About Me

Just a person in recovery from years of spiritual abuse at the hands of good, upstanding Christian folks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Gospel According to Calvin

In the last post we looked at some of the antiquated, neurotic and downright silly ideas that people have had about the nature of God. In this offering I want to expand on that theme a bit. Here we go:

“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation”
-John Calvin

I try to be tolerant. I long to be open-minded. I sincerely want to evaluate all opinions without bias or emotion.

But there is a belief system that sickens me to my core and derails my powers of objectivity almost completely. It is the classic form of Calvinism created by a sick man and held to by his equally sick followers over the last five centuries. To me it contains all that is wrong with the view of God that has dominated Christian theology for over fifteen hundred years.

Christian thinkers, even brilliant and devout ones, are influenced by the political realities of their day. The ancients were no exception to this rule. They saw that the power to do as one willed was the defining characteristic of earthly kings, and integrated this fact into their religious beliefs.

Augustine (354-430) was one of the greatest minds in the history of the church. His works are marked by their depth of thought and the love for Christ expressed in their words. They offer powerful insights into fields as disparate as physics, ethics, aesthetics and rhetoric. Their contributions to theology and philosophy are inestimable.

Like all of us, however, this illuminating thinker was a product of the times in which he lived. As a citizen of the late Roman empire, he modeled his ideas about God on the example set by the Caesars, who ruled with an iron fist. He saw God as a cosmic monarch who used His omnipotence to accomplish His will, including His desires for our salvation. Augustine declared that in His sovereignty God chooses some humans to be His children and rejects all others, consigning them to Hell.

Aquinas (1225-1274), building on this theme of divine fiat, taught that eternal punishment of sinners was perfectly just. After all, in the feudal society in which he lived it was a grave matter to offend the honor of a nobleman, and what greater example of royalty was there than God Himself? The Almighty possesses infinite honor, so an offense against Him merits eternal punishment.

These ideas influenced later writers and scholastics. Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote volumes about the love and mercy of God, yet he also believed that the Lord arbitrarily chose some to go to Hell while only a lucky few would enjoy His mercy. It’s likely that these ideas were largely to blame for the malicious and vengeful tone of his later writings.

The notion of God as all-controlling hyper-sovereign found its fullest expression in the writings of John Calvin. He lived from 1509 to 1564 and much of that time dominating the lives of the citizens of Geneva.

Contemporary thinkers believe Calvin was deeply neurotic and likely suffered from major mental illnesses. Without a doubt he was rigid, dour and intolerant in the extreme. It’s not surprising that such a man would mold the God of love into his own hateful image. His theological ideas were marked by a belief in a cruel, arbitrary and despotic deity and an extremely low view of his fellow human beings.

The key to Calvin’s theology is an obsessive focus on the sovereignty of God.
Like Anselm and Augustine before him, he saw his Maker through the eyes of the monarchial society he lived in, imagining the Creator as the Ultimate King, with total and unshakeable control over the earth.

In Calvinist thinking the Almighty has predestined each of us to behave exactly as He wills. Thus God, through His pawn Satan, caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. He did this to glorify Himself, both by damning most of His children to Hell and by forcing a few of them to accept His Son’s blood sacrifice on the cross as payment for the evil deeds they were coerced into performing.

So, according to this great theologian, our Heavenly Father drives us to commit sins through no choice of our own, for which He then condemns us. But to show His merciful side He murdered His beloved son Jesus. This was done to appease His wrath against a few people that He arbitrarily chooses to spare from Hell

This sadistic and twisted plan was, in Calvin‘s mind, a beautiful example of divine mercy. He taught that the people in Heaven should praise God for His benevolence while those in Hell should praise Him for His justice. This guy really needed some Prozac and a good psychiatrist!

Needless to mention, there have been a number of free-thinking people who have objected to this nonsense over the centuries. John Wesley (1703-1791) issued a devastating critique of it in his classic sermon “On Free Grace." Consider his words, which follow:

However much I love the persons who teach it, I hate the doctrine of predestination. It is a doctrine which, if it were true or even possible, one could rightly say to our enemy the devil, "You fool, why do keep strutting around with your arrogance and malice? Your efforts to damn souls are as useless and meaningless as our attempts to save them. Have you not heard that God has taken your work out of your hands; and that he does it much more effectively than you ever could?”

“You, with all your kingdoms and powers, can only assault those humans who resist you; but God can irresistibly destroy both body and soul in hell! You can only entice; but His unchangeable command to leave thousands of souls in death forces them to keep sinning till they fall into everlasting torture. You can only tempt; He forces us to be damned; for we cannot resist his will. You fool, why do you prowl about, seeking whom you may devour? Have you not heard that God is the devouring lion, the destroyer of souls, the murderer of men?”

There are scores of lengthy volumes in print, written by scholars of prodigious intellect, that expose the biblical, philosophical and theological shortcomings of Calvinist thought. But none of them do a better job of pointing out its inherent absurdities than the two brief paragraphs above. In my mind Wesley’s remarks are brilliant. Their brevity and profundity are matched by only a handful of works throughout history.

As mentioned before, the concept of God as an oppressive dictator has its roots in ancient ideas about the proper role of government. It has been enormously influential throughout the history of the church. It is also directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus, who tells us that the role of the strong is to serve the weak (Matthew 20:20-28):

20Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

21"What is it you want?" he asked.
She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom."

22"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
"We can," they answered.

23Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."

24When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

With the coming of the Enlightenment the old notions about God’s nature centering on His power began to lose their grip on the church. In their place far more Christ-like conceptions emerged, centering around His love. We will explore these next time.

As a concluding thought, I should mention that in this post I have given only a very general treatment of the beliefs and history I have discussed. For those wanting to explore these issues in more depth I recommend the book "Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views," edited by Bruce Ware and available from online merchants such as Amazon. It contains articles by scholars who support Calvin’s views as well as others who are critical of them.

I’ve long believed in the importance in hearing all sides of an argument before deciding one’s own position. Of course this applies to my beliefs as well. For all you know I could be full of BS, so I urge you to put my writings to the test before you agree with them. Peace.


  1. While I grew up in a Presbyterian church and always fought against pure Calvinist thought, I do have to say that your spin on his views is excessively negative. When I was sitting through my SS classes as a child we were taught so much about God's holiness. Calvin was trying to reconcile grace and holiness. I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but I don't think that he was the dour man full of hate and mental problems that some who disagree paint. I think that we can disagree with his conclusions without classifying his followers as close minded. My mother remains in a Presbyterian church and my father who recently passed away embraced Calvinism whole-heartedly. They were not closed to God's grace and were great supporters of mission work--which always seemed a waste of time to me if you believed the 5 points of Calvinism. Its been years and I mean years since I've delved into theology, so I'll not try to argue with you about this. Just use care when using a broad brush to paint a theological position.
    I enjoy reading your blogs--it makes me think I really need to get back to heavy thinking again. BTW--I'm a whole hearted conservative Lutheran these days. Missouri Synod, very reformed, a great believer in balance between law and gospel.

  2. I freely admit my own biases came through in this post. I just don't like Calvin, partially because he reminds me of certain unnamed individuals that have caused me great harm. Like all of us I am very, very human.

    The most damning evidence against Calvin's character is his role in the death of Servetus. Just mentioning that in Calvinist circles, especially the ultra-conservative variety, is to stir up a hornet's nest. an unbiased look at the facts, however, points to Calvin as complicit in the poor fellow's murder.

    I freely admit that there are many wonderful, godly people in Presbyterian and Calvinist churches. I would also posit that they are being inconsistent with their own beliefs when they support missions and say that God loves the world.

    I should also clarify here that this post was meant to address what in today's terminology is often called hyper-Calvinism, though I see it as simply what Calvin really taught. Modern Calvinists are often embarrassed by what the man taught and have softened his tenets in many ways, especially in terms of predestination and limited atonement.

    Lutherans have struggled with similar issues. I admire much about Luther, but many of his later writings are horrendous in tone and content, such as his polemics against Jewish people. It is my opinion that in his case there seems to be evidence of age related mental deterioration. I've often thought that modern psychology could shed some light on this, perhaps by interpreting his works through a forensic lens.

    I appreciate your kind words about the blog, Shannon. Its primary purpose is to provoke thought, not to sway people to my way of thinking. Hope to see you here again!

  3. Well, I am not a Calvinist, as my own Blog will show... but your respresentation of Calvinsim is not exactly right. God indeed foreknows all events, a person who takes the Bible seriously cannot refute that; however, that does NOT mean He is CAUSING all actions. Predestination is a Bible fact, but how we define it (Biblically) is what is important. We must understand the relationship between Predestination, Foreknowledge and the will of man. I don't totally agree but I enjoyed reading your perspective.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head. Calvin had some good stuff to say, but his views on predestination were not among them. You could say that for most of TULIP theology for that matter. Some of your readers want to defend predestination, but I wonder if they realize that Biblical predestination is primarily speaking of Christ, hence the importance of being IN Christ. Wether you agree with me or not, thank you for not allowing the traditions of men and the rituals of religion to keep you from using the mind that God gave you. Maranatha!

  5. Thank you John, and welcome to the blog. Feel free to drop in anytime.

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  7. "God indeed foreknows all events, a person who takes the Bible seriously cannot refute that; however, that does NOT mean He is CAUSING all actions."

    Actually I and many others far more educated than me would contend just the opposite. A serious look at the Bible shows that God doesn't foreknow all events; see "God of the Possible" by Boyd and "Most Moved Mover" by Pinnock for excellent introductory presentations to this perspective.

    The problem with God foreknowing all events is that it eliminates any possibility of free will. How can I freely choose my own actions yet be totally predictable in my thoughts and behavior? And if I have no choice but to do the things I do, then on what basis does God condemn me?

    Even Paul cannot answer this objection, hence his long diatribe in Romans chapter nine about divine sovereignty. It was carefully designed to sidestep the issue, though the apostle does provide something of an answer by saying "God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all" (Romans 11:32).