An Angry Calvinist

John Newton, Memoirs of the Life of the Late Rev. William Grimshaw (London: 1799), pages 86–87:

They who avow the doctrines distinguished by the name of Calvinism, ought, if consistent with their own principles, to be the most gentle and forbearing of all men, in meekness instructing them that oppose. With us, it is a fundamental maxim, that a man can receive nothing but what is given him from heaven (John 3:27). If, therefore, it has pleased God to give us the knowledge of some truths, which are hidden from others, who have the same outward means of information; it is a just reason for thankfulness to him, but will not justify our being angry with them; for we are no better or wiser than they in ourselves, and might have opposed the truths which we now prize, with the same eagerness and obstinacy, if his grace had not made us to differ. If the man, mentioned in John 9, who was born blind, on whom our Lord graciously bestowed the blessing of sight, had taken a cudgel and beat all the blind men he met, because they would not see, his conduct would have greatly resembled that of an angry Calvinist.

Young, Restless, Reformed, and Humbled

It’s too easy to get puffed up, and not puffed up in a post-Thanksgiving way, but in a doctrinal way as those who pride themselves in the doctrines of grace (ie Calvinists, aka young restless reformed rascals). Those of us that believe in total depravity tend to forget that this doctrine paints a dark portrait of ourselves. And those of us that pray to the Sovereign God of the universe and who orchestrated all of history, tend to get distracted easily in our prayers by passing butterflies of whimsical thoughts.

We Calvinists have much to be humbled about.

John Newton (1725–1807) was no stranger to controversy, but he didn’t stir it up either. In fact Newton served as a peacemaker in the Calvinist vs Arminian debates of his time. This excerpt from one of his letters is worthy of a careful read.

Dear Sir,

To be enabled to form a clear, consistent, and comprehensive judgment of the truths revealed in the Scripture, is a great privilege; but they who possess it are exposed to the temptation of thinking too highly of themselves, and too meanly of others, especially of those who not only refuse to adopt their sentiments, but venture to oppose them.

We see few controversial writings, however excellent in other respects, but are tinctured with this spirit of self-superiority; and they who are not called to this service, if they are attentive to what passes in their hearts, may feel it working within them, upon a thousand occasions; though, so far as it prevails, it brings forcibly home to ourselves the charge of ignorance and inconsistence, which we are so ready to fix upon our opponents.

I know nothing, as a means, more likely to correct this evil, than a serious consideration of the amazing difference between our acquired judgment, and our actual experience; or, in other words, how little influence our knowledge and judgment have upon our own conduct. This may confirm to us the truth and propriety of the Apostle’s observation, “If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” [1 Cor. 8:2].

Not that we are bound to be insensible that the Lord has taught us what we were once ignorant of; nor is it possible that we should be so; but because, if we estimate our knowledge by its effects, and value it no farther than it is experimental and operative, we shall find it so faint and feeble as hardly to deserve the name. …

John Newton had the gift of deflating the heads that knowledge puffed up.

So how can young restless reformed rascal (like me) find humility? It’s a two-step process. First, look at the depth of your theological convictions. Thank God for that–it’s a gift. Second, compare those convictions with the shallow daily decisions that are made totally uninfluenced by them. And if that doesn’t work, look at how easily you are tempted to fear, to anxiety, to anger, and to idolatry, and then ask if those responses jibe with the God of Calvin’s Institutes.

May God grant us fresh eyes to see the chasm that separates our reformed convictions and our daily practices. This will work humility into our orthodoxy.

I am Calvinist (And so can you!)

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01spurgeoncalvin1.jpgFew things have been more surprising to me at TSS than the overwhelmingly positive response to the Humble Calvinism series we began at the start of this year. The series was birthed out of a personal interest in John Calvin — a man I knew was important, but for whom I had little direct exposure.

I should not have been surprised, though! The response to the series was a fitting illustration of the influx of Calvinism within the broader American Christian culture.

You’re probably already aware of this sharp increase in interest for Calvinism and the Reformed faith. Spearheaded by men like John Piper, Sam Storms, Wayne Grudem, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Josh Harris and movements like Together for the Gospel, the Resolved conference, New Attitude, and a host of other conferences, aggressive church planting ministries, global evangelism, influential preachers, theologians and leaders, Calvinism is noticeably on the rise. Interestingly, this list of names and movements committed to Reformed theology includes diverse groups like Missional, Charismatic, Non-Charismatic, Baptist, Presbyterian, traditional and modern.

But most interesting to me, all of these characters and movements are having a strong impact on the 16-30 age group, sewing seeds of a Reformed theology that will blossom for many years to come. Christianity Today captured this trend in a cover story aptly titled, “Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback, and shaking up the church.”

The Church is shaking because Calvinism — an understanding of God as He acts and moves according to His own purposes and for His own glory — is on the move.

Roots of Calvinism

So the question many younger Christians are asking now is simply, What is Calvinism and where did it come from? And that probably explains why our series Humble Calvinism has caught the attention of so many blog readers.

Our goal in Humble Calvinism is not to explore the whole body of Reformed faith. Nor are we here trying to trace out the developments of Calvinistic theology. Our goal is simply to get back to our roots by familiarizing ourselves with the teaching of John Calvin, a reformer who lived between 1509-1564. We are not attempting to canonize Calvin’s works, nor induct him into the hall of sainthood. His teaching is only valuable to the level that it faithfully represents the Word of God.

John Calvin

No single individual is more central to Calvinism than John Calvin.

You would think this obvious fact would protect Calvin from neglect. Not so! Just this year a book was written that concluded with a lament over the neglect of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries by scholars [Herman J. Selderuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Baker Academic: 2007) pp. 284]. For all the talk of a sharp rise in Calvinistic theology in our culture, there is an odd silence over Calvin’s works among the academia.

What better time to study Calvin for ourselves?

If Calvin today suffers from neglect, he also suffers from inaccurate historical slander, too. The caricature of Calvin as a harsh, grumpy, heretic-burning fundamentalist bent on ridding the world of dissent is sadly misinformed fiction. Physically he may resemble an anemic Saruman, but his godliness is well documented, his compassion was rich, and his piety was genuine.

Yet slanderous caricatures of Calvin flourished throughout church history. One angry author wrote that Calvin was “a persecutor of the first class, without one humane or redeeming quality to divest it of its criminality or to palliate its enormity … one of the foulest murders recorded in the history of persecution” (Wallace; 1850). Ouch!

Truthfully, in an age of heretic-burning, Calvin’s Geneva was a place of compassion. During Calvin’s entire stay at Geneva only one man was burned for his heretical beliefs (Servetus). And this fate was decided by a secular lawcourt – Little Counsel – that openly opposed Calvin! But Calvin did play a role in Servetus’ arrest and this one burning was one burning too many.

Without glorifying Calvin’s errors here, this lone event must be contrasted to the myriads of executed Protestants by the hands of Rome (as fill the pages of Foxes’ Book of Martyrs). If we take care to understand the times, we see John Calvin was a man of compassion in an age of theological intolerance.

The truth is that Calvin was no stoic! He enjoyed jokes and publicly taught his people to appreciate laughter as a gift of God. And Calvin enjoyed the gift with a mouth wide open! But he also cried in the sorrows of life. Aware of God’s sovereignty in all things, Calvin was acquainted with grief, personal loss, and persecution.

Striking to me is John Calvin’s character. He was orthodox, magnetic, humble, beloved, followed, and esteemed. He attracted a large following, which accounts for the massive movement he left at his death. He led a theologically rich movement that — because of its biblical fidelity — continues to shake the Church!

So what did Calvin teach? Next time we resume this question. And more specifically we ask a question Calvin is ready to answer: What is genuine saving faith?

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Related: see all posts in the Humble Calvinism series index.