My John Calvin ‘Fan’ Club

May 11th, 2011

Pretty often, I get asked about whether I'm a Calvinist, or an Arminian or Reformed or something else.  Or someone will want to talk about Luther or Augustine or some other really really dead guy.

And when asked if I'm a Calvinist or whatever, my answer is usually the same.

"I don't know."

To most people, that's about the worst answer I can give.  Especially as someone who actually went to seminary, I should know these things.  A lot of people expect me to be thoroughly read up on what a bunch of dead guys thought about theology.  While I do read my share of theology, I just don’t have rock solid convictions on some of the most theological debates, and I find myself balking at these conversations more and more, for a lot of reasons. 

Before I Met You, I Never Believed in Predestination

The first reason I often don't enjoy these questions is because some people who love theology won't just drop a theology grenade into a conversation that's already going.  They'll use it like a pick up line to see if I'm interested, figure out if I'm their type.  I love talking theology with friends, but when someone's sizing me up, theologically undressing me before we can even talk about our jobs, or some sports teams I pretend to know about, it's uncomfortable.  Undoubtedly, saying "I don't know" doesn't impress them.  They think I'm just a pretty face with no depth, and they move on.

The Gong Show

Okay, an uncomfortable theology conversation, I can handle.  But here's a real problem for me.

I do not, for the life of me, understand why some people are so in love with John Calvin.  He's like the Elvis of theology, except he's dead.  You know your fan club has been taken to the next level when the fans actually name themselves after their idol – Trekkies, Team Edward, Calvinists, they're all the same.  The thing is, if John Calvin was alive, the relationship would probably go one way.  He was kind of a jerkCalvin really hoped his rival, Michael Servetus would be killed, and may have even had a hand in having him burned at the stake.  Not the kind of guy I want to associate myself with.

Luther, for all he contributed, was a raging anti-Semite.  If Luther were alive today, Eric Cartman would be his biggest fan.  Call it what you will, a product of his environment.  But I say if he was able to see through the church environment of his time, he should've been to see the fallacy of his culture’s anti-Semitic attitudes.  What was that Paul said?  I can be the most awesome guy in the church, but if I don't have love, I'm a big, loud, annoying gong?  That’s a paraphrase, but you get the point.

If Luther and Calvin prove anything, it's not that despite their flaws, guys like them should be venerated.  If we can learn anything, it's that God, given limited choices, will even use a completely flawed man like John Calvin.  And if Calvin can be used by God, then even I have hope.

A Need-To-Know Basis

The thing that makes me the most itchy is that committing to a dead guy's theology is a lot like being married, for better or for worse.  You start reading the Bible as a Calvinist, rather than just reading the Bible.  Sometimes, phrases about the Bible being the "complete" and "inerrant" revelation of God are tossed in while we're at it.  That always rallies the troops.  Sure, I think the Bible is complete, but that doesn't mean God said everything there is to say.  God has given us a lot of basics, but He's done it on a need-to-know basis.

What bothers me isn't so much the theology itself, as the attitude that we've figured God all out.  Once we commit to a theology, we are absolutely certain of it.  There is no mystery left.

If God really has told us everything, and if we really can figure God all out, then I'm disappointed.  I cannot solve a Rubik's cube.  If God is less complicated to figure out than a puzzle, then there's not much to Him.  When we were kids, we were comfortable with Santa being a mystery.  People used to say the mystery of the faith was Christ has died, risen, and will come again.  The most basic aspects of our faith were called a mystery.  Now that we think we're all Bill Nye the Science Guy, we hate mystery.  Plus, coming off as being sure of everything in the universe is pretty annoying and turns people off outside of church.

Accepting mystery isn't being willfully ignorant, or a stupid, blind Christian.  It's accepting what scientists have to accept, that there are limits to what we can know.  So don't stop being a Calvinist.  Just maybe agree to an open relationship with Calvin, and all the other flawed, limited human beings who God used before we came along.

Matt Appling is a pastor and school teacher in Kansas City, Missouri.  He blogs at

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