Wikipedia: Calvinism (also called the Reformed tradition, Reformed Christianity, Reformed Protestantism, or the Reformed faith) is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice set down by John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians.
If you asked me when I first learned about Reformed theology, I wouldn’t be able to answer. It would be like asking me when I first knew that water was wet or the sky was blue. Reformed theology wasn’t something I learned of at one point or another, it was simply always there– in my church, in my home, in the books on the shelves, in Sunday school, in things we did or did not talk about. It was the scenery to my family’s Christian life.
So I can’t tell you when I learned about the Five Points of Calvinism (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints, or TULIP to you old hands.) I don’t think I learned them from anyone in particular; I absorbed them, assimilated them seamlessly into my child or adolescent brain’s construct of “this-is-what-it-means-to-be-a-Christian.” I don’t remember being told, “God predestines some people to accept Jesus and live with him in heaven and everybody else goes to hell.” I just knew it, the way I knew the earth was round. I knew that everybody was dead in sin and dead people can’t choose anybody so Jesus had to choose us. I knew that our sin meant God couldn’t stand being near us, that he had to punish us because we were all absolutely wicked with no good in us, but that Jesus came so that God could punish him instead– not for everybody’s sins, of course, but for all the people whom God had decided he would save.
I don’t remember anybody talking very much about the people God decided he wouldn’t save. Whenever somebody brought them up, it always seemed like the emphasis was on the fact that we’re all horribly evil and God didn’t have to save any of us, so you really should just be quiet and be grateful that he picked you. Oh, and tell all the non-Christian people in your life that Jesus loves them.
Even when I was fairly young I felt an uneasy shimmer of dishonesty whenever we talked about “evangelizing the lost.” How, I thought, can I look that perfectly nice and hell-bound non-Christian in the face and tell her “Jesus loves you” when in fact it is perfectly possible that she is not one of the elect, in which case God doesn’t actually love her, and there’s nothing she can do to change that?
At twelve, and eighteen, and twenty-four, I felt this deep in my bones, but I never unpacked the thought. I probably didn’t let it come to the surface enough to put it into words, even in the safety of my own head. After all, God’s absolute control (sovereignty is the Calvinist word) over salvation, over who’s in and who’s out, is the foundation to Reformed theology, and Reformed theology was the foundation to my faith– you could even say to my very world.
I don’t think it was until I had kids of my own that I started letting the questions come closer to the surface. I would clutch my newborn rainbow baby Sean to my chest, praying fervently that someday he would love Jesus– and then correct myself, making a kind of add-on to the prayer “that you would love Sean and draw him to yourself.” And then I’d sit and think.
I didn’t actually know whether or not Jesus loved my baby.
Reformed theologians have tried to answer this by creating a special category called “covenant children” which are the children of (presumably Reformed?) Christians. We baptize them as babies, symbolizing that they are among God’s chosen. We had Sean baptized when he was eight months old, the day before my husband left for a year-long assignment in South Korea.
Yet, in the church in which I grew up, whenever infant baptism was celebrated, the Reformed pastors always took care to emphasize that baptism doesn’t save the child. It is only a symbol, looking forward to the day when that child will grow up and choose to trust in Jesus for him/herself.
Except, of course, Reformed theology states that nobody actually can choose to trust in Jesus without God choosing her/him first, because everybody is dead in sin– including that little baby being baptized. And God doesn’t make any promises about who will be chosen, and there are certainly plenty of children of Christian parents who have grown up to become atheists or agnostics or Buddhists or whatever, and stayed that way their whole lives, which (according to Reformed theology) means that they were never God’s chosen to begin with, even though they were the baptized babies of Reformed Christian parents.
So I was back where I started.
I couldn’t look my child in the eye and tell him with 100% certainty God loves you more than you could possibly imagine, and more than anything he wants you to trust his love for you.
I credit Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible for really starting me down this road of wrestling. Throughout the book Sally repeats a description for God’s love that has been burned into my head. She calls it God’s never-stopping, never-giving-up, unbreaking, always and forever Love.
And eventually, I had to come face to face with the realization that the foundation of my Christian faith was a theology that said that God’s sovereignty was more important than God’s love. His control over whether or not my son ever trusted Jesus was more important than whether or not God loved my son. And if my son never did trust Jesus, it was because God didn’t choose him, didn’t choose to love him.
That was the cracking of the foundation of Reformed theology for me.
I know Reformed teachers and friends and family members would be able to make extremely compelling arguments, from the Bible, on why Reformed theology is right. Once upon a time, I could do the same thing too. I was raised in a PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) church, which means that in late high school and college my church friends and I would sit around debating minute theological points for fun. In our sheltered Reformed bubble world, the eternal destiny of billions and trillions of people was just so much intellectual fodder, subject to the scripture verses we could whip out, like razors, to slice and dice our opponents’ arguments. All those trillions of souls burning in hell because God had decided they weren’t worth his while– I’d like to think that they just weren’t real to me, not that they didn’t matter to me because at least I was safe. If I’m honest, probably it was a little bit of both.
In my little Reformed bubble, we all kind of looked down our noses at unreformed Christians. I would never have said it aloud, of course, but at age 16 or 22 my general attitude was that if a Christian wasn’t reformed it was because they were ignorant of the theology or else they were just kind of dumb. That someone might walk away from Reformed theology after espousing it– well that was tantamount to rejecting Christianity itself.
In fact, when I first went to Google to look up a succinct definition of “reformed theology” for this post, the very first result was the Ligonier Ministries website, saying that “reformed theology is nothing more than biblical Christianity.”
Yes, according to R.C. Sproul, one of the major modern voices in the reformed world, my process of unreforming my faith means I’ve walked away from “biblical Christianity.”
Thankfully, I don’t live in a Reformed bubble any longer. Through my wrestling and reading, I have learned that there are plenty of people who love Jesus and are following him, who don’t believe in reformed theology at all– not because they don’t know anything about it or because they haven’t studied it; many of them, in fact, know it more intimately than I ever did. For a whole slough of reasons*, they aren’t buying what Calvinism offers. Slowly I began to realize that it was perfectly possible for me to unreform without losing my faith in Jesus.
“I can be a Christian and not be reformed,” I announced to my husband one day. He looked at me, waiting for the punch line.
“You didn’t know that already?” he said, when he realized this was the end of my epiphany.
I know that I haven’t offered a single scriptural argument in favor of my walk away from this theology. That wasn’t my intent. The reality is, everybody can argue and there is scriptural basis for all the arguments. (Just go to any major Christian blog, search for a post either pro or against Calvinism, and scroll through the comments.) But I’m not trying to start an argument; I’m simply telling a story– my story. Everyone will have a different story. Maybe yours involves reformed theology. I’m not trying to talk you out of it or argue you out of it. I don’t think that would work anyway. I have yet to meet or even hear of anyone who was argued into a major paradigm shift.
I know that believing that human beings have a choice of whether or not to accept or reject God’s love for them opens up its own theological can of worms. There is no system of theology that does not have its can of worms. As for me, I will take the worms that come with believing that God loves every single person, and offers His love and grace to every single person. Those worms are nothing to me compared to the freedom of looking at every last person I meet with no doubt in my mind– God loves this person, with a never-stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love– and I can start to learn, slowly and clumsily, what it means to be a conduit of that love.
Now we see God through a mirror dark with doctrine and ambiguous scripture and cultural prejudices and lines in the sand between different camps. But one day we will see God face-to-face, and I think then all of that stuff will fade away. You can study geology and topography and know statistics and historical facts about something like the Grand Canyon or Denali, but all of that fades when you are standing in awe of the real thing. Someday we will be in the presence of the One who is the very definition of beauty, goodness, glory, and wonder. I think that, most of all, we will see love– the blazing, passionate, measureless love that is God’s heart for us all.
*This post tells the story of the main reason why I’ve left Calvinism, but it is not the only reason. In the future I might write more about other things that pushed me (or led me) out of reformed theology, but this post is already too long as it is!