Calvinists have a reputation for sometimes being angry and argumentative regarding Christian doctrine. Granted most Calvinists are not angry. Why does it seem that there are a disproportionate number of cranky Calvinists? Some say it’s because Calvinism is a system of thought that appeals to left-brain types who like to debate ideas. Others say Calvinism is just so biblical and beautiful that it naturally causes people to feel spiritually superior.
The root problem with angry Calvinists does not lie with their learning but with their hearts. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1 (“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”) Calvin wrote:
“Paul did not mean, that this (being puffed up, i.e. arrogant) is to be reckoned as a fault attributable to learning—that those who are learned are often self-complacent, and have admiration of themselves, accompanied with contempt of others. Nor did he understand this to be the natural tendency of learning—to produce arrogance, but simply meant to show what effect knowledge has in an individual, that has not the fear of God, and love of the brethren; for the wicked abuse all the gifts of God, so as to exalt themselves.” (emphasis mine)1
Calvin’s point here is that the gift of biblical learning, like all gifts from God, can be abused in such a way that results in arrogance and contempt “through a mistaken confidence in these things.” When that happens you must learn not to blame the learning but the learner. Calvin wrote:
“If riches naturally tend to make men proud, then a rich man, if proud, is free from blame, for the evil arises from riches… At the same time, knowledge is not by any means to be blamed for this (arrogance), any more than a sword, if it falls into the hands of a madman.”2
In the introduction to his contemporary classic Knowing God, Calvinist theologian and author J.I. Packer reminds us that people can know a lot about God and godliness, but still not know God. Those who are proud of their deep theological knowledge are, ironically, showing the depth of their theological ignorance. Calvin put it this way:
“And truly, where there is not that thorough knowledge of God which humbles us, and teaches us to do good to the brethren, it is not so much knowledge, as an empty notion of it, even in those that are reckoned the most learned.”3
But those who are prone to view with contempt people who deeply value theological knowledge (including those angry with the angry Calvinists) must be aware of their own arrogance. Calvin responded to people on this end of the theological spectrum with an old proverb: “There is nothing so arrogant as ignorance.” There is also nothing more practical than sound theology.
We must all be on our guard against the arrogance of both knowledge of doctrine and ignorance of doctrine. And we must learn what it means to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Titus 2:10). Calvin wrote, “This ought to be a very sharp spur of exhortation to us, when we learn that our becoming conduct adorns the doctrine of God, which, at the same time, is a mirror of his glory.”4
PS – Coming up: “Understanding Calvinism: On Being BE (Broad Evangelical), TR (Truly Reformed) and WR (Winsomely Reformed)”