John Piper, one of the most recognizable voices of modern Calvinism, had a thoughtful commentary about those militant Calvinists which Jared is calling the "Cage Phase" Calvinists -- the ones who are so unChristian in the way they treat people that the other Calvinists are hinting they should be kept in a cage until the militant phase is over. May God bless Piper's efforts at addressing this problem; I think that commentary was a great start. But still he misses a few important points that seem very plain from the outside. This is a delicate topic, and I realize I am not fully up to the delicacy that this requires. Commenting on another Christian group from my place inside Christianity but outside that group is a sensitive thing. And commenting on a large group, there is some internal diversity: not every Calvinist is a 5-point TULIP Calvinist, much less a Cage Phase Calvinist. I pray that, if any Calvinist should read this, that the take-home messages would be, first, my view of how things look from the outside when it comes to the "Cage Phase" crowd, and second, what I believe it would take to make a real dent in the problem.
Piper acknowledged that the most argumentative Calvinists come across as if they are not Christian at all: as if the love of God did not register as a reality in their lives. Piper attributed this to the intellectual streak within them. I have to admit to amusement whenever someone attributes their group's worst actions to the fact that they're in some way better than the next group; the hint is that if other groups were as intellectual as the Calvinists, they would likewise have the same problems. Bless Piper, I suppose many groups think of themselves as intellectual; but I have known many intellectuals, and they do not come across the same way as the Cage Phase crowd. While we're on the subject, the Cage Phase crowd does not come across as intellectual at all; they come across as angry, bitter, and harsh. It seems to be wishful thinking to attribute this to intellectualism.
A look at the Cage Phase phenomenon
No doubt there are Cage Phase sorts in every group. I have seen some of my own (Lutherans) behave badly, and Martin Luther was undoubtedly a hothead. Still, some groups have a noticeably large and persistent problem with militants, and Calvinism has such a problem. For a little perspective, let's take a quick look at another public group with a sizable Cage Phase subset: the modern atheists. Loud and vocal group of militants there? You bet. Granted, they congratulate themselves on being Bright, and may even attribute their PR problems to being more intellectual than everyone else. But from the outside, the self-congratulatory spin is not very convincing. The Cage Phase atheists are not noted for being intellectual, but for being angry, bitter, and harsh. This caustic approach to others does not come from being brainy. In fact, I suspect it has more to do with atheism itself: those who believe that reality is nasty and brutish can easily have their minds corroded by the acid harshness of those beliefs, until the way the militant atheists behave is the mirror of their worldview.
Sovereignty as the doctrine of raw power?
Piper supposes that Calvinism is noted for its "intellectual rigor" and "powerfully coherent doctrines". Yet Piper supposes the draw for the militants is the "intellectual" bit, not the "rigor"; the "doctrines", not the "powerful" aspect. Calvinism's most distinctive feature is giving pride of place to the Doctrine of Sovereignty. This does not draw intellectuals; it draws militants. Moreover it is as likely to encourage or create militancy as intellectualism.
Take, for example, Piper's exciting initiative to add a new teaching ministry to his church: a seminary. That is a wonderful concept. I have at times wished that the local churches would all offer a seminary-level evening course each semester and watch their people become trained and knowledgeable. I applaud Piper's initiative.
Still, when I read the press release at Adrian Warnock's blog, a few things struck me hard about the bulleted points describing the new project. The first bullet point covered sovereignty, naturally (for a Calvinist). While there were quite a few bullet points, not one mentioned God's love or Christ's salvation. In fact, not one bullet point mentioned love or salvation at all. In all those bullet points, the only mention of Christ was a mention of what we might do for him. Though in keeping with the power-oriented doctrines of Calvinism, the press release does hit the militant keywords in the bullet points: "sovereignty ... rigorous ... disciplined ... wartime lifestyle". All of these have a place in God's teaching, but not such a prominent place to the exclusion of other things. I wonder if he can hear himself -- hear what he is emphasizing and, more than anything else, hear which of God's truths he is neglecting: there is no mention of love at all, and Christ is hardly mentioned, and that fairly far down the list. I do not think the Bible reflects the same priorities as that bulleted list. It makes me concerned for the seminary and for all whose spiritual leadership or spiritual care is shaped by those priorities.
Harshness in the Calvinist view of God?
One thing gets a completely free pass in Piper's discussion "Why Are Calvinists So Negative?": the thought that the harshness of the Calvinist doctrines might play any part in the harshness of the Calvinist militants. The Calvinist militants are typically 5-point TULIP folks. If anyone is unfamiliar with the TULIP, long story short the only reason anyone goes to hell (according to TULIP) is that God had no interest in saving them, that God sovereignly chose not to elect them for salvation and that is the ultimate cause of their damnation. Granted, the damned deserved punishment for doing evil. Still, as God could have saved them by simply wanting to save them (according to TULIP), it is at best misleading to mention the waywardness of the damned when it poses no meaningful obstacle to their salvation. Ultimately the cause of their damnation rests with God. As with the atheists who believe reality is nasty and brutish and behave accordingly, there is a certain effect on the mind for someone who worships and studies a God who does not love you. The way in which militant Calvinists treat non-Calvinists is much the same way in which the TULIP Calvinists suppose that God treats the non-elect. The prevalence of militant, harsh, and bitter people in the Calvinist camps is not an accident; it is related to the teachings of God's own priorities according to the Calvinist system.
Thank God that a good number of Calvinists are not Cage Phase Calvinists. Piper mentions only the positives of what the Calvinists call the "doctrines of grace": the humility of knowing that God has saved us and not we ourselves; the relief of knowing we cannot do anything to save ourselves and need not do anything to save ourselves. There are many Calvinists who keep a positive focus by concentrating on only the positive parts of Calvinism, and thereby build up the positive in their minds and in their interactions with others. Still, I would trade every theology article I'd ever blogged for one thing: for the Calvinists to put Christ crucified in the place of honor rather than putting God's sovereignty above Christ, to value God's weakness which is stronger than man's strength. When we look at God's sovereignty, we do not know the mind of God. Instead, we know the mind of God by looking at Christ, the one who loves us and teaches us about the love of God, the one who laid aside sovereignty and authority to be a servant. There we know the mind of God. He who sees Christ sees the Father. He who does not see Christ does not see the Father truly.