Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 1): Calvinism presents a dehistoricized Bible

John Calvin

By Robin Phillips

Introduction

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:

20 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post! Since I grew up a Calvinist, I look forward to more. I would love to see more examples and specifics in your post, but I really appreciate the resource list and your designations of popular/scholarly/etc.

  2. I see what you’re trying to say with this point (that predestination versus free will wasn’t a contested issue among the first century church), but what would you say to individuals who would argue that Paul is speaking in a way in which predestination is a part of his language because everyone already accepted it?

    1. There is no doubt that both the apostle and certain segments of Second Temple Judaism advocated predestination and other deterministic elements in their philosophy, sociology, and theology.

      However, what’s most important for us, is not only the way in which they understood predestination (or “election” and other related issues), but also what it means for us as Christians, the true Israel of God, recreated in the True Israel himself, Jesus.

      Many fathers, including Greek ones, advocated a predestination based upon foreknowledge, but never with regards to evil. We have a number of statements like this in sixteenth and seventeenth century catechisms and confessions, written largely in response to the theological changes taking place in the Western churches at that time.

  3. All that build up and only three paragraphs? At least give me an example (or more) that supports your contention that Calvinism dehistoricized the Bible or speaks of the covenantal nuances.

    1. “…push a synergist hard enough and he will essentially say “God can’t make someone a believer,” meaning God is not powerful enough to change someone’s beliefs. God can drag you to heaven kicking and screaming. Praise be to Him, He is doing that to me.”

      God is Love, not a divine being out to prove he is all-powerful. This is where, as Calvinists, you have strayed from the Apostolic Faith in a grave way. You have centered your whole juridical system of doctrine around protecting God’s sovereignty, complete with checks and balances to make the system workable. But what you’ve done is created a monster God, one who is more concerned with proving His complete control over His creation than loving it and bringing it into full communion with Himself. For the ancient Christian, what makes God so incredibly transcendent is not His power to change your will against your participation, but that He DOESN’T force Himself upon his creation, even unto the eternity. At least, not in the Calvinistic way. It’s not that God “can’t make someone a believer”, it’s that He “won’t”; that’s how much He loves us.

      “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:5-7)

      This is divine love we are told by Paul to imitate, one that “does not insist on it’s own way”, and “endures all things”. This is the love of God that He has for us. To put it your way, the Bible tells us so.

      As for being dragged to heaven kicking and screaming, this is true, but for the non-believers. Perhaps you should look into the historical understanding of Heaven and Hell. The Pharisees saw the righteous acts of Jesus, who was “bringing the Kindgom of Heaven”, and hated his righteousness to the point of crucifying him. What happens when He comes again in glory bringing His Kingdom to all corners of creation, and they can not only no longer crucify Him, but cannot do anything about it at all? This is Hell: being in the presence of God Almighty who has come into His Kindgom and hating it so much that one cries “O that the rocks would fall upon us!”.

      To conclude, you would do well to stop reading the Bible from a Calvinistic viewpoint, and start reading it in the context and worship of the historical community that put it together in the first place.

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  5. Robin, could you tease this out with certain NT texts for me? Particularly how this informs one’s understanding of Ephesians 1 and Romans 9?

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