Tag Archives: Christian liberty

My Calvinist Brothers and the Left Foot of Fellowship

“The Charismatic movement is . . . a work of Satan.”
John MacArthur

“[Arminianism] is not damnable heresy per se.”
Phil Johnson, Grace to You

Why are so many Calvinists heresy hunters?

Calvinists are everywhere. I have served Christ alongside many Calvinists, some of whom I respect greatly and love dearly. But I have encountered numerous times my Calvinist friends—who I consider my Christian brothers—going out of their way to create division between themselves and anyone who rejects their yoke. I am not just talking about heresy hunting, which I also deem unbiblical, but about Christians attacking Christians. This article is my own rough attempt to understand why Calvinists are so often the hunters, and so seldom the prey. A few systematically-minded neo-Arminians like Jesse Morrell or Greg Boyd do return the favor and call Calvinism “heresy.” (I believe John Wesley did the same.) But far more often this unsubstantiated insult is hurled in the other direction. By and large, Calvinists hate Christian liberty.

My own position is one that I have gleaned partly by necessity, from living in multiple countries, where culture colors Christianity differently, and I am forced to exercise patience and forbearance if I want any Christian fellowship at all: being “in Christ” is a spiritual position, not an intellectual one. F. W. Boreham and Joseph Parker remind me that a plurality of voices enriches the church. A. W. Tozer and Richard Foster remind me that our unity is spiritual, not doctrinal, and it is found in Christ, not in any human organization. With these facts in mind, we must allow some latitude in the theology and practice of our Christian brothers.

Calvinists against Christian Liberty

When Calvinists speak of the “doctrines of grace,” this evidently does not necessitate the practice of grace. Where they are gracious to fellow believers, it seems to be the exception. Throughout my Christian life, I have encountered Calvinists who heap insults on those that disagree with them. Arminians do this, too; but they are not usually put on a pedestal for it. The most prominent Calvinist teachers in the world regularly speak of Arminians as “barely Christian”, and no feathers are ruffled in the congregations of their megachurches—rather, they are celebrated for their firmness of conviction. I’ll give some examples, and then discuss why I think this happens.

MacArthur vs. Charismatic Christians

I have study Bibles of various theological orientations, but I have gotten the most use out of my MacArthur Study Bible. In spite of this, I would not hesitate to say, John MacArthur is an outright enemy of Christian liberty. He has unabashedly dubbed the entire Charismatic/Pentecostal movement—which today is just about a majority of worldwide believers—”a work of Satan.” He has written three books on the topic, culminating in his 2013 book Strange Fire, which was pompously launched at a conference, hosted at his church, titled after the book. Thousands attended. Strange Fire was a self-serving and, frankly, depressing display of how Calvinists attack Christian liberty, and celebrate each other while doing so.

Wade Burleson wrote:

John MacArthur would do well to imitate Gamaliel and stop his war against Charismatics. [1]

Calvinist Christians vs. Arminian Christians

If MacArthur sees Charismatics as agents of Satan, he and his colleagues are slightly more tolerant of Arminianism. Phil Johnson, editor of MacArthur’s books and director of Grace to You, magnanimously calls Arminianism “not quite damnable”, referencing the words of revered Calvinist Charles Spurgeon.

Spurgeon did not regard Arminians as hell bound heretics. He regarded them as brethren. Did he think they were in error? Yes. Were they guilty of gross inconsistency in their own theology? He would have answered emphatically, yes. Was their main error significant? Spurgeon did not shrink from referring to it as “heresy”—meaning unorthodox doctrine, heterodoxy, serious error. But he was very careful to make clear that he did not regard Arminianism per se as damnable heresy or utter apostasy from essential Christianity. [2]

Insults aside, in the New Testament, all heresy is damnable (Gal. 5:19-21). I think the use of that word here is culturally informed, not biblically informed, and it shows that their Christian community tests its legitimacy on doctrinal, intellectual grounds.

MacArthur and Johnson put great stock in the words of Spurgeon, but they do not imitate him in the practice of Christian liberty. Charles Spurgeon exchanged pulpits with Arminians. His chosen successor at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Arthur T. Pierson, was a Presbyterian, and had not received adult baptism—and Spurgeon was a Baptist. Spurgeon understood something that MacArthur does not: we can trust each other without agreeing—even on major points of doctrine—because doctrine is not the sole grounds for our unity. Christ is.

To be clear, doctrine may limit our Christian unity; but it does not define it.

R. C. Sproul is a little more gracious: in the same breath that he refers to Arminians as “barely Christian”, he goes on to state that he sees such theological debates as occurring “intramurally”—that is, within the confines of the church of God, not equivalent to dealing with unbelievers. It hardly mitigates the force of his “othering” of Arminians!

John Piper vs. Universalism

John Piper, like John MacArthur, is a Calvinist. Unlike MacArthur, Piper believes that spiritual gifts are still legitimate today. When it comes to doctrine, though, Piper doesn’t exhibit any more Christian liberty than MacArthur does. When Rob Bell published a book in which universal salvation was (undogmatically) stated as one possibility on a spectrum of Christian ideas on the afterlife, John Piper famously tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” The implication was that Bell had committed the sin of heresy, irreversibly exiting Christian fellowship. I find the idea of universalism as repulsive as the next guy—but I find no warrant in Scripture for considering someone reprobate for entertaining it. Piper treats our Christianity as a matter of intellectual assent; but the Bible says “he who has the Son has life.”

A Case Study: Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker

Another case is Calvinist treatment of Joseph Parker, prolific writer and preacher. Joseph Parker was a close friend to Charles Spurgeon, though Spurgeon was an adamant Calvinist and Parker a confident Arminian. Spurgeon wrote:

There is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what now-a-days is called Calvinism. I have my own ideas, and those I always state boldly. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. [3]

In today’s terms, Parker and Spurgeon would be megachurch pastors. Both preached to congregations of thousands, even multiple times a week, year after year. A. Cunningham Burley, the author of Spurgeon and His Friendships, fittingly described them as “two great lamps”:

It is really difficult today to explain the significance of Spurgeon and Parker, or to make credible the enthusiasm of those who listened to them years ago. Yet there they stood, like two great lamps, burning on each side of the River—Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and Parker at the City Temple.

There were striking similarities between these two men. They both began as boy preachers in remote country villages . . . They eventually gravitated to London and became the pastors of ‘downtown’ churches. Both men gained the ear of the crowd. Spurgeon’s audience varied from five to seven thousand. Parker was in the habit of addressing three to four thousand hearers a week. They were prodigious workers who put their own church first. When they were able to preach at all, they were always in their place when Sunday came round.

They learned (surely in the school of Christ) to praise each other’s genius and to rejoice in each other’s success. [4]

In spite of all this, I have several times encountered Calvinist writers going out of their way to discredit Joseph Parker. [5]

Even when Spurgeon was alive, a member of his congregation sought to discredit Parker, accusing him of insulting their orphanages. In fact, Parker was working to take up an offering for Spurgeon’s orphanages, and the man had overheard Parker saying that the children needed better clothing and food. On Sunday, as the story goes, Spurgeon blasted Parker from the pulpit, outraged that his friend would insult helpless orphans. Since sermons were reported in the newspapers, all London knew that Spurgeon had done this. At Parker’s next pulpit appearance, thousands flocked to his church, waiting with bated breath for his response. Parker merely took up an offering on behalf of Spurgeon and his orphanage, as he had planned before. Spurgeon had to apologize in person, and they were reconciled. [6]

Why Calvin’s Followers Belittle Christ’s Followers

As an outsider, I cannot truly understand why followers of Calvin belittle followers of Christ. But I can name here some incorrect premises that may drive these ungodly insults against Christ’s followers, who will judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3).

1. “Calvinism is the Gospel!”

Calvinism is received differently from Arminianism. Arminianism and Calvinism surely predate Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin, respectively, but within Protestant theology, the former was delineated as an “ism” in response to the latter. Calvinism is treated by many as a kind of gnostic “special knowledge” required for salvation (“the doctrines of grace”). The native language of Calvinism is both dogmatic and exclusive. Calvinists frequently make it clear: if you do not hold these Calvinist doctrines, you are not in Christ; if you are in Christ, you must hold them at least unknowingly. A litany of quotations from Calvinist theologians show how common this sentiment is:

Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.
Charles H. Spurgeon [3]

Calvinism is pure biblical Christianity in its clearest and purest expression.
Leonard J. Coppes [7]

Calvinism is the Gospel and to teach Calvinism is in fact to preach the Gospel. It is questionable whether a dogmatic theology which is not Calvinistic is truly Christian.
Arthur C. Custance [8]

Arminians deny the efficacy of the merit of the death of Christ.
John Owen [9]

Arminianism is the plague of the church and the scourge of sound doctrine. . . . Arminians do not understand the Bible.
Gordon H. Clark [10]

Salvation as the Arminians describe it is uncertain, precarious and doubtful.
Gordon H. Clark [11]

An Arminian may be a truly regenerate Christian; in fact, if he is truly an Arminian and not a Pelagian who happens to belong to an Arminian church, he must be a saved man. But he is not usually . . .
Gordon H. Clark [12]

I believe that some Arminians may be born-again Christians.
Edwin H. Palmer [13]

They’ll say, “Do you believe that Arminians are Christians?” I’ll usually say, “Yes, I do—barely.”
R. C. Sproul [14]

Is the Arminian Jesus the same Lord and Savior as the Biblical Jesus? Not even a little. . . . If you believe and serve the Christ of Arminianism, you must recognize the fact that you do not serve the Christ of the Bible.
Steven Houck [15]

A religion of conditions, contingencies, and uncertainties is not Christianity—its technical name is Arminianism, and Arminianism is a daughter of Rome. It is that God dishonoring, Scripture-repudiating, soul-destroying system of Popery—whose father is the Devil.
Arthur W. Pink [16]

. . . rank Arminians, preaching another gospel.
Arthur W. Pink [17]

Satanic malice and the natural darkness of the human mind are, no doubt, contributory causes of Arminianism in its various forms.
J. I. Packer [18]

There is a stereotype in North American Calvinist circles that someone who becomes enlightened by “the doctrines of grace”—in their view, Calvinism—often becomes a rabid defender of those doctrines, unable to deal kindly with opposing viewpoints, condemning of non-Calvinist believers. It has been called “cage stage Calvinism”. But in the section above, I’ve quoted many similar reflections written soberly by the greatest sages of Calvinism. The reason that Calvinists old and new think this way is because it is part and parcel of the theological system. It is a system that is transmitted in such a way that prejudice against other Christians is somehow transmitted with it. It is conflated with the gospel in such a wholesale way, that it leaves its adherents with no alternatives.

2. “Calvinism Is Biblical!”

Calvinism and Arminianism tend to correlate with two different approaches to Scripture. In my own experience, Calvinism tends to thrive in an environment of systematic theology, and Arminianism tends to thrive in an environment of biblical/narrative theology. These are two different but complementary approaches to forming theology from Scripture. Systematic theology looks for specific inter-related propositions in the biblical text, unifying them into a coherent theological system. Biblical theology makes context king, over against any overriding need for theological coherence. Systematic theology compares logically-related propositions; biblical theology compares historically-related texts. Both approaches can produce good theology and bad theology. An illustration of this that I frequently come back to is Psalm 139.

In Psalm 139, David is profoundly affected by God’s omniscience. God knows his thoughts (v. 1-6); God sees him no matter where he is (v. 7-12); God knew him even before he was born (v. 13-18); God knows how he is grieved by his enemies (v. 19-24).

A line in Psalm 139:16 is somewhat puzzling for translators. The NIV reads: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” The KJV fits the context better, substituting “all my members” for “all the days ordained for me”. A Jewish translation, The Israel Bible, sounds more like the KJV: “Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book.”

For many Calvinist/systematic theologians, this line proves that God has ordained every event of our lives. For many Arminian/biblical theologians, it is affirming the same thing as the surrounding context in verses 13 to 18: God was active in David’s life before he was born.

The proof-text approach, employed, for instance, in the outlines of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology, can lead to a dogmatic and staunch confidence that your theology is found uncontroversially in Scripture, and anyone who contradicts you is contradicting the Word of God! You could use Psalm 139:16 in the NIV, ESV, or NLT to dogmatically affirm that God foreknows and foreordains every event of our lives, even sin and evil; but looking at the Hebrew Psalm in detail may lead to a completely different understanding of this verse.

3. “Calvinism Is Logical!”

Calvinism is touted as “logically consistent” by its proponents, and as a philosophical system it truly is. But—like Arminianism—some of its logical presuppositions are arrived at and defended somewhat mystically—through intuition, not through the biblical narrative.

Such a premise is found in Calvinism’s philosophy of time. There is no direct, biblical grounding for believing in a timeless eternity, even if there is indirect, philosophical grounding for doing so. There is also no direct, biblical grounding for denying the same doctrine—it is simply not a question that the Bible answers, no matter how fiercely we believe one way or the other.

As I explained above, I believe a systematic approach to Scripture lends itself to intolerance (healthy and unhealthy), but a biblical approach to Scripture lends itself to a plurality and diversity of voices (healthy and unhealthy). Both approaches have their extremes. A biblical approach helps me to gather inspired words about the afterlife, and see what ideas come of them; but a systematic approach teaches that these ideas are not created equal, and some are dangerous!

If I overextend the systematic approach, though, I may discourage or even destroy Christian liberty through my teaching, as MacArthur, Piper, Packer, Morrell, and so many others have done. A systematic approach to Scripture can lend itself to seeing heresy where there is none, because we become trapped by the premises we used to formulate our systematic theology.

A biblical/narrative approach allows me to accept opposing viewpoints with different premises—again, for good or for ill. Joseph Parker states this view repeatedly in his sermons:

Each man has his own view of God . . . The mischief is that we expect every man to speak in the same tone, to deliver the same words, and to subject himself to the same literary yoke or spiritual discipline. The Bible sets itself against all this monotony. Every man must speak the word that God has given to him through the instrumentality of his own characteristics.
Joseph Parker [19]

These words were preached and printed in 1892. They still resonate today. It’s obvious, though, that this way of speaking could easily lend itself to a post-modern viewpoint, in which the Scripture authors themselves may not have even agreed on any basic doctrine. Biblical theology frequently fails to produce a coherent ontology for those with sincere questions about reality. A single biblical theologian can entertain the contradictory theological frameworks of the Reformed, Arminian, open theist, and process theist, exploiting each framework in turn, without any statement about which, if any, is really true!

To live by the laws of reality, we must state that of two contradicting alternatives, only one (at most) is true. Likewise, if both alternatives are part of historic Christian doctrine, as Calvinism and Arminianism are, then we do not dismiss or condemn adherents of either doctrine.

End the Heresy Hunt

The Roman Catholic church in medieval times militated against aberrant theology and practice, ordering the execution of thousands, including great ministers like John Hus, Jerome of Prague, and William Tyndale. After the Protestant Reformation, it was Calvin and his friends, such as Zwingli, who kept up this legacy of intolerance in Europe, drowning numerous believers in Switzerland for rejecting infant baptism. Anabaptists were tortured and killed by both Catholics and Protestants. In the Donatist controversy, Augustine had written in favor of using force against heretics (i.e., murdering them); Luther held the same stance against Anabaptists; Calvin himself was directly responsible for the execution of Michael Servetus, who denied the Trinity.

There is nothing in the New Testament to motivate, justify, or excuse a Christian condemning to death those with aberrant and even dangerous theology. But John reminds us that “everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Those who are still on the heresy hunt may not be killing others, but they are reliving the cycle that began before Martin Luther, of seeking to quench opposing viewpoints. Like Job’s friends, they have a corner on the truth (Job 12:2). This kind of intolerance is not found in Christ or his apostles, and was directly rebuked by Jesus (Luke 9:49-55).

Jesus sought to correct the Sadducees on the resurrection (Mark 12:24-27). He did not hesitate to call the Pharisees “evil”, “a brood of vipers”, “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12). Many theologians of our day, prone to post-modern thinking, need to learn to call a spade a spade when future generations are on the line. Others—and many of them are Calvinists—need to learn to show grace to those they disagree with, because they are insulting Christ’s body and bringing dishonor to his precious church. They would do well to consider the words of Herman Bavinck:

Arminianism [is] undeniably present in American Christendom. There is much humbug in it. But I think we do better to incorporate and imitate the good things, than to condemn it all. . . . After all, Calvinism is not the only truth. [20]

By the foreordination of God, Jesus himself was killed as a blasphemer, as also were most of the apostles in time. Let us take care that we identify with Christ and the apostles more than we identify with their murderers.


References

[1] Wade Burleson, Gamaliel’s Wisdom and MacArthur’s War: Fighting Strange Fires Can Also Be a Fight Against God. Accessed April 20 2021.

[2] Phil Johnson, “Why I Am a Calvinist (Part 2)”. Accessed April 20 2021.

[3] Spurgeon’s Sermons, p. 129. This passage is also quoted in Spurgeon’s Autobiography.

[4] A. Cunningham Burley, Spurgeon and His Friendships. 1933.

[5] On the Wikipedia page on Joseph Parker, someone wrote that because Spurgeon had a “stricter theological framework” he “tended to distrust” Joseph Parker. Here was cited a short encyclopedia article, which said no such thing. Some Calvinist went out of their way to propagate a lie that Spurgeon distrusted Parker, when they were in fact friends who praised each other’s work and exchanged pulpits. Spurgeon even invited Parker to speak at his fiftieth birthday.

[6] The story is narrated here and is found in many compilations, but I cannot find any primary source for the story. If you have a primary source, please comment!

[7] Leonard J. Coppes, Are Five Points Enough? The Ten Points of Calvinism (Denver: by the author, 1980), p. xi.

[8] Arthur C. Custance, The Sovereignty of Grace (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1979), p. 302.

[9] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), Vol. 10: 13.

[10] Gordon H. Clark, The Biblical Doctrine of Man (Jefferson: Trinity Foundation, 1984), p. 74.

[11] Gordon H. Clark, Predestination (Phillipsburg. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987), p. 133.

[12] Gordon H. Clark, What Presbyterians Believe (1956), p. 74.

[13] Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p 26.

[14] Sproul is more winsome here than Owen, Pink, MacArthur, Custance, or Piper in the full explanation of how he sees Arminians, but I still wouldn’t call him if I got a flat tire. R. C. Sproul, “Are Arminians Christians?” Clip from footage filmed for Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism. Accessed April 20, 2021.

[15] Stephen Houck, “The ‘christ’ of Arminianism.” Accessed April 21 2021.

[16] Arthur W. Pink, “Comfort for Christians.” Accessed April 21 2021.

[17] Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead.  Accessed April 21 2021.

[18] J. I. Packer, “Arminianisms.” Chapter in Through Christ’s word : a festschrift for Dr. Philip E. Hughes. 1985.

[19] Joseph Parker, “Prophet of Judgment.” The Minor Prophets, The People’s Bible Book 20. Pioneer Library. Kindle edition.

[20] Quoted in George Harinck, “Calvinism Isn’t the Only Truth: Herman Bavinck’s Impressions of the USA.” Accessed April 21, 2021.