Two new books address a familiar controversy:
- Michael Horton. For Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. [PDF sample]
- Roger E. Olson. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. [PDF sample]
(Horton wins hands-down on the more attractive book cover—not to mention the argument!)
Horton’s last chapter is entitled “Calvinism Today: A SWOT Analysis.” Here’s how he introduces it:
We know from daily experience that our greatest strengths can also become our greatest weaknesses.
- Persistence can become stubbornness;
- sympathy can devolve into sentimentality; and
- genuine concern for others sometimes turns into an obsequious craving for approval.
- Remarkable gifts of leadership and creativity can be used for good or ill, depending on the motivation and the goals.
- The same is true of movements, since they are largely the collective activity of people like us.
It has become popular for businesses and organizations to conduct a periodical “SWOT” analysis, exploring
- Opportunities, and
Since acrostics appeal to “TULIP”-loving Calvinists, this kind of analysis may be a useful in-house evaluation, although I do not presume to speak for anyone other than myself. (p. 170, formatting added)
The chapter divides into two sections:
(1) Strengths and Weaknesses
- Intellectual Boldness/Cold Intellectualism
- Love for Truth/Factionalism
- Respect for Tradition/Traditionalism
(2) Opportunities and Threats
- Revived Interest in the Doctrines of Grace/Replacing the Church with a Movement
- A New Interest in Sound Doctrine/A New Fundamentalism
The section “Love for Truth/Factionalism” is especially insightful. Here are some highlights:
It is possible to be selfish and human-centered even in the way we defend what we believe to be a God-centered interpretation of Scripture. We do not cherish propositions and principles, but we place our trust in Christ and embrace each other in that love that he has won for us.
I have to check my motives. Why am I so eager to convince this brother of a Reformed position?
- Am I trying to win the argument or the person?
- Am I concerned that this brother or sister for whom Christ died experience a fuller astonishment at God’s amazing grace, or do I want to convince them that my position is right and theirs is wrong?
Sometimes we are properly admonished to curb our enthusiasm, to exercise patience and self-control toward brothers and sisters. Yet I have also found that such admonitions themselves can be driven by a reverse kind of pride. If it is arrogant for us to pontificate where God has not spoken, it is just as proud to refuse to accept what God had revealed.
There is nothing in Calvinism itself that makes it inherently contentious.
- Whenever someone has invested considerable time and energy, especially on a subject that has altered their lives, passion can boil over into fanaticism.
- Recent converts from any belief, position, or party can be among the most polemical in their rhetoric and extreme in articulating their new views.
- Often, they are the hardest on those who remain in the group they left.
- Recent converts from Roman Catholicism are not usually the best missionaries to their Roman Catholic friends and family members.
- Ex-atheists are often obsessed with refuting atheists.
- [And ex-fundamentalists are often obsessed with refuting fundamentalists.]
Peter reminds us to always be ready to have an answer. However, he adds, “yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). This is a challenge for anyone who is still nursing old wounds.
It works in the other direction as well.
- Former evangelicals often make the most zealous converts to Rome, and
- many of the most strident secularists were reared in staunchly conservative—even fundamentalist—homes.
At a time when shrill voices command the radio and TV airwaves, Christians should be especially concerned to listen and respond to people with respect.
However, the stakes are raised in any debate
- when one is convinced that a particular interpretation of Scripture is God-centered rather than human-centered;
- when one has exchanged a religion of “salvation by works” for “salvation by grace.”
Regardless of the fairness of contrasting Calvinism and Arminianism in this way, many new converts to Calvinism express their transition in precisely those terms. It is not only a doctrine here or their but their whole orientation that is affected. The upside of this is obvious, but it often encourages one to draw a line in the sand between those who “get it” and those who don’t. It is easy to caricature other views—and to forget how recently I learned these teachings myself.
Again, this is true in the case of anyone who experiences a radical change. However, the wise course is
- neither to ignore the issues, stifling discussion and debate,
- nor to encourage a divisive and immature spirit;
- rather, we should together open God’s Word and pray for the Spirit’s illumination.
Convinced Arminians are just as passionate as convinced Calvinists—always ready for a good discussion and even debate of the issues. However, it is the massive group in between—the professing “undecided” vote—that usually regards any mention of these questions as igniting a powder keg. It is not uncommon for them to react with hostility—sometimes strong hostility—to those who raise them even in a spirit of charity.
Self-righteousness and pride can hide behind zeal for the truth, but frustration can also be the shell-shock that comes from believing that much of what you had learned was wrong and now you see everything in an entirely new light. Especially among pastors, we call this the “cage phase.” . . .
Unfortunately, we can turn God into a mascot for our team while extolling his sovereignty, glory, and grace. One of my seminary professors, Ed Clowney, used to say that we Calvinists are the only people who often seem proud of knowing they’re totally depraved!
The same impetus that makes us inquisitive and questioning can also make us smug and self-confident in what we know—or think we know. . . .
- Sometimes we mistake confidence in the truth with self-confidence.
- Sometimes Christians confuse humility with imbecility: a lazy shrug in the face of important questions for which God has given us answers.
- However, others—including Calvinists—can confuse confidence in God’s Word with confidence in our own interpretations.
Genuine humility allows people to doubt themselves even while they are confident in the truth. And we can always do with more of both. (pp. 176–78, formatting added)