My Encounter With Calvinism

I encountered Calvinism and studied it during the time of my life when I was an Evangelical born again Christian, i.e., having met a theologically conservative Calvinist who shared with me Rushdooney’s, Van Til’s and Gordon Clark’s works published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. I even made two “pilgrimages” to Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania during this period (Westminster Theological Seminary was founded by a former theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary who left that seminary in protest during the "fundamentalist/modernist" controversies of the early 20th century), where I caught a fleeting glance of Cornelius Van Til, talked with a few students, and spent most of my time picking out books in their bookstore. You might think that I would have trouble getting along with those who believed with certainty that miracles (like the gift of tongues) ended during the age of the apostles, and who handed out tracts that stated on the front in bold print, MOURN! GOD HATES YOU! But Calvinism intrigued and even interested me very much at that time.

I attended my friend's "Reformed Anglican" church [a conservative Calvinistic denomination] twice and spoke briefly with his minister. What a “solid” faith, I thought. God “made some vessels for eternal honor and made others for eternal dishonor” simply to bring glory to Himself and demonstrate His eternal “compassion” and eternal “justice.” After the Fall "free will" was just a word (as Calvin and Luther taught). Conversion was up to God. He either bestowed upon people the “gift of saving faith,” or denied it and damned them eternally. In a sense it was a relief, knowing that you were not responsible for anyone else’s salvation. You did not have to plead with anyone, nor devise clever gimmicks to entice them toward the faith as utilized by many Christian youth ministries. [sic] The “absoluteness” of God’s will was emphasized. If someone did not agree, such was God’s will, let them be damned. It was also a demanding faith for those already in it. They had to avoid unclean associations, i.e., anything that might intrude on the “purity” of their theology and behavior. From thence have arisen “Reconstructionist” and "Dominion" Christian movements, consisting of people who would like to see ancient Hebrew laws like the Ten Commandments enforced rather than the Ten Amendments of our present Constitution. (Such folks would apparently rejoice to live in a country were the First Amendment's quarantee of religious freedom was replaced by the First Commandment's "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," under penalty of death.)

I left Calvinism behind after realizing that, unlike the believers I had met, I could

1) Not relinquish the “non-elect” to God’s eternal "justice.” I admitted honestly to myself that heaven would not be heaven for me if such a thing were true.

2) Nor could I conceive of any reasonably good being maintaining an eternal concentration camp.

3) Nor did it seem to me that the doctrine of “total depravity" (both spiritual and mental) of all the "non-elect" appeared true.

4) Nor did the Calvinist rationalization appear true that any and all righteous (and rationally cognizant) behavior manifested by the non-elect was merely “common grace,” without which the world would be a “living hell.”

Speaking of which, why must God's love and even God's "common grace," run out if it was so "common" to begin with? Especially taking into consideration the promise in 1 Corinthians 13 that love was "long suffering," "not jealous," "keeps no record of wrongs," "covers all things," "has faith for all things," "hopes in all things," "endures in all things," and "never fails," but "remains?" (Which is not to deny that true believers have their own ways of attempting to "reconcile" every "question" the Bible's diverse teachings raise, including the above. They wouldn't be true believers if they couldn't accomplish such reconciliations at least in their own eyes. *smile*)

To put some of the questions above in especially stark contrast, take these two dark quotations from the Reformation's two most prominent fathers:

“This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, 'to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love.' If, then, I could by any means comprehend how this God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith.” [Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Luther’s Works, Vol. 33. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972, p. 62-63.]

I agreed that worshipping a God who “seemed to delight in the torture of the wretched” would take more faith than I had. Not to mention what Calvin had to say:

“Whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God?... The decree is dreadful [horribile] indeed, I confess.” [Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book II, chapter xxiii, section 7]

Again, I had to agree, "horribile." Interestingly, I found an ally at that time in C. S. Lewis who appeared to be arguing against such views when he wrote:

“[There are dangers in judging God by moral standards, but] believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshipping Him, is still greater danger... The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scripture is to prevail when they conflict." [Lewis was replying to the Biblical accounts of what he called “the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua” and the account of Peter striking Ananias and Sapphira dead, called ‘Divine’ decrees by those who believe Scripture is without error.-ED.]

Lewis continued: "I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible… To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say we are as fallen as all that. He constantly in Scripture appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’—‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on."

“Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.)... If [on the other hand] ‘good’ simply means ‘what[ever] God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.” [Lewis in letters to John Beversluis]

Lewis put matters succinctly in A Grief Observed:

“The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So, there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So, this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’"

Even J. P. Holding of Tektonics apologetics, who defends every act of suffering and slaughter directed or performed by God in the Bible in a relatively inerrant fashion, admits that he can no longer believe in hell as a place of eternal "torture." Though Calvin wrote about hell being a place of inconceivable torment, being buffetted about by God's wrath for eternity.

Indeed, besides the lovely notion of "infant damnation" which was agreed upon for centuries by the most prominent Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics, all three groups also appear to have agreed upon the idea of the righteous being overjoyed at the sight of the damned in hell suffering. Orthodox Calvinists and Catholics both defended such a belief for centuries. Such a view was later derided by being called "The Abominable Fancy.")

As for any replies that the description of my personal encounter with Calvinism might receive, I leave my Calvinist friends (or my true believer friends of whatever stripe) with these words:

“The silly fanatic repeats to me... that it is not for us to judge what is reasonable and just in the great Being, that His reason is not like our reason, that His justice is not like our justice.


"How, you mad demoniac, do you want me to judge justice and reason otherwise than by the notions I have of them? Do you want me to walk otherwise than with my feet, and to speak otherwise than with my mouth?”

[Voltaire, of course]