Are Calvinists Arrogant?

I’m much more involved in political/cultural battles than I am in theological squabbles, but ever since I first dipped my toe in those tumultuous waters, I’ve heard the same criticism again and again: Reformed believers are just so darn arrogant.  When I first heard the critique, I scoffed.  Surely not.  After all, who has less reason to boast than a Calvinist?  Not only can we take zero credit for our faith (can a zombie take credit for someone graciously giving him the antidote?), but the theology is, frankly, not that complex.  Let’s face it: “God is sovereign” is not a hard concept to grasp.

I kept scoffing — until the evidence mounted and mounted.  Ex-members of the PCA described endless theological disputes, other Christians I respect opened my eyes to the subtle jabs hidden in blog posts and public statements, and even official outlets like the PCA’s own magazine began carrying articles noting (and lamenting) the denomination’s often uncharitable contentiousness.  I even felt its sting directly as a church official responded to one of my own inquiries (admittedly, a rather adversarial inquiry) with a condescending declaration that I didn’t really understand Calvinism.

Again: What’s there that’s tough to understand?

Arminian pride I can get.  After all, if you truly have free will, then you deserve some degree of legitimate credit for discerning the truth.  Your pastors deserve credit for communicating truth in a way that it is most easily understood, and your good deeds are, well, your good deeds — at least to some extent.  (And yes I know I’m over-simplifying).  But a prideful Calvinist?  It should be an oxymoron.

And yet the reputation exists.  Why?  I have three non-mutually-exclusive theories:

1.  Lots and lots of Calvinists are arrogant.  Let’s start with the Occam’s Razor explanation.  We could have a reputation for arrogance because, well, we’re arrogant. This of course begs the question as to why, but let’s start with noting that our reputation is in part well-deserved.

2.  Calvinists are a squabbling, disputatious lot.  I used to think that my old church (the one I was predestined to leave), the a cappella churches of Christ, had cornered the market on fratricide.  If you live in the heart of Church of Christ country (as I do), then you’re familiar with the phenomenon of two churches from the same “denomination” brooding at each other from across the street, and you likely lived through the newsletter wars of the 1990s, and the endless controversies over things like gyms in church buildings, taped music during weddings, and basketball goals in parking lots.  Growing up in the churches of Christ was like growing up in in a community center built by the Crips and Bloods — without declaring a truce.

But we Calvinists certainly give the Church of Christ a run for its money.  Where my ancestors used to break off and start their own church, my fellow congregants bring claims in church courts and glare from the pews at preachers they despise.  The theological disputes are at least as intense, the language every bit as nasty, but — crucially — that nastiness exists when we don’t actually believe souls are at stake.  In my Church of Christ upbringing, lost arguments could mean damned souls.  Not so for the Reformed, yet we fight on.  And on.  And on.

Of course there is room for healthy disagreement in any denomination, but unless disagreements are conducted with grace and charity, one or both sides will always come across as arrogant, bull-headed, or just plain jerks.

3. Calvinist theology sounds arrogant to modern ears.  Simply put, it’s tough to talk about the “elect” in our egalitarian era without it sounding harsh, unforgiving, and elitist.  Even if the “elect” can’t take any credit at all for God’s grace and mercy, then very concept itself puts many of us on edge.  I can see it in almost any religious discussion — when “the question” is popped: “So you actually believe that God has chosen some people for salvation and left the rest of us for damnation?”  I will rephrase, of course, and try to reframe the discussion around God’s mercy towards a broken and depraved world, but the true Good News of the Gospel so completely depends on there also being a bad news we don’t want to hear (that we’re lost, sinful, and evil — richly deserving judgment) that it’s impossible to be Calvinist and be in step at all with our modern, “up with people” everyone-gets-a-trophy culture.  In other words, even when we leaven our words with love and grace, the mere vocalization of our beliefs strikes many people as utterly insufferable.

Oh, and if you combine actual arrogance and a contentious spirit to an out-of-step theology, well then you’re basically the superhero of d-bags — the Superbag.

What’s the antidote?  It’s more than humility, really.  Our zombified, putrified soul was lifted out of its flesh-eating blackness only because of the amazing grace of a loving God.  We did nothing at all to merit our rescue any more than lost sheep do anything at all to merit the Shepherd’s rescue.  Cognizant of this fact, shouldn’t we be the most grateful people alive?  It took a trip to Iraq and back for me to become truly grateful.  But it shouldn’t have taken riding over an antitank mine that didn’t explode for me to understand grace and gratitude.

So here’s my message to my fellow Calvinists: let’s proclaim the Gospel, but let’s get over ourselves.  After all, how can we possibly be cocky about a simple theology that we couldn’t possibly understand without divine intervention?

  • Agkcrbs

    Seems to me one solution to discovering oneself chosen would be to struggle to one’s utmost to mitigate the unfortunate counter-destiny of others by being the servant of all, rendering to them every conceivable pity and charity, since they wouldn’t get it otherwise. If no pre-eminence granted to others would possibly detract from one’s own expectation, then one may as well make the most of their election by surrendering all self-importance and sending their sun and rain all the more liberally upon the unjust as well as the just. If such “up with people” motives did not animate the believer, to neutralise opposite tendencies inherent to believing oneself elected, indeed, an observer would rightly doubt whether said election had been correctly self-ascribed by said believer.

    • john

      Can you rephrase that last sentence to make it more understandable please.

    • Kathryn Brown

      And I thought predestination was tricky…

  • Philip C

    Uh! Did someone else who left the church of Christ actually end up as an insightful Reformed Protestant?! I have found my long lost theological brother.

    • David French

      Were we separated at birth?

  • Patrick Smith

    One reason why Calvinists sound so darn arrogant is that they are typically absolutely convinced that they are right. Reformed theology touches on so much more then just those 5 tulip points… it becomes a complete systematic theology that helps define the answer to just about any question in the theological realm.
    When the Calvinist interjects himself into a conversation he typically starts speaking in terms of absolutes, whereas other theological perspectives are more inclined to dialog with each other and consider the possibility that another perspective might also be right.
    For instance… imagine two colleagues dialoging about the fall of Adam:
    Colleague #1: “I think people will only be held accountable for their own sin, not because of what Adam did.”
    Colleague #2: “You may be right, but don’t you think that we inherited a propensity to sin from Adam?”
    Colleague #1: “That’s probably true…”
    Now, enter a Calvinist into the conversation:
    Calvinist: “You’re both wrong. Because of Federal Headship, Adam’s sin is imputed to fallen man just as clearly as Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the elect.”

    • reformedsteve

      Hard not to speak in terms of absolutes when you are convinced that the Bible is the only objective absolute truth.

      I personally have a hard time with the professing Christians out there who are more enthralled with “conversation” than with what the Bible actually teaches.

      In the SBC for instance a group of men got togather and came up with a document that was refuting Calvinism. They talked about what they believed the Bible taught and because of this they spoke in absolute terms. Now, I believe these men to be absolutely wrong, but I give them credit in that they spoke in absolutes, because they were speaking about things dealing with absolute truth.

      For what it is worth I think it is more arrogant to speak about Christian doctrine without once referring to the Scriptures. In your above example of Non-Calvinists engaging one another, I couldn’t help but wonder if these two are so arrogant that they actually think that what eachother thinks is of any real value compared to what the Bible says.

      I also can not help but wonder if Sola Scriptura being an absolute statement is equally as arrogant.

      • Library Mama

        There is the arrogance that everyone is mentioning. The Bible being truth is not the same as you thinking you fully understand its truth. To assume you do…well yup that is arrogance.

  • Stormin Norman

    In my humble opinion, the reason Calvinists come across as being arrogant is that they act so sure about their human understanding of election. The doctrine of election is so difficult for the human mind to fully grasp , that we non-Calvinists find it foolhardy to act as if you have it all figured out.

    The Bible is filled throughout with a tension between election and free will, such that you cannot elevate one over the other in your theology. You must accept the truth of both, while realizing that only God can perfectly reconcile the two truths.

  • David Oatney

    I can’t fault the Calvinists for being so sure that they are right (even though I am extremely sure that they are not), because a few of us Catholics have collectively known we were right all along.

    I think that God himself will sort out all rightness and wrongness on the Last Day…

  • Kathryn Brown

    Predestination…:::Sigh.::: I love the PCA church that I started attending a couple of months ago. They are so kind towards skeptics with a past like myself. When i learned about predestination I was heart-broken! :-( I’m sure I’m not the only one planning on joining the Presbyterian church that feels conflicted over this. I’m just glad it’s not part of my membership vows.