When we first told our four year old son Luke that he was going to his dentist appointment, tears began to stream down his face. His was petrified. Luke had never been to the dentist and this was to be his first dental cleaning. Initially I couldn’t understand why the word dentist provoked so much terror in my son. But as I began to talk to Luke, I realize that he had a terrible misconception of what a dentist actually was. Luke associated “dental cleaning” with full blown invasive surgery for some reason. Once we arrived at the dentist office and the dental assistant took time to show Luke how simple and painless a cleaning was, his mind was set at ease. Luke ended up enjoying his visit to the dentist. What Luke had once thought about a dentist proved to be quite the opposite from the horror he had imagined.
Words are powerful and can invoke fear, especially if we have misconceptions of what they actually mean. When they are misunderstood, words can be very harmful and even cause undue division between people. Ive found this to be true as it pertains to Christianity. Theology in particular. Within the walls of the church, far too often swords are brandished and battle lines are drawn due to a lack of knowledge and understanding on a variety of subjects.
“My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge.” Hosea 4:6.
One of the most misunderstood theological leanings in modern day evangelicalism is reformed theology. The word widely used to describe reformed theology is Calvinism. And this word has been known to start many a fire among the people of God.
Recently I was invited by a dear brother and fellow Pastor to come to his church and preach one Sunday morning. This pastor jokingly shared with me that when he brought it to the attention of his deacons that I would be preaching, the chairman of the deacons was unusually quiet. After the meeting, the pastor approached the deacon chair and asked, “Did you say Charlie Parish was coming to preach?” To which the pastor replied, “Yes I did. What seems to be the problem?” In almost a whisper, as if what he was about to say were a curse word, the deacon chair said, “Isn’t he a…you know…a Calvinist?”
Ironically I have never labeled myself other than saying that I am a Christ follower. I do not dare preach a man much less John Calvin. I preach one man, THE God Man Jesus Christ. I just happen to agree with Calvin’s deeply rooted exegesis of scripture. And the interpretations of Calvin were not even of his own creation. He merely ascribed to the exegesis of Godly men who came before him. As Charles Spurgeon once said;
“The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God.” -Spurgeon
My Pastor friend went on to have a discussion with his chairman of the deacons and came to realize he had no clue what a Calvinist was. He just associated the word with negativity and untruths. This is a very common story that has occurred quite often. The word Calvinism carries a negative connotation with it, yet very few actually know what it is. And few have very little understanding of how it aligns with scripture as well as Christian history as a whole.
One of the most common misunderstandings regarding Calvinism is that people will say it is the doctrine of man, not God. It is true that Calvinism was named after the teachings of the 15th century theologian John Calvin. However, Calvin was not the first to teach what is known as Calvinism. The teaching was called Augustinianism in the early fourth century, named after Saint Augustine. Before Augustine taught the doctrines of sovereign grace (also known as Calvinism), the apostle Paul taught them. And before Paul, Jesus Himself.
Furthermore, John Calvin was long deceased by the time the term Calvinism was coined. In the late 1500’s, Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius was not a proponent of the doctrines of sovereign grace. And upon the death of Arminius, his followers carried on his teachings. They were refuted by followers of John Calvin. The five points of Calvinism arose to counteract the five points of Arminianism. This debate between the two camps came to a head at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).
The Synod concluded with a rejection of the Arminian views, and set forth the Reformed doctrine on each point, namely: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement (arguing that Christ’s atoning work was intended only for the elect and not for the rest of the world), irresistible (or irrevocable) grace, and the perseverance of the saints. These are the five points of Calvinism which have been historically defended as biblical truth.
The very crux of reformed theology centers around the free will of man versus the sovereign electing grace of God. Even before the Synod of Dort in the early 4th century this subject was highly debated. The controversy was addressed in the early 4th century when a British monk named Pelagius opposed Augustine’s famous prayer: “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.”
Pelagius was sternly against the idea that a divine gift of grace is necessary for a believer to perform what God commands. For Pelagius and his followers responsibility always implies ability for man to chose either to obey God or not. If man has the moral responsibility to obey the law of God, he must also have the moral ability to do it.
On the other hand, Augustine fully believed and taught that man is dead in His sins apart from God supernaturally opening his eyes and implanting a new desire through the Holy Spirit. This was the same theological view that John Calvin would hold centuries later.
Eventually, Augustine’s views were embraced as being orthodox and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by Rome. Years later Pelagianism was replaced by Semi-Pelagianism and it was likewise condemned by the Council of Orange in 529.
The basic assumptions of this view condemned of man’s free will presiding over the sovereignty of God persisted throughout church history only to reappear in Medieval Catholicism, Renaissance Humanism, Socinianism, Arminianism, and modern Liberalism. The seminal thought of Pelagius is pervasive in the modern day church. And to this day much of the modern church is held captive by it.
In 1525 The Bondage of the Will was published by a German Monk by the name of Martin Luther. It was his reply to Desiderius Erasmus’s treatise entitled Freedom of the Will, which Erasmus wrote in 1524. The issue of their debate centered around whether human beings, after the Fall of Man, are free to choose good or evil. The debate between Luther and Erasmus is one of the earliest of the Reformation over the issue of free will and predestination.
Erasmus believed and taught that all humans possessed free will, and that the doctrine of predestination did not line up with the scriptures. He argued against the belief that God’s foreknowledge of events was the cause of events, and held that the doctrines of repentance, baptism and conversion depended on the existence of free will.
On the other hand Luther believed that mans sin nature restricts human beings from working out their own salvation, and that they are completely incapable of bringing themselves to know God unless God supernaturally acted first. Luther asserted in regards to salvation, there is no free will for humanity because any will they might have is overwhelmed by the influence of sin.
Much like Pelagius and years later Arminius, Erasmus views were greatly overshadowed by the sovereignty of God that was preached by Luther.
I once had an older lady who had been devoted to the church all of her life approach me regarding the doctrines of grace, saying, “We don’t believe Calvinism to be true because we are Baptist.” However, her statement showed her lack of historical understanding. Most of the original Baptist churches were known as particular Baptist. The particular Baptist held strongly to the doctrines of graces or Calvinism. In fact, one of the original Baptist Confessions of Faith, known as The 1689 London Baptist Confession, was in fact Calvinistic in its theological leanings. In the year 1793, 956 out of 1,032 Baptist Churches in America were Calvinistic.
What I have written here is but a brief brush stroke across the broad canvas of Christian history. It is a mere skimming of the surface. The point of this article is not to persuade or debate Calvinism or Arminianism. I believe there is room at the foot of the cross for both camps given that the essentials of the Gospel are upheld. My goal is simply to plead with fellow brothers not to cast stones at historically rooted doctrines of the church such as reformed theology until you have swum beneath the ice berg. We must not stop at what we can see, but rather go back and examine our roots.
It is a fallacy for a Christian to get hung up on words such as Calvinism and claim, “this is not what we believe” until they have personally done a historical excavation to see what the founders of our faith believed, beginning with scriptures and traveling through the ages. Reformed theology or Calvinism has been viewed as a taboo subject in recent times. When in all actuality, this fear is grounded in man’s fear of that which he doesn’t fully understand, much like my son Luke’s fear of the dentist.
Our goal as followers of Christ should never be to waive a theological flag, but to seek out truth. In the religious world of “ism’s” and doctrinal wars, it can be quite easy to forget the Gospel. And to properly understand what we truly believe as well as to grow in our own sanctification, it is crucial that we not be satisfied to live a shallow Christianity that is based on Christian T-shirt slogans and fluffy, man centered catchphrases.
But at the same time, we should not ignorantly neglect learning from the past. It is a shame when certain doctrines are avoided due to a fear that our preferred image of God may be shattered. As the apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:14, we must strive towards to goal of Christlikeness. We must labor in our search for truth, and desire to search the depths of the Word of God. We must strive to know this God of the Bible for who He is as seen through scripture and careful examination of our church history, not mold him into we want Him to be. Its only in digging deep that the richest treasures are found.