I’m sure John Calvin was a nice guy. I really am. I’m sure he loved Jesus, people, the Apostle Paul (that’s a no-brainer), the occasional rousing game of Gin Rummy, and life in general. I really am. But I’m pretty teed off these days, and he is as good a target as anyone to vomit my frustrations onto (mainly because he can’t come and get me … or can he?).

I’m teed off at Calvin for the countless followers of his theology who have wielded it with reckless abandon, causing untold numbers of spiritual casualties.

I’m teed off at Calvin for serving as the patron saint of a Christian sect that sees itself as the sole “defenders of the faith.”

I’m teed off at Calvin for misusing Scripture by mastering it and flogging people with it (instead of engaging it as the story of God and His people).

I’m teed off at Calvin for failing to see the beauty and goodness that is present throughout this broken world and in a broken humanity.

I’m teed off at Calvin for a prevailing view that Jesus’ primary importance to us was six hours of agony on a cross so that we can go to Heaven. (rather than Jesus as the Logos, the fulfillment of all reality, the perfect way of living embodied, God made flesh — see the Hirsch quote below for more on this)

I’m teed off at Calvin for creating an angry, wrathful, bloodthirsty God who hates those He created, and for the untold millions of humans who have been turned away from spirituality completely as a result of this caricature.

I’m teed off at Calvin for parading around some of the greatest heresies Christianity has ever known as God-breathed truth, and being heralded as a saint for it.

Most days, I’ve got enough issues in my own life to worry about being teed off at dead preachers, but today, I’m teed off at John Calvin.

Alan Hirsch had these related comments in a recent post called “Paul Would be Appalled”:

I have been talking with some of my more Reformed friends recently and have increasingly come to the rather unnerving conclusion that Calvinism is particularly susceptible to religiosity. Partly because of its idea of the continuity between law and gospel, partly because of its church over society stance, and partly because of sense of being being the chief historical defender of the Faith. But mostly I believe this susceptibility comes from its general circumventing of the life and teachings of Jesus. If this is so, why? Well, it is inordinately hard to make Jesus sound like a superlapsarian, five-point, Calvinist. I trained in a strongly Reformed seminary (which shall remain unnamed) and so I can speak from experience here. I can say that by and large it felt that we considered the Gospels were mere exercises in Greek exegesis to prepare us up for the real deal–Paul. Yes, we we reserved our real energies and excitement for Paul and Pauline theology, and I think this is true for Calvinist faith in general. I have come to the rather disconcerting conclusion that Reformed theology can easily become a religion of Paul rather than an expression of the life of Jesus is it is not careful. this subversion of Jesus from his own movement is rightly called Paulinism because it so readily discounts the central and defining role of Jesus in the life of the Christian faith. Christianity is a ‘religion’ based on Jesus or it is nothing! And it is not just about the birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and return that are vital to Christian faith, but his life, lifestyle, teachings, and ethos as well.

And Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed has these comments about “intellectual spirituality”:

… Spirituality as knowledge is rooted for most today in the Enlightenment. Evangelicals at times reveal a variant on Descartes: “I think about the knowledge of God, therefore I know God.” Study of the Bible leading to mastery of the Bible became spirituality.

The challenge of liberalism encountered this intellectual spirituality. Its intellectual pursuits led to an incredulity in the texts and to a gospel reduced to love; evangelicalism’s led to a “I can prove it all” spirituality. Webber talks about how derisive he was toward liberals and Catholics and the Orthodox.

The point: knowledge is not spirituality. Knowledge is important.

Intellectual spirituality is rooted in my story not God’s story. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. The former is not the latter; the latter always involves the former. Knowing God involves contemplating the mysteries of God’s grace.

The point here really isn’t to smear Calvin (OK, maybe a little…). Here’s my point, folks: How we envision God (our theology) is vitally important. It impacts how we exist in this world … what we value … our witness and message. Our theology is foundational, not peripheral. Don’t believe me? Watch this. Think about the number of Christians (many of them followers of Calvin!) who view God in this way. As a friend wrote to me after watching the video above,

One more victim of the relentless smear against God’s:

1) Goodness

2) Love

3) Power


4 responses to this post.

  1. Steve,

    Thanks for the post. I mostly agree with you except that Calvin was NOT a nice guy. I particularly like Greg Boyd’s take on Calvin:

    “My contention is that, while we can and should continue to appreciate the theological insights of people who were involved in torturing and killing people, we should not regard them as heroes of orthodoxy – for they were guilty of the worst heresy imaginable. If we continue to esteem killers as heroes, we can’t help but have our vision of the beautiful Kingdom polluted. Of course, none of our heroes are perfect. But I would think, at the very least, they should not be guilty of the worst heresy imaginable. If we wouldn’t make a person who denied the Trinity a hero of orthodoxy, we shouldn’t make anyone who kills in Jesus’ name a hero either.”

    You can read the full post here:


  2. Steve,

    Calvin never, ever, subscribed to the five-point doctrine that was canonized by reformed Christians in the seventeenth century. His theology, like most of our great theologians, is both complex and subtle and open to several readings (both good and bad).

    Seeing as how I spend a lot of my time with Calvin professionally, my guess is that you haven’t ever read much by him, let alone thought about him in his sixteenth-century context. There are few ministers in history with as much pastoral sensitivity and organizational creativity as Calvin had. You could learn a few things.

    His followers, I will grant you, like those of Jesus himself, are another story. But, please, don’t make the gross mistake of blaming the man for those who claimed him. I’m sure Jesus would like to disown some of his own at times.


  3. Calvin was a punk. Agreed.

    “Its intellectual pursuits led to an incredulity in the texts and to a gospel reduced to love”

    Two comments in defense of theological liberalism:

    First, the texts leads to incredulity regarding the texts. No high degree of intellectual effort is necessary. Case in point: any bible class full of high school students trying to figure out how a good God can torture people for eternity.

    Second, love is superior to everything, so nothing can be “reduced to” love.


  4. Posted by J. Smith on July 14, 2008 at 12:14 am

    Dumbest post and comments thread on the internet. – Calvinist


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