I’m reading this weird little sermon transcript about “The Difference Between Calvinism and Reformed” and it’s making me think anew about the big problem with denominational fights: namely, that their proliferation and quarrels only illustrates the lack of validity for Christianity’s claims.
One Out of Thousands, Tainting Millions.
Though one group thinks there are just a couple hundred denominations, most others put the count closer to 30,000 to 40,000. (That wasn’t a typo! Here’s how one researcher gets that number.) We don’t know exactly how many there are because not everyone uses the same definition of the word “denomination” or counts them in exactly the same way, but generally speaking it’s a group of Christians/churches who regard themselves as a distinct group.
Most only have one or a few churches in their entire group, while others have millions of members and thousands of churches–like the Southern Baptist Convention.
Calvinism isn’t really a denomination, though. It’s a type of Protestantism that is taking over fundagelical churches. This philosophy infests and taints existing denominations (so there are Calvinist-leaning Baptists and then also Baptists who understand how soul-crushing Calvinism is and steer clear of it). It’s the very nastiest type of Christianity there is, chiefly because it is the province of the most controlling, inhumane, and vicious Christians of them all.
Its main idea is that the Christian god already knows who’s going to Heaven, and if you’re not part of that lucky group (the “elect”) then you’re never going there no matter what you do. But if you’re supposed to go there, then you will inevitably become a Calvinist and won’t ever leave the religion.
Calvinists generally follow a five-point doctrine abbreviated to TULIP: Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. And the philosophy has sparked a number of outgrowths as people argue about exactly what these five points mean and how they ought to be applied: Neo-Calvinism, Christian Reconstructionism (R.J. Rushdoony, at whose spiritual feet can be found a number of Christian Right nutjobs), New Calvinism (exemplified by Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller, and Joshua “He Kissed Dating Goodbye, or Did He?” Harris), and the like. There are others still.
As cruel as its ideas are, Calvinism is one of the most honest types of Christianity there is. The Christian god revealed by the Bible’s myths is a horrifying character, but most Christians insist that he’s still somehow loving and merciful, grace-filled and benevolent. Not so, Calvinists. When you point out that their take on Christianity makes their god a villain of the first order, they’ll be the first to agree. (It’s not really their fault they enjoy their position as his elect so much!)
It was this eager embracing of malevolence that prompted Rachel Held Evans to write her classic post “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart,” and I suspect her disgust with Calvinism became part of why she eventually abandoned evangelical Christianity altogether.
As in most Christian denominations and factions, though, there are numerous disagreements and arguments to be found within and around Calvinism. One of the strangest I’ve seen involves what is apparently a huge difference between “Calvinism” and “the Reformed faith.”
Well, What IS The Difference?
I’ll let the pastor of Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia explain, because it’s too hilarious for words. (It doesn’t list his name and I couldn’t find it on his website, so either he’s moved on or has been arrested for the usual stuff that his peers get arrested for.)
I used to be one who thought that being Reformed meant holding to the Five Points of Calvinism as explained by the acrostic T.U.L.I.P.. . . And you don’t have to fabricate things [HAHAHAHAHAHA O RLY? — CC]; you don’t have to manipulate people to grow a great church. You just preach the Gospel faithfully and God’s going to give conversions as he wills and you just be content and leave it in his hands. You see, that’s part of what it means to be reformed instead of just simply being Calvinistic.
It’s my contention that we can be Calvinistic and not Reformed but we can’t be reformed and not be Calvinistic. But my hearts desire is that we be Reformed. So we’re going to be Calvinistic if we’re Reformed but, additionally, there are going to be certain things true of us as individuals and true of us as a Church that are going to mark out what a Reformed congregation is.
See? Clear as mud, really. Reformed is clearly a subset of Calvinist. (I suppose this pastor hasn’t yet seen the Wikipedia page.) But in Calvinism, you fabricate things and manipulate people, while a Reformed pastor only has to “preach the Gospel faithfully” and their god will do the rest.
Oh! But he goes on to explain that Calvinists don’t take the Bible seriously and don’t think it’s authoritative or sufficient. They don’t really consider “God” sovereign and think of him as just a vending machine that gives them stuff. BUT NOT REFORMED CONGREGATIONS!
Well, I’m glad that he’s cleared up this important point.
So apparently Reformed churches are like Calvinist churches except they are extra-dextra-mega-fervent and totally for real serious about the Bible. He goes on to add that Reformed Christians go in for “church discipline,” which as a fundagelical pastor I can imagine he’d be very interested in lecturing his flocks about (we’ll take that up soon–it’s really ghastly, even by fundagelical standards) and which he presents as something they must do or else be in rebellion to their god.
I’m sure this news will be very informative indeed to all the Calvinist Christians out there who are sure that they are not fabricating anything or manipulating people, who practice sadistic and cruel “church discipline,” and think they’re already “preaching the Gospel faithfully” and letting their god do the rest.
Elsewhere, Ligonier Ministries–a Calvinist outfit if there ever was one–thinks that Reformed Theology is Calvinism, but draws a line between these and what they call “Hyper-Calvinism.” And apparently Hyper-Calvinism is what a lot of people think of as Calvinism, which Ligonier’s writer is not happy about at all.
And this whole squabble between Calvinists and Reformed Christians is just one teeny tiny little part of Christianity, like a pair of hobbits fighting over an apple over in the Shire while the Battle of Five Armies is going on. It might seem utterly irrelevant to us, but to them, it’s of absolutely vital importance.
I’m Sure That’s Cleared Everything Up.
Denominational warfare is as old as Christianity’s first stories about Jesus.
When I was Christian, I had this gauzy idea that there was a sweet, pure, “original Christianity” that did the religion the right way and whose members were TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who were free of hypocrisy, pride, and all the other sins I saw in my peers and leaders. Searching for that Christianity took up a great deal of my younger years–and caused me no end of heartache.
My quest failed because I was searching for something that didn’t exist and never had.
I didn’t know, then, that Christianity’s main defining feature (beyond its members’ hypocrisy) is its sheer divisiveness. As soon as Christianity was invented, people quarreled about exactly how best to do it. From its very beginnings, it was marked by arguments over doctrines and practices–with not one single idea or ritual consistent through the entire religion. They had a tough time even deciding what materials to put into their sourcebook. Even after a unifying body of Christians came to dominate the religion, it was still marked by schisms and heresies–countless numbers of them, with most forgotten now but some surviving even after centuries of brutal suppression.
Christianity was never a single-malt Glenlivet; it was always that exact kind of raucous Johnnie Walker blend that makes a very mean drunk, with its ideas taken from a number of sources, mixed, argued about, and even physically fought over. What we see today is just the amplification and end-run of thousands of years of the same arguments and divisions, all in service to the goal of one-upping all the other Christians and being the most superior and correct.
Why This Infighting Is So Bad (For Christians).
Saji George has really put it best with his famous cartoon:
In a way that diagram reminds me of an evolutionary tree, with branches upon branches coming from one common ancestor. But it’s not quite correct. That “1 AD” is wrong. It really should be dozens of initiating branches, each branching its own branches, until a bottleneck a couple of centuries later and then from there exploding outward.
Either way, though, this diagram shows me that Christianity is not to be trusted.
Every single one of those final twigs on the “tree” there is a group of people who are totally positive that they, at last, have figured out how to do Christianity right. Only a precious few of those groups acknowledge that others might be equally correct; instead, almost all of them have nothing but bad things to say about their fellow denominations.
You saw this arrogance on display in the sermon I linked–that Reformed pastor is very sure that regular ol’ Calvinists aren’t serious about the Bible like his group is, that they aren’t anywhere near fervent enough, and don’t consider their god to be a sovereign over them. I’m sure that’ll all come as a big surprise to any actual Calvinists who hear those insults, but it’ll remind the rest of us that our outgroups are not “those who are totally unlike us” but rather “those who are almost exactly like us except for one little detail.”
Instead of moving toward a greater understanding, Christians like this Reformed pastor are only splintering further and further apart from each other.
And that generally only happens in groups based on stuff that isn’t real.
In science, when we don’t understand something we make similar predictions and conclusions about the facts we can actually perceive. There may be a lot of competing ideas at first–indeed, we saw some of that around the time Germ Theory (“It’s jusssst a theeeeeory!”) was first devised to explain why and how people got sick. Miasma theory (“bad air”) was one of the major ones, but there were others: supernatural agents, off-balance humours, “little seeds of disease,” etc.
Here’s the big difference between arguments in the scientific community and the religious community: in science, we make predictions based on our models, test those predictions, see what happens–measuring and observing the results of those tests–and finally we revise the model if need be and re-test it anew. With Germ Theory, we figured out how to observe the microscopic and the fantastically-far-away and also how to falsify and test our ideas, we slowly winnowed out the explanations that didn’t yield successful tests and didn’t fit the observations we were making. Over time, these competing explanations tend to streamline. The scientists who bought into those incorrect theories changed their tune because evidence mounted in support of the correct one. There’ll still be little arguments about specifics, but the main issue was eventually settled. Nobody–not even Christians–thinks, as Jesus did once, that epilepsy is caused by demonic possession (yes, that’s satire).
And oh, sure, there’s a whole bunch of alt-med woo-peddlers who deny Germ Theory and religious zealots who can’t accept the idea of evolution, but they’re distinctly not held in high esteem by their peers.
Even in ideology-driven groups, like movement atheism, the differences aren’t based around what reality looks like but rather what political and cultural goals the group will pursue. I’ve never heard of an atheist group splintering because of arguments about whether life on Earth arose from abiogenesis, or seeding by space aliens.
But this proliferation of Christian denominations over beliefs and doctrines, with no such streamlining in the end but only greater and great splintering and division, tells me right off the bat that there is no such observation-based testing to be done in this religion.
There is literally no way to touch base with reality to find out which explanation, which model, which idea is correct and which ones are not. (Note that I don’t call any of these ideas theories, since they lack every single essential component of an actual theory. Little wonder so many Christian science-deniers misuse the word!) So when one person advances an idea, nobody can talk that person down from their idea–and then another, and another, and another person advances one of their own.
Every single Christian out there thinks his or her quirky understanding of the Bible is the correct one, and their fellow Christians can’t successfully argue about it because all they’ve got is the same horseshit every other Christian has: Hail Mary punts to personal revelation, hair-splitting over “the original Greek and Hebrew,” appeals to tradition (or to newness, or other Xs), and threats and insults to the Christians who disagree with them. At no point whatsoever can a Christian who believes in the one true doctrine of Oneness, for example, set up any kind of experiment to determine the nature of Jesus–but neither can a Christian who believes in the one true doctrine of the Trinity.
These doctrinal squabbles not only have nothing whatsoever to do with the charity and compassion Jesus is thought to have commanded of his followers, but they also demonstrate very clearly that the Christians involved care a lot more about being correct and superior to everyone else than they do about all that boring stuff they didn’t wanna do anyway. Every hour a keyboard warrior spends arguing about sola scriptura or loftily defending double predestination (or Creationism, or straights-only marriage) is an hour not spent tending the hungry and comforting the bereaved–or, for that matter, whipping up miracles and regrowing lost limbs and eyes on command before Jesus comes back (ANY MOMENT NOW!) to whisk all his Elect up into Heaven before the unwashed heathens start to seriously suffer. Christians began experiencing a serious mission drift almost from the beginning of their religion, and these squabbles highlight how bad that drift has gotten.
But Wait, There’s More!
A non-believer doesn’t need to expend a lot of effort to knock down Christianity’s house of cards, not when other Christians have already done all the work. I’ll let my friend the Apostate take it from here:
Time and again the Bible will contain material that just completely wrecks otherwise coherent systems of Christian doctrine and often the heavy-lifting has already been done by some other group within Christianity.
Want to blow molinistic excuses for the problem of evil out of the water? Calvinists have already done the work. Want to undercut Sola Scriptura? Catholics have that covered. Want to illustrate the absurdity of the Trinity? Ask those Jehovah’s Witnesses that come to your door next Saturday. Want to show how evolutionary theory isn’t compatible with Christianity? Look no further than Answers in Genesis. What do all of these groups have in common? They all use the Bible to knock down each other’s theological systems. Not all of the arguments are that great, mind you, but my point still stands. They all show that the Bible can be an effective weapon against nearly every form of Christianity.
All of these differing opinions can’t possibly all be correct. But with the emergence of each new competing idea, the likelihood seems to grow that they could all be wrong.
There’s not really a way for Christians to resolve their denominational differences. There’s no reality for them to touch base with (and certainly, it goes without saying, no deities behind any of it to tell them either way). Even if there were, the architects of the religion have very carefully arranged their system in a way that absolutely cannot be tested and which absolutely does not rely upon–or respect–observations and measurements in the physical world.
When I hear about a movement whose members only seem to splinter further and further from each other and that has no way of testing its own claims or graciously moving past errors, I know to step very carefully indeed around them. That’s not a 100% guarantee that the group’s ideology is untrue or that its adherents are going to be bad news, but it’s a good start.