Heresy can be what you believe, but perhaps just as often, heresy is the weight you give an issue you believe. “Fundamentalism” might be understood, in part, as too much weight given to certain aspects of Christian doctrine or practice (the word fundamentalism, historically, doesn’t mean that, but in common parlance that is how it might be understood). Some people give such enormous weight to minor issues that the gospel itself is obscured.
Calvinism is one such issue. We only have so much “bandwidth” as a church, so I choose rather to be known for the gospel than for a tough stance on particulars of Calvinism that are less important than the heart of the message.
So at The Summit Church, I often say, “Calvinism is not an issue to me until it becomes one to you. But when it becomes one to you, it becomes one to me… and I’ll probably take whatever side you are not.” What someone believes about the finer points of Calvinism is not usually the issue; it’s how they believe it. We may have trouble achieving absolute clarity together on every one of the “five points,” but we can be absolutely clear on the fact that the Bible condemns a divisive and uncharitable spirit over something about which gospel-loving Christians have historically had trouble finding complete agreement.
In Martin Luther’s preface to his Commentary to the Romans, he pointed out that God unfolded the doctrines of election in Romans 9, not Romans 1. Luther says that the doctrine of election was intended to explain why Romans 1–8 worked like they did, not function as the only gateway for believing the gospel of Romans 1–8. Many Calvinists have, practically speaking, moved the doctrine of election from Romans 9 to Romans 1, making it the only door through which you can really believe the gospel.
Don’t hear me encouraging some kind of doctrinal reductionism. We should think deeply about election, as with all great biblical truths, and form deep convictions about it. Everything in the Bible is important, especially things that relate to salvation and evangelism. I have my own convictions. But we must learn to be comfortable with certain scriptural tensions, and live with grace and freedom in some places God has not bestowed clarity to the degree we’d prefer. As Alister McGrath says, the ability to live within scriptural tensions is a sign of maturity, not immaturity.
Supposedly Deuteronomy 29:29 was John Calvin’s favorite verse:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of the law.
According to that verse, God has chosen to keep certain truths hidden from us. Most systematic theologians (myself included) don’t like the concept of “hidden things.” As a guy who minored in math in college, I want to resolve all tensions, remove all mysteries, and try to bring every hidden thing to light. Moses prophesies our failure, and tells us sometimes we need to rest content with the revelation we have, going no farther than God has gone, which can mean pulling back from putting as fine a point on something–particularly as it relates to setting boundaries for fellowship–as we might typically like.
Furthermore, we should never allow our theological system to ignore, or explain away, the plain teaching of certain segments of Scripture. God gave us every word of the Bible in exactly the form he wanted us to have it. If God had wanted us to value a theological system more than the Bible, then he would have spelled out that system in greater detail for us.
Charles Spurgeon, a confessedly Calvinistic preacher, once remarked after reading Romans 10:13, “Dear me! ‘Whosoever shall call…’ Whosoever. Why, that is a Methodist word, is it not?” At this point, many Calvinists would have gone on to explain why that verse doesn’t really mean what it looks like it says. But Spurgeon went on to say, “The whole of truth is neither here nor there, neither in this system nor that. Be it ours to know what is scriptural in all systems and to receive it.”
When you elevate your doctrinal system too highly, you become a fundamentalist in a second sense: you start to believe that all of God’s graces, or at least the best of them, are found only within your narrow little camp. Again, I am no doctrinal relativist, but it seems that God has chosen to give greater insight into certain areas of Christian life and teaching to people I disagree with on secondary issues than he has to me and the people in my camp. Fundamentalism doesn’t recognize that–in many ways, can’t recognize that. Fundamentalism believes that if you’re not in our camp, and you’re not on the approved list, there is very little you have to say. The best of God’s grace is only with me and mine.
Calvinists seem especially prone to this kind of fundamentalism. They go to Calvinist conferences where they only listen to Calvinist speakers who have the tulips in their clerical caps configured correctly. They read only Calvinist books. Anyone who is not their version of a Calvinist is suspect, and they will concoct any number of Shibboleths to determine if you’re in or out. The only game they play in their church’s nurseries is “Duck, Duck, Damned.” (Just kidding—just seeing if you are still paying attention.) But… some Calvinists carry themselves with the attitude that if you’re not Reformed, you have nothing helpful to say. Of course, if your name is C.S. Lewis, then you get a pass, but that’s just because C.S. Lewis is dead now. I tend to think that if C. S. Lewis were alive today, he would not be nearly as beloved by as many Reformed people as he is today.
Anti-Calvinism fundamentalism can be just as bad, of course. “Calvinists don’t ever share the gospel.” “Calvinists kill missions and evangelism.” “No one who believes in any form of limited atonement believes in a God of love.” “Calvinists believe in a different God than the God of the Bible.” These are all actual statements I’ve heard from Christian leaders over the years. How these people cut out Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Adoniram Judson, William Carey, Charles Spurgeon and Bill Bright from their “faith tradition” I’ll never understand.
I feel like God has orchestrated my life so that I have no choice but to acknowledge the strong strains of God’s grace at work in traditions different from my own. Independent Baptists taught me, growing up, to trust the Bible, love the gospel, and the priority of missions. I ministered in college and then served on the mission field with some of the godliest, most gospel-loving people I would ever encounter—-from within the charismatic camp. I continue to be challenged by believers from radically different backgrounds than my own, and with whom I disagree on a number of important points. I have been enriched by both John Owen and John Wesley, R.C. Sproul and Jim Cymbala. I think it is healthy for every Christian to cross-pollinate.
I keep saying I’m no ‘doctrinal relativist,’ so let me explain what I mean by that. Certain doctrines are clear enough and important enough that we simply must draw clear lines regarding who is “in” and who is “out.” By this I mean doctrines like “the Trinity,” “penal substitution,” “salvation by grace through faith,” the “bodily resurrection of Jesus,” “biblical inerrancy,” and the like. Even though each of these points has been disputed in the history of the church, I believe these things are clear enough and important enough that we have to limit our ministry fellowship to those with whom we see eye to eye regarding them. The finer points of Calvinism simply do not go into that list for me. If we agree on the essentials of the gospel, I think we can have deep, meaningful ministry alignment. (And what are those essentials as it relates to Calvinism? See here).
It takes humility to learn from people you disagree with. But that is how God has worked historically in his global, 2,000-year-old church. Let’s show the world that we can still be one body united around the gospel of Christ, even as we passionately disagree about other issues.
Perhaps it is more than a little ironic, considering the tone of the conversation today, that John Calvin himself wanted to be known as the “ecumenical Reformer.” If you study Calvin’s life, you see he had no desire to start a sect of Calvinists. He wanted the truths of God’s grace to influence all evangelical preaching. In fact, in his Institutes, he never lists out “the 5 points of Calvinism.” There’s some debate as to whether he even believed in “Limited Atonement” as usually presented today (though I personally believe that he did), so un-emphatic was his treatment of it. The point is, he would never have said, “Calvinism is the gospel.” He was zealous, I believe, to see God’s glory above all, God’s priority in salvation, God’s sovereignty over all things, especially his church, and God’s guarantee of his people’s salvation. As my Calvinist friend Andy Davis says, “Calvin would hate the name Calvinist and would be annoyed by the vast majority of Calvinists today.”
The gospel—not the 5 points of Calvinism—is the center of our faith. If you believe in the loftiness of God’s glory, that salvation belongs only to God, and that God is sovereign over the world, and that he that has begun a good work in you will see it through, then you and I can stand in alignment, even if we parse some of the particulars differently.