Be Kind to Calvinists

By Ian Wilson (Rated G)

I am what some might call a Calvinist, though I do not like that term. It isn’t one that Calvin would approve of, and Calvin was not in the strictest sense a theologian. He was a lawyer with a side gig in theology. I prefer to use the term “Reformed” or “Orthodox Protestant” or even “Reformed Catholic”. Any way you put it, I am a part of one of the most maligned groups in Christianity right now. I think that’s part of the reason I adopted this theology; everyone hates them, so they’re probably onto something.

I didn’t want to be a Calvinist; I wrestled with the doctrines of Grace for several years before I begrudgingly joined the ranks of the Reformed. Reason and a thorough study of the Scripture led me to the conclusion that the Reformed were probably correct. This, of course, puts me at odds with my Arminian brethren, and I do consider them brethren. There are two reasons that people hate Calvinists, the first being that Calvinists – modern Calvinists anyway – tend to be jerks. The second is a rejection of predestination. 

People are well within their rights to attack Calvinists on the grounds that we can be jerks. That’s one of the reasons I objected to it for so long. What good is your theology if it causes you to treat others with contempt? I figured Calvinists must have gotten something terribly wrong if that is the way they treat other people. What I found out from reading the works of Calvin and many of the other early reformers is that they would not have approved of this behavior at all. Well, maybe Knox would have. Indeed, Question 135 of the Westminster Larger Catechism (which most Calvinists uphold as the standard for doctrine) basically forbids it. Furthermore, just because someone is a jerk does not automatically mean that they are incorrect. It took some very fine gentlemen to make me realize that being a “jack-wagon” was not a prerequisite to being Reformed. They do not necessarily go together. 

The second objection is almost absurd to me now that I’ve done a bit more study and thinking about it. Why should anyone reject predestination? I believe it may stem from ignorance of what predestination actually is. According to Thomas Aquinas, “predestination is a plan existing in the divine mind for the ordering of some persons to eternal salvation” (Summa theologiae 1a, 23.2).

So God chooses some, but not all, to be saved. This seems like a hard saying, but it comes directly from Holy Scripture. What, you don’t believe me? It’s here in Romans 8:30:

Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

And again in Ephesians 1:4-6:

According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.

This is something I’ve had to wrestle with for a long time. Why does God choose some and not others? The thing is, I believe we’re asking the wrong questions. We should rather marvel how any of our fallen race can be saved at all. It is from the pure mercy of God that He has predestined any to be saved, especially a wretch like me. 

There are many, yes even so-called Calvinists, who assert that Calvin believed free will to be imaginary, that there is no such thing as free will. This is not true. Calvin believed in free will; he believed that our free will was in bondage to sin, and we could only be truly free by God’s grace. This is the doctrine of Original Sin as expressed by Augustine among others. 

Our minds, you see, cannot really comprehend God, because He is not material, He is not bound by time, He is infinite, He is not corporeal. His nature is not like our nature. He can operate in such a way as to determine our paths by His grace, without violating our free will. It makes my head hurt if I think about it for too long. It’s a marvelous, mysterious thing. All Christians, regardless of denomination, believe that God is all-knowing and can see the future and determine events; why should this only apply to some events and not the saving of His own people?

Some say that Calvin created new doctrines, that such ideas are not found anywhere in the Fathers or Doctors of the Church. I beg to differ. Most of Calvin’s ideas can be found in Augustine’s writings. You can also find identical doctrines in Aquinas and other scholastic thinkers. Indeed, Calvin was not alone, and he did not preach anything novel, even in his day. In fact, he was something of a moderate, really, compared with other reformers.  

Some say that Calvinism makes God the cause of sin. This is, once again, not true, and the result of bad theology by certain internet talking heads. The Westminster Confession – the confessional document of the Reformed Church in Britain – states in no uncertain terms that God is not the author of sin. 

Sin, you see, isn’t a “thing” in the same way as righteousness is. Sin is like darkness, which is the absence of light. Sin is the absence of God’s goodness. As the great Reformed theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards once said, “Sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence”. So God withholds His influence on certain events, allowing sin to follow, for reasons that are His own. God is able to see all ends. He allows evil to take place as part of a grander plan, one which we are not privy to. This sounds like a cop-out, but honestly, this is the only explanation that has ever satisfied me. 

I write this article not to convince you to become Calvinist, but to help you understand why I came to this conclusion and maybe be a bit more charitable to those of my theological bent. I realize that there are a few logical problems with this doctrine, but that is true of the other side – Arminianism – as well. There is no “perfect” systematic theology, because we are but fallible creatures and not able to comprehend such things. We can only give one another some grace as we all wrestle with these matters and trust that God will guide us into all truth.

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