I’ll never forget the time I read a Calvinist author warning his readers of the dangers of Arminian theology. He talked about how many current pastors were losing their theological footing—and sometimes their faith—after rejecting Reformed thought. He wrote passionately about how accepting the low view of God that Arminians promote leads to corruption of the glory of God in the Church. He startled me out of my preconception of Calvinists as sly heretics, deceiving God’s people and drawing people away from the truth. I had to accept the fact that there were honest, full-headed Christians who felt that my side of the free-will debate was corrupt and dangerous, as I thought theirs was.
As a boy, I had heard several messages about how Calvinism leads to a rejection of the goodness of God, the purpose of missions, and the reason to live free from sin. I was afraid of Calvinism like one might be afraid of dark tunnels or shadowy rooms. I wasn’t entirely sure what Calvinism was, but I knew I didn’t want anything to do with it.
Then I read John Piper. And Tim Keller. And J. I. Packer, Kevin DeYoung, and Rosaria Butterfield. In the last 10 years, the list has expanded greatly. And so has my appreciation for the distinct theological palate that the Reformed community has given us. Since that first book I read on Calvinism, I’ve had dozens of discussions with friends about our shunning of Reformed authors. I’ve become firmly convinced that we need to re-think our view on this issue.
But before I submit my views on our treatment of Reformed theology, let me make two things clear: First, I understand how the terrible treatment of Anabaptist people by the early reformers has left us very skeptical of what the reformers stood for. But we need to divorce the discussion of separation of Church and state from the Calvinism discussion. I agree, of course, that the early reformers were very wrong in their violent repression of other religious views. However, nearly everyone was wrong on this, back then. (Even, may I add, certain Anabaptists from Münster…)
Second, I am not a Calvinist. It is interesting to me how often, in discussing my opinion on Calvinism, I get mistaken for a Calvinist. In fact, as my understanding of issues surrounding free will has deepened, the places where I reject Calvinism have solidified. It is not agreement with Reformed thought that drives me to write about this topic, but rather recognizing misunderstandings in our camp that have been the catalyst for this post.
I have heard many attacks on Calvinism that I feel are quite unjustified, lack support, or are just wrong. As Christians, truth matters. We need to know that we are critiquing true problems, not attacking straw-men-versions. Love for each other also matters. Remember, Paul considers love for other believers, along with faith toward God, to be central indicators of our life in Christ. With those commitments in mind, I invite you to join me in considering and critiquing the following arguments for why Calvinism is thought to be dangerous.
- Calvinism attacks the goodness of God.
In intellectual fairness, let me start with one that perhaps holds more weight than most for me personally. The Reformed framework involves the sovereignty of God predestining some people for eternal life for reasons outside of anything they did. The double predestination view claims that God also actively chooses to predestine some for hell. This begs the question, “How can God hold people eternally guilty for crimes that he chose not to save them from?” I think this may be a valid objection to Calvinism, but only because I also think that Scripture seems to support a view of salvation with a good deal of free will and man’s responsibility. Without Scriptural nuance, to attack Calvinism on this level is tantamount to the universalist saying that the traditional view of eternal conscious torment is wrong because it goes it against their idea of goodness. We must ground our objections to theological positions on more than mere emotional reactions. I fear that many of us disagree with Calvinist theology on this topic as wrong merely because of external analogies and logical frameworks, without really grappling with the passages (Romans 9, Ephesians 1, etc.) that seem to teach a strong predestination theme.
In this case, there is an argument for how someone could be a Calvinist and still believe that God is good. Check out this article on Desiring God to read how a Reformed pastor answers this question. Basically, Piper states that Scripture teaches that God is both good and just, and also that he chooses some for eternal life and others for eternal death. Piper maintains that we are not in a position to be able to understand how God can hold us responsible for our freely sinful actions, and yet be sovereignly in charge of the whole process, but since Scripture teaches it, we can worship God for his goodness and his transcendence.
- Calvinism leads people to a lawless lifestyle.
This is possibly one of the most absurd objections to Calvinism. Sure, there have been so-called “once-saved-always-saved” adherents who lived as though their “sinner’s-prayer”-or-whatever freed them to sin all they wanted. But this is a silly idea that is neither warranted by Calvinist theology nor by Scripture. (A fascinating sidenote is that those who believe this are not necessarily even Calvinist. Many Baptists simultaneously reject Calvinism and hold to eternal security.) It is hard to understand how anyone could read Scripture and come away with the idea that believers can sin all they want. I challenge anyone who believes that Calvinism leads to lawlessness to show me the large groups of Calvinists who are feeding from John Piper’s and Voddie Baucham’s works and concluding that they can live in sin without judgment. That is simply not reality. Some of the most conservative churches today are reformed (I immediately think of the Reformed Presbyterian churches, which require singing Psalms only in their liturgy). Even the most conservative Anabaptist groups don’t touch that level!
Rather than the five points of Calvinism leading people to lawlessness, they have propelled some of our greatest pastors and preachers, such as Andrew Murray, John Piper, and J.I. Packer, to preach self-sacrificing, Christ-glorifying, and Scripture-honoring sermons that have inspired hundreds of thousands of people to obey Christ more fully. I think there is good reason to believe that the high view of the holiness and sovereignty of God found in Reformed circles is a catalyst for righteous living. May I suggest that you read more books by Reformed authors and test this hypothesis?
Interestingly, PewForum research (2015) showed that people raised in a Reformed background were least likely (from those coming from all theological backgrounds) to leave the Christian faith later in life. They just edged out Anabaptists for that distinction.
- Calvinism kills passion for missions.
I honestly can hardly believe that this objection is raised, in light of missions history. Not only did Calvinist missionaries start the Protestant missionary endeavor, chances are that if you stop and think of three great missionaries, they were Calvinist. William Carey? Calvinist. Adoniram Judson? Check. David Brainerd? The same. David Livingston? Yeah, he was too. In fact, John Calvin himself sent missionaries to France (and later Brazil)—many of whom would later die as martyrs. Calvin was no enemy of missions, and neither have his followers been, for the most part. Now, some may rightly remember William Carey’s elders who told him that God would take care of evangelizing the “heathen” when He felt like it–without their help. Hyper-Calvinism is unfortunately a historical reality that we should clearly avoid (as modern Calvinists like Tim Conway compellingly point out). But many Arminian Christians have also evaded the call to missions, history tells us. We cannot dismiss Calvinism as anti-missions because some Calvinists have been so, any more than we can dismiss Christianity as anti-religious-freedom because the medieval Roman Catholic Church was.
In case you are wondering, Calvinism offers a significant and compelling reason for missions fervor: God’s glory demands our obedience, which will be rewarded eternally. Rather than the often-hectic competition of Arminian missions, Reformed missionaries can work for the glory of God, seeking that goal rather than numbers of converts.
- Calvinism is not found in scripture and is a man-made system of thought.
Right. And at the risk of sounding impious, neither is the Trinity. And I mean that. The doctrine of the Trinity was never hammered out completely by any of the apostles, but they believed it and taught it. Later, theologians constructed a theological structure to discuss the implications of all that the apostles taught about the Godhead, and called it the Trinity. Now, my point is not that Calvinism is as obvious or important as the Trinity. It certainly is neither. But some of the same processes which created the doctrine of the Trinity were copied in the creation of what would become known as Calvinism. Augustine and other earlier church fathers talked about the concepts surrounding free will and God’s sovereignty, and ultimately Calvin brought it together into a cohesive doctrinal structure. We cannot simply dismiss Calvinism for being “man’s words” any more than we can dismiss the Trinity for the same reason.
This discussion leads me back to my main point; that is, we should view Reformed authors not as dangerous or heretical, but as guardians of the high view of the glory of God in the church. We can equally hold that they are wrong on the amount of God’s sovereignty vs. man’s free will. I do believe that the Calvinist position on predestination is logically problematic and Biblically inaccurate, but it is not heresy or a fundamentally dangerous error. It need not negatively affect our missions, our lifestyle, or our faith. On the other hand, we should be attempting to learn all we can from those brothers in Christ on the other side of this debate who can teach us about God’s otherness, holiness, transcendence, and sovereignty. Go read some John Piper.
Helopoulos, J. (2013, July 3). Does Calvinism kill missions? The Gospel Coalition. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/does-calvinism-kill-missions/
Pew Research Center. (2015, May 12). Religious Switching and Intermarriage. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/chapter-2-religious-switching-and-intermarriage/
Piper, J. (2014, October 14). Does God predestinate people to hell? Desiring God. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-god-predestine-people-to-hell