Monday, November 26, 2007

Calvinism, Arminianism, pots and kettles.

The blog entry here identifies John Piper as a "hyper-Calvinist" and in the combox, one poster writes:"I am a little amazed that this Calvinist-Armenian thing is still such a big deal..."

Perhaps these are perfect examples of why Calvinists are so zealous for what they believe.

When I "converted" to the Reformed faith, it was from a sloppy evangelicalism that taught me that all I needed to conquer sin was to pull myself up by my bootstraps.

I'd never once heard a sermon on justification, but I'd heard more than I could count on the "How tos": how to have a good marriage, how to have a better life, etc. Never did I hear the term "predestination" even uttered in any context. No one ever bothered to explain to me that the faith I held had any connection to the historical church. As a result I was powerless to overcome my personal sins, unable to keep the 10 Commandments much less the other 268 how-tos... and had no idea where to turn.

It wasn't until one Bible study teacher bothered to actually read through and explain the book of Romans (the WHOLE BOOK! IMAGINE THAT!) that the ramifications of God's Word, History and God's Sovereignty began to make sense. No longer was I left to my own devices to try harder, believe harder, etc, but I was finally aware that I was saved for a purpose, saved by a perfect Savior who actually got what He desired, and saved from the wrath of God and not some equally powerful devil character. This knowledge has had a profound impact on my life and has caused me to be ever more zealous to read God's Word, preach the Gospel and, yes... talk about the doctrines of grace.

While I initially imagined that the label "Calvinist" or "Reformed" placed me into a unified group that had all the answers, I soon came to realize that the terms were headings for one set of primary beliefs, the adherents of which may have any number of secondary and tertiary differences on such things as infant baptism, 6-day creation, Sabbatarian celebration and others.
What also surprised me was the vehement antagonism of those who did not hold to the Reformed distinctive (namely the doctrines of grace). The very mention of "predestination" set many a non-Reformed person on a diatribe against "errors of Calvinism", more often than not based on complete charactictures of what Calvinists actually believed. The more often I encountered such people the more jaded toward general evangelicalism and evangelicals I became.

Yes, I became a cage-stage Calvinist. The odd fellow, Imonk accurately identifies cage-stage as:
A lot of new and ignorant Calvinists need to...well, shut up. I know that isn't the politest phrase in the book, but it is the truth. Most of the damage done in these matters is done by people who are in what Calvinists call the "cage phase," those inaugural few months when you know very little except some version of TULIP and you won't be quiet about that. These are people who need to get a very large stack of books and get some roots going, but instead they go and pick a fight with whoever is least likely to understand what they are talking about. These converts- often impressionable students or very unread laity- can be obnoxious, immature and thoughtless in their assaults. They've done a lot of damage and there is no apologizing for them. I would say they should be recognized for what they are- untaught, ignorant, and often, young. Most them will grow out of it. A few remain that way until their next phase.

I like to think that I was only "cage-stage" for a short while... but the reality is that I argued obnoxiously with many folks including several acrimonious discussions with my charismatic parents. It took some time to recognize that the doctrines of grace are not only definitional of some Biblical concepts, but actually are true. What I mean is this... one could summary the anthropological content of the doctrines of grace thusly: man is unable to believe the truth unless God causes him to.

What this means for the cage-stage Calvinist is that when they argue obnoxiously and offensively, they're actually doing so in opposition to what they believe! While it is true that the Gospel is offensive to those who are perishing, the message should be the offense, not the messenger and this is often not the case and those who are in this 'stage' need to be counseled by their fellow believers on humility and the nature of the grace that saved them.

All that said, there remains a Biblical warrant for energetic, even aggressive debate, discussion and defense of Biblical truths. Thus when a Calvinist reads the words of people who improperly attribute "hyper-Calvinism" to the likes of John Piper, or misspell Arminian as Armenian (not even close folks), we recognize that the individuals writing in opposition to Calvinists, the doctrines of grace and the Reformed faith in general do so out of ignorance. There is a righteous indignation that arises when one "talks out of their rear", pardon the image. It is akin to the attitude a doctor should have when they hear a layman trying to give goofy medical advice to the dying.

Calvinists believe that the doctrines of grace are part-and-parcel of the Gospel. No we do not believe that every Christian needs to have a complete theological understanding of the nature of justification to be saved, however, we do believe that the truths about the nature of God, man and sin are of the utmost importance and certainly worth fighting over. For it is historical fact that when such distinctives are considered tertiary issues the very fabric of the Gospel is lost.

Without a proper understanding of the nature of fallen man, preaching the Gospel becomes a matter of appealing to the "free will" of sinful men and their "felt needs". Such a view leads directly to the abuses seen in tele-evangelism, Purpose Driven Life-type drivel and the ever popular "Your Best Life Now" kind of trash.

Without a proper understanding of election, much of Scripture becomes a contradictory mishmash of incoherent thought full of supposed "paradoxes". This leaves a convert's new faith open to attack by cults, and other religions. It also leaves room for the individual to view their works as meritorious, redefining grace as merely helpful not essential.

Without a proper understanding of the atonement, its Scriptural basis in God's judicial system and the realities of its saving properties to all for whom it was made for, the nature of sin and its deadly realities can be lost, with universalism being the result. There is truly no consistent theological position between universal atonement and universalism.

Without a proper understanding of grace, one's coming to Christ is left to the individual's ability to understand or reason, again leading to a "sloppy agape" which attempts to woo unbelievers with unBiblical reasoning and methods.

Without a proper understanding of the Christian's perseverance in Christ by grace one could easily fall into legalistic works-salvation efforts or even antinomian "free grace" debauchery.

It should therefore be apparent why Calvinists feel so strongly about the doctrines of grace. They express in shorthand a whole Biblical framework of understanding what John calls "sin and righteousness and judgment", that which Christ came to convict the world of.

Let it be noted, however, that most Calvinists aren't really in this for the argument's sake, rather, we're hoping to provide the same relief we've found to the many questions left unanswered by typical evangelicalism, we want to get beyond the neo-legalism of the "How to" type sermonettes, and we hope that others might become as intrested in God's Word and the history of God's people as we are that they might realize the fantastic plan of God in saving for Himself a people destined to reign in eternity with His Son. We desperately want those who reject the doctrines of grace to engage with us in discussion and debate honestly and with humility. However, more often than not, the kind of response we get are the kinds of canned spin seen from the likes of Dave Hunt, Ergun Caner and Norman Geisler.

In fact, while those who reject the Reformed beliefs clamor about the angry ardor of Calvinists, we generally find dishonesty, guile and downright unloving conduct on the part of non-Calvinists. When we plead with non-Calvinists to discuss the issues in a moderated open fashion, the non-Calvinists engage in deception and trickery to avoid debate and even dealing with the issues at all. On the whole I have found the attitude of non-Calvinists, both online and in churches to be downright sinful in response to our requests for discussion. I've seen non-Calvinist elders lie to avoid direct confrontation and members encourage rebellion in churches that had begun to teach Reformed distinctives.

So drop the "Calvinists are mean, nasty and out to get us" kind of recycled-potted-meat and let's get down to discussing what we really believe. Leave the rhetoric and vitriol at home, and humbly submit your concerns about Calvinism to the Calvinists and pray that God reveal His truth, through His word, to both parties. But be prepared to back up what you say with sound reasoning and the Word of God.

Philippians 1:7
For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.

1 Peter 3:15
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;


  1. Bravo for a sensible reply.

    To add to your thoughts, I would estimate that the situation of the "cage-stage" Calvinist is derived from HOW the individual LEARNED of reformed ideas. By and large, it seems to me the system of mentorship, of leading and following, and of authority and submission, is a fading thing of the past.

    Had many of these cage-stagers learned of these truths by example, and seen the effect of such truths of God on the lives of Godly men, then I doubt we would have an age in the church defined by brash arguments.

    But alas the whole of most of my generation is looking to the ever growing supply of the information age in which we live, being trained on theological matters by the internet and books or at best distance teachers, leaving apart from our knowledge the example of Holiness that it should induce.

    Reflecting on Christ's commission to the apostles, it was not simply to inform others of Him or to create hundreds of Christian blogs, but to "create disciples."

    At the same time, understanding this creates an opportunity to feel abandoned or sold out by the prior generation -- a feeling that only comes from bitterness and self-centeredness. May we all pray that God would take the head knowledge that we understand about the Bible, and have it fall straight down, and ping heavily in the bottom of our hearts that our lives would be changed by it and that we would lead up the generation that follows us in the nurture and admonition of Him by both word and deed.

  2. T. Stone,

    Wow... I believe you're 100% correct here.