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