his profession of faith but must find his brand of intolerance."
    ~ Eric Hoffer

  4. Besides the relationship with "historical Christianity" it's doubly anachronistic to say Calvin's god is the god of the Hebrew bible. That assumes, among other things that there is only one concept of god represented there. Being under the influence of a Calvinist perspective (or any other) will determine what you see in the bible and in the world at large. Einstein captured that with "It is the theory that decides what can be observed." Speaking of Calvinists and "perception" ... there's a study that used Calvinists and atheists to examine the relationship between religion and actual visual processing, available on Plosone. It seems intuitive enough that religion provides you with a "worldview" in an abstract sense but there's evidence that it effects much more concrete levels of perception than that.

  5. It seems obvious to me that many pick a particular brand of faith because it fits the personalities that they were born with. In the case of Calvinists, at least the ones that blog, they were just born, um, jerks, and they were going to be jerks, regardless of what the Bible does or does not say. They are happy to embrace a belief system that provides "divine" cover for the expression of their ass-holy-ness. You see, it's not that they want to be nasty and arrogant people, it's just that Baby Jesus says that they must be nasty and arrogant, and so they are justified in being nasty and arrogant. This would seem to be at odds with what I understand about Christianity, but what do I know? I'm just grateful that I live in a day and age when burning at the stake is considered to be in bad taste, because I have no doubt that under different cicumstances, the children at Pyro, et al., would be fighting their way to the head of the line to light the fires.