The Psychology of Calvinism

C. Matthew McMahon, of A Puritan's Mind, suggests that Arminians worship a god of their own making and not the God of the Bible. The "deviancy" of Arminianism -- "the heresy plaguing the modern church" (link) -- is the empowerment of "demonic lies" and "satanic ploys" intent on "leading God's flock astray." (link) One must wonder how, being consistent with Calvinism, God's flock could be led astray since He is deterministically sovereign; also, why God would have decreed Arminianism to exist in the minds of people in the first place. The Calvinist God must be so very much perplexed and conflicted within Himself -- decreeing and bringing to pass that which He so very much despises.

Matthew McMahon, then, cannot consistently argue that Arminians and other non-Calvinists are his brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a four-centuries-old problem among Calvinists.1 If McMahon is correct then the number of God's alleged unconditionally elect is even fewer than most imagine. As noted on several posts, some Calvinists insist that Arminianism is a promotion of a false gospel (Stephen Anderson et al.), or is unChristian and antiChristian (J.I. Packer); the advocates of which may be "barely saved" (R.C. Sproul), or worse, worshipers of the false Deity of free will (Augustus Toplady); the theology of which some insist is merely "a return to Rome" (J.I. Packer, O.R. Johnston, and R.C. Sproul). Still, few plummet the depths of depraved rhetoric against Arminians as English Purtian John Owen (1616-1683), according to whom Arminians are:

  • tares in the field
  • emissaries of Satan
  • deceivers whose words are as poisonous asps
  • rogues
  • idolaters
  • theological harbormasters of a satanic host advocating Luciferian doctrines
  • Socinians, or Unitarians
What is the primary psychological cause of lying about, misrepresenting, or demeaning and degrading one's opponent in any arena, whether theological, sociological, or psychological? A saying is bandied about, to the effect, "An opponent disturbed is an opponent weakened." In other words, if you psychologically rattle your opponent, you can weaken him and win your game. Martin Luther played a psychological game with his opponents. Perhaps men like John Owen (as well as Augustus Toplady, Abraham Kuyper, J.I. Packer, C. Matthew McMahon et al.) are playing their own game: the goal is to win public opinion, appear powerful, and gain for themselves converts. This is speculation.

What is not speculation is the tragic reality of angry or cage-stage Calvinists. This is a psychological state of mind that unwittingly develops in many when they adopt Calvinism. (link) The angry disposition or cage stage is a practical fanaticism that is demonstrative in one's attitude toward those with whom they disagree theologically. In this state what is of utmost importance is Calvinism and that others, too, adopt Calvinism. The main goal of the cage-stage Calvinist is conversion -- conversion of everyone he knows to Calvinism using arguments and, if necessary, dehumanizing rhetoric and polemics.

The angry or cage-stage Calvinist is even encouraged toward such as he reads from men in history, like Luther, Owen and Toplady, who have hurled the harshest insults at their opponents. Moreover, he is taught that harsh rhetoric is used by Christ at Matthew 23 (taking the event out of context) and that using such a ploy is beneficial for some people; some will only be converted by being jolted psychologically by the use of rhetoric. Granted, he is also taught that only God can "open the spiritual eyes" of someone to the "truth" of Calvinism; those who do not espouse Calvinism have not been granted that grace. In the case of such people, according to Calvinist Steve Hays, Arminians and other non-Calvinists are being deterministically used by God as a foil for Calvinists. (link) While some Calvinists eventually graduate from the cage stage, that graduation leading some to abandon Calvinism altogether, others remain in the cage for the rest of their lives.

Having experienced my own angry Calvinist cage-stage, as well as an abandonment of Calvinism, I think I better understand the cage stage environment and mentality from an insider's perspective. When asked about this very issue, John Piper argues that Calvinism tends to "draw" argumentative people. (link) Justin Taylor's response to the same admits that cage-stage Calvinism is a problem but not without first deflecting from that very problem. (link) Before I highlight and expound upon Piper's confession, I want to note a problem with what he offers, especially his Gnostic tendency noted here:
Another reason Calvinists might be perceived as negative is that they are trying to convince others about the doctrines. [So they use negativity, mean-spiritedness, and contentious ploys? Since when is negativity and harsh rhetoric a tool for teaching or converting?] If God gives someone the grace to be humbled and see the truth [that is a Gnostic-like statement and belief], and the doctrines are sweet to him, and they break his pride [and yet so many Calvinist laypeople and leaders are prideful, arrogant, and contentious] -- because God chose him owing to nothing in him. He was awakened from the dead, like being found at the bottom of a lake and God, at the cost of his Son's life, brings him up from the bottom, does CPR, brings him miraculously back to life, and he stands on the beach thrilled with the grace of God -- wouldn't he want to persuade people about this? (link)
Odd, I think, how many among the young, restless, and "Reformed" crowd are far more eager in convincing regenerate believers of Calvinism than in spreading the message of salvation to sinners as the same is found by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But I digress. All I care to highlight from Piper's above quote is the Gnostic nature of God secretly "opening the eyes" of some of His people to Calvinism. One must wonder why God, if Piper is correct, would "open my eyes" to Calvinism and then "shut them" a year and a half later when I, as have others, abandoned Calvinism. If Calvinism is all that glorious, all that God-glorifying; and if God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him, as Piper reminds us; and given that Calvinism could allegedly bring about this glorious state within the individual; then God is working against His own self in not "opening the eyes" of all His regenerate creatures to the alleged truth of Calvinism. If God is sovereign in the sense that Calvinists argue, and God wants to maximize His own glory, then Calvinism cannot be true or else He would open all of our eyes to Calvinism.

While I appreciate Piper's candor in the confession that not all Calvinists are actually regenerate (link), we are left scratching our heads as to why Calvinism in particular "draws" argumentative, mean-spirited, arrogant people, thus drawing out from within them the ungodly attitudes of anger and the cage stage. Remember Scripture: "for your anger does not produce God's righteousness." (James 1:20) Jesus teaches that from the heart flows words and life-attitudes. (Matt. 12:34; 15:17, 18) Piper suggests that such people are angry because they have been lied to -- i.e., not being told about Calvinism -- and that they are therefore responding out of frustration, annoyance, and ire. Wrong. When someone happens upon an astonishing new discovery, the reaction is not anger, but wonder and awe. When someone hears the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, she does not become angry because she had not properly heard or carefully listened to the message before, but is overwhelmed by the goodness of God and becomes thankful and worshipful. That Calvinism produces within its converts anger should be a tell-tale sign.

Consider why anger and the cage stage does not happen to those who convert to other Christian traditions. There is no Pentecostal or Charismatic or Third Wave cage stage, no Arminian cage stage, no Lutheran cage stage, no Anglican cage stage, no Roman Catholic cage stage, no Orthodox cage stage, no Molinist cage stage, no Open Theist cage stage, no Holiness or Sanctified or Wesleyan or Methodist or Seventh-Day Adventist or Baptist or Anabaptist cage stage. Calvinism is the only theological system that produces within its converts a cage stage -- a temperament that is argumentative, acrimonious and belligerent, bitter and caustic by its very nature. We must seek to understand why this is the case.

Muslims share a similar zealous and fanatic passion with Calvinists about their theology, both of which are deemed by their adherents as the only orthodoxy available to humanity, and both groups are willing to fight their opponents tooth and nail over their religious convictions. In both camps there is absolutely no margin for error. A fanatic is defined as a person identified by or "motivated by an extreme, unreasoning enthusiasm, as for a cause." (link) I like the word "unreasoning" instead of "unreasonable." Using "unreasoning" is true to the nature of fanaticism: one cannot reason with a fanatic.

This definition is not suggesting that said cause is unreasonable; only that the zealot cannot be reasoned with when defending his cause because his cause blinds him and binds him. Whether a cage-stage Calvinist, or a zealous Muslim, any attempt at reasoning with such a person is futile, as the only real issue that matters to such an individual is the central and primary issue within their mind: Calvinism and Islam respectively. But what cause can be attributed to cage-stage Calvinism? Why does this Christian system produce such a person? Why does this system betray the fruit of the Spirit -- the qualitative evidence of the indwelling Holy Spirit within the believer -- found at Galatians 5:22, 23?

Speaking from my own experience as a Calvinist, I have wondered for years what exactly drove me to become a nasty individual -- not to my Calvinist friends but to my opponents. My Arminian Baptist parents, for example, remarked on several occasions the incredible change I underwent while defending Calvinism. I morphed from a polite Southern Baptist boy into a raging combatant Presbyterian Calvinist. There were two interconnected doctrines which I think were the primary cause of my arrogance and mean-spirited attitude: the deterministic sovereignty of God and unconditional election. I was saved and a Calvinist at the deterministic behest of a sovereign God. I was unconditionally elected from eternity past unto salvation: I was one of God's chosen, special, elite sons of God.

Every move I made, every word I spoke, every sin I sinned was because God decreed it. I could not think a thought without the sovereign decree of God guiding me -- including the sinful thoughts and words and deeds. God would use them, somehow, as a means to sanctify me and bring Himself glory for unconditionally electing to save a wretched sinner like me. I knew my wretchedness and I gloried in God for my wretchedness. Sin was a near non-issue, given that the electing Father had elected the Son to die for His elect child, me. When asked to attend a tent revival, the "altar call" was entirely superfluous from my perspective, since, if God was going to save anyone that day, He would do so irrespective of man's altar call. Had the Internet been so pervasive in my area back in the 1990s I would have been an angry Calvinist blogger who ridiculed and disparaged Arminians.

I highlight those two doctrines as being the theological culprits of cage-stage Calvinism. Certainly the corollaries of Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace can be included. But I have not yet seen evidence of Calvinists willing to die on the hill of Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace as I have for the deterministic sovereignty of God and Unconditional Election. Also, given the fact that classical Arminians advocate for Total Depravity and Total Inability, and that some of them hold to necessary Perseverance as well, I fail to see those two doctrines being in any sense a primary or secondary cause of the cage stage.

What about nasty Arminians or non-Calvinists? After all, I have been known to throw a little fire myself (and am criticized when I do; odd how Calvinists get a free pass on the same), and do not shy away from confrontation, so certainly there are angry Arminians, right? First, consider the prevalence of such. There is no category as a cage-stage Arminian. None of the Arminian scholars are being asked why there are so many angry Arminians. The same cannot be said of Calvinists. Second, when someone is noticing an angry Arminian, or an angry non-Calvinist (like a non-Arminian, non-Calvinist Southern Baptist), is the individual being ridiculed and called a heretic? One cannot be baited into a fiery dialogue, the Calvinist calling the non-Calvinist an overt heretic, and expect the person to remain calm. Some Calvinists, like an adversary, push non-Calvinists to react or respond negatively and then blame them when they do. That is tantamount to insanity.

I challenge any non-cage-stage, rational and reasonable Calvinist -- one who has Arminian friends he or she genuinely loves -- to read John Owen's A Display of Arminianism, which is still promoted on Calvinist sites like and elsewhere, and not become angry. There is a psychology to Calvinism that tends to bring out the worst, not the best, in people. There is an unhealthy fanaticism inherent within its doctrines, the advocates of which tend to terrorize and tyrannize their opponents,2 and we only need look at the Calvinist Synod of Dordt and the persecution of the Arminians for a prime example. This has been the norm in Calvinistic circles for at least four centuries now.3

Moreover, the Dortians offered five points of Calvinism, but John Piper posits seven points, and Leonard Coppes offers ten points of Calvinism: it's never enough. Even the Calvinists of the seventeenth century argued amongst themselves, the English and Dutch Separatist Calvinists charging the Dutch Reformed Calvinists for not being Reformed enough; they were "seeking to recover what they considered the lost ideal purity of New Testament Christianity by withdrawing from what had become polluted by false doctrine."4 Consider also that infralapsarian Calvinism was not pure Calvinism according to supralapsarian Calvinists and only a supralapsarian Calvinism was to be promoted.5 Reasons proffered by Piper and others to explain this issue are not persuasive.

Calvinists cannot argue convincingly that the Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were merely "men of their time," behaving in the manner allotted for their eras, given that Arminians, Anabaptists, and Baptists also lived in those generations and did not harm their theological opponents. This Calvinists cannot explain. Moreover, there are "men of our time" who behave in the exact same manner, even if they do not kill their perceived heretics. The fanatical psychology of Calvinism drives some of its adherents to extremes, pushing the limits and the boundaries of those advocates, naming themselves as solely orthodox and all their opponents as heretics. While we Arminians are grateful for the Calvinists who somehow avoid the cage stage, we agree that we have witnessed first-hand what Piper himself has also noted, that Calvinism, ipso facto, tends to draw the argumentative and contentious individual to itself. People need to ask why.


1 "In many places" throughout Holland the Calvinists "had refused to acknowledge them [the Arminians] as brethren, and would not take the sacrament with them." Frederick Calder, Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2009), 191.

2 "Some few of the rioters [Calvinists persecuting Arminians] were afterwards seized, but scarcely rebuked; and one of the most rigid of the Contra-Remonstrant [i.e, Calvinist] magistrates had the effrontery and bigotry to say that these people acted out of zeal for religion, and actions done on account of religion ought to be treated tenderly." (emphasis original) Yet, had the Arminians treated the Calvinists in the same, persecuting manner, "done on account of religion," the hypocritical and double-standard-advocating Calvinist magistrates would have seized them and imprisoned them. The context of "religion" in this case, for the Calvinists, referred to Calvinism and not to Christianity: Calvinism conveniently defines Christianity for Calvinists. There is no freedom of religion, no freedom of conscience, no priesthood of the believer in a Calvinistic environment. Ibid., 213.

3 The Dutch magistrates inform Arminius' successor Simon Episcopius, in 1614, that their desire is for the peace and unity of the Dutch Reformed churches between Calvinists and Arminians. Episcopius responds: "[T]hat is what I and my brethren, who entertain similar views with myself, are anxious to effect, and are willing to follow any counsels that will lead to it [not on even one occasion did any Arminian threaten, harass, or persecute any Calvinist for his beliefs]; but while those of opposite opinions [i.e., Calvinists] use the inflammatory language in the pulpits [as] they do, this is not to be expected." Ibid., 143. "As far as the Remonstrants were concerned ... the policy adopted in 1619 [at the Synod of Dordt] led to actual [and lawful] persecution, a deplorable spectacle in a country which prided itself on its record of resistance to the Spanish Inquisition." Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the 17th Century Part One: 1609-1648, (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961), 72. This "policy adopted" by the Dortian Calvinists, imposed upon the Dutch people, was "a puritanical outlook on life" which betrayed "liberty and pleasure." Ibid., 79.

4 Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, "Beyond Luther, Beyond Calvin, Beyond Arminius: The Pilgrims and the Remonstrants in Leiden, 1609-1620," in Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Press, 2014), 56. The heated issue at this particular juncture was the attempted institution of Conrad Vorstius as Professor of Theology at Leiden in the stead of the recently-deceased Jacob Arminius. Vorstius had written a pamphlet against the practice of killing heretics, to which some of the Calvinists agreed, which infuriated the English and Dutch Separatist Calvinists. "Calvinists killed far fewer than did Catholics, but, as the Contra-Remonstrants [Calvinists] forthrightly asserted of themselves (and Calvin demonstrated), executing heretics was a real possibility." Ibid., 56-57.

5 Tensions were high when supralapsarian Calvinist Franciscus Gomarus, Arminius' chiefest opponent, challenged infralapsarian Calvinist Matthias Martinius to a duel over the matter of the extent of the atonement: "ego hanc rem in me recipio ["I, in this situation, regain myself," states Gomarus], and therewithal casts his Glove ... and requires the Synod to grant them [him and Martinius] a Duel ... Martinius who [is] aequipace [equally gifted] with Gomarus in Learning, a little before him for his Discretion, easily [considers] this affront, and after some few words of course, by the wisdom of the Praeses [Mineral (Wisdom) Stones] matters seemed to be a little pacified, and so according to the custom, the Synod with Prayer concluded. Zeal and Devotion had not so well allayed Gomarus his choler [temper], but immediately after Prayers he renewed his Challenge [to a duel] and required Combat with Martinius again; but they parted for that night without blowes [sic]." See W. Robert Godfrey, "Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dordt," in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1619-1619) (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 243.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.