Ok, first off I know, “Dear John” letters are usually written between former lovers and we were never even friends. But, John, I tried. I really, really did.
I’ve heard for so long that my frustrations with Calvinism were really due to your Neo-Calvinist followers giving you a bad name. That made sense to me. After all, I couldn’t believe that some of the rephrensible and callous things being said and taught today would be derived directly from someone of your theological prowess. So, I wanted to give you a chance at redemption in my eyes.
Since you’ve been, um, not present in the body for the past 450 years, I thought the best way to get acquainted with the real Calvin would be to read the work you are most famous for. I’m talking, of course, about your Institutes of the Christian Religion.
In my effort to get to know you better I spent my last semester at Yale in a class devoted entirely to the reading and discussion of your epic work. I admit we didn’t make it through every single chapter (forgive us John, but the book is nearly 1,000 pages long and we needed time to discuss what we read each week), but we did make it through almost all of it (we mostly skipped a few chapter at the end about church polity). And even with those handful of overlooked chapters, I’m still willing to bet we made it through more of the Institutes than many of your followers today have read. (I say this as a Wesleyan, who has read far far too little of what Wesley actually wrote.)
I have to admit, John, you’re a brilliant guy and a great writer. Your passion and honesty were obvious from page one and at times refreshing given the way we so often dance around what we really think in the church today. I really admire your conviction and willingness to say what you believe to be true even if it wasn’t the popular thing to say. Without a doubt, you had some great things to say and, at times, I even found myself close to shouting “Amen!” Like the time you called out those who want to believe in the absurd notion that God can predestine some to heaven while not necessarily also predestining everyone else to hell, “This they do so ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation.” (3.23.1)
Ok, maybe, that amen wasn’t exactly for the reason you would like, but still, it counts for something, right?
Anyway, class is now over, our reading of your monumental achievement complete, and I’ve had some time to process everything you said.
So, can I be totally honest with you, John?
You crushed my hope for reconciliation.
I found your theology to be every bit as appalling – and maybe even more so – than your followers.
To be blunt, as a Christian, I don’t recognize your God and I have no clue what the good news is in the Institutes. That some people are saved no matter what? I guess that’s good for them. But you’re clear that God also creates people for eternal damnation,
By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, other to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death. (3.21.5)
And you also say that God tricks some of those same people He dooms to hell into thinking He loves them by “instilling into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption” simply so he “better convince them.” (3.2.11) John, what kind of perverse and manipulative God would do that?
But it gets worse.
For, according to you, God ordains every single horrific act of evil that has or ever will occur.
As you explain over,
Scripture, moreover, the better to show that every thing done in the world is according to his decree, declares that the things which seem most fortuitous are subject to him. For what seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveler? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that he delivered him into the hand of the slayer. (1.16.6)
As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will. (1.17.1)
Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. (1.16.9)
And over again, God is behind every act of evil that ever takes places,
I concede more – that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the judgments which he has resolved to inflict. (1.17.5)
In other words, if a child is raped, a family murdered in their sleep, or an entire population of people sent off to the gas chambers, that wasn’t just the act of evil men. It was the will of God.
And, of course, God doesn’t just have it out for us in this life; God has it out for some people for eternity too because as you say, “Those whom the Lord favors not with the direction of his Spirit, he, by a righteous judgment, consigns to the agency of Satan.” (2.4.1)
You say all of this wrath is due to our depravity. Ignoring Paul’s words affirming the complete opposite, you say “wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God” (3.11.2) And as if to drive your point home at just how much God hates us, you claim that it’s not just adults that God despises, but infants too because they “cannot but be odious and abominable to God.” (2.1.8) John, you go to great lengths to establish the total depravity of man, and I agree that we are indeed sinful people. But in the end, based on your own argument, the one looking the most depraved is God. For it is God, not humanity, who ordains evil and institutes eternal torture regardless of act or decision.
Yes, John, you’re right. All of these quotes and points are lacking in their immediate context, but they’re not random thoughts. They are, as you demonstrate so well, the logical conclusions of your theology of divine sovereignty and, therefore, at the very heart of what you believe about God. Worse, this isn’t a case of you overstating without thinking through the conclusions. You’re clear that this sort of God who ordains genocide, murder, rape, children abuse, and every other conceivable horrendous act is the God you worship.
Not surprisingly, you say that we should fear this God, not just honor and revere Him, but actually be terrified of Him. (3.2.26) I suppose on that point we are in at least partial agreement. If this is a God who arbitrarily ordains the death of children and the torment of people before they’re even born, then of course we should fear this God.
Which is why, John, I’ve got to be brutally honest with you.
I think your God is a monster.
I don’t say that casually or based on a handful of random one liners. I say it based on the foundation of your theological project and your insistence on a God who both ordains evil and creates people simply to torment them for eternity. John, this is not the God I find in the Bible, nor is it a God I think is worthy of worship. It’s a God who can only be feared for His arbitrary, callous, and evil ways, and pitied for his enslavement to wrath.
To me, John, your God looks nothing like Jesus of Nazareth. And, for me, that’s a big problem.
Now, John, it wouldn’t be a good breakup letter if I wasn’t clear about why I don’t like you like that anymore (or I guess ever did). I’m know a lot of those reasons are obvious already, but in the spirit of your Institutes, I don’t want to leave any room for doubt as to why we need to go our separate ways.
First, John, as awed as I am by your intellect, you’re way way way too overcommitted to your theological system. I know your methodology and meticulousness are derivative of your training as a lawyer, and while those can be great qualities in a person, in your Institutes your utter devotion to your theological system creates an unbelievable callousness that is totally foreign to the Jesus I meet in the gospels. Experience, reason, compassion, and even huge chunks of scripture are sacrificed on the altar of your theological system. Relationships require compassion, humility, and at a times a bit of flexibility. John, we’ve all got some work to do in those areas, but that’s especially true for you.
You also have a tendency to talk out of both sides of your mouth. This isn’t good for a relationship because it means I can never really trust what you’re saying. F0r instance, in order to acknowledge the obvious reality of freewill while defending your hardcore understanding of divine sovereignty, you try to create a make believe difference between compulsion and necessity, as if just because we necessarily have to act in a certain way because God has ordained it so, we’re not actually compelled to do that. (2.3.5) John, that makes no sense. Likewise, you argue that even though everything is determined by God long before we even exist, we’re still responsible for out actions. (1.17.5)
Look, I get it, you’ve got a system to maintain and you need to make sense of sin and guilt. But, John, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either we freely choose to sin and are therefore responsible or God causes us by divine decree to sin and, therefore, God is ultimately responsible. Which leads us to the worst doublespeak of all in your book. You make is clear that God ordains evil, but isn’t the author of it. John, buddy, as you heard throughout your lifetime, if God is the source of and the one who ordains evil acts, then God is the author of evil. Which means your God isn’t really as loving and good as you would have us believe. In fact, your God is pretty stinking evil.
Which is why, John, it’s hard not to conclude that Calvinism is a sustained exercise in the defense against the obvious. By which I mean you’re constantly on the defense against the obvious conclusions of your claims. To your credit you offer up an exhaustive defense. It just runs counter to basic logic. There’s just no way around the fact that you’ve simultaneously created a God who is the author of evil while rendering the Christian life irrelevant because if our eternal fate is already sealed, there is absolutely no point in bothering to live in any particular way.
Also, John, and I’m not trying to be mean here, but your use of scripture is just awful. I know, I know, I know. Who am I to criticize the great John Calvin’s exegesis? But buddy you cherry pick scripture like it’s your spiritual gift. You completely ignore the context of the verses you pick. And, with only a few exceptions, either ignore or dismiss out of hand any and all passages that contradict your position. But, John, I’m not sure that’s even the worst part of it for me.
As a fellow Christian I know this might be a little hard to hear, but you deal surprisingly little with what Jesus himself actually had to say. Sure, you talk about his role in salvation plenty, but when it comes to supporting your various claims, you seem to quote everybody but Jesus. In fact, I’m pretty sure you quoted the entire book of Romans. And yet the words of Jesus himself were few and far between. Knowing your bravado, I’m sure this wasn’t the case but it was almost as if you intentionally ignored him because some of the things he said threw a huge wrench your system that could bring the whole thing crashing down on itself, like that pesky John 3:16-17 loving the whole world and not just the elect nonsense or that stuff in Matthew 25 or James 2 where salvation by faith alone seems to be an unwelcome guest.
But, John, I think the ultimate problem between you and me is the starting point in your grand theological endeavor. For you, everything begins and ends with the glory of God. I wholeheartedly agree that giving glory to God is an important thing. But John, I don’t know what Bible you’re reading if you think that receiving glory is God’s primary interest in and purpose for mankind. If anything, the Bible is a sustained account of God’s disinterest in glory. It’s the story of a God who desires above all to be in a loving relationship with His people and God’s willingness to do anything to make that happen, including abandoning all sense of glory even to that point of death on a cross.
But perhaps the most ironic point in your emphasis on glory is that in your attempt to glorify God you destroy that very glory through your understanding of divine sovereignty and election. For if God ordains murder, rape, and abuse, while creating some people – maybe most people – for eternal torment, then that God is not worthy of glory. Period.
Now, I know your followers today will tell me I’m “misreading” you and don’t understand what you’re “really” trying to say. I heard a lot of that this semester as we tried to reconcile the words on the page with their practical implications. But this letter isn’t about the 450 years of interpretation and reinterpretation that have followed in your wake. I’m responding to the words you yourself wrote. And, for me, what you wrote was far too often abhorrent.
And can I tell you something else, John? I don’t think your followers today are nearly as comfortable with your theology as you are. At least, not a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong. You’re on an incredibly high pedestal for them, but time and time again I see them jumping through hoops and doing mental gymnastics to avoid or at least soften the very clear claims you’re making. And I see others rejecting out of hand some of the things you said, while trying to hold on to the rest.
But I get that. We all want to defend our heroes. The bigger issue I have, John, is that you have a tendency (cause I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all like this) to create incredibly arrogant and sometimes hateful followers who are just as cold, calculating, and callous in their theology and selective in their use of scripture as you are. Just like you, too many of your prominent followers today denounce their critics as heretics while praising God for a whole host of evil things that happen in the world from earthquakes and tornadoes to the marginalization, oppression, and destruction of people made in the image of God.
John, I don’t know how to say it any other way – you’ve got a bad habit of making disciples that aren’t very christlike in their love, mercy, compassion, and grace towards others.
Now, I know if you were still around to respond, you would probably tell me like you did so many of your opponents, that I’m a “virulent dog” (3.23.2) or maybe a satellite of Satan (3.17.1) because in my “rebellious spirit” (3.21.4) I have the audacity to question your understanding of God, God’s sovereignty, and election which I should never do (3.21.1-2) because by doing so I “assail the justice of God.” (3.21.7)
Maybe you’re right.
Maybe I am an agent of Satan lost in my own heresy and sin and I just don’t realize it.
But John, I don’t think I am. Like the millions of Christians that came before you and billions that have come after, I believe in a God who confronts sin with grace, defeats evil with love, and offers redemption to all.
Which is why, John, it’s not going to work out between the two of us.
Maybe when I see you in heaven and we both see things a bit clearer, we can try this relationship thing again.
But for now, I think you would agree, we need to go our separate ways.
It’s what’s best for the both of us.
Grace and Peace,