Peg me as “Reformed” if you must, but please don’t call me a “Calvinist.”


Jonathan Edwards, that great (or terrible) Puritan divine who was such a leading figure in eighteenth century New England and I have two things in common: We both readily admit that our theological bent is decidedly of the Reformed variety. Those pesky “five points of Calvinism”—Edwards and I agree with them all. The second thing Edwards and I have in common is that neither of us like being called a “Calvinist.”

Edwards did not like being labeled a “Calvinist” because he really did not see himself as a follower of Calvin. In fact, Calvin is rarely quoted or cited in Edwards’ writings. The fact is, the Puritans were more into the post-Reformation theologians like William Ames, Francis Turretin, and Peter van Mastricht. Calvin was an important figure to be sure, but to them he was not the end-all-be-all-theological-titan that today’s Calvinists see him as. Calvin was a spiritual father, but not someone who you needed to agree with all the time.

As for myself, I have been growing more and more discontent with Calvinists and Calvinism. Not with the theology mind you, but with the “ists” and the “ism” of it. There is a general culture and atmosphere in Calvinist circles, the air of which smells of something other than heaven.

I am not the only one who smells something funny either. Check out this post at Credo House. I readily identify with what he says.

I used to attend a major yearly conference in the North East where today’s heavy hitters in Calvinist circles were the main attractions: R.C. Sproul, Al Mohler, Michael Horton, and the like. As much as I wanted to hear what these theologians had to say, by the time the conference was half way over, I was done with the fan base who by their conversation, questions, and debates, seemed more concerned about who was right and who was wrong than about loving one another.

In my experience, Calvinists have much to say about knowing your Bible, living right, holy, and pious lives, but say comparatively little said living justly and loving mercy. Calvinists love to talk a lot about how humbled they are to have been chosen as the recipients of God’s special saving grace. I have heard on more than one occasion a Calvinist say that Calvinists are the brain in the body of Christ. Call me crazy, but I though the “head” part was already taken, and that Jesus already had a brain. I’m with my Catholic buddy Fenélon who wisely said, “Beware of humble talk. The humility than can still talk needs to be carefully watched.”

While Calvinists tout the doctrines of grace, more often than not (and especially where they are in groups) they act as if those doctrines of grace had precious little influence in their relationships. The Achilles’ heel of today’s Calvinism is (ironically) its singular focus on truth. Jesus came from the Father full of grace and truth (John 1:14). The truth is, if we really want to incarnate Jesus’ truth, we will also incarnate His grace. If we are not incarnating His grace, you can be sure that we are not incarnating His truth either. That was the point the elder brother illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the lost son in Luke 15.

I will have the Reformed theology plate for diner, but hold the Calvinist sauce please. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

14 Comments

  1. I grew up in the SBC, I saw how Arminians and (old) Calvinists worshiped side-by-side with no quarrels – being a brother and sister in Christ was more important than their particular doctrinal persuasion. But with the Conservative Resurgence/Take-over (depending on your point of view), a new spirit was infused and created a New Calvinism – it’s far younger and far less gracious. It didn’t take long for it to insist on it’s interpretation of Scripture, on it’s understanding of the role of women in ministry, and on it’s authority on these matters as the gatekeepers of truth – only through them can there be true salvation. I saw only pride and arrogance fused with a false humility. These youths seemed to have fallen to the spirit of the Pharisee. They called their beliefs the Doctrines of Grace, but had no understanding what grace meant outside of what they were taught it meant. They would use one word and mean another word. In their zeal, the spirit of unity was broken, their way or the highway, as it were.
    I can see why you reject Neo-Calvinism, the Young, Reformed, and Restless Movement – you’re not the only one, some have even begun calling themselves Confessional – meaning just as much believing in TULIP, but not believing in the Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission or the Eternal Submission of the Son even though affirming that women are subordinate to men – just not based on the trinity. It worries me that Old Calvinists are older, they can’t act as a check and balance on their upstart youth, and don’t have any ability to reign them in. Old Calvinism might disappear altogether, leaving New Calvinism the only offering available on the Reformed ideology plate. It might be best to set it aside and focus on Christianity – no particular flavor, no emphasis on a teaching or teacher other than Christ alone and see what happens.

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    1. I agree. I have seen the same thing. But I do not think the old Calvinists who are currently in power are exempt from this. I suppose that depends on who you call old though. After all you teach what you know, but you reproduce what you are.

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      1. I guess it would be the difference between what Calvinism used to be and has now become – much of the same teachings are identical, but there’s a particular emphasis that has changed the spirit of it’s teachings. Maybe too much of a devotion to the personalities of it’s big-name teachers? R.C. Sproul and John Piper? I’d always wondered how different Christianity would be if instead of names, we knew our teachers by a number: “Did you listen to #491’s sermons last week?” “Yeah, but I found that #537’s was more detailed – it really challenged me to rethink my preconceived notions.” Problem is, name or number, they’d still have a cult of personality fandom about them.

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        1. That is a really interesting idea. A blind taste testing. RC Sprout and John Piper have been huge influences on me. But my own personal interaction and experience with him and how he has responded to people who differ from him really left me troubled. With Piper, I would say that his stance on complementarianism seems more driven by his theological presuppositions than Scripture. That is hardly a hill I would be prepared to die on. Add to that the reality that there is a lot of money involved here. That is true for all of Evangelicalism however. I know. But I think there is no less a drive to sell the brand than to teach the truth. Does that make sense?

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          1. It does. But I think that their group is particularly isolated. I was reading about one of their conferences, the various publishers for their books all showed up and sold them all sorts of new books by Sproul, Piper, Grudem, Mohler, and dozens of others in the same circle. They tend to keep to their own, study from their own teachers (that agree with them) and only interact with outsiders in so much as to prove that their teachings are the one true interpretation and outsiders don’t have the full truth as they know it. There’s a lot of money behind how they operate – but they aren’t open to perspectives or ideas outside of what their teachers teach them.

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  2. Wait a minute: everyone here believes the 5 points, but you’re criticizing Calvinists for criticizing non-Calvinists? That’s some kinda grace. Is it graceful to condemn all people who say they believe the 5 points because you found a few who don’t live it gracefully? If you’re saying it’s pandemic, a sweeping majority, I think you can provide us something a little more scientifically measured than anecdotal. If you’re saying the natural conclusion of Calvinistic beliefs is a haughty attitude, I’d be interested in hearing more detail about how that works.

    There’s a lot of distancing and rejection in this post. Can you tell us more of reconciliation?

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    1. I am pointing out that the culture of Calvinism is often judgmental, critical, and quite frankly prideful. You want an example? After J.I. Packer and Charles Colson signed the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document in 1995, R.C. Sproul, who was good friends with both of them and brought them in as speakers at his conferences, he wrote them off, never having them speak at his conferences again. The last I heard, he had not spoken to them again. That is the kind of stuff I am talking about. You may be interested in this post for a fuller idea of what I am talking about. https://danledwith.com/2016/09/10/rational-and-relational/

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      1. I agree that relationships are really important. What do you think saying “Calvinist culture smells” does for you, relationally?

        Gain some credibility with non-Calvinists, maybe wake up a few Calvinists to the reality of a rotten culture, and for the rest? It doesn’t come across as loving wisdom, full of grace -it comes across as the same truth without grace it decries, including the part where you’re right and you know it. Why is that a crime only in one case and not the other?

        I’ll keep thinking about what you mean by grace.

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        1. Grace does not ignore or excuse reality. Grace does not mean ignoring the things that are wrong. I am not trying to gain credibility with non-Calvinists. I am not looking to boost my readership. I am expressing my disappointment with an atmosphere that seems to replicate itself so easily in modern Calvinist circles. And yes, I think that atmosphere smells funny. It is not graceless to say that. It is being honest to say that. Grace is continuing to love people who dismiss out of hand that this is in fact a problem.

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  3. It’s not often I run into somebody else who is a fan of Fenolen! I like his reason very much.

    As for grace and truth, I totally agree. They must be linked together to complete the message. Separate them, and you’re on the wrong road.

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  4. I’m blessed to read this blog post. The “isms” in Christian circles just doesn’t help achieve what Jesus prayed for His disciples to exemplify: the unity that He desires for them to have.

    Looking forward for more blog post man! God keep you!

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