Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why I care about Calvinism

A week or two ago, I mentioned a post I was working on to my friend James, about a particular aspect of Calvinism (haven't published it yet). He didn't comment on the subject of the post itself: instead, he just said, "Very few people are so fixed on one topic as you are on Calvinism."

I paused for a second, then told him that I thought I had actually been restraining myself. It had been a while since publishing a post that even mentions it: The last one was in July (nearly two months ago). But it's true: Calvinism is often on my mind. So after that, I told James a story about WHY it's so important to me. 

I had a friend (who will be referred to as "they", to preserve their anonymity). And while we didn't talk much at first, this friend began messaging me over Facebook one semester. We would have long discussions, most often on theology and their personal struggles. They'd been exposed to Calvinism and embraced it, and in my opinion, it was killing them. 

I had already believed that Calvinism was wrong. But through those conversations, I became convinced that it was dangerous: That it was a spiritual poison that could kill and maim. (Please note that I'm not saying that individual Calvinists are poisonous, or even unChristian: See this post on how Calvinists are better than their theology.)

Calvinists believe that God chose specific people before the foundation of the world to save them, and that God chose everyone else before the foundation of the world to damn them (and Calvin himself says that those who attempt to do away with the second part "do so ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation” (Institutes, 3.23.1). So we have the Elect and the Reprobate. 

Now, my friend was addicted to something. And every time they succumbed to that addiction, they grew a little more worried that they weren't Elect at all. They began to be worried that they were Reprobate, that they were damned from all eternity to sin and sin again, to be helpless before the sin until they once again grew to love the sin and revel in it. After all, where was the Irresistible Grace? Why, when they looked for grace, did they instead find that it was SIN that seemed so irresistible? Was this the experience of an Elect individual? Or that of a Reprobate?

It broke my heart. And it happened again and again. My friend didn't doubt whether they were saved...they began to wonder whether they could EVER be saved, whether the possibility was even real. 

And according to Calvinism, there was no comfort I could give them. If I was a consistent Calvinist, all I could have done would be to agree with them that they definitely MIGHT be reprobate, and that there was nothing they could do about it. 

In the face of their questioning, all I could have done is to say with Calvin, "All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation" (3.21.5). I could have told them that there was definitely some merit to their concern, and that they might be preordained to eternal damnation. Better cross your fingers and hope for the best!

In the face of their sinning, all I could have told them is, "As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will" (1.17.1). That is, all I could have told them was God was not only allowing them to fall into sin, BUT WAS ACTUALLY MAKING IT HAPPEN.

In the face of their religious feeling, and their apparent desire to not sin, I could have told them that MIGHT be evidence of their election...but to be completely honest with them, I would have also been forced to tell them that "Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected by almost the same feeling as the elect. so that even in their own judgment they do not in any way differ from the Elect... because the Lord, to render them more convicted and inexcusable, steals into their minds to the extent that his goodness may be tasted without the Spirit of Adoption" (3.2.11). 

In other words, I would have been forced to tell my friend that even when they were convinced that they were Elect, it could have been Jesus just messing with their head so he could damn them even further. And furthermore, to be completely honest with them, I would have had to tell them that this could happen at any time...that even if they recovered, on any given day they might wake up to find that the goodness of the Lord had been taken from them, and that Jesus had been playing a trick on them all along. 

(If that didn't make you throw up in your mouth a little, I don't know what to tell you.)

Obviously, I am not now, and was not then, Calvinist. So I wasn't limited like that. I could tell them that God didn't want them to sin (in ANY sense of the words "want", "ordain", "design," or any other words that Calvinists use to weasel out of it), and hadn't set up the universe in such a way as to make it unavoidable. I could tell them that God definitely had not damned them before the foundation of the world. And I could tell them that salvation was even then within their grasp, that God was ready and willing to help. 

They got better, and I thank God for it. But that convinced me that Calvinism is dangerous. 

Being a consistent Calvinist - one who actually followed Calvin's teachings - would have required me to tell my friend that it was a distinct possibility that God sincerely, genuinely desired to damn them in particular; that God could be irresistibly acting to bring that damnation about; that God would derive pleasure from that eternal damnation; and that he would be doing it for his glory. That was the good news that I could have offered my friend in their addiction and trials. And I'm scared of what might have happened if I had offered them that gospel.

For related posts, check out "Is All Well?" and "Calvinism, God's Goodness, and Alternate Interpretations."


  1. I have never been a Calvinist, and I definitely share your concern. I believe it is the flip side that is equally - or more damaging. Those who either have seared consciences (like some leaders I won't name) and think they really don't sin much if at all, or those who at least aren't tempted particularly to engage in certain unpopular and visible sins (such as addictions or sex), are then able to consider themselves "elect," unlike all those other bad people. I think this is why so many (but not all, as you pointed out) Calvinists are self righteous and legalistic.

    The reason I think this result is even worse than the awful one you discuss is that I believe that people like your friend are, like the penitent thief or the sinner in the parable, closer to the Kingdom. Those who find Calvinism to be of comfort to them because it confirms them in their state of goodness seem to me more of the "thank God I am not like other men" status.

    1. As much as I despise Calvinism, I don't think that would be a fair critique of Calvinism as an idelology, simply because the main premise - that the grace is undeserved - SHOULD ward against it. That is, if they ARE consistent Calvinists, then they will not be proud, because consistent Calvinism condemns pride (although again, individuals may fall short of that). Your example is Calvinism WRONGLY applied: That is, applied without regard for the rules that Calvinism itself sets up.

      However, in my situation, it would have been consistent, solid, Calvinist doctrine from the mouth of Calvin himself which would have destroyed my friend and taken hope away.

    2. I suppose my approach would have an analogy to the birth control effectiveness debates. Your argument is really a "if used correctly" failure rate. I agree, Calvinism, even when used correctly would hurt people like your friend.

      The reason that I make the argument that I do about Calvinism is that I believe when evaluating doctrine, as with birth control methods, one must not just look at "when used correctly" but also "as typically used." If there is a high failure rate in real life, then perhaps the method or doctrine is flawed. In my experience, Calvinism does not - in typical use - lead to either humility or compassion, but rather to an "us versus them" mentality, pride, and dismissal of anyone who disagrees. Does this apply to every Calvinist I know? No. But it does to a disconcertingly high number. Perhaps more telling, I cannot bring to mind a single leader in the neo-Calvinist movement that I could honestly call humble or compassionate. So, in "typical use," it appears to have a damaging effect. Or, as someone once said, "By their fruits you shall know them."

    3. Yes, that's it exactly. In fact, I've SEEN articles BY Calvinists talking about exactly the phenomenon. But I'm not interested in showing that Calvinism is harmful if used incorrectly (after all, even Calvinists will agree to that!): I want to demonstrate how harmful it is even when used "properly".

  2. When I was a Calvinist, I became less and less concerned about my sin. After all, if God meticulous decrees every event, then that includes my sin. I began to think that God was not really that concerned about my sin -- that He sort of winked at it, since Jesus already died for it, and since I was one of the unconditionally elect anyway -- nothing could ever separate me from that position.

    Not until I rejected Calvinism did I realize, among other things, that God takes sin very seriously. Arminius says that God detests the sins of the elect. I wish I had read Arminius before I read Piper, Sproul, and Calvin.

    Great post!

    1. I'm wondering if living a godly life as a Calvinist requires a certain kind of cognitive dissonance. That is, your theology states that every time you sin, it was predestined by God to happen, presumably to give him glory in some way...but at the same time, you have to act as though God DIDN'T predestine you to sin, and you have to strive not to in the future (even though the sin itself, your reaction to the sin itself, and any future sins, were all irresistibly predestined in advance).

      Calvinism, in fact, takes the good works of Ephesians 2:10, prepared beforehand that we might walk in them, and adds in "And the bad works, too!"

      Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.