Calvinism isn’t Helpful

April 8, 2010 — 12 Comments

‘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.

Yancey Arrington

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Lover of All Things Texas. Acts 29 Network Fan. Redemption Hound. Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in League City, Texas. Author of TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You. He is currently writing a book on preaching.

12 responses to Calvinism isn’t Helpful

  1. Right there with you on this. I tend to tell people I am more reform in my tradition. In the south you might as well refer to it as the *other* C-word. I prefer to talk about Jesus, the scripture, the power of the Holy Spirit and leave John Calvin for quoting maybe on down the road some.

  2. I am grateful for men like Calvin, Luther, Owen, and even Jerry Bridges that God has used to bring people to a better understanding of who He is, but we are not here to follow the teachings of any of those men but the teachings of Jesus. Gabe, you said it that we are to talk about Jesus. Only Jesus can rescue us from our sins, not theologians who are smarter than the rest of us. Good Word Yancey.

  3. I like it… my beliefs are pretty reformed too, but when a good friend of mine told me that he couldn’t believe I was marrying a guy (Josh) who wasn’t a Calvinist, I had a hard time not laughing in his face. Partially because I knew that Josh would come around eventually – 🙂 – but mainly because it was so ridiculous.
    on a side note, have you seen the “I think my wife’s a Calvinist” video yet? funny stuff…

  4. Great topic Yancy.

  5. Yancey Arrington April 9, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    I have seen it, Mandy. Funny stuff.

  6. Hey Yancey! I’m from STL and I went to high school with Jordan Chapell – Bryan Chapell’s son!!

  7. Incidentally, I am having some deep discussions with my accountability partner and fellow Navigator about this very topic right now! We are reading “Essential Beliefs” in hopes to be done before the next C4 Training. I went to a Presbyterian high school, so I am one of those with “emotional baggage” that you mention. I had to learn it inside out, upside down, forwards and backwards. I definitely had so much of the doctrine that I don’t really want to talk about it any more. But enough time has passed that I am ok with discussing it with my accountability partner. I agree with your position in this blog SO MUCH! Thank you for this post. You have expressed my position much better than I could have – as usual! Thanks Yancey!

  8. Yancey Arrington April 13, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Very cool. I look forward to meeting his dad this spring!

  9. It took about 3 days before the “playing in the tulips” reference hit me…. Yeah, I’m quick like that. 😉

  10. Interesting article in the Chronicle today….

    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/religion/7268753.html

  11. Labels are very useful. If I say a “horse” you understand what I mean. If I had to go through a long dialog describing the animal you may or may not get it!! Calvinism if explained correctly is helpful. We all KNOW or should, that Calvin really did not invent the term or theology. It was well taught throughout the centures from Paul down through all of history. We now try and use the terms Doctrines of Grace and perhaps that is best to keep the “uneducated” off the wrong course using the term Calvinism. For those who know the meaning of the term I can’t say I would shy away from utilization of the term at all. For those immature and know not the facts about the term perhaps with them a Doctrines of God’s sovereign grace may be more in order. I find so much ignorance about Calvinism it is pathetic. Folks talk about it and after listening I know they have NO clue what it means! Of course, it was a perjorative term from the get go developed by Arminians who wished to teach their heresies! Of course, my remarks will solve nothing. Use what you will, the “labels” if taught truthfully are o.k., but when they misrepresent they can be so divisive! Basically, just preach the truth of God’s sovereign electing grace and you won’t go wrong!!

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