An arresting little wrinkle in the current popularity of Calvinism among those who don’t baptize their infants and sometimes speak in tongues (and don’t belong to a Reformed church — redundant, I know), is the notion that Calvinists are mean. Justin Taylor is apparently on vacation and has bloggers filling in for him. Jared Wilson’s number came up on Wednesday and he tried to explain the stereotype of the “graceless Calvinist” (would Mr. Wilson actually refer to Americans of Polish descent in such a stereotypical manner?). Such exhibitions of pride are exceedingly disappointing to Wilson:
. . .gracelessness is never as big a disappointment, to me anyway, as when it’s found among those who call themselves Calvinists, because it’s such a big waste of Calvinism. Why? Because it’s a depressing irony and a disgrace that many who hold to the so-called “doctrines of grace” are some of the most graceless people around. The extent to which your soteriology is monergistic—most Calvinistic nerds know what I’m talking about here—is the extent to which you ought to know that your pride is a vomitous affront to God.
What is odd about this comment is that Wilson seems to show a similar gracelessness in calling out Calvinists. (Hasn’t every husband figured out a euphemism for observing a weight gain in his wife?) Wilson knows that gracelessness is wrong and so apparently doesn’t need to be gracious in pointing it out. He does not seem to consider that some Calvinist polemics may stem from a sense of error as deeply felt as Wilson’s. If Wilson knows that gracelessness is obviously wrong, maybe Calvinists also know that Arminianism is profoundly wrong. In which case, Wilson attributes Calvinist gracelessness almost entirely to character, not the most flattering or gracious interpretations of Reformed orneriness.
Also odd is Wilson’s perseverance in identifying with Calvinism, since the man to whom that moniker points was no slouch when it came to invective. For instance, here’s an excerpt from Calvin on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments:
. . . although the passages which we have collected from the Law and the Prophets for the purpose of proof, make it plain that there never was any other rule of piety and religion among the people of God; yet as many things are written on the subject of the difference between the Old and New Testaments in a manner which may perplex ordinary readers, it will be proper here to devote a special place to the better and more exact discussion of this subject. This discussion, which would have been most useful at any rate, has been rendered necessary by that monstrous miscreant, Servetus, and some madmen of the sect of the Anabaptists, who think of the people of Israel just as they would do of some herd of swine, absurdly imagining that the Lord gorged them with temporal blessings here, and gave them no hope of a blessed immortality. Let us guard pious minds against this pestilential error, while we at the same time remove all the difficulties which are wont to start up when mention is made of the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. By the way also, let us consider what resemblance and what difference there is between the covenant which the Lord made with the Israelites before the advent of Christ, and that which he has made with us now that Christ is manifested. (Institutes II.10.1)
Hide the Anabaptists and their unbaptized children.
Of course, we could chalk this type of polemic up to the parlance of Calvin’s time, when such vituperation was common in the academy and the church. But if that’s the case, why does Wilson not give modern-day Calvinists a similar benefit of the doubt? He concedes that other groups of believers exhibit gracelessness. And if he watches CNN or Fox News, he may also become familiar with invective in the culture at large, all of which might suggest that Calvinists don’t have a corner on meanness.
Or maybe if the young Calvinists actually read Calvin, they would come to understand that some doctrines and practices really are worthy of polemics, and some faulty ideas and forms of devotion really are harmful.
Either way, it is clearly odd to identify with Calvin who was capable of getting agitated and then object to Calvinists when they become animated. Calvinism would appear to be the wrong label. Again, why not Particular Baptist?
I could take some comfort from Wilson’s explanation of Calvinistic gracelessness:
. . . the problem is not the Reformed theology, as many of my Arminian friends will charge; it’s not the Calvinism. No, the problem is gospel wakefulness (which crosses theological systems and traditions), or the lack thereof. A joyless Calvinist knows the mechanics of salvation (probably). But he is like a guy who knows the ins and outs of a car engine and how the car runs. He can take it apart and put it back together. He knows what each part does and how it does it. A graceless Calvinist is like a guy who knows how a car works but has never driven through the countryside in the warm spring air with the top down and the wind blowing through his hair.
This is a curious analogy since it suggests that nice Calvinists conceive of the Christian life as a joy ride. This is not exactly the way that Calvin thought of our life in this world, which he likened to being on look out at a sentry post. But jarring analogies aside, what happens to the guy with the wind-blown hair when the universal joint goes on his Thunderbird? Or a little less dramatic, does the fellow who likes to take the car out for rides through the country need to worry about filling up the tank (or even about the environmental consequences of fossil fuel)? Maybe Wilson’s analogy is entirely apt. The young and restless ones don’t want to be bothered with fixing cars or refilling the tank, and as stereotypical youngsters they regard parents who say that teens should attend to these things are mean. That difference might go along way to explaining the difference between a gospel coalition and a Reformed communion.