Two Calvinists Discuss the Trouble with Calvinists — Excerpt from PROOF
Recently Calvinists seem to have garnered something of an image problem. Googling "Why are Calvinists..." autofills several interesting descriptors. What's more, Calvinism has surged in trendiness. And "whenever a theological system turns trendy, it’s easy for the system to end up overshadowing its own original purpose."
That's the verdict from two Calvinists, Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones, in PROOF. Their book is a positive reformulation of the five pillars of Calvinism, and it taps the intoxicating joy of God’s irresistible grace for our modern day.
And yet, while the authors are committed Calvinists, they are concerned about how this theological system has evolved. So, in the excerpt below, the authors have a heart-to-heart with their fellow Calvinists.
In it they insist “Calvinism for the sake of Calvinism is not worth fighting for — but grace is always worth fighting for.”
If you were to use Google to locate some data about Calvinism, part of what you would discover are some brutally honest stereotypes about Calvinists. Google relies on an algorithm to suggest the most popular queries, so when users type questions about churches or denominations, Google’s auto-complete feature fills in the rest. Kate Shellnut of Christianity Today typed in “Why are Calvinists...” and this is what came up:
Why are Calvinists so mean?
Why are Calvinists so arrogant?
Why are Calvinists so smug?
Why are Calvinists so negative?
The trouble with Calvinists is that these perceptions are often true. John Piper unpacks one of the reasons why:
There is an attractiveness about [the doctrines of grace] to some people, in large matter, because of their intellectual rigor. They are powerfully coherent doctrines, and certain kinds of minds are drawn to that. And those kinds of minds tend to be argumentative. So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn’t tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender. Therefore this type of person has a greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive, or intellectualistic.
I’ll just confess that. It’s a sad and terrible thing that that’s the case. Some of this type aren’t even Christians, I think. You can embrace a system of theology and not even be born again.
On top of all this, Calvinism has turned trendy in certain circles. Time magazine has called Calvinism an evangelical “success story” and even identified Calvinism as one of the top ten ideas currently changing the world. Conferences aimed at Calvinist church leaders attract thousands. Church-planting networks with Calvinistic confessions of faith are sending pastors to start new congregations around the world.
Hip-hop artists like Flame and Shai Linne crank out tunes with clearly Calvinist lyrics (“Everybody’s not elect, the Father decides / And it’s only the elect in whom the Spirit resides,” says Shai Linne). T-shirts and infant pullovers mingle slogans from the Reformation with such quirky anachronisms as, “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy” and “TULIP girl.”
Two decades ago, when the two of us embraced the doctrines that popular imagination has linked with the name of John Calvin, Calvinism was far from cool. Daniel had recently turned to Christ after being busted for possession of a stolen vehicle; Timothy was attending a tiny non-Calvinist Bible college in Kansas and playing guitar in a heavy-metal band. Back then, a teenager with “TULIP girl” on her shirt would have been assumed to be aiming for a career in floriculture, DC Talk’s “I Luv Rap Music” represented the theological high-water mark for most Christian hip-hop, and Jonathan Edwards was far removed from the lofty status of homeboy. In these contexts, Calvinism didn’t capture our minds because the system was popular — it wasn’t. What drove us to Calvinism was a Scripture-saturated vision of a vast and glorious God who reigns over human history and who saves his people singlehandedly. We glimpsed this vision in books by John Piper, in sermons from a nineteenth-century pastor named Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and in VHS videotapes that we scrimped and saved to purchase from Ligonier Ministries — tools that challenged our presuppositions and drove us deeper into the Scriptures.
But now Calvinism has turned into a trend. And, whenever a theological system turns trendy, it’s easy for the system to end up overshadowing its own original purpose. Instead of the system functioning as a tool that fuels devotion and drives us deeper into the Scriptures, the defense of the system itself becomes our focus. Greg Dutcher describes the dilemma this way:
I am concerned that many Calvinists today do little more than celebrate how wonderfully clear their theological windshield is. But like a windshield, Reformed theology is not an end in itself. It is simply a window to the awe-inspiring universe of God’s truth, filled with glory, beauty, and grace. Do we need something like a metaphorical wind-shield of clear, biblical truth to look through as we hope to marvel at God’s glory? Absolutely. But we must make sure that we know the difference between staring at a windshield and staring through one.
When pristine windshields become the focus, what attracts people to our theological system isn’t a God-centered passion for God’s glory to be glimpsed around the globe, but a human-centered fixation on intellectual rigor and logical consistency. (If you’re a Calvinist who keeps your ribbon marker in Romans 9 and who’s spent more time in the last month arguing about Calvinism than sharing the gospel with the lost, that last sentence was for you.)
At times Calvinists — the two of us included — have defended these five points about grace in ways that showed little grace toward fellow believers. And, for that, it’s time to repent. Calvinism for the sake of Calvinism is not worth fighting for — but grace is always worth fighting for. (133-137)
PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace
By Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones
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