Why Bother with Calvinism?

I have written previously about the fallacy of focusing only on so-called “practical theology”. But it might be helpful to discuss why I think theology in general, and Calvinism in particular, is important enough to teach.

It is hard to teach people. There’s a lot of work. Teaching theology is particularly hard. Because the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) are controversial and complicated, it’s a particularly challenging topic. So why bother?

Not everything that is true is worth studying or knowing. Some specific studies are important to only certain fields, and I wonder if some knowledge is important at all. You would quickly get bored if I discussed good string parsing techniques or efficient sorting algorithms. But I’m a programmer, and I care about those things.

So how do we decide what knowledge is valuable? We value knowledge that impacts people we care about, or pertains to those we care about. That is why we know (and share!) the most trivial details of our children’s lives, but do not know who the Prime Minister of Canada is. Certainly, in an absolute sense, the identity of the Prime Minister of Canada is much more important than how many teeth my youngest son currently has. But guess which one I know?

That’s the reason we should care about theology. Theology is the study of the revelation of God. If we love God, we should value His self-revelation. We should value theology. When someone dismisses theology in favor of “practical” information, he is implicitly indicating that he cares more about his own “daily Christian walk” – i.e., himself – than about what God has revealed of Himself.

But not all theology has the same priority in our studies. Why am I teaching about Calvinism and not discussing questions about speaking in tongues? Arguing about modes of baptism?

Calvinism is essentially the gospel. It tells me about God, myself, and the severance, restoration, and future of our relationship. It teaches me that God is the sovereign King of creation. It teaches me about the incredible extent God had to go to in order to reconcile me to Him. It teaches me that I was so hostile to Him that He had to all the work. It teaches me just what Jesus was accomplishing on the cross. It gives me God’s expectations and assurance of my future with Him. Spurgeon was right when he proclaimed that Calvinism is just a nickname for the Gospel.

Calvinism also impacts many other issues of faith and practice. It affects how I approach evangelism. It affects my assurance of salvation. It gives me comfort in the midst of apparent chaos and tragedy.

As I discuss Calvinism in more detail, I will periodically make explicit the distinctions between Calvinism and other soteriological views as they impact matters of faith and practice. I want to demonstrate that Calvinism is true, and that it is one of the most beautiful and cherished doctrines.

Calvinism is sometimes mischaracterized as cold, harsh, or offensive, but I believe it is precisely the opposite. Calvinism proclaims God as a sovereign King, a loving Father of His elect who loves us enough to protect and save us from ourselves, a passionate Savior who fought for us and won a total victory. Arminianism forces God back to a “gentlemanly” distance, essentially helpless, able to do nothing but provide the potential for our salvation and whisper encouragement, leaving us alone in our helplessness.

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12 Responses to Why Bother with Calvinism?

  1. rebecca says:

    I love the contrast of passionate versus “gentlemanly”. Perfect!

  2. Understanding the sovereignty of God is one of the most practical things I can think of. Have I been blessed? God did it — praise Him! Am I troubled or ill? God ordained it — trust Him! Am I tempted? God is my Lord — obey Him! What situation is there in which remembering His powerful, purposeful pleasure will not help me be joyful, hopeful, faithful, loving, brave, grateful, and content? And what could be more practical than that?

  3. MegLogan says:

    So teach us already! I am just going crazy to hear what Calvinism is all about. No one has yet explained it to me in depth or detail. You really have to post your position, not just the label. I’m listening!

    (is that too bold of me, sorry!)


  4. Darren says:

    Looking forward to it!

    Is “Calvinism” too particular of a label, though? It seems to be one particular strand within the larger theological framework of the Reformed tradition, and the tendency to equate the two is too prolific.

  5. Kyle says:

    Call it Truth, then.

    But I’m agreed with Meg. I’ve heard a lot of *why* theology is important, but very little actual theology. Until we get to the actual teaching of it, it’s still just “practical” theology.

  6. As a former Calvinist, I look forward to your explanation of this doctrine. You say that Calvinism is essentially the gospel, and I essentially agree with your description of the gospel, but I disagree with Calvinism; at least the way I learned it, which does not seem to recognize how God shares his sovereignty with those He created in His image.

  7. Emily Eames says:

    I believe Calvinism is not interchangable with the gospel but rather adding to the word of God as so many preach it as so important. That would mean that you would not listen to Charles Finney, AB Simpson, Ravenhill, Wesley, or other great lovers of God. To me that causes division in the church to proclaim Calvinism as so important. May the the truth go marching on. I am encouraged at some of the things you say but not on Calvinism.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Gregory, I do not think the Bible supports the idea that God “shares His sovereignty” one bit. That does not mean we don’t freely make real choices and decisions, but God is _absolutely_ sovereign.

    Emily, I hope you stick around through the rest of my posts about Calvinism. I would “listen to” most of the men you listed (maybe not Finney) but that doesn’t mean they are right about Calvinism.

    You say that Calvinism causes divisions in the church. But Arminius and Finney both were the ones who caused divisions. The doctrines of grace were established before they started to oppose it.

  9. Rey says:

    Interesting post though I have just a few nitpicky issues, brother. I found it unfortunate brother that although you try to clarify what Calvinism is not that you paint Arminianism in an equal caricature. Practically, Wesley was one of the greatest evangelists of the Gospel. I?d be interested also how you describe other soteriological positions besides Calvinism and Arminianism. Also another note for some of your guests, I?m fairly sure Arminus was a Calvinist himself but opposed the teaching of Beza and company and thus Calvinism eventually solidified itself in its interpretation.

  10. Anaximaximum says:

    Calvinism is an ambiguous term, and can hardly be equated with “the doctrines of grace,” certainly not in its Seventeenth Century version by which the Canons of Dordt rigged it up into an all-out double predestination doctrine as the outcome of their Scholastic development of Calvin in their time, against the followers of Arminius.

    Then there’s the neo-Calvinism of the later Nineteenth Cenury launched by Abraham Kuyper which shifts from a Dordtian emphasis on the doctrines of grace with the non-elect elected to Hell, shifts as I say to another forward-edge emphasis on “redeemed in all spheres of life” – which became a constuctve ideology for Christian organization in all spheres of life, the church being only one instituitonalization of the fulsome Body of Christ in every sphere.

    Then came the update on Kuyper, taking an outright philsophical form in the mid-Twentieth Century, by Herman Dooyeweerd and D H Th Vollenhoven – which can be called a neo-neo-Calvinism. But the followers of which eventaully changed the name of their association in the 1980s to “the Association for Reformational Philosophy.”

    And now there’s people like me who could possibly be called collectively a neo-neo-neo-Calvinism – but we’re too hitorically conscious to want to carry the baggage of a guy at the end of his reign as theocrat in Geneva who gave the Gospel over to magistrates to burn Michael Servetus to death in the public square. No doubt, Servetus should have been jailed, tried, and then ultimately banished. But Calvin had already sworn when the Catholics had Servetus in jail in another jurisdiction, that they should exterminate and, if not, Calvin said he hoped himself to get his hands on Servetus to roast him up right.

    In other words, the old guy went stark raving mad with theocratic hubris. That’s what an open form of the Twenty First century – not rigged to protect C’s earlier achievements and writings (among which I find much of real value still) as nearly divine artifacts – would go to immediately to asses our legacy of a Calvin who greenlit the way in the name of Christ for the magistrates of Geneva to proceed to burn Servetus alive. How gracoius!, if I may ironize a moment.

    I shudder when I see groups reprise the name “Calvinism.” I’m no pacifist, but it’s difficult to see why we’d want to carry the baggage of Calvin’s name as our own identifier. But, there’s another side of the man’s life that is best preented in William Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. There are things you can admire about the man, and achievements you can hold onto with good faith. But sticking that name on your own forehead? It’s not for me.

    Yours, Anaximaximum

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