I’m fairly new to the Reformed tradition and still piecing it all together, especially when it comes to the thorny issues of election and sovereignty. In a sense, I’m a reluctant Calvinist; I still prefer words like “Reformedish” to describe myself, yes, because of my identification with the broader tradition, but also because of how slowly I’ve been drawn in. That being the case, I still remember what it’s like to find Calvinism and Calvinists thoroughly off-putting.
There were different reasons for this wariness.
The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly
First, there were foolish reasons like personal pride and ignorance. Sad to say, when it came to Calvinism, I thought I knew exactly what I was talking about and rejecting, without actually being familiar with the tradition. There was a time when I was the knee-jerk anti-Calvinist who sneered any time the Genevan Reformer was even mentioned, all without ever having cracked open a page of the Institutes. Oh, the irony.
Then there were what I’d call the good reasons: good-faith objections resting on legitimate questions of philosophy, the doctrine of God, and sound biblical exegesis. These are reasons I still wrestle with, reasons I pray about, reasons I think might always be at the back of my mind. What do you do with all the biblical language implying a legitimate choice? What does “love” mean if it’s a foregone conclusion? Or how can God be truly omnibenevolent if his saving love is exclusive to the “elect”? And how is it fair that someone born in sin, with no hope of turning to God themselves, is then damned for a choice he was never actually given? Is the God who “ordains all things,” then, the author of evil?
Of course, I know there are objections to framing these questions this way (objections I now share). But these are still prima facie good questions that other Bible-reading, Jesus-loving, sin-hating Christians can and do wrestle with—and often answer differently for sane, godly, and intelligent reasons. The plain fact of the matter is that much of Reformed theology is counterintuitive and difficult to embrace at first, especially for those of us raised in the modern West.
Some of you might be wondering, “Why go into all of this? This is obvious. Who would question that?” Let’s be honest and say a lot of Calvinists won’t admit this difficulty, and it comes out in the condescending, aggressive, abrasive, and unhelpful way they approach theological engagement with people who disagree. You know the kind. You can find them in Bible studies, blog comment sections, insular Reformed churches that nobody visits; the archetypical newbie who presents masterfully botched iterations of Reformed doctrines, as if they were the most obvious truths of God that only a perversely obstinate fool could miss; the crusty expert who adds in just enough condescension and sneering to belie all his talk of grace. (“Just watch this sermon on Romans 9 and you’ll thank me for showing you how dumb you are.”)
This was my final reason for being put off from Calvinism: really arrogant, thickheaded, (often young) know-it-all, sneering Calvinists. Who wants to be planted in soil that yields such fruit? In the long run that isn’t the best reason to reject a doctrine, as it’s just another version of the common atheist objection: “But if Christianity were true, then Christians should be great, but all the Christians I know are jerks so it must be false” (see C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity). Still, there’s something to it given Christ’s own declaration that people are known by their fruits.
Plea for Helpful Humility
I’m issuing a plea of sorts to my Reformed brothers and sisters for patience with, or a “helpful humility” toward, those who don’t embrace the distinctives of Reformed theology, Calvinism, and those of us to those who hold it.
As I said, I’ve only slowly come around to the Reformed tradition. It’s taken years of reading different texts, working through heavy issues in metaphysics, thinking deeply through implications of the Creator/creature distinction, and coming to appreciate the Reformed tradition beyond its soteriology. I was brought into its richer tradition of spirituality through an appreciation of its emphasis on a constellation of biblical doctrines like revelation, union with Christ, providence, the atonement, and the Lord’s Supper, which form the proper background for its teaching on election.
That process didn’t happen in a vacuum, though. A couple patient buddies embodied helpful humility toward me as I worked through the issues. They were quick to celebrate the truths we shared together. They argued graciously with me at the right times but never questioned my faith or intelligence. They pointed me to good resources and were willing to read some of the ones to which I pointed them. Essentially they took the time to hear and understand my problems as we discussed. More than that, they honestly tried to extend the free grace that they believed they’d received from God through no merit of their own.
Please don’t hear this article as a call to abandon theological engagement or clear preaching of the truth—even of the distinctives—or some kind of squishy, lowest-common denominator Christianity. It’s simply a reminder that, yes, a lot of this stuff is weird and counterintuitive at first, so we should be understanding, especially if we want to be heard.
Let me put it this way: if you’re really a Calvinist and believe you’ve received knowledge of the truth by the sheer grace of God, which is what a Reformed view of knowledge teaches, then be patient with those who don’t see it. God has been (and is currently being) patient with you in some area as well. So stop sneering and ask God to humble you enough to be helpful to those offended at or wrestling with those doctrines you now hold dear.