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Is this Calvinism’s Default Position?

I’m sitting in a hotel room tonight enjoying a family weekend and catching up on twitter while trying to get the kids to go to sleep, and in doing so I run across this from Pastor Steve McCoy this afternoon:

“I’m not clear on most things about God, but Calvinists anger me.”

– An Absurd Number of People

(@SteveKMcCoy, June 7, 2013, at 2:36 PM)

Steve (pastor of an SBC church in the Chicago area) and Bill Kinnon went back and forth a bit on Twitter after that tweet, Bill suggesting that it was a bit judgmental to suggest that people who aren’t Calvinists “aren’t clear on most things about God”, and Steve saying that he didn’t mean that everyone who hates Calvinism is unclear, but that “an absurd number” are. Their conversation trailed off before they came to any resolution.

Then there was this stunning quote from the Founders.org website, for which SBC pastor Tom Ascol is a primary leader:

In the first place, Calvinistic Christianity is nothing more and nothing less than biblical Christianity. It follows, then, that the future of Christianity itself is bound up in the fortunes of Calvinism….

…For whoever believes in God’s redemption through Christ and recognizes his own utter dependence on God, whoever recognizes that salvation is of the Lord, whoever seeks to glorify God in his worship and life, that person is already implicitly a Calvinist, no matter what he calls himself. In such circumstances, to make the person an explicit Calvinist, all we are required to do (humanly speaking) is to show the believer the natural implications of these already-held fundamental principles, which underlie all true Christianity, and trust God to do his work, that is, trust God to reveal these implications to the person.

Did you get that? Calvinism is “nothing more and nothing less than biblical Christianity”. And if anyone recognizes salvation from the Lord, and seeks to glorify God, then that person is implicitly a Calvinist! And all the Calvinists need to do is explain it in a way that the unknowing Calvinist might understand.

Now, I’m not suggesting that all proponents of Calvinism would make such presumptuous, arrogant claims, and I won’t claim for an instant that there aren’t some really God-ignorant Calvinism haters like Steve is talking about. I’m sure I don’t speak for the group of progressive bloggers who have been very vocal in recent weeks about their concerns with Calvinism and certain highly visible Calvinist groups. But I can speak for myself.

I’m not particularly progressive. I accept the Bible as God’s authoritative, inspired Word, but I don’t think that means I have to read the first bits of Genesis literally. I believe, based on what I read in the Bible, that homosexual behavior is wrong, but I’m in favor of the state sanctioning same-sex marriages and I believe Christians have done a pretty poor job of loving homosexuals over the last several decades. I voted for Bush twice and then Obama twice. I try to not post about politics on Facebook.

I also don’t think I’d fit into Steve McCoy’s category of being “not clear on most things about God”. I grew up in a very conservative Christian home, did 12 years of AWANA, attended a Christian university that required a bunch of Bible classes, have served as a deacon and an elder in a Conservative Baptist church and helped plant another CBA church that eventually became an Acts 29 church. I read widely in theology; my last couple years of reading includes Baptists, Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Arminians and Calvinists alike.

And here’s the thing: (well, two things:) I’m not a Calvinist. And some of what I’m seeing out of some of these key Calvinists does anger me.

The big fuel on the fire lately has been the recent statements about CJ Mahaney and the sexual abuse lawsuits brewing against several folks from Sovereign Grace Ministries churches. Calvinist leaders like Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, Don Carson, and Justin Taylor have put out statements supporting Mahaney, and erroneously claiming that Mahaney was accused of no crime (he was accused of conspiring to keep the abuse claims quiet).

That men of such intellect and reputation would publish a statement with such obvious mistruths in it angers me. That after posting it on Facebook and getting dozens of disapproving comments, they deleted the statement and the comments frustrates me a lot. That then they, without comment, revised it to remove the claim that Mahaney was never accused, and posted it on their organization’s website while disallowing comments infuriates me.

That Justin Taylor would claim, on twitter, that continuing discussion with divisive folks is a sin (a not-so-subtle explanation, one would assume, for why he was keeping comments closed), only to delete the tweet a couple days later once people called him on it, makes me want to bang my head against the nearest immovable object.

I don’t hate these guys. I have, in the past, respected them a lot. Which is why it’s all the more infuriating and disappointing when I see them taking indefensible positions like these.

I don’t want to assume that this circling of the wagons and declaration of Calvinism as nothing more or less than true Christianity is the default Calvinist position. I want to believe that there are Calvinist brothers and sisters out there who are as horrified by the alleged abuse and cover-up, and by the ridiculous arrogance of the Founders.org statement as I am.

But where are they? Why are they quiet?

Where is the Calvinist brother who is willing to publicly suggest that it would be wiser to not have CJ Mahaney still regularly preaching and on the conference circuit while allegations about the cover-up remain unresolved?

Where is the Southern Seminary graduate who is willing to say that while he personally believes Calvinism to be the truest expression of Christianity, he would never dream of asserting that every Christian would claim Calvinism if only they understood it better?

Without those voices many of us are left with few options but to believe that these are the default Calvinist positions. I beg you, my brothers, speak out and give us more options. God’s church deserves better.

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20 Comments

  1. Michael Terry Michael Terry

    I was up last night thinking about this. I had a really bulldog-ish stage early in my life about “Calvinism”. I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say that I contradicted most of the implications of what I said I believed in by my loveless attitude. The time’s for me, thankfully and by God’s grace, are a changin’. I’m tiring of labels in general. Labels allow someone to think they understand you without ever really trying to. I still believe in most of those things but I also believe that they should have an impact on the way I speak, write, and interact with others.

    I am frustrated by what some of these men have done and I’m frustrated by what some of these men haven’t done. I’m frustrated by what some outsiders have done and I’m frustrated by what some outsiders haven’t done. I don’t attribute this as much to a type of theology, though most involved have some agreements in some big areas, as much as I attribute it to our human condition. The bible is filled with injustices done by “men of God” that seem to go unpunished, yet at the appropriate time, justice comes. I don’t know what the future of this situation holds but i know that the God who says:

    “I form light and create darkness,
    I make well-being and create calamity,
    I am the Lord, who does all these”

    also says

    For the mountains may depart
    and the hills be removed,
    but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
    and my covenant of peace shall not be removed

    I trust that God will do what is right and just. In the meantime, know that these conversations are happening in a smaller scale. Though it is not the public widespread conversation you are wanting, please don’t think it is going unnoticed and undiscussed by “calvinists.”

  2. Some of my closest and most beloved Christian friends are irenic, 5-point Calvinists. They are firmly committed to their understanding of theology but treat me with respect and as a brother — even though I’m more Wesleyan/Arminian, though with a love for Kuyper & Bavinck — as well as many of the Anabaptist thinkers. They even put up with my disagreement with inerrancy as my commitment, like yours, Chris is that “the Bible as God’s authoritative, inspired Word”.

    Sadly these folk don’t have nor desire the platforms of those who tell us fervently that they are right and we are wrong — believing “correct doctrine” to be more important than “the least of these.”

    And my further frustration is that far too many new Calvinists can dish it out in Social Media but claim they are being attacked when they get push back.

    • And BTW, here is a screen cap of my conversation with Steve McCoy, my last question to him left unanswered. (Note conversation starts at the bottom.)

  3. Sometimes when I read things like this, I can sympathize even more deeply with Muslims who are expected to dissociate themselves from extremists every time that some Islamist terrorist is responsible for an atrocity. I am a Calvinist, but I have no association with these ‘Calvinists’. For that matter, I don’t even recognize them as Calvinists. Their Calvinism is all too often mere abstract TULIPism, which is a fry cry from the theology of Calvin (who probably didn’t even hold to limited atonement), whose soteriology was governed by themes that are frequently bypassed by those who claim to represent his legacy (e.g. union with Christ). Most of these guys largely reject Calvin’s ecclesiology and theology of the sacraments, his understanding of the relationship between OT and NT, etc.

    The majority of the people in question are American Baptists. As a Reformed Anglican living in the UK, these guys don’t show up on my radar often and their culture is very far removed from my own. From where I am standing, the most determinative characteristic of these guys is not ‘Calvinism’ but a particular brand of ‘big man’ megachurch-ism, a sort of ecclesiology that is peculiarly American and which, by its very charisma-driven, limited accountability structure, invites abuse. Sometimes I wonder whether using ‘Calvinism’ as a scapegoat is a convenient way to save certain others from the soul-searching that would have to result if they realized that they were more associated with this culture than they would like to think.

    While I believe that there are many very godly Christians in these contexts – I have met many before – and my aim is not to stigmatize them, my point is that I have no direct association with them, little knowledge of what goes on in their circles, would rather hold my peace than open my mouth in ignorance, and have no need to dissociate myself from people I was never associated with in the first place. The little I have heard is incredibly disturbing and sickening, but I am very much an outsider and not in a good position to speak.

    Another thing that I do see rather a lot of that also troubles me is a fixation among some people, especially progressive evangelicals, with this ‘Calvinist’ crowd, the Mahaney, Driscoll, Piper, et al, and a fierce animus against them. From where I am standing, it bears all of the hallmarks of classic scapegoating, which can still be in effect, even where guilt exists. Rather than a level-headed examination of what exactly has gone wrong, we have a fevered attribution of every problem or abuse to the logical and inexorable outworking of the poison of ‘Calvinism’, complementarianism, whatever. People avidly follow people like Driscoll and Piper, trying to find the worst in everything that they say, and seeking cause for offence. This really isn’t healthy. Their theology seems to operate in a reactive mode, constantly attacking a particular form of theological and ecclesiastical context. One of the things that discourages many of us from getting engaged in these issues is because witchhunters and scapegoaters are dangerous types of people with which to associate, even when their quarries are far from innocent. One is also inclined to be far more suspicious of causes dominated by such people, as they tend to breed paranoid misinformation.

    • Alastair,
      I very much appreciate your comment. However, as one engaged in the North American church context, “new Reformed” individuals are not comfortable to live and let live, but rather consistently tell the rest of us how they are right and we (whether Arminian, Anabaptist or any other variation) are wrong. My problem is not solely with their argumentative nature but rather, predominantly with the damage done to people as a result of this warped understanding of Calvin and Reformed Theology. And I have had direct interaction with victims.

      The animus of some does not deny the very destructive nature of the ministries of these stage-bound representatives of NeoPuritanism as McKnight would call them or New Reformed as Fitch et al name them.

      Where a Keller might be more Kuyperian in his approach to “The Gospel” many others on his team remember fondly what happened to Servetus and wish the same fate on those of us they label Semi-Pelagian — or so their rhetoric would seem to indicate.

    • Just rereading my comment, I see that my initial analogy could be very misleading. To clarify, I do not mean to compare the ‘Calvinists’ in view here to Islamist terrorists, but just to illustrate the problematic character of demanded dissociation, where no association existed in the first place. The children and step-children of Calvin are numerous and are a very varied group. A number of us will even question the true theological patrimony of others who claim to be Calvin’s heirs, without thereby wishing to deny that, though they may not really be Calvinists, they are still brothers and sisters in Christ, that there are important theological commonalities between us, and that we can learn from each other.

      I have also yet to be persuaded that the problems in these cases arise from a particular understanding of soteriology, let alone the family of understandings named by ‘Calvinism’, rather than from the way that a particular form of institution and church culture – an institution and culture that owes less to 16th century theology and more to 20 and 21st century individualism, consumerism, and business culture as exemplified in American evangelicalism – is ill-equipped to deal with abuse. If people are going to impute things to ‘Calvinism’, even in the bastardized form of TULIPism, I would like to see a much better case being made. The key failings here seem to have to do with institutional structures that are focused on charismatic individual leaders, lack openness to external scrutiny, lack true accountability structures, and the fact that evangelicalism, as a movement focused on parachurch associations, will tend to be personality-focused and ill-equipped to exercise processes of discipline. As these distinctive ecclesiologies are starkly contrasting to that of Calvin and those of most of the mainstream Reformed tradition and appear widely outside of the Calvinist tradition too, the idea that ‘Calvinism’ is the issue here lacks persuasive power to me. The issues here are far more insidious, deeply rooted in the soil of contemporary Western culture, especially in the US, and not so easily tidily blamed upon theological differences.

  4. Julie Anne Julie Anne

    I’m glad you were catching up on Twitter and something compelled you to write this. Good stuff, Chris! Excellent!

  5. Thanks for the comments, all. I’m headed off with a bunch of extended family for a zoo trip today, but will take some time to read and interact tonight.

  6. @Alastair-

    As a former Reformed theologian I largely agree with much of what you’ve said below, especially that the neo-Reformed haven’t truly understand the broad swath of Reformed theology that includes more than Kuyper and Edwards (these seem to be their “pet” theologians). It seems as if they have decided to take a la carte the pieces of Reformed theology and tradition they want and discarded those others that don’t comport with their stances. To some point we all do this within our traditions; in this case the issue is exacerbatted because this particularly militant and vocal group seems to represent “Reformed” theology at large in the American evangelical mind and heart. Which leads me to say that more response is needed from those within the Reformed camp, a painting of a more positive vision of the faith.

    Two things in your last paragraph bear comment: first, I think that the response from progressive evangelicals can and often does go too far in their own intensity and number of criticisms. However, I do believe that some response is warranted, maybe in a softer and more loving tone from groups who see the damaging witness that the neo-Reformed have often portrayed to those outside of the church.

    To stand by silently is to allow what at times is repression, patriarchy, and judgmentalism to pass unabated and this cannot happen either. Do you want the only picture of God that is painted in the culture to be one such as that painted by Piper who names everything a judgment of God upon a particular group (except when it comes to his own, e.g. the flood at Crossway Publishing which he doesn’t mention)? Or Driscoll who has so over masculinzed Jesus and manhood that they barely resemble what is actually portrayed in Scripture? Or the recent statements that do not take solidarity with the victims, the least of these, but instead with those that are in power?

    Second, I want to offer a little commentary on your statement that, “…we have a fevered attribution of every problem or abuse to the logical and inexorable outworking of the poison of ‘Calvinism’, complementarianism, whatever.” What this group has done in effect is to take some of the difficult parts of Reformed theology, for example, meticulous sovereignty, and made explicit the consequences that are sometimes, many times left hidden or unexplored by Reformed believers. In the frame of meticulous sovereignty it isn’t difficult to see how Piper calls all natural disasters judgments from God. (As an aside, major, more moderate Reformed theologians, such as David Ferguson, have called for a recapitulation of sovereignty and an abandonment of this meticulous sovereignty.) I’m not quite sure how you can say or think otherwise if you hold to a firm view that God causes, not allows, everything to happen. This is an example of a logical/inexorable outworking of their belief system.

    On the complementarian front I think it is different: here we see Driscoll (and others) pushing far beyond the biblical bounds and thus revealing their deeper motivation of patriachy, etc. I’ve been in their churches, in leadership, and see it at work.

    I think to say that the theological positions these men hold establishes the framework through and from which their statements and behavior are derived is fair in many cases. In other situations, their motivations are partially theologically driven and partially driven by some malformed notion of the “consequences of the text.” I think it takes careful discernment to see which it is in various cases and where it is the latter, I think we must be vehement to deconstruct and reveal. We have to be careful not to deny that theory plays a major role in praxis. That all theology is always inherently practical. This last part has been denied far too often because of the academic and esoteric nature of much theology that never “touches down” where people are at in their everyday lives.

  7. Michael Terry Michael Terry

    Side note: I also se a lot of the more “fervent” Calvinist comments coming out of Reformed baptist camps. (Both McCoy and Founders are in that camp). They are in the midst of a deep struggle in their denomination right now over some of these issues. Professors are being fired for holding to Calvinism ..etc. I’m not saying this makes it right but I think a lot of the reformed baptist folk are seeing red right now due to what’s going on in their circles. Everything seems more important in the midst of a struggle. Just an observation

    • That is an interesting perspective, because everything I have heard about the SBC and the Reformed camp is that the Reformed camp basically took over the SBC over the past decade-ish (maybe a little more). Perhaps what you are talking about is a backlash to those experiences.

      • Michael Terry Michael Terry

        Grown in number and influence? Yes. Taken over? Hardly. Southern Seminary gets a lot of press and there certainly is a movement among the younger generation that way. But for every Southern Seminary there is a Southeastern Seminary. Most of my family (on both sides) are involved in the SBC. the younger generation tends to be Calvinist or at least sympathetic to it, while the older generation seems to be against it.

    • It would be interesting to total up the professors who’ve been fired for NOT being 5-pointers at places like SBTS versus those who have been fired for being Calvinists at other institutions. I’m not sure your statement would be well supported, Michael.

      • Michael Terry Michael Terry

        I can only speak from my knowledge. I can’t speak to what you have seen or heard.

  8. Mark Mark

    Hi, Chris — great post. I’m a pastor/theologian (practical theology) of the Calvinist variety. I don’t write blog posts. I’ve tweeted a few things, maybe erased some of them because of the spirit in which I wrote them. I’ve been phenomenally angry about all of the SGM/Mahaney et al. stuff, and the stance of so many “Reformed luminaries” who either say nothing, or worse, say minimizing things, or still worse, go ministering with the person(s) in question. For me, it’s disgusting. It’s not at all hard to say: “These are allegations, but until said allegations have been reasonably shown to be false, this person/these persons shouldn’t be ministering and we shouldn’t be giving him/them public approbation.”

    I’ve written private emails to K. DeYoung., J. Taylor, M. Dever, and L. Duncan, through their churches. I’ve written to TGC. I’ve complained to them (not to the public) about their responses to SGM/Mahaney; their responses, to me, are just shocking and stunning. (*If a lot of people FLOODED them with emails that described why their responses are inadequate, maybe it’d get them to re-think a bit.*) Even if Reformed luminaries *only* thought of how their own behavior made *them* look, they might consider how heartless they appear — not to mention how terribly they reflect on Calvinism/Christianity/Jesus, and not to mention all the poor people who suffered both sexual abuse, and also grotesque/controlling “pastoring.”

    So, yes, Calvinists are not all of one stripe. Some of us do find all of this troubling and vile. What happened at SGM churches was horrible. The present-day responses of Mahaney’s friends, also terrible.

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