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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why I am No Longer A Calvinist, Part 3

1 Corinthians 2

As I have previously stated, I have real problems with several elements of the "Doctrines of Grace"* AS THEY ARE STATED in "traditional Calvinism." Labels such as "traditional Calvinism" are difficult because a term can mean different things to different people. What I mean by traditional Calvinism, is the system of belief represented by John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, John Piper, John MacArthur, and R. C. Sproul (and others). I realize that even within that camp there are some important variations and perspectives, but overall these writers represent the core five points of what have been called the "Doctrines of Grace," (TULIP) while avoiding going down a road of anti-missions/evangelism. Indeed, those who go down that road are too easy to answer and don't represent traditional Reformed theology anyway.

In the future blogs I will examine what I believe to be biblical problems with each of the points of Calvinism, but I believe there is one more basic element to address that is significant before I do so - The Problems of Systems.

Calvinism is a system, there is no question about it. Ask any learned Reformed theologian and they will tell you that each of the components of the 5 points stand in tension and relationship with the other. To deny any one of them is to leave the others without important support and incomplete. I often hear people say "I am a 4 point Calvinist" because of all the points, there is a natural objection in Baptist life to Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption. However, you really cannot be a "Calvinist" and not accept all 5 points - Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption is a logical and NECESSARY corollary to Total Depravity/Human Inability, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace/Effectual Calling, and Perseverance of the Saints/Final Perseverance.

Systems are not inherently bad. In fact, they can be immensely helpful in organizing thought, seeing how various texts work together, and gaining a big picture of important concepts in Scripture. However, they do have some tendencies to them that are potentially problematic and which consistently rear their head especially in the system known as Calvinism.

- A System often becomes more important than Scripture:This problem can manifest in a couple of ways. First, the system becomes the criteria by which all Scriptures are interpreted. Any text that doesn’t seem to fit into the conclusions drawn by the system must be molded to the interpreter’s bias. Of course we all come to the text with a bias and we all are affected in our interpretations by our world view, but there is an added barrier to letting the text speak when we start with the idea that “God has to work this way.” Whenever I hear someone say, “I know it seems to say that, but . . .” with any passage I get defensive. What’s more, if they can’t support the “but” in that sentence with historical and literary contextual observations it becomes more apparent that it is more about the system than the text. A second place where this problem occurs is when preachers become more preachers of the system, than preachers of the Word. There is certain almost idolatrous nature to how some people hold to their system. In Reformed theology, this comes across most clearly in the phrase, “Calvinism IS the Gospel!”** I understand conviction about one’s beliefs, I am arguing as much in this series of blogs. However, an all or nothing approach to any system seems to me to leave little room for paradox, tension in history, and the mystery of God. Especially, when there are texts, concepts, and presentations (as I believe there are with Calvinism) that undermine positions taken. Which brings me to the next problem with Systems,

- A System almost always devolves into an “either, or” mentalityThere is no concept more significant to shaking me up as a Calvinist, and ultimately getting me out of the system than the rampant “either, or” arguments present within it. In particular, the idea that you are either a Calvinist or an Arminian – that there are only a few ways an issue might be dealt with. For example, a fellow blogger was recently commenting on the extent of the atonement. He summarized the nature of his argument and position with the following statement:

“In other words, through the death of Christ, which sinners were forgiven and reconciled with God? There are only three possibilities [regarding the nature of atonement].(1). Every sinner that has ever lived (universalism).(2). Elect sinners--those whom the Father has chosen and given to His Son.(3). Believing sinners--those whom the Father foresaw would believe on Jesus.”

He then goes on to write in the same blog:

“Most evangelicals would answer that question in this manner: For every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live. If the person who holds to this view is then asked, "Will every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live be in heaven?" The answer given is "No. The sinner must accept what Jesus has done. The sinner must believe. The sinner must take hold of the atonement that has been offered." So most Christians, when pressed, would have to say the atonement of Jesus actually saves nobody. It is the faith of the sinner in Christ that saves (because of this prevalent belief we ought to consider changing the title of the hymn "Have Faith in God" to "Have Faith in Faith"). The modern evangelical has a belief in a very weak, impotent atonement performed by Christ. God, they believe, actually saves nobody through the cross; sinners are only actually saved through their belief in the cross. I believe the greatest challenge we face in the modern evangelical world is moving people toward a stronger, more biblical and powerful view of what Christ actually accomplished at the cross.”***

Are those really our only options? Is there no room for tension in the text? Are there no other ways to relate the atonement to the believer? Is one really suggesting that “God actually saves nobody through the cross?” if he or she believes Christ died for everyone, but not all will be saved? I will deal with the issue of Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption later, but the point is made that sometimes systems create a mentality of overconfidence in what our reason can do and leaves us with a perspective of, well if you’re not this, then you must be that. The choice is not ONLY between Calvinism and Arminianism, which are viewpoints created within a certain philosophical worldview that does not necessarily line up with the biblical worldview, or other ways of dealing with reality that have been conceived of since that time.

- A System often leads to making up concepts to try and preserve the system.Sometimes, instead of admitting a flaw in the system or simply trying to hold to a more balanced perspective of the overall picture of a situation given in Scripture, systems will lead people to create concepts and practices not expressed in Scripture, but necessary to maintain if one is going to keep his system and also explain other known circumstances. In Calvinism, these types of creations include the two wills of God (a necessary loophole to absolute Sovereignty), the two types of morality (a necessary loophole to Total Depravity), and the two types of atonement (a necessary loophole to Limited Atonement). I have already argued for maintaining tensions in where one is, so this is not an attack on paradox, but when a system requires you to create concepts in order to protect a concept, there is a problem with the system.

- A System allows "acceptance" without understanding its basis
Finally, a major problem with systems is that people come to accept the system without understanding the basis of it. Because the basic premises of the system say things that people like about God, themselves, or life in general they “buy into it” without really realizing all the baggage that they are bringing with it. For instance in Calvinism, I meet people all the time who want to hold to the system without acknowledging Double Predestination. As a Calvinist I did not (and still do not) have a problem with God being able to have predestined people to hell if that is His desire (I don’t believe it is the biblical presentation – something to be looked at later, but I have no problem suggesting He is fully within His rights as God to do as much – He is God), but there are a lot of “Calvinists” who do have problems with it even though the system itself requires it. A similar thing could be said for the “4 point Calvinists mentioned above. Finally, this phenomenon could also be applied from an interpretative and philosophical standpoint as well. I am amazed at how many people who claim both Dispensationalism and Calvinism I come across; though at their heart they are completely incompatible from an interpretation standpoint (because the basis for both systems in their conclusions are completely at odds). Systems lend themselves to this sort of divorce between basis and conclusion because so often they express only the conclusions, without relating or identifying where those conclusions come from. They argue that they are just applying the Bible, when in fact they are proof-texting through a lens of a certain philosophy or worldview.****

A big part of my journey out of Calvinism was a journey of discovery of its basis and the way the system didn’t deal with the greater picture of God’s relationship to man. It was also a discovery of how Calvinism had become in many ways its own sort of idol for me – the irony being that at the very moment I was speaking words about the “greatness of God” I was actually enthralled by the greatness of my own intellect. John Newton (A Calvinist) put it well when he wrote:

“And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self- righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.”*****

The difference between me and Newton is that I see this as almost an inherent part of the system of Calvinism, because I believe that systems themselves have inherent dangers, and when placed together with some of the content of Calvinism, such is almost unavoidable. In the weeks ahead I hope to outline more specifically where I believe the system of Calvinism has eclipsed some of the content of Scripture as it pertains to Grace and in so doing, stepped into an untenable position biblically speaking.

*I place the words Doctrines of Grace in quotes because I don't believe they rise to the level of Doctrines AS THEY ARE STATED in Calvinism. Doctrines are central tenets of the faith that can render one orthodox or heretical.
** Spurgeon wrote: “It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus.” Spurgeon, “A Defense of Calvinism.”
***http://kerussocharis.blogspot.com/2009/09/atonement-in-plain-english-god-saves-us.html I have a lot of respect for Wade on many levels and do not wish to cast aspersions on his overall character at all.
**** Augustine and Calvin’s understanding of reality itself is problematic and fed into the system they both adhered to in relation to the “Doctrines of Grace.”
***** John Newton, quoted in Credenda Agenda, Vol. 5 No. 2, p. 2, from The Works of John Newton, Vol 1, Banner of Truth, p. 272.


Jeff said...

I appreciated your honest acknowledgment of the dangerous tendency toward being enthralled by our own human intellect. Obviously, this is not limited to only the discussion of Calvinism.
As a musician, I must constantly be on guard that I may magnify the Giver of all good things. I am doing myself and the church a disservice if I limit my passion (or the perceived source of my passion) to music or abilities. Similarly, I think, many people end up standing by scratching their heads when they hear a pastor or teacher or theologian become excited about a particular system. Even if the intent of the heart is pure, the listener can only guess at the speaker's motives based upon the words and enthusiasm expressed. You're right, it is ironic that attempts to express the greatness of God can end up with people wondering whom we are truly worshiping.
This point seemed to hit close to home today. Thanks.

Denyse said...

Glad you either found, or re-made, your outline for this series. Its a good thing you don't post more often, because I'll be thinking on this one for quite some time.
After Calvinism, are you moving on to Dispensationalism?

Dr. Tim Pierce said...

As I think you know I am former Dispensationalist too - the difference there is that that is what I was raised with and left (never to go back). I hadn't really considered such a series on Dispensationalism, as I really don't see that as a BIG issue for most of my associates. . .but maybe.
I will say that most of these points about systems do apply to Dispensationalism - especially the one about not knowing the basis. I hear people all the time reject some of the primary notions of the interpretative basis for dispensationalism when they are explained to them - but they still want the conclusions that grow out of that basis.
Again. . .maybe?

Jesse.Carissa said...

That was very encouraging! Thanks for your artiulate thoughts.

Jc_Freak: said...

Man, there is an awful lot I could say about this series, and I am somewhat weary to say it all. I'll start with three basic comments:

A. In much of what you have to say, especially your points, you sound a lot like me. I like that :). I especially like the tone that you use.

B. Personally, I see myself as an Arminian, and my issues with Calvinism are not directed to the system itself, per se, but more to a lot of the slander that goes on against the Arminian camp (I say camp because Arminianism is more a coalition of positions rather than a system).

C. In view of this, especially in what you say about the comparisons that go on between Arminianism and Calvinism, what do you think of Arminianism? If you wish not to comment, fine. I am really just curious.

Dr. Tim Pierce said...

JC Freak (like the name by the way)

ACtually, the five points of Calvinism were originally expressed in response to the 5 points created by the Remonstrants who are the voice of Arminianism - so the source and appropriateness of them are quite similar.

I personally reject the expressions of Arminianism as well - that is my point in this particular blog: Being a non-Calvinist does not make one an Arminian. Those categories are 15th and 16th century categories of thought and discussion that I don't think adequately deal with the biblical material and the biblical world view. As I discuss the various points I will outline my perspective on them and you will see that what I believe really doesn't match up altogether with Arminianism either.

I am grateful for the comments and enthusiasm that your post expresses. It is always good to come across another Brother or Sister in Christ.

arminianperspectives said...

Hello Tim,

I am enjoying the series and linked to it at my blog. I wonder if you would be interested in leaving a version of your story about leaving Calvinism at my blog. I have a page dedicated to such stories. I consider myself an Arminian, but the page is for anyone who left Calvinism, regardless of whether or not they now consider themselves Arminian or just non-Calvinist. Here is the link:


You could make it as long or short as you like. Or you could just leave a link to your series if you think that would be better. Check out the page when you get the chance and tell me what you think. I look forward to reading the rest of your story.

I am especially interested in how you think dispensationalism ties into the issue. I am not a dispensationalist, but grew up in a dispensational denomination (the AG) so I am very familiar with it. However, I don't see how it is as relevant to the Calvinist/non-Calvinist debate as you seem to suggest. I look forward to getting your view on that.

God Bless,

Rick Frueh said...

I do not believe you could present a brand new believer witha Bible, and having never read it or heard any theology, and expect him to arrive at anything like Calvinism. When I shared that thought with a major Calvinist in the blogosphere he replied "that is why we have teachers".

He amplified and identified my expressed point. Calvinism must be taught, and it must present some tortured word parsings in order for the five link chain to remain intact.

Even though I disagree with the theology, I have close Calvinistic brothers. And remarkably enough, they have agreed with me when I observed that the most distasteful aspect of Calvinism isn't the theology, but what it seems to do to some Calvinists themselves.

Dr. Tim Pierce said...


Thanks for the invite - I will visit the site and think about the offer.

I wasn't going to go any further with Dispensationalism issue, so I will answer here. All I was saying is that Dispensationalism is like Calvinism in that it is a system that begins to warp interpretation into bending texts to its position. Furthermore, I was suggesting that there are a lot of people who don't know the basis of their systems and really end up holding incompatible views because they "like the conclusions." For instance, many people are Dispensationalists because they like the pre-wrath rapture, the coolness of its precision, and the vividness of its take on the end times. Those same people will like Calvinism because God is in control, they feel better about themselves by expressing how bad they feel about themselves, and because they like security of the believer. They don't stop to realize that the two systems at their basis are completely incompatible - the stark distinction between Israel and the Church that is at the heart of Dispensationalism is completely at odds with the Covenantal view of God's work which is at the heart of Calvinism. That was what I was getting at in this blog entry - systems bring with them issues that people don't really want to deal with, but which are really at the heart of some of the beliefs that people really want to have.



Dr. Tim Pierce said...


You expressed in your post much of what I tried to say in Part 1 of this "series." Thanks for the insights brother.


Bob Brewer said...

I am an ex-calvinist and though I have not the professional training of yourself I can identify with your journey as posted so far. I would now call myself a Reformation Arminian. I do so reluctantly, I wanted to avoid labels altogether. I just wanted to be known as a follower of Christ. I donned the label of Reformation Arminian for myself because I find it most clearly represents what I believe scripture as a whole teaches. I still reserve the right to be wrong because lord knows as an ex-semi-pelagianist an ex-Calvinist an ex-classic Dispensationalist an ex-progressive Dispensationalist I have certainly been and believed myself to be wrong before. I just want the truth for myself and I desire for the body of Christ at large to truly love one another even where we differ theologically. Thanks again for the thought provoking post.

Your brother in Christ,

arminianperspectives said...


Thanks for the response. I appreciate the clarification concerning dispensationalism. It is percisely because of how difficult it is to get pre-trib theories to line up with Scripture, that I eventually came to reject it. I look forward to learning more about your journey and I hope you will be willing to share it at my blog.

God Bless,

Onesimus said...

Unfortunately many people identify themselves so closely with a chosen theological view that they can't separate that theology from what is genuinely scriptural. As a result they will do whatever it takes to defend the theological system - even if they need to "reinterpret" what scripture is plainly saying.

Personally I get fed up with the insistance on fitting everyone into specific theological labels.

Over the last couple of years I've been called "Arminian" "Pelagian" "Semi-Pelagian" and "Finneyite". Some times I have been called all of them at once as one long hyphenated insult.
I had never heard of most of those terms until they were applied to me (by avid, self-confessed Calvinists).

How good would it be if we could merely think of ourselves and disciples of Jesus and if we could heed HIS word instead of the theological words and doctrines formulated by man.

Hunter said...

Dr. Pierce,

I am looking forward to your blog series.I am most anxious to read your treatment of the "total depravity" of humanity.


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