Why Some Theological Non-Calvinists Identify as Calvinists

While many don the designation Calvinist because they have endeavored to learn all aspects of Calvinism and are thereby convinced that it provides the most cogent, comprehensive, and consistent grid through which to understand Scripture, others adopt the label less nobly. Of this latter kind, it seems to me 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, the inadequate explanations or responses of those they are familiar with who reject Calvinism, or even from their own subjective assumptions. Such aspects 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 designation 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 the dominant position of the constituents. And yet, we can find another less obvious inspiring path for becoming a naively inconsiderate Calvinist in our own Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). 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 more instructive terms 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 seemingly occasioning virtually everyone to be either a Calvinist or merely a derivative. Accordingly, the practical question becomes, “What kind of Calvinist are you?” Some are trying to correct the absence of terms with new terms such as Traditionalist, Provisionist, Savabilist, or my term Extensivist (generally replacing the term non-Calvinist). The most popular by far is the term, Traditionalist. The Traditionalists beliefs are codified in a formal document and explained in a book.[1]

Once the doctrinally Extensivist (non-Calvinist) person chooses to embrace the title Calvinist, he may begin exclusively to 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 he does not believe are consistent with the clear teachings 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 understandings are inconsistent with the deeper and 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, yet actual essentials of Calvinism. He then 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.[2]

I include both four and five-point Calvinists under the term Major-Calvinists. The major distinction between them is the rejection of limited atonement by four-point Calvinists. I sometimes include both under the general term Calvinist when I am not speaking specifically about the atonement. I catagorize both as Major-Calvinists because both believe in unconditional election, irresistible grace, and God’s predetermination of the eternal destiny of everyone.

A Minor-Calvinist so individualizes his commitment to Calvinism (seeking to keep what he likes and reject what he sees as unbiblical and objectionable entailments of Calvinism) that his perspective is 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. But when referring to how many people are Calvinists, many Calvinists readily count people who espouse such an incomplete view as Calvinists.

I do not believe the linchpin of Calvinism is total depravity (TD), as is often proposed by Calvinists and understood by many. Rather, I believe it is their understanding of depravity based on their deterministic perspective of human freedom known as compatibilism. This distinction means a person can embrace total depravity as the condition of mankind because of the fall, as I do, so long as it is based upon a libertarian understanding of freedom. My perspective includes the inability of the individual, after the fall of man in the garden, to make a spiritually restorative decision before God’s pre-conversion work of grace enablements. It does not include or require a work of creating a new being (regeneration, quickening, rehabilitation) before the exercise of faith or a determinative act of grace, which is true of Calvinism and compatibilism. See the article Grace Enablements for a list of grace enablements.

In my opinion, the actual question is not whether man is totally depraved (extensively speaking, i.e., affecting his total being) or not but whether God created man with libertarian freedom or compatible freedom. It seems to me, it is defining man as possessing compatible freedom along with a supposed concomitant determinative solution that makes Calvinism’s definition of TD unacceptable and not TD per se biblically speaking. I find the relinquishment of the term total depravity to the Calvinists to be unwise since it seems clear to me the Scripture teaches TD and not partial depravity, which is what one is left with having abandoned the term total depravity. I believe the preeminent essential element of Calvinism is its belief in unconditional election. Without unconditional election, one cannot legitimately claim to be a Calvinist. Unless one properly understands these two aspects (compatibilism and unconditional election) and is willing to embrace them and the entailments of such concepts, he should doff the designation of Calvinist because he is not a true Calvinist.

What often keeps many Minor-Calvinists (one, two and three-point) clinging to their claim of being a Calvinist rather than totally rejecting the designation can be: an unawareness of the irreconcilable inconsistencies produced by such positions, 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. I am not against self-chosen labels because it does appear to me soteriological discussions are enhanced by more specific terms than just Christian or Biblicist. However, the incongruences created by one, two, or three-point Calvinism make them inaccurate, and therefore unhelpful in either properly reflecting or evaluating Calvinism.

Minor-Calvinists often seek to palliate their inconsistent position by unwittingly embracing the double talk that seems to launder these unacceptable provisions. This rhetorical practice (speaking, writing, preaching, praying, and interpreting Scripture libertarianly), coupled with a simple trust that some knowledgeable Calvinists have adequate answers for these biblical incongruences and dilemmas arising from either their personalized Calvinism or 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 and ideas contrary to even the clearest of biblical passages with the aid of the perennial retreat to double talk, or it is a mystery.

Calvinists frequently claim to be more comfortable with the idea of a mystery than the rest of us (those unwilling to embrace developed Calvinism). They may ask me why I am not comfortable with the idea of mystery. My response is I am quite comfortable with biblically generated mysteries such as the 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, or how it is that the triune God lives within his people. What I am unbearably uncomfortable with are Calvinistically-generated mysteries.

The difference between the two classes of mysteries is gleanable by asking oneself 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. Therefore, it 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 says people with my soteriological position have “the same problem” (as used in various scenarios, which, if existed, would lessen Calvinism’s conundrums) to be based on a misunderstanding of the precise position of those who disagree with them.[3] While in glaring contrast, the problems within Calvinism necessitating the non-resolving resolution of the inscrutable mystery are based on 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 all the tenets and entailments of such as Calvinists are in seeking to promote the merits of Calvinism when contrasting it with what some portray as the tawdry man-centered Extensivism, one should doff the title Calvinist. Such a decision enables a person to freely interpret the clearest verses of Scripture without the obscurant program of unconditional election always running in the background. It honors 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.

[1] Traditionalist beliefs are codified in the document, “A Statement of The Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The full explanation of the document is available in the book, Anyone Can Be Saved: A Defense of “Traditional” Southern Baptist Soteriology. Other terms used instead of non-Calvinist within SBC life are Arminian, Molinist, Biblicist, and just Baptist.
[2] See David Allen’s helpful definition of High-Calvinist that includes five-point Calvinists as well as Moderate-Calvinists. Moderate-Calvinists include four-point Calvinists as well as those who “reject a strictly limited atonement, [and] believe God’s saving design in the atonement was dualistic.” “The Atonement,” 64. For a fuller description of these terms, see Allen’s book The Extent of the Atonement, xxviii.
[3] An example of the same problem argument can be found in discussions like, what about those who never hear the gospel, which Calvinists see as an unconditional election of sorts. However, in Extensivism, everyone does get an opportunity to know God, therefore, the same problem argument fails. I devote a chapter to the same problem argument and four chapters to the question about those who never hear the gospel in my book, Does God Love All or Some? Comparing Biblical Extensivism with Calvinism’s Exclusivism.

Ronnie W. Rogers