Greg Forster | Interview by: Matt Smethurst
Why do you think Calvinists have the reputation of being joyless?
That’s a good question—if I’m right in my contention that real Calvinism is all about joy, how do I account for the fact that Calvinism has this reputation as a relatively joyless tradition? I think the problem starts at home: Calvinist churches aren’t living into the joy of their tradition the way they used to, and we’re describing Calvinism to the outside world only in terms of technicalities and negations. We’ve come to understand Calvinism almost exclusively as an intellectual position in academic theological debates, not as a devotional life. While it’s good and important to have intellectual positions in academic debates, and you sometimes need to speak in terms of dry technicalities and negations in order to do it, that’s not where the life devoted to God is lived on a daily basis. In fact, the only reason to have academic debates about theology in the first place is to guard and defend the integrity of the life devoted to God. Calvinism is (or ought to be) a joyful devotional life first; it’s a set of academic propositions only as a result of that joyful devotional life.
Think about how we use dry, technical language to defend the Incarnation against erroneous views, but we use very different language when we’re really contemplating the awesome mystery that God became man. I’m all for the Athanasian Creed; we wouldn’t be Christians today if the early church hadn’t adopted it. But it’s hard to imagine, say, Thomas falling down on his knees in the presence of the resurrected Christ and crying out: “Although he is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ! One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by assumption of the manhood into God!” And so on and so on. That’s just not how we talk when we’re actually standing in the presence of Christ. We say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” We express the joy of God; the technical stuff comes later, and the only purpose of all the technical stuff is to safeguard the good news so it can produce the joy of God. But these days, when you ask Calvinists to explain Calvinism, all they usually have for you is a bunch of jargon. Jargon is fantastic in its place—I’m an academic type by nature myself, so I love jargon—but you just can’t express the devotional life of Calvinism in jargon.
You write, "It seems to me that Calvinists, myself included, have not been communicating well about our ideas. And we have tended to blame the audience for what are really our own failures in communicating." What kinds of communication failures do you have in mind?
We tend to focus on the negative, saying much more about why other views are wrong and not so much about why we care so deeply about the truths we’re affirming. That creates a distorted impression of our hearts and our motivations. We sometimes give the impression that we’re primarily motivated by 1) an arrogant desire to score debating points, to prove that we’re right and other people are wrong; and 2) a narrow and unhealthy obsession with some of the more disturbing aspects of biblical teaching, to the exclusion of the joyful parts.
I would never want to compromise what we believe, but I think we have to invest more time in showing people why we care so much about these truths. There is a beautiful joy in knowing that God loves each of us personally and saves each of us personally, and is willing to miraculously rearrange the entire natural order to do it. He didn’t just create some mechanical salvation system, watchmaker-style, and then permit the system to unfold apart from his active guidance—leaving each of us to either get saved or go to hell according to the mindless gears of nature and the autonomous whims of our dysfunctional psychology. Only Calvinism consistently teaches that God saves you personally. Every other theological tradition embraces views that, at least implicitly, take your salvation out of God’s hands and drop you into the grinding gears of a naturalistic soteriology. We Calvinists care so much about the sovereignty of God because we care about the fact that God loves people first, not nature—we worship a powerfully loving God, not a watchmaker.
I also think Calvinists have developed a lot of private language, where we use words in ways that just don’t line up with the way those words are used by everyone else. During the 16th century debate over free will, the phrase “free will” meant something very different than it does now. Calvin himself said that if you define free will to mean that people are responsible for their own actions—which is exactly what that phrase means now—he agrees that we do have free will. Yet too many Calvinists continue to use that phrase the way it was used in the 16th century, not now. So of course, people have naturally gotten the idea that we believe human beings are puppets and aren’t in control of their own decisions. We have no complaint coming if they think that; we gave them that idea. And don’t get me started on “total depravity.” That phrase means exactly the opposite of what Calvinists use it to mean. There is as much difference between being “wholly defiled” (the Westminster language) and being “totally depraved” as there is between being dirty all over and being dirt. We’re sending the wrong message with this phrasing.
It’s not the world’s responsibility to learn our language, it’s our responsibility to learn theirs. Like C. S. Lewis says, when we send missionaries to the Bantus we expect them to learn Bantu, but we send missionaries to the English and we never teach them how to speak English the way the English speak it.
What advice would you give to young Calvinists going to pastor churches that are ignorant—or even suspicious—of Calvinism?
This may come as a surprise since I just wrote a book defending Calvinism, and rather robustly at that, but above all I would urge those pastors to remember that adherence to Calvinism should not compromise our active pursuit of brotherhood in the gospel with Christians who adhere to other theological traditions. That militant Arminian is my brother in Christ, and the two of us are living stones being built up together into God’s temple. Shame on me if I treat him like a spiritual enemy. Paul writes to pastors: “And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). He was talking about controversies with unbelievers and heretics when he wrote that. How much more “gentleness,” then, should we show to our brothers?
Of course that doesn’t mean you should conceal what you think. Pastors are called to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and I think that means pastors should be transparent about how they understand biblical teaching on subjects of theological controversy. They should be intentional about both saying what they think and also sustaining brotherhood across divisions within the church. I don't think doing both at the same time is so hard, if you really want to do it. The question is whether we really want it!
There is actually a great deal of common ground between Calvinism and other traditions, and not just on other topics but specifically on soteriology. I point to a lot of these areas in the book. We should affirm our agreement where it really exists, and remind ourselves of the common foundation we share in Christ.
A lot will depend on local context. Pastors in churches with a formal confessional commitment to Calvinism will handle this differently from pastors in other churches. Pastors should respect the commissioning process and the authority of their church governance structure. If that process and that structure aren’t confessionally Calvinist, you should remember that your church didn’t “sign up” for Calvinism, and you don’t want to make them feel hijacked or hoodwinked. And it would be very wrong to avoid the topic of Calvinism during the discernment process before accepting a call, and then suddenly start hitting people over the head with Calvinism every Sunday in an aggressive way. Pastors in denominations or other contexts where Calvinism is the subject of heated controversy will have to be especially sensitive. Building and maintaining strong personal relationships with congregants who might be offended is well worth the effort.
I should add that I’m not a pastor myself. I’ve served as a deacon and Sunday school teacher, but not in the pulpit. I have great respect and an abiding love for the pastoral office, but am not called to it. So pastors can take my advice about pastoring with whatever sized grain of salt they think is appropriate. But I’m active in church life, and I’ve seen a lot of the challenges churches face in terms of interpersonal dynamics and people being unhappy with what’s being preached, so I feel like I can say something.
In the course of writing this book, what new reasons for rejoicing in God did you discover?
I hadn’t originally intended it to be this way, but this turned out to be a very intensely personal book. I set out to write about general theological issues and ended up talking specifically about a lot of my own struggles and challenges. It was pretty uncomfortable at times! But I had to do it; every time I wanted to illustrate a point to make it clear, I kept coming back to my experiences. And rethinking how those experiences, tough though they were, ultimately redounded to God’s glory gave me a lot of new insight and rejoicing.
Matt Smethurst is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.