Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why are Calvinists / Reformed so divisive?

Scot McKnight has published a letter from a pastor asking for help with a small and vocal group of Calvinists in his church who are being divisive over theology and not prepared to live and let live. Over 200 reader comments have confirmed that a massive number of people have had the same experiences. Scot's response thread is similar, as is Denny Burk's thread.

My own experiences and observations over the years have been clear and unambiguous - people of Calvinist / Reformed persuasions are vastly, vastly, more prone to: vocal condemnations of what they perceive as inaccurate theology, extremely harsh criticism, uncompromising insistence on adherence to their doctrine, exclusion and rejection of those failing to adhere, extreme arrogance and condescension, ungraciousness, disinterest in learning about the views of others, unwillingness to tolerate others in love or compromise, relentlessness in zeal, venomous, promoting their own views as Truth and fighting against and eradicating others.

It appears to me that this has been a growing worldwide problem for some years now. One poster describes it aptly as "a war-time mentality", which I think really is insightful, and numerous posters blame John Piper for promoting such a mentality. I doubt it's Piper alone, but it does seem to be the case that modern Calvinist apologists are prone to preaching the need to "fight" for the gospel truth and "defend" it against those who would "attack" and undermine and deny "the central truths of the faith".

What interests me is the question of why they are acting this way. Is it something in their theology which naturally leads to this sort of behavior? Perhaps. I can think of a number of possible reasons offhand:
(1) Emphasis on the importance of humans doing nothing in salvation is going to lead to less Christ-likeness in the lives of believers.
(2) Emphasis on justification by faith alone has a tendency to be interpreted as justification by belief alone, which gets interpreted as "justified by correct beliefs", and hence extreme importance is placed on correct belief.
(3) Because the emphasis is on faith alone, their Christianity is only doctrine. So often among other Christians, Christianity is about how you live and doctrine is ignored. Whereas the emphasis on faith alone cuts off the rest of Christianity and hence doctrine must be contended for because it is the center and only part of the faith in a way that it is not for other Christians.
(4) Belief in predestination is likely to lead to less evangelism, and more focus on the saved - eg teaching them correct doctrine.
(5) Their belief in the lack on any innate value in humanity is more likely to result in disdain and a lack of love toward fellow humans.
(6) The doctrine of predestination is one that a large number of people find morally and emotionally repugnant on the grounds that it is unkind and unloving. People that accept such a doctrine are thus more likely to have greater acceptance of behaviors that other Christians consider unkind and unloving.
(7) The doctrine of predestination provides an example of God arbitrarily excluding and condemning people, when imitated among humans this leads to exclusive and divisive behavior.

One poster suggests that it is "as much about a culture as it is about a theological position" and that it is the culture of harsh criticism and exclusiveness within these groups that breeds its own. I can think of a few cultural, rather than theological reasons why this might be the case:
(A) Perhaps the origin of the doctrine during the period of turmoil and persecution in the Reformation has left this sub-culture with a war mentality? I'm inclined to doubt it could have lasted that long without other more important factors.
(B) The level of propaganda / indoctrination of members among Reformed churches seems to vastly outweigh anything among other denominations. Members are trained far more heavily in their tradition than what other Christian traditions do. The subsequent zealousness with which the members defend their faith is probably greatly a result of how well they understand their own tradition and how much they see it as their own.
(C) Similarly the culture in these churches seems to place a lot of emphasis on "preaching the gospel" to believers on an extremely regular basis. Most other denominations have no interest in preaching the gospel to believers. Thus "the truth of the gospel" becomes more important to these churches because they hear it often.
(D) Up until 30 years ago the vast majority of conservative biblical scholarship supported Calvinism, but in the last 30 years conservative biblical scholarship has vastly improved for a variety of reasons and as a result has systematically undermined, demolished and disproved the exegesis on which Calvinist ideas were based. Calvinist apologists have responded by attempting to fight scholarly biblical exegesis which has had a trickle down effect and infected their followers to "fight" for their gospel.
(E) It's a recent fad, it will pass like all fads do. Perhaps certain recent writers have contributed by writing works in an inflammatory fashion.
(F) The introduction of the internet has affected Calvinism in a way it hasn't affected other Christian denominations so much (probably because Calvinism focuses more on ideas rather than practice, which are thus more easily discussed).

So those are a range of possible factors that I can come up with. I'm left wondering if I've thought of the right factors, and if so, which of the factors I've thought of are the most important ones. My best guess at what I see as the most likely explanation is: Calvinism has lost massive ground in biblical studies in 30 years with the majority of conservative biblical scholars now agreeing that fundamental doctrines of creedal Calvinism were built on biblical misinterpretation, which has led popular Calvinist Apologists and Scholars to launch a defensive attack to "fight" for their gospel and so they see themselves as being on a war-footing which as a mindset has filtered down to their followers, and done so much more than it once would have as a result of the internet, and the situation has been worsened by a number of theological and cultural factors which cause Calvinists to be more than usually prone to this sort of behavior.


Blogger Dane Ortlund said...


The review will be up later today, though as a Calvinist I'm not sure you'll have much interest in it in light of your last few posts! :)

ALso as a Calvinist, I apologize to you for the loveless zeal I and others have often exhibited. It's inexcusable. And it is antithetical to Jesus' teaching and sacrifice. Perhaps it will be meaningless, but I learned and saw in seminary (Covenant Sem. in St. Louis, USA) that real Calvinism--as I would put it, though you wouldn't, biblical Calvinism--produces a life of love and gratitude, since all is of grace. The kind of Calvinism you have described is, sadly, quite real and common, but it is not real Calvinism.

If we disagree on theological grounds, I submit to that--what I would be sad about is if you were to write off a theology due to vociferous and arrogant proponents of it, rather than due to the doctrine itself.

Blogger tychicus12 said...

Your whole post is very a very insightful demonstration of a belligerent sinner wondering out loud why it is that "other Christians" don't follow the emotional response set of the fallen human heart on the presumption that to get outside of that emotional response set is supposed plain evidence of being outside of true orthodoxy.

Your best honesty is a lie.

It is that plain. You are in a full blown worship of your own best honesty while denying the plain self-honesty of God as revealed in Himself as His Word and simultaneously denying He is Creating Speech as God. Thus you genuinely think no "actual" creation ever takes place and of Calvinists in particular not as new creatures in Jesus Christ who got that way by hearing God, but as merely the same creature as you are following their own best honesty and the distinction between you and them not one of you not being a literal new creature in Jesus Christ and they being truly born again, but as two identical creatures and one with a mere love of vain argumentation as a quirk of "them" being them.

You constantly deny the truth,do so with an emotional response set that has been given you by Lucifer and you do this with such ease as to astound a real, literal new creature in Jesus Christ with the sheer temerity of your accusations against God that you call "honoring God".

You are in your own eyes very well intended and take this to be the equivalent of saved.

You ain't kiddin'. That's a fact.

Neither are you excused.

Proverbs 20:6 Most men will proclaim every one his own kindness; but a faithful man who shall find?

In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

Blogger Andrew said...

Oh I certainly don't write off Calvinism because of the character of a minority of its adherents. I was just wondering why these people act the way they do.

Great satire.

Blogger Nathan said...

Aw man! How come you get to get those sorts of comments Andrew? I want some!!!

Blogger Nathan said...

And kudos to dane - you illustrate my take on it, that the problem is not necessarily with calvinism, but is with some calvinists. From my own experience, I have encountered reasonable, and unreasonable calvinists.

Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Andrew, as someone who was brought up as a Christian in something of this kind of Calvinist group, but over 30 years ago (and no longer in it), I can testify that it is not only something of the last 30 years - although it may have seen some kind of revival in more recent years. I remember how as a young university CU member here in England I was told about how in the early 20th century nearly all churches had slid into liberalism, and only a tiny heroic minority had stood firm against this and set up the IVF (later UCCF) - and that through IVF's efforts, and with pastors who had been its members, a small but growing minority of churches had been brought back to the biblical truth. But we were taught how the battle by no means won and that we needed to continue to go out and fight the false doctrine which was still dominant in the church. As this was a vital spiritual battle, more or less any means to win it were acceptable.

Of course there was some truth in this caricature, but also a lot of distortion.

Blogger Aaron said...

Hey Dave,

Now that it has been over 4 years since this post, do you stand by your thesis of Why Calvinists are so divisive? I would love to hear your thoughts on this movement since. Thanks - Aaron

Blogger mckcathy said...

No branch of Chrisondom has perfect understanding. God’s ways are higher than our ways. Calvinist act as if they have perfect understanding of the things of God. Their doctrines are spelled out systematically and taught zealously.

The truth is there are points of doctrine that Christian scholars have been debating for thousands of years. It is blasphemy to believe that finite man can have perfect understanding of the infinite God. We see through a mirror dimly.


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