What do we do with a problem like John Calvin?
Commentator “Jack the Ripper” has asked some questions—more deserving of attention than his pseudonym—that relate to Calvin’s monstrous spawn. Below are repostings of his comments and my attempted response.
From the comments section of “Steve Harvey and Dionysian Protestantism”:
I find your criticism of the Calvinist tradition here to be unsupported by the evidence you present. How does a complete lack of emotion in their worship service indicate that they have turned “faith into propositional assent and the Christian life into social morality”? Is is not possible to strive for an authentic faith, spurn the cultural draw of “social morality,” and yet still resist a charismatic form of worship? I think you betray your general disdain for Calvinism. Perhaps it is justified, but I believe that your reference to it here was more of a cheap shot than a thoughtful critique.
But please, convince me otherwise. I am always looking for reason to rag on Calvinists.
and from the comments section of “Square Circle”:
However, I am again frustrated by your critique of Calvinism. On this one, I am more inclined to agree with you, but my frustration stems from my belief that you are writing from a set of assumptions about Calvinism to which I have not stipulated - or am even aware. I would love a thorough post sometime discussing your fundamental views of what you think Calvinism states, your sources, and why the implications of those beliefs are so disastrous according the laws of reason as well as biblical theology.
There are several issues to be addressed here. Allow me to start with my working definition of Calvinism. It is not an academically rigorous interpretation of Calvin’s works. I have not read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since I was a teenager, and I have neither the interest nor the stomach to devote myself to a serious study of the Reformation. You see how devoting oneself to knowledge of the enemy’s ways affected Saruman; I prefer to remain sane. However, Calvinism as a religious and social force continues long after Calvin, and it is to this meaning of Calvinism that I refer. For Calvin’s movement spread from Geneva and transformed or at least gave structured intelligibility to nascent rebellions against Rome in various Protestant regions. Through the Dutch, the English Puritans, the Huguenots, and the Scots, Calvinism heavily influenced our American society. I refer to Calvinism because it is the air that we breathe. From Plymouth to today, Americans are de facto Calvinists, albeit wildly eccentric and backslidden ones.
I single out Calvinism from among the Protestant traditions for two reasons. First, as I just described, I think that Calvinism has been far more influential in shaping American society and religiosity. Lutherans, Anglicans, and even Christians from the ancient faiths in the United States often become Calvinists—mostly unawares—by imbibing their new national culture.
Second, as I have written before, I consider Calvinism to be the purest, most distilled form of Protestantism. This idea is controversial, and perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that Lutheranism and Anglicanism have strong traditional currents. They are breaks from Rome, but they, to varying extents, manage to hold onto the Catholic tradition in many matters. Calvinism, by contrast, is a rejection of the Catholic tradition. When I read Calvin, I was surprised to see how often he mentions the Fathers and their works. He often refers to councils, creeds, and ecclesial precedents. However, he employs such reference not as an authority for himself but as a foil to Roman doctrines and authority. In this, he does not transgress argumentative rules. It is permissible and useful to wield someone else’s authorities against him to show his inconsistency. Such does not imply that one holds them as an authority for himself. For Calvin and his followers claim for themselves an unadulterated understanding of Christian doctrine through their interpretation of the scriptures. The apostolic patristic ecclesial experience holds no authority for them when it conflicts with their peculiar interpretation of the Bible; in other worlds, it holds no authority.
I understand Protestantism as the spiritual form of modernity (I write a bit more about this here). Its specific difference, more than anything else, is a rejection of the past and of the past’s authority. It is inherently anti-traditional, which is why it continues to fragment doctrinally. Any new religion has doctrines that distinguish it from other religions, and it maintains such doctrines over time through its own tradition. Yet, if it is an inherent characteristic of the religion to throw off tradition, it will continually generate new religions. Indeed, Protestantism excels in the proliferation of new religions. When you witness inter-Protestant ecumenical rapprochement, it almost always occurs among groups that have lost interest in doctrine . . . Why worry about such differences? Just give us that mere Christianity . . .
The Reformation created various religious traditions that make up the essence of Protestantism, but in every way, Calvinism shows itself the more radical and, therefore, in my opinion, the more fitting representative of Protestantism. If you think that Protestantism is simply a movement to regain the religious teaching and practice of the early Christian community—without papist distortions—then you could argue that Anglicanism or Lutheranism or whatever else you hold to be true is the best exemplar of Protestantism. I, obviously, reject that definition of Protestantism; it is utterly ridiculous, given the distortions and innovations to which Protestantism has subjected the legacy of the Christian faith. The Reformation has more to do with post-scholastic philosophy and nominalism than with the world—and world view—of the New Testament. Calvin is but a pious Hobbes who works on different problems.
Earlier in the week in “C.S. Lewis: Hellbound?,” I wrote about the Protestant rejection of the religion of immanence. In doctrine, in practice, and in sentiment, Calvinism goes further than any other Reformed tradition in rejecting religion as understood by men since the stone age. It is for this reason that I wrote the following passage in “Steve Harvey and Dionysian Protestantism” that gave offense to the aforementioned commentator:
In religion, I take cold, bloodless, intellectualized Calvinism as the most notable disembodiment of harmony between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. It is purely Apollonian, where the emotive, the bodily, and the thirst for transcending the self have been expelled as pagan accretions to popery. This most distilled form of Protestantism rids Christianity of all “religion of immanence”—and religion itself. It turns faith into propositional assent and the Christian life into social morality. In other words, it is a unique form of godless Stoicism interpreted through the languages and imagery of the scriptures.
Calvinism renounces the “religion of immanence,” which is, ultimately, all religion. The particular Christian and, in my opinion, archetypal version of the religion of immanence—the sacramental understanding of the world—is cast into the outer darkness by Calvin and his followers. In doing so, Calvinism has rendered the modern understanding of the world void of the divine. In place of seeing God in all things, we have a world thoroughly secularized. It is but a short distance from the profane to the dead, and our modern lifeless world of mechanism and chance owes its pedigree to Calvinism’s rejection of religion.
With Calvin himself, Calvinism ceases to be a religion. However, the Calvinist tradition has functioned as a deficient religion for its adherents over the last five centuries. As I suggested in the previous entry secundum Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the inherent secularism of Calvinism may have channeled its people’s energies into extraordinary secular pursuits that brought about the Anglo-American modern world. Nonetheless, Calvinism’s Sunday services, reminders of divine sovereignty, and culture of biblical literacy kept most Calvinists Christian. However, century by century, the interior rot of spiritually starved Calvinists led many sects into consciously and openly post-religious existence. Consider how the Congregationalists became Unitarians and theosophists. Their most faithful descendents today pass their Sunday morns in the United Church of Christ, in light of which, decadent Calvinism is not even irreligious social morality but rather social immorality. Lest I scandalize those few pious Presbyterians left, I acknowledge that Calvin did not have Jeremiah Wright in mind when he exhorted the men of Geneva to preach Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, as the United Church of Christ, various Presbyterian assemblies, and other Reformed bodies show, Christian praxis, divorced from the sacramental life and the traditions of the Church, becomes mere social morality. In place of theosis, the secular Calvinists trumpet faddish interpretations of social justice.
One may argue that we cannot blame the sorry state of contemporary Western Christians on poor John Calvin. One could argue that the spirit of secularism has invaded all religious bodies, rendering cultural Catholics just as secularly minded toward their religion as people from the Calvinist tradition. However, I would respond that the spirit of secularism largely originates in Calvinism. We can thank John’s cursed gift for ruin on a ecumenical scale.
Of course, there have been many good and pious Christians who come from the Calvinist tradition. They suckle poison in their milk from birth and still manage to grow into men. Unlike Calvin’s view of man after the fall, I do not think that the Reformation reduced Protestant Man to a state of total depravity. Like the Mormons, Calvinists still read the holy scriptures, though with a sickly hermeneutic tradition. In the spirit of Augustine, I suspect that even the most egregious heretics benefit from proclaiming and hearing the name of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Reformers managed to keep, piecemeal, elements of the Catholic tradition. I do not deny that, despite itself, Calvinism has nourished many souls. Nonetheless, it has served them poorly.
Jack the Ripper finds my tangential attack on Calvinism to be a cheap shot. I think that it fits, and I have more than a general disdain for Calvinism. My hatred for it runs deep and wide; I see its deleterious effects everywhere. It has marred the civilization that I love and spiritually stunted, if not damned, millions of Christians who were trained to fear God but not to love him—or anything else. Clerical rhetoric aside, how does one love something that is ugly? Calvin’s depiction of God is ugly. Honestly consider the doctrine of God’s eternal plan to create men in order to damn them to everlasting hell and tell me that you do not find it revolting. Contrast the message of Calvin with that of Saint Paul in his second epistle to the Church at Corinth (5:14-21):
For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
I do not wish to engage in scriptural warfare, with contrasting passages, because it solves nothing. The tradition of the Church is not the tradition of John Calvin. The seed of Calvinism can be found in Augustine’s errors, novel in his own time and sensibly rejected for a millennium before the Reformation. If you wish to see thorough traditional biblical commentary with regard to Calvinist doctrine, the web provides an endless resource.
In short, Calvinism is a shameless abomination in Christian history. For centuries, it has given scandal to the name of Christ. Countless Christians have gone into apostasy not from sin but from a sense of decency and justice because all that they knew of God was through Calvin’s hideous blasphemy. Well-intentioned heathen have sunk further into hopelessness and despair or have chased idols through empty appetitive pursuits, art, scholarship, and political utopianism to quench their thirst for God, having found no living water in the dry well of Geneva’s lord.
Weber was likely right. Calvinism played the midwife for so many accomplishments—and for how many lost souls?
Tomorrow, I’ll address Jack’s comments regarding Christian worship in “The Contrast of Orthodox Worship.”