Why I’m Not Reformed (But Admire Them Anyway)
I have a complicated relationship with Reformed theology.
Growing up, I first encountered Calvinist ideas in early high school. I was floored by the thought that anyone might really embrace a kind of theological “hard determinism,” in which anything could ultimately be causally attributed to God. It took only a little dot-connecting to see the implications: without free will, the Fall itself was an “act of God”… which, it seemed, would inevitably make God the Author of evil. That’s a simplistic critique, and a familiar one, but I’ve never been altogether convinced that it’s off base.
So, I reasoned to myself, I’m not a Calvinist. But as the years passed and my social circle expanded, I found myself increasingly puzzled by the patterns I observed. Almost without exception, the staunchest Calvinists I knew were singularly committed to their faith, and felt strongly about seriously engaging its intellectual implications. (I’d learn later that I wasn’t the only one noticing this trend; my teen years happened to coincide with the heyday of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement, a kind of Calvinist renaissance spearheaded by magnetic evangelical leaders). Though I might’ve disagreed—strongly—with any theology that predicated eternal damnation upon “hidden decrees” of God, I couldn’t question these folks’ sincere love of God and Scripture. To be fully honest, I sometimes wondered what I was missing.
The high-water mark of my interest in the “doctrines of grace” came during my freshman year of college. I’d started attending a church within the Sovereign Grace Movement, a small denomination that fused elements of the Reformed and charismatic traditions (needless to say, this was quite the departure from my Lutheran upbringing). For the first few months, my biggest complaint was that the sermons were really long; where my objections to Calvinism were concerned, I’d reached a sort of détente. After all, why fixate on such obviously divisive minutiae when there was a whole world to engage?
But then, all the old feelings came back. And I can still remember the sermon that did it—the last message I ever sat through at that church. The pastor described everyone in the world as running headlong toward damnation: a single unified mass of sinners, moving faster and faster as they surged toward an infinite abyss. And some of these runners, the pastor explained, were miraculously plucked from the horde by God and spirited away into eternal bliss. Everyone else simply went on to their destruction.
Something primal in me revolted. How could a God of such naked caprice—a God who was omnipotent, but plainly not all-benevolent—ever rightfully command human love and worship? (I’d later hear this problem phrased as “the major difference between God and Satan is that God only wants most people to go to hell). Again, I realize that caricature isn’t fair to the thoughtfully Reformed, but the principle of the thing was potent enough to turn me off Calvinism almost for good. (For further thoughts on this, see the Conciliar Post roundtable on the subject.)
There’s a current in some high-level theological scholarship that echoes this critique. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor lays the blame for contemporary irreligiosity at the feet of Calvin’s heirs. In Taylor’s telling, the medieval ebb and flow of sin and salvation—of Carnival and Confession—gave way to a puritanical ethic of dread as Calvinist theological ideas took root. That Puritanism, which imposed impossible demands of holiness on the faithful, would later pave the way for a despondent modern nihilism. For its part, Anthony Kronman’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan delivers a muted version of Taylor’s critique, suggesting that any metaphysics of God that prioritizes his “will” (that is, God’s sovereignty) will necessarily lay the emotional groundwork for anti-theism. And not to be outdone, the inimitable David Bentley Hart brutally takes the Reformed tradition to task in his recent volume The Hidden and the Manifest:
The God of absolute will who was born in the late Middle Ages had by the late sixteenth century so successfully usurped the place of the true God that few theologians could recognize him for the imposter that he was. And the piety he inspired was, in some measure, a kind of blasphemous piety: a servile and fatalistic adoration of boundless power masquerading as a love of righteousness. . . . If this is God, then Feuerbach and Nietzsche were both perfectly correct to see his exaltation as an impoverishment and abasement of the human at the hands of a celestial despot.
I certainly don’t have the historical or theological mojo to go head-to-head with a Taylor or a Hart on the merits of their arguments: it’s quite possible their “genealogies of nihilism” recount a bitterly true story. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but think there’s a certain unfairness underlying these caustic jabs at Reformed thought. Confirmation bias is a devil of a thing, after all.
There’s a lot in the Reformed tradition that I know I’ll never agree with. I can’t see myself ever coming around on the issue of “limited atonement,” or the notion that God’s revealed will is utterly different from his hidden will, or that God’s “love” means something radically different from how we understand the term. But notwithstanding these and other objections, over the last year or so I’ve become increasingly aware of the ways in which Reformed theology manifests a unique and important beauty. Cynical just-so stories about how Calvinism spawned nihilism must inevitably neglect that beauty, and in so doing they tell an incomplete tale.
Though there have definitely been times in my life when I’d never have admitted it, I’ve learned an enormous amount from the Reformed heritage over the years. People like me—who find that their soteriological sensibilities run in a decidedly non-Calvinist direction—are often, perhaps, too unwilling to admit this sort of thing. Four specific issues stand out: the Reformed tradition’s robust sense of “holy dread”; the tradition’s commitment to rigorously engaging the Bible on its own terms; the tradition’s resistance to faddishness and corresponding embrace of its own rigor; and the tradition’s longstanding willingness to seriously engage the cultural forms of a given age.
1. Holy Dread
If the popularity of “The Shack” means anything at all, it’s a testament to how an essentially therapeutic view of the divine has embedded itself in modern culture. (And there are radical differences, for what it’s worth, between this god and the restorative Deity envisioned in the Orthodox tradition: the former demands nothing at all, while the latter demands nothing less than our radical ontological transformation.) The deistic figurehead of late Western theism is sovereign over bumper stickers and Precious Moments figurines.
Whether or not one embraces the associated metaphysics, it’s undeniable that the Calvinist God reduces this pretender’s throne to rubble. In an age of theological apathy, the Reformed faith unabashedly deploys the language of sin and redemption, fire and light, hell and heaven. This stands in stark contrast to the fog of sentimentality that surrounds much public “God-talk.” The idea that there really are ways we ought or ought not live, irrespective of our preferences or rationalizations, is a positively scandalous sentiment. When so much of culture has forgotten its sense of sacred awe, Calvinism forces the world to confront that ultimacy anew: the terrible beauty of a genuinely holy God.
To declare that God is sovereign is necessarily to declare that God does not exist for one’s own pleasure. There will always—must always—be questions the human mind can never answer about the foundations of reality. Learning to live with that inevitable uncertainty is the root of any true intellectual humility, and for better or worse, the Reformed have modeled that humility for centuries.
2. The Vitality of Scripture
This is a thorny topic for those who, like me, are occasionally uncomfortable with the ways in which the Reformation-era concept of sola scriptura has mutated over time (e.g., the notion of a “self-authenticating” biblical canon that can exist apart from the Church). But consider this: the theological alternative to a rigorously Reformed approach to the Bible is very rarely a deep dive into patristic history and context. Agree or disagree with the parameters of study (“no historical-critical method allowed!”), it’s undeniable that some of the most thoughtful engagement with biblical texts has come from thoroughly Reformed writers. By contrast, evangelical authors who abandon entrenched concepts of “inerrancy” typically end up invoking far mushier sources of spiritual guidance (just page through anything by Rob Bell or Rachel Held Evans—the readings of the Bible that emerge often bear a suspicious resemblance to the current Huffington Post opinion pages).
It’s one thing to argue that Protestant paradigms for approaching the Bible are often much more historically contingent than many are willing to admit. “Post-evangelical” writers like Bell and Held Evans get that right. But it’s quite another to substitute, as they and others often do, a thin theological gruel that uses the “right language” while stripping culturally disfavored biblical texts of any claim to moral force. Before post-Protestants tear down the dogmatic fences of their forerunners, they at least ought to know why those fences were put up.
3. The Life of the Mind
Reformed theology—even in its more contemporary varieties—has vigorously resisted the dumbing-down effects of modern culture. (Any tradition willing to unironically invoke the wisdom of the Puritans can’t be accused of selling out for social prestige.) Reformed thought has long been characterized by intricate, interlocking systems of analysis—the framework of “covenant theology” particularly stands out—with implications for multiple areas of life. Those systems are intellectually demanding: they compel adherents to seriously think through the authority structures they accept and their reasons for doing so, while simultaneously raising the specter of epistemic uncertainty (can a mind clouded by sin ever truly come to grasp truth? If so, how?). That’s a far cry from the fideism of pop Christianity (whether or not one agrees with the underlying assumptions), and in an Internet-glutted age obsessed with clickbaity slogans, it’s a breath of fresh air. Reformed thought expects seriousness and intellectual engagement from Christians of every age and station, and many have risen to that challenge.
4. Cultural Engagement
The Reformed tradition—at least in its twentieth-century expressions—has been far less hostile to meaningful engagement with secular culture than many other strains of Protestantism. This is no doubt attributable in part to the influence of Abraham Kuyper, famous for his expansive understanding of God’s sovereignty in the world, and Francis Schaeffer, pioneer of the “worldview studies” commonly seen today.
Here a brief digression is in order. In the past, I’ve criticized the tendency of some “worldview studies” proponents to reduce belief systems down to sets of (sometimes unrepresentative) propositions. A version of this argument also made the rounds in classical-education circles last spring. But again, context matters: it’s one thing to say that certain framings of religious belief systems don’t “work” at the level of graduate study, but quite another to suggest that the teaching approach doesn’t work at all. The alternative to “worldview studies” is almost never going to be a serious explanation of rival theologies and philosophies through the lens of history; the alternative will instead be a knee-jerk aversion or an undercooked syncretism.
Worldview studies, done right, require careful engagement with intellectual traditions and their cultural artifacts. That interaction isn’t squared with any flight into “Christian kitsch” or subcultural sequestration. Taking other beliefs seriously requires some degree of sincere understanding—even an imperfect one—and by popularizing the concept of “worldview,” Reformed thought has helped to make that possible.
None of this is intended to paper over the significant theological differences that keep me from being Reformed. This side of eternity, there may be no way to definitively resolve the questions at issue. But that said, in an American religious marketplace that tends to desaturate the power of real religious convictions, the Reformed tradition retains an undeniable vitality.
And that, I think, is well worth admiring.