I was a Calvinist for over thirty-three years and was unabashedly so for the first twenty. I spent the last thirteen years questioning and evaluating the harmony between Calvinism and Scripture and only doffed the label Calvinist in the final months of that journey.
A respondent to one of my blogs on SBC Today commented on this journey, and I thought I would share my reply here in order to briefly touch upon my departure from Calvinism.
The blogger said, “Your personal testimony is that, a study of Sola Scriptura is what lead you out of the Calvinism to which you held for decades.”
Although I continued to study Calvinism and read their commentaries on my pilgrimage out of Calvinism, I did spend about thirteen years evaluating what Calvinists said, what I had said as a dedicated Calvinist, and the entailments of Calvinism in light of a simple reading of soteriological Scriptures (scriptures related to salvation). In every area other than soteriology, the simple reading has been my guide, but one cannot be a consistent Calvinist and do so; at least that is what I now believe even though such seems the very opposite while immersed in Calvinism. By simple, I mean evaluation of the text based upon context, grammar, history, and congruence with other Scriptures. Consequently, this is quite different from a simplistic approach.
I would consider the verse as read to be consistent with Calvinism. I would read Calvinist commentaries, and then focus entirely upon the text alone. My discovery consistently revealed inconsistencies between the straightforward simple reading of the clearest verses in Scripture and Calvinism. I knew I was not misreading the text because of what the text itself said and did not say, and because significant Calvinist commentaries and preachers often explained the text exactly as it clearly seemed to me; although, some felt compelled, quite incompatibly at times, to mention unconditional election, or some other theological construct that is unique to Calvinism that was simply not in the text.
The reconciliation of such inconsistencies was and is handled repeatedly by the creation of supposed reconcilers (such as the good faith offer, the two will theory or the Calvinistically generated “it is a mystery”), and what I non-pejoratively describe as double talk. Double talk obscures, elides, or simply misrepresents the harsh realities found in Calvinism, which I do not believe are found in the simple reading of Scripture. Regrettably, and quite sadly for me personally, I had to face my own consistent double talk. Actually, once I came to grips with the need for and my own fluency in this pervasive practice, it troubled me greatly.
I sought to bow to the simple declaration of Scripture in the most obvious passages, which clearly did not say what Calvinism needs them to say. It was living with the inconsistencies necessitating double talk and extra concepts, without which the clearest of Scriptures did not coalesce with the essentials of Calvinism, that haunted me. For example, within Calvinism, unconditional election is the ubiquitous program that runs in the background of every verse, even those which clearly present God’s salvific love for all, or pictures scenarios where everyone can and should obey the gospel or command of God.
With decretal theology and compatibilist freedom (to which Calvinism is committed), any suggestion of the slightest possibility of choice between options, or minimizing the micro-specific determinism that compatibilism requires, is at best misleading because such is not possible within compatibilist freedom. For these ideas entail that everything, from Adam to the Antichrist—including everyone of my own choices and yours—is as it could only be. Yet, Calvinists repeatedly imply such choices do exist when preaching, writing, praying, and talking. I do believe that much of this is the result of not fully understanding compatibilism or libertarianism. Moreover, I am not addressing the issue of motive, but only the objective practice.
I began to consider soteriological verses and passages without Calvinist theological importations. Thus, I would simply ask myself if I do not read this verse as a Calvinist, what does it actually say—long before asking what does it mean. Quite unsettlingly, I would discover that it did not say what we said it says when viewed through Calvinism. Of course, this left many theological loose ends, but I did choose to let the Scripture say what it said; I chose to live with the certainty of what pivotal Scriptures said and did not say while concomitantly wandering in the desert of thinking through these clear revelations that were dissonant with Calvinism.
My experience gives me compassion for Calvinists who seek truly to evaluate their commitment to Calvinism. These were years of theological isolation and confusion, as I watched the columns of my Calvinism decay, crumble, and fall, eventuating in the systemic collapse of the system. I know others godlier, smarter, and more used of God than me see it quite differently, but this is how I see it.
I believe a departure from Calvinism is highly improbable unless the definitions of terms or concepts are considered as well. If one accepts the definitions employed by Calvinism, one will become and remain a Calvinist because it is a system of assumptions and definitions that leads only to the system of Calvinism. In my pilgrimage, I would ask, are these the only way or even the clearest and best way to define such terms in light of Scripture? My answers led to the conclusion that very often they were not.
Additionally, thinking through such concepts cannot be done merely by reading a particular verse because thinking through some of the biblical revelation leads to philosophy and speculative theology. The more I studied the Scripture by the methods I have stated above and considered Calvinism’s philosophical and speculative theological commitments (I do believe there is a legitimate place for such study and actually enjoy such study), the more I became convinced that Calvinism depended upon philosophical concepts and definitions that were biblically inadequate and philosophically inferior to alternative perspectives.
I have spent a significant amount of time thinking and studying through concepts like compatibilism, libertarianism, foreknowledge, predestination and election; this includes distinguishing between what is entailed and what is not. This all played a part in my clearer understanding of what I believe to be deficiencies in Calvinism and how to address some of the tough questions posed by Scripture and Calvinism. Although I seem to know so little, God is very good to continue teaching me. I now refer to my soteriological position as Extensivism.
That is the end of my reply to the blogger. In my next article, I will explain why I chose the term Extensivism