Bashing Calvinism is the latest fad in blogdom. My turn.
Three years ago Rob Schläpfer had the best Reformed website and book business bar none. It was the place to go if you were looking for material responding to Dave Hunt. Schläpfer's online magazine, Antithesis, was the best-looking and most consistently interesting website I knewand it was thoroughly Calvinistic.
Michael Spencer, aka the Internet Monk, runs one of the most successful group blogs around. It's a lively theological discussion cast as a virtual tavern. The iMonk gained fame earlier this year by "outing" Joel Osteen's frivolous non-gospel. One of the iMonk's famous early blog entries was titled "Why Calvinism Is Cool." Judging from the network of links, the iMonk's group blog, The Boar's Head Tavern (BHT), has attracted a lot of Calvinist readers.
But last year with little warning, Schläpfer renounced all things Reformed and started giving rave reviews to almost every postmodern oddity and "emergent church" manual that the evangelical publishing houses could crank out. With a bit of fanfare, Schläpfer's mail-order company dropped some of the best Reformed books from their line. Meanwhile, Schläpfer was posting some fiery blasts both publicly and privately against Calvinists and Calvinism. (Some of themincluding one sent to me personallywere pretty much in the spirit of Mark 14:71.)
Recently, the iMonk followed suit with a controversial essay, "I'm Not Like You . . . (Calvinists especially)." He closed it with a paragraph that began, "I am not like you. Every day I wander further from the safety of Calvinism into the wideness of God's mercy." Although the text is still in the process of deconstruction at the BHT, it seems like the iMonk and his drinking buddies have decided postmodernism is a lot cooler than Calvinism.
Schläpfer and the iMonk are by no means alone. More serious Calvinist leaders, including John Armstrong and Andrew Sandlin are saying similar things, albeit usually with just a smidge more subtlety.
Jumping off the Calvinist bandwagon and lobbing rotten eggs at the attitudes and culture of "Reformed" folk is clearly le dernier cri in the blogosphere and beyond.
Before we vivisect these gentlemen and their views (something I may eventually want to devote some bloggage to), I think it would be helpful to ponder why Calvinism, which seemed to be the flavor of the month not so long ago, has suddenly become so odious to so many of its one-time friends.
I have to say with all candor that I can somewhat understand the feelings expressed by some of Calvinism's recent critics. Sniff around some of the Calvinist forums on the Internet and it won't be long before you begin to think something is rotten in Geneva.
But I hasten to add that I don't think the problem really lies in Geneva, or in historic Calvinism, or in any of the classic Reformed creeds. I especially don't think the stench arises from any problem with Calvinism per se. In my judgment, the problem is a fairly recent down n' dirty version of callow Calvinism that has flourished chiefly on the Internet and has been made possible only by the new media.
Internet Calvinism and historic Calvinism sometimes have little in common. Consider:
- Fanaticism. The strains of hyper-Calvinism that are flourishing today are more harsh and more hyper than any of the historic hyper-Calvinists ever thought about being.
If you doubt this, check Marc Carpenter's infamous website and read his ridiculous "Heterodoxy Hall of Shame." Carpenter is so hyper-Calvinistic that he has even labeled Calvin a hell-bound heretic for not being Calvinistic enough! He damns Spurgeon, Iain Murray, and even Gordon Clark (whom no one during his lifetime ever accused of not being Calvinistic enough).
There are some well-trafficked discussion forums out there that look like they're having a contest to see who can be most extreme in their condemnations of Arminianism or most overblown in their affirmation of über-high Calvinism.
There is a radical extremism among hypers on the Internet that is utterly unheard of even in the darkest corners of hyper-Calvinist history. At least the early hypers like Huntington and Gill had some profitable things to say when they exegeted Scripture.
- Non-evangelism. Among more mainstream Calvinists, there are certainly some outstanding men who are earnestly evangelistic (Piper, MacArthur, and even Sproul). But it would be stretching things more than a little bit to insist that modern Calvinism as a movement is known by its passion for evangelism. Where are the Calvinist evangelists? I can think of only one outstanding example: John Blanchard. (There are surely more, but at the moment I can't think of any other famous Calvinists now living who have devoted their ministries primarily to evangelism).
Of course, I fully realize that the Arminian caricature of historic Calvinism as anti-evangelistic is a total lie. But one could hardly argue that evangelism is a key feature of modern Calvinism. Neither the writings we produce nor the conferences we hold focus much on evangelism.
- Polemicism. Today's rank-and-file Calvinists are more in the mold of Pink, Boettner, and J.I. Packer than they are like Spurgeon or Whitefield. In other words, modern Calvinism is producing mostly students and polemicists, not evangelists and preachers. That's because Internet Calvinism is simply too academic and theoretical and not concerned enough with doing, as opposed to hearing, the Word (James 1:22). To a large degree, I think that's what the medium itself encourages.
- Anti-intellectualism. This may sound like a contradiction of my previous point, but both tendencies contribute to the superficiality of Internet Calvinism. Want a sample? I recently received an e-mail inquiry that is all too typical of what I have observed for years among Internet Calvinists. Someone whom I do not know and whose name I will not divulge wrote me to ask:
Can you explain in one paragraph or less how to make sense of the distinction you make between the "decretive" and "preceptive" aspects of God's will? Please don't give me a reading list of books and articles. One paragraph. One sentence if you can do it. Because the whole idea seems loony to me. So far, no one has been able to describe it in a way that makes any sense. I don't have time to read 10 volumes of dead guys' reflections in Puritan prose. And don't refer me to Piper's article on the subject. It's too long and convoluted. I just want a short answer.
Right. The quick and dirty approach to untangling the mysteries of the universe. And every forum on the Internet, it seems, has at least one or two freshly-enlightened, beardless Calvinists who are convinced that their understanding of everything suddenly became perfect when they embraced the sovereignty of God. Some of them imagine that whatever difficulties they still can't explain can be easily solved by simply moving to a more extreme position.
The upsurge of Calvinism on the Internet in the 1990s seems to have spawned a large and unprecedented movement of jejune Calvinists who wear arrogance as if it were the team uniform. That kind of hotshot, shoot-from-the-hip Calvinism is ugly. I don't blame anyone for being appalled by it. I'm worried about those who think it's a good thing.
Obviously those criticisms are mostly generalizations, and they don't necessarily apply to every Calvinist on the Internet. But (and here's the hard part) I'm willing to admit that there have been times when every one of those criticisms could be legitimately applied to something I wrote or posted to a public forum somewhere. I'll especially confess to my shame that I'm too much of a polemicist and not enough of an evangelist.
Historic Calvinism is not supposed to be that way. Yes, Calvinism is virile; it's relentless when it comes to truth; and it's not always easy to swallow. But it is full of truths that should humble us and fill us with compassion rather than swagger and conceit. The best Calvinism has always been fervently evangelistic, large-hearted, benevolent, merciful, and forgiving. After all, that's what the doctrines of grace are supposed to be all about.
Until we get back there, some of the lumps the Reformed movement is currently taking are well-deserved.
And meanwhile, my advice to young Calvinists is to learn your theology from the historic mainstream Calvinist authors, not from blogs and discussion forums on the Internet. Some of the forums may be helpful in pointing you to more important resources. But if you think of them as a surrogate for seminary, you're probably going to become an ugly Calvinistand if you get hit in the face with a rotten egg, you probably deserve it.