Over time I’ve interacted with several groups which have a Calvinist bent. My interaction with these groups recently has lead me to the desire to write my thoughts concerning the subject. To be clear, while I have done a fair amount of reading, I have not done a specific in depth study of Calvinism. My perspective is based on the general teaching and my personal experience with groups who are generally Calvinist. In other words, my take will not necessarily be a deep theological debate so much as a reflection on Calvinism as I’ve observed it in practice.
Calvinist theology is most known for its belief in predestination, and many people aren’t aware of there being anything more to it. However as I understand it, predestination isn’t even the main point of Calvinism. At the core of Calvinism is the belief in the sovereignty of God and the depravity of mankind. In translation, essentially what what is being said is that first, God is so powerful, nothing can happen apart from his will, and second, us humans are absolutely evil, and can absolutely not do anything good apart from God making it happen. From this comes the idea of predestination: depraved people cannot on their own choose God, rather God must lead them in such a way that they will choose him. So while in one sense they choose God, in another, God has lead them in such a way that they will not, not choose him.
While I see where Calvinists are coming from, I don’t agree with where they go. To me, it appears that it begins with a problematic, overly literal take on scripture. (Tied into this are the concepts of “sola scriptura” and biblical infallibility.) The problem I’ve seen some Christians get into (not just in Calvinism), is that people take one to a few verses of scripture, and “set them in stone”. In other words, they look to the bible for teaching, and believing that it is infallible, believe that a specific verse must absolutely always mean exactly what they believe it says. The problem is you can’t do this for everything in the bible, because there are apparent contradictions. What ends up happening is that some verses—the ones that coincide with a particular view—are taken as literally and absolutely as possible. Then the rest of the bible, including the verses that don’t exactly coincide with a view, are bent around until they can fit to the primary view.
I see Calvinism as taking certain parts of scripture and elevating them to have a higher importance than the rest of scripture. I feel that Calvinism takes certain ideas—fairly abstract ones at that I might add—and makes them unbendable laws. It then takes everything else and makes them do acrobatics in order to fit to the primary view. To me, it seems this takes Calvinism to the point of holding some bizarre views. A tame one regarding predestination is this: both Calvinists and non-Calvinist agree that a person can profess to be a follower of Christ, act like a follower of Christ, and then at some point in the future, cease to claim or behave as a follower of Christ. Many would call this apostasy—a person who was once in the faith no longer being so, or “losing one’s salvation” (though in order to think this way, one must also see salvation as a one time act that has already happened). But for Calvinists, one cannot “lose their salvation”, because God has predestined those who will be saved. So in order to explain the person who falls away, they say that the person was never actually in the faith (or “saved” or which ever term you wish to use), despite all appearances. While this could theoretically be true, isn’t that the more round about, complicated answer?
This brings up another point that I have issue with. It seems that Calvinism is very abstract, and has little practical application. As in the example above, what has actually happened—from either a Calvinism or non-Calvinism point of view—is the same. The only difference is in the conceptual explanation. I’m not against the study of theology, the coming up with different ideas and debating them. But when there is no practical application, how important should it be for the average Christian?
Which brings me to yet another point: it seems to me that Calvinists place a primary emphasis on in depth study of the bible and theology. One of the favorite activities of Calvinists is to participate in bible study. To this end, Calvinists, along with most of modern evangelicalism, view the book of Romans as the greatest, due to the fact that Paul seems to outline a systematic theology more clearly there than any other place in scripture. (It’s been suggested that main line denominations based their theology more on the synoptic gospels, with an emphasis on social issues. A further suggestion has been made that we ought to look to Colossians, with the emphasis of Christ as the Head, and Ephesians, which focuses on the church as Christ’s body, as foundational books for theology.) I think bible study is good, but I believe it is more important to focus on living the Christian life.