The day the tulip died, part 1

Over on the Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight is running a series about his personal experience with Calvinism. I can relate to his story, and I’m willing to bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that I’m not the only one.

Calvinism is enjoying a resurgence, especially among younger (and predominantly white) evangelicals. But these are not your grandmother’s Calvinists. They’re part of a theological movement sometimes described as “neo-Reformed.”

They read books by John Piper and listen to sermons by Mark Driscoll. They belong to groups like The Gospel Coalition and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

  • The neo-Reformed often equate the gospel with the “doctrines of grace” (another name for the five points of Calvinism, a.k.a. TULIP).
  • They hold a relatively narrow view of evangelicalism, regarding non-Calvinists with a mixture of suspicion and pity (and sometimes outright disdain).
  • They relish any doctrine widely considered difficult to swallow. Limited atonement, double predestination . . . this is the red meat that, in their view, separates the men from the boys. (And yes, theirs is by and large a man’s world.)

I used to be one of the neo-Reformed. Until 2003 or so, I was a committed Calvinist. Each of the three statements above described me perfectly.

I studied at a Calvinist-leaning seminary. I wrote a 130-page thesis arguing that long before the foundations of the world, God in his absolute, meticulous sovereignty had determined every detail of human history. I attended a neo-Reformed church where predestination was the theme of almost every sermon, no matter what the text.

Eventually, I got out — because I grew to realize that Calvinism was killing my faith in a loving God.

Recently a good friend suggested I write about “why I am not a Calvinist (but used to be).” I’ve been putting it off for a while, but reading Scot’s story has encouraged me to tell my own. So… here we go.

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

22 thoughts on “The day the tulip died, part 1

  1. My Dear Young Nephew,
    I too was Calvinist at one time; because, it seemed to provide answers for some difficult questions. The answer was always, “Who can explain God and His ways?” But, it did not answer, “whosoever will.” After much hard study I believe that “whosoever will” is the biblical answer.

    Most Calvinists believe that if one is not a Calvinist than one is Arminian. There is no in between. (Most Arminians believe that if one is not Arminian than one is Calvinist.) They have no room in their minds to even consider that the Bible teaches you have the free will to choose to be saved and that once you have been born into the family of God you cannot disclaim your Godly bloodline.

    Andy was in an ongoing conversation with a good friend when the friend in frustration finally asked, “Why can’t you see Calvinism is the truth?” to which Andy replied, “Because, God has pre-ordained me to believe this way.” upon which the friend got up and, let’s just say, hurriedly left the house and never came back.

    I have a friend who is a pastor of a Baptist church and is a big follower of John MacArthur, John Piper, and the like. I have never been to his church when Calvinism wasn’t brought up somewhere in the sermon and in Sunday School. Unfortunately, most Calvinists that I know seem to have a one track mind.

    By the way, most Calvinists, and I do know a good many of them, are also ‘intellectuals’ or think themselves to be. (That is not to say that all intellectuals are Calvinists.) Unfortunately, many of them have an attitude that they are above the rest of us in their ability to understand God and His Word.

    I do not base my friendship with someone on this doctrine just as I do not base my friendship with a person on whether or not that person is a member of God’s family. But, I do pray that their desire to see people come to know Christ and that their giving of their personal finances to those who are involved with evangelism and discipleship, whether at home or out of country, is not diminished by this doctrine.

    I also believe that this doctrine has done much harm to the cause of Christ with many believing they have either been selected to salvation or they have not and there is nothing they can do about it.

    This is just as harmful as the doctrine that ‘one only has to believe,’ with no repentance involved and, as a result, no change in the person’s life whatsoever. We are either ‘lost in sins,’ living in our old nature, or we are ‘born again,’ and are ‘new creations in Christ Jesus.’

    Well, enough with the eloquent speech making. Ha! I look forward to reading ‘The day the tulip died.’

    Uncle Joel


  2. “-The neo-Reformed often equate the gospel with the “doctrines of grace” (another name for the five points of Calvinism, a.k.a. TULIP).
    -They hold a relatively narrow view of evangelicalism, regarding non-Calvinists with a mixture of suspicion and pity (and sometimes outright disdain).
    -They relish any doctrine widely considered difficult to swallow. Limited atonement, double predestination . . . this is the red meat that, in their view, separates the men from the boys. (And yes, theirs is by and large a man’s world.)”

    “Each of the three statements above described me perfectly.”

    “I attended a neo-Reformed church where predestination was the theme of almost every sermon, no matter what the text.

    “Eventually, I got out — because I grew to realize that Calvinism was killing my faith in a loving God.”

    No doubt their are some sects of this “new reformed” crowd that are indeed just as you described yourself as… What kind of strawman do you build for those are humble in their deep theology that is “difficult to swallow?” Like J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Mac, etc.. which ALOT of the new reformed crowd are reading, and whom your narrow definition doesn’t apply to?

    No harm intended, your post just spit in my face a little and I felt like I had to defend my position… 🙂



    1. Hi Chris,
      I don’t buy the premise that the individuals you mentioned have shown humility in their defense of Reformed theology. Packer, for example, has grossly misrepresented what Arminians believe and even called Arminianism a sin. While an editor for Christianity Today, he tried to block pro-Arminian articles from being published. (For more, see Roger Olson’s blog post.) Sproul has taken it upon himself to denounce other Christians as apostate for disagreeing with him. As for MacArthur, well, I bet there are some Calvinists who would question his theological humility.

      Interesting that you refer to the Reformed perspective as “deep theology.” Unless I’ve misunderstood you (in which case, please let me know), you seem to be implying that everything else is, by default, theologically shallow. In my experience, it’s not uncommon for those the neo-Reformed camp (myself included, once upon a time), to assume they’re they only ones who think deeply about God, the Bible, etc. And this is a problem.


  3. I’ve listened to MacArthur for at least 25 years and agree with much of what he teaches, but Calvinism is not one of those doctrines; although, at one time it was. If you have his Bible or commentary you find that he finds predestination everywhere. My Bible is filled with notes contesting his arguments- not really hard to do, I might add. And, if you have heard him speak on the subject you will find that humility is not a one word description of him. 🙂


  4. Well in a nutshell, you have true Reformed doctrine rooted in the Reformation, whether it be rooted in Calvin, Luther, etc… You have those fundamental doctrines which happen to be “Calvinistic” at their roots. But the difference in neo-Reformed and Reformed, personally I believe is just a contemporary version on Reformed theology that have forsaken some of the founding fathers and traditions, and are highly in to contextualization, etc… There are many dynamics, but I don’t think getting into them here is the key point.

    You maybe right about the guys I said were humble Calvinist. Let me just say, I am, or at least try to be. I don’t want to speak for anyone else.

    The only reason I called “my” theology deep was because you said that it was a kind of badge of honor and arrogance among the neo-Reformed. That’s why I put it in quotation, I was just building on what you said. I’m not saying that my theology is deep and any one else isn’t, but you have to admit that Reformed believers as a whole leans toward the deeper end than most Arminian believers as a whole. Even with the neo-Reformed as you say.


    1. Chris,

      Where I live, a fairly high % of churchgoing Christians are affiliated with the Reformed tradition. So I’ve had a fair amount of interaction with believers of both Reformed and non-Reformed stripes. And no, I don’t agree that Reformed believers as a whole lean toward the deeper end than most Arminians. I’ve seen examples of deep, serious thought among both traditions, and I’ve seen examples of shallow thinking from both.

      I think your last statement indicates a bias prevalent among many (not all) Reformed believers: the assumption that their theology and worship are inherently deeper than that of other non-Reformed believers. Some – by no means all – take this to an extreme and conclude that they are the only serious Christians. I’ve seen it in churches and other Reformed groups that I’ve been a part of.

      Again – there are some wonderful examples of humility and deep theology/worship coming out of the Reformed tradition. I’m not disputing that. What I’m suggesting is that, in my experience, some elements of the Reformed tradition are more prone to theological arrogance than other Christian traditions I’ve experienced.


  5. I appreciate you tone man, sorry If I came across arrogant..

    I can tell you this much, were I live, that is not the case. Your area may be different. From highly charismatic churches that think that the word theology will curse their church, and therefore if you say it people go hide in the corner hide, to Arminian southern baptist church’s who will not simply consider Scripture in a very deep way, only as much that has been traditional taught, etc…

    I agree with what you said, and thanks for putting me in check. For me and what Iv’e come to understand, and also were I measure were someone stand in this theological deep end or shallow end, it basically how excited they are about Scripture… If someone doesn’t want to consider what the Bible says, and not even bias toward Calvinism, Arminianism, but just considering it, then I don’t think that they will be “theologically deep.” But then again among those that don’t their are always those who are willing to go jump into the middle of the ocean with you… which I respect.


  6. I just have one question, Chris. What is an Arminian Southern Baptist? I’ve been around Southern and Independent Baptists all my life and have never met an Arminian Southern Baptist. Free Will Baptists are the only Baptists that I know of who teach one can ‘lose’ his salvation. If anything, Southern Baptists have a tendency to lean toward Calvinism.

    However, this does go back to the second paragraph of my original response. Most Baptists are neither Calvinist nor Arminian. Baptists believe one has the free will to be born into the family of God, but once rebirthed in the Spirit can not be unborn.

    Sometimes I do come across too straight forward, so if I did I do apologize.


  7. Well I just throw anyone who is a Christian and believes in a strict freewill of man of choose whether or not he will choose salvation in Christ or not into a whole… Arminianism, Semi-Pelagianism, etc… All the particulars may be different, but a free will baptist is an Arminian/ Semi-Pelagian, at the root. Like I said so the dynamic of belief may differ but the freewill is the essence of my definition of Arminian/ semi-pelagian..

    thats weird man because most if not every single one of the Baptist I know say that you cannot lose your salvation, so I don’t know what exactly you have encountered.

    I love rough dialogue bro, It’s easy to make things clear when men talk boldly, but humbly! 🙂

    No harm done…


  8. No I don’t think they are synonymous… Just that their free will theology is similar if not the same… I don’t think the in’s and out’s of the two are the same.. but the free will aspect of both of them are.


    1. Hi Chris,
      They’re not at all the same with respect to free will theology. Arminianism has a much narrower view of human freedom. Semi-Pelagianism taught that humans can choose God on their own volition. Arminians agree with Calvinists that the fall rendered everyone incapable of choosing God. They fully accept the “bondage of the will,” as Luther called it.

      According to Arminian theology, God has to intervene in order to give people the ability to accept the salvation he offers. This is what they mean by prevenient grace.

      Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism are worlds apart.


  9. While it is clear that Arminian Theology and Semi-Pelagianism have a different view of grace; (Arminianism believes God must initiate with grace and Semi-pelagianism believes man must initiate to receive grace), but both systems ultimately share in common a characteristic – SYNERGISM.” Monergism .com

    Thanks for pointing that out man… Iv’e never actually studied it until now. I understand that semi-Pelagian theology says that we believe without any prior grace, and Arminians believe that we have first been acted on by God’s grace, but inevitably they still in essences still have to move toward God to finalize salvation… that was already bought for them, etc…

    I guess I didn’t see the lack of grace on the semi-Pelagian side and I just don’t see a sole prevenient grace lifting man up enabling them to choose in Scripture, so I just lumped the two together. There are those verses which are used by the Arminians to support a universal prevenient grace, and then there is the Reformed grace, of which Scripture speaks of more so I believe, which is an effectual grace given to the elect of God by which they are sustained; from initial belief and so on throughout their Christian walk, never to fall away because of the deposit of the Spirit in them…


    1. Hello,

      I’ve enjoyed reading through this conversation, and would like to give a bit of insight. I would just like to say that I’m still undecided as to which soteriological system I adhere to. I’ve spent a good bit of time studying both the Arminian and Calvinist camps.

      I suppose my biggest struggle with Calvinism is the idea that God seems to create men to simply damn them without ever giving them the grace needed to repent; and he does this for his glory. It is difficult to read passages such as Romans 9 and read anything but this out of it. A few things have helped me to swallow this teaching, for example we don’t really know what Hell is. C.S. Lewis paints a picture of hell in his book the Great Divorce that is quite thought provoking.

      On the other side of the coin I struggle with Arminianism because (in my opinion) you have to look much deeper than the plain reading of the bible to keep it consistent with scripture. There is an Arminian understanding to every “difficult” verse; you just have to look for it. It has been my experience that a thorough reading of the Bible without searching for these “explanations” will typically produce a Calvinist understanding.

      All of this aside, I want to point out that Calvinism and Arminianism have different definitions for common theological terms such as Grace and Regeneration etc. Understanding this can help you with quotes such as the one you pasted above. If you’ve ever tried to explain protestant theology to a Catholic you should be familiar with this same trend, you really have to immerse yourself in the system, and its adherents to understand what true Arminianism is. One thing is for certain, you won’t get an accurate explanation of Arminianism from any of the popular Calvinist writers such as Sproul, MacArthur, or Piper.

      Good luck in your search, and just focus on drawing near to God. The Spirit will give you wisdom and understanding as you’re ready for it. I have known very bright, intellectual bible thumping Arminians and Calvinists who never knew God, they simply knew of him.


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