Why I’m Not (Quite) a Calvinist

Earlier today a friend of mine posted Piper’s praise of the Calvinist TUILP theory on facebook. I booed it. To which my friend responded: “Why boo? I know you don’t like Piper, but you are an Augustinian, no?”

Here is my response.

I am broadly Augustinian, yes. Basically—though I don’t use these categories my self—you could say I’m a four-point Calvinist with a number of qualifications.

I’m good with T as long as we clarify that it doesn’t mean we’re totally bad all the way down, just that no part of us is unstained by sin. (Calvin himself understood this, but I think it’s worth pointing out again).

I believe in U. But the way Calvin (and Augustine, for that matter) conceives of U, it is terribly bad news for the non-elect and, I think, makes God into something of a moral monster. If you’re going to have a robust Augustinian doctrine of U—as I do—it really needs to be of the Barthian (and, I think, biblical) sort, wherein election is always good news for the non-elect.

Just as an example, the nation of Israel is elect but it’s not about her own salvation. The life of Israel as the people of God is miserable. But that’s because Israel is elect not for her own blessing, but “for the blessing of the nations” (Gen 12). So it’s good news for us that the Jews are elect and not us. Likewise, the Gentiles are grafted into the vine, not for their own sake, but for the salvation of the Jews (Rom 11). And, of course, the prime example is that the choosing of The Elect One, Christ, results not in his own glorification, but in brutal crucifixion. But again it’s wonderfully good news for us—the heart of the gospel, you might say—that it’s Jesus Christ, and not us, who is The Elect One. What Augustine missed, and most of the Western theological tradition with him, was the biblical pattern that our salvation is wrapped up in the election of the other.

I find L, no matter how you spin it, both unbiblical and deeply disturbing.

I can dig I.

I believe in P, but again with a caveat. It’s at this point, I think, that Calvin fundamentally distinguishes himself from Augustine, and I tend to go with Augustine. Augustine’s doctrine of perseverance was precisely about why you cannot know whether you are among the elect, because you cannot know that you will persevere to the end. We are saved, says Augustine, in hope but yet not in reality. Or to use the Pauline phrase, we are among “those who are being saved” (I Cor 1:18). For we can never know that we are truly among the elect until we have seen the gift of grace play out in out perseverance to the end.

Calvin’s doctrine of P is exactly the opposite. He says that we can know that we will persevere to the end, and thus that we are truly among the elect, by discerning that we have true saving faith. That kind of knowledge, it seems to me, is just not possible.

What’s more, having to discern that I have true saving faith is the cause of all kind of psychological and spiritual problems what I just don’t want to deal with. (1) I have to look into my own heart and know not only that I have faith but that it’s the good kind? Ugh! How could I ever find true saving faith in my own heart? It’s so dark and dirty in there it’s really hard to see, and so full of lies and mixed motives (Jer 17:9). After all, we do believe in T, don’t we? Much better just to pray “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24). (2) And even if I could see clearly in my own heart, what would I be looking for? How would I know that I have true saving faith? Would I see that I’m growing in sanctification? So I have to convince myself that I’m getting more righteous (even more humble!) That’s a psychological game I’m just not willing to play. (3) Besides, in our own hearts is just not where faith looks. Faith looks away from itself to Christ. Faith couldn’t care less about faith, how good or genuine it is. Faith only cares about the One to whom it clings. So I’m just not willing to do all the things you’d have to do to make Calvin’s understanding of P tenable.

And that’s why I’m not (quite) a Calvinist.



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10 responses to “Why I’m Not (Quite) a Calvinist

  1. Somehow I didn’t even have to guess which friend it was. What a 180 that dude has done theologically in the time I’ve known him.

  2. Luke

    Ah!! Thank you for this!

    I think you’re spot on with the U making God a sort of “moral monster” but how do mean that election is good new for the non-elect?

    • Joe

      Luke, paragraph six is my rough response. Do you have a specific question about it?

      • Luke

        Where do the unconditionally un-elect fall in God’s salvation plan? It seems with your last section of that paragraph you kind of all but dismiss the U.

  3. A

    The assurance of one’s perseverance based on the strength of faith has never been an emphasis in Calvin. The basis of assurance is the faithfulness of God’s promise to us in Jesus Christ. I think that you are reading revivalist theology into Calvin’s thought. Your gripe with L is rooted with your problem with U. But I imagine that you wouldn’t have a problem with L if your U encompassed all people. L is not so much about number as much as it is about the definite (not possible) accomplishment of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. Now the problem with expanding U and L to all people is the whole book of Revelation. At the end of the story we see that not everybody gets in.
    Nice write up! I enjoyed reading it. You’re a very good writer.
    -AZ Calvinist

    • Joe

      You’re probably right that I’m reading late Edwardsians into Calvin, fair enough.

      My problem with L, however, is mostly unrelated to my thoughts about U. My problem with L is that (1) it’s entirely without biblical warrant, and (2) it limits the scope of the work of Christ, which is to say it truncates the fundamental expression of God’s love. Calvinists, I understand, worry that not to affirm L is to limit the power of the work of Christ. I can only suggest a complete overhaul of their conception of power. They need to read all the Yoder and Cobb they can get their hands on.

      As for U, I actually think it can be quite limited. In its deepest expression U refers to only one person. But that doesn’t limit, rather it expands, the scope of salvation, because U is always good news for the non-elect. So good that at the end of the book of Revelation the gate are left open.

  4. If I may, why not drop the whole point thing anyway. The so-called 5 points of TULIP do not reflect Dort’s categories. Have you read any of Richard Muller’s critique of TULIP and the so-called 5 points?

    The danger is the use of TULIP as a tool to understand and categories classic Reformation theology. If you read Ken Steward’s essay, “TULIP” was a term coined about 1915, but before that there was actually a lot of diversity of expression. So for example, Shedd could affirm unlimited atonement and limited redemption. Dabney could affirm unlimited expiation and limited redemption. For both Shedd and Dabney, the atonement/expiation was for all human sin.

    Also, and this may startle some folk, but limited atonement as defined by TULIP was just not taught in the Reformation times. And many at both Dort and Westminister rejected the sort of TULIP construction of limited atonement.

    Thanks for your time,

    • Joe

      Thanks for stopping by, David! As you can probably tell I’m no expert on Calvin or Calvinism. My reason for using TULIP in the above overview was primarily that the original fb post to which I was responding employed it. Also I thought it would serve my purposes well enough as a spring board into my own barthian view. But your point is well taken, though, as was A’s above. I concede that I may very well have misrepresented Calvin or the Calvinist tradition. That was not my intention, just plain ignorance.

  5. Jason

    There are several things I would want to reply, but my chief concern is your treatment of perseverance. If I’m reading you right, you don’t think anyone can know for sure that they will persevere? No one can be confident in their salvation? John’s writings are all about assurance and how you can know and WHY you should know. 1 John 5:13 says he writes so that we can KNOW that we have eternal life. I don’t look into my own heart to find that, I see the life of Christ being lived out through me. Jesus said if you don’t believe my words, at least believe the works I do. I see the fruit being produced that I could never produce. I see things being done that I would have never done. And it leads me to worship. And it makes me confident that He who began a good work in me will perfect it till the day of Christ Jesus. I am secure because salvation is His work being done in me and through me by Him. I am assured perseverance because He cannot fail, not because I’m doing better or my heart is better off than it used to be. The very fact that my heart is deceitfully wicked and desperately sick makes it all the more obvious to me that this is His work, not mine. My worship is a response to His work, which to me is the basis of election. Life precedes action. I was dead, He gave me life. He works, so I worship. He finishes what He starts, and this gives me my only hope of perseverance. And I glory in His might and the peace that comes from it.
    Good read though. I appreciate your thoughts.

    • Joe

      Thanks, Jason! Take care not to confuse perseverance with assurance. Faith is sure because the object of faith, Jesus Christ, is truthful. Faith is always sure of Christ. But it is never sure of itself. It can’t be, because faith doesn’t look to it self; it only looks to Christ. So, if the question directs us outward to Christ (i.e.,”Does Christ speak truly about me in the gospel?”) then the answer is a resounding yes! But if the question directs us to look inward to our own faith (i.e. “Will my faith last?” “Is my faith true faith?” “Can I see evidence of my faith”), as, for reasons mentioned above, I think Calvin’s particular doctrine of P does, then I just can’t put much stock at all in a positive reply.

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