Is Your Calvinism a Graven Image?

The New Calvinist movement has, in some respects, developed a prideful reputation. Be it well-intended over-audacity for truth, sinful hostility towards others, or simply pride – there’s not much evidence we can draw upon to prove such attitudes are not among our ranks. It was for most a worldview-shattering conversion into the Doctrines of Grace. The courage to trudge-through tradition and cultural hostility often becomes aggressiveness once we’ve completed the jump.

Yet ‘hostility’ doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ll be honest: it’s easy for my Calvinism to become an idol. I think many of my Reformed brethren can relate. After considerable reflection, I’d like to share four ways that Calvinistic soteriology may become a graven image. These are four questions that hopefully will prove helpful in avoiding a worship of Calvinism.

I. Do you assume that Calvinistic confessions could not be improved upon?

How do you read the Westminster Confession of Faith, or the 1689 London Baptist Confession? I know you probably would say that it does not hold the same authority that Scripture does, but do your actions betray you? If I am unwilling to critique any man-written statement in light of Scripture, I am equating that statement with Scripture. Holding TULIP accountable to the Word of God does not mean that TULIP has to be changed, it means that I am willing to change it if I see it contradicting Scripture.

The entry-level example for Calvinists is probably the doctrine of “Limited Atonement.” Is it true? Sure. Is it well-worded? Not really. If you have participated in Reformed dialogue for any considerable amount of time, you understand that Definite Atonement or Particular Atonement more faithfully communicates the doctrine. The term should be changed in order to more accurately communicate what Scripture teaches. An assumption that Calvinistic confessions are beyond such criticism is evidence that I probably idolize Calvinism. It is functionally asserting that my human systemization of doctrine is infallible and on-par with God’s own Word.

II. Do you unconditionally support the opinions of Calvinistic theologians?

This is similar to the previous point. Specifically, I have in mind particular faith-heroes that we may look-up to – whether living or dead. Do I accept everything John Piper says on blind faith? When James White writes something, do I believe it simply because it comes from him? Even Paul’s commission pointed to Christ as the true authority: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). In matters of doctrine, we must hold our theologian-leaders accountable to Scripture. We trust them, we follow them, we are thankful for them – yet they are not prophets of divine revelation.

In matters of conduct, we likewise hold our theologian-leaders accountable to Scripture. We must be willing, brethren, to say, “Yes, John Calvin was a sinner. He made some mistakes at Geneva.” Likewise: “Yes, Martin Luther was not perfect. His anti-Semitic attitude was sinful.” Through the centuries and into the modern day, we should never blindly defend ethical decisions of Calvinists. Everyone is subject to God’s holy standard.

III. Do you reject an anti-Calvinistic claim without Scriptural evidence?

In short exchanges when I don’t immediately have a passage in mind, yes: I’m willing to fall upon my confessions to say, “I don’t agree with that.” Confessions and traditions are good. Everyone has them. They are like guardrails, keeping us on the pathway of faithfulness. However, we understand that these confessions and traditions are only authoritative to the extent that they align with Scripture. I idolize my confessions when I’m unwilling to say, “Does Scripture really teach that?”

In dialogue with non-Calvinists, this idolatry can manifest itself in a different way. When my opponent claims something that is contrary to Calvinism, what is my basis for denying his claim? Is it that Calvin said something to the contrary? Perhaps Alistair Begg preached a sermon against it last week? These reasons do not suffice, because only one will do: “That claim is not supported by Scripture.” Our reason for rejecting anti-Calvinistic claims cannot be simply because they contradict our systemization of truth. Our reason must be that they contradict Scripture. Thus, if I reject an anti-Calvinistic claim without any idea what the Bible says on the subject – whose word am I really worshiping? Sometimes the best thing to say is, “Let me do some study and get back with you.”

IV. Do you consider anti-Calvinism to be evidence of an unregenerate heart?

One mark of Hyper-Calvinism is that everyone who is not Reformed in their soteriology must not be saved. Most Calvinists I know understand that this is silly. Yet honestly, I often idolize my Calvinism in such a way that functionally communicates that my non-Calvinist siblings are really just step-brothers and sisters. They’re in the family, but just by the skin of their teeth. I may not say this but how I treat them communicates it.

Wait, though – what do I believe about the atonement? I believe that Christ secured salvation for God’s elect. I affirm that He definitively paid for the sins of His people. So…if this anti-Calvinistic Christian I’m debating with is saved by Christ, then how can I consider his sins to be less atoned for than my own? Who am I to say that obedient theology grants me more intercessory work from Christ? Do I really believe that faithfulness in exegesis is a warrant for a greater portion of Christ’s Spirit? Perhaps it would be wise if I considered repentance to and faith in Christ the standard of considering one to be a brother rather than how sanctified his theology is.

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