A documentary we were predestined to see, but can we reject it? Or is it too irresistible?
The film is simply called Calvinist and it is the passion-project of writer and director Les Lanphere. It comes as a companion and expansion of the 2006 Christianity Today article “Young, Restless, Reformed,” which gave a name to a movement sweeping the American Evangelical landscape. The film examines the modern Calvinist movement both culturally and theologically. I asked Les what his purpose was for making this documentary. “I wanted to tell the story of the phenomenon of the resurgence of Calvinism. I have other “goals” in the subtext, but I honestly thought it was just a story worth telling.”
Having diagnosed late 20th century Evangelicalism as shallow and seeker-driven, Calvinist shows how this Reformed Resurgence sought to breathe biblical life back into the Church. We then go on a journey back to the origins of Calvinism and a theology born from the Reformation.
Like the Protestant Reformation, this film has left me with a feeling of schism. I am torn. On the one hand, the movie is incredibly well made, stylish. and is overloaded with information that will leave even the most uninformed atheist with a Ph.D. in Calvinism. On the other hand, the perspective of the film and the love from its creator shows in a detrimental way. After a sit through the surprisingly long run time, you are essentially left to conclude the only two options within Protestantism are Calvinism or heresy.
There were so many times I wanted to stand up and cheer for the deep, biblical truths being boldly proclaimed by some of our most notable and respected theologians. The purpose of the Reformation and the desire to get back to the Word of God was a welcomed message. But herein lies the problem with the movie: Calvinism and Protestantism are presented as completely intertwined, leaving no room for any other soteriological position. This one particular theological system is held in an uncomfortably high regard.
We are informed by the Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, Ligon Duncan, that “Calvin is simultaneously the best theologian and the best expositor hands down, who existed at the very least in the first sixteen centuries of the Church. Maybe ever.” Now that’s a bold statement!
Where I take issue with this film, to no one’s surprise, is how they present Arminianism. I do not fault the director; when you are speaking with such a long list of respected Church historians, pastors, and theologians, it would be impossible to check every word they say and easy to trust in their scholarly opinions. However, Les falls prey to something most of the young, restless, and reformed do–they follow along with inaccurate and fallacious teachings about Arminianism taught by men who should know better. This gripe extends beyond this movie to the Reformed movement itself.
Arminianism is maligned as man-centered, unaccepting of God’s sovereignty, and built entirely around maintaining man’s free ability to choose God in salvation. It appears that Arminius’ greatest 20th century detractors are the least likely to have read what he actually believes.
Briefly, I’d like to touch on a few of these teachings, for clarity sake.
Contrary to much scholarly and popular opinion, Arminius did not believe in natural human moral ability after the fall of Adam; he believed in depravity, including bondage of the will to sin. Arminius scholar William Witt correctly says, “Whatever may be true of successors to Arminius’s theology, he himself held to a doctrine of the bondage of the will which is every bit as trenchant as anything in Luther or Calvin.” Witt demonstrates conclusively from Arminius’s own writings that although he was influenced by Thomas Aquinas in some areas of this thought, he did not follow Aquinas or the Catholic tradition in holding lightly to the doctrine of inherited depravity.1
This is important to note because we are told by Joel Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, that “Arminianism is a confirmation of Roman Catholic theology in the form of Thomas Aquinas way back in the 12th century.”
So what did Arminius truly believe about the current spiritual state of man?
“This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.”2
The film presses through the 17th century, giving a very one-sided and problematic account of the Synod of Dort and then gets to the theological core: T.U.L.I.P. For the uninitiated, this stands for
T- Total Depravity
U- Unconditional Election
L- Limited Atonement (sorry four-pointers, you don’t exist in this film)
I- Irresistible Grace
P- Perseverance of the Saints
A large portion of the movie is devoted to these points and a lot of proof-texting. One noticeable absence was the biblical justification for “regeneration preceding faith,” which was attached to Irresistible Grace. The only direct text offered for this concept was John 6:37. It’s an understandable oversight in light of various texts that support faith preceding regeneration such as Ephesians 1:13-14, John 1:12-13; 5:24-28, Galatians 3:2, etc.
This is another important point of distinction. A claim in the film is made that the Arminian view that faith precedes regeneration means we save ourselves. Though the direct label of Pelagianism wasn’t thrown around here, it certainly wouldn’t have been the first time if it was. If the Calvinist has any hope for integrity in this area I strongly suggest they investigate the doctrine known as Prevenient Grace.
So do Arminians believe we take the initial act in our salvation? Does a person who agrees with Arminius’ teaching believe that man is solely responsible for his own faith? Let’s do the work many Calvinists seem content to neglect and read what Arminius actually taught about the necessity of God’s grace prior to faith. In his letter to Hyppolytus he writes:
Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “Grace,” I mean by it that which is the Grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good…I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins.3
Once the movie has completed its walk through the T.U.L.I.P. we are offered a timeline of important modern figures that led to the Reformed Resurgence. It is right around this portion of the film that you really feel the longer run time.
We then pick up some loose ends related to the movement like the Mark Driscoll story, Reformed Rap (a surprising inclusion but welcomed and interesting), Confessionalism, and racial concerns within the Resurgence.
One thing that must be mentioned is the honest discussion about “Cage Stage” Calvinism and problems with arrogance. It would have been incredibly easy to skip over all of that, and I greatly appreciate the time devoted to that. It’s a mark of integrity for the film-maker. Jeff Durbin has what may be the best line of the entire documentary:
Sometimes we don’t know the difference between being a prophet and a jerk and I think that’s a huge failure. And we will do better, together, with diversity in the midst of a fundamental unity. We’ll do better together than separate.
Overall, as I said before, I am very torn about this film. I think someone less in love with the project doing some editing and chopping down the run time would make a big difference. The look of the film is beyond professional, and I have no doubt the creator will go on to great things. In so far as this is a film documenting an important theological movement in modern culture I think there is some great stuff here.
Where I think the movie goes wrong is the depth of theology it dives into and the complete misrepresentation of Arminianism. The T.U.L.I.P. section was far too long and should offer more of a taste, not the full meal. I also think the movie, like many Calvinists, comes far too close to proclaiming Calvinism as complete equivalency to the Gospel. Though you may believe your teachings are in line with what the Bible says, you cannot be so arrogant as to believe there aren’t others with a different view who don’t feel the same way, and just as sincerely.
I do not recommend this movie, which truthfully comes as a surprise to me. I had high hopes despite my soteriological disagreements. For those who are familiar with Calvinism or the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, you won’t learn anything new. If you could take your local coffee shop hipster Calvinist, boil them down and turn them into a full length feature, it would be this movie.
And for those who are unfamiliar with Calvinism and its theological entanglements, I think this movie could lead you down a bad path. You would probably walk away thinking, as perhaps they would want you to, that Calvinism is the only alternative to Roman Catholicism and all other heresies that exist in the world.
If you want to know more about Calvinism I recommend reading Calvin’s Institutes. Then grab some R.C. Sproul or John Piper.
If you want to know more about Arminianism, DO NOT read John Piper, John MacArthur, Kevin DeYoung, James White, Paul Washer, Ligon Duncan, Mark Driscoll, Matt Slick, James Montgomery Boice, etc. etc.
First and foremost, read Jacob Arminius. You’ll be one step ahead of all the pastors and theologians mentioned above. Beyond that I highly recommend:
- Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger Olson
- Classical Arminianism by F. LeRoy Forlines
- The Arminian Confession of 1621
- Grace, Faith, Free Will by Robert E. Picirilli
- Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace by Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall
- All of the incredible articles published by The Society of Evangelical Arminians
- Olson, Roger E. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. IVP Academic, 2007. Pg. 142
- Nichols, James, and W. R. Bagnall. The Writings of James Arminius. Vol. 1, Baker Book House, 1977. Pg. 252
- Nichols, James, and W. R. Bagnall. The Writings of James Arminius. Vol. 2, Baker Book House, 1977. Pg. 472