This post could just have easily been titled, “Confessions of a Reformed Doctrinal Addict.” My addiction started young. As a child, I would listen to tapes by R.C. Sproul. When I was 19, I began reading Jonathan Edwards. The height of my addiction occurred in college when I consciously committed myself to the truths of reformed theology and I became a Calvinist. I loved hanging around people who I thought knew their stuff…and they did, I’m not down playing them at all. I would buy books, I would attend seminars, I would try and rub shoulders with great Christian people; because I wanted to know as much as I could. I wanted my doctrine right, my thoughts right. I wanted my thinking right. I wanted my head to be in the right place.
So great was the zeal that drove my addiction to know the truth and to be the defender of the truth that I fell into what I have come to realize is a little known mental disorder called “Calvin Fever.”
“Calvin Fever” is a disease wherein one’s Calvinism manifests itself by judging everyone else based on how well you judge they understand and articulate the tenants of Reformed Theology: the sovereignty of God, total depravity, limited atonement, predestination, etc. You start to believe that “Christian” is synonymous with “Calvinist,” and therefore to depart from Calvinism is to depart from Christ and Christianity. It fools the effected person into believing that this judgmental and prideful attitude is actually godly and righteous zeal. For example, when you are reviled for hurting people’s feelings or making them feel stupid, or that they are not as holy as you, you rejoice because you are suffering for Christ. Have any of you ever met someone with Calvin Fever? It is not in the DSM V but I am on a committee that is working to remedy that!
I finally owned up to my affliction when my wife led an intervention my behalf. Some of our close friends at the time were Ralph and Sherry Fraser. He is now senior pastor of a Nazarene Church outside of Baltimore. I first met my then mullet-ridden friend back in 1989 at Oceanwood Camp in Ocean Park, ME where we were both serving as camp counselors. (That was also the year by the way, I met my wife Mandi—thank you Jesus!).
Needless to say, Ralph did not share my Reformed views. He had no problem standing for his own beliefs and chilling my own. He would send me things like a cartoon of John Calvin mixing chemicals in a lab with a caption that read, “John Calvin invents predestination.” This only served to increase my attacks on his “unbiblical and semi-pelagian-arminian” beliefs.
Our relationship was (unbenounced to me) becoming threatened by my misplaced zeal. I learned that I was letting my doctrine and love for my doctrine overshadow my love for my brother Ralph. And I almost our friendship over it, that’s how bad it got. My relationship with him was not turning out to be an example of Christian love, it was turning out to be a show of whose doctrine was better, and that is not biblical. What I thought was standing for the truth and suffering for Christ for the love of my brother was really more about proving I was right than being loving.
I had replaced Jesus with doctrine. Big mistake. Fortunately, Jesus opened my eyes to the fact that Christianity involves both truth and grace, both head and heart; it is both rational and relational. I was so focused on the head part that I wasn’t concerned with the heart part. To put it another way, I was pursuing truth at the expense of love and grace; and in doing that I ended up not really having either. Understanding this is crucial to understanding what Christianity is.
Case in point: Matthew 22:34-40 (NIV).
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Rabbinic teaching and debating focused around asking and answering questions. When the Sadducees and Pharisees asked Jesus questions, they were not treating Jesus poorly, they were engaging Him in formal debate. Any traveling rabbi (and traveling rabbis were not uncommon) who came to town would have been treated the same. In fact, Jesus engaged the Pharisees in the same manner in just one chapter earlier in Matthew 22:41-46 (NIV),
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”‘ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”
No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
This question in particular—what is the most important commandment—was a standard way of discerning where a rabbi stood theologically and to what quality of rabbi he was. If Jesus did not know the answer, it would have been very easy for the Pharisees to discredit Him. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 respectively,
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In the parallel passage of Mark 12:32-34 the Pharisee who asked the question acknowledges that Jesus answered correctly.
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
So the most important doctrine to know, the objective truth, the proposition that needed to be known more than any other is Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And the second is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. And what do these truths teach? They teach that the most important thing is that we be in a loving community: community with God and with one another. The truth directs us into relationship, first with God, and then with one another.
To understand the law, one must understand that it is relational. To know the law means both correctly interpreting it, and correctly living it out in our relationships.
Christianity is both rational and relational. Christianity involves truth, it involves reason, but this truth finds its ultimate expression not in a creed or doctrinal statement, but in relationship. If there is anything that can mess up biblical community it is in not understanding this truth.
Jesus’ taught that people with the right doctrine would be recognized by their life producing the right fruit in relationship.
Matthew 12:33-37 (NIV) Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
John 15:2-4 (NIV) He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
The fruit that Jesus is talking about in these passages is not doctrine; it is the living out of doctrine in relationship with one another.
Jesus’ chief criticism of the Pharisees was not their doctrine, but on their failure to correctly live out their doctrine in relationship.
Matthew 23:1-4 (NIV) Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
What He goes on to say in the seven woes is that their relationships: both professional and personal, did not match up with their teaching. Jesus is saying, “Beware of orthodoxy that does not lead to orthopraxy.” Jesus was saying that the kind of community the Pharisees were cultivating made it clear that they were not pleasing God. Knowing the doctrine is not the goal. Living it is. You can’t practice it without knowing it, but you can know it without practicing it.
Why did Jesus say that the Pharisee who asked him what is the most important commandment was, was not far from the kingdom of God? He knew the right answer but he was still not there. He was on the right track but he was still not in the kingdom. Knowledge is necessary but it is not everything.
Perhaps Jesus’ strongest statements of this truth are in Matthew 7:21-23 and 25:41-46. In Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV) Jesus says,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Having the gift of prophecy, being able to drive out demons, and performing miracles are wonderful things, but they are not the things that prove we are in the kingdom of God. Then in Matthew 25:41-46 (NLT) where He is telling the parable of the sheep and the goats He says,
“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me.
I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
What separates the righteous from the wicked was living a life that showed you not only understood the Law, but you lived it and produced the fruits of generosity, mercy, and compassion. To know and not to do is not to know. If our doctrine does not lead to practice, the doctrine counts for nothing. Christianity is both rational and relational. It is a way of thinking that leads into a way of life. The proof of the saving power and presence of the Spirit is not in the doctrine but in the life together of those who believe it.
Do the relationships we are cultivating in our homes, our communities, and in our churches incarnate the doctrine we are teaching? Jesus’ parting command to His disciples, was that His disciples show their discipleship by continuing the community He had created with them and passing on that community to their disciples after them and teaching them to do the same (John 13:34-35, NIV),
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
The world would recognize them as His disciples because of their love for one another, because of the community that they had together, because of their life together. Our witness is our life together.
James took this and ran with it in James 1:22-25 (NIV) he says,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.
And in the next chapter he says in James 2:18-19 (NIV),
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Let us not fall into the trap of thinking that our doctrine is what our hopes are to be placed in. We are not saved by our doctrine but by Jesus. To such people Jesus says,
John 5:39-40 (NIV) You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
The Christian life is living in community with the Father and the Spirit through faith in the Son. The proof that we have this community with God is in the incarnating of that relationship in our life together as the Body of Christ. This is the end goal of all the teaching of the Scriptures. This is the work that we have been given, this is the work that Jesus commissioned us to do: to create and cultivate a community that visibly displays the love of God for us, and our love for Him in how we live a life of love together.
Wow Dan, well done indeed.
Now, while not what I would call a full blown Calvinist by any stretch, I do tend to lean that way over all, with some very substantial deviations on some issues. However, these issues simply don’t matter.
What you have said is so very true, and I see it in the work that I am part of. We have a 21 point Doctrinal Statement, and I am on board with every single one of them. No problem. If I had issues, I would go elsewhere
But, there are some in our work who have, in fact, made these doctrinal points the center or our belief, to the point of casting aspersions on other people who believe differently and the status of their relationship with Jesus.
As in…yes of course salvation is by grace through faith, but don’t screw up the rest of these theological points, or your faith might not be “proper” faith.
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Thanks Wally. The best way I have learned to express my angst is that while I am for Reformed theology, I am very against the mainstream “culture of Calvinism” that is so focused on truth that grace is left in the dust.
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I like that, Dan. well said
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