My wife and I used to be Calvinists (or ‘reformed’ as we liked to say), and we wanted our children to grow the same. We attended a Calvinist church and taught reformed theology to our children. Beginning in 2012, however, we began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the primary doctrinal tenets of this perspective.
We still have respect for Calvinism, and hope we can preserve many of its strengths within our family life. However, we have come to believe that reformed theology is based upon unscriptural foundations, that it adds to the gospel, and that it inadvertently embraces a number of heterodox beliefs. In the series of posts that follow, I will identify five of Calvinism’s faulty foundations.
Before starting a discussion of the five points where Calvinism falls short, it is important to qualify that I am talking here about “Calvinism” rather than the specific teachings of John Calvin himself. It is important to preserve this distinction, since it is a matter of debate whether Calvin was even a Calvinist. However, I do believe there are good reasons for asserting some continuity between Calvin’s teaching and the types of ideas I will be criticizing, but that is ultimately an historical question that is beyond the scope of this discussion.
The 5 points I will be exploring are as follows:
- Calvinism presents a dehistoricized Bible
- Calvinism destroys God’s justice
- Calvinism dislocates God from our experience of Him
- Calvinism teaches the heresy of monergism
- Calvinism presents a deformed Christology
For this first point of discussion, I will suggest that the Calvinist approach to scripture is radically disconnected from the historical context within which the Bible was written.
A Dehistoricized Bible
In the latter half of the twentieth century there were huge advances in our understanding of first-century Judaism, largely as a result of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and all the scholarship this spawned. These discoveries have given us a far better appreciation for the kinds of theological debates that were percolating at the time of the Apostle Paul. This means that we are in a better position to carefully reconstruct the types of arguments that Paul’s Jewish opponents would likely have been making against the gospel of Christ.
As we engage with this scholarship, it begins to look increasingly obvious that the standard debates between Calvinists and non-Calvinists on topics like predestination and total depravity were just nowhere on the radar screen in Paul’s day.
When we stop reading Paul in light of later debates between Augustine and the Pelagians or between Calvinists and Arminians—but instead read Paul in light of what historians now know about Second Temple Judaism—it becomes clear that in most of the passages taken to be the standard Calvinist proof-texts, Paul was actually addressing Jew/Gentile relations, and other related issues. Similarly, many of the passages that we immediately assume to be about issues of individual salvation actually had a more covenantal nuance, and this includes most of the arsenal of favorite Calvinist passages. All of this emerges as we carefully reconstruct Paul’s historic context in light of what historians now know of first century Judaism.
For anyone wanting to pursue this in more depth, I would recommend the following:
- The Epistle to the Romans: A Gospel for All, by Lawrence Farley (popular)
- Paul and the Faithfulness of God, by N.T. Wright (scholarly)
- Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion, by E. P. Sanders (scholarly)
- The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, by N.T. Wright (scholarly)
- Romans in a Week (audio series), by N.T. Wright (popular)