Calvinism. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that term?
If you’re not Reformed, you probably think of predestination or John Calvin. Or maybe you think of close-minded Christians or a cruel God or whatever. As a Reformed Christian myself, I’m always up for hearing what those outside the tribe think of Calvinism.
Some things said are true. A lot of them are not.
What are the misconceptions?
There’s plenty, but three quick ones come to mind:
Misconception #1: John Calvin invented Calvinism.
When did the confusion start?
Wikipedia doesn’t help: “He [John Calvin] was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism.”
I get the confusion. The word Calvinism has Calvin in it, and everyone knows John Calvin, so John Calvin came up with Calvinism, right?
Good thoughts. But let’s dig deeper.
“Calvinism” is, among other things, a misnomer. The label “Calvinist” was coined in 1552 by Lutheran polemicist Joachim Westphal, not by John Calvin. In fact, Calvin didn’t like the term, and did not see it as a term of endearment. As Michael Horton says, “The reformer himself would have been embarrassed to be singled out for a distinctive view of the Christian life.”
While Calvinists respect John Calvin, Calvinism can be seen throughout church history in the lives of Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine and many others. Reformed folks for years have rightly argued that Calvinism sprung from the Bible, not from one man.
Misconception #2: Calvinism undermines personal evangelism.
The argument goes something like this: “Because only predestined people go to heaven, Calvinism teaches Christians to be passive in evangelism.”
Problem with that is, well, it’s not true:
“Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect” (2 Timothy 2:10).
Paul suffered, worked, and evangelized so that some might be saved. He did everything he could to win people for Jesus, knowing most would reject his message. There’s nothing passive about his approach.
Also consider Calvinism’s history:
- Jonathan Edward’s tracts enhanced the spiritual revival in Connecticut, the revival we know as “The Great Awakening.
- George Whitfield’s legendary evangelistic sermons sparked the revival.
- William Carey — the Calvinistic Christian — led the great missionary movement of the 19th century.
- Charles Spurgeon’s favorite doctrine was substitutionary atonement — that Jesus died on the cross, in your place, and for your sins. Evangelistic sermons were his favorite to preach.
You could argue that the driving force behind their work was their Calvinistic convictions.
The idea that Calvinists don’t care about evangelism was never true in the past, isn’t true in the present, and hopefully won’t be true in the future.
Misconception #3: Calvinism puts “God in a box.”
I once asked a pastor if he was Reformed. “No,” he said. “I don’t want to put God in a box.”
I hear this a lot.
It’s no secret Calvinists love to read. The “popular” seminaries are almost always Reformed. In 2009, Time Magazine labeled the New Calvinism as one of the top ten ideas changing the world. And with the resurgence of Reformed theology in the church over the past 5-10 years, an abundance of gospel-centered, Reformed resources have emerged. Reformed people aim to know their God with their mind well.
Admittedly, Calvinists (especially new ones) can be off-putting and harsh with those with opposing views. There’s a “Cage-stage Calvinist” time that many go through. But the idea that Calvinism puts God in a “box,” or have God all figured out, is ridiculous.
If you pay very close attention to Reformed authors, one verse frequently used is Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to our Lord our God.” You can know God truly, but not fully. Some things he won’t reveal. Calvinists know you can’t put God in a box.
There’s many more misconceptions: That God treats his creatures like puppets, that the idea of election is cold, that prayer is useless, that Calvinists boast in their election. It’s painful to be misunderstood. But Reformed folks (including me) haven’t always done a great job of representing the tribe. Hopefully we can do better in the future. But there should be no compromise of what we believe. As Charles Spurgeon says, “Reformed theology is just a nickname for biblical Christianity.”
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