The Problem of “Angry Calvinists”
There’s a part of me that’s hesitant to keep banging the drum on the issue of “angry Calvinists.”
I’m an evangelical Calvinist—but I’m not mad about it, and my friends and role models in these theological circles aren’t mean-spirited or angry. So on the one hand it feels something like a stereotype. If 10,000 people read a blog and two cranky Calvinists write a number of comments, some will cluck their tongue and conclude “there go those angry Calvinists.”
Furthermore, even if a Calvinist writes with tears, a humble heart, and genuine concern that a certain position is heterodox or dangerous for the church, he can expect to hear the labels like “old guard,” “obsessive,” “reactionary,” “highly rationalistic,” “rigid” “naysayers” with a “scholastic spirit” who love nothing more than “gatekeeping,” “control[ling] the switches,” and “patrol[ling] the boundaries” (actual quotes from an essay).
And, it’s tempting to point out that Calvinists don’t have a corner on the ugly side of the blogosphere. Wade into some of the posts and comments from other traditions talking about ultimate things and you will see that every “tribe” has their cranks who can be mocking, rude, sarcastic, and nasty. Yet for various reasons people associate and expect anger with Calvinism, making the explicit connection more readily.
But none of that is to deny that there is a problem. Angry Calvinists are not like unicorns, dreamed up in some fantasy. They really do exist. And the stereotype exists for a reason. I remember (with shame) answering a question during college from a girl who was crying about the doctrine of election and what it might mean for a relative and my response was to ask everyone in the room turn to Romans 9. Right text, but it was the wrong time.
This raises an important qualifier. The “angry” adjective might apply to some folks, but it can also obscure the problem. In the example above, I wasn’t angry with that girl. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. But I failed to recognize what is “fitting” or necessary (cf. Eph. 4:29) in the moment. This is the sort of thing that tends to be “caught” rather than “taught” and can be difficult to explain. But there’s a way to be uncompromising with truth and to be winsome, humble, meek, wise, sensitive, gracious. There’s a way of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) such that our doctrines are “adorned” (Titus 2:10) and our words are “seasoned” with salt and grace (Col. 4:6). To repeat, the category of “anger” is often too broad and can miss the mark. As Kevin DeYoung pointed out to me, “Some Calvinists are angry, proud, belligerent people who find Calvinism to be a very good way to be angry, proud, and belligerent. Other Calvinists are immature—they don’t understand other people’s struggles, they haven’t been mellowed by life in a good way, they can only see arguments and not people. The two groups can be the same, but not always.”
All of this prompts two questions: (1) why is this the case?, and (2) what can be done about it?
John Piper once offered some reflections on why Calvinists tend at times to be more negative.
I love the doctrines of grace with all my heart, and I think they are pride-shattering, humbling, and love-producing doctrines. But I think there is an attractiveness about them to some people, in large matter, because of their intellectual rigor. They are powerfully coherent doctrines, and certain kinds of minds are drawn to that. And those kinds of minds tend to be argumentative.
So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn’t tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender. Therefore this type of person has a greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive, or intellectualistic.
I’ll just confess that. It’s a sad and terrible thing that that’s the case. Some of this type aren’t even Christians, I think. You can embrace a system of theology and not even be born again.
Another reason for Calvinists could be seen as negative is that when a person comes to see the doctrines of grace in the Bible, he is often amazed that he missed it, and he can sometimes become angry. He can become angry that he grew up in a church or home where they never talked about what is really there in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 2, and Ephesians 2. They never talked about it—they skipped it—and he is angry that he was misled for so long.
That’s sad. It’s there; it’s real; the church did let him down, and there are thousands of churches that ignore the truth and don’t teach it. And he has to deal with that.
Another reason Calvinists might be perceived as negative is that they are trying to convince others about the doctrines.
If God gives someone the grace to be humbled and see the truth, and the doctrines are sweet to him, and they break his pride—because God chose him owing to nothing in him. He was awakened from the dead, like being found at the bottom of a lake and God, at the cost of his Son’s life, brings him up from the bottom, does CPR, brings him miraculously back to life, and he stands on the beach thrilled with the grace of God—wouldn’t he want to persuade people about this?
Do Calvinists want to make everybody else Calvinists? Absolutely we do! But it’s not about elitism. It’s about having been found by Christ and having the glory of God opened to us in the process of salvation. It’s about having the majesty of God opened in all of his saving and redeeming works, wanting to give him all the glory and all the credit, and cherishing the sovereignty and preciousness of grace in our lives. Why wouldn’t we want to share this with people?
If it is perceived as elitist, that is partly owing to our sinfulness in the way we go about it, and partly owing to people’s unwillingness to see what is really there in the Bible.
I just want to confess my own sins in how I have often spoken, and I hope and pray that I don’t have the reputation of being mainly negative, but mainly positive.
Ed Stetzer recently had an email exchange with Joe Thorn about the issue of “angry Calvinists.” Joe offers some astute analysis and offers four good suggestions:
First, I think it would be fruitful for more correction to come from inside our own theological tribe. I’m not saying criticism is inappropriate if it isn’t in-house. As the church we should be able to correct one another across denominational and doctrinal divides. But, we should be most critical of ourselves, and I think addressing our own problems from within our own group will generally prove more fruitful.
Second, when addressing the issue of “those angry Calvinists” we need to be careful and not make Calvinism the issue. It’s not about Calvinism. The negativity, pride, and finger wagging is not about the Doctrines of Grace, but the heart. So, when we see such things coming from Calvinists we should seek to point out that this attitude is actually incompatible with Calvinism.
Third, I’d encourage people to simply model a better way. Whether you’re a Calvinist or not, modeling loving patience over knee-jerk reaction, gracious discernment over assuming the worst about another’s words, and gospel-founded brotherhood over needless separation, will wind up having greater influence in the Christian community than simply dropping bombs on each other.
Fourth, I’d encourage others to simply not engage the haters. There are blogs I simply do not read because it doesn’t benefit me spiritually. Some people move me to examine myself, look to Jesus, and grow in grace. Others just provoke me to anger. Often times that anger is unrighteous, or even self-righteous. I can become the angry Calvinist doppelgänger to the angry Calvinist I take issue with. Really, the haters are not my problem, I am my own problem. So, I have learned to just stay away from certain places on the internet. I would encourage others to simply not engage people or personalities that aren’t helpful.
Building off of the last point, I’d add a convicting point that Tim Keller says in The Prodigal God on Luke 15:28: Jesus “is not a Pharisee about Pharisees; he is not self-righteous about self-righteousness. Nor should we be. He not only loves the wild-living, free-spirited people, but also hardened religious people” (p. 76).
I think we can all work a bit harder, fully aware of which aspect we tend to neglect: “speaking the truth in love” or “speaking the truth in love.”