This month, our Theology Book Club is going through Richard Mouw’s remarkable book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, in which he articulates a vision for how Calvinists might understand and hold their doctrinal convictions.
But first, what is this “Calvinism” thing I’m talking about?
Every school of thought has some core foundation on top of which they build every thing else–some assumption that guides and shapes the rest. In that sense, Calvinism is a cluster of beliefs that are centered around the idea that Jesus is Lord, or (in more traditional language), that the Triune God is uncompromisingly sovereign and has no competition in this area. That is the center of Calvinism from which everything else fans out. As Mouw summarizes:
“Unlike other traditions, Calvinism rigorously guards this emphasis on divine sovereignty by refusing to allow any other theological point to detract from it. [So] when Calvinists get around to attempting to explain the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, we are so concerned to protect the former that we are willing to risk sounding like we are waffling on the latter rather than to imply in any way that God’s power is limited.” (p.27)
If you’re only somewhat familiar with Calvinism, you likely think it was some archaic belief mainly held by cranky medieval Christians and Puritans that said God was in absolute control of every little thing and human free will was largely an illusion. Further, you may also have some vague sense that it’s super depressing, focuses almost entirely on how bad and useless humans are, and had some role in creating the American work ethic.
And you know what? If we’re going to give it the crassest, bluntest, most reductionist explanation, then that’s actually not that far from the truth! This has largely been the role it’s played in academia and culture since its inception. This is largely because Calvinism has several things that put it at a distinct disadvantage in understanding it. Let’s look at these .
Calvin wasn’t a Calvinist
As you may have picked up, Calvinism takes its name from John Calvin, the French pastor and theologian who led the second generation of a major Reform movement in Christianity away from medieval Catholicism.
And yet, Calvin-ism didn’t really become a “thing” until a gathering called the Synod of Dort which happened over 50 years after Calvin died. And even though you will indeed find in his writings the stereotypically harsh Calvinist ideas that Calvinism is known for, this is only a small part of Calvin’s entire theological thought which was firmly rooted in actual pastoral and communal life and not just abstract theological study. He doesn’t even talk about election in his massive 4-volume book on Theology until the very end of the third book, titled “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow.”
So Calvin was a Calvinist in the same way I am a “Coffee-ist”: it plays a major part in the way I structure my life and thought, but I wouldn’t say it defines the central core of who I am.
Calvinism is a polemic
Like I said above, Calvinism was largely codified into a system at the Synod of Dort. But this Synod was itself a response to another set of ideas. Followers of a theologian named Jacobus Arminius wrote up a summary of things they believed and presented it to the Calvinist leaders of the Netherlands in order to try and gain some acceptance. (Like Calvin, Arminius wasn’t even an Arminian–his followers were!). The Synod was called to go over their five main points and draw up a response to each.
The responses to each of their five points became the famous “Five Points of Calvinism”.
This puts Calvinism at a disadvantage because it’s ultimately a polemic–a response to other specific historical beliefs and actions of a particular time. And so, everything from its phrasings to its emphases to its most foundational interpretations were likely affected at some level by what it’s responding to.
A similar thing happens when opposition political parties are so defined by what they’re opposing that they are no longer known for what they distinctively stand for and promote! (And no, I’m not bashing Republicans. The same thing happens to every group when it’s out of power for a while.) But that leads to the last disadvantage.
Really Bad Cultural Timing
Calvinism had its birth and foundation at a really inconvenient time theologically–the 16th to 18th-centuries. Historically, it makes sense it came about at this time, but the problem is that Reformed Theology was going through a phase called Scholasticism.
Now, Scholasticism is rich and wonderful as a developmental stage in any school of thought. But not at the school’s very beginning. It detaches the ideas from real life and studies them through the abstract philosophizing and disembodied historical analysis. The writing becomes dense, there is little to no sense of mystery, and debate becomes bloodsport. It’s nothing but fighting and analyzing through dry, complicated writing and study (usually).
This makes Calvinism seem like it has harder edges than it needs to.
All these disadvantages get us to the place we are today, where Calvinism is known for its extremes and abuses rather than its beauties and charms. I hope that all who read this book with us will, like me, be enchanted by Mouw’s articulation and wrestling with Calvinism.
I am a Calvinist, in that I affirm all the things Calvinism traditionally affirms, even as I refuse to deny all that it denies (I’ll explain that more another time). Anyway, I’ll end with these words from Calvin, from his introduction to his discussion of election and predestination from his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel. Since we see so many on all sides rushing into this audacity and impudence, among them certain men not otherwise bad, they should in due season be reminded of the measure of their duty in this regard.
First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder.