My John Calvin “Fan” Club

December 3, 2010

“Hey Matt, are you Reformed?”

Pretty often, I get asked about whether I’m a Calvinist, or an Arminian or Reformed or something else.  Or someone will want to talk about Luther or Augustine or some other really really dead guy.

And when asked if I’m a Calvinist or whatever, my answer is usually the same.

“I don’t know.”

To most people, that’s about the worst answer I can give, especially as someone who actually went to seminary.  A lot of people expect me to be thoroughly read up on what a bunch of dead guys thought about theology.  But I find myself balking at these conversations more and more, for a lot of reasons.  Maybe you’re a theology buff, or a total noob, or a contientious objector.  Let’s find out…

Before I Met You, I Never Believed in Predestination

The first reason I often don’t enjoy these questions is because some people who love theology won’t just drop a theology grenade into a conversation that’s already going.  They’ll use it like a pick up line to see if I’m interested, figure out if I’m their type.  I love talking theology with friends, but when someone’s sizing me up, theologically undressing me before we can even talk about our jobs, or some sports teams I pretend to know about, it’s uncomfortable.  If they were staring at my hot body, it wouldn’t feel so creepy.  Undoubtedly, saying “I don’t know” doesn’t impress them.  They think I’m just a pretty face with no depth, and they move on.

The Gong Show

I Choo-Choo-Choose you, John Calvin

Okay, my first beef with theology I can handle.  But here’s a real problem for me.

I do not, for the life of me, understand why some people are so in love with John Calvin.  He’s like the Elvis of theology, except he’s dead.  You know your fan club has been taken to the next level when the fans actually name themselves after their idol – Trekkies, Team Edward, Calvinists, they’re all the same.  The thing is, if John Calvin was alive, the relationship would probably go one way.  He was kind of a jerkHe was not a peaceful, loving lovely lover, riding on a rainbow unicorn of happiness.  Calvin really hoped his rival, Michael Servetus would be killed, and may have even had a hand in having him burned at the stake.  Not the kind of guy I want to associate myself with.

Luther, for all he contributed, was a raging anti-Semite.  If Luther were alive today, Eric Cartman would be his biggest fan.  Call it what you will, a product of his environment.  If he was able to see through the church environment of his time, he should’ve been able to not hate on Jews.  What was that Paul said?  I can be the most awesome guy in the church, but if I don’t have love, I’m a big, loud, annoying gong?

If these two prove anything, it’s not that despite their flaws, guys like this should be venerated.  If we can learn anything, it’s that God, given limited choices, will even use a complete wang like John Calvin.

A Need-To-Know Basis

The thing that makes me the most itchy is that committing to a dead guy’s theology is a lot like being married, for better or for worse.  You start reading the Bible as a Calvinist, rather than just reading the Bible.  Sometimes, phrases about the Bible being the “complete” and “inerrant” revelation of God are tossed in while we’re at it.  That always rallies the troops.  Sure, I think the Bible is complete, but that doesn’t mean God said everything there is to say.  God has given us a lot of basics, but He’s done it on a need-to-know basis.

What bothers me isn’t so much the theology itself, as the attitude that we’ve figured God all out.  Once we commit to a theology, we are absolutely certain of it.  There is no mystery left.

If God really has told us everything, and if we really can figure God all out, then I’m disappointed.  Because I can’t solve a Rubik’s cube.  If God is less complicated to figure out than a puzzle, then there’s not much to Him.  When we were kids, we were comfortable with Santa being a mystery.  People used to say the mystery of the faith was Christ has died, risen, and will come again.  The most basic aspects of our faith were called a mystery.  Now that we think we’re all Bill Nye the Science Guy, we hate mystery.  Plus, coming off as being sure of everything in the universe is pretty annoying and turns people off outside of church.

Accepting mystery isn’t being willfully ignorant, or a stupid, blind Christian.  It’s accepting what scientists have to accept, that there are limits to what we can know.  So don’t stop being a Calvinist.  Just maybe agree to an open relationship with Calvin.

Are you a theology hulk, or do you avoid it?  Is it just simpler to call yourself a “Calvinist?”  How do we deal with “geniuses” who aren’t so pretty up close?  How much mystery is left in God?

52 responses to My John Calvin “Fan” Club

  1. Wow, Matt, this is one of your best!

    I’ve read this over several times trying to pick out your best line and I couldn’t because there are so many good ones. But with a tiny change, I think my favorite is, “If we can learn anything, it’s that God, given limited choices, will even use a complete wang like John Cowart”.

    Great writing; great thinking.

    Keep it up.


  2. I went to Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and let me tell you that they even DRESS like Martin Luther on graduation and other special occasions. They have special red hats all made up. Seriously.

  3. I am not a Calvinist. I am a Stephenist. What is that? It means that I read theology, and I do mean a lot of it, and form my own ideas based upon past reading and the Bible. No one theology has it all, and seriously, theologians do not think they have it all figured out. Calvin was a genius, but as one reads his works you begin to realize that he was almost thinking out loud as he wrote, because the further you go, the more you see him change his mind.

    Peace mister “??hot body??” cough cough. Oy Vey!

  4. Very good post, even though I am a Calvinist. I especially appreciated the line where God uses a complete wang like John Calvin. Well said, and more importantly, he might even use me!

  5. When supralapsarianism is part of your “love language” you’re in big trouble.

    Funny stuff Matt!

    Dave Wilson recently posted..The most grotesque and vile thing on this planet

  6. I might once have been a buff, or perhaps a noob in the buff. I have come to realize that “theology” is an intellectual game we play. The “mystery” of God, His love and His sacrifice for us stands. A lot of time has been wasted arguing theological points, and a lot of dissension among Christians has given the Church a black eye for all the world to see. We should be showing the world the love of Christ and giving them the message of hope.
    vanilla recently posted..Gwendolyn Brooks

  7. Well, Matt, a whole months worth of Tweets!

    Every denomination limits itself because, as you stated, God reveals himself on a need to know basis. I am a Calvinist Armenian. I went to an Anglican Seminary and a Protestant Bible school – but I count all as loss.

    After many years, I honestly don’t care about theology. It is man’s way of trying to explain an unexplainable God. That puts him in a box. I do find NT Wright engaging and somewhat amazing – but I digress.

    I don’t care about post-trib, pre-trib or mid-trib. Me, I am pan-tribber – it’s all going to pan out. If God is pursuing all of mankind, (and he is), then I suppose we all have choices to make.

    Sure there are things that I am convinced of in the Bible, but no one cares. What folks care about is what I am doing with my faith, and does it bring them closer to God. Let’s just say that I believe in miracles and the power of the Holy Spirit to work through me and others. Jesus is so awesome; I can’t find words to express what he has done in me, or the life I lead because of it.

    I don’t have doubts – some unknowns, but no doubts. Mystery doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is Christians that go around saying why other Christians are wrong. All I have to say is this: Unless you can back it up with power or good works that don’t have your name on it, shut up, thank you.

    What God cares about is my heart. I am not going to get to blame my bad behavior, lack of faith, or brow beating on anyone else.

    BTW – What’s wang in the Greek?
    David recently posted..Geek Gifts Over 100 – These Are No Stocking Stuffers

  8. I have to disagree to a point. The crux of what you are saying is that we cannot know anything about God because that wouldn’t leave any mystery. Just because we cannot know EVERYTHING, doesn’t mean we cannot know SOME things. The problem with postmodern thought is that it wants to eliminate absolute truth. But, we as Christians believe that their is an absolute truth and his name is Jesus. Just because you subscribe to orthodox or reformed theology doesn’t mean that you have God all figured out. It only means that the parts that God has revealed about himself, you believe. We don’t believe that everything about God could be contained in one book, but we do believe that everything we need to know about God is contained in one book.

    The other thing that bothered me was the slant of the article seemed to be against theology as a whole. While I do agree that people are obsessive about John Calvin, I disagree that the answer to that is to ignore theology altogether. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the most beloved books that we have on explaining the historical Christian faith. And the truth is that all people bring in their presuppositions to reading the bible. The key is to make sure you read people like Calvin and Arminius and Augustine so that you can discover where you are biased. Not reading the voices of the past is committing “chronological snobbery.”

    • I am actually glad that you brought up postmodernism, because that is the problem of postmoderns – their claim to not be able to know anything. We have to be careful, while stripping our own assumptions about the Bible away, to embrace the truth that it does present. There is a lot that the Bible does tell us about God.

  9. I hate being forced into a corner, sort of like they tried to do Baby in “Dirty Dancing.” This happens to me a lot. I usually tell them that I am a follower of Jesus and can be friends with people all along the theological spectrum. Of course, people who do this normally don’t want to have a civil discussion. They just seem to want more people on their side.
    seekingpastor recently posted..Depression- Hope- and Travis Tritt

  10. Generally, when I’m asked about my theology (or predestination), I stare blankly at my questioner as they tell me all of their favorite theologians.

    Let’s be honest, as you said, all of the theologians that we idolize are human – that is, imperfect. They likely didn’t get everything right. Trusting in what one human said can be very dangerous. (To err is human.)

    So, while I’d love to study and learn more about theology, I usually get turned off by all the arguments that go along with it, friendly or otherwise.

    Thanks for the post. Good food for thought.
    here be dragons recently posted..Christmas Card time

  11. He was also a bit of a jerk when it came to seeing women as fully human. He said that women were created in the image of God to an inferior degree as compared with men. He also said that “Men are preferred to females in the human race. We know that God constituted man as the head and gave him a dignity and preeminence above that of the woman. . . . It is true that the image of God is imprinted on all; but still woman is inferior to man.”

    Nice. Both he and Luther, while venerated by Christian men everywhere, needed a good slap from their mothers. I agree with you on much of what you said about theology. I think it’s very worth studying, but not worth choosing sides and gearing up for a game of ecclesiastical dodge ball with the last one unbloodied being declared closer to God should never be the point.

  12. this. post. is. awesome.

  13. Great post. I loved the whole discussion. You sure nailed one of the problems in the church with “Plus, coming off as being sure of everything in the universe is pretty annoying and turns people off outside of church.” There is something wonderful about being a fellow learner and sincerely inviting dialogue instead of preaching my convictions to an unwilling listener! Thanks for challenging our thinking.
    Jane recently posted..The Tension of Obedience

  14. I tend to lean toward agreeing with most of Calvin’s positions but I don’t brand myself a “Calvinist.” Too many people with whom I’ve tried to discuss theology want to play “GOTCHA!” If you say you’re a Calvinist (or Lutheran or Methodist or Nopeopleian) they’ll pounce on you if you have a belief that doesn’t line exactly up with the stock teaching of that -ist/-an/-ian position. I’m of the opinion the only man who had it all together when it came to God’s teaching was Jesus. Everyone else can be wrong.
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  15. I agree with David (above)… I don’t need more head knowledge. I need to apply what I already know, and be obedient to the understanding I have. If I need to know more, God is perfectly capable of enlightening me.

    Theology is important in preventing heresy, but once you get past the essentials, it’s all going up in flames someday.

  16. I do like discussing, but I don’t like arguments. If someone has no interest in hearing another side, I’d rather not engage. I don’t need to convince anyone of my point of view, but I’d love to say why I arrived at that conclusion or my experiences with that particular bit of theology and hear their take as well.

    Really, I just came to comment because of this, “He’s like the Elvis of theology, except he’s dead.” That was awesome. :)

    Thanks Matt.
    jasonS recently posted..Hope and Peace at Christmastime

  17. I am a Calvinist, by the modern meaning of what Calvinism has come to mean, sort of. But only with the right description of Calvinism, meaning I believe that God is sovereign, but he also holds us responsible for the choices we make. Mystery is there.

  18. Excellent post. My favorite line (hard to choose): “If God really has told us everything, and if we really can figure God all out, then I’m disappointed. Because I can’t solve a Rubik’s cube.”

    I’m including this in my weekend round up tomorrow!
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  19. Well, i agree. But i think it is hard to get away from all the “isms” that influence our thought, even when we try not to let them.
    Kathryn recently posted..Still at home

  20. Oh my gosh! That was so funny; I particularly loved your heading “Before I met you, I never believed in predestination”.

    Funny stuff, and yet poignant and relevant. I agree with you when you said, if you define yourself as a Calvinist, then you read the Bible as a Calvinist instead of as a Christian. By putting a label on ourselves that God didn’t put on us, limits our ability to know and understand him.

    This post reminded me again why I love your blog. Keep it up.

  21. This is the best post of yours I’ve read and honestly one of the best takes on theology I’ve seen. Great job, Matt. I’m definitely with you on this one.
    Tony Alicea recently posted..How Long Must I Wait vlog

  22. I LOVE IT!!!

    I’ve been thinking about a blog article on “labels” in so-called “Christianity.” It makes me think of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, when he says, “okay, guys, let’s forget the all-stars and look at the One Whose birth was heralded by a star!” (OK, that’s not King James, but you get the idea.)

    I’m with you about Calvin and Arminius (few Calvinists will react to the name, but when you mention his counter-label, “Arminianism,” they freak out!). They’ve got good opinions and all, but none of them have a clue about how God sees time. And you and I don’t, either.
    Joe Sewell recently posted..Good- Evil- and God

  23. Great post! One of my faves from you. I will now take this opportunity to share a tired old joke:

    Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”
    He said, “Nobody loves me.”
    I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
    He said, “Yes.”
    I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
    He said, “A Christian.”
    I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
    He said, “Protestant.”
    I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
    He said, “Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
    He said, “Northern Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
    I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
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  24. I can solve a Rubick’s cube.

    I know it has nothing to do with the rest of your post, but I just wanted to boast a bit.

    Oh, and I am not a great fan of organised theology and -isms. I just want to be a FISH. (Faithful In Serving HIM)
    Sharkbait recently posted..Happy Birthday Jack

  25. It seems people have been taking sides for a long time… In today’s circles we have the groups you have touched upon and others. In New Testament times it seems lines were being drawn between followers of Paul and those of Apollos.

    1 Corinthians 3:3-9 (New International Version, ©2010)

    3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

    5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

    In my mind, the point of this passage is the point of your post. And it is still true today. When we focus on following man’s ideas versus simply pursuing God, we are missing the mark.
    Dusty Rayburn recently posted..Part of The Body of Christ

  26. This is a great post! Love it!
    Rocco Capra recently posted..The Summit- Faith Beyond Everest’s Death Zone

  27. I don’t know how to take this. My pastor is a “theologian” and seriously, if it wasn’t for him, I might have shook off Jesus altogether. Why? Because what He said struck right into my heart. God used Him in ways other Pastors (who don’t study Calvin or Lewis or Augustine, mind you) never did. I know it was God, not man that did this, but I think people can learn alot by studying people like Calvin. I’m not a theologian and I don’t know where I stand on predestination. My mind goes numb just thinking about that. I just really want to know that I’m loved by God and what that means for me in how I behave. I don’t really care if I was elected or not. I just want to know that I’m saved. So that part always throws me. But I don’t think saying all theologians are ridiculous because God used one to save me. Thank you Psr. Piper.

    • The best part is, you don’t have to take it! My experience tells me that associating closely with heavy theological types isn’t fruitful for me. You know that you were brought to faith by one. So celebrate that, and give thanks to God!

    • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with studying theology or theologians – as long as it serves to make you think deeply about God and what He’s doing. But if it is an excuse not to think deeply because you can quote other people, you’ll be swept away. Good for you for studying to understand your faith and understand God’s message! You don’t sound like you’re falling victim to the divisive side that this post was taking issue with.

  28. My husband is the buff (or at least, knows what he is talking about) when it comes to dead theologians. I smile and nod when he gets going.

    This is actually a good reminder about the danger of putting one’s hope in humans; it is bound to be dashed. No one can live up to a hero status. As you and many commenters have said, these men are proof that God can use anyone. Even a jerk like myself.

    And yeah, I like thinking that I have God all figured out, and then he’ll surprise me. It’s best to wait and see and be amazed. :)
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  29. Insanely clever post. And excellent points too :)
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  30. I personally love studying theology and apologetics. But, having said that, I look at both those things as well as Bible study and devotional reading merely as things to give me a better picture of who Jesus is. I have a lot of friends who’ve gotten sucked into collecting factoids and information about Jesus, but it hasn’t really drawn them closer to Him. The longer I’m a believer, the more convinced that the gospel is a lot simpler than we want it to be. My theological background helps me all the time with my students and the people I mentor. It comes in handy to be able to look together for the answers to the questions we have. Theology, like so many other things, is a great too but not the most important thing.
    Linda B. recently posted..What I Think About Late at Night…

  31. Good and funny post, Matt. As a young guy feeling the call to seminary as well as being new to the whole blog scene, it’s nice to see 1. A Christian guy who updates his blog consistently, and 2. A guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

    I am a big fan of theology, but you are right — there are plenty of times when I have to put my book down, and just go talk to God or someone about the Gospel. Because God is constantly pouring out His love for us, we who are made in His image are also pouring ourselves out as well. But to what? All too often people take theology, clothes, or video games too seriously without ever taking Jesus very seriously.

    Keep posting, Matt — I subscribed!

  32. 1 Corinthians 1:11-13 comes to mind.

    Did Calvin die on the cross for you?

  33. “If God really has told us everything, and if we really can figure God all out, then I’m disappointed. Because I can’t solve a Rubik’s cube. If God is less complicated to figure out than a puzzle, then there’s not much to Him.”

    Awesome man, love it. Great post. I find that faith should be Organic as a whole. That it should grow as the Spirit grows it.
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  34. Pretty superficial.

  35. I even see you live in KC like I do. What a synchronistic moment.
    Still it was a dumb discussion on theologians you are clueless about. Who will be talking about you when you die? When your in places of great darkness you will not be looking for the perfect flashlight to lead you upstairs. You would settle for base models with non alkaline batteries.
    Do you have your own imperfections and bias’s that cloud your thinking? Even prejudices? I bet you do.
    Oh well, I was only looking for a good image of Calvin to print out for my office.
    Don’t be so harsh about venerable theologians. You might get a snotty reply from people like me. Ha!

  36. Having recently begun to attend a church that is apparently Reformed, I too have been part of the awkward conversations that you speak of. This current experience combined with my 22ish years of being in love with Catholicism have shown me that obsession with a theological viewpoint can be hazardous to your spiritual health and pretty annoying to those around you (which you’ve covered in your post), and it can also be emotionally exhausting. It’s hard to feel like you always have to defend THAT particular set of ideas; I sometimes found myself defending Catholic things just because it felt good to know the answers, not because it was what I actually believed. Knowing all the answers was one hard idol to lay down, but it had to happen.

  37. Love this post! Especially, the “A Need-To-Know Basis” part. There’s an issue when we lose all mystery and think that we know more than our creator. I love how Søren Kierkegaard said it, “If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, precisely because I cannot do this I must believe.” And I’m sure there are many other people who said it in great ways as well. I’ve grown up in the church, and the last couple months I’ve been on a journey of unlearning, attempting to read through the Gospels without any preconceived opinions. It’s been a wild ride, to see how much dogma and doctrine I’ve picked up that I don’t see in the life and example of Christ.
    My short answered opinion on the mystery of human responsibility & divine sovereignty is this, “Man’s responsibility can’t be ignored; God’s will can’t be thwarted”. Which may lead to more questions than an actual answer, but it is what it is. Grace & Peace -Mike

  38. I consider myself a Calvinist, but I am just as annoyed/bothered by people who think that means they know everything and can huff and puff their way around the Bible. If you hope to grow, humility is essential, and that includes your knowledge.

    In regards to Calvin, I read a pretty interesting article by the Village church that gave some different views on his character:

  39. I am a Calvinist in that I believe all of the 5 points – although I have never read anything Calvin wrote.

    Reading through some of these comments it seems like a lot of people don’t like theology – they seem to think it’s better to just get on with loving Jesus.

    But theology is learning about Jesus! That’s what it is! Your relationship will be richer for good theology, not made colder by it. In fact, I would suggest that ignoring theology can (although sometimes God’s grace breaks through anyway) hinder your relationship with Jesus.

  40. Hey Matt,

    Fantastic post. I’m a former pastor just coming off a hiatus of sorts and starting seminary this Fall. I’ve just started to blog myself! This post colors some of my personal thoughts and fears about presenting a succinct theological response when I feel as though I’m being cornered on issues of creed etc. The truth is, as you stated, we’re better off in an open relationship with the theo-brilliance of centuries past. In that way, our minds can be, likewise, open.
    Looking forward to more thought provoking posts!

  41. Thank you. Awesome post. Here is a conversation I have had:
    Them: What are you?
    Me: A Christian.
    Them: Yeah, but what are you?
    Me: A Christian.
    And on it goes…

  42. “What bothers me isn’t so much the theology itself, as the attitude that we’ve figured God all out. Once we commit to a theology, we are absolutely certain of it. There is no mystery left.”

    Bingo! God is WAY too big to fit into any theological box. That’s why I like Peter Rollins’ a/theism approach, where you believe in God but constantly doubt what you believe about God.

  43. BTW, I am a Lutheran in the sense that I am a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. But Luther is definitely NOT one of my favorite people!

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