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3 Common Misconceptions of Calvinism

Calvinism.  What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that term?

3 Common Misconceptions of Calvinism

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.”

You might also like:

  1. Calvin’s 5 Rules for Right Prayer
  2. John Calvin and his Afflictions

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more>

13 Replies

  1. As a “Bookend Calvinist” (I agree with the basic idea of Total Depravity and Perseverance of the Saints) as well as a graduate of one of the “popular” seminaries, the first thoughts that come to mind when I hear Calvinist is arrogant and patronizing. Now, granted, there are many Calvinists who do not fall into this category. Unfortunately, the ones that I know that are adamant about making sure others know they are Calvinists do act this way.

    Misconception 1: We call it Calvinism because we have come to know it because of John Calvin’s involvement. You are right that he did not start it. Your comment about “Calvinism sprung from the Bible, not from one man”, while true, can also be applied to many other belief systems. The difference comes with how the Bible is
    interpreted. Even heresies have “sprung” from the Bible. That statement can be disturbing to those not in the “tribe” because it implies that anything else is not from the Bible.

    Misconception 2: I understand that many Calvinists have done great things in the area of evangelism and missions. Much of the arguments and persuasive talks about being involved in missions and evangelism use the idea that Christians need to help rescue the unsaved. That argument falls flat under the Calvinists beliefs. If I do not go, they will still be saved. No one will go to Hell if I am not involved. If a man cannot influence someone to go to heaven because that is the Holy Spirit’s job, no one will be prevented from going to Hell because a man decided not to be involved.

    Also, saying “God loves you and Jesus died for you” is saying two different things depending on the person you are talking to. God’s love and Jesus’ death mean two totally different things to those in the elect and those not in the elect. To be true to Limited Atonement, one needs to be very careful on what is said to not defy what that pedal of the flower means.

    Misconception 3: I admit that this one for me comes from the arrogant attitude that I sense from the ardent
    Calvinists, particularly some of the professors that have studied many years and come to these conclusions. I would believe like them if only I could study the Bible more. Then, I could understand God better. Like you said “Reformed folks haven’t always done a great job of representing the tribe.” (This is true on the other side as well).

    To be honest, our culture is too polarized. Right vs. Left. Democrats vs. Republicans. Pop vs. soda. The
    church was built to stand against these divisions. I have known pastors on both sides of this debate that will not talk to each other because of their stance on this issue. That is ridiculous. Why can’t we all take the stance that “some people believe this…others believe this…I am in group (1 or 2) and here is why…” Instead we get these pithy statements that divide like “Reformed theology is just a nickname for biblical Christianity.”

    1. Chad Brand

      David, you could better present your case if you would work on your grammar, especially your subject-verb agreement.. For instance, “Calvinists respect Calvin,” not “Calvinist.”

      Brad, as a theology prof I can say that students do this with a variety of issues, such as dispensationalism, a certain view on spiritual gifts, etc. Generally, as people mature, they become less monochromatic in their theology.

  2. Nom Johnson

    Great post. Well put together. Thanks for helping remove the negative spin on such a great Gospel-God truth; those that Reformers know in one way or another.
    Thanks also for taking responsibility for some of the foolish traps Calvinists or Reformed people sometimes fall into (as if those traps weren’t present in other spins, too.)
    Great job, as always 🙂

    1. Thank you, Nom. Really appreciate it. Those of us who believe in the Doctrines of Grace should be the most gracious.

  3. That’s a good piece. I have recently converted from Charismatism to Calvinism and I have met with a lot of resistance and misunderstanding. I do admit I might be in a “cage stage” and praying I get out quickly.

    This is certainly true “Reformed people aim to know their God with their mind well.” The vast Reformed Resources out there is quiet amazing and gets overwhelming sometimes. “Do I have to read all these?” I do ask myself sometimes.

    1. Enoch, that’s very humble for you to admit. Sounds like you’re going in the right direction. Also, yes, there are SO many good resources out there. Tony Reinke wrote a good book on helping Christians know what and what not to read. https://www.amazon.com/Lit-Christian-Guide-Reading-Books/dp/1433522268/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1449843183&sr=8-1&keywords=lit+tony+reinke

  4. I do not find Calvinism as a problem, but “Hyper Calvinism” is. That’s where a lot of debate comes from.

    1. I do agree that “Hyper-Calvinism” is a problem. But I also think there is still much debate around traditional Calvinism theology.

      1. It’s a debate that nobody wins. The end result will still be a question whether if one truly accepted Jesus or not. 🙂

        1. James

          There’s no such thing as Hyper Calvinism. All Hyper Calvinism is,is a consistent Calvinist.

  5. 11D20

    One of the main things I learned from being reared Presbyterian is who is in charge. God is in charge and therefore I do not need to worry about anything for God is in control of all things.

  6. Ben

    Barring the first point, which is nigh irrelevant to the actual relevance of this school of thought, the remaining points have nothing to do with the actual doctrines of Calvinism, and site only examples of Calvinists as anecdotal evidence. It’s like saying Conservatism doesn’t lead to arrogance, because I’ve met humble Republicans, or Liberalism doesn’t lead to cruelty because I’ve met nice Democrats. Those kind of statements don’t actually say anything about their respective ideologies, only them as people. To say that Calvinism is inherently evangelical because Spurgeon had a knack for evangelism does not qualify as solid disproof of a misconception, it says nothing about Calvinism as a doctrine and everything about Spurgeon as an individual.

    If the title here were “Misconceptions about CalvinISTS” I don’t think we’d have a problem, but as is we have a different story, and I don’t think this is just s semantic distinction. I think this touches on a much more important issue in the church; generalizing people by their ideologies. I don’t think it’s safe to assume you’ll disagree with someone because you disagree with their label. Especially in the church where the infinite Holy Spirit intersects with finite creatures, there is bound to be some profoundly supernatural wisdom buried in the heart every believer despite the possibility of error in their profoundly natural (See depraved) mind. People are complicated, and ideologies are often narrow.

    Also can I point out that this article falls into the trap of its own stereotypes? The third point is about how Calvinists don’t necessarily put God in a box, and many Reformed icons admit to their inability to fully know the mind of God. However at the end of the first point the author says “Reformed folks for years have ‘rightly’ argued that Calvinism sprung from the Bible” which, to be fair it did, but the wording here seems a bit smug, no? It reads like “Calvinists have actually read the Bible and deniers just missed it.” Not trying to be rude, I genuinely just thought that was funny.

    Also, I don’t actually disagree with anything in this article per se, it just strikes me as a little tone deaf. It’s an article that claims to address misconceptions (presumably for a hostile audience, I mean why else would you do it?), but it seems to me like it would only hit home with people who already consider themselves Reformed. I can’t imagine it would be especially persuasive to any self identifying Arminianists (which I feel like most people just say “free will,” and/or “who is Arminius”)

    Also, sorry I wrote an additional article about this article, and sorry if this comes across rude, I do that sometimes, just read in Morgan Freeman’s voice and then eat some ice cream and it’ll make everything better. Mint Chocolate Chip covers a multitude of snarkiness so they say…

    1. Zack

      LOL, love the part about Morgan Freeman. I’m going to start using that 🙂