Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why do some Evangelicals diss John Calvin?


I have a number of dear evangelical Christian friends who seem to criticize John Calvin with regularity in my hearing. I have ministered alongside several people in various non-denominational settings where they have spoken with a certain amount of angst about John Calvin.

I am in the middle of an intense study of John Calvin and his writings. I am currently, at this moment (though breaking to write this post), reading through his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. I have read it several times in my life and refer to it regularly. As I have been reading it these past few days, I have been tempted share quotes with you literally dozens of times. There is just so much richness and blessed insight contained in this unprecedented work. Of all the theology I have read in the past 20 plus years of formal study, I have never read a work more careful, accurate, and well-ordered than Calvin's Institutes.

What's my point? For Christians to speak ill of Calvin or come off as opposing him in some general way, I submit the following must be true: They have never actually read much Calvin, and certainly not the whole of his Institutes.

I understand if a Christian doesn't like Calvin's explanation of this or that particular doctrine, but the whole of his writing is just so biblically solid, something else must be at work when a Christian voices disdain for the Swiss reformer. I know Calvin's explanation of the biblical doctrine of predestination ruffles some feathers, but anyone who has actually read Calvin knows this wasn't his key doctrinal emphasis. Calvin's chief focus was Christ. Period. To me, being a Calvinist means an emphasis on the sovereignty of God manifested most clearly through the work of Christ. Calvinism is utterly God-centered and Christ-exalting. Keep these descriptions in mind when I use the word Calvinist going forward. True Calvinism is not adequately described simply as a term synonymous with predestination. Yes Calvin carefully taught the doctrine of predestination (as Scripture lays it out), but to say it was his primary emphasis is just plain wrong.

OK, I have a few theories as to why a number of evangelical Christians speak ill of Calvin:

1. They have heard characterizations of Calvin through isolated quotes keying on predestination and have decided they don't like Calvin. Based on this malformed dislike, they never actually read Calvin for themselves.

2. They have actually read some of Calvin's teaching, probably on predestination, and it has rightly convicted them to think more biblically, however they are resisting the truth. What they have read has tweaked their perceived autonomy and they don't like it. Speaking ill of Calvin is a way for them to put off facing biblical reality.

3. They have been exposed to some modern professing Calvinists who act like obnoxious jerks, therefore they won't give Calvin a fair hearing or reading.

If the first reason for angst against Johnny C describes you- I plead with you to pick up Calvin and read. You've been duped. You have to believe me. You must read Calvin for yourself. Skip any references to predestination if you want. I'm telling you that life is too short to not read Calvin because some ignoramus mis-characterized him for you. Read Book 2, Chapters 15-17 and see if you're not hooked.

If the second reason for shunning the long bearded Frenchman describes you- you're in a dangerous place, so be careful. It may not be Calvin you're resisting, but rather God Himself. I was once where you sit, but I won't try to apply the usual biblical arguments in favor of God's sovereignty in election and predestination at this point. Again, pick up Institutes and read Book 2, Chapters 15-17 for starters. Christians love Christ. There's no way you won't love these chapters.

If the last reason for dissing the Calvinator describes you- please forgive them (us). It's not Calvin's fault. Try to understand however, many new to what Calvin emphasized (the sovereign grace of God through Christ) feel as though they have been set free. It's common for people who come to understand sovereign grace, and what it means for life, to react poorly against their old way of thinking and those who taught them. Some Calvinists can tend toward an apparent arrogance because of confidence about their position. Arrogance and pride are sinful demeanors and not in any way a reflection of John Calvin himself. Frankly, the doctrines Calvin emphasized will work to humble us when understood correctly. Often times it's not arrogance or pride at all, but rather a genuine zeal for all Christians to be liberated as we (Calvinists) have. Again, pick up his Institutes and read.

10 comments:

Reepicheep said...

Prairie Village,

For some reason your post isn't showing up. I'll answer as I remember what you said-

First, I don't see how any criticism about Calvin as a husband or father holds up to the facts. Calvin got married to a widow who had two children. We don't learn much about his relationship with the children, but Beza refers to Calvin's faithful rearing of them after Idelette died. He and his wife had one son who died in infancy. As far as a husband goes, he speaks very well of his wife when he alludes to her. We just don't have much to go on about his fathering and husbandship. It's a total stretch for someone to sight this as a criticism about Calvin.

2. Regarding how to handle areas where we might disagree with Calvin- if Calvin's wrong on something, he's wrong and shouldn't be followed. That goes for any teacher of Scripture. Now, if I arrive at a different interpretation than Calvin on a given text or doctrine, I will definitely re-check my position before staying fast. My main reason for promoting the reading of Calvin is his emphasis and clarity on the gospel. He is strong across the board, but when it comes to sovereign grace, Christ, and the Word of God- one is hard pressed to find a more able servant of God.

I'll have to think more about the Onan example you cited.

Rick Calohan said...

It has been my experience with those who consider themselves to be evangelical and are of an Arminian bent (although they will never admit that they are) , that they like double predestination and they don’t like anything that impinge on their libertarian free will choice. So they blame Calvin, they blame Sproul, they blame Piper, they blame anyone who is a Calvinist of distorting the Character of God, and then they run their diagnostic questions at you as if you are on a street corner and you are not a Christian at all. Or maybe I’m just describing my cousin and his fellow travelers. However, if a Calvinist opposes Romanist doctrine they will fight with you until the end. That is why when Redeemer and Berean joined forces to form Heritage Christian Academy I was surprised at first and maybe that has to do more with Dave Hunt and Berean Call.

Granted I know I am guilty of being sarcastic at times when I should be more understanding and that is perhaps why I never became a teacher, but I can honestly say I don’t ever remember a time that I did not know Christ and my parents were not church going people. From TV Evangelist such as Bill Graham (Arminian) I am sure I have prayed the prayer a thousand times. Being a former member of the PCUSA (liberal mainline church) it was not really if ever discussed in the pulpit, Calvin was looked upon much like George Washington, a founding father. Calvin’s Institutes, TULIP or DORT were not topics of sermons or lectures, and Wesleyan hymns were I am sure slipped in due to evangelical popularity.

I must say it was not until later on in my walk did I learn more about John Calvin, the courses I took at Covenant Seminary including Calvin’s Institutes were very beneficial, and I think you are spot those who oppose Calvin do so because they misinformed of too prideful of their religious views or simply have not read Calvin let alone the fullness of Scripture with the Holy Spirit’s spectacles.

Rick Calohan said...

Previous post should have read "that they don't like double predestination."

Woody Woodward said...

Woody's Part 2 Thoughts on God's Sovereignity:
As believers we are not in charge of our lives! ----- God is----and God is always in total control of everything. It’s God’s plan for His elect to honor HIS authority and to yield to HIS Lordship.

Well we all know what happened—Ole’ King Neb ignored Daniels’s prophetic words. And after 12 months had passed, the king was walking around on roof top of HIS royal palace, reflecting, even chanting to HIMSELF of all the great things that HE had done. But just as the arrogant rich fool in Luke 12, GOD immediately brought HIS judgment upon him while he was still arrogantly boasting of all of his selfish and greedy accomplishments.
The haughty King Nebuchadnezzar boldly and conceitedly proclaimed,---- “Is this not my Babylon, the great country which I myself have built by the might of MY POWER and for the Glory of MY majesty! I am in total control and ALL of the people shall serve me and everyone must obey ME” And if they don’t -they WILL surly DIE! And while the words were still in his mouth, A Voice came from heaven and said, “Okay king, since you refused to recognize ME as the MOST High, SOVEREIGNITY has been removed from you, may My words will be fulfilled. You will be driven to the field this very hour and until “seven periods of time” pass UNTIL YOU RECOGNIZE THAT I AM the most HIGH GOD and only I am ruler over mankind and only I can bestow greatness on whom ever I wish!”

And so it was—the king was instantly reduced to a crazy man who ate grass and slept in the fields with the cattle. ------ He remained in this dreadful situation UNTIL----UNTIL!!!

The Bible goes on to tell us the good news, the GOD NEWS! Looking at verses 34-36. “I King Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my reason returned to me, I recognized and I blessed the Most High and I praised and honored Him who lives and reigns forever and ever. For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but HE does according to HIS will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of all the earth; no one can say, “Why have you done ….??? Or why haven’t you done?? At that time my reason returned to me. And my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of MY GOD.”
Verse 37! “Now I Nebuchadnezzar will praise, exalt, and honor the King of heaven,-----for all His works are true and His ways are just----, and HE is able to humble those who walk in pride.”

Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity did not return …. until after he recognize, after he acknowledged that ONLY GOD is sovereign, and he was willing to embrace God’s right to control everything. Then and only then was he able to begin to think and reason logically about Who is GOD ----and what SOVEREIGNITY really means.
AND to joyfully understand John Calvin, we must embrace the same absolute doctrine of truth!

Woody Woodward said...

Wow, your blog lines up perfectly with Pastor Nathan’s powerful exegesis last Lord’s Day from Daniel 4. The Sovereignty of GOD jumps out in almost every verse, in particular, most emphatically is the absolute Sovereignty of God spelled out in the following verse dialog.

My thoughts are long, so I will send this in two parts.

With no sugar coating, Daniel talked straight to the king with some mighty hard words of truth. Daniel warned the king …that unless he was willing to turn from his evil ways and acknowledge…. that only GOD is Sovereign--only GOD has the power to control the world…Old King Neb was about to lose his self-made kingdom of arrogant pride.
Daniel told the king, because of all of his sins and arrogance and because of the way he was ruling over his empire, UNLESS he would repent and turn to the one true GOD, show mercy to the poor, the king was going to be sent to the fields and he would be forced to live like an animal.
Daniel told him that after many days his hair would look like Eagles feathers--- and that his fingernails would grow so long they would be like birds claws.
Daniel went on to say -----the two very key things that helped me greatly understand what the Sovereignty of GOD really means.
HERE IT IS! In verse 25 of Daniel 4: “Until YOU RECOGNIZE” OH KING ---and then in verse 26—“AFTER YOU RECOGNIZE.”

Let me say this again, “Until YOU RECOGNIZE” ---- and then “AFTER YOU RECOGNIZE.”

The word “recognize” means a lot more than they seem to say at first glance. The deeper meaning here is much more that to just observe. God was saying to the king through Daniel, “Until YOU WILL ACKNOWLEDGE and then RECOGNIZE who GOD REALLY IS!”

You see, to Acknowledge is even a much stronger word than just to recognize.—Acknowledge means “until you can and will embrace” ---“until you can submit to”---- “until you can resign to the fact!” ---- “Until you cannot truly understand!”
Recognize what? ---- Embrace what? ---- Acknowledge what? --- Submit to what? Understand What?
Verse 25, “That the Most High is the ruler over the all mankind, and HE bestows authority and sovereignty on whomever HE wishes.”

Zach said...

If I may proffer a comment -- tongue only partly in cheek -- your first two explanations of why an Evangelical might not like Calvin seem to evidence the very attitude for which you ask forgiveness in explanation number three.

Don't you think some of those Evangelicals who speak ill of Calvin do so for reasons other than ignorance of his work, obduracy, or as a visceral reaction to mean Calvinists?

Far be it from me to give Evangelicals the benefit of the doubt, but I'm thinking that some of them might be thoroughly familiar with Calvin's writings, honestly open to God's truth in their lives, and forgiving of personally unpleasant Calvinists -- yet, for substantive reasons, may still find much to dislike in Calvin.

Reepicheep said...

Zach,
Yes, I suppose there are some evangelical Christians who have read the entirety of the Institutes and still dislike him.

It's hard for me to imagine given the VERY straightforward, biblical approach Calvin uses. The vast majority of evangelicals would appreciate the whole of what he says.

No, a Roman Catholic won't like what he says.

Again, the balance of the Institutes is a straight forward explanation of the gospel, Christ, and God's Word. For an evangelical Christian to diss Calvin, they have to ignore a huge portion of what they supposedly agree with.

R W S said...

Very well said. In my circles being a Baptist , if you bring up Calvin you are looked at like you have 2 heads or worse , possessed. Just kidding but almost.
The point is most that dislike him so much have barely a understanding of the man , and the sources they do use are ones so bias and so distorted that their depiction is worse.
Then if you ask, have you read his writings , read his sermons most will say no . I love it it when some level the charge , that those Calvinist worship the wrong JC . Funny arminians , now if we could get them to read the Bible within context and do proper exegetics .

Jim said...

I agree. I've read the Institutes and have dipped into long portions of his commentaries on the NT.

What struck me most of all was what I took to be an overarching pastoral spirit in his work. Now, perhaps this struck me only because I was expecting a predestinarian systematics. But unlike so many Calvinists, Calvin himself does not step away from the antimony where the Bible addresses human responsibility.

Obviously I have my disagreements with particular points, but for the most part I wish that modern Calvinists were more Calvinistic on the sacraments, and the Sabbath, on God's sovereignty first and foremost being a pastoral doctrine (a la Psalm 139) rather than a systematic affirmation and totalizing framework.

Bill Burns said...

Marilyn Robinson (Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of "Gilead" fame), in her introduction to her excellent book of essays, "The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought," says essentially the same thing, Pastor Felich. She exhorts her readers to do the legwork of actually reading primary source material to form ideas about a particular thinker or author, instead of taking everything you know about a figure as gospel, but only secondhand.

Specifically, with regard to Calving, she says his critics should 'do him the courtesy' of actually reading him, if I'm not misquoting her here.

When you come to think of it, the practice of forming opinions secondhand is really just another form of engaging in gossip. Gossip about DWEM (Dead White European Males), though is nothing if not fashionable nowadays.

If you can't be virtuous, don't be out of style, eh?