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.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.
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.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.
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.”
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.
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.