My Calvin Memories

I want to share with you some of my Calvin memories for this 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth.

1. I first heard of Calvin at a church I attended as a kid. It was the Church of God (Seventh-Day). There was a character there who liked to ramble on about Tolstoy. “Tolstoy” this, and “Tolstoy” that. Well, there was also an elderly gentleman who once referred to John Calvin. So that’s where I first heard the name.

2. I first heard about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in my freshman high school history class. One of the students (not me) asked, “Don’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe something like that?” I took what this student said as Gospel truth and asked the teacher, “Well, if Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God already chose who would be saved, why do they go door-to-door trying to convert everybody?”

The student was wrong about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, since they don’t believe God predestined people for eternal damnation. But the question about why Calvinists witness is asked by a lot of people. Usually, Calvinists tell me that we don’t know who is elect, so we may be a means God uses to bring the elected person to Christ. Perhaps. Personally, I wouldn’t be obsessed about people going to hell if I thought God predestined everything a long time ago.

3. In my sophomore and junior years of high school, I read John MacArthur’s works and listened to his sermons. That’s when I was exposed to the Scriptural rationale for the Calvinist view on predestination. “Salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). “[A]s many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48 KJV). “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4). Or, to quote John MacArthur, “It’s all Christ, and none of you!”

4. In my senior year of high school, I made a picture of John Calvin for my art class. It’s still hanging in my dad’s computer room, even though he’s not a Calvinist. Why’d I make it? I guess I just liked the way he looked (but it wasn’t a “man crush”).

5. In my first semester at DePauw University, my New Testament professor was saying Paul thought Christians didn’t have to keep the Old Testament law. That went against my Armstrongite heritage, so I referred her to the pro-law passages of Paul (e.g., I Corinthians 9:9). She then told me that there is a pro-law strand of Christianity, since Calvin believed in three uses of the law for Christians: (1.) to convict us of sin, (2.) to morally guide us, and (3.) to serve as a guide for society. I never heard this explicitly, but I think I knew some of it from other things I read. I had seen movies and read books about the American Puritans, who were big on the Sabbath and stoned people for bestiality, in accordance with the Old Testament law.

6. In my second semester at DePauw, my Christianity professor taught us about Calvin. She tried to explain predestination using her keys. “I have these keys,” she said, “And only I decide who uses them. I only choose a few of you to use my keys. Is that fair?” After much discussion, one student finally said, “It’s your keys. You can do what you want with them!” And that’s the Calvinist position on election: God doesn’t have to save anybody, for we all deserve his everlasting punishment. If God chooses to save some while leaving others in damnation, then he’s not being unfair, according to this logic!

My professor also told us about Calvin’s Geneva and how it cracked down on bars, replacing them with tea-houses. The evangelical tee-totalers thought it was because Calvin opposed alcohol, but my professor said, “No, Christians then thought alcohol was a gift from God. He just didn’t like disorder.”

7. I heard from someone Calvin’s explanation for why God is not unjust to pick certain people for damnation: “That’s like saying the sun is unjust for revealing a rotting corpse.” I still don’t get that! But I identified with Calvinism on some level. I told a professor that it’s “biblical,” to which she replied that Paul contradicts James.

I guess predestination didn’t bother me a great deal at the time because I fell back on the Armstrongite notion that God will save most people in the afterlife, even if they died before receiving Christ. As a Church of God (Seventh-Day) teacher said, Armstrongites taught “Calvinism now, Arminianism hereafter,” since Armstrongites believed God in this present age had to open a person’s mind to the truth, or “call” people. I also liked the Calvinist idea that God must change a person’s heart for it to be regenerated, maybe because I thought that took responsibility off my shoulders, or I myself had difficulty being righteous. Now that I’m unsure about the Armstrongite “second chance” doctrine, Calvinist predestination strikes me as unfair and unloving on God’s part. But I still think that God wants to help people change.

8. I read Calvin’s Institutes that summer, or at least I finished the first volume and ended up in the middle of the second one, when Calvin was going through the ten commandments and was showing that Christ’s ban on swearing in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:34) was not a prohibition of all oaths, since there are righteous biblical characters who swear them. I read this at a Rich Mullins concert. I don’t know why, but that’s the point at which I stopped reading the Institutes.

9. I learned from a documentary that Calvin had extreme migraines. How he could accomplish so much with migraines is beyond me! When I have a headache, that puts me out of commission.

10. I joined a Christian dating site when I started at Hebrew Union College. On it, I encounter Calvinists. One woman states that she became a Calvinist after reading Acts 16:14, which says that God opened Lydia’s heart. Some of the Calvinists actually defend or minimize Calvin’s role in the burning of the heretic Servetus. Eventually, I got tired of Calvinists’ obsession with Calvinism. A man asks, “What is the essence of Reformed Theology?”, and I respond, “I’m chosen, most people aren’t, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.” And that is how I perceive Calvinism today!

So that’s my journey with John Calvin through the years. I couldn’t include everything, but hopefully that gave you a taste of my experience.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to My Calvin Memories

  1. jhonse says:

    I’m always interested in what people have to say about Calvinism. Though I can’t tell from this posting if you are a Calvinist or not, quite honestly!

    I live in South FL and there seems to be a weird bubble of Calvinism stemming from this one church which is super strict and they get weird about doing things with other churches and most of them won’t hang out with non-Calvinists (and yes of course they are overly obsessed with Calvinism.) I’ve also heard one of my friends tell me that they seem to celebrate the damnation of others.

    Do you find that in your circles of Calvinists? Just curious…


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I’ve never encountered that extreme, but it doesn’t surprise me, since many Calvinists tend to make an idol out of their Calvinism.


  3. importanttopics says:

    Yes, it’s true, many religious people of all types, including Calvinists, are modern day Pharisees. Is it possible for one to gloat that God saved him but didn’t save everyone? Yes, but in doing so he/she reveals their own religious pride and casts doubt upon their own salvation.


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