On the Alleged Inflexibility of Calvinism

My friend Derek Rishmawy (who writes the consistently outstanding Reformedish blog) tagged me in a Tweet wanting my response to this piece. In it, he picks up on a question raised by Kevin DeYoung, who himself was articulating a point made by E. Brooks Holifield. There. I think I’ve sufficiently established the chain of custody.

The question surrounds this thesis: “Calvinism is an all-encompassing worldview which, when handled with consistency, does not easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.”

My first reaction is simply that this is so vague I’m not sure what to do with it. What does “accommodate” mean? What does it mean to “accommodate a rival”?

The first thing it could mean is that Calvinism is incapable of appreciating and integrating the genuine insights of those outside the tribe. Ludicrous to anybody who’s read any Bavinck, say, but stay with me here. There are plenty of people in the Reformed Tradition you could peg this attitude on (Van Til is a usual whipping-boy), but I would simply point out that this problem is not one that has anything to do with Reformed Theology or Calvinism per se. Anabaptist theology is not exactly known for its “accommodation,” if communes in Lancaster or college campuses in Greenville and Pensacola are any indication. Or, on the other hand, would you call Scott Hahn’s brand of Roman Catholicism “accommodating” of anything from his previous Calvinist heritage? Probably not. I’ve met some pretty hardcore Barthians in my day; did I find them accommodating to, say, natural or federal theology? Um, that’s a big ‘ol “Nein!” All of this is to say: “does not easily accommodate other intellectual rivals” strikes me far more as a problem of the human heart and far less as a problem of system itself. Suspicion of other views and a tribal mentality simply cuts across the entire theological spectrum. When it is reflected in a system, the system is not the real culprit; the culprit is the person crafting the Procrustean Bed. It is very unpersuasive to me that Calvinism is somehow intrinsically worse in this regard than other systems of thought.

That leads me to my next observation. As it stands, I cannot tell whether the thesis is meant as something critical or praiseworthy or neither. It might be meant as a criticism, as in: “You intolerant Calvinists have all the answers; you don’t accommodate intellectual rivals.” There’s something about this criticism that tempts me to reply: “And…your point?” What I mean is just look at how twenty-first century that criticism is: the litmus test is exclusively brought to you by Tolerance, the Grand Poo-Bah in our culture’s henotheistic pantheon. So almighty is this god that negotiating between rival intellectual views has nothing to do anymore with a silly thing like “Truth.” It’s how nice and tolerant and accommodating the viewpoint is. Now, in reacting this way I’m not advocating being an arrogant jerk. I am advocating we retain something that’s been critically important in the development of the human race: our reason. Sometimes Calvinism doesn’t accommodate its intellectual rivals because its intellectual rivals are wrong.

The positive spin (and I think this is what the author was getting at) is that Calvinism is such a thoroughly “worked out” system that it gives a sense of security. There’s something about piecemealing or cobbling together a theology with a little of this and a little of that that strikes people (rightly) as arbitrary and subjective. In this regard, the “system” of Reformed Theology is stunningly impressive. When Karl Barth first encountered Reformed Theology as a scholastic “system” through the work of Heinrich Heppe, he was simply blown away at its power and elegance. (Of course, he didn’t fancy he could actually believe it, but he was impressed nonetheless.) And I guess one of the downsides of having a thoroughly worked-out system is that it gives the appearance (if not exactly reality) of not needing anything from “intellectual rivals.”  No need for accommodation if you’ve already got everything you need. 

And that brings me to make my own somewhat counterintuitive claim, using the original thesis as my launchpad.

Calvinism, as an all-encompassing worldview, and when handled with consistency, is superior to its rivals in the act of accommodating rivals.

That’s perhaps a startling claim and, as I think about it, has the beginnings of a major thesis I do not want to write just now. So let me unpack it just a little bit. It starts with John Calvin himself.

Bavinck notes that Calvin is viewed in popular imagination as a “somber and severe figure, hostile, or at best indifferent, toward things pleasant and fair.”  “The reproach is common,” he continues, “that Calvin had no taste or stomach for things outside his particular calling. For him social pleasures were nonexistent. He never mentions domestic joys or woes in his letters. The beauties of nature left him cold. Art, poetry, and music seemed not to rouse his interest. Even innocent pleasures were somewhat suspect in his eyes. In a word, he was ‘a melancholy soul, a somber spirit.’”

These accusations are levied against Calvin’s followers, too: “Calvin’s spirit has left its mark upon all the Reformed Churches. The Huguenots in France, the Calvinists in Holland, the Puritans in England, and the Presbyterians in Scotland all appear in history as stalwart and vigorous men…but few would wish to join their company. Their stiffness of face and character is not attractive, their bearing and manner unyielding and inflexible. ‘Strict’ and ‘dour’ have become the standard epithets for Calvinists. Even today complaints about the intractable descendants of Calvin are not infrequent.”

Got it? Calvin was a severe and inflexible guy, and all his followers tend to be stiff, unyielding, and inflexible. Ever heard that complaint before? (By the way, Bavinck wrote this particular bit in 1894).

“Against this background,” Bavinck observes, “it is all the more striking that Calvin in his system accorded a place and worth to the natural life that find no counterparts in other conceptions of the Christian religion.

Thus begins his exploration of Calvin’s doctrine of common grace, which has application far beyond just the appreciation of art, poetry, and domestic joys. It has implications for how the Calvinist should regard the opinions and views of intellectual rivals. The Calvinist is not shocked when even a pagan writes profound insights. He or she is not shocked by erudition and wisdom found among those not in the tribe. For the Calvinist regards all truth as God’s truth, all genuine insight—indeed, all goods whatsoever—to proceed from God the Holy Spirit, who is moving and living and active in the world.  The Calvinist can accommodate what is good in the rival views with comparative ease, sifting the wheat and chaff by testing all things against the standard of the Word of God. Catholicity and truth sit comfortably together in genuine Calvinism.

Other systems do not negotiate all this so easily. Some have such an easy time accommodating that the very concept is destroyed. If there is no such thing as an intellectual “rival,” there is nothing to accommodate. Think of  liberalism or the Emergent movement. No “rivals,” only “conversation partners,” everybody on a common journey toward the truth(s) with nothing really settled. Accommodation implies you’re got a certain “set” of things down, and you’re trying to fit other perspectives or things into the settled paradigm. Emergents don’t believe in having a certain “set” of things down or paradigms. So what you get at the end of the day is the complete syncretism of Brian McLaren fasting during Ramadan or something like it. Catholicity without truth.

Roman Catholicism wrestles with this problem as well. On the one hand, it is arguably the most intellectually totalitarian institution on the planet—its catechism is infallible, remember. Yet, because of its construal of nature and grace, it has a place where just about all its rivals can nest comfortably in its branches. Accommodation and catholicity, yes; discrimination and truth, sketchy.

Anabaptists historically don’t “accommodate” the views of intellectual rivals because the natural order under sin (anything not “in” the kingdom) is utterly depraved and not salvageable. Their stress of the antithesis is evident in their very name: “Re-baptizers.” Everything, including your misguided infant baptism, is corrupted because it was done outside the true tribe. Zeal for the truth? Yes. Catholicity? No. Remind me, again: Calvinism has a hard time accommodating intellectual rivals?

There is a thesis probably worth exploring a bit more here, but suffice it to say that I find in Calvinism (not necessarily individuals within it—a sad reality even in Bavinck’s day!) a generosity of spirit, a way of maintaining catholicity and truth, and a way of being thankful for God’s continued work in a fallen world, and all this in a way that is superior to its intellectual rivals. 

Brian Mattson