A Few Follow-up Thoughts on Sneering Calvinists

john-calvin

I’m better than you.

So this last week I wrote a post about Sneering Calvinists over at the Gospel Coalition. I basically said that the Reformed have gotten a somewhat justified reputation for being prickly and arrogant, you don’t have to be a crazy, wicked person to reject Reformed distinctives, and since we believe in humbling grace, we should not be terrible to these people. Honestly, not really hard stuff.

Essentially, I was talking about what some other Reformed commentators/theologians, like R. Scott Clark have talked about before. While challenging the notion that Reformed types are of necessity prickly he goes on to talk about the reality of the ‘cage phase‘: 

Let’s admit, however, that sometimes, upon first becoming Reformed, some folk become jerks. Sometimes this phase is temporary. Mike Horton calls this the “cage phase,” when a new convert to Reformed Christianity needs to be put in a cage until he matures. Some, when they first discover “the doctrines of grace” (code for unconditional predestination and justification by grace alone, through faith alone) can actually become angry that they’ve been denied these truths for so long.

For some, this is a temporary phase. For others, they never seem to grow out of it–but they should. If you haven’t before, go read the whole article–it’s worth it.

Well, the reactions were interesting. For the most part, they were positive–from both Reformed and non-Reformed. I had a lot of Reformed people agreeing, a few confessing a need for repentance, and in general, people seemed thankful that somebody within the camp had said it. I even had a few wonderful emails from people looking for book recommendations in order to learn their theology better so they wouldn’t misrepresent it! Also, from the non-Reformed, there were a number of people who similarly grateful that someone from within the camp had said it.

Still, there were a number of hurt, angry, and just plain confused responses that I thought were worth commenting on.

No, This is Not All Reformed People – Just to be clear, for those who couldn’t catch it earlier: I don’t think all Calvinists sneer or are terrible. Actually, I generally like them. I read them. I agree with them. When they’re not teetotalers, I drink beer with them. In fact, the bottom half of my article was dedicated to talking about a couple of them who were instrumental in my own journey into the Reformed fold. As I’ve come in, I’ve found that there are plenty more like them. Finally, the post was featured on The Gospel Coalition–visible Calvinist central. I wouldn’t write for them if that wasn’t the case.

Yes, Arminians Can Be Terrible Too – The other common reaction was the “Arminians have been terrible too” defense. Some wanted to know why I singled out Calvinists in my article, since theological pride is a common Christian inheritance, not unique to the Calvinist. Which is true. I’ve witnessed plenty of Arminian sneering, and sometimes the worst of it comes from those who love complaining about Calvinist sneers. Todd Pruitt had a good balancing word the other day:

For example I could write posts about the fact that the meanest and most self-righteous people I have ever encountered are Arminians. But what would that accomplish? Honestly, some of these posts sound a bit like, “I thank you Lord that I am not like this mean Calvinist.” What is more, until prominent Arminian theologians stop publicly comparing “the god of Calvinism” with Satan, then the reports of mean Calvinists are going to ring a bit hollow.

I couldn’t agree more.

So why focus on Calvinists? A number of reasons. First, and most simply, I was telling my story. It involved moving into the Reformed camp, from outside the camp, and my experience with sneering Calvinists.

Next, the Gospel Coalition is read primarily by those of a Reformed theological persuasion, so it makes sense to focus my argument for my audience. If I’d have aimed it too broad, it’s all to easy for those of us with a bad case of plank-in-eye, to miss the personal application and think “Yes, this is perfect for my arrogant Catholic friend!” In fact, I suspect that some (not all, but some) of those raising a complaint on this score, were simply irritated that they couldn’t dodge my attempted plank-removal service.

After that, I wanted to avoid the danger Pruitt talks about. Again, I can rip off plenty of examples of sneering Catholics, sneering Orthodox, sneering Post-Evangelicals, sneering anti-Calvinists who seem to have no other theological distinctive beyond their central tenet: “Calvinism is the devil.” I could do that, because they exist and they’re a pain as well–God bless ’em.  Still, while it’s possible, and necessary at times, to point the foibles of those outside the fold–as I’ve done myself before–it’s all to easy for it to be written off as “well, he would say that, he’s Reformed”, or, “Oh look, the Gospel Coalition–Calvinists–are telling people to play nice. Isn’t that cute?”

Following on that point, as I’ve said before, criticisms of those in the Reformed fold are best delivered by those within the fold:

When someone within your fold goes off the rails, they need to get criticized and corrected by those within first. If not, it will probably be done by those with no sympathies for your tradition as a whole, likely imputing their failures to the broader structure of thought. It’s no harm to gently (or less-gently) call out failures or unhelpful distortions within the tradition. In fact, that’s what traditions are: ongoing conversations centered around various shared convictions as well as disagreements.

While I was writing primarily of theological distortions, this can apply just as well to distortions of piety and character. Honestly, I focused on Reformed folks because I’m Reformed and I want us to shed that reputation. I want the whole, “Calvinists are jerks” meme to be manifestly a distortion, so that’s no longer an excuse–crappy or not–for writing off Reformed doctrine. Maybe I’m just being selfish for my Reformed brothers and sisters–I want all the jerks to be their jerks.

Not Good Enough – Finally, there were the non-Reformed who thought I didn’t go far enough. They accused me of still treating other traditions and theological persuasions as lesser and encouraging condescension towards non-Reformed believers–though of a more benevolent sort. To that, I can only reply: I’m sorry. That’s not my intent. I’ve reread it and I’m not sure what I should have rewritten, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve learned plenty from my non-Reformed friends, teachers, and theologians. At points I don’t agree with them, and so I’m going to continue to talk as if Reformed  theology is, in the main, correct. I can’t help that–that’s how belief works. Still, if I demonstrated any arrogance or dismissive tendencies towards other traditions and believers in my attempt to discourage that sort of thing, please do forgive me.

Well, as always, there’s more to say, but I’ll have to wrap it up here today.

Soli Deo Gloria

14 thoughts on “A Few Follow-up Thoughts on Sneering Calvinists

  1. These are helpful clarifications. I enjoyed this post even though I left your TGC article without objections. As a Reformed Baptist, I do tire of the over-exaggerative language of those in Arminian circles when commenting on Reformed theology. And I think most Calvinists have experienced this. I am guilty of being able to easily spot a snarky Arminian, while overlooking my own sneering. Your TGC article was very helpful and convicting for me. Thank you for writing! This Calvinist needed a humility check.

  2. Thanks. But as a not-Calvinist I’d like to point out that it’s hardly the case that Reformed/Calvinist converts from other Protestant traditions have been denied ” justification by grace alone, through faith alone” as this is not a Calvinist doctrines-of-grace distinctive. No snark, just fact 🙂 Speaking of other traditions, of course part of the reason the new Reformed are converts in the first place is that where they came from there wasn’t much of any, not coherent doctrinal ones anyway. That Calvinists offer any is to their credit. So I say to the rest of us, if you want what they got do what they did. It’s possible even to take some lessons from them, without becoming them. Except for the prickly part of course 🙂

  3. Everybody believes that they (their group, their church) is right…otherwise they wouldn’t be in that church.

    I have been kicked off (over the course of the last 7 years) R.S. Clark’s site (Reformed), Jason Stellman’s site (Catholic), and a popular Southern Baptist Convention site (the exact name escapes me), as well as a Missouri Synod Lutheran’s site …for just disagreeing with their doctrine. I never once was disrespectful or “mean”. I would just continually counter their arguments and expose their self-focused (self-relying) doctrines. Each of them would take so much, but only so much.

    When you constantly speak of Christ, alone…with no add-on’s…you’d think that other Christians would rejoice. Not the case, at all. The fellow Baptized want you to shut up more than the pagans do.

    I’m not crying…I’m just pointing out that many ‘nicer’ denominations are certainly capable of getting their undies all in a bunch, too.

    • Luther was right when he wrote in Thesis 62
      “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”

      Whoever puts the emphasis elsewhere and distracts from the person and work of Jesus Christ needs to be reprimanded at the very least. Any teachings or traditions that obscure Jesus, what he did and why are a denial of what Luther and the Reformers saw to be the central message of God’s Word.

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  5. Hi Derek,

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts on this. It’s difficult for both sides because Reformed folk are such a tiny minority in the broader evangelical world. Evangelicalism is Sister Aimee’s world and we orthodox Reformed Christians are just living in it. There’s an essay on this in Always Reformed. As a consequence, Reformed theology, piety, and practice not only appears to be weird but there are ways in which it’s priority on the objective seems intrinsically hostile to a subjectivist culture, which evangelicalism mirrors more closely than Reformed confessionalism does.

    To that end, a few years ago I published a visitor’s guide for pilgrims who might find themselves in a Reformed setting for the first time.

    I hope these things help facilitate mutual understanding. Reformed folk need to be sensitive that they are (or should be) an odd-looking minority and visitors from non-Reformed backgrounds need to be understand that we cannot be expected to look, sound, talk, and behave exactly like the folks in their home town, as it were.

    • Thanks for your reply, Dr. Clark, and for your links. I’ll have to check them out. The cultural aspect of this problem is worth exploring.

      It is an interesting dance. At times I very much find myself playing the other side of the discussion, defending the fact that simply because I, or another Reformed types, happen to represent our readings, or formulations of Christian doctrine as, well, proper Christian doctrine, that isn’t an inherently arrogant act. The trust in the objective, and humble confidence that we can articulate truth on the basis of Scripture, and so forth, does stand out in, I think, healthy ways. But, when I get around “cage-stage” types, I find myself, well, writing the sort of article I just did.

      In a sense, we’re always doing a balancing act like Luther’s drunk–either adding or minimizing the offense of the Gospel. Reformed culture, when it goes off-kilter, is more apt to tilt towards the former, where broader Evangelicalism tilts towards the latter.

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