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Leaving Calvinism

2011 November 28
by Mike

In a recent blog post, Scot McKnight talks about why he left Calvinism:

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I was fortunate to have gone to college at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, and one of the high fortunes was that Grand Rapids was filled with bookstores and book-reading folks. As a student I came into contact with some Calvinist friends, and that set me off into reading Calvinism, and beside the standard textbooks and theologies, the theologians I read the most were Calvin and John Owen. After four years, Kris and I moved to Chicagoland for seminary. When I got to Trinity in the Fall of 1976 as a student, the first thing I noticed was how tightly the theological discussion was ratcheted. These folks knew what they were talking about, and they knew biblical texts and theological discussions, and the history of the Church. It took some work just to be conversant. It was a challenge for which I am grateful to this day.

Calvinism was not a front-burner issue, but was on the stove top waiting for someone to say something uninformed. I had some wonderful lecturers: H. Dermott McDonald was an eccentric theologian from London who told us that our syllabus was the library and we should get over there and read up on “God, Man, and Christ” and then come take his exam at the end. David Wells taught Sin and Salvation, and began by telling us that his wife said that he could teach the first half of the class by giving an autobiography. McDonald was not a Calvinist; Wells was. My NT teachers didn’t raise such topics: Norm Ericsen and Murray Harris. But, then Grant Osborne came to TEDS. (So, I can blame this journey on Grant, which he’d be happy to take credit for.)

Here’s what happened. Grant is famous for his handouts, and he had one on Eternal Security. It was a lengthy handout and he asked me to work through it, add some bibliography, and generally re-write it. It was a big task for me, but it was the first real chance I had to do something at that level. To prepare for it, Grant suggested I read I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God. Which I did. From cover to cover; underlined it; took notes; checked commentaries. It took a good long while. When I came up for air in Hebrews I had been persuaded that I was wrong about Calvinism. Like C.S. Lewis getting on a bus and then getting off converted, but not knowing when or how, so with me: from the beginning of working through Grant’s notes to reading through Marshall and arguing with him until he wrestled me to the ground and pinned me, I had become convinced that I was no longer a Calvinist. Which didn’t mean I gave up the architecture of Calvinism, but I did then consider high Calvinism an inaccurate understanding of the fullness of the Bible.

It was and still is my conviction that the five points of Calvinism belong together, and both Horton’s and Olson’s recent books have confirmed that view. You might be able to give up #5 (Perseverance) somehow (I don’t think so, but some think so) and you might need to add a #6 (Responsiblity), but if the Arminian understanding of “losing salvation” is right, that is, if the effectual calling can be abandoned or undone, then high Calvinism is not right. (I’ll eventually show why the expression “losing salvation” isn’t optimal.) Let me say this more clearly: if God’s saving, effectual grace can be resisted somehow, if believers can somehow choose to forfeit their salvation, then unconditional election and irresistible grace (and probably limited atonement) and surely perseverance (as preservation) of the saints are not right.

There are (so I think) two major weaknesses in Calvinism’s theology (and also a disorientation in its architecture): first, the emphasis of its architecture is not the emphasis of the Bible. Its focus on God’s Sovereignty, which very quickly becomes much less a doctrine of grace than a doctrine of control and theodicy etc, and its overemphasis on human depravity are not the emphases of the Bible. The overemphasis of these two in high Calvinism comes more from Augustine and later Calvinists than from the rhetoric of the biblical authors. I do not dispute the presence of these themes; I dispute their narratival centrality and they are where the gravity of emphasis is found in the Bible. Yes, we all have metanarratives that put things together, and Calvinism is one such metanarrative. It works for some; it simply didn’t work for me.

Second, the exegesis of Calvinism on crucial passages is sometimes dead wrong. I was once standing, years later when I was teaching at Trinity, outside my door talking with two professors about my view of Hebrews, when I simply asked one of them, “Who do you think best answers the Arminian interpretation of Hebrews?” That professor said, “Philip Hughes.” I had just read Hughes and I thought it was weak. In fact, what I thought was this: “If that is the best, then there is no debate.” The other professor said, “I agree, Scot. Hughes doesn’t answer the questions.” Then he said, “I’m not sure any commentary really answers it well.” (Both of these professors were Calvinists, and still are, God bless ‘em.) What I’m saying is that the exegetical conclusions I was drawing (in all kinds of passages) were not answered adequately by the Calvinists I was reading. We all have to give them a fair shot. But at that time I had nothing to lose and it didn’t matter where I landed; I wanted to find out what the Bible said.

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To read the rest of Scot’s post, go here.

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I love these lines from a poem by John O’Donohue:

. . . Decide carefully
How you now can live
The life you would love
To look back on
From your deathbed.

18 Responses leave one →
  1. joey tilton permalink
    December 5, 2011

    Very useful post. I’m pretty certain that most who attend Calvinist churches don’t really know the implications of Calvinism. John Piper does, however, and doesn’t appear to be bothered by them. We in the Churches of Christ don’t realize those aspects of Calvinism that we have inherited (like pen sub).
    The recent growth of extreme Calvinist/Reformed churches, I think, is a reflection of the fact that people are looking for doctrine that they can sink their teeth into – even if Calvinism doesn’t work. The also recent popularity of people like Ray Vanderlaan and Piper amongst Church of Christ members is a reflection of that hunger for rich doctrine, as well.

  2. December 5, 2011

    One of my brothers-in-law is a strict high Calvinist. His sister-in-law (me) is not. What his sister-in-law is, is confused as to why you can’t have some of both? The older I get, the more convinced I am that God has absolutely ordained some things, even some very specific things in my life. Additionally, the older I get, the more I’m convinced that I’ve got a lot of free will. To make a long story short, my days of studying heavy theology are largely over. I enjoyed it in college. I now want to know God more and more deeply, and for me (and not for everyone!) deep theological study is not the means to that end.

  3. erin permalink
    December 6, 2011

    I love those words from John O’Donohue. I assume it’s from that book? Are there other words that meaningful in there?

  4. December 6, 2011

    erin – Yes, that’s right.

    Kristi – I understand, entirely. Beyond our theological structures, there is the one who is All in All. I do think there is quite a bit at stake in this discussion that effects our ability to connect with the growing group who are “outside,” but I also appreciate a person who says they’re taking a time-out from all the discussions to enjoy God!

  5. oldguy permalink
    December 8, 2011

    Forget leaving Calvinism. I want a post on the theological implications of leaving Cardinalism–for $250 million. And then they took CJ, too, thus raiding both your teams in one day. There may be a new evil empire out there!

  6. Kathy permalink
    December 8, 2011

    1/4 a billion dollars!!! I guess even a Believer has his price. I’m very disappointed – and that from an other-than-Cardinals fan too.

  7. Rick Gibson permalink
    December 9, 2011

    Who could have guessed that the evil empire is a group of Angels? (As an LA native, I couldn’t be happier.)

  8. Jacob permalink
    December 10, 2011

    I was lucky enough to be placed in Dr. McKnight’s Intro to the Bible class at North Park University this fall semester. I am very aware of Calvinist theology, and while he mentioned Calvinism in passing a few times in class, I would have never known he used to be Calvinist. He is a great guy (not that Calvinists aren’t), and while I know (from his “Wikipedia” page) he aligns with the anabaptists, he seemed to be a guy who just wanted to be a disciple of Christ — not associated with a denomination. I was blessed to be placed in his class and I cannot wait to take his “Jesus of Nazareth” course here at NPU. Simply from his class, I have decided to pursue a minor in Biblical Studies (I’m pre-med). Figured I’d share this tidbit about him.

  9. December 11, 2011

    Mike, the NYT article about the “Nones” contained this seminal assumption:

    “Though religion contains large public components, it is at core a personal affair. It is the relationship we have with ourselves or, as the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, ‘What the individual does with his solitariness.'”

    Is that not one of the most characteristic errors of evangelicalism, the notion that religion is “at core” a “personal affair?” ISTM that America has so successfully overlaid its fierce individualism on Christianity that the latter is no longer recognizable in its originary Jewishness.

    So the article’s conclusions are logical…given that assumption. But I’m not sure the assumption itself is sound.


  10. Kent Dickerson permalink
    December 11, 2011

    I felt the lengths gone to label people in the responses to the article would be comical if not so sad. Several of the responses and the blog itself talk about people who are on a journey in their theological development. Abandoning efforts to plug people into camps is a lot of what the early Restoration movement was about. I am at a place in my own journey where I believe both that God calls all men to repent and He chooses who He chooses. I also believe that we can feel totally secure in our eternal destination and yet are warned to persevere to the end. I feel somehow all are true because they are scripture. I no longer worry that I can’t reconcile everything in a nice package of defined theology. I’ve come to realize that God is bigger than my understanding will ever be, even in heaven. We’ll be always learning because His nature is eternal and far beyond us even there.

  11. Kent Dickerson permalink
    December 11, 2011

    I do applaud Scot McKnight’s desire to know what he believes. What we believe about God will drive our faith walk. And it has been eye opening to analyze my life to see if it really reflects what I believe (thanks, Henry Blackaby for Experiencing God). I just think that the labels are used by the enemy to divide the body of Christ just as our denominational labels are.
    Another truth of scripture which helps my understanding in this area is that God is beyond time. This fact is so important that it is being stated 24 hours a day in heaven, “Holy, Holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 6). He is so Amazing!

  12. December 16, 2011

    Still in sorrow over the departure of Sir Albert. THAT could not have been fore-ordained.

    QB – Saw that article, and I think you’re right. The newest NTW book (Simply Jesus) should be required reading!

    Scot’s latest post on how his study of Hebrews was seminal in his change:

  13. GRH permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Late to the party as usual, but I appreciate the post and the thoughtful discussion.

  14. January 31, 2012

    I too, have never been a big fan of Calvinism. Too much reason.

    For one thing, the Bible says that “Christ died for the whole world.” If Calvinists actually believed that, then they might not have to look inward for evidence of their salvation.

  15. February 2, 2012

    As one born and raised in CoC, walking away in my teen/college years, then being snatched back by God, today I am firmly of the reformed mind. The observation in the last sentence of the first comment by Joey Tilton is an astute one. If I may add to it: Reformed doctrine is rich, biblically saturated, God-centered doctrine; and when compared to the jello that so often comes out of the pulpits and teachings and blogs of the current CoC, the appeal for the former is magnified. Pathos, not Scripture, seems to rule the day in our circles.

    What is certain is that most in our CoC “tribe” (for lack of a better word) who are critical of reformed doctrine, are either completely ignorant of it, or intellectually dishonest when discussing it. Some, like John Mark Hicks, do understand it (having gone to Westminster), and can argue against it with intellectual honesty (actually arguing the position the way a proponent of the position would argue it), but he is definitely the minority. For example, in one sermon promoted by this blog, a preacher said he was searching for the reason for suffering and when he came to the reformed position he said something like “and I just couldn’t bear thinking that God took pleasure pushing old women down stairs.” My heart sunk. Was he serious? What a disgrace. Is that the some total of his knowledge concerning the position? And I felt really horrible for all the ears that were led astray by such a nonsensical summary. I wish this was an uncommon example, but other comments show that it isn’t.

    I think what drives the fear-driven, knee-jerk reaction is more lack of knowledge than anything else. It is the same demonization of a position that happened to folks like R.H. Boll, R.C. Bell, R.L. Kilpatrick, and others in our history who preached grace, justification by faith alone, and imputed righteousness. Their opponents would simply cry “Calvinism!” and rarely would address the deeper issues of the text. One can disagree with a position, but at least they should know what the position is that they are against and then argue the position they hold.

    Today, our movement is caked in the traditions of men, and many don’t even realize how at odds with Scripture some of our positions are; whether theologically or ecclesiologically. Semi-Pelagianism is rampant, and such man-centered powerless doctrines will only lead to even greater weakness. We’ve got God in the box, and He shall behave and love the way we determine to be worthy of our worship. How many times have we heard “I wouldn’t worship a God who…” – and this regardless of the revelation we have received in Scripture. But this seems to be the rule of the day.

    I’m not saying we all need to become reformed; but if we could at least be honest enough to understand the other positions, perhaps we might see some strengthening not only in our doctrine, but in our lives for Christ not only with our brothers and sisters in different camps, but also in holiness and sacrificial service to both God and man.

    Grace be with you –

  16. joey tilton permalink
    February 2, 2012

    In case my comment wasn’t clear – I wasn’t saying that Calvinism is GOOD doctrine, only that it IS doctrine. I think Piper-type Calvinism is……well……not good (biting tongue). You are right about so much of the preaching heard in today’s churches (not just CofCs): jello. So many sermons reduce the Bible to a collection of moralistic snippets. And it is this reduction that has led so many to look for something more; and, unfortunately, led some to people like Piper.
    But there are some who are trying to teach rich stuff that is not Reformed. (Go to the Branch website and find Mike’s sermon there a few months ago. This was rich and not Reformed.)
    CofCs are more Reformed than we realize, though we don’t know how or why. We are Reformed in the way we read Paul; how we view the Law; how we view atonement; how we read the Gospels. But we don’t realize that we’ve inherited these doctrines. We think we’re an island.
    One thing we have going for us, however, is that we haven’t traditionally viewed ourselves as “Calvinists” or “Reformed,” so we aren’t bound to maintain those doctrines out of a sense of obligation. More and more of us are recognizing that whereas we had thought it was all about correct church structure, it is about something more. Instead of a being defined by a correct doctrine, we are seeing that we are defined by a rich Story. And I am sensing that it is this Story that is being fleshed out by more and more of our preachers. How many of our younger preachers are being influenced by the likes of Wright, Hays, Brueggemann, McKnight and others? (I recognize Wright is an Anglican, and, therefore, Reformed. But he’s far from Piperian Reformed!!)
    Ah, well….I’m not giving up on the Church of Christ. These are my people.

  17. February 6, 2012

    Joey: I was under no delusion that you believed reformed theology was good theology, only that you pointed out that the hunger for rich doctrine has driven many to reformed thinking. In that I concurred.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree on some of the matters. While we are a part of the Protestant tradition, the Restoration Movement has tended to be more man-centered in tradition, and currently is heavily semi-Pelagian in theology, while also being more emotionally driven. It actually has little to do with ecclesiology, and much to do with theology and practice.

    And while it is easy and popular in some quarters to write off reformed theology by using a boogeyman like Piper (much the same way others in the past would superficially cry “Calvinism!”), it would be unfortunate to disregard all in the reformed fold who God is using to do His mighty work: Tim Keller, Francis Chan, David Platt, DA Carson, Michael Horton, RC Sproul, Thabiti Anyabwile, Kevin DeYoung, Tim Challies, Matt Chandler, Justin Taylor, et al. Many of us are also learning a lot from these brothers, and the God-centered focus in life and in mission gives us much to be hopeful for as we take Christ to our neighbors and to the nations; in word and in deed; in love and for the glory of God. [And by the way, these are things that I believe the guys you mentioned, like Wright and McKnight, are also spurring us toward.]

    Grace be with you –

  18. January 20, 2018

    After a short season of being under Calvinist teaching by a young man we both personally know, i came out of it depressed, needing to be healed and realizing the Calviniss portrait of God is ugly compared to the beautiful Biblical portrait of God:
    1. “Can’t” should not be used in referring to God but he can not discriminate described in Calvint election theology.
    2. God’s sovereignty can not contradict his holiness. Piper’s teaching of Him reveals contradicts especially in describing evil events to God.
    3. God is not evil. He’s good. Simple but in this conversation this needs to be brought out.
    4. The focus on depravity leaves Satan out of Calviniss theology leaving evil acts accredited to God.. yet another tainted portrait of God.
    5. Penal atonement is modern and portrays God as the ultimate child abuser.
    6. Humans have total free will. Satan and andelic brings and demons do too. this explains evil in the world well. But we are God’s robot puppets to Calvinists.

    Time does not allow me to go on. But with Greg Boyd and other healthy teachers like N.T. Wright makes me peaceful that scholars are out there describing the portrait of God well who is depicted the most clearly on the cross: “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,”
    ??Hebrews? ?1:3? ?NASB??

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