Not a Calvinist, If I Ever Was

July 11, 2016

On the Writer’s Almanac yesterday (July 10), Garrison Keillor noted the birthday of John Calvin, “theologian and ecclesiastical statesman.” I first knew Calvin as the founder of Presbyterianism, my earliest religious experience coming thorough Brighton Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York. My Dad, having been raised a Baptist, could be heard muttering nearly every Sunday afternoon about what he couldn’t accept in the morning sermon because of Calvin’s strictures. My difficulties with Calvin’s ideas are similar to my Dad’s, but now they are all my own.

Keillor noted that Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion were grounded in five “general rules” or principles, and that (in English) these could be remembered through the mnemonic TULIP:

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.

Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.

Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.

Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.

Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

It is not my experience of myself or of others that we are “totally depraved.” I experience in myself and in others good intentions and selfish ones, generosity and outright meanness. As Friends say, I know this experimentally. It would strike me as false to try to see human beings as “totally depraved.”

But what repels me most about these principles is the air of certainty they contain about God and about God’s intentions toward human beings. How does Calvin presume to know that “God has already chosen those people who will be saved?” Or that “Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only?” There is a spiritual arrogance in that.

For me, the beginning of spiritual wisdom is humility about what I understand, which I know to be very little. I catch glimpses of God. Occasionally I know what is the right thing to do. But of “general rules” I know nothing.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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