Who Does God Choose?

Recently my mother of 86 years died and I went home for the funeral. In addition to the normal sadness of such an event, coming from a missionary family of a sect, and having been withdrawn from (disfellowshipped, shunned) years ago, there were the usual sparks and conflicts.

View from Mom's grave

View from Mom’s grave

I learned my brother had resigned from being an elder because two of his children had left  the hard core churches of Christ, both children leaning in a Calvinist direction.

This is sad for me because I don’t get Calvinism. Calvinism is one of the least attractive sectors of Christianity for me.

John Calvin had a harsh father who insisted Calvin study law and become a lawyer, even though Calvin had no desire to do so. Calvin got his law degree, but instead of practicing law, he became a protestant preacher, the Reformation having taken hold in Switzerland a generation before him.

If Calvin lived today he would probably be described by a psychotherapist as having Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder or simply as an Obsessive. Obsessives are concerned with rules, guilt and harshness, over gentleness and functionality. The punishment is more important to them than the maturing of the person being punished. The older son in the Prodigal Son story was an obsessive. Obsessives are described as bitter and perfectionistic, often sickly, with families that don’t like them. Their marriages burn out quickly.

john calvinCalvin was fascinated by the writings of an early church father named Augustine, who lived 400 years after Christ, and 1100 years before Calvin.   Early church fathers were irritated by Augustine’s teachings on humanity’s depravity and predestination. Augustine and Calvin taught that God is all powerful (“sovereign”), and that humans are completely weak (and evil, depraved), so weak that we cannot choose to follow God. God must infuse us with his Spirit. And we cannot refuse His Spirit once he has chosen us, because we are completely weak compared to God. Once God has chosen us we cannot fall from His grace. And God chooses us before we are born, to be eternally saved, or eternally lost.

Augustine by Antonio Rodriquez

Augustine by Antonio Rodriquez

We, as humans, are not permitted to complain about this arrangement, because humans originally sinned through Adam, and therefore we are all guilty of sin, and all deserve damnation, because all sin. Calvin asked why should those who deserve damnation be permitted to complain that some get chosen to be forgiven? All deserve damnation. Therefore nobody should be allowed to complain about it.

The whole of Calvinism rests on the doctrine that all humans sinned through Adam and therefore are so evil they are unable to choose God. We are not permitted to complain about the justice and fairness of everyone being condemned to hell. Nor are we permitted to complain that some select individuals are chosen by God to be forgiven and regenerated, to show the world that God loves us.

Wow! That seems evil to me! And that is not the kind of God I want to get close to, have a relationship with, and worship. If that is the plan of salvation, then I believe God has a PR problem, and a morale problem.

Why would Augustine and Calvin come up with such a God, and more to my current point, why would my nephews be attracted to that doctrine? I think because they all share one factor: they all had harsh fathers. They had very little control over their lives as children, fear being the prime motivation, and having a God that matched this arbitrariness and harshness makes total emotional sense to them.

I was also harsh on my children, which they like to remind me of. They tell me that having been raised in a fundamentalist sect is not an excuse for me to have raised them harshly. They have a point.

Our pictures of God are formed before our logic develops. Our pictures of God are formed from our early experiences with our primary caretakers.

There are two or three forms of Calvinism and not-Calvinism: 

  1. Strict Calvinism (several of the divisions of Baptists are strict Calvinists, as are the Presbyterians)
  2. Arminianism (a little more free will involved in choosing God). John and Charles Wesley, Methodist, Episcopals, and the Pentecostal movement embraced Arminianism.
  3. If you’re not a Calvinist you probably believe in one of the forms of Pelagianism.
  4. The Eastern Orthodox Church never respected Augustine, therefore never taught predestination.
  5. Universalism came out of Calvinism, teaching that since everyone sinned through Adam, everyone will be saved through Christ, to combat the ugly version of Calvinism where God wants to show wretched humanity how loving he is by choosing some of us, but not others.

When I have confronted Calvinists with the illogicality of their theology, they respond without logic. They reply: “It’s a mystery. Only God understands it completely. We are limited human beings, limited by space and time, we cannot see the big picture.”

In other words they admit that it makes no sense. But they want a pass card, a get out of jail free card, which I am not willing to give them. Are you telling me that God and his prophets wrote an entire Bible to reason with us, and made us logical beings, but wants us to suspend that logic and accept that we cannot voluntarily read the Bible and accept the gospel ourselves? That the Bible is actually only a tool for those who have been chosen? That’s not what the Bible claims to be. That is not what the gospels claim. No. Jesus tried to convince people, and that is what I try to do. If God is in the habit of not trying to convince people, but just zapping them with the Holy Spirit, then why is the example he has given us, a book of arguments to convince us?

Yeah, it’s not logical, and no, you do not get a free pass card.


Servetus burned at the stake under Calvin’s rule

Predestination makes God out to be somewhat evil. And that is unacceptable to me. Predestination has turned more Christians into atheists than any other doctrine. If you are teetering, then just read a history of the life of John Calvin. He could have taught Hitler a few things. The only other doctrine that has turned a comparable number of Christians into atheists is the warped doctrines against sexual desire, also originating with Augustine of Hippo.

After my mother’s funeral we cleaned out the house for my father, throwing things out and saving some mementos, especially the photographs. The next day my father emailed myself and my daughter that we were not invited to his birthday dinner. He said he had suspended the withdrawal (shunning) rules for the funeral, but that was over and he couldn’t suspend the rules for a birthday dinner. Almost enough to convince one that God is a Calvinist!


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
This entry was posted in Evangelical Church, Faith and Works, Hell, Holy Spirit, Salvation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Who Does God Choose?

  1. ellie rae says:

    Calvinism is not a theology. It is a vain philosophy.

  2. Kathy says:

    Just sad.

  3. coxhulgus says:

    So sorry to hear of your loss, Mark. And even sadder to hear of the family dynamic. I think you’re on target with the attachment theory. We form our versions of Divinity through our earliest attachment relationships. And no mindful, loving parent would shun their child.

  4. Jim Cowger says:

    I have been dis-fellowshipped in 2004. You’ll want to hear my story. If interested, email me at searchthweb@yahoo.com. This story is only for dis-fellowshipped Disciples from the “International Churches of Christ.”

  5. Gary Cummings says:

    Great article. I am sorry for your loss. I wrote a very long response to your article, but for some strange reason, it could not be saved. Oh well. SO here is a mini-version. My father was both inconsistent and harsh. He would swing between those two. He spent his life in the military. He took it personally when I became a Conscientious Objector and did Alternative Service. He told me one evening that I was no longer his son. A year later he was in the hospital dying of leukemia. The night before he died, we reconciled. He told me I was right about the war and that he was proud of me. That was our last conversation. The next day he suddenly died. At least we reconciled. Yes harsh fathers can make one a Calvinist. Mine did not. Thank God.

    I am Arminian and think Pelagius got a raw deal in history. You know that church history is written generally by the victors backed by military force, torture or violence. There is more to the history of our faith than John Calvin. He was a murderous bastard who believed that God rejoiced by burning and torturing people in Hell forever. I thank Edward Fudge for his contribution to the doctrine of Hell, and for discovering a gentler kinder God.

    • Mark says:

      Yes, I wish we had heard more about Pelagius in church history, than Augustine and Calvin!

      • Gary Cummings says:

        Augustine and Calvin are the bane of church history. Many modern scholars have “rehabilitated” Pelagius somewhat and have removed the mark of heresy from him. Augustine was a pervert. Read what Paul Johnson in his THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY said about him. Quite interesting.

  6. SteveA says:

    My condolences to you on the death of your Mother. And it hurts to learn you are being shunned by your family. Didn’t think that would still happen in the 21st century over religious doctrinal matters. Or rather I thought it would be so rare that I’d never encounter it. Been thinking about it since you posted and wishing the best for you.

  7. We live in a wonderful time and a crazy time. It is wonderful to me that we can converse like this from a distance and with technology giving us aid by making available so many resources. You mentioned that

    “Our pictures of God are formed before our logic develops. Our pictures of God are formed from our early experiences with our primary caretakers.”

    It reminded me of a brief clip of an interview with a young (at the time) asian american poet. It was on PBS back in the 89-90 school year. And it is a perfect illustration of your point. It would normally be hard for me to place the year that far back since they run together except that it was during a leave of absence. I was in Charlottesville, VA for two semesters as a visiting research professor. The poet said something that has stayed with me all these years. Like you and me, Mark, he was the son of a minister. His was Presbyterian and inheritor of calvinistic influence as well as Chinese customs that comported with it. And just today, thanks to the internet, google, Bill Moyers, PBS and others; I was able to find out that the video and clip of it are still online. It is from October 6, 1989 Bill Moyers and Company and titled “Voices of Memory”.


    The poet is Li-Young Lee. This starts at about 13:55 of the video. He is discussing his relationship with his strong and domineering father.

    “LI-YOUNG LEE: When he was alive, I never argued with him until the last year of our lives together, before he died. I think I was moving away from home. I was away from home a lot, and it suddenly dawned on me that average Americans don’t live the way we were living, you know, in constant subjugation and fear and awe. And there was a lot of love and tenderness between us, but I would characterize our relationship as awe. I mean, for instance, (caps mine ) IT WAS OBVIOUS TO ME AT SOME POINT, AFTER HE DIED, THAT FOR YEARS I WASN’T PRAYING TO GOD, I WAS PRAYING TO HIM”

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