My Journey Out of Calvinism – Part 2

I entered my undergraduate education with a deep love and affection for Scripture. When I was 12, my father had given me a Bible he owned when he was younger. The back cover was falling apart and adorned with a gleaming silver duct taped spine. It was red, and filled with assorted coloured highlights and underlines, revealing its timeless power to transform lives. I loved reading the little notes my dad made in the margins, speculating on what he may have been going through in his own life as he read the same words I was reading. I inherited ancient wisdom that was wonderful and mysterious at an age where wonder and mystery was not yet abandoned. 

When I was admitted to Bible college, I didn’t know quite how to read what I was given, or really what it was. But I treated it with a reverent hunger, knowing that its content had the power to enlighten my young mind and change the trajectory of my life. I was hoping that Bible college would help me learn to read the Bible better and understand its nuances. Though I eventually chose to focus my undergraduate degree in “Biblical Studies,” what I learned most during those college years was not Biblical expertise, but how to pray. How fitting that the greatest gift my Pentecostal college gave me was to teach me how to pray in a new way. It was the context where I learned how to dive into the depths of God through fasting, fervent prayers and disciplined Bible reading. 

I’m not saying that my college was one of those feel-good, prayer-only schools that didn’t teach Biblical exegesis and hermeneutical fallacies. I had great professors. But it was ultimately the alluring influences of Calvinist preaching during my time at Bible college that solidified the lens by which I would read Scripture.[1][2]This was an experience that I am very grateful for because through Calvinist preaching, I developed a love for Scripture and theology that I hadn’t experienced before. A way of talking about church, Jesus, and the gospel, that was foreign to my Pentecostal upbringing, despite my early love for the Bible. 

But along the way, something changed. My life of prayer was slowly trumped by a life of study. Why they became mutually exclusive I can’t explain, but somehow exegetical Bible study and listening to sermons supplanted prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Something else happened as well. Without knowing it, the humble posture towards Scripture and theology that I had embraced as I entered college was usurped by a fault-finding superiority and conceit. The beauty of my growing love for Scripture and theology was morphing into something ugly.

Visiting my Bible College in Massachusetts last year.

In college, we had chapel services four times a week. These services included music for worship, preaching, and a response time. I had made like-minded friends, who were also disillusioned by their Pentecostal heritage, and captivated by the Calvinist impulse.  My friends and I critiqued the preachers who didn’t preach expository sermons. We found solidarity in bemoaning the topical sermons and emotionalism as deeply unbiblical and therefore inferior. We’d text each other protests of our laments during chapel services when preachers took Scripture out of context, and students rushed to the altars to rededicate their lives to God for the 4th time that week. “Another topical sermon about being better Christians?” “When will hear actual Scripture?” “Does this guy even know the gospel?” 

Indeed, we’d find a sort of superiority in skipping chapel services of “prayer and fasting” seeing them as hysterical sentimentality and a major waste of time. On on day of prayer and fasting, while every other student was on their way to chapel, famished from their fast, my Calvinist guild and I decided to order pizza to our dorms and watched videos of Matt Chandler and John Piper instead. We embodied an aloof smugness that was masked in Biblical fidelity. 

In many ways I am deeply grateful for this shift that took place in my life. I had a growing appreciation for preaching and Scripture, and its role in transforming lives. And I’ll admit, there were many sermons in chapel those years that merited cause for suspicion, so I sympathize with my younger self. But in my immaturity I didn’t realize how in my entrance into the world of Reformed theology, I had become smug, vain, and bitingly critical. I don’t blame Calvinist theology for my immaturity and sin, but there seemed to be no mechanism in place nor any model from my digital mentors on how to be a Calvinist without being angry.[3]Combative criticism and angry arrogance seemed to come with the territory of “gospel purity.”  

There is an irony here. The Calvinist notion of God’s total involvement in each person’s individual salvation is meant to be a humbling, God-glorying, doctrine. And yet I found precisely the opposite in my Calvinist community. My Calvinist camp taught that because man is totally depraved, he is unableto say yes to God’s invitation to accept and follow him, unless of course God has already chosen him in advance. Indeed, Jesus’ invitation to follow him isn’t a real choice for the non-elect, nor is it a real choice for the elect, since God’s choice is “irresistible.”  These doctrines that were meant to make you humble, made you, more often than not, prideful, arrogant and angry. I found myself passing off angry preaching as “boldness,” never considering how my words and tone might be received. 

Perhaps herein lies one of the problems of a world obsessed with digital pastors: the increasing neglect of the Christ-forming context of the church. In retrospect, I found that my love for preaching and the Bible was not only stunting my prayer life, it was diminishing my ecclesiology to mere “methods.” Church wasn’t essential to discipleship, nor a picture of the diverse and far-reaching grace of God. It wasn’t the context where God forms his people, but the place where we reinforce our short-sighted ideas. Indeed, the real church was the one that agreed with me in my newly unearthed theology. It was now salvation by Calvinism, a sadly myopic and unsightly vision of the church Jesus had been building for two millennia.  In hindsight I realize that I wasn’t at all growing in greater love for the Bible, but for my particular reading of the Bible, offering a sense of superiority that comes with being right. 

My journey out of Calvinism has had many twists and turns. Indeed, my anger and arrogance would eventually be met by sadness, despair, and even depression. But my moral and existential crises experienced as a Calvinist were ultimately not the reason why I abandoned its theology. In the end there were biblical and theological reasons for my departure. These reasons I will explore more closely in my next post. 

[1]At the risk of over-generalizing a complex and variegated system of belief, I will express some of the elements of Neo-Puritanism as I encountered it. In this post I’ll refer to it to “Calvinism.” 

[2]I’ve come to see a big difference in classical Reformation theology and the more common/popular expression of Calvinism known as “New Calvinism” or “Neo-Puritanism.” I personally embrace much of Reformed theology, particularly aspects of Covenant theology, as well as much of the writings of John Calvin, who’s theology should not be reduced to “five points.” Calvin had much more to say, including a much more mystical approach to the Eucharist, which I’ve written about here.

[3]I’m not the first to suggest a problem with anger and arrogance in the Neo-Reformed community. A prominent Calvinist, one which I admire, addresses the problem here. Jonathan Merritt from Religion News has raised similar moral issues here.

My Journey Out of Calvinism

I distinctly remember the warm and sunny drive back home to Montreal from my Pentecostal Bible college in Massachusetts. It would be the last of many I had made over the years. Most of the drive was spent with windows down and music loud; I felt nervously exhilarated by the sensation of leaving one stage of life and entering a new one. Always keen for a new adventure, I was feeling receptive and open. Degree in hand, and car brimming with all the possessions I had accumulated, my drive was christened by a 5-hour lecture series on Calvinism by a well known Calvinist pastor (a topic I had been exploring over the last three years). When I got home (to my Pentecostal pastor of a father), I looked at him and with the ambivalent confidence of a freshly certified undergraduate student in theology I declared: “Dad, I think I’m a Calvinist.”

“We’re created to glorify God,” I asserted, “and God forgives us for his own glory,” I continued, quoting Isaiah 48. “We are born depraved and can’t possibly respond to God’s gracious election apart from his irresistible exploits.” I had my dad’s attention, but he didn’t seem worried. He listened curiously and waited patiently for me to finish my speech and then responded. He pointed out his own proof texts in a respectful, classy way, in the form of questions to get me thinking. But I had just gotten my degree in Biblical studies, and I was 20, so it didn’t really matter what proof texts he had. I had TULIP-coloured glasses on, helping me see Scripture in a new (and true) way. How could he not see what I see? 

My newfound confession of the “doctrines of grace” was the culmination of about three years of reading books and listening to sermons and lectures from Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, John Piper, and one of my favourites, RC Sproul. Driscoll of course, was the gateway drug. I still remember where I was sitting when I first heard him talk about men and manliness on a video clip from a “Desiring God” conference in 2007. 

calvinist reading

Without really knowing it at the time, I began to drink, eat, and sleep Neo-Reformed theology (also distinguished as Neo-Puritan theology by some).

I immersed myself into any book I could get and any sermon I could find. I loved what I considered to be strong preaching, with Biblical books and verses coming alive to me in a way I had never experienced before. And some of these guys were cool too. They communicated eloquently and were in tune with cultural norms. And I was a great evangelist of the content–I’d share lectures and sermons and even burn CDs with whole sermon series for those who showed the slightest interest. 

Finally, I had discovered the true gospel, in its full form, I thought, uncontaminated by any “works” pseudo-gospel that told me to “do better” or “try harder.” I came to believe that if you weren’t preaching imputed righteousness via justification by faith alone through Christ alone, then you weren’t preaching the gospel. Verse-by-verse exposition was the only justifiable way to preach biblically (making Paul and Jesus “unbiblical” preachers). I was convinced that “topical” preaching was for the seeker-friendly crowd, and would sooner or later dilute the full gospel (because of course Jesus wasn’t a friend to seekers).

My tribe and I embraced and accepted this new line of believing. We had the truth. And it was God’s truth. 

On January 1, 2012, a year and a half after my drive home from Bible college, I moved to Vancouver BC to begin my MA in Theological Studies at Regent College. In the time between I had been devouring anything I could from the aforementioned four horsemen of Neo-Puritanism. In that process I had discovered JI Packer, who’s Knowing God was new and exciting territory for me. Packer wonderfully combined theological vigour with heart, devotion, and emotion–combinations I hadn’t seen modelled before. I remember it not being too arid or abstract theology, nor airy-fairy feel-good Sunday school lessons about nice-guy Jesus. It beautifully captured a Christianity that lived in the tension of the head and the heart–and presented a much more confrontational Jesus that I admired. Though I may not agree with all of Packer’s views today, his writing drew me to Regent College where he taught, and where I’d eventually get to meet him and discuss other topics around pastoral ministry, theology and spirituality. 

Though some might consider Packer as one of the father figures of the Neo-Reformed movement, his influence on the true leaders of the movement was behind the scenes. What’s unique about Packer is that he’s Anglican, an Anglican who’s done quite a bit of work to help evangelicals appreciate other Christian denominational expressions, something R.C. Sproul and his crew was not happy about. Indeed, Regent College was and is an evangelical, trans-denominational school; and so it was where I met Christians who weren’t Pentecostals, for the very first time. 

Regent was where I was introduced to some of the contemporary hard hitters of the Christian faith in the likes of James KA Smith, NT Wright, Mark Noll, Henri Nouwen and others. As Smith depicts it so well in his Letters to a Young Calvinist, I was so enamoured with a small room of Neo-Puritanism in a mansion of Christian spirituality, to the point where I came to believe that the small room was all there really was and all there needed to be. Of course, Smith uses the analogy of a mansion to speak of the riches of the Reformation, though I think he’d agree that the mansion can also be the “Great Tradition” beyond the Reformation. For a long time, I didn’t explore life outside my own like-minded Neo-Puritans–and I mostly just read from one publishing house. 

I was [pleasantly] surprised to discover that Regent would begin the slow process of unraveling my Neo-Puritanism. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, and not via any intentional process on the part of Regent. At Regent, I was gently and respectfully challenged to visit the other rooms in the mansion. With hesitation I did just that; visited these room, mostly because I had to or I would fail. Regent challenged me to read outside of my comfort zone, and at least learn to thoughtfully understand and articulate the theological positions I was claiming to oppose.  Initially I treated them as rooms that could be visited only for educational purposes–like an ancient ruin sealed off due to its dangerous air quality. It was already a stretch to read and write about the various Christian expressions that were vastly different than my own. So I inspected them as if visiting a crime scene, but not really a place to inhabit. I’d always just go back to the room I was most comfortable with. 

With time I found these rooms were far from ancient ruins or a crime scene to be investigated. They began to provide new vistas by which I could see the world and be enriched in my faith. They were a source of oxygen for my suffocating spirituality, which was beginning to wane with its overly cerebral dogmatism and stoic passivity. My spiritual life was being rescued because I was being introduced to the deep well of the Christian faith, much more robust in its theology, practice and spirituality.

My studies at Regent were only the beginning of my journey out of Calvinism. It took a few years and a lot of dark nights of the soul from my first day at Regent in 2012 to the day I would resign from my position at a church and move back to Quebec in 2016. That part of the story will be addressed in my next post.