A Constructive Critique1By Dr. Ron Woodworth
The lead article in Christianity Today intrigued me: “Young, Restless, and Reformed…Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church.”2 For several years now I have included this topic on my list of “articles to write.” So when I saw this particular article, in what is arguably the leading magazine of evangelical Christianity, I felt that the time was now right—to write. Since the general topic of Calvinism is so broad, my objective here will be to provide more of an introductory overview (definition, history, major doctrine, and critique) rather than an exhaustive treatment on the subject.
My background and motive…
I am quite familiar with Calvinism, especially given the fact that the vast majority of my doctorate was earned from a Reformed Seminary3. I am also currently employed as an adjunct professor at a large community college where I regularly teach a section on Calvinism
I do want to assure my readers, at the outset of our journey together, that my intent here is to be constructive, rather than destructive, in my motive, method, and observations. After all, I see a lot of highly commendable things about Calvinism some of which will be highlighted below. I do however also see some things that concern a growing number of Christians, leaders, theologians and scholars that could be quite helpful to the sincere adherents of this significant branch within Christianity. It is my earnest hope that my non-offensive approach will garner a non-defensive reception among all. These are issues that fellow-members of the Body of Christ can and should engage in a spirit of humility, candor and grace.
Definition and Historical Background…
Calvinism is a system of Christian theology and an approach to Christian life and thought, within the Protestant tradition, as articulated by the Protestant Swiss Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564).4 As such, Calvinism is described as Reformed Protestantism and encompasses people groups and churches within the Reformed tradition including, the Pilgrims, Puritans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Reformed Baptist, Huguenots, etc. Notable also are the contributions of such reputable theologians as Theodore Beza (Calvin’s successor in Geneva), Jonathan Edwards (catalyst for the Great Awakening), John Knox (founder of the Presbyterian Church), the Princeton Reformed theologians and their predecessors and successors (of the likes of Tennent, Hodge, Machen, and Warfield), Karl Barth (Neo-orthodox theologian), et al.
Enter John Calvin…
In 1536 Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religionwhich immediately thrust him to the forefront in what is generally recognized as the “second phase” of Reformation leadership.5 A religious refugee from France, Calvin finally relocated to Geneva, Switzerland in 1541where he undertook a vigorous reformation of the church and of the civil government until his death in 1564. Calvin’s reformation in Geneva has been hailed and assailed by many. John Knox called Geneva, “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles.”6 Other critics accuse Calvin of imposing a harsh form of misguided theocratic rule in which religious offenders were punished by forced re-endoctrination, flogging, torture, expulsion, and even death.7
When surveying the doctrines of Calvinism one is invariably led from Calvin’s overarching view of the sovereignty of God (over all of life) to his specific delineation of the doctrine of “election.” In response to a public challenge to Calvinism from the followers of Jacob Arminius (the Arminians), the Synod of Dort (1618-19) issued what has been referred to as the Five Points of Calvinism—which is most often remembered by the acrostic “TULIP.” The tulip stands for:
- Total depravity (there is no innate goodness in fallen man. He is hopelessly lost without God’s sovereign initiative)
- Unconditional election (salvation begins with God’s choice of us and not our choice of God)
- Limited atonement (Christ’s atoning death is specific in that it accomplishes the salvation of those whom God has elected alone)
- Irresistible grace (the gift of faith leading to salvation is a gift of God and cannot be resisted by the elect)
- Perseverance of the saints (none of those who are called and redeemed will be lost).8
A Constructive Critique…
With this very brief introduction I offer the following critical observations about Calvinism—at least from my perspective and experience. Additionally, in an attempt to be fair-minded, and in acknowledgement of certain neo-Calvinist renewal elements with the Reformed Tradition, my remarks will be conveyed as that which seems to be descriptive of some—rather than characteristic of all. As such, my goal is again to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
- Some Calvinists seem to idolize John Calvin. All they talk and read about is John Calvin’s (or other Calvinist’s) interpretation of the Bible (Old and New Testaments)—including Calvin’s clarification about what Jesus taught. What concerns me most is that Calvinism could subtly be replacing Christianity in the minds and hearts of some believers and leaders today. For those who need a reminder: Jesus was not a Calvinist—and neither must you be. In fact, without demeaning Calvin at all, his name is not even mentioned in the Bible—nor is he its author. As great a Christian leader as Calvin admittedly was, let us never promote men as anything more than servants who point us toward the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.
“For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)
“But I am afraid for you that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:3)
- Calvinism seems to misrepresent the Gospel by denying the right of free access to “whosoever will.” I know the contortions of Calvinist theology, distinguishing between the general versus the effectual calling of God, but nowhere does the Bible make such a distinction itself. Rather, the text of Scripture is very clear…
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
- Similar to #2 above, though Calvinists will not admit it, Calvinism indirectly argues against evangelism. After all, if God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will be condemned, then why bother witnessing? Even though Calvinists are reluctant to admit their belief in double predestination (meaning God elects some to salvation and the rest to damnation) that’s exactly what they believe—and frankly most theologians don’t agree with them. The problem is that Calvinists have presumed that God’s sovereignty must negate human choice—or else God couldn’t be sovereign. Well, what if God has sovereignly chosen to justify any and everyone who, upon hearing the Gospel, calls upon the name of the Lord?
“But what does it say? This word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 10:8-11)
“Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation. Whoever believers and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
This business about God sovereignly withholding salvation from those he has eternally decreed to be lost is a great misrepresentation of the heart and the integrity of God’s word—let alone a violation of the general tenor of Scripture itself. Trust God at his word and don’t let the theological machinations of even brilliant men cause confusion about the simple message of God’s saving grace to all who believe the Good News.
- Calvinism seems to make some people unteachable and argumentative. Jesus said of the teachers of the Law that they strain at gnats but swallow camels. (Matthew 23:24) The camel of Calvinism is their “doctrine of election” which insists that a sovereign God is manipulating “behind the scenes” to ensure that those who are sovereignly elected will respond to the Gospel whereas those who are sovereignly rejected will continue in their hard hearted ways—regardless of hearing the message of God’s saving grace. Somehow a Calvinist must deny any human responsiveness for fear that mankind might “earn” God’s gift of salvation. It seems to me (and to many other as well) that if salvation is a gift then one must be free to accept or decline it—or else it is not a gift! Rather, the gift has become a divinely forced obligation on robotic humans who are simply ignorant of the “fact” that they have arrived on the planet already pre-programmed. Philosophers call that radical determinism which is synonymous with fatalism.
This kind of “Gospel” will always be resisted by those people (be they believers or non-believers) who place a value on the reasonableness of God rather than rigidly embrace a merciless God in the name of blind orthodoxy. The argument here is not reason over revelation but neither is it revelation in spite of reason. Rather, my appeal is simply for a reasonable revelation that represents not only the sovereign power of God, but also his compassionate mercy toward man—which is something that many see lacking in classic Calvinism.
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18)
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give thereason [lit. apologia or a rational defense] for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
- Calvinism seems to make some people judgmental and unkind. Theirs is a religion of confrontation. An in-your-face approach to evangelism that, in violation of wisdom, majors on exposing the depravity of man than on revealing the kindness of God in Christ.
“He who is wise wins souls.” (Proverbs 11:30)
“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” (Romans 2:4)
- Calvinism seems to make some people and churches exclusive. After all, the elect are in, and the non-elect are out. However, even beyond the theologically imposed exclusivity between believers and unbelievers is the exclusiveness between Calvinists and non-Calvinists within the Body of Christ. Let us never forget Paul’s earnest admonition in Ephesians, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3) My friends, are we making “every effort”, in doctrine and deed, to maintain the unity of the Body of Christ?
A final appeal…
I believe that Calvinism must see itself as a growing force of renewal within (or for the good of) the Christian community at large. If it does, then both the Reformed tradition and the Body of Christ will be richer for it. But if an exclusive spirit is tolerated within Calvinism, then what God has intended for larger distribution will be frustrated, causing misunderstanding, accusation, isolation and division. I pray that the leadership of this rich tradition will begin and/or continue to correct the exclusive spirit that is even now encroaching on some of the blossoming local congregations and leaders within its family. Additionally, the leadership of churches in the Reformed tradition would be well-served to cross-pollinate with leaders of different traditions beginning the empowering dynamic of give and take, of learning and teaching, of blessings and being blessed.
“Behold how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head…of Aaron…It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” (Psalm 133: 1-3)
In other words, seize the moment and take initiative, for the sake of Christian unity, and watch the manifestation of the glory of God increase exponentially in your midst.
The Lord be Magnified
 While some may think of a critique as an exercise of fault finding there is another much more noble definition. To offer a critique actually implies that one has considered the merits and demerits of a given subject and then judges (or renders an assessment) accordingly. A critique is therefore synonymous with the term “evaluation,” which is a determining of the significance, worth, or condition of something–usually by careful appraisal and study. For instance, I recently purchased an appraisal of our home which comprised 18 pages of quite elaborate details and photos prior to fixing a valuation.
 The first phase of reformation leaders would have included Luther and Zwingli. And, though signing the Lutheran Augsburg Confession in 1540, Calvin’s influence was first felt in the Swiss Reformation which derived from Zwingli’s work and was notably independent of Luther.