If you haven’t had the chance yet, I’d recommend catching up on the earlier posts in this series.
This post concludes our current series critiquing the five points of Calvinism as articulated in the T.U.L.I.P. acronym. As we’ve examined each bullet point in reverse order, I’ve tried to show from top to bottom why Calvinism, when taken at its truest form, is often ugly in its implications, fails to comply with a contextually sensitive interpretation of the relevant biblical texts, and doesn’t make for very cogent theological beliefs.
Now, it’s all good and well to ruminate and reminisce about old theological ideas. I mean, who doesn’t love digging through Nestorian christology, Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, or Ken Ham’s goofy pseudo-science? But it is something else to deal with a belief system that is present and prevalent in today’s world, especially when it is out of touch with this world.
Moreover, a belief system that has real-world effects should require our attention. For instance, Jonathan Edwards believed not only that God created the world at the beginning, but also that God was re-creating the world over and over again every single moment, sort of like how a film strip is really made up of millions of separate still-frame pictures.1 We can agree or disagree with Edwards on this point, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Who cares? What difference does that sort of theology have on how we live in that world every day?
By contrast, belief in Calvinism really does make a noticeable difference in how we live. And, as I will argue, that’s not necessarily a good thing. This is because, as a belief system, Calvinism is irrelevant and out of touch with the world that we live in and the advances that we’ve made since the days of the Reformation, it is harmful to the individual who believes it, and it is harmful to society and global humanity as a whole.
Okay… here we go.
Calvinism is Irrelevant
The first reason that I say Calvinism is irrelevant is because it assumes an outdated perspective on physics. Although the life of John Calvin predates that of Isaac Newton by at least a century, both of them were contributors to the massive paradigm shift in western culture that was this big messy amalgamation of things like the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the scientific revolution. Out of all this comes the mindset we now call modernity. Because of this, its easy to see why some of the different movements within this paradigm shift sort of hang together.
Regarding the topic at hand, the hard determinism of Calvinist theology fits rather nicely with the mechanics of Newtonian physics. You see, in Calvinism everything that happens is both foreknown and predetermined by God. This is why Calvinists place such a high emphasis on God’s sovereignty and such a low emphasis (if at all) on human free will. In this way of thinking, free will, if it exists at all, is just a subjective human experience within God’s broader deterministic reality (see compatibilism). Likewise, in Newtonian mechanics, all of reality runs on knowable and predictable laws of physics. Newton referred to these as laws because he believed they were unbreakable. The entire universe could be thought of as a giant clockwork. If anyone, say God for instance, could have complete knowledge of each and ever piece and how it all works together, then they would be able to predict with 100% accuracy everything that would happen in the future. In fact, if they were the one to create the clockwork and set it in motion, they would essentially predetermine everything that happens in the future.
This all made a lot of sense at one time, and it really hangs together quite well. The problem for thinking people in today’s world is that Newtonian physics is no longer adequate enough to account for all that physicists have learned over the last couple centuries. You see, we now must contend with things like special relativity, Higgs bosun particles, quantum indeterminacy, and particle entanglement, all of which feeds into hypotheses like string theory and multiverse. For a really great explanation of some of these concepts, I would highly recommend listening to Science Mike explain them in this episode of the Liturgist podcast (beginning at 24:09), as well as this entire episode on the multiverse.
In short, just as modernity gave us a perspective on the world that saw everything as being deterministic, either because of God or set laws of physics (or both), this new perspective, which we call postmodernism, teaches us that the universe is far more weird and unpredictable than we initially thought. In fact, it isn’t simply that there is more to know and we haven’t figured it all out yet (which is certainly true as well), but that there are certain bits of reality that are genuinely contingent and unknowable. If you’re familiar with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, then you know what I’m talking about. Because of this, some have abandoned the idea of “laws of nature” for what theologian and philosopher Thomas Oord calls “lawlike regularities,”2 a term that grants a consistency to the way the universe works while avoiding the hard determinism that no longer stands up to scientific discovery.
This, as you can imagine, poses a problem to Calvinism, which struggles to maintain the idea that everything is mechanically predetermined amidst mounting evidence that shows things are just not so. Reality is much more open and relational, which open and relational theologians (such as yours truly) are quite comfortable with.
Likewise, Calvinism assumes an outdated perspective on human free will. In tandem with the hard determinism espoused by most Calvinists is a view of human free will as being either non-existent or else largely inconsequential (again, see compatibilism). Often you will see Calvinists argue along these lines by appealing to neurologist Benjamin Libet’s study in the early 1980s, which many assume soundly disproved the idea of free will. Last summer, Libet’s findings, or rather the deterministic interpretation of those studies, were given a little more popular attention in an article from The Atlantic, which prompted a number of my friends to ask me how I can continue to believe in free will when science has so definitively disproven it.
However, just as Calvinism has failed to keep up with recent developments in the fields of physics, so too has it been largely ignorant of more recent studies in psychology and neurology when it comes to human free will. You see, not only have researches pointed out a number of problems with Libet’s study, but more recent studies have actually demonstrated results in favor of free will. I am thinking specifically of a 2015 study titled, “The point of no return in vetoing self-initiated movements,”3 from German researchers Blankertz, Schultze-Kraft, and Haynes, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which corroborates an earlier 2012 study from the same journal titled, “An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement,”4 which also challenged Libet’s supposed findings. Even studies on animals, such as the 2014 study on rats, “Neural antecedents of self-initiated actions in secondary motor cortex,”5 published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, have demonstrated the vitality of free will decision-making, leading some researchers to call for “a new perspective“6 in the fields of neuroscience away from the now-outdated determinism of Libet’s research.
While these and similar developments show that Calvinism is sorely antiquated, I would suggest even further that it is irrelevant. In other words, it isn’t merely that Calvinism no longer fits the mold of scientific discovery, but also that it no longer meets the needs of present day people, particularly in the Euro-American west (and probably globally).
I am reminded of a quote from author and pastor Carey Nieuwhof:
Too may church leaders are perfectly equipped to reach a world that no longer exists.
Although he meant it in reference to culture savvy and authenticity among church leaders, I think it applies to the theology and ethics of the church as well.
It is no coincidence that John Calvin, before he was a religious reformer, was a lawyer, which helps to explain why in his theology a legal framework is so primary—God is first and foremost a moral lawgiver and judge, Jesus’ atoning work is primarily a legal loophole for humanity’s acquittal, and humans are fundamentally degenerate lawbreakers. You see, Calvinist theology, along with its inseparably close ties to a Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement, is largely the product of the deontological ethical framework of 16th century Europe, and even the feudalistic society of the 12th century (a lá, Anselm of Canterbury).
That world, however, no longer exists. People just don’t have the same questions or concerns today that they did back then. People in present society seldom lose sleep over whether or not they’ve broken God’s laws or offended the personhood of some invisible deity, which is why a lot of Christian evangelism today is forced to begin with trying to convince people that they are sinners destined for hell before it can introduce them to the good news of Christ’s salvation. And if you have to convince folks that they have a problem before they are interested in the solution you’re trying to sell them, then it is very possible that the problem you’re pushing is immaterial to their situation. Moreover, there’s a high likelihood you’re not paying enough attention the problems that people are experiencing. Say what you might about Girard’s scapegoat theory of the atonement, but it certainly addresses some of the most profound felt needs of people today.
I think this is actually why so many Christians get caught up in the culture wars, trying to get back to the “good ol’ days” (which probably never really existed), because they sense that their brand of Christianity is becoming irrelevant, and rather than adapt their religious perspective they try to stagnate cultural change so as to stay relevant.
Calvinism is Harmful to the Individual
Perhaps more importantly, even beyond being profoundly out of touch with the world we live in, Calvinist theology is actually harmful to individuals who believe it. On the one hand, this is because a consistent belief in Calvinist doctrine logically leads to a loss of agency. As I’ve mentioned more than once throughout this series, Calvinism has no need of human free will, and even less need of a sense of responsibility on the part of people. In fact, ascribing responsibility to people’s choices, most noticeably their choice for or against Christ, is anathema in Calvinist circles since it is assumed that the exercise of such responsibility-laden choices would somehow rob God of His glory.
Certainly, things like Irresistible Grace sound nice, sort of like irresistible love. But love, for it to be true love, must allow for agency and the possibility of resistance. Otherwise, it is forced love. We have a word in the English language for forced love: rape.
Without doubt, we need a sense of agency and responsibility if we are going to live responsible and faithful lives. Too often I have heard Christians offer advice to hurting and struggling friends by saying things like, “just give it up to God,” or “let go and let God.” Not only do most people (Christians included) not have the foggiest idea what those clichés are supposed to mean, but they apparently assume that the answer to people’s problems is to stop trying to solve them and simply wait for some miraculous intervention from God. And when someone is struggling with depression, a failing marriage, or cancer, such trite banalities are actually incredibly damaging and can have some really severe (even life-threatening) consequences. Couple the lack of agency in Calvinist theology with the misanthropic view of humanity taught by Total Depravity, and you get a cocktail of self-loathing and helplessness.
This is why you will never (or, at least, should never) see Calvinist theology being espoused in a counseling session. Professor of psychology, Richard Beck, has written two very thought-provoking posts on his blog about why he believes psychotherapy from a Calvinist perspective is illogical and just doesn’t work. In the first of those posts, he writes:
[Therapy’s] optimistic vision of human agency and capability doesn’t sit well with certain theological anthropologies, Calvinism in particular. The optimistic and humanistic vision of modern psychotherapy crashes pretty hard into the doctrine of total depravity… In a Calvinistic anthropology we are so broken that we are incapable of helping ourselves. That view seems to doom the prospect of therapy right out of the gate… There is a clash of anthropologies between modern psychotherapy (high view of human agency) and Calvinism (low view of human agency).
Even more emphatically, he writes:
The Calvinistic anthropology is a round peg and psychotherapy is a square hole. And the two don’t fit. But that’s not a problem with science. Because there are alternative anthropologies within the Christian tradition that make for a better fit. Basically, I think all practicing Christian psychologists should be Arminian and their graduate coursework should educate them about Arminian theology.
Because even if Christian therapists are not confessing Arminians, they are functionally Arminian the minute they step into the therapy room. (emphasis in original)
Calvinism is Harmful to Society
Of course, no person is an island. We live in a society of other people, and what affects one of us inevitably affects us all in some way, and vice versa. Calvinism has a perceivably negative affect on society at large, especially in how some people regard their fellow humans.
A recent study published in the Journal of Psychology & Theology highlights a strong correlation between (among other things) holding a Calvinist theology and a lack of care or interest in social justice.7 The study concludes:
We found that individuals scoring high on both Calvinist theological beliefs and complementarian gender role beliefs scored significantly higher on hierarchical relationship expectations and existential defensiveness than those scoring low on Calvinism and complementarianism, whereas individuals scoring low on both dimensions scored significantly higher on social justice commitment, intercultural competence commitment, and religious exploration than those scoring high on both Calvinism and complementarianism.8
There’s an ugly truth here that demands our acknowledgement: Calvinists tend to care less about social justice. Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but neither does it preclude it. Rather, correlation ought to lead to investigation. This raises the question, why do Calvinists have less concern for social justice than their Arminian counterparts? One theory is that this is because of a commitment by Calvinist Protestants to a capitalistic work ethic.
As medical sociologist Pattie Thomas writes in Psychology Today:
Max Weber, one of the forefathers of sociology, described 19th century capitalism in terms of what he called the “Protestant Work Ethic.” He posited that European capitalists wanted to amass wealth and European factory workers wanted to be diligent in their work because of the cultural baggage of John Calvin and predestination. Calvinism boiled down to a belief that material wealth demonstrated God’s blessings. So having wealth, or at the very least, not being poor was equated with righteousness…
I want to point out a more fundamental aspect of this view of humanity, this Protestant Health Ethic (Clinical Calvinism?). We have become a culture that turns its back on the poor and the sick. We honor and esteem the wealthy, celebrities and “beautiful” people while we ridicule and oppress the poor, the down-trodden and the ill. As a human being, I point out that this is indecent. As a sociologist I point out that this is a defective way to build a robust society. (emphasis in original)
I’ll admit, I’m not entirely certain that Thomas has got it quite right when she says that Calvinism boils down to essentially the prosperity gospel. But I think she has her finger on the issue in highlighting a correlation between a Calvinist worldview and a general disregard for the suffering of others, which is certainly consistent with the above-mentioned empirical study.
I would suggest that the connection is less economic and more existential. There is a fantastic quote frequently attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
It behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.9
In other words, we become like the God (or gods) we worship. In my understanding, this is why A. W. Tozer writes, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”10 If, when we think of God, we envision a deity whose character is like Christ—other oriented, self-sacrificing, inclusive, non-coercive, and loving—then our worship of such a God will lead us to become more and more loving and open-armed. However, if in our minds we imagine a God who cares for some more than He cares for others, or perhaps even to the exclusion of others, then we too will become more exclusive and selective in our own regard toward others.
Now, as I mentioned at the begin of this series, I do not think that Calvinists themselves are therefore evil people. Many of my Calvinist friends are very loving and generous. They care greatly for others and would probably have been the outliers in the above study. But it would seem that being so loving is an upstream swim for those who hold to Calvinism. I mean, it has got to be difficult, and contain no small amount of cognitive dissonance, to believe that one should love everyone when one’s God does not.
Make no mistake, in Calvinist theology God’s love and grace is decidedly selective. That’s what the doctrine of Limited Atonement is all about. God loves some more than others, as expressed by the notion that God grants faith and salvation to some but not to others. Recently, the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) think tank, The Gospel Coalition, published an article asking the question, Does God love everyone the same? According to the article (especially point number four), the answer given is, well… apparently not. God doesn’t love all people, at least not equally, so why should His followers?
Moreover, in Calvinist theology God is the author of all evil. As John Calvin himself writes,
Scripture, moreover, the better to show that every thing done in the world is according to [God’s] decree, declares that the things which seem most fortuitous are subject to him. For what seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveler? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that he delivered him into the hand of the slayer. (Institutes, 1.16.6)11
Did you get that? If a branch randomly falls and kills someone, according to Calvin it wasn’t random, it was God. God killed that person. Not only do seemingly capricious happenstances fall under the intentional will of God, but apparently so do the wicked deeds of humans. Calvin goes on:
As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will. (1.17.1)12
Did someone steal from you? That was divine intervention. Did your spouse cheat on you? That was God’s will also. Was one of your loved ones brutally murdered? Yup, God again. Calvin even offers a parable to illustrate his point, just in case you weren’t quite sure what he meant:
Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. (1.16.9)13
And, as if to make doubly certain that future Calvinists didn’t try to gloss over what he was saying, Calvin is absolutely explicit that in his theology any, or rather every, evil act perpetrated by the most wicked humans was in actuality God inflicting punishment on humanity:
I concede more – that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the judgments which he has resolved to inflict. (1.17.5)14
Every ounce of pain and tragedy, from the worst day of your life all the way up to the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, the Boston Marathon bombing, generations of slavery in the American south, acts of terrorism (including 9/11), the black plague, the harrowing trench warfare of WWI, the Great Chinese Famine under Mao Zedong, the Holodomor (forced starvation genocide) under Stalin, the Holocaust under Hitler, the hundreds of thousands killed by atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Rwanda genocides, modern day sex trafficking across the globe, and the use of chemical weapons on Syrians and their children… all of it, according to Calvin, was intended by God.
If God, who is the greatest, most moral Being in all of existence, can and does ordain and cause the most nightmarish realities ever visited upon humanity, then it’s no leap in logic to say that His followers and worshippers are justified in doing so themselves.
All in all, Calvinism is bad theology. It assumes bad premises, requires bad exegesis, employs bad logic, and leads to bad conclusions, which have bad real-world ramifications. It’s bad theology. And just because some have found a semblance of comfort in Calvinism precisely by foregoing logical coherence, that doesn’t somehow make it good theology.
1: Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.
2: Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic, 2015), 194.
3: Matthias Schultze-Kraft, Daniel Birman, Marco Rusconi, Carsten Allefeld, Kai Görgen, Sven Dähne, Benjamin Blankertz, and John-Dylan Haynes, "The point of no return in vetoing self-initiated movements," PNAS 2016 113 (4) 1080-1085; published ahead of print December 14, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1513569112.
4: Aaron Schurger, Jacobo D. Sitt, and Stanislas Dehaene, "An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement," PNAS 2012 109 (42) E2904–E2913; published ahead of print August 6, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1210467109.
5: Masayoshi Murakami, M Inês Vicente, and Gil M Costa & Zachary F Mainen, "Neural antecedents of self-initiated actions in secondary motor cortex," Nature Neuroscience 17, 1574–1582 (2014) doi:10.1038/nn.3826.
6: Aaron Schurger, Myrto Mylopoulos, and David Rosenthal, "Neural Antecedents of Spontaneous Voluntary Movement: A New Perspective," Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 20 , Issue 2 , 77 - 79 (December 16, 2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2015.11.003.
7: Due to copyright laws, I'm not at liberty to publicly post copies of these studies. However, if you send me an email asking for them, I can send you pdf versions of the studies on an individual basis.
8: Steven J. Sandage, Peter J. Jankowski, Sarah A. Crabtree, and Maria L. Schweer-Collins, "Calvinism, Gender Ideology, and Relational Spirituality: An Empirical Investigation of Worldview Differences," Journal of Psychology & Theology vol. 45, no. 1, 17-32 (2017): 29; see also a similar study demonstrating an inverse relationship between belief in a Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement and a concern for reducing pain and suffering in the world: Kristen Hydinger, Steven J. Sandage, Peter J. Jankowski, and Shelly Rambo, "Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Concern for Suffering: An Empirical Study,"Journal of Psychology & Theology vol. 45, no. 1 (2017): 33-45.
9: Greater minds than mine have scoured the internet unsuccessfully in search of the true source of this quote. For a good reference, check out this blog post (especially the discussion in the comments).
10: A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy (Bibliotech Press, 2016), 1.
11: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 118.
12: Calvin, Institutes, 127.
13: Ibid., 120.
14: Ibid., 127.