I recently became aware of an article written by Tyler Vela, of the Freed Thinker Podcast, in dispute of my article on the issue of how Calvinistic Reformers chose to treat their enemies. I would like to briefly address several errant points in Tyler’s article.
It is common in anti-Calvinistic rhetoric to attempt to malign the person of John Calvin so as to cast aspersion on the so-called Calvinistic theological system itself. In a recent online conversation I had, Calvin was described to me as “Jihad Jean” who ran the “Christian Taliban in Geneva,” and that he was an evil dictator like those of the 20th century such as Stalin, Mussolini, and Castro. These attacks are not limited to merely hostile rhetoric but also are expressed through statements misrepresenting history and presenting heavily biased “statistics,” such as those we observed in Part I of this series and how Leighton Flowers contributed to this overall tactic with his article referenced there.
Here Tyler attempts to lump me (and Frank Viola) in with harsher anti-Calvinists, despite the fact that my article (and Frank’s article that I linked) began by repudiating the very approach Tyler condemns. One must wonder if Tyler is allowing his bias to cloud sound judgment and reason? I think it will become evident to the objective reader that indeed is the underlying weakness of Tyler’s entire rebuttal. Tyler continues:
In addition to this, we find that, likely due to lack of actual research, fake citations are passed down through the ranks. In Frank Viola’s blog post “Shocking Beliefs of John Calvin,” which Flowers cites and parrots in his article, an apparent citation from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (ODCC) states that, “Calvin was the cruel and unopposed dictator of Geneva.” The problem is that neither Flowers nor Viola have done any research or found this quote for themselves nor give a specific citation. To anyone who has done any research using theological or historical dictionaries, the emotive and evaluative nature of the language found in that “quote” should have been a red flag that something was afoot and caused them to look further. Searching on Google, one can find countless references to the same quote (although often worded slightly different each time) but never with an actual citation to the article or page within the ODCC. After some research I could find no such quote in any edition of ODCC dating back to 1997. While Viola has no relevant credentials that would lead one to believe he has been trained on proper research methodology, Flowers possesses a PhD and so should be held to higher expectations. This manner of carelessness in research where any Google hit will do is ubiquitous in anti-Calvinist literature. Why let facts interfere when one is busily grinding away at their axe?
Given that Christianity Today linked to this exact same ODCC quote HERE, I suppose it would be safe to say that Tyler considers their author’s credentials to be equally inept as are Viola’s and my own?
Likewise, below is a list of 5 articles by Calvinistic brothers who also reference this same quote while still standing in defense of Calvinistic soteriology and Calvin’s overall character:
The last link did provide the proper citation as: From ‘John Calvin’ in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by FL Cross and EA Livingstone, OUP, New York, 1974, 2nd ed., p. 223.
Are all these Calvinistic authors’ credentials also to be called into question by Tyler? Who is not using “proper research methodology” in these instances? Tyler doesn’t even acknowledge the dozens of other citations in Viola’s article.
Now, before moving on, one should be aware that my parenthetical reference to Viola’s article was only to validate a point that Tyler himself later conceded. The only historical fact that needed to be validated for the claim in my article is best illustrated by Tyler’s own concession, “…I can say that I 100% disagree with Calvin on his views of how to treat heretics…”
Given that I began my article with this concession: “Proof that John Calvin treated dissenters in a sinful manner does not prove that Calvinism’s soteriology is wrong,” and that it is a conceded historical fact that Calvin did treat dissenters (heretics/enemies) wrongly, then we should be able to move on to the point of the article. But, alas, that is not what Tyler chooses to do.
Instead, Tyler suggested I “should have closed [my] laptop and ended [my] article.” Yet, the entire point of the article was to establish the practicality of our theological beliefs with regard to how we treat our enemies, NOT the historical accuracy of the Servetus trial or the justification of wrong behaviors given the cultural norms. Tyler clearly misses this point and accuses me of opting “to go against that statement and attempt to make one giant ad hominem argument.” Tyler simply does not follow my concession or my argument. My point was never to disprove TULIP by referencing Calvin’s erroneous beliefs about how to treat enemies. My point was to establish why one’s theological beliefs about how God treats his own enemies COULD affect one’s practical beliefs and behaviors in regard to how they treat their own enemies. This is a point that has either been completely missed by Tyler (or possibly I’ve hit a sensitive nerve given the manner in which he chose to treat me, his theological “enemy”).
Again, it is a historical given that Calvin mistreated his enemies and both Tyler and I would denounce Calvin’s beliefs and behavior in this regard. The parenthetical side reference to Frank Viola’s article (which does cite credible sources that Tyler virtually ignores while demeaning the author) would have only been necessary to address those Calvinists who didn’t 100% disagree with Calvin’s view on how to treat heretics, or denied the established historical fact that Calvin did mistreat heretics (neither of which even apply to Tyler given his concession above).
Ironically, the exact same points of contention that Tyler raises were already addressed and conceded by Viola (and myself, for that matter). We both have openly admitted that torturing and killing heretics was a more common practice of the times by individuals on both side of the theological aisle. Yet, Tyler spends much time attempting to prove a point already conceded as if it actually addresses the point of my blog post. Tyler began the first section of part one with this scathing comment:
In this series I would like to spend some time responding to Leighton Flowers’ recent article… This is, in my estimation, one of the worst articles I have read on the topic – which is extremely problematic since it is written by a PhD’d professor in a somewhat related field, and who has a position training youth and future seminarians. His article, as a I will demonstrate, is not only wrong, but is actually misleading, heavily influenced and blinded by bias, is driven by ideology to misrepresent sources, and is so under researched (if at all) that I wouldn’t accept this from a high school student, let alone a seminary professor.
Let me address Tyler’s blatant ad hominem fallacies. When I pointed out Tyler’s tendency toward ad hominem (‘to the man’) arguments rather that substantive ones in a private message, he responded saying, “It’s not ad hominem. An ad hominem would be to say your argument is false because of something about your person. Saying it’s false because it’s biased and unresearched and misleading isn’t ad hominem.”
Now, had Tyler stuck to critiquing the validity of the research cited (instead of conceding the only point that the linked article was attempting to validate), he might have a case, but he didn’t. In Tyler’s first article, not only does he neglect to go beyond belittling Viola as “a man with no expertise himself,” but he does not address one of the books, articles or quotes Viola referenced to establish the point – a point, mind you, that Tyler ironically has already conceded (i.e. that Calvin believed/behaved wrongly when it came to how he treated heretics). In Part 2, when Tyler finally does address one of the many citations offered by Viola he not only brings into question my credentials but that of every other Calvinistic scholar linked above that also referenced this citation. All for a point, mind you, that HE ALREADY CONCEDED.
What if I dismissed Tyler’s response because he too is a man “with no expertise?” That would be fallacious and wrong. Or what if I began this article by saying something like, “This has to be the worse rebuttal I have ever read to any of my arguments”? That statement is untrue (as I have read far worse than what Tyler is offering here) but even if it were true it would be uncharitable of me to say so to begin our discourse. It would be unkind, or plain mean, as I believe Tyler’s opening statements were… (which ironically kind of validates the actual point of my article). BTW, I don’t bring this up because I’m all that personally offended (I’ve kind of gotten over getting offended when discussing this topic), but I bring it up because it really lowers the level of our discourse and sets a poor example for others.
As a professor, I come across uneducated Calvinists often, and if I stated something like, “You have to be one of the most uneducated individuals I’ve ever engaged on this topic, and you call yourself a student of scripture!?” It might be true that he calls himself a “student of scripture” and I might really believe he is the least educated I’ve ever engaged, but would it be kind or charitable for me to say that to begin our discourse? Of course not. It would just be mean spirited and it would poison the well for a healthy discourse. Saying something, even if you firmly believe it to be true, can still be unkind and unnecessary ….and “to the man” (ad hominem). I sincerely pray Tyler will approach his “theological enemies” with more respect in the future. If nothing else, it would go much further in validating his claim that Calvinistic soteriology certainly does NOT negatively affect how one treats his “enemies.”
Tyler goes on to make sweeping accusations without specific arguments to back up his claims. For instance, he says, “A common complaint about Flowers is that he does not understand (or flat out misrepresents) basic Calvinistic doctrine,” yet he doesn’t cite any specific claim that I’ve made which clearly misrepresents all of the many facets of what is now classified under the label “Calvinism.” Tyler also says, “…he [Leighton] often will only engage with one aspect of Calvinism while ignoring other mitigating or related concepts that give a more fully orbed and robust theological construct…” and he links to a footnote. I fully expected to scroll down and find a specific example of when I did this, but instead I find more empty generalized accusations of hearsay, not documentation (which might be ok if he weren’t attempting to hold me to some academic expectation that he himself isn’t willing to live up to).
I would encourage Tyler and others to read my blog post on “The Accusation of Misrepresentation,” as I address more fully this common, but misguided, complaint.
Tyler’s guilt by association tactic in comparing his perceptions of my approach in this article with the likes of atheists can be seen through by any objective reader, so I’ll just let his blatant bias stand as its own refutation. Tyler goes on to state,
At this point Flowers links the only source for the entire paper. This is likely the only thing that constituted any research for Flowers’ own article.
As already noted, Viola’s article was a parenthetical side note to establish a point that Tyler (and many other Calvinists) have already conceded…(Calvin did mistreat heretics and was wrong to do so). In other words, it wasn’t even necessary to establish the point of the blog article.
Contrary to Tyler’s assertion above, I also referenced (with a link) a statement by John Piper conceding the tendency of some who hold to Calvinistic soteriology as being “argumentative”…not so “warm, fuzzy, and tender” and in “greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive or intellectualistic” and possibly “not even born again.” (and in the podcast I read an article from MacArthur’s Grace to You Ministries where a Calvinistic believer confessed similar tendencies while holding a ‘higher form’ of Calvinism, like that of Pink, for instance.) These quotes actually get to the point of my blog post, which is virtually ignored by Tyler.
I also reference a 2008 study from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Colombia (with a link) citing the practical moral effects of those who deny free will.
I also reference Al Molher’s arguments related to that 2008 study (with a link) so as to make a point regarding how the inevitability issues of naturalistic determinism can’t be avoided by theistic determinists when it comes to how it might affect its adherent’s disregard to moral responsibility. That point is certainly debatable, but not if one’s opponent isn’t objective enough to even acknowledge its existence.
Maybe Tyler simply over looked those three other links in his rush to attack my academic credibility? Tyler seems to be under the impression that blog posts should always meet the academic requirements of a PhD’s dissertation. While I would agree that any statement, written or spoken, should strive to represent the facts accurately, I simply reject the notion that every blog post, facebook comment or online argument has to meet the academic expectations of the poster’s level of education. I doubt Tyler objectively critiques notable Calvinistic scholar’s blog posts as not meeting such academic standards. Once again, this just reveals Tyler’s blatant bias on the matter.
Tyler finally touches on our actually point of contention in page 5 of Part 1 when he writes,
The Reformers largely broke theologically with Rome on their soteriological views and understanding of the role of authority and scripture, but there was not a lot of movement on their civic views this would evolve slowly over centuries, and the relationship of church and state is still a contentious issue that future generations may look back and judge us for. Again, this does not excuse the actions of the early Reformers as ethical, or even biblical, but it does completely undermine the idea that Calvin’s soteriological beliefs had any causal impact on his treatment of heretics.
Actually, Tyler has unwittingly made my point for me. He concedes that Calvinists’ treatment of heretics at that time were inexcusable AND that it took them much longer to “evolve slowly” or “reform” those bad behaviors than it did men like Hubmaier, who argued that we should treat all people with love and patience because God treats all of us with love and patience. One must remember that Hubmaier was also playing a role in reforming the Catholic church’s soteriology from one of “works” to one which is by grace alone through faith alone. Yet, it was Hubmaier’s view of how God treats His own enemies which lead him to reform the Catholic’s practice of mistreated heretics more quickly than what we see from the Calvinistic believers of that day. Now, can Tyler attempt to make a case that one’s belief about how God feels toward and treats His own enemies CANNOT affect how one will choose to feel toward and treat their own enemies? Sure, he could try, but he doesn’t. Instead he belittles my profession and questions my integrity, which only goes to validate the very point I was attempting to show about the tendency of SOME Calvinists to mistreat those who disagree with them theologically. Tyler goes on to say,
We must remember that this is in an article where Flowers is attempting to argue that proper theological beliefs, specifically soteriological beliefs, lead to habits of dealing with dissenters. That is his main thesis.
Again, this is inaccurate. My thesis was never to argue that Calvinism was the sole cause or “start” of this kind of mistreatment. As already noted, both Viola and I conceded that Rome and non-Calvinistic religious people (not likely born again individuals in most instances, btw) were practicing this bad behavior. I specifically addressed those reforming Rome’s errors and how practical applications of their own soteriological beliefs helped in reforming those formerly held bad beliefs/behaviors. Even if Tyler claims my article was not clear on this point, one need only to listen to the podcast where I specifically go over this to discover my intent (which was sent to Tyler prior to his writing of this article). Tyler goes on,
Yet who does Flowers find as his main foil contrary to Calvin? A man [Hubmaier] who was killed for heresy a motivating reason for not wanting the state to be involved in theological affairs to be sure.
Yet, Hubmaier does not cite his being prosecuted for believer’s baptism as the reason for treating atheists and heretics with patience and prayer, instead he cites his own soteriological beliefs about how Jesus would treat His own enemies. Tyler doesn’t provide any documentation that Hubmaier even made his stand for religious liberty in the context of his own persecution, he just assumes it. Which again, might be excused if Tyler wasn’t insisting on a certain level of academic standards for blog posts. I would have to take the time to go pull the dates of Hubmaier’s specific quotes in defense of religious liberty, but I suspect his teaching on this subject can be found at a time prior to the threat on his own life. Tyler argues,
…it is not even clear that Hubmaier was not himself something like a quasi-Compatibilist and affirmed that sinners were both bound and free!
Is Tyler attempting to argue that Hubmaier was Calvinistic soteriologically (compatibilistic)? I assume not given that his footnote acknowledges Hubmaiers rejection of Compatibilism. I’m not sure what Tyler’s point is here. Maybe he is suggesting Hubmaier is closer to his soteriological views than to mine? Of course, we do believe our system holds compatible man’s free will and God’s sovereignty (as do Compatibilists). Calvinists just define those two words very differently than we do, so while it may appear to Tyler that a libertarian is “compatiblistic” he need only look at how one defines those terms to see our actual points of contention. I too would say we are bound, but still free (responsible) to admit our bondage and accept God’s gracious appeals to be reconciled through faith. In a private message Tyler argued,
I address Hubmaier (you know he is an anti-trinitarian and Christological heretic right- not sure you want to prop him up as the picture of doctrinal fidelity…)
Again, if there wasn’t the high academic standard being imposed, I might let this one slide, but Hubmaier did in fact affirm the Trinity. One scholar wrote,
Hubmaier was more conservative than some Anabaptists, such as Hans Denck and Leonhard Schiemer who went on to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, or avoided emphasis of the doctrine as Menno Simons. (Eddie Louis Mabry Balthasar Hubmaier’s understanding of faith p.137)
And, as already conceded, Calvin had troubling, yet unrelated, theological beliefs of his own. This is a red herring that goes beyond the point of the article. Ironically, Calvinists are arguably the ones “to prop [a 16th century theologian] up as the picture of doctrinal fidelity” by promoting a namesake who leaves much to be desired by way of “doctrinal fidelity.” I’m simply pointing to a historical fact of the matter regarding one’s specific application of their soteriology. When Tyler starts hearing non-Calvinists call ourselves “Hubmaierists” and vehemently defending him tooth and nail, he might have a good point here. Tyler continues,
For Flowers to throw down these statistic as if they reveal some specifically heinous and oppressive activity due only to Calvin, as a result of his views on the freedom of the will, is appallingly misleading…
What is appalling and misleading is that I made the EXACT opposite argument (and so did Viola). Again, both Viola and myself began our articles by conceding that these types of oppressive activities didn’t start with Calvinists nor were they limited to Calvinists, yet Tyler seems to completely ignore those concessions in his effort to discredit us personally. Tyler continues with this line of blatant misrepresentations,
When we are seeking to engage in objective historiography and come to an accurate understanding of the past, the goal is to leave evaluation to the wayside in the process. We do not seek to evaluate the actions of the person as if they lived in a modern context but rather seek to understand their actions within in their own historical setting – their own Sitz im Leben. The irony is that Flowers would likely seek to do this in order to understand the events in the life of Biblical persons like Moses or Abraham, and yet when it comes to Calvin, no such consideration is given.
Ironically this is the very point that Viola makes in the article that I linked in my original article, and that I read verbatim for the podcast, which stated,
Don’t Miss the Point
Now before any of you become apoplectic with ill feelings toward Calvin, here’s a comment to keep in mind about this post — and all the others in this series — by one historian. I asked him to review the post for accuracy before I published it.
I fully agree with his point about context, so you’ll want to put all of the above into perspective.
“This is a compelling and well-researched post. I do wonder if it merits further context; this is roughly the era of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, and Servetus purposefully forced Calvin’s hand by coming to Geneva. Calvin entreated him to give up his errors and sent him a copy of the Institutes (at great personal expense–books were rare commodities back then) and dialogued with him. He showed pastoral care in this respect.
Geneva was a place ruled by law, even theological law, but so were most every other European cities. This was not a nice era. It was rough. Life, as Hobbes said, was nasty, brutish, and short. Calvin’s Geneva provided all kinds of pastoral help to the city, and the city thrived under Calvin. It was also a place of refuge for Protestants from all over Europe. Geneva was not the exception in having tough communal strictures. It was the rule. Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors (OUP) has a ton of good background that could be of help here.”
~ Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College.
Again, as in all the posts in this series, the point is not to put the greatest influencers of the Christian faith in a bad light or disregard their legacy.
As evidenced above, Viola even made careful effort to highlight for his readers not to “MISS THE POINT” of his article, which Tyler unfortunately seems to do by assuming a nefarious intent instead of sticking to the facts of the matter. Most of Tyler’s article is wasted on making points that were either already conceded or irrelevant to the point of the original blog post. He concluded Part 1 by stating,
…in the next section I would like to turn my attention to a brief sketch of what actually did happen leading up to and during the time that Servetus came to Geneva and Calvin’s role in the whole ordeal.
I don’t care if Tyler can prove Calvin had nothing whatsoever to do with Servetus’ death. It doesn’t change Calvin’s established beliefs on the matter, which have already been conceded to and denounced by Tyler himself. Tyler needs to move on to the ACTUAL POINT of my article. He needs to deal with the substance of the post, which has more to do with Mohler’s argument against the inevitability of naturalistic determinism and Piper’s concession (two references Tyler apparently didn’t even see).
So, who is being unfair or biased in his presentation here? Much of what Tyler painstakingly sets out to prove has already been acknowledged or conceded, and yet most of his rebuttal doesn’t even affect the point of either my article or Viola’s.
Now, if Tyler’s goal is to soften the reader’s view of Calvin by bringing in a more balanced approach than what he feels was represented, I can understand that. He has every right to make that case. I think he can do so without belittling others or ignoring actual points of contention, but that is a worthy argument to be made. HOWEVER, given that Viola quoted from a Calvinist making that same exact point and the fact that I read his quote verbatim in my response to Tyler’s initial Facebook objections, it should be apparently clear that we (Viola and I) are attempting to be fair minded and objective. I wish I felt that was being reciprocated in this discussion. In Part 2, after being corrected with much of the information above, Tyler still goes on to write,
This manner of ad hominem is a misguided attempt to try and undermine the confidence that Reformed Christians have in their theological convictions, and/or to try and vilify Calvinism and Calvinists in order to steer non-Calvinists away from accepting or even honestly exploring its tenets.
Yet, in my opening paragraphs I actually wrote,
Typically, Calvinists see the personal arguments about John Calvin’s harsh treatment of dissenters as a distraction from the biblical doctrines that matter to them.
Honestly, Calvinists have a valid point here. If the non-Calvinist is not willing to fully examine the biblical doctrines of soteriology as proposed by the Calvinist, they really have no ground to question the name-sake of the systematic. Proof that John Calvin treated dissenters in a sinful manner does not prove that Calvinism’s soteriology is wrong.
I’ll allow the audience decide if my goal was to “vilify Calvinism” and “steer non-Calvinists away from honestly exploring its tenets.” Tyler’s articles are chock full of these types of harsh and blatantly misrepresentative accusations against me and my intentions. In a Facebook dialogue, Tyler goes so far as to write comments like, “I cannot believe you have a doctorate degree,” and “do you actually teach students?” This is the kind of reaction I discussed in my fifth point under the Accusation of Misrepresentation, “The assumption of a nefarious intention.” Until Tyler can drop his unfounded assumption that I have the nefarious and immoral intention to deceive, plagiarize others, and demonize all Calvinists, our dialogue cannot continue, which is unfortunate because he seems to be a bright young man.