A Hateful Calvinism

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Having been nurtured in the warmth of the doctrines of grace for my entire Christian life, I am often dismayed at charges that are leveled against Calvinism, especially those that would depict the Reformed faith as legalistic and harsh.  Unfortunately, the more I get around the more I understand these charges, which though wrongly applied to Calvinism are rightly applied to some Calvinists.

I thought of this while watching the news clip of Shirley Phelps-Roper, speaking for Westboro Baptist Church on the occasion of the funerals for the Amish girls so tragically murdered. First, it is clear that Phelps-Roper is a Calvinist -- at least formally.  She assured her hearers that the girls deserved to die because of imputed sin from Adam.  Only a Calvinist would argue from this doctrine, even if the argument itself is so perversely applied.  This is obviously an extreme and twisted application of Calvinist teaching, but it was still bracing to hear someone apply doctrines that I hold and teach in a way that was so, well, legalistic and harsh, and it prompted these observations:

1.  Our cherished truths require context in order to be taught in a true way.  In particular, the Bible's truth regarding man's fall can only be truly taught within the context of creation and redemption.  "Fall" alone presents a perverse and twisted portrait of human sinners. 

Phelps-Roper is a case study in this error.  On the occasion of such a tragic loss as this, she summarizes God as being wrathful, angry, and violent.  Her presentation of God's sovereignty consisted of this: "It was at the hands of an angry God that those girls are dead."  When the girls were described as "innocent" by Sean Hannity, she responded by assuring us that they were guilty sinners who deserved to die.  Nothing was said about them being precious, by virtue of creation (which can be said of every single human being), or beloved, by virtue of redemption (these were Christian girls, after all).

Obviously, this is a very extreme case of doctrinal abuse, but I wonder if the rest of us Calvinists ever sound this way, at least to some ears.  After all, these are our doctrines she is perverting.  Do we teach that everyone deserves to suffer God's wrath?  Yes, we do -- and must.  But do we teach that in a context that presents God truly?  Not if we extract it from other of God's attributes, such as mercy, love, long-suffering, and goodness.  Despite the shards of "truth" in Phelps-Roper's words, the God she presented looked essentially like the twisted killer who murdered those precious girls -- indeed, worse.  And do we teach that man is a totally depraved sinners, a "child of wrath" who deserves to suffer eternal torment?  Yes, but that truth is not true without the context of man's dignity and glory as created in the image of God and without the incarnation of God the Son.  The Christian message is not "you are a worthless scum."  Rather, it is "you are precious image-bearer of God, so valued by God and so tragically captured by sin that God sent his own Son to enter your race and provide for your redemption." 

2.  Phelps-Roper also provided a primer in how Calvinism can collapse into hateful, prideful legalism.  Do we have a robust view of God's law?  We certainly do.  Does the Reformed faith teach that God requires obedience of everyone?  Yes we do.  But we must not teach what came out in Phelps-Roper's teaching.  When asked about the mercy of God, she replied, "The mercy of God towards the people who serve him."  What about God's mercy for those who have failed and opposed him?  It's hard to figure out the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in this theology.  She said, "Obey the commandments of the Lord your God and get his blessings."  That is true, in a certain context, but untrue in the context in which Phelps-Roper spoke.  She summarized her message with these words to Alan Combs: "You have got the wrath of God poured out on your head.  You need to fix that by obeying."  Given that many Reformed Christians see the need for a stronger view of the law today, both in evangelism and in Christian living, this is a bracing warning of how it may come across if not integrally bound with the gospel.  As Sinclair Ferguson so eloquently said during our most recent Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, some of us who know the doctrines of grace have forgotten the grace of the doctrines of grace.

3.  As you may already have guessed, several words that Phelp-Roper never said were "Jesus Christ" and "the cross."  Without Jesus and his cross, frankly, Calvinism is hateful and untrue.  Let everyone who watches Phelps-Roper or who hears this brand of "Calvinism" resolve always to possess the kind of Calvinism that can say with Paul, "I have resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

It is not enough for us to speak things that are true.  We must truly present the God of grace in our speaking, whether the topic is God or man, mercy or wrath.  The Savior Jesus is the Truth, as well as the Way and the Life.  Jesus is God's Word for the world (Heb. 1:1).  To summarize Luther, we must speak of no other God than the God revealed through the cross of his Son.



Posted October 6, 2006 @ 10:05 AM by Rick Phillips
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