Why Some Non-Calvinists Identify as Calvinists
Ronnie Rogers | Pastor
Trinity Baptist Church, Norman, OK
While many don the designation Calvinist because they have endeavored to learn all the aspects of Calvinism and are thereby convinced that it provides the most cogent, comprehensive, and consistent grid through which to understand Scripture, others readily adopt the appellation less nobly.
Of this latter variety, it seems to me that many assume the title “Calvinist” because they like certain components of Calvinism, which they are led to believe are unique to Calvinism. Such conclusions may arise from their exposure to the claims of some Calvinists to that effect, the inadequacy of explanations or responses of those who reject Calvinism, or even from their own subjective assumptions. Such beliefs are exampled by God’s sovereignty, the preeminence of God’s glory, or the total depravity of fallen man.
Additionally, many who are exposed to the teachings of godly Calvinists are understandably impressed, which readily leads them to not only accept some of their teachings, but also inclines them to identify more closely with the individuals themselves; accordingly they embrace the title Calvinist for themselves. This assimilation into the fold of Calvinism is quite frequently without an adequate understanding of the philosophical assumptions, entailments, or what I term disquieting realities of Calvinism.
A fast track to this imprudent adoption is readily detectable in places where Calvinism is either the only or dominant position of the constituents. Yet, we are able to find another less obvious inspiring path for becoming a naively inconsiderate Calvinist in our own SBC. This is because Calvinism, to an unhealthy degree and by default, is granted the position of being the unofficial standard from which even those who are not actually Calvinists (and readily admit such) find their own personalized descriptive. The dearth of a more instructive term to describe this vast group, or the various subgroups within (who find the term Arminian unsuitable), results in many leaning too heavily upon a modified Calvinistic designation, thereby occasioning virtually everyone to seemingly be either a Calvinist or merely a derivative (some are trying to correct this absence of terms). Accordingly, the practical question becomes, “What kind of Calvinist are you?”
Once the doctrinally non-Calvinist person chooses to embrace the title “Calvinist,” he may begin to almost exclusively study these godly teachers. Of course, this path further exposes him to more of the admirable teachings and seemingly correct assumptions, definitions, and conclusions of Calvinism. However, along the way he also encounters teachings within the structure of Calvinism that he does not believe are consistent with the clear teaching of Scripture.
At various junctures along his journey of descending deeper into Calvinism, rather than totally disavowing Calvinism because of these calvinistically generated contrarieties (mysteries), which disavowal seems to be psychologically equivalent to renouncing the godliness of these men as well as biblical doctrines such as sovereignty, he chooses instead to embrace only what he deems to be consistent with the clear teachings of Scripture; of course, these are usually the most readily accessible, palatable, and definitionally unencumbered aspects of Calvinism (even if such understanding is definitely inconsistent with the deeper, more precise teachings of Calvinism).
In contrast, the less palatable teachings and entailments are ostensibly resolved by the development of an increasingly personalized understanding of these objectionable and yet actual essentials of Calvinism; this to the point that he morphs his position into not only an inadequate reflection of Calvinism but more specifically into a corruption of such. I refer to such personalized Calvinism as minor Calvinism, which is in contrast to major Calvinism that includes all five-point Calvinists.
A minor Calvinist so individualizes his commitment to Calvinism (seeking to keep what he likes and reject what he sees as clearly unbiblical and objectionable entailments of Calvinism) that his perspective is actually reduced to piratical Calvinism—illegitimate. Knowledgeable Calvinists are correct to reject such personalized and inchoate Calvinistic portraits as representative of true Calvinism because Calvinism, as all theologically sophisticated Calvinists know, seeks to be an internally coherent and comprehensive system. For example, I do not believe the lynch pin of Calvinism is total depravity, as is often proposed by Calvinists and understood by many; rather it is their understanding of depravity based upon their deterministic perspective of human freedom, known as compatibilism and unconditional election. Unless one properly understands these and is willing to embrace them, he should doff the designation “Calvinist.”
What often keeps many minor Calvinists (1, 2, 3 point) clinging to their claim of being a Calvinist rather than totally rejecting the designation can be an unawareness of these irreconcilable inconsistencies, a willingness to live with such incongruities because of what they deem to be sufficient benefits for doing so, the lack of a suitable designation other than a negative like non-Calvinist, or even an unwillingness or fear of leaving the security that being in the fold of Calvinism provides (it does seem to me that these soteriological discussions are enhanced by more specific terms than just Christian or Biblicist).
Minor Calvinists often seek to palliate their inconsistent position by unwittingly embracing the double talk that elides these unacceptable provisions. This rhetorical practice, coupled with a simple trust that some knowledgeable Calvinists have adequate answers for these biblical incongruences and dilemmas arising from their personalized Calvinism or even true Calvinism, appears quite satisfactory to many; the dreadful news is that truly knowledgeable Calvinists do not have an answer that vanquishes these calvinistically generated anomalies. They too live with these disquieting realities, ideas contrary to even the clearest of biblical passages, etc., with the aid of the perennial retreat to “it is a mystery.”
Calvinists frequently claim to be more comfortable with the idea of mystery than the rest of us (those unwilling to embrace developed Calvinism). They may ask why I am not comfortable with the idea of mystery. To which I respond, I am quite comfortable with biblically generated mysteries (full knowledge of the Trinity, what actually, in all of its details, took place upon the cross when the Father judged the Son for our sin, how is it that the triune God lives within His people, etc.). What I am intolerably uncomfortable with are calvinistically-generated mysteries.
The difference between the two classes of mysteries is gleanable by asking oneself the following question each time “it is a mystery” is proffered by Calvinism: if I were not a Calvinist, would this particular mystery being suggested actually exist? If not, it is a calvinistically generated mystery rather than a biblical mystery. For example, would there be a mystery regarding the reconciliation of unconditional election and Scriptures that explicitly teach God’s salvific love for every person if one were not a Calvinist? If the answer is no (experienced by a temporary test run disavowal of unconditional election), then it is a calvinistically generated mystery rather than a biblically generated mystery and should be summarily and permanently disavowed in favor of the clear teaching of the most straightforward reading of Scripture.
Lastly, I have found Calvinism’s tactical argument that people with my soteriological position have the “same problem” (as used in various scenarios, which, if existed, would lessen Calvinism’s conundrums) based upon misunderstandings of the precise position of those who disagree with them, whereas the problems within Calvinism necessitating the non-resolving resolution of “inscrutable mystery” is based upon a precise understanding of Calvinism, which is evidenced by its pervasiveness in Calvinists’ theological writings.
Therefore, unless one is willing to embrace major Calvinism, and work as arduously at consistently proclaiming the tenets and entailments of such as Calvinists are in seeking to promote the merits of Calvinism when contrasting it with the ever-present portrayal of the tawdry man-centered kitsch of Extensivism, one should doff the title Calvinist; such a decision enables one to freely interpret the clearest verses of Scripture without the obscurant program of unconditional election always running in the background. It honors both true and knowledgeable Calvinists and helps to enhance more enlightened conversations regarding the different positions, thereby enabling more informed decisions of whether to don the designation “Calvinist.”
 Some terms that are used instead of non-Calvinist are Traditionalist, Arminian, and Molinist. I use the term Extensivist in two ways. Broadly, I use it to include all who believe that God salvifically loves everyone and has evidenced such by provisioning sufficiently for everyone to have an opportunity to believe and be saved. This includes Traditionalist, Arminian, and Molinist with all their variations so long as they believe that. In this sense it serves as a positive term for non-Calvinists. I also use it more specifically to encompass my understanding of the various dimensions of such.