Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed a Year Later: Calvinism Still Isn’t Beautiful

By on Feb 2, 2015

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“They’re not going to embrace your theology unless it makes their hearts sing.”[1]

-John Piper


One of the more persistent myths regarding art (broadly defined) is that the artist understands what he or she is creating. It is, as it were, a half-truth. You understand parts of it, catch glimpses of its deeper meaning, shape it toward certain ends. But you certainly do not understand all of it. As Madeline L’Engle says, “The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver…each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’”[2]


Two years ago, I started writing. I didn’t intend to write a book so much as document a journey I had taken in and out of Calvinism, with the hopes it could help people in my own church who were treading similar paths. It ended up becoming a book and has helped people, and for that I am grateful.


But as I look back—now two years removed from when I started writing and a year removed from its publication—I feel as though I only now understand the deepest intention of the book. Bear with me if this seems indulgent.


Back when I was a Calvinist, I came across the above quote from John Piper: “They’re not going to embrace your theology unless it makes their hearts sing.” And while I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I knew what it was about.


I embraced Calvinism, not just because I found its exegesis and inner logic compelling, but because it made my heart sing. It was true, but also (and perhaps more importantly) good and beautiful.


Christians believe that truth (being grounded in God) is not only, well, true, but also good and beautiful. Beauty is “a measure of what theology may call true.”[3] Because God is infinitely good and beautiful, theology must be good and beautiful or else it’s not true. When properly understood, the truth invites not only the mind’s assent but the heart’s affection. The truth should make your heart sing.


This notion of the truth’s beauty is not an invention of secular humanism or some other boogey-man, but belongs to the deepest intuition of biblical Christian sensibilities. As the various psalmists never tire of telling us, “Great is the Lord and highly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable…The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, and his mercies are over all his works” (Psalm 145:3, 8-9).


God is infinite power but also infinite grace, so beauty “qualifies theology’s understanding of divine glory: it shows that glory to be not only holy, powerful, immense, and righteous, but also good and desirable, a gift graciously shared.”[4]


John Piper understands this better than most, and his brilliant attention to the aesthetics of Calvinism (channeling Jonathan Edwards) is one of the (if not the) primary reasons for the tremendous surge of Calvinism among young evangelicals. Simply put, plenty of people have argued Calvinism is true. Piper’s particular genius has been in arguing that Calvinism is also beautiful. Many young evangelicals have been convinced and their hearts sing for Calvinism.


My exodus from Calvinism was set in motion when I came to believe Calvinism was not beautiful—indeed, when I realized that Calvinism (consistent Calvinism at least) was, at best, cold and brutally enigmatic (which is, perhaps, why many cannot be consistent Calvinists). This realization then forced me to further reconsider its veracity.


The heart of the book, then, was a challenge to the aesthetic of the New Calvinism. The New Calvinists attempt to paint a ravishing picture of the manifold excellencies of the self-glorifying, all-determining God of Calvinism, expressed primarily through the doctrines of grace. I say that picture is a false veneer that only works when you ignore the reprobate. I say that picture cannot contain, as its central image, a crucified God who would rather die for sinners than give them what they deserve. Using the Bible as my measure of beauty, I say Calvinism isn’t beautiful.


People have asked if I could ever see myself “going back” to Calvinism—a little less young, a little less restless, and reformed again, perhaps? It’s a question I occasionally ponder. Depending on my mood, I can still find some of the exegesis and inner rationale for Calvinism compelling. As I’ve stated numerous times, I think Calvinism is one way to make sense of the teachings of the Bible (though as I also always state and many of my Calvinist friends have a hard time hearing, I think there is a better way to make sense of the Bible’s teachings that has far deeper ecumenical and historical roots).


And yet while I suppose I could again entertain the possibility that Calvinism is true, I don’t think I could ever again believe that Calvinism is beautiful. To my mind, calling Calvinism beautiful is to subject the very concept of beauty to so ruthless an equivocation that it loses any intelligible meaning.


So I agree with Piper: theology needs to make our hearts sing. That’s not a “strategic” statement about how to make Christianity more persuasive in its use of pathos. It’s a statement about truth. In terms of a quick (and perhaps overly simplistic) syllogism, I submit:


1.)  Christian truth is (by biblical, theological and rational necessity) good and beautiful (as measured by the Bible).

2.)  Calvinism is not beautiful.

3.)  Calvinism is not true.


I’d imagine my Calvinist friends would accept premise one (unless they adhere to an extreme voluntarism and absolute equivocation between God’s aesthetic and/or moral sensibilities and ours) and reject premise two, arguing that Calvinism is indeed beautiful, but sin has crippled our aesthetic sensibilities to the point that we wouldn’t know beauty if we saw it.


And of course I agree that sin has crippled our aesthetic sensibilities. That’s precisely what Isaiah says in his cryptic words about the suffering servant: the beauty of God is not something we naturally appreciate (53:1-3). We’re far too intoxicated with power and status to appreciate the unforeseen majesty of deity suffering and despised.


But it is the very measure of beauty given us by the Bible (gratuitously aggressive and kenotic, self-giving love) that threatens to burst the wineskins of Calvinism. The good news of God’s beauty is too good and beautiful for Calvinism to contain. And it is the very intoxication with raw power, which fits so snugly within the Calvinist vision of God, that blinds us to God’s true beauty.


So instead of retreating to shopworn quips (“Well if you just trusted the Bible more than your ‘feelings’ and ‘aesthetic sensibilities’ then none of this would be a problem”), I hope more of the New Calvinists will allow themselves to grasp the gravity of the dilemma Calvinism faces when it comes to biblical, Christian aesthetics. It is not a blemish of the surface, but a chilling abyss at the very heart of Calvin’s God.


[2] Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water, 18.

[3] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 3.

[4] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 17.