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Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Seven

i have a question

What was it about Calvinism that attracted you, theologically and psychologically?

Calvinism is a theological system with points of doctrine that build upon one another. Pull any of the five points: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints (TULIP), from the system and it collapses upon itself. Of course, the same could be said of any theological system. That said, Calvinism is the most complex, intricate theological system ever created by human minds.

It was the order and complexity of the system, then, that caught my attention. I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) and I am a perfectionist. (See Christian Perfection: A Personal Story.) I desire, crave, and need order. Theologically, Calvinism provided me just what the doctor ordered. As I read and studied the Bible, listened to preaching tapes of Calvin-loving preachers, and devoured countless Calvinistic books, I began to “see” the truthiness of the doctrines of grace, along with its attendant doctrines such as the Sovereignty of God.

The primary reason I became an atheist is that Christianity no longer made any sense to me. (See The Michael Mock Rule: It Just Doesn’t Make Sense.) The opposite was true with Calvinism. It simply, at the time, based on my reading and study, made perfect sense to me. Calvinism best explained certain Bible verses that had always perplexed me. Yet, at the same time, it created new interpretive problems for me. As a non-Calvinist, I found that words such as world and all meant everyone without discrimination (i.e. For God so loved the world — John 3:16). Calvinism, due to the doctrines of election and predestination, requires adherents to reinterpret verses that imply that Jesus died for everyone, Jesus loves everyone, etc. Of course, Arminians do the same with verses that speak of election and predestination.

I have long argued that the Bible is a book that can be used to prove almost anything. Whatever your theological beliefs might be, there’s support for them in the Bible. I’ve concluded, then, that all theological systems are Biblically “true” and that all sects – Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Methodists, to name a few —  are right when they claim their beliefs are the faith once delivered to the saints.

How is Calvinism different from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) theology?

While IFB churches are autonomous, each with its own set of beliefs and practices, they do, generally, have a common set of beliefs. (See What is an IFB Church?) When I entered the ministry in the 1970s, I didn’t know one IFB pastor who claimed the Calvinist moniker — not one. There were several pastors who, if rumors were true, had Calvinistic tendencies. Calvinism was routinely derided, criticized, and deemed heretical — antithetical to soulwinning and church growth.

In the late 1980s, Calvinism began to make inroads into the IFB church movement. Some IFB preachers embraced Amyraldism (four-point Calvinism). Wikipedia explains Amyraldism this way:

It is the belief that God decreed Christ’s atonement, prior to his decree of election, for all alike if they believe, but he then elected those whom he will bring to faith in Christ, seeing that none would believe on their own, and thereby preserving the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. The efficacy of the atonement remains limited to those who believe.

The issue, of course, was for whom did Jesus die? Evangelical Calvinists believe Jesus died on the cross only for the elect — those chosen by God from before the foundation of the world. Four-point Calvinists, uncomfortable with the doctrine of limited atonement (particular redemption), concocted a system that said, the atonement of Christ is sufficient to save everyone in the world, but efficient for only the elect. Got that?

While Calvinism continues to make inroads in IFB churches, many Calvinistic pastors tend to keep their beliefs to themselves. They preach Calvinism without ever mentioning Calvinistic buzz-words. Over time, congregations are converted without ever realizing they’ve changed.

Classic IFB beliefs are laughingly called one-point Calvinism. Yes, God is the one who saves sinners, but it’s up to them to decide whether to believe. As with Arminian churches, emphasis is placed on man’s ability to choose (free will). Calvinists, on the other hand, focus on the sovereignty of God and the inability of man. As you can see, these two theological systems are disparate, so much so that the two groups are continually at war, each believing the other is heretical.

Evangelical Calvinists generally believe that IFB churches preach works salvation, and they alone preach salvation by grace. Carefully examining Calvinism, however, reveals that they too preach salvation by works. In fact, outside of Pelagian sects, all Christian sects/churches preach some form of salvation by works. (Let the howling begin.)

There are numerous other theological differences between IFB theology and Evangelical Calvinism, but I have shared enough of the differences to show that these two groups generally don’t “fellowship” with each other. Calvinists view IFB (and Southern Baptist) churches as targets for subversive theological change. Pastors hide their Calvinistic beliefs, hoping, over time, to win them over to the one true faith. This approach has led to all sorts of church conflict.

Why would your change of theology cause friends and colleagues in the ministry to shun (abandon) you?

In the IFB church movement (and many other Evangelical sects), fealty to the right doctrine is paramount, as is following certain social practices. Some tolerance is granted for being slightly off the theological center, but major deviations result in shunning or being labeled a heretic/liberal. Calvinism was certainly considered antithetical to IFB doctrine and practice, so I was not surprised when many of my preacher friends distanced themselves from me as they would a gay man with AIDS. I moved on to new fellowship groups, those with Calvinistic, reformed beliefs and practices.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Bob Felton

    I believe that the Bible is a compendium of texts from many similar/related but different religions, and that Calvin did the best possible job of synthesizing them all; your remark about its complexity reminded me of that. But then stand way back and take a look at what he built, and the whole thing is self-evidently crazy, a Rube Goldberg thing that you can say ‘works’ but isn’t good for anything — living, least of all.

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    Valvinism syruck me as a “cold” doctrine. Everyone is a disgusting pieve of crap and God will save you ig you are one of the selecy few. You have no agency in the matter.

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    It was the Aristotelian logic of its structure that attracted me to Calvinism.

    It was the moral bankruptcy of its adherents which caused me to abandon it. Too many saw it as the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card. Perhaps this isn’t what John Calvin intended, but that is its fruit.

    To its credit, at least Calvinism can claim a legacy of supporting higher education. But that legacy has been abandoned by too many of its contemporary adherents.

    • Avatar
      MJ Lisbeth

      Tom–It’s interesting that you ascribe “moral bankruptcy” to Calvinism. Although I have read him for his theology, I have always found him more interesting for his historical and cultural influence.

      One legacy, as you mention is higher education. Another is American capitalism, whether the anarcho-capitalism of Ayn Rand acolytes and students of the Austrian school, or its milder forms.

      The Puritans who landed in Plymouth Rock were essentially Calvinists. They, like the Dutch Calvinists–who are seen, by some, as the first modern capitalists–believed that those who were “chosen” would visibly manifest their chosen-ness: They would be high achievers and earners. (I guess you can see that as an early version of the Prosperity Gospel). Because the Puritans’ colony was essentially a Calvinist theocracy, people wanted to show that they were “good,” which meant being healthy and prosperous. That gave them the incentive to work hard and to eliminate from their lives that didn’t add to their physical and material well-being.

      Now, most people would agree that working hard is a virtue, and I have nothing against prosperity. But it too often ends up with an “end justifies the means” mentality of “doing whatever it takes.” Of course, today’s oligarchs make no pretense about being Calvinists, if they even know about Calvinism. But the residue of it remains.

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    Brian Huggett

    You cannot deny reality and come out with a sound mind (or a sound theology).

    Freedom of volition is reality, it is part and parcel of God’s creation of sentient beings. If you don’t have freedom of choice are you a being at all?

    Imperfect man has a choice, accept God’s reconciliation or bypass it and go it alone.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      You can’t know whether freedom of volition is a reality. What evidence do you have for this claim? How do you know you aren’t a computer simulation?

      Define freedom of choice. Whether we have free will or not — and I doubt we have as much free will as you allege — one thing is for certain: every “choice” we make is influenced by outside forces. None of us make choices apart from these outside influences. Thus, we do not really have free will. Does not the Bible teach this? That no man can come to the father except the Spirit draws him. I can think of numerous Bible verses that suggest humankind does not have absolute free will. Christians say God gives life and takes life. So much for free will. If I have free will, surely I have control — to some degree — over when I die. Instead, the Bible says the time of my death is appointed by God. Not that what the Bible says carries any weight here. I argue from the Christian perspective, not that I believe a word of it.

      • Avatar

        I agree Bruce, free will, certainly of the libertarian type, is an illusion. I don’t deny that it’s an overwhelming illusion and that knowing it’s an illusion need make no difference to how we live our lives, but it certainly should affect the way in which we judge others.

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    Benny S

    Bruce, I have to admit, Calvinism messes with my atheistic brain in really complicated ways.

    Could you kindly put on your Calvinism hat to explain the following scenario: Theologically speaking, for children / teenagers who will be born in the future during the last 1 or 2 decades just prior to the End of Days, who won’t yet be cognitively capable of freely responding to the “gospel message” even though they will be living in the End of Days, are they also destined for eternal punishment in hell, according to Calvinism?

    As well, the same query applies for children who will be born in cultures that subscribe to other world religious beliefs who are totally unaware of Jesus. Will they also be destined to eternally suffer in hell too?

    Or does Calvinism allow for some wiggle room regarding these young individuals, similar to the extremely lame wiggle of “age of accountability” claim made by various church denominations that try to justify God’s wrath while also disclaiming that God wouldn’t hurt the children?

    I suspect Calvin theology says “yes, these children are going to hell too”, which is another example of how messed up it all is and why would anyone in their right mind embrace this theology.

    I ask this question because I anticipate I’ll be having a future theological back-and-forth about this with a close fundamentalist sibling soon. Thanks.

    (Also, as I proof the above, I admit that this query sounds somewhat convoluted, but I’m not sure how to reword anything. Hugs.)

    • Avatar

      While I have not studied Calvinism as rigorously as Bruce, I have studied it rather seriously as a layperson. Tradition has often been along the lines of ‘children of the elect are assumed to be elect until proven otherwise’. However, there is no exception clause in scripture from the Calvinist position. A person is either in the Book of Life (i.e.: the elect) from eternity past or they are not. The non-elect are hopelessly reprobate and destined for eternal judgement. This bothers a lot of christians, even staunch Calvinists for the reasons you ask about, but the 5-point TULIP doctrine is clear that even a child in the womb is reprobate if not chosen by God from eternity past.

      Regarding people outside the Christian sphere of influence, doctrinally it is possible they are elect. If they are, then God will call them and they will respond to the gospel. However, most honest Calvinists will also admit that it is unlikely that God has elected many/any who are unable to hear the gospel.

      Calvinism is a brutal doctrine. God’s sovereignty is complete; there is no human agency involved in salvation. There is no “freedom” to respond to the gospel. The elect will believe, the reprobate cannot believe. Many christians who believe themselves elect try to skip past the horror of the doctrine (humans intentionally created for an eternity of punishment) by focusing on the belief that humans are so wickedly evil that we all deserve this punishment. God is so perfectly good that we can’t question him and it is amazing that he actually deigns to save anyone. Interestingly, I have never heard a Calvinist lament that God elected them, but not their spouse/parent/child. I assume some must do so privately.

      Then there is the “hyper-calvinist” position, which is basically Calvinism taken to 11, including double predestination, purity of doctrine requirements and so on. Bruce can post about that if he wishes. Some 5-point Calvinists consider the ‘hyper’ position to be too extreme, even to the point of heresy.

      There is an attempt by some to “soften” God’s judgement on the reprobate, possibly for their own conscience. You hear it referred to as a “separation from God” or hell having degrees of punishment where presumably genocidal dictators will get it worse than a child who died in infancy. There is no clear scripture on these positions.

      My preference, and motivation for studying the doctrine, was to look for better support for the non-Calvinist, Arminian position. I was not successful, at best concluding each as a plausible doctrine with Calvinism coming out slightly ahead. Even now, as an agnostic, I find myself sometimes wondering if the Calvinists aren’t right after all. Is my deconstruction a symptom of not being among the elect, given over to the reprobate mind? If so, how cruel is God to allow me decades of believing I was saved to strip it all away like Lucy yanking the football?

  6. Avatar

    Bruce, did you think you were among the elect when you were a Calvinist, or did you just hope you were? Did it bother you that you were trying to live a life following God’s commands but still may end up in hell? Or was Calvinism set up that living a life following God’s rules was somehow proof that you were among the elect?

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Bruce Gerencser