For and Against Calvinism 13

This will be our last in this series, and it merges with the series I began Monday and will continue later today. Michael Horton, in the last chapter of his book, For Calvinism , does a “SWOT” analysis of (high) Calvinism. A SWOT analysis is from organizations and businesses for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. I’m so out of the business world I didn’t know what this was so I’m glad he explained it. I applaud Horton’s candor and objectivity in this chp.

What are the strengths of Calvinism? What are the weaknesses of Calvinism? One rule: you can’t say a weakness without also giving a strength. (Fair enough?)

Here are his major categories for the SW, but I want to say one up front: the Calvinist movement scorches the superficiality of theology in far too much of American evangelicalism. And because it is theologically robust it attracts thinking young evangelicals, and many of them know of no other places to camp.

Intellectual boldness and cold intellectualism: education and the intellectual life, from church to community to universities, have been important to the Reformed/Calvinist movement. Horton observes that it can lead to smugness and arrogance, that heart is often neglected (sermons can seem like lectures and church services an exam), that sometimes it has caught the precision bug, and sometimes the doctrines leave people as cold as ice. And he argues the five points must not be divorced from the drama, the doctrines, the doxology and discipleship.

Love for truth and factionalism: love of God is the aim but sometimes Calvinism, Horton observes, is love for what is right and not enough for God or neighbor. Often there is a line in the sand drawn: those who get it and those who don’t, and some passionate Calvinists think they alone get it. He mentions that Clowney said Calvinists are the only ones proud of total depravity, and I have said it that they who believe most in total depravity seem to think it has influenced their system the least. Horton’s engaging in friendly fire.

Respect for tradition and traditionalism: Calvinists love their traditions. Quoting one of their greats is nearly as powerful, or more powerful, as quoting the Bible.

I would add one, and it is one that both Horton and Olson develop in their books: too much of contemporary Calvinism equates itself and its newly-found faithfulness to Calvin with the entirety of the much more diverse Reformed Church of the Protestant branch of Christianity. Not a few theologians have criticized me for doing the same thing and I stand corrected; the new Calvinists need to spend more time in the breadth of the Reformed movement. (I’ve said this before, but one young Calvinist denied til he was blue in the face that Karl Barth was Reformed.) Horton brings this up in the next point.

And these for the OT:

Revived interest in the doctrines of grace and replacing the church with a movement: The Reformed church is bigger than the five points. And Reformed theology has plenty of pietism and enthusiasm in its history. One need not go elsewhere to find those. He doesn’t have enthusiasm for new Calvinism unless it is planting churches. [This strikes me as odd, for this is what many of them are committed to. No?]

A new interest in sound doctrine and a new fundamentalism: Here Michael argues that theology must both conserve and progress. He opposes false conservatism and false progressivism.

Good book, Michael, Good book, Roger. Good series. [I don’t think we need a For Arminianism or an Against Arminianism, but maybe they are in the works.]


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  • RJS

    His three strengths are high on my list – intellectual boldness, love for truth, and respect for tradition. Calvinists tend to take faith and understanding the faith very seriously. This makes it quite appealing.

    The weakness differ a bit from his on the first two. Intellectual boldness is constrained by a system through which things must be explored. Intellectual boldness must be open to change. Love for truth is likewise constrained – which makes it less love for truth and more love for system or tradition. The weakness of Calvinism is that it is closed – a lens through which everything is read and interpreted.

  • T

    Strength: a great love of Paul. Weakness: Not allowing Jesus nearly as much sway in shaping the (Calvinist) gospel and faith.

  • John W Frye

    Strength: stunning theological symmetry
    Weakness: God becomes the “cosmic, unblinking stare” (Willard).

  • Joe Canner

    Strengths: emphasis on grace and on salvation as a free gift, and (notwithstanding the other post on Hebrews) assurance of salvation in the face of random everyday sin and doubt.

    Weaknesses: leads to fatalism, lack of clarity on the role of good works in the Christian life, tendency towards exclusivity

  • Luke Allison

    Strengths: A focus on God, what He has done and is doing. A very strong theology of sanctification (not Keswick and not Wesleyan, and more active than the Lutheran view)which leads to active involvement in the “change” process. A realistic assessment of the human condition once we move past misconceptions of what “total depravity” means. Intellectual credibility and, as John W. Frye said, theological “symmetry”.

    Weaknesses: Breeds people who are terrified of being wrong. Tends to emphasize the system over the human. Inadequately deals with theodicy in many cases (not all). Inevitably leads to exclusion regardless of how many disclaimers are made to the contrary. Stirs up the human problem of pendulousness more than just about any other system I’ve seen.

    Without Calvinism, I wouldn’t be a believer. But I was a miserable Calvinist. So, now I’m a believer who isn’t a Calvinist.

  • Joe Canner

    Luke #5: “Without Calvinism, I wouldn’t be a believer. But I was a miserable Calvinist. So, now I’m a believer who isn’t a Calvinist.”

    I love this, but I’m curious: what is it about in particular at Calvinism that led you to becoming a believer? I’m wondering because I could see how someone could either be led to faith or turned away from faith by Calvinism, depending on what was emphasized when.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Theologically speaking I believe Calvinism’s strengths and weaknesses are as follows.

    Strengths – God’s Sovereignty, human depravity, effect of the atonement.

    Weaknesses – God’s love for all, human value (created in the image of God, children of God, with limited and various levels of autonomy) and responsibility, and scope of the atonement.

  • Luke Allison

    Joe # 5 “I love this, but I’m curious: what is it about in particular at Calvinism that led you to becoming a believer?”

    When I was younger, I was well on my way to being a pluralistic former Christian who “hated the Church” and claimed to “love Jesus” but really didn’t do that either. Ironically enough, John Piper’s teaching gave my brain new potential: God is about joy. Not primarily regulation. From there I began to listen to old Dick Lucas and MLJ sermons, and even RC Sproul. You have to start with a foundation of some sort, and a Reformed understanding of Scripture is as good a place as any to START. I don’t think it’s a good place to stay forever. Their outright rejection of the NPP is one of the many reasons why it will always be a stunted system of thought. You can’t deal realistically with 1st century teaching if you don’t deal realistically with 1st century context, thought patterns, and literary framework.

    Ironically enough, it was listening to Tim Keller (probably more of a “true” Calvinist as opposed to a Neo-Puritan) that got me interested in other varieties of Christianity. He’s extremely gracious and not a fear-monger about other theological streams.

    I appreciate the focus on God as the primary mover in salvation and effecting “change”. But once I got into the idea of the “cosmic warfare worldview”, I couldn’t NOT see it everywhere I looked in Scripture.

  • Tom F.

    Strength: Intellectually engaged, theologically informed thinking. Very interested in developing coherent account of how the different parts of life and theology come together. Intellectually curious.

    Spiritually settled and deep, not prone to fads or the latest shallow spirituality. Calvinists seem to have the ability to instantly spot evangelically shallow trends in theology.

    Authentic wonder at God’s majesty. I think Calvinists are maestros of majesty, in that they cultivate a language and a practice that exalts this in a way that other evangelical churches sometimes miss in their rush towards God’s immanence.

    Weakness: Intellectual rigidity. The same desire to have everything fit together so tightly means that it becomes harder for them to move anything around in their thinking.

    A need to display complete confidence. There is something about Calvinism that means it is much harder for a Calvinist to say “I don’t know”, or to admit that something in theology doesn’t quite sit right with them.

    Emotionally restricted spirituality. I mean this in several senses: yes, Calvinists are likely to have more settled worship services. But even a bit deeper, Calvinists have a much harder place finding places for things like anger or deep grief in their spirituality. A Calvinist friend of mine had his brother-in-law get shot and critically wounded. His first instinct was to affirm to the family that God was in control. He never let on any anger or fear or even sadness. This just struck me as deeply inauthentic. I understand that Calvinists are going to affirm God’s sovereignty in the end, but it was like this person couldn’t let on that there was any process to that, or that he felt one way but was trying to believe another, or just that things were messy sometimes. Nope, God is good and in control, and one can’t even acknowledge that one’s emotions sometimes don’t line up with this.

  • Joe Canner

    Luke #8: Thanks for that. Piper’s stuff on joy was pretty radical at the time. I like Keller as well.