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?