‘Calvinism’ isn’t helpful.
I’ve fired up some of you already, haven’t I? Some of my friends are deleting my Twitter and Facebook connections as you read this. Never fear, I’ll give you the context of that statement shortly.
Know from the beginning, I’m not anti-Calvinistic. The first thing I said to the senior pastor of the church I currently serve when asked to describe myself theologically was, “I’m a Calvinist.” In addition to our church’s essential beliefs, we suggest Wayne Grudem’s Calvinistic-friendly Systematic Theology to those who desire a better understanding of our general theological disposition (Our small group leaders must read Grudem’s Christian Beliefs). This spring I will begin my doctoral studies at Covenant Seminary, a Calvinistic seminary. I could go on and on about how given I am to the Calvinist understanding of biblical interpretation (e.g., I sleep with John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion beneath my pillow – okay, just kidding), but I think you get the point.
I like Calvinism but, from my pastoral perspective, it’s not helpful as a term for use in your church. So much so, that I don’t refer to myself as a Calvinist, I don’t talk about Calvinism, indeed, when someone in our church wants to engage me in a discussion about Calvinism, I usually decline. Yet I bet if you asked those in our church what we thought and taught about God’s sovereignty in salvation and all that goes with it (e.g., election, perseverance of the saints, total depravity), you would likely get a textbook Calvinistic answer. But if you said, “Oh, you guys are Calvinists,” most would quizzically look at you and unequivocally respond, “Huh?”
I hope to keep it that way.
Let me share with you a few reasons why I don’t think the term “Calvinism” is helpful in pastoral ministry.
- The term is polarizing for many. Let’s face it, scores of people in your church have emotional baggage with the word not necessarily because of the truths espoused by Calvinism but because at some point in the past they got into a fight with some over-excited, under-educated kid who stumbled upon the Five Points of Calvinism and wants to bludgeon everyone in the theological octagon with their knowledge because they’ve finally arrived at the truth. Sadly, more often than not, what many of them believe (and promote) is a poor caricature of Calvinism which both offends and turns off everyone (including Calvinists). Unfortunately, that caricature is all people will remember when they hear you use the term “Calvinism.” Thus they’ll say silly things like, “Calvinism will kill a church’s heart for evangelism. No person who believed in election ever went after lost people.” Consequently, you’ll find yourself stuck in the mire of baseless arguments and mind-numbing discussions that will slow down and hamper your mission.
- Similar to the last point, the term Calvinism excites people in my church who I don’t want excited. Dr. Michael Horton, a Calvinist theologian, describes as entering the “cage phase” those who’ve recently become Calvinists and are so enthused by their new understanding that they not only can’t stop talking about it (24/7). Like fundamentalists handing out Chick tracks at Willow Creek, they unyieldingly force themselves upon others in order to “convert them to the truth.” (The truth being their brand of Calvinism). It amazes me the boldness “cage-phase’rs” possess in talking with other Christians about Calvinism but then amazingly transform into shrinking violets when it comes to talking with non-Christians about Christ. That’s not something I want to promote on either front.
- Finally (and ultimately) I’d rather my people come to an understanding of the doctrines of grace from an exposure to Scripture than an exposure to a system. I will have failed if they say, “I believe in election because I’m a Calvinist,” when they should proclaim, “I believe in election because I believe the Bible.” I’m not anti-systems; on the contrary, everyone believes systemically whether we realize it or not. However, I want people to look to God’s Word as the final arbiter of whether something is true or false. If at any point a system doesn’t line up with Scripture then, at least at that point, we reject that system’s understanding. This isn’t a good practice for only Calvinism, but Arminianism, Dispensationalism, and likely every other “-ism” you might hold.
To be fair, I do think it can be helpful to articulate your distinctive beliefs. I often refer to my theology as having a “Reformed” perspective. Personally, I think that term is better received pastorally than the oft-misunderstood and oft-maligned “Calvinism” – it’s kind of like crossing the ocean in a luxury liner than a raft, it gets me where I need to go with a lot less risk.
So, I would sincerely ask any pastor, What do you get by using the term Calvinism with your people? I’m sure there are good reasons. I just can’t think of any.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment to play in the tulip field with my family.