If you had to describe my theology, you could do a lot worse than “Calvinist”. If I'm wrestling with a difficult question, I often look at what John Calvin wrote on it and I find myself agreeing far more often than I disagree with him. I'd certainly put his name on any shortlist of theologians who have influenced my thinking. Yet "Calvinist" isn't a label I'd claim for myself, and this is why.
John Calvin died in 1564, but by the early 1600s a big argument had grown up between his followers and a Dutch theologian called Arminius. In 1619, at the Synod of Dort, Calvinism was “clarified” by the famous five points, which were a reaction against Arminianism. And I guess that's the start of the problem. I agree with all five points as they were understood by Calvin, but I think that all of them need clarification and qualification – any of them can be easily distorted.
The Five Points of Calvinism:
Total Depravity – Everything that we do is contaminated by our sin, so that nothing we do is completely pure.
Unconditional Election – God's choice of people is not due to anything inherently good about them.
Limited Atonement – Jesus' death is only effective for those who put their trust in him
Irresistible Grace – We can't thwart God's sovereign plan.
Perseverance of the Saints – Once people put their trust in Jesus, they will keep on trusting him.
It is easy to misunderstand any or all of the five points. For example, total depravity rightly means that nothing we do is ever entirely pure, but it is often understood to mean that everything we do is always wholly bad. Even the name suggests the wrong interpretation!
But even worse is that the five points were originally intended as a summary of the disagreement between Calvinism and Arminianism, but instead they have become a summary of the whole doctrine of Calvinism. Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion as an attempt to summarise Christian doctrine on its own terms rather than in reaction to anything else. He tried to put the areas of controversy into their proper place rather than up front. But because Calvinism is so often defined by the five points, it becomes distorted so that predestination is the main point rather than a subsidiary one. For example, Calvin discusses predestination in book 3, section 21 of the Institutes, but Berkhof, the 20th Century Calvinist, puts it in Chapter 1 of his Systematic Theology. You end up with a bad caricature of Christianity, with some parts emphasised out of all proportion and others ignored completely.
As a result, Calvinism has become very life-denying. Calvin was willing even to affirm the good in idolatry – that it showed that people were hungry for God (Institutes, 1.3.1). When Paul was in Athens, he affirmed things that were good about their religion and philosophy. But when I hear many Calvinists preach today, they only preach sin, and they often preach that every action of their hearers is only evil all the time, to which the simple response is “If that's what you think, then you're obviously wrong.” Why should people who have a strong doctrine of the remnants of God's image in people reject that those people are still capable of good? Not good that earns salvation, but good nevertheless?
The “tradition” in Calvinism is to be very negative about pretty much all forms of human culture – art, drama, literature, etc. There are of course some Christians who seem to go overboard the other way – who are always praising whatever is new or interesting in culture without really critically engaging with it. But surely the right way for us to proceed is via seeing and naming the good, and recognising and engaging with the bad as well.
I think Tim Keller is a brilliant example of a better way. Doctrinally, I don't think he'd disagree with Calvin on much, but he seems to be very good at avoiding positions which are just reactive against something else. For example, on culture he writes: “our stance towards every human culture should be one of critical enjoyment and an appropriate wariness”, which is about a million miles from the stereotypical Puritan Calvinist rejection of human culture.
Calvinism's attitude to culture is just one example. The distortion of Biblical Christianity which happens when we see the five points of Calvinism (or other disputes of the Reformation) as central rather than as peripheral affects all sorts of areas, almost invariably for the worse.