Return to Calvin: A Personal Reflection on how Calvinism has Lost its Way
By Douglas Estes

ZA Blog on July 15th, 2009. Tagged under .

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Douglas_Estes A knock came at my door.

Even though I was studying, I pulled my feet off my desk, jumped up from my chair and opened the door of the closet that was my seminary dorm room without any hesitation. After all, it was the middle of the day and I had dormmates who would soon be returning from classes looking to hang before dinner. Instead of friends, it was two big men—they were students but I didn’t really know them. They were dressed nicely but perspiring terribly in the Carolina spring heat.

"Are you a Calvinist?" one of the sweaty men asked without any salutation or introduction.

"No." Here we go, I thought.

"Can we share with you the five points of Calvinism?" asked the second one.

"No."

"But—look—as Spurgeon said there is ‘no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach Calvinism. Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else,’" declared the first fellow.

So there it was. If I don’t have Calvinism in my heart, I don’t have the gospel in there, either. Calvinists were gently rapping, rapping at my seminary door. Only my soul they wanted, and nothing more.

***

Most men lose their best friends to death, distance or women. I lost my best friend in seminary to Calvinism.

I met him when he was experiencing girl-problems on a magnitude I had not seen since my last girlfriend debacle (of which I had many). Our common grievances caused us to hit it off (and stick together) like peanut butter and jelly. We spent a lot of study periods and in-town dining experiences talking about so many different but vital life issues. I had friends outside of seminary, but he was a true comrade-in-arms.

One night I was riding into town with him to get some dinner after class, same as always—except that I didn’t really know the dam had burst on his relationship with his girlfriend. But I knew he was a bit upset. On the way home, to lighten the mood, I told him how I had been approached by some Calvinists who wanted to convert me.

"What a joke that was," I said as my friend was driving us back to seminary from the restaurant.

"Why is that a joke?" Somewhere in the back of my mind an alarm went off; this wasn’t a very friendly question, from someone who was always very friendly. And then it came: "I’m a Calvinist, you know."

Well, no, actually, I didn’t know, and in fact, I would never have guessed it based on his church background or personality. New conversion, perhaps?

"C’mon, dude, are you serious?" I asked him. "Do you really believe all that stuff?"

"Yes, I do," he said. "And you know what your problem is, Douglas? Your problem is that your view of God is just not as big as my view of God. You view God in a weaker and lesser way than me. That’s why I’m a Calvinist and you’re not."

I’d like to say that I took that comment in stride, that I was mature, but I didn’t and I wasn’t. I verbally lit him up like a Roman candle for demeaning (and presuming) my view of God. When we got back to seminary, he never spoke to me again, and even though I later apologized in a letter for flaming him, he has never spoken to me to this very day.

***

Calvinism has many problems. I once took an advanced graduate seminar on the thought and theology of Calvin; it was taught by a leading expert on Calvin. Knowing my concerns with Calvinism, he would often say that he ‘wondered whether Calvin would be a Calvinist if he were alive today.’ I don’t know. Sometimes I really hope not.

Calvinism—more so as a culture and an "ism" than a theology—has many problems. In many conversations I have had, it quickly ceases to be anything about glorifying God and becomes a do-or-die landmark (complete with secret password) for the faithful. Why can’t we encourage his theology (one that exhorts people to know God and see him glorified (Calvin’s Catechism of the Church of Geneva)), but reject the partisan fervor often accompanying Calvinist thought? When I read Calvin, I see a man who was terribly committed to God in a very orthodox way. I hear a great depth of desire to know God. But Calvin the man was flawed; he had several strong personality defects (as we all do). It seems to me that while many of Calvin’s followers read the Institutes, they take their cues from Calvin’s personality. They build their landmarks on Calvin’s weaknesses, not his strengths.

In an article in the July/August edition of Presbyterians Today, Christopher Elwood writes "Calvin rejected, on principle, the notion that any of us has the truth of God neatly wrapped up in her back pocket." In my experience, modern Calvinism is less about "always reformed and always reforming" and more about wrapping the truth of God into neat little packages. Yes—the same can be said for the other –isms that infect Christianity, but darn it, Calvin’s thought deserves better.

While I can hear the partisan sicarii sharpening their comments as I write, I have a hard time believing Calvin would be thrilled with the neatly-wrapped system that bears his namesake. I’m not a Calvinist, but it seems to me the answer to all this is for Calvinism to actually reform—the action not the slogan—by returning to Calvin. To move away from narrow point-posturing and return to the spirit of Calvin’s words.

You know what we can all agree with? The best thing about Calvinism is Calvin. Let’s get back to that.

SimChurch Douglas Estes is Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San José and Lead Pastor at Berryessa Valley Church, San José, California. He received his PhD in Theology from the University of Nottingham, UK. His publications include The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John (Brill, 2008) and the forthcoming, SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Douglas blogs at http://www.bvcblog.com

  • Shaun Tabatt 8 years ago

    Doug,

    Thanks for sharing the story above. That sounds like a painful way to lose a friend. I’ve seen similar scenarios play out amongst my peers during my early days in undergraduate & graduate school. We can sometimes be so polarized when we don our theological hats and take sides. The professor in your advanced seminar on Calvin posed a good question. I’ve often wondered whether Calvin or Luther would recognize the modern day movements bearing their names.

  • Louis 8 years ago

    Douglas, you say that you are not a Calvinist, but would you then describe yourself as an Arminian? Just curious.

  • Jason 8 years ago

    Douglas,

    Thanks for this post. I consider my theology to fall into the “Reformed” camp more than any other, but I weary of the continuous line-drawing that goes on between 5-pointers and those of different persuasions, effectively pigeon-holing Calvinists to the TULIP and Arminians into their theological nook. I think you’re spot-on here: “The best thing about Calvinism is Calvin. Let’s get back to that.” Thanks again for a great post.

  • JJ 8 years ago

    I agree, the best thing about Calvinism, is Calvin. What is the worst?

    I think the worst thing about popular reformed Calvinism is the destruction to scriptures. When EVERYTHING must be seen through 5 lenses, then the most significant of verses lose their significant. For example, take most of the parables of Christ. The first goal of 5 pointism is to determine who was SAVED, who wasn’t, and why. Strangely, it is always in accordance with their five points.

    The five points may be right, when properly understood… and not turned on their head…but the Bible is MORE than 5 points! Perhaps… just perhaps the Parable of the Sower is identifying something PRETTY important to believers…. Perhaps, there is a warning there (Not how to be SAVED, but how to respond to truth/the Kingdom/the Word) and without realizing that this parable has something to say to us (something besides, “these three aren’t saved, this one is”).

    From what I read of Calvin, this type of blind exegesis was exactly what he was deploring in the teaching of the Catholic church.

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @Shaun, I agree. I don’t think polarizing an issue ever solved an issue, ever. God’s best. Douglas

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @ml – Thanks for sharing. I think most, if not all, people who go to seminary or similar experiences face the temptation when we are younger to become very rigid in areas of our theology. I know I did (in other areas) – so I’m with you there. I’m glad you came through, much wiser in the end. God will use your experiences because of it. Blessings

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @Jason, Thanks! I, too, am heavily influenced by Reformed thought, but I part ways with the way it plays out in our world. I’ve not read everything Calvin’s written, but I can’t ever remember reading anything that I felt was totally off-base. I can’t say the same thing for some later Reformed theologians. Blessings in your life,

  • Jason 8 years ago

    Douglas–As a good friend of mine likes to say when being confronted with being a Calvinist: “I’m not a Calvinist–I don’t believe in paedo-baptism!”

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @Louis – Thanks for the question. No, I would not describe myself as Arminian, and in fact, would be far away from some Arminiam viewpoints. For example, I do believe that all people start out life in rebellion against God. But, I just don’t see these two issues as an either/or. The either/or binary opposition way of thinking is the hallmark of the modern world, but it is not a ‘biblical’ way of thinking (not that you can discover that exactly, but we know it’s not binary!). If it was, then Jesus would have to be either God, or man, but not both. Of course, we know Jesus is fully both.

    Sometimes I have described myself as a determinist (with a nod to one of my former profs), using a ‘postmodern’ philosophical framework instead of a modern philosophical framework to try to answer the question (Calvinism and Arminianism as systems are almost always articulated with a very modern philosophical undercurrent). But this doesn’t get you much further.

    To answer your question simply, I am neither Calvinist nor Arminian but both fully sovereignty-of-God and fully free-will. I believe it is an unsolvable paradox – and the more we try to lift up one side of the debate, the further we get away from biblical truth. The more I focus on Jesus as man, the more I get away from Jesus as God. The more I focus on free-will, the more I forget God’s very determined approach to our world, and vice versa.

    Thanks for asking, and God bless,

  • Arminian 8 years ago

    Doug,

    I am glad that you reject Calvinism, for it is unbiblical (though Calvinists are faithful to the Bible in many ways of course). But you seem to seriously misunderstamd Arminianism when you suggest that it does not believe that people start out in rebellion against God. Arminianism believes in total depravity. For a convenient resource, I would encourage you to check out the website of the Society of Evangelical Arminians (http://evangelicalarminians.org/). Many evangelicals are actually Arminian in theology without knowing it, and even deny the label because of misinformation. I wonder if you might actually embrace Arminianism if you understood it more fully. We even have a survy that helps tell you if you are an Arminian without knowing it.

    God bless!

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @Arminian – Yes, of course you are right; not all Arminians deny total depravity (although, of course, some do). I was oversimplifying and stand corrected from doing so. While I will definitely check out your website, it is unlikely I would fall much within the Arminian camp, partly due to the modernistic philosophy that undergirds historical Arminianism as it does historical Calvinism. Sorry! But thanks for the comment! Blessings,