[In the following excerpt from Arnold Lunn’s 1929 biography, John Wesley, the word “fanaticism” never occurs. Perhaps it should, for his subject is Calvinism and the difficulty of understanding how so perverse a distortion of the Gospel message—notwithstanding a recent resurgence of Calvinism in certain evangelical circles, the odiousness of its central doctrine of predestination is one of the few things on which the vast majority of Christians and non-Christians find themselves in complete agreement—should have been accepted by so many for so long. For if by fanaticism we mean an attitude or idea that runs contrary to reason, common sense, and almost everyone’s elementary sense of justice, then Calvinism must surely qualify as fanaticism. Indeed, it is hard to think of a form of Christianity more calculated to do damage to the Christian cause than that which turns the deity into an agent of arbitrary retribution. Is it surprising that hard destructive thinkers, like David Hume, should have emerged from a land, Scotland, where Calvinism once held sway?]
Calvinism is one of the unsolved problems of history. It is the duty of the historian to discover the root principles which have induced intelligent men to yield passionate loyalty to creeds which later ages have rejected, but this duty is nowhere more difficult than in the case of Calvinism. One is, of course, tempted to represent Calvinism in the most favourable light if only to placate the modern fashion of universal toleration. The religious historian, whatever may be his theme, from the Spanish Inquisition to the philosophy of Calvin, is sure to be told that he lacks historical imagination if he records a hostile verdict against any institution, however vile, or against any superstition, however stupid. He will be told that his facts are correct, but that he lacks sympathy with the past, and that he has no sense of atmosphere.
One can argue about facts, but not about atmosphere. The “atmosphere” line of defence for the indefensible was thoroughly exploited by Wesley’s Moravian opponents. Wesley, who believed in logic and reason, and who enjoyed the stately progress of debate from premise to conclusion expressed his impatient contempt for opponents who retreated behind a mist of verbiage.
“I do not admire the manner wherein they treat their opponents. I cannot reconcile it either to love, humility, or sincerity. Is utter contempt, or settled disdain, consistent with love or humility? And can it consist with sincerity to deny any charge which they know in their conscience is true? To say those quotations are unjust which are literally copies from their own books? To affirm their doctrines are misrepresented, when their own sense is given to their own words? To cry, “Poor man! He is quite dark! He is utterly blind! He knows nothing of our doctrines!” though they cannot point out one mistake this blind man has made, or confute one assertion he has advanced!”
The historian of religious movements should divide the beliefs which he attempts to criticise into three classes. First, there are the beliefs which he himself considers to be true. Secondly, there are the beliefs which he rejects, but which are defended by argument which compel, if not agreement, at least respect. Thirdly, there are beliefs which seem to him both absurd and mischievous. Tolerance has its dangers and temptations no less than intolerance. To condone what is demonstrably evil is as bad as to condemn what is good.
Calvinism as a philosophy is absurd and contradictory, and its ultimate effects on conduct are bound to be mischievous. I say “ultimate” for these effects may take some time to appear.
The universe is fundamentally rational. Grapes do not grow on bramble bushes. An immoral philosophy will ultimately produce an immoral effect. The first prophets of a false philosophy may be unaffected, for their lives are still influenced by the traditions which they have inherited from the philosophy which they reject. Materialism is a case in point. A moral machine is a contradiction in terms, and according to materialists we are all machines governed by forces over which we have no control. The ultimate outcome of such a creed must be the breakdown of all moral restraint, a conclusion which the Victorian materialist repudiated with lively indignation. “Consider Darwin and Tyndall,” urged the Victorian agnostics, “these men are not influenced by the hope of heaven or the fear of hell, but they do not take chorus girls down to Brighton for the week-end.” Of course not, partly because they would never have survived the excruciating boredom of a week-end in such society, and partly because they were living on the inherited capital of Christian tradition. The Victorian materialist was not consistent. He might poke fun at Gadarene swine, but the enthusiasm with which he set out to prove Christianity a myth was no greater than his anxiety to preserve the moral code which was based on that myth. Men are, in the main, more rational than the rationalists, and it is vain to expect them to retain the restrictions while rejecting the consolations of supernatural religion. It is, indeed, difficult to understand the mental attitude of those “who cannot have the faith and will not have the fun.”
A code which is based on a creed will not long survive the rejection of that creed. Russia, for instance, has formally rejected, not only Christianity, but also that “bourgeois morality” which derives its sanction from Christianity. Let a Bolshevist, writing in an official Bolshevist paper, describe the result:
“Our young people,” writes Madame Smidovich in Pravda, “have certain principles in affairs of love. All those principles are governed by the belief that the nearer you approach to extreme, and, as it were, animal primitiveness, the more communistic you are. . . Every student, man or girl, considers it as axiomatic that in affairs of love they should impose the least possible restraint on themselves.”
Madame Smidovich, so Mr. Fülöp-Miller assures us in his brilliant and impassioned study of Bolshevism, “quotes cases which she declares to be typical: for example, one day two sixteen-year-old fathers appeared before the amazed officials of the Foundling Hospital with a ‘collective child’. . . In this heavy sexual atmosphere suicides abound.”
So with Calvinism which must ultimately lead to antinomianism [a term coined by Martin Luther meaning that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation]. [Oxford historian J. C.] Froude’s defence is based on a fallacy:
I am going to ask you to consider how it came to pass that if Calvinism is indeed the hard and unreasonable creed which modern enlightenment declares it to be, it has possessed such singular attractions in past times for some of the greatest men that ever live. And how—being, as we are told, fatal to morality, because it denies free will—the first symptom of its operation, wherever it established itself, was to obliterate the distinction between sins and crimes, and to make the moral law the rule of life for States as well as persons. I shall ask you, again, why, if it be a creed of intellectual servitude, it was able to inspire and sustain the bravest efforts ever made by man to break the yoke of unjust authority.
The answer to Froude’s problem is quite simple. William the Silent and Cromwell are no more the products of Calvinism than Darwin, Tyndall and Huxley are the products of materialism. All these men were great in spite of, rather than because of the creeds which they held. Calvinism is theism plus determinism. Materialism is atheism plus determinism. Both creeds deny free will and make man a machine, thereby reducing morality to a farce. The ultimate (but not immediate) result of any creed based on the denial of free will must be the replacement of moral endeavour by fatalistic despair.
“I do not think,” writes a distinguished critic, “that you are quite fair to the philosophy underlying Calvinism. No one would suggest that Deism is absurd, and Calvinism is Deism plus religious emotion, reverence and fear.” Perhaps, but Calvinism is also Deism plus the belief in eternal punishment. Calvinism is not absurd simply because Calvin denied free will; for the freedom of the will is not a self-evident proposition. Calvinism is absurd because Calvin tried to reconcile determinism with the existence of an all-loving God who dealt out in arbitrary fashion infinite rewards and infinite penalties.
Superficial criticism of a creed is usually easy to rebut. A clever Catholic can make rings round the average Protestant who embarks on criticism of Catholic doctrines such as Papal infallibility or the nature of Indulgences, doctrines which at first sight appear difficult to defend. But in the case of Calvinism, it is the first facile criticism which remains unanswered.
Wesley summed up Calvinism in less than fifty words. “The sum of all is this: one in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate shall be damned, do what they can. Reader, believe this or be damned. Witness my hand.”
Try to sum up Catholicism, Buddhism or Theosophy in five hundred words, and you will find your task beyond your powers. But Wesley’s fifty-word summary of Calvinism does full justice to the fundamental tenets of Calvinism, even though there may be secondary aspects of Calvin’s teaching which merit praise.
If you study the apologetics of most creeds you will learn something. You may not be convinced, but you will understand how wise men have found it possible to accept a creed which your reason rejects. But if you read through Calvin’s Institutes from end to end, as the present writer has done, you will be no nearer understanding the paradox of his mind or the fascination of his creed than when you turned the first page. The wall of an asylum separates you, and if Calvin is outside that wall, your place is the padded cell.
It is impossible to caricature Calvinism. “We believe, though it is incomprehensible, that it is just to damn such as do not deserve it.” Thus Beza, Calvin’s great lieutenant. No vulgar misrepresentation of Beza’s views could be more damaging than his own simple credo.
Or again, consider Calvin’s reply to those who argue that man must be free to repent, seeing that God offers His grace to sinners. God would not mock the sinner with false hopes had He decreed his eternal damnation. “God speaketh to them,” Calvin replied, “that they may be the deafer; He gives light to them that they may be the blinder; He offers instruction to them that they may be more ignorant; and uses remedy that they may not be healed.”
To represent your own creed in the worst possible light is an effective method for silencing the opposition. There is nothing left to be said.
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