Considering that I have always been an Arminian, deciding between Arminianism and Calvinism was a matter of whether or not Calvinism challenged my own beliefs enough for me to lose my trust in them. They would have to do this through biblical evidence, theological argument, and/or demonstration of good fruit. Needless to say, this never happened.
I’m going to examine each of these in turn, but right now, I am going to focus on fruit. Here I am going to be discussing the movement that many have called “the Calvinist Resurgence”. There has been a recent increase over the past couple of years of Calvinism, especially within academia and the internet.
Disclaimers: I would like to remind everyone that the name of this series is “Why I am not a Calvinist” rather than “Why you shouldn’t be a Calvinist”. I do not expect what I say here to dissuade anyone from being or becoming Calvinist, nor do I think that it should. I write it because it is a very real reason why I am not.
The critique that follows is not a critique of ‘Calvinism’ but of the Calvinist Resurgence, and the mentality and attitude that tends to be associated with it. If you are Calvinist, and you feel that this doesn’t apply to you, then it simply may not. This is my analysis of a present movement, rather than Calvinism as a system (that’s coming later).
It is also necessary to mention why it is so important to me to mention this in this series (and I’ll say this again at the end): A major reason why I am not a Calvinist is that most Calvinists that I have talked to have been haughty and bombastic, and so I didn’t trust them. It is very important to me that Christians realize that the way they behave and the way they treat the person they are talking to have a very real affect on how that person views the validity of what you have to say, not to mention what you believe. If you only receive one thing from this post, I would like it to be: be careful how you express the things of Christ, because people are watching.
[What follows is an extrapolation of my thoughts expressed in this article I submitted to SEA: Personal belief as to the reasons of the Calvinist resurgence]
My opinion and thesis is that the Calvinist Resurgence is basically a backlash to the Postmodern Movement. What is the Postmodern Movement? Excellent question.
Well, no one really knows. The postmodern movement is a negatively defined stance, and like all negatively defined stances, it lacks something to stand on.
By negatively defined, I mean it defines itself by what it is not, i.e. it is not modernism. Modernism itself began with the Enlightenment which believed in the omnicompetence of human reason, as well as a strong expectation of progress. Ancients were seen as inferior, and they believed that we are progressing to a greater state of life. However, the various atrocities of the 20th century modernist philosophies have shaken the West’s confidence in this world view. The result is what is known as postmodernity.
Postmodernity can be seen as essentially an overall attitude stemming directly from the rejection of modernity’s main points. The result of this that I believe is most pertinent to the conversation is the rejection of a cultural epistemological standard.
Epistemology is the study of understanding. It deals with such things as how we determine truth, and what are the standards upon which we sort out fallacy and what do we mean by ‘truth’. Our present culture lacks any epistemological cohesion. In modernity they relied on reason; in the ancient world they relied on revelation. Today, we rely on personal opinion, which is hardly a standard at all. Indeed, the less systematized, the less authoritative, the less orthodox an idea is, and the more personally it is expressed, the more legitimate it sounds to the postmodern ears. Ancient heretics are seen as open-minded thinkers, and flash and pomp mean more than substance.
There is a backlash going on in this culture attempting to reestablish past epistemological norms, though they would hardly phrase it like that. By this, I mean that they are trying to strongly establish the idea of truth, the attainability of that truth, and that the truth is “such and such”. They see themselves as the last champions of orthodoxy at Thermopylae, standing the tide of heretics, gluttons, and liberals who are tearing the world apart. However, it is this “world” that they are protecting. They are trying to fix the damage already done, and return things to the old order so to speak. However, this backlash is just as much of a smorgasbord as postmodernity itself, since different groups see the “old order” differently.
I believe one of these groups sees the “old order” to be protected as Calvinist theology. They somehow believe the Reformation put the world in order, and ever since then liberals have been driving it apart. I might add that they don’t tend to see the difference between a liberal and a postmodern, meaning that they often see themselves as fundamentalist. Indeed, they really are fundamentalist in attitude, doctrine, and politics. Whether or not this is a slow transference of fundamentalism opposing liberalism to opposing postliberalism, or whether or not it is a reaction against postmodernity which is absorbing fundamentalism is beyond my capacity to speculate. I would say though that this particular group’s reliance on Calvinism is tied to postmodernity’s loss of epistemological standards (standards of establishing truth).
This group neither represents Calvinism historically, nor Calvinism proper, but I do believe it represents most Calvinists we see on the net, including James White, Reformed Mafia, and Pyromaniacs. My thesis is that most of the attitudes that we find distasteful are a result of the combination of Calvinism with their reactionary position towards what is going on in the world.
By apologetic theology, I mean that they develop their understanding of God and the world based off of what works the best in debate. Indeed, I would argue that it is the cause of their devotion of Calvinism, rather than a result from it. However, there are a lot of new Calvinist ideas (that are considered to be the traditional Calvinist view by these people) for exactly this reason. Compatiblism comes readily to mind. Another is regeneration before salvation, along with its “dead man” analogy.
Again, we return to a lack of epistemology. Truth is what is the most convincing. Therefore, since they were convinced by these ideas, they are truth. Many do not seem to truly understand the ideas, they just know that they find them convincing, and parrot them back against the “enemy”.
Once on the Ben Witherington blog, Ben put up a post expressing John Piper’s opinions regarding the elitism of certain Calvinists. I only reference so that you may compare them with my own, for I disagree with him considerably, but have respect for the man so I offer him as a second opinion.
By elitism, what I mean is an attitude that considers one to have the high ground. To them, it is our responsibility to convince them, and if they remain unconvinced, then we have been “defeated”. As long as their system survives, they are victorious. In other words, they don’t really have to prove anything.
Many of my Arminian brothers have speculated that this elitism that we see is a natural result of a caste system consisting of the reprobate and elect inherit to Calvinist theology. I disagree, though I do think this caste system is a reasonable conclusion from Calvinism.
The elitism is drawn from several factors, the greatest of which is the erroneous presupposition that Calvinism is the default Evangelical, if not Christian, position. I don’t really know where this particular presupposition comes from, but I do believe that it is connected to the need of an epistemology (fundamental way of viewing and verifying truth). Without a unifying epistemology, each person is forced to create for themselves their own standards of truth. Calvinism offers this, providing a framework of understanding which is easily grasped (this is not a negative). The result is the person judges new information based off of this framework making it impossible to turn around and judge the framework itself.
The militant nature of the movement is also tied to this. This is a group of people who are angry at the changing cultural tides, whether they see them as liberal or recognize them as postmodern. Regardless, they cast those accepting these cultural changes as the enemy, creating an us/them mentality.
This mentality combines with Calvinism much like baking soda and vinegar. The us/them attitude is casted in elect/reprobate rhetoric and theology. Their hatred of the enemy becomes justified through God’s hatred of the reprobate. They use this to justify their anger and behavior. Casting God as vindictive justifies their vindictiveness.
Apologetics Over Evangelism
There is nothing wrong with Apologetics (The defense of an idea or belief system). Each of us is gifted differently, and some of us are more gifted in the area of apologetics than in the area of evangelism. I am included in this, since I am more of a theologian than anything else.
However, these people seem to be dramatically drawn to apologetics, mostly because the foundation of their whole worldview is based on an opposition to certain ideas. They want to defeat what they see as liberalism, which eventually develops into any false Christian perspective. Therefore, they care more about converting “false Christians” than converting non-Christians.
Some of this isn’t bad when applied to groups like Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. But when it gets extended to actual Christian groups, like Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and, of course, Arminians, they end up wasting their energy “sheep stealing”.
- The Machine Gun Hermeneutic
- Lack of contextual understanding (like knowing Romans 9:9-24 but being ignorant of Romans 9:7-8)
- Focus on verses instead of books
- Favorite memory verses.
All of those go hand in hand but are slightly different. The fourth isn’t really a negative thing, except when joined with the other three issues. The point of all of this, is that Scripture is a tool which they use to prove their point, rather than what they use to shape their opinion. Indeed, there is an assumption that their opinion is already formed from Scripture. After all, their teacher knew a lot of Scriptures…
This is mostly tied to their militant nature. They claim that their belief in Scriptural inerrancy is giving authority to Scripture (which itself is tied to their rejection of liberalism), but in reality, it is granting their opinions inerrancy since they are “derived” from Scripture. Though I have no problem affirming that there are no mistakes in Scripture, I do not grant my interpretation of it the same respect.
This is the bit that I had the most difficulty is writing. Due to the complex relationship of fundamentalism with liberalism/postmodernity, they have a kind of love/hate relationship with reason.
Liberalism is, in essence, the acceptance of Enlightenment epistemology as the norm of the church (Again, epistemology is the study of how we understand truth, and the Enlightenment did this through the belief in the omnicompetance of human reason). Fundamentalism, fighting against this movement, not only rejects this claim, but also bases their own arguments on Enlightenment epistemology in an attempt to combat liberals. The result is that Enlightenment epistemology crept into the Fundamentalist perspective anyway.
When Postmodernity came along, and started rejecting Enlightenment epistemology, fundamentalists made a fatal mistake: they equated postmodernity with liberalism. The result is that now they think that liberals are the ones rejecting Enlightenment epistemology, and that it is the fundamentalist’s job to defend it. Combine this with the still present inherit hatred of the liberal arguments and positions in the past, as well as commitment to the authority of revelation over human reason, and you have one really messed up epistemology.
Enter Van Til. Cornelius Van Til was an apologist in the mid 20th century who first proposed what is known as “presuppositional apologetics”. Without getting into details, part of the theory is that the highest goal of a philosophical/theological position is consistency. Anyone who has entered the fray with these Calvinist fundamentalists have heard of the word “consistent” before. Indeed, Van Til himself was a Calvinist.
This whole position creates an excellent resource when dealing with a culture that lacks epistemology. When accepted, a person can sort through all of the conflicting opinions with this rule of consistency as a guide. However, no one person can possibly grasp all of the various implications of all philosophical systems around them, and the result is that the person will be attracted to theologies that are an easily presentable interlocking system. Naturally, 5-point Calvinism becomes very attractive.
This has an unfortunate consequence. In my experience, those that appeal to Calvinism’s inner-consistency are often really poor judges of inner-consistency of other systems. I have found that Arminianism often “fails” the inner-consistency rule by failing to be consistent with Calvinist presuppositions. This is because, to some degree, Calvinism is becoming the basis of these people’s epistemology. Personally, Arminianism is not the foundation of my epistemology. Instead the Incarnation is. However, for this group, Calvinism is absolutely their epistemology, adding to the elitism already mentioned.
In formal rhetoric, there are three factors which are considered to enter into convincing a person. They are logos (Greek for ‘word’ or ‘reason’, referring here to the soundness of an argument, or it’s logical coherence), pathos (Greek for ’emotion’, referring here to the passions aroused in the audience), and ethos (Greek for ‘ethic’ or ‘character’, referring here to the projected character of the speaker for the sake of creating trust). Therefore, by pathos-based rhetoric I mean that they tend to use emotional arguments, and are often rather emotional themselves.
Now this isn’t entirely bad, except that they absolutely fail in the area of ethos. There’s some logos there, I admit, but very little ethos, if any at all. This is, of course, a result of the elitism.
I brought this attribute up last because it ties back into the title of this series: Why I am an Arminian. Because I started as an Arminian, I am in part an Arminian because Calvinists failed to convince me otherwise. They failed to convince me otherwise because of the shear lack of character displayed by the Calvinists I met. I didn’t trust them enough to really listen to them.
You may ask how this isn’t elitism, since I am demanding the Calvinist convince me instead of allowing both sides to stand on equal ground. The difference is that here we are dealing with my own heart, rather than a public discussion. In a public discussion, I don’t insist that all I have to do is disprove the other side’s arguments. But when it comes to my own heart, I’m not going to change my mind on something unless I am convinced otherwise.
But, these Calvinists didn’t even cause me to doubt my position. If anything, they bolstered it by displaying the fruits of the world rather than the Spirit. If they merely showed me kindness, they may have convinced me when I first encountered it. Now, I am not so ignorant about Arminianism itself as I was then. The reason that I currently reject Calvinism is due to the superiority of Arminianism, and I want to make sure that is understood. While their behavior at that time prevented me from taking them seriously, I have since talked to and read many Calvinists who I do respect, including John Calvin himself. But by the time I had started to understand Calvinism, and had already come to study and fully understand Arminianism.
However, the reason I didn’t believe in Calvinism back then was the kind of Calvinists I met. I write this in the hope of inspiring others to think about how you present the person of Jesus Christ first, and think about how to win the argument second. Thank you.
For orginal post and comments, see here.