Dear John Calvin

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(I originally posted this in 2016. The first part contained a mysterious parable that may have caused some readers to skip the post, so I’m reposting without the parable.)

It’s winter here in South Africa. A friend gave Revien and I a truckload of wood last week, and so the two of us spent the best part of Saturday sipping Cappucinos and listening to the crackling of a blazing fireplace and some great music.

That was the nice part.

But then I began to fiddle on my Ipad, and stumbled onto a five year old Classic iMonk post with almost three hundred comments. The Calvinists and Arminians were at it again, and of course I felt obliged to follow the whole thing and ride it out. Right to its very end.

But it left me feeling strangely empty and fatigued. And wondering what on earth the point was of it all, and what Paul and Peter and John and the others would have had to say about it.

To make matters worse, I spent the previous Thursday doing research for a project that involved tracing the origins of Calvinism’s famous TULIP acronym, only to be reminded that it never existed before the twentieth century.

For those who are interested: Its first known use was in 1905, when the American Presbyterian minister and hymn writer, Dr. Cleland Boyd McAfee, was heard using it at the Presbyterian Union Of Newark New Jersey.

And even then it was not fully developed. McAfee’s “U” stood for Universal Sovereignty, not Unconditional Election.

Of course it is said that the so-called Five Points are much older than that, dating from 1619 and the famous Synod of Dordt, where they were stated in response to the Five Articles of the Arminian Remonstrants. But even that does not solve the problem of TULIP’s relative late arrival at the Calvinistic party. Not all Calvinists are wildly excited about the acronym, or convinced that it faithfully represents Dordt. As Kenneth Stewart put it in The Points of Calvinism: Retrospect and Prospect:

There is the striking fact that twentieth-century writing on behalf of TULIP has only very infrequently engaged with the actual Canons of Dordt of which the acronym purports to be a paraphrase or summary. This meant, and means that writers have been implying the fidelity of the acronym as a rendering of Dordt’s meaning without ever being pressed to demonstrate that this fidelity exists in fact. To call the paraphrasing of Dordt by TULIP a ‘broad brush’ approach, is arguably too kind! Why has there been no inquiry as to whether there is actually a true correspondence between this alleged paraphrase of Dordt, and the actual intention of the Canons – widely available in English? We may well be overdue for a revisiting of the Canons of Dordt themselves – even to the point of quoting them, or making a fresh compressed summary of their actual contents.

That explains something I have often wondered about, namely why many Dutch Reformed dominees here in South Africa have never even heard of TULIP.

Thinking of all this, my cheery Saturday morning mood dampened, and in its place memories arose from over a decade ago. That was my post-Pentecostal period, during which I, too, earnestly tried to become a Calvinist.

The thing that I could not wrap my head around at the time (perhaps I should say heart) was double predestination, a term derived from John Calvin’s assertion that the decree of election is symmetrical with the decree of reprobation. In plain English, it means that the God whom I had come to know as the ultimate source of love had chosen to damn some to the very extent that he had chosen to save others.

Some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes iii, xxi, 5)

To make matters worse, the “eternally damned” weren’t mere stats on some theological pie chart, but a significant portion of the very broken children, teens and widows that I had been ministering to for years as a pastor and shepherd. God chose the majority of them to be damned forever and no one shall stand in his way? Has God then become my opponent in the ministry? Was Jesus even aware of this? Would he be angry if he found out?

These were the crazy thoughts that haunted me. And so I devised a plan: I would become a four-point Calvinist. I would not limit the atonement, and my acronym would simply be TUIP. That would allow me to have the best of both worlds. I could still listen to MacArthur, and distribute recordings of Sproul’s The Insanity of Luther, and read Piper’s The Pleasures of God, and introduce a younger generation to Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy, and collect Pink’s books, and dislike TBN.

I could have all of this without the nagging thought that there was something darkly terrifying about God, that perhaps he did not love my children as much as I did but hated them, that perhaps the whole unfolding nightmare would drive me to a place of such insanity that I would want to escape from this terrifying God, revealing myself to be one of the reprobate after all, and ultimately suffer the inevitable fate of joining the rest of them in a cosmic concentration camp where we would suffer forever without the merciful prospect of death by gassing or gun or suffocating under a pile of corpses – all of this so that God’s perfect sovereignty and justice would prevail.

I figured that I would never have to worry about any of this again. Calvin’s reference to a “secret decree” under the guise of God’s loving exterior would never give me another sleepless night, and I would never even have to wonder whether the decree was still secret after Calvin caused it to leak out.

All of this would magically vanish through a simple subtraction!

Which brings me to the flashback. I had to test my plan, and so I presented it to one of the brethren of my newfound Reformed community. The man had a formidable intellect, and was regarded as one of the more mature men in the group. I told him that I had made peace with the fact that I am a four-point Calvinist, and asked him for his opinion. His response was immediate and to the point: “We have a name for four-point Calvinists. We call them…ARMINIANS!”

Pop. That was it. There was no way out.

During that time another brother, whom I had grown to respect and love, proved to be somewhat more gentle in his approach. He used the term “inescapable conclusion” in reference to TULIP’s L.

And then there was the discussion where all of this was applied to the hopeless fate of non-elect children dying in infancy, which was perhaps the single most disturbing experience of them all.

I’ll spare you the rest. In the end, it all became too much and my effort to morph into a follower of a dead Frenchman by the name of Jehan Cauvin failed spectacularly. Which, in the long run, turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened to me.

I put it all behind me, and conceded that my reasons for wanting to become a Calvinist (Cauvinist?) were infinitely stupid in the first place. It really had nothing to do with a desire to rethink my view of God, grace, election, free will, the atonement or anything else. These questions had been settled in my heart and mind years before, as a result of the teaching of the Bible, prayer, study, contemplation, fellowship, and simply walking with Jesus Christ through the thick and thin of life for two decades.

No, the reasons why I was attracted to Calvinism were all circumstantial. I can list them, but it is really unnecessary as the late Michael Spencer himself has already done a wonderful job in another one of his classic posts: Why Calvin is cool: An infomercial for Calvinism.

Note that Spencer starts the updated post with the words “Even though I am no longer a Calvinist, a lot of this essay is still true…”

Here’s some extracts from the post, providing us with a synopsis of Spencer’s reasons for calling Calvin cool, and perhaps providing some penetrating insights into the real reasons for Calvinism’s recent resurgence. Ironically, none of them has anything to do with the stuff that almost drove me batty over a decade ago, and ALL of them are to be found in other expressions of Christianity. (If one would only look!)

Calvinists have their problems, but going the openness route or denying the authority of Scripture are not dangers in the near future…Calvinism is fired up about missions…Calvinism is the strongest resistance to the excesses and errors of the church growth movement…Calvinism is warmly God-centered…Calvinism is contending for the Gospel…Calvinism is evangelistic, when practiced and not just debated… Calvinism has a wonderful reverence for history… Calvinism has the best approach to cultural issues… Calvinism isn’t detoured into fads (Jabez, Left Behind etc.)… Calvinists are great apologists… Calvinists aren’t on television…

Those things were all true, and wonderful, and available without having to become a double predestinationist! (or whatever it is called).

And so, in the end, I was happy to write a dear John letter to Mr. Cauvin. The whole thing was just a bad affair. I was attracted to him for the wrong reasons, which blinded me to his dark side and simultaneously ruined any possibility of other, more wholesome relationships.

These were the memories that surfaced on Saturday. And then, for a moment, I felt like phoning my old friend who had trashed my dreams of becoming a four-point Calvinist. I wanted to ask him: “How could you? How could you use a novel and questionable doctrinal construct, not a century old at the time and a babe in comparison with the doctrine of the rapture that you so despise, to bully people into a category of your own making and subject them to a ridiculous stereotype that flatly ignores their personal histories of following the Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching of Scripture to the best of their abilities?”

But of course it would be useless. I realized how little effect humanitarian considerations have on Calvinists when I read John Piper’s response to Thomas Talbott’s On Predestination, Reprobation, and the Love of God: A Polemic.

In fact, I reread it just now, and experienced a near irresistible temptation to get back in the fight and tell the whole world why Piper is wrong, and how both Scripture and common sense contradict him at every point, and why it is not okay to pray for your children thinking that they may be reprobates, and…

But then I’ll just go back there, and I’m not sure I want to do that.

Bye bye, John…

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10 thoughts on “Dear John Calvin

  1. Plumbline Faith March 3, 2018 / 7:24 pm

    Well done!

    Here’s the story of my own journey from TULIP, and what I now see as the way to reconcile verses that Calvinists love to quote with those that Arminianists love to quote. Essentially, Calvinists have too low a view of God’s sovereignty, by denying- based on more of a philosophic construct than on Scripture itself – His right to delegate the option to reject His grace.

    Anyway, with that provocative claim, here’s what I wrote over nine years ago:

    https://crossroadjunction.com/2009/01/19/essentially-reformed-or-hyper-calvinist/

  2. philipthewolff March 3, 2018 / 11:50 pm

    so sad, Tobie… such a waste of energy…. for what? Please don’t don’t “go back”… we don’t need to straighten anybody out… that is His dep’t…just remember the new math! Jesus+ nothing = everything.

    Love you Tobie.

  3. naturalchurch March 4, 2018 / 5:10 am

    Thanks for the comments, guys. You warm my heart.

  4. Chris Lovie-Tyler March 4, 2018 / 7:10 am

    Thanks, Tobie. Just wanted to say, I (still) really, really appreciate your writing.

  5. Marinus March 8, 2018 / 12:36 am

    It’s very telling to me that I have encountered a lot more die-hard Arminians who are willing to confess that their reasons for being Arminian is first and foremost a consequence of their relationship with Jesus and only secondly the result of their interpretation of scripture. Sure a lot of them can defend their position quite admirably and a lot of them do not shy away from doing so but you get the impression that talking about it is, in a way, almost painful. The clincher is that I really believe that Calvinistic reasons for believing, what they believe, is no less personal/emotional. Explained by the very impressive way in which they are able to get out of conceding to the idea that kosmos actually means everybody. To be fair though – I have come across one or two Calvinists who were simply so impressed with “the hound of heaven” who just would not let them go that they relented to the idea that they were predestined as individuals because in their minds they “found what they were not looking for” and for them the grace simply was irresistible. These people I respect even though I ‘respectfully’ disagree.

    For me – I am not a Calvinist because I could not persist in thinking of myself as elect. There were just too much evidence to the contrary 🙂 . The final blow was when I understood that for Piper (who was my mentor into Calvinism) perseverance of the saints does not mean the same thing as assurance of salvation. I held on for a while before that dreadful realization because I thought my confession meant that I was elect and because of ‘perseverance of the saints’ I would be okay no matter what. Surprise! There is such a thing as “going from us because they were never of us”. That was it. Goodbye Mr. Cauvin.

  6. Tobie March 11, 2018 / 6:21 pm

    Thanks for your comment. It made me think – especially the last paragraph, and your reason for not being able think of yourself as one of the elect. You could probably add to that the prospect of living with survivor’s guilt. Although it doesn’t seem to be a problem amongst those who do see themselves as the elect. As Edwards quipped: “When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state, so exceedingly different from it.” Ouch.

  7. Marinus March 19, 2018 / 10:20 pm

    This is interesting Tobie. The DSM-IV redefined survivors guilt as a specific component of post traumatic stress disorder. That tempted many to believe that their survivor’s guilt is pathological in and of itself. I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree with this. I am yet to see a single person rejoice while contemplating the unfortunate fate of another who was in the same boat as they were – but did not make it. The best they seem to be able to do is to follow in the footsteps of somebody like Victor Frankl and draw some sense of meaning from the experience. Now I know this is not exactly what Edwards is implying but damn I wish badly to have a look inside his mind. I think the Calvinist looks at this in the sense of a bride being thankful that her husband chose her and not the other girl. But as with every other metaphor that Calvinism wishes to employ this one too falls flat on its face because I would argue that Jacob chose Rachel but did not shun Leah despite that fact that “God saw that Rachel was loved and Leah was hated”. If the Calvinist is correct then Leah should have been left, on this side of the river bank, to die – and that somehow there is no problem with that because Leah deserved it as she went along with the deception. I do not think for a second that it is the conviction of the Holy Spirit that makes it difficult for me to ‘humble myself’ under the burden/yoke of survivor’s guilt – and so I still wrestle with Edward’s assumptions of apparent ‘relief’ at the suffering of another. I understand that the world essentially consist of ‘judgers’ and ‘despisers’ and I am by nature a despiser because try as I might I will never come close to keeping the law even by man’s standards. And so for every Moses there are “300” babies drowning in the Nile river which by my Arminian standards is only okay if what Moses brings to the table is worth the lives of 300 babies. Even God has to play by God’s own rules. And so, if I have to drown in the Nile river, then may I be the best ‘drowner’ that the world has ever seen. If it be that I am in that unfortunate position that Edwards puts all believers in then I hope to rather echo the words of God himself in Ezechiel 33:11 “why did you want to die!”. Regards.

  8. Marinus March 27, 2018 / 1:08 pm

    Tobie please forgive me. I have given up on blogging until I set my house completely in order and so I am using this space, uninvited I understand, to vent some of my theological “build ups”. That said – you are under no obligation to respond and please feel free to delete anything that offends you.

    My Soteriology is the central reason why I get up from bed in the morning. And as a results I think about it (together with my reasons for believing in the first place) more than anything else. I took the liberty of reading brother ‘Plumbline faith’ ‘s testimony / reasons for descending from the Tulip. While I was reading I found this excellent summary of the calvinist position on the ‘fairness of election’:

    “Even so, I have no particular problem with predestination – God can rescue whomever he wants, given the universal reality that we all chose to rebel against him and deserve death. Thus, he can certainly seek to rescue all if he wants, but there’s no injustice if he chooses to rescue only some.”
    – the Calvinists that I have read regularly quotes Romans 9 as evidence of this position but I would not go as far as attributing this kind of theological reasoning to the writer/brother.

    Without trying to make a case for either Calivinism or Arminiasm I would say that this is perhaps the central point where Calvinists/Reformed Theologians and Arminians will forever clash their heads.

    Speaking as an Arminian I simply cannot accept the idea that God loves the whole world, had the power to save all and chose to only save some for his own glory. The Calvinists that I have read posit the idea that the glory of God was so important that God in a sense ‘had to’ allow some to perish as ‘objects of wrath’ so that his ‘justice’ might be revealed. This would have been fine if the Bible revealed justice as greater than love… but I know that the you have scores of material on Romans 9 so I would not dare try and teach you anything 🙂

    All this just to make me feel a little better. There is not many a space in my current area where I can say these things. Not because I would be rejected – the platform simply does not exist as far as I can tell.

    Thanks for the opportunity

    Regards

    (ps. it was all written in one go and since I post openly I cannot edit. please forgive spelling errors and logical inconsistencies – wasn’t proof read )

  9. Tobie April 4, 2018 / 4:18 pm

    Thanks for great thoughts, and you are most welcome to vent your build-ups here.

    I found this interesting: “This would have been fine if the Bible revealed justice as greater than love…”

    I have been occupied with rethinking the word “righteousness” for almost two years now, and it has brought me to a place where I am seriously concerned with much of our understanding of Christianity. To cut a long story short: The word does not really exist in Hebrew or Greek. It is an invention of the middle ages and gained popularity during the heyday of the Reformation, when the Reformers were eager to convey the idea that salvation has to do with an imputed “right standing.” Yep. The pendulum swung towards the other side, and in the process the original meaning of tsedek/tzadik in Hebrew, and the dik-stem words in Greek (dike, dikaios, dikaiosune, etc.), namely JUSTICE or JUSTNESS (that is an actual English word) was obliterated.

    The ridiculousness of this shift is most evident in the fact that recent Afrikaans translations actually translate these incredible words as “vryspraak.” And so “justice” came to mean something else, namely a divine “right order” without any consideration for the actual people involved in the process. Which means you could burn someone on the stake in the name of God’s justice, as Calving happily did.

    But the justice of God is concerned with the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the alien. This is clear throughout the Old Testament, as well as the new – especially the book of James – a letter that infuriated Luther so much that he wanted it removed from the canon, calling it a “strawy epistle.” Clearly, for it challenged the Reformers’ revisionism. Thus, a tension between justice and love crept into theology like a cockroach, and it has given rise to an absurd dichotomy that never existed.

    Justice is nothing but the law of love, thus an expression of the type of conduct that would characterise the individual who treats others as he/she would like to be treated. Which is why Mt 7:12’s golden rule is revealed as the essence of the Law and the prophets. To reread Romans and insert “justice/justness” wherever “righteousness” is mentioned, is to discover a new religion. Now it makes sense that a “justice apart from the Law” is revealed, namely the unheard of idea that justice can be maintained without a written code and its regulations for conduct, retribution and deterrence. This justice comes from God and settles in the heart of the one who TRUSTS in and RELIES on God (more than mere “faith” as we understand it, i.e. “belief” – another word that has gone through the mill). Justice, as the expression of love, then becomes a spontaneous, lived reality, and it does not require to be regulated. And so love is the fulfilment of the Law.

    What a beautiful, simple, forgotten story.

    Btw, I have a new hobby. I ask unbelievers to describe the difference between “righteousness” and “justice.” (Please try it.) I have learned that the former is understood as piety, hypocrisy, holier-than-thou, saintly, thinking you are better than others (a family member spat out “I hate that word!!”), self-orientated spirituality etc. etc., and the latter as fairness, concerned with the plight of others, a wonderful type of karma overseen by humans and not the cosmos, etc. etc. I recently made a video of a class of eighth graders whom I asked the question: What would you think if we changed the name of the Justice League to the Righteousness League. I am still bedazzled by the answers. Basically, you would take the saviours of the universe and turn them into an irrelevant group of self-occupied saints.

    Hmm – I am also venting 🙂

    Another thought: If you want to see what we have done to the Bible, take Plato’s Republic and do the opposite to the Romans exercise above: Insert the word “righteousness” wherever you find “justice.” The majestic work instantly becomes idiotic. You would need a new type of philosophy to make it meaningful (makes you think about our need for theology as a discipline distinct to that of Law and Justice as practiced and understood by every civilisation since the dawn of time – God has written his Law on the hearts of the gentiles, remember?). The Republic answers one question: What is dikaoisune? And so the word is everywhere, and no English translation has ever dared to suggest that it means anything but justice (Neither has other translations of Greek literature from the period – the Bible is unique with its use of “righteousness”).

    Lastly: The nice part of “righteousness,” namely the bliss of forgiveness as explained by able teachers such as Watchman Nee, is not compromised when we get rid of the word and replace it with justice/justness. Note that ‘justification” is an integral part of justice, namely the state of the perpetrator once he/she has met the demands of justice. But to suggest that Batman exists to get the Joker off the hook by going to prison in his place is to make a mockery of true justice. (I know its a crazy analogy, but it works remarkably well with kids). Like calling the Dept of Justice the Dept of Righteousness, and the Chief Justice the Chief Righteousness.

    In conclusion: For me, no insight has anchored Christianity and the teachings of Christ so solidly to this world and its people than this one. The ethereal and mystical element has been reduced, and the whole thing works much better for me. It really boils down to how we treat others, and whether we can love them as we love ourselves 🙂

    We should have coffee…

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