The New Calvinism... be careful

Time magazine has informed us of ten trends to watch in the coming year, and one of them is the resurgence of Calvinism, embodied in the works of author's like John Piper, and numerous young pastors in America. One friend ponders the reasons for it's resurgence here. While I agree with his assessment of why the movement is strong and growing, I'm not at all certain it's a good thing.

Brett says in his post that "Calvinism is about certainty" In a world of post-modern cynicism, and the despair that comes with feeling ideological rootlessness, it's not surprising that the pendulum would swing, and that there would be a rise in the popularity of 'solid answers'. But what does the fact that a movement is growing really prove? (I'll point out that Islam is also growing rapidly in America). Perhaps it only proves that we like certitude, and the light speed cultural changes of the 21st century only serve to increase our hunger for answers we can believe in; live for; die for.

There's a great deal that's commendable in this because I do believe that we're made for a life of acting on convictions, a life where there are truths in which we believe utterly, truths to which we're willing to commit our very lives. Lacking such truths, we'll forever run around in a field of inquiry, never landing solidly enough to jump into God's calling for us. Suddenly, at the beginning of a new millennium, along comes a movement that tells us exactly how things are, and we find ourselves ripe for solid answers. "You had me at hello..." we say, realizing that we're finally home.

It's dangerous though, to offer people MORE certainty than the Bible itself offers, and this is one of the problems I have with the new Calvinism. Go ahead and declare the apostles creed as those truths agreed upon by the early church after much debate, prayer, and finally, declaration. Tell me it's true. Show me it's true. Invite me to believe it's true. I'll stand with you, knowing that I'm standing on solid footing because each of those declarations are easily defensible for anyone who believes the Bible to be our final authority source.

But Neo-Calvinism doesn't end with declaring high certitude about the core beliefs found in the Apostle's creed. It goes on to tell me, systematically, about my depravity, the depth of it, how it means that I'm dead, and how, because I'm dead, I can't choose God, and that because I can't choose God, God needs to choose me, and isn't it cool that God chose me! Me! ME!! (and implied... 'so sorry about you', but don't question God's love or justice because the fact that He chooses any of us shows what a cool God He is...etc. etc.)

I won't debate those declarations because there are many places in the Bible where God does, in fact, declare that He chooses us. But I will suggest that this is only half the story. While Jesus offered some words that clearly indicated the Father's choosing and calling and sovereignty, He also said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink". If not anyone (but only the elect) can come and drink, this seems like a bogus offer. Why would John the Baptist even make an offer like this if change wasn't a real possibility? Or consider the examples of Moses' and Joshua's invitations in the Old Testament to "choose life". What? And then there's the case of Elijah: "How long will you waiver between two opinions? If Baal is god, serve him...but if Jehovah is God, serve Him? What's going on here? Is this just a stage show, but the reality is that Elijah's words have no meaning, because the choices are already set in stone. When Jesus weeps at the gates of Jerusalem because of their refusal to reject him, were they the tears of a good actor, or the outpouring of one who genuinely wanted all people to respond. Was there some fine print somewhere that I missed which read, "offer not available to the non-elect"? Check it out friends. You won't find it. That's because it appears that, not only are we chosen, but we also have real choices to make.

The tired old argument between Calvinists and Arminiests about the nature of free-will and God's sovereignty is a classic example of how dangerous, in some settings, certitude is. The reality is that we're treading on the ground of mystery when we try to ascertain the interplay of man's choice and God's activity. Both are true, in ways that can't be harmonized adequately this side of eternity. There's some MYSTERY here, and when we fail to leave the mystery as mystery, offering instead a systematized answer, we do damage to the scriptures, and the systems we create run the grave of risk of distorting the character of God, as is evidenced by the doctrine of a limited atonement, which is a logical consequence of Calvinism, yet not in keeping with God's character in the Bible. (Mystery is nothing new by the way. We accept the mystery of the trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, without trying to disect it. We tried, early on in church history, and decided it couldn't be done.)

But now, suddenly, at the beginning of the 21st century, after 2000 years of failing to dissect the argument well enough to settle it, a few men have come along and figured it out for us. The answers, missing for literally millenia, are now here. "Thank you! Thank you! I can sleep now at night knowing the mystery is solved."

Nope. Not really. It's the wrong way to go, not because Calvinism is popular or unpopular, but because it's presumptuous. Our neo-Calvinist friends may think they have found, in John Calvin and his system, the perfect interpretation of all the mysteries of scripture, but many good people don't agree, and among those good people there are plenty with the good fruit of Christ's life present. Calvin's system, while offering allegedly solid ground, implies a degree of certitude that, when the cat's out of the bag and people begin to have questions of their own, will leave them feeling a little misled. Far better to say this, because there are, in truth, many areas where we're all still learning.


  1. Thank you. You said this in ways I never could.

  2. I would caution you against using the term "neo-calvinism" to describe the calvinist resurgence, primarily because many neo-calvinists consider themselves a historically distinct tradition. In many ways, I suppose Kuyper is the kinder, gentler version of Calvin.

    That being said, I agree that believing in a God who leads me to think I'm in a "choose-your-own-adventure" novel when all along I had no choice in the story seems less refreshing and more deceptive. Certainty is overvalued.

  3. I grew up in a Calvinist church and after much debate I've come to believe that the doctrine of election comes more from rational/logical assertions about the nature of God and man than from biblical text. I think this author is a bit soft on Calvinism. I mean, from Adam and Eve to the thief on the cross, the Bible is fundamentally about choice. Choosing between right and wrong is one of the first things we understand as children. Books, movies, drama is all about the choices people make. If we are all in one big Truman show for an audience of one, then God is truly cruel. I hope this post helps nip this neo-calvinist movement in the bud.

  4. I used to think that Calvinists only existed in history books (like those crazy French Huguenots), and then I went to a Christian college that is packed full of them. I'm still at that college. I would say the biggest struggle I've had in my faith is trying to understand predestination and all of its implications. I still struggle with it, because among many of my friends, it is considered unintelligent and wishful thinking to believe in free choice. Thank you for pointing to the character of Christ and how it doesn't line up. Everything within me screams, "This can't be right!" Christ was anti-elitist...it just doesn't make sense.

  5. Thank you, thank you. Very well said.

    I remember in High School, wrestling over a paper on Calvin's "Institutes". It brought me to a wrecked, rock bottom state when I couldn't find a side to the "Calvinist/Arminiest" debate. Then I realized... a lot of men, a lot smarter than me, have been wrestling over this for "millenia" and I wasn't going to figure it out before my term paper was due the next morning.

    For me, that was the beginning of letting the Mystery be Mystery.

    Thank you for returning me to that.

  6. What I find the most interesting is that your intent in writing this seems to shift throughout the article, at times being very insightful and at others somewhat malicious. At the outset you make the mistake of drawing conclusions and passing judgments based on someone else's labeling and definition of a multitude of your Christian brothers and sisters. While I understand your scars from people labeling themselves Calvinists and accusing you of having a lesser faith, you land in a place where you essentially return the favor to people who had nothing to do with those scars. Is more disunity really the most that can come of this?

    What's really tragic is that the middle of this article regarding the great mysteries of "the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and inscrutable His ways" is something which the very group you are attacking shares with you. Yes, we don't fully understand how being responsible for our own sin and rebellion line up with God in his incalculable grace, saving some and not others. Yes, Jesus calls all to himself and, tragically, many do not come because they have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear the voice of their loving shepherd. The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay. It is based on nothing we have done, neither good or bad. It is a mystery. Rightly understood the result of this should never be a me-centered complacency or pride, but instead the devastation of a heart filled with thankfulness and a yearning to see the prodigals return. Ultimately, as a Christian you make one of two choices that has astronomical implications for how you view and value Jesus, other people, and the entire world.

    1) The gospel was presented to you. It was attractive and made sense and so you accepted it and believed. You reached out and took hold of salvation. Now you try to work that out as best you can, changing the areas of your life that need changing to honor Him.


    2) The gospel was presented to you. It was foolishness, then God "shone in [your] heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ". Your eyes were opened and foolishness became power and treasure. God reached down and took hold of you giving you a heart of flesh to replace your heart of stone. Now you depend on the same grace that saved you, every day to mold you more into His image and likeness, that we would decrease and he would increase.

    Either Jesus is the hero or you are...

    Chalk the rest of the details up to mystery if you want.

  7. i don't think these two choices are mutually exclusive. Jesus is obviously the hero for making the ultimate sacrifice for us. that God gives us the ability to choose to accept his grace or reject it doesn't diminish what he's done for us, it makes it even greater. there is nothing heroic about choosing to accept the salvation offered by Jesus. it's like reaching out for a branch when you're falling into a canyon.

  8. Thanks for the reply Jon. Actually, that was the point I was trying to make. The two statements I made are not mutually exclusive. They are actually two sides of the same coin. The one you identify with in thinking about how you came to know Jesus, reveals either a man-centered view of redemption or a God-centered view. We obviously make a choice to respond to Jesus. The point is whether you recognize it as a response to the Holy Spirit drawing you, opening your eyes, and breathing life into you, or you remember it as a day when you took a step , accepted Jesus, and started trying to align your life with His. One view results in worshipful adoration towards Jesus and the other results in worship towards Jesus, framed by a high regard for that important choice you made which in the end, amounts to a very subtle, works-based righteousness.

    Please know that my intention in writing this is not to argue, or pursue conflict any further. My initial post was made for the express purpose of questioning the value of throwing each other under the bus constantly for the world to watch and identify us by. "They will know you by your love, one for another". I don't expect to change your world view. and I'm also not aligning myself to every person that claims Calvinism. I stand in unity with those who love Jesus. (which I know doesn't include all those labeled calvinists or armenians for that matter) He's who matters at the end of the day. At the very least, I would submit to you to consider revising your canyon metaphor. I dont know that casting Jesus in an illustration of salvation as an inanimate branch was your intention. He is so much more active, which I am sure you have tasted and seen as well.