Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why I'm a bit wary of Calvinists

I'm a hacker and a plodder and am no different than the other fifty thousand or so SBC pastors but I do have a thirty year history with Calvinism and Calvinists and, unsurprisingly, have an opinion about it and them. To be candid, while I’m mostly ambivalent about Calvinism, I'm decidedly wary of Calvinists. Here’s why:

1. Calvinists can be, well, rather arrogant. No, they don’t have a monopoly on such but my observation is that they have acquired more of it than one would expect from their numbers. And since they have it, they are happy to share it with the rest of us - the unwashed, sub-calvinist masses.

I sometimes read calvinists on the blogs and get a nostalgic reminder of seminary hallway arguments, inevitable classroom debates, eager young theologs brimming with certainty, and adorable young calvinist polemicists waging scorched earth doctrinal campaigns. No thanks.

I’m all for defending a doctrinal position but perhaps there are Calvinists who will admit that there are other followers of Christ who are scholarly, biblical, and non-calvinist. Is it a lonely search for the Calvinists who has a modicum of humility mixed with the acknowledgement that there are yet some mysteries to our faith?

Maybe all of those kind of Calvinists just stay off of the blogs and discussion forums.

2. I’ve been around too many churches that have been wrecked by Calvinists.

No, Calvinists don't have a lock on wrecking churches and I certainly know many more non-calvinist pastors who have wrecked churches. The latter just don't hurl themselves headlong into the task out of their doctrinal positions.

What is one to say when a Calvinist gains a pulpit and immediately declares that there is heresy in the church that must be rooted out, the heresy being that the church is not sufficiently Calvinist?

What is one to say when sermons begin with “God doesn’t love everyone” or “God may choose this child for heaven and this child is not chosen and is bound for hell”? I recognize that these statements can be nuanced, and we all like to be provocative at times, but is it surprising that a Calvinist pastor can be said to divide the church over such teaching?

What is one to say when the Calvinist pastor aggressively tries to implement an elder system of church governance, and it appears to be less about biblical church polity than about the pastor installing his allies in positions of power and authority to the exclusion of all others?

3. Calvinists have been known to be less than forthcoming with search committees.

Tom Ascol, an erudite and reasonable man, blogged last year about some documents that were being distributed in Tennessee among SBC churches. Their thrust was described as ‘how to smoke out a Calvinistic pastor in your church.’

I can see where this stuff comes from.

My evidence is anecdotal and limited but in my experience Calvinist pastors have minimized their Calvinist beliefs with search committees in order to gain a pulpit. I hate to say it but this is precisely the technique some liberal pastors have employed with church committees - obfuscate, finesse, dart and weave.

No, I'm not saying what most calvinists say to a committee, but this is what some committee members have relayed to me.

I would absolutely advise any church to be thorough enough in their search process to determine a prospective pastor’s beliefs on Calvinism. I know that Calvinists generally eschew the term ‘calvinist’ in favor of other labels and descriptors. Laypeople must be savvy enough to understand the vocabulary.

If my experience with Calvinists did not include their negative impact on churches I would label this article, “Why I am annoyed with Calvinists” rather than “Why I am wary of Calvinists.” It is this last point that moves the conversation from annoying to wariness. I can do annoying pretty good myself.

If calvinism is appealing to young SBCers, a fact I do not dispute, it is repulsive in many expressions to not a small number of SBCers. Why is it that some circulate 'calvinist smoke-out guides' or why have some churches cut funding to calvinist SBC institutions? Are those who so act evil, misguided, or alarmist? Perhaps there is something concrete and important behind these acts.

Perhaps my experience is atypical and an aberration. I'd be pleased to know that is the case. If not, I'll look askance at Calvinists but still rejoice when Christ is preached and Christ is preached by every Calvinist I know.


Anonymous said...

Maybe things are done a bit differently out your way but I've probably known and worked with at least as many Calvinists as you have and I have not found them to be arrogant or destroyers of churches. I have found them to be fine men of God, based on the Bible, and growing some of the finest churches around. The arrogance I have encountered has come from liberals and hyper-fundamentalists and I don't even know (or care) whether or not they are Calvinists.

Maybe I'm a bit naive, but please help me understand this constant preoccupation with Calvinists and the barrage of criticism for them.

Anonymous said...

Might I reply sir?

1. I have been told many times that Calvinism is evil, cruel, demonic, presents a false view of God, and it anti-missionary. On the last charge, when confronted with the fact that so many great missionaries were Calvinists (including, er, John Calvin himself) the response is either "they weren't REALLY Calvinists" or "their missionary success was due to their suppressing their Calvinist beliefs in their ministry." And there is also the current - and exceedingly presumptuous - trend of claiming that Calvinism is the result of superimposing a man-made theological system on the scripture where non-Calvinism is Biblical. Such people refer to themselves as "Biblicists." So, how are Calvinists supposed to respond to such abuse?

2. Well consider this. Suppose you were to go to an amillennial church and start preaching dispensationalism. Folks are going to leave. Suppose you go to a traditional church and make it (very) contemporary. Folks are going to leave. Singling out Calvinism when it is only one of MANY elements that causes these issues is unfair, and goes back to the point that I made in 1.

3. That is a legitimate point. However, a lot of Calvinists are very suspicious of the legitimacy of point 3 because of the spuriousness (in my opinion) of 1. and 2. Were you in their shoes, you would feel the same way.

Thank you.

Stephen Fox said...

A discussion of Calvinism is incomplete without reference and knowledge of Marilynne Robinson's views on the matter.
At a minimum preachers and search committees should become familiar of the way Calvinism shapes the world views of Robinson's characters in Home and Gilead.
Listening to the great commentary easily googled on two separate hour long panel discussions on NPR Diane Rehm show is great place to start for Barrow County and Beyond.

Stephen Fox said...

And, Dr. Thornton this just in. As Calvinism is pretty march a key component of the Tea Party Movement--See Redeemer Prez PCA, Greenville, S.C. for the tie to Senator Jim Demint Easily googled--I commend to all your readers including David Miller and Jerry Vines, the grand column up today at Ethics of my friend Randall Balmer on SBC's Richard Land.
And or follow the discussion in SBC Trends at

Anonymous said...

Then you should be very aware that there is a major Hyper Calvinist Ga Baptist Convention MRC aka "Missionary" silently place among those in South Ga who is now marching those Calvinista tunes now right there in your state of Georgia below a Augusta, Macon, to Columbus southward line named Mike Everson...

And we all know what he is about, or do ya'll?

You guys better get your house in order in GA!

Anonymous said...

Ya'll must have a different hymnbook in Georgia than we do here in Texas. I never even hear Calvinism mentioned in our churches.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the comments but would like for the few folks who read this article to be sure and scroll down to "What I Like About Calvinists."


Anonymous said...

You have been fair and balanced in your writings. I read both articles on your blog and the Voices blog.

Your second article (bit wary article) received many comments at Voices -- many seemed very defensive.

I came to Christ in the early 70's (Jesus Movement) and I can't remember the name of Calvin even mentioned until years down the road.

It is my hope and prayer that we'll have a real Jesus Movement in the SBC pretty soon.

Blessings, Ron Hale