[Editor’s update 3/9/17: Rachel Held Evans seems to have gone theologically liberal. SEA has not investigated this thoroughly, but if it is true, would not endorse her theological liberalism.]
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I hope this letter finds you growing in love and chasing after Jesus, brimming with all the questions, ideas, and passions that make young people like us a force to be reckoned with in the Church.
I’ve been reading with interest the many books, articles, and blog posts dissecting what has been called “The New Calvinism”— a movement so prevalent in conservative evangelicalism that TIME magazine called it “one of the 10 ideas changing the world.” Leaders like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Al Mohler insist this movement is fueled by young adults like you who are rediscovering Reformed Theology and sharing it with their friends. In fact, it is James K. A. Smith’s popular book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, that inspired this letter of my own.
There is much that I appreciate about the Reformed tradition—its emphasis on the undeserved grace of God, its commitment to the authority of Scripture, its appreciation of art, literature, and philosophy. I value these things as well, and have learned much from Calvinists about how to better articulate and nurture them.
My reasons for not embracing Calvinism are of course varied and complex and too detailed to fit into this letter. At the center of my Arminianism is the conviction that nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love, that God does not create hopeless people or hopeless situations. I believe that God can be in control without controlling and that he desires a relationship with his creation that involves some degree of freedom. I feel that Scripture, reason, experience, and intuition support these conclusions, but I realize there’s a chance I am wrong. In fact, I’ve yet to be convinced that we can’t both be right on some things!
I’m not really interested in convincing young Calvinists not to be Calvinists. If you believe Reformed Theology represents the most faithful interpretation of Scripture, then by all means, study it and celebrate it. Raise your family in that tradition and teach others about it. Be the best Calvinist you can be.
But please be kind.
For whatever reason, there seems to be a tendency in some Calvinist circles to use theology as a weapon. Smith writes, “Now is as good a time as any to warn you about one of the foremost temptations that accompanies Reformed theology: pride. And the worst kind of pride: religious pride (one of Screwtape’s letters speaks quite eloquently about this). This is an infection that often quickly contaminates those who discover the Reformed tradition, and it can be deadly: a kind of West Nile virus.”
Now, let me say right away that I have met some truly wonderful Calvinists through the years who showed no signs of such pride and who exhibited only gentleness, compassion, and warmth. To say that all Calvinists (or all Arminians) are this way or that is unfair and irresponsible.
But I think it’s important for me to honestly tell you that my experience with Calvinism has left me so bruised and wounded that simply writing this letter triggered a fresh wave of tears. Having spoken publicly about my theological views, I should of course expect disagreements and corrections, but time and again the criticisms from Calvinists have gotten deeply, painfully personal.
It was a Calvinist who questioned whether I would be a fit mother as an Arminian, a Calvinist who called me a “cotton-candy Christian,” a Calvinist who publicly humiliated a family member for disagreeing with her pastor, a Calvinist who suggested that my theological positions were the result of sin in my life, a Calvinist who said I would never live up to my writing potential until I embraced Reformed Theology. I have been the subject of gossip at churches I don’t even attend, and at times my views have been so grossly misrepresented I’m not entirely sure how the rumors even started. My commitment to Scripture has been questioned because of my interpretation of it, my love for Jesus because of subtle differences in my views of his atonement.
In turn, I’ve grown defensive and fearful. I’ve made assumptions and started rumors of my own. I am guilty of dismissing a person as soon as I learn that he or she is a Calvinist, and (as you may have noticed) I tend to employ a generous amount of sarcasm when I write blog posts about Mark Driscoll. I criticize Calvinists for lacking compassion when I have left room in my heart for everyone except them. I write them off for writing me off, and the vicious cycle continues.
It’s all rather ugly and sad.
I share this with you not to pick a fight but to plead for a truce. As a new generation preparing to tackle the age-old debate about predestination and free will, our positions don’t have to change but our attitudes can. We can criticize one another’s interpretations of the Bible without assuming motive. We can point out the inconsistencies in certain faith traditions without attacking the people in them. We can talk about our disagreements knowing that what we have in common far outweighs our differences, for together we can affirm that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again!
We are the future of the Church and we have an opportunity here to change the tone.
For me this means forgiving the Calvinists who have wronged me, resisting the temptation to paint with a broad brush, listening better and loving more. For you it may mean associating with Christians of various theological persuasions and honoring their commitment to Jesus Christ over their commitment to Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Yoder, or Wright. For all of us, it means doing what we can to live in peace with one another so that we might make the prayer of Jesus a reality—“that they may be brought to complete unity.”
We don’t have to agree to be unified. We don’t have to think exactly alike to be of the same mind. We don’t have to share a systematic theology to follow Jesus together.
So semper reformanda! Let’s keep reforming! Let’s do a better job than any previous generation in keeping the debate lively while loving one another.
With sincerity and goodwill,