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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