The Problem with Calvinism is Fundamentalism
I have long studied varieties of Calvinism—from mainline Reformed theologies to nearly cultic Calvinist theologies. From those that have pretty much discarded TULIP to those that make TULIP part of the gospel to those who believe that “indiscriminate evangelism” (such as what Billy Graham did) is unbiblical because it usurps (or attempts to usurp) God’s sovereignty. What I have concluded is that every Calvinist theologian at least slightly differs from every other one.
Let me give a couple of examples. My late friend Alan P. F. Sell, author of many books of Reformed theology and apologetics and one-time theological secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, was most definitely not a five point Calvinist! If you doubt me, read his three volume systematic theology Doctrine and Devotion. I could not distinguish his theology expressed there from my own Arminian theology.
Then there are those Calvinists (names omitted for obvious reasons) who would not have “table fellowship” with me at conferences and events to which they invited me. I sat alone or with a few other non-Calvinists or ate at a restaurant previous to the meeting where I was invited to speak while they at together in a hotel banquet room.
I know many, many “garden variety” Calvinists. I grew up with Christian Reformed aunts, uncles and cousins. I attended seminary with Calvinist students and studied theology with Calvinist professors (e.g., James Montgomery Boice). The vast majority of Calvinists I have know cause me no difficulties. If it were only for them I would never have launched my “crusade” against Calvinism.
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My Arminian blood began to boil when a Calvinist colleague at Bethel College and Seminary asked me in about 1995 if I had ever thought that perhaps my Arminianism was evidence of secular humanism in my mind. I snapped at him and that was probably the beginning of the end of our friendship. I considered that an insult. Then I had my confrontation with John Piper at a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis in which he told me he considered Arminianism “on the precipice of heresy.” Then I read the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine devoted to articles blasting Arminianism—while misrepresenting it. I could go on.
What I eventually concluded and still believe is that the main problem with American Calvinism is not garden variety Calvinism, as much as I disagree with it, but fundamentalist Calvinism. Many of the leaders and followers of the so-called Young, Restless, Reformed Movement are not only Calvinists; they are also fundamentalists. And it is their fundamentalism that makes me rant against Calvinism—their Calvinism especially. They are the ones who preach and teach and write as if five point “TULIP” Calvinism is part of the gospel itself and anyone who does not believe in it is only “almost Christian” or “Christian, barely.”
What I find so ironic is that some of these fundamentalist Calvinists admire John Wesley! They describe him as an “inconsistent Calvinist!” That’s nonsense, of course, and anyone who has read Wesley’s treatises against Calvinism (“Predestination Calmly Considered” and/or “On Free Grace”) has to know that he was no Calvinist or friend of Calvinism.
One experience of this especially stands out in my memory. My late colleague A. J. “Chip” Conyers was a Calvinist. But he was, by his own confession, a “Calvin” Calvinist. That means that he believed there is a mystery at the heart of God’s sovereignty that the human mind cannot comprehend and he strongly resisted turning Calvinism into an ideology or even a system like TULIP. During my first year at this institution I heard that the national director of a major Baptist Calvinist organization was in town and I invited him to speak to my theology class. He did. I invited the entire seminary community to join my class for this special event and we moved it to a large room that could accommodate many people. The guest speaker presented TULIP Calvinism and stated that his church required members (not only staff) to adhere to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith which is, of course, strongly Calvinistic. My colleague, who knew the speaker personally as they had lived in the same city earlier and were both Baptist leaders in that community, confronted the speaker and accused him of turning Calvinism into an ideology.
Calvinism is wrong, no doubt about it. Not entirely wrong, of course, but wrong at the points where it is most distinct from Arminianism. I like to say that Arminianism is “righter” than Calvinism but not entirely right because nobody can claim to know the mind of God as God knows his own mind. I would never argue that Arminianism is part of the gospel or require a Baptist church member to espouse Arminianism.
In my opinion, the problem with this newish brand of Calvinism is similar to the problem with the teaching of Bill Gothard. Gothard was not wrong about everything. God is over us in the divine chain of command and we should all respect those who have true, right, deserved authority over us. But he took that truth and distorted it by turning it into the be-all and end-all of truth about human relationships and created an ideology. The same can be said of the charismatic “Shepherding/Discipleship” ministers of the 1970s and 1980s.
A huge problem for this aggressive brand of fundamentalist Calvinism shows up in my experiences with students belonging to the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement. As soon as I demonstrate one error in the Calvinist ideology they have been sold, they throw the whole of Calvinism out. I’m okay with that, of course, so what I’m saying is that fundamentalist Calvinists don’t seem to be aware of this weakness in their own kind of Calvinism. It’s a house of cards which is a big part of its attraction—to vulnerable, young, impressionable Christian minds. But remove one card and the whole “house” collapses.
What’s one card? Well, an obvious one is “limited atonement.” Twice in the New Testament the Apostle Paul warns against using one’s liberty in Christ to cause a brother weaker in the faith to stumble and fall and thereby causing someone for whom Christ died to be “destroyed” If limited atonement is true, that’s not even possible.
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