Several years ago, I read an article about the increased popularity of Reformed theology among Southern Baptists, and the author was more sympathetic towards Calvinism. While the author did an admirable job getting both sides of the issue, interviewing gentleman such as Al Mohler of Southern and David Allen of Southwestern, he/she (forgot the gender) said something along the lines of, “Calvinists believe that others have not yet realized the systematic splendor of Reformed Theology.” Indeed, this so-called “systematic splendor” is strongly asserted by many Calvinists and is often one of the most attractive aspects of Reformed theology to Christians who want to be more intellectual. The way Calvinism is often presented makes it seem, on the surface, as one big puzzle that is put together in a neat way. What other system can give a summary as efficient as TULIP?
Due to this, Calvinists drill Calvinist theology in their churches, and many Calvinists are well-trained to recite the five points and bring up Scripture references on the fly. They have developed a reputation for being dogged defenders of the “doctrines of grace” and for a “God-centered” theology, as opposed to the “man-centered” theologies of everyone else. Monergism vs. Synergism. Grace vs. works. Glory of God vs. glory of man. The issues are cut and dry if only people would read the Bible properly. Hence, many Calvinists assume that those Christians who are not Calvinists are, at best, not yet educated enough in the Scriptures or, at worst, not really believers or believers who are so immature that they reject obvious teachings in the Bible. If non-Calvinists could only see how everything fits together. Such confidence has produced a haughtiness among many Calvinists that even other Calvinists have noted with great concern.
To be fair to them, I’ve seen many Christians use bad criticisms of Calvinism and fail to use Scriptural arguments against it, further feeding the belief among Reformed people that non-Calvinists are ignorant. However, I’m going to be frank: I have often found this confidence to be amusing, and irritating, because while many critics of Calvinists use bad arguments, there are many Calvinists whose only familiarity with opposite viewpoints are caricatures given by other Calvinists. When they find that the alleged “systematic splendor” doesn’t fit like a perfect puzzle the way they thought, it can be a bit entertaining seeing their reactions, ranging from anger, disbelief, and downright shock.
I’ve had several conversations with Calvinists and have brought up old, old objections to it, such as the scriptural dubiousness of limited atonement, Reformed theology’s unique problem with the problem of evil, the contradiction of using the concept of “allow” in a deterministic system, etc. Again, these are not new objections and have long been levied against the Reformed position with, in my estimation, no adequate answer. Nonetheless, for many lay Calvinists (and even those who went to seminary), they have so little familiarity with the actual objections to Calvinism that they’ve looked at me speechless, completely unpreprared to answer them. It gets even more amusing when they’ve found that I’ve heard all the typical arguments regarding the interpretation of Romans 9, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 17:9, etc. Personally, I have no problem conversing with Calvinists on these matters in a civil manner, but the second many of them find out that I don’t reject Calvinism because I’m completely ignorant, they are normally not so eager to continue the conversation.
This is not to toot my own horn; I have lots to learn still and I’m not so arrogant to think that I’ve figured out the totality of the Bible, and I have great respect for many Reformed pastors and scholars (heck, my brother and father lean more Reformed than I do and I don’t spend my time trying to fight with them). However, there lies the problem with many Calvinists: They think they have it all figured out, and what’s worse, most of them have not done any real study on their own. Pretty much everything they say has been merely taken from their favorite pastors and authors, so much so that they display a level of tribalism that is unique among them (something that pretty much all non-Calvinists have noticed and other Calvinists have sheepishly admitted). For more knowledgeable Calvinists, they are aware of many objections but often pull the “mystery” card to get out of the problems, noting that they are mere men who haven’t figured everything out and that we should not question God. I appreciate the humility. Of course, not only does that open up the use of the “mystery” card for others (Arminians, for instance, could then just answer the question, “How can God guarantee his promises if men have free will?” with “It’s a mystery, and you shouldn’t question God”), it exposes the fact that Calvinism isn’t as splendidly systematic as its adherents want to advertise.
The problem here is how many Calvinists teach, to be honest. For example, many Reformed youth pastors straight up teach the five points to their youth and give them a caricatured view on the objections to Calvinism. I’ve seen many explanations of Arminianism by Calvinists which amounts to, “Arminians basically think you can earn your salvation, which is a form of Pelagianism.” Such blanket statements make me watch with entertainment when Calvinists bristle when others describe Calvinism as “the belief that God is responsible for evil and willy-nilly predestines people to Hell.” I don’t support such a lack of nuance, but as I like to say, “If you’re willing to dish it out, you better be willing to take it.” The result is often kids (and adults) who know how to recite Reformed theology and develop a high sense of pride over it, but who would be flabbergasted if they encountered an informed non-Calvinist. The pretense of superiority is so strong that Reformed theology often becomes a badge of pride that must be defended with great wrath, a dangerous and frankly silly attitude. At one seminary chapel, for example, one of our professors gave a non-Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 that was met with ire by Calvinists, some of who even claimed to be personally offended (seriously, how insecure). As a strong believer in local church authority, I support their right to teach how they see fit in their churches, but I think it’s still worth pointing out that the way they teach often produces Reformed Christians who are a bit more confident in the awesome systematization of Calvinism than they should be, leading to arrogant dealings with other Christians.
The solution here is a heavy dose of humility and reality. One thing I appreciate about many Calvinists is their heavy emphasis on Scripture, even though I disagree on many of their interpretations. Calvinism, like other systems, is an attempt to give a general, sweeping explanation of the Bible and the matters of God. And that’s just fine. Perhaps it does it better than any other system does (I don’t think so, obviously, but those are posts for another time). What’s not fine is to pretend that such attempts are not all without difficult issues. Any systematic viewpoint of the Bible will run into hard questions and texts because, after all, it is a human attempt to capture the truths of God in their entirety. We should expect that we’ll run into our own limitations. That doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and give up, nor does it mean that every interpretation carries equal weight. It does mean that we should approach theology with humility and grace towards other Christians who share the same concerns about the Bible as we do rather than automatically presuming that they have some “man-centered” agenda that we need to snuff out. It also means that asserting “systematic splendor” is both dubious and arrogant, a belief that not only falters in the face of very real difficulties but also creates prideful pseudo-theologians who often defend Reformed theology out of self-preservation than a concern for biblical inquiry.