Is Calvinism Heresy? My Response To Kerrigan Skelly

c heresy 1When feuding with religious folks with whom you have a sharp divide, the discussion can become very intense. Some people will arbitrarily throw out the work “heretic” as a sort of emotional insult. It is almost like saying “You are an idiot.” That departs from the historical and appropriate way in which this word is used. When somebody is a heretic, or guilty of heresy, it is because they have abandoned some central and critical element of the Christian faith. We may disagree about secondary or tertiary or ecclesiastical doctrines. But if we disagree about cardinal doctrines upon which the faith hinges, then the word heresy is used appropriately. Therefore, a Calvinist on an internet message board referred to Kerrigan Skelly as a heretic, as he espouses views that are appallingly similar to Pelagianism. Therefore Mr Skelly responded with a video accusing Calvinists of heresy. Is he correct? Is Calvinism heresy? My response to Kerrigan Skelly should acquit Calvinism of this charge.

c heresy 2In his video, he submitted a number of charges that I found to be unsympathetic and did not seem to make any effort to properly characterize Calvinism. It seemed to border on being guilty of a smear campaign. Mr Skelly was offended by the accusation of heresy and so he swung back, rendering an accusation of his own. His underlying assumption seemed to be that an accusation of heresy is necessarily an insult. But I do not see any reason to think that. I could say that a friend of mine is a heretic for their denial of the trinity and that would not be an attempt to insult them. It would be a proper historical classification of what a heretic is. For it is a departure from the central tenets of the Christian faith. As we proceed, that is how I will be using the word “heresy” as I defend Calvinism against Mr Skelly’s charges.

Mr Skelly is a perfectionist. This means that he believes that it is possible to live an impeccable life, free from any sin at all. Just so as to avoid repetition, I will simply refer you to my article Is It Possible For A True Christian To Sin? A Response To Kerrigan Skelly. where I critiqued this position. But when Calvinists tell him that they are sinful and that he is sinful, he sees an opportunity to take a cheap shot at them. Since they admit that they are sinful, it follows that they are boasting in their sin or that they love their sin. Since they tell everybody how wicked their heart is, it therefore follows that Calvinists are boasting in their sin.

But why is it that it is not possible to just assess the human condition and report negative results? Even if the Calvinists are wrong, why is it necessary to take the cheap shot and say that they are boasting in their sin? The Calvinists are just assessing the human condition. It is possible to assess the human condition and lament the human condition. It is possible to labor against sin and fail in different ways. It is possible to overcome one temptation or addiction and come to realize that there are a number of other sins in your life and in your heart of which you were just unaware. In arguing that human beings are innately sinful, the Calvinist is not boasting about how sinful they are. They are lamenting their sin and laboring against it. Is Calvinism heresy? My response to Kerrigan Skelly should reveal that he is just mischaracterizing Calvinism.

Also, even if I were to grant for charity that Calvinists were boasting in their sin, that is still not heresy. That is poor behavior and immaturity. But it is not poor doctrine. For Calvinist do believe that it is necessary to live a holy life (See chapter XVI of the Westminster Confession of Faith). For a person to fail to live up to their confessional standards is not heresy. It is sin. While heresy is sin, not all sin is heresy. If I punch an innocent person in the mouth, I have sinned. But it is only heresy if I think that it is acceptable to punch an innocent person in the mouth. Similarly, Calvinists would not say that sin is acceptable. They would say that sin is an affront to the Christian life. Therefore this charge of heresy is unjustified and predicated upon premises that are clearly false.

Calvinists think that God is deeply concerned with what believe about salvation. Apparently during Mr Skelly’s conversation with a Calvinist on an internet message board, the Calvinist accused him of believing in works-salvation. To this, Mr Skelly sarcastically replies, “Oh, so anything that allows man a role in salvation is a salvation of works? So anything non-Calvinist is works-salvation?” Well, if your salvation is contingent upon your actions, your ongoing obedience and your ongoing righteousness, then this is a salvation of works. It is a reliance upon and a trust in yourself for your salvation not a truth in Christ. It is a gospel that does not and cannot save for it begins and ends with man.

Mr Skelly does not seem to think that this is a significant dividing line. Even if we disagree about soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), so what? He argues that it is not like, “the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, or the age of the earth…” which he is presenting as cardinal doctrines that cannot be compromised lest one be guilty of heresy (and I agree concerning the deity of Christ). But his central point is that what one believes about salvation does not really matter. He blurts out, “Is God really concerned with what we believe about salvation?”

Well… is he? “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1). “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:4). Why did Paul write the book of Galatians? He was deeply burdened that people were adding to his gospel. People were saying that one must keep the Law to be justified. Paul called this a perversion of the gospel (Galatians 1:6) and a false gospel (Galatians 1:7). The gospel that allows men to perform the works of the Law to be justified, argues Paul, is a false gospel. Accordingly, the person who thinks that the performing the Law that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:8) can save you, then they are severed from Christ, and have fallen from grace. The gospel is the center of the Christian message. Everything else revolves around it. Is Calvinism heresy? My response to Kerrigan Skelly reveals that his charge that Calvinists are too concerned with soteriology does not make a lot of sense. Paul the apostle was deeply concerned with soteriology.

Calvinists just want you to submit to their doctrine. The charge is that the Calvinists just want you to change your mind. Agree with what they have to say. Admit that they were right all along and that you have to submit your intellectual prowess and spiritual maturity to them as individuals. Submit to their doctrine! Agree with these precepts! Mr Skelly argues that this is the Calvinist confession. This is all that the Calvinist wants you to do. Give mental assent to a number of propositions and then they will be satisfied. This would be sort of like ISIS, who is satisfied to hear people recite that shahada. Is that the case? Are Calvinists just satisfied to hear you perform a reformed confession of faith?

I am afraid that Mr Skelly has again unsympathetically mischaracterized Calvinism. For chapter XI, article II of the Westminster Confession of Faith submits that salvific faith is not a dead faith. The citation given is for the second chapter of James. In this famous chapter, we read that it is not enough to give mental assent to propositional truths. One must live dedicated to Christ. Thus Calvinism does not want converts that have a dead faith that does not work. Calvinism wants converts whose lives and hearts are completely in love with Christ. Is Calvinism heresy? My response to Kerrigan Skelly should unveil Mr Skelly’s failure to appeal to any authoritative Calvinist sources.

Calvinists think that perfectionists need to repent of holy living. A perfectionist is a person who believes that it is possible to live morally impeccable lives. Calvinists think that it is impossible. We are too corrupted and stained by original sin. As the Westminster Confession (chapter XVI, article V) reads: “[Our good works] as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with much weakness and imperfection…” (I defended this proposition in my article In Defense Of Original Sin. My Response To Kerrigan Skelly.) While we labor for righteousness, we acknowledge that we can never achieve it. This applies to all men. Therefore if somebody says that they have not sinned or that they do not sin, the Calvinist is not saying that they need to repent of holy living. That is an unfair characterization. Instead, the Calvinist is saying that they need to acknowledge their sin. Rather than pointing to themselves and saying, “Holy, holy holy,” they need to point to God and cry out “Holy, holy, holy.”

In response to this, Mr Skelly raised the objection, “Well, what about Heaven? Do you believe that we will just automatically stop sinning in Heaven? If so, how?” I do personally believe that there will be no sin in Heaven. We will be so overcome by the presence of God that sin would be utterly unthinkable. We will literally and actually be morally pure because God’s presence and righteousness and love has overwhelmed us. The external conditions have changed. This means that Satan and the angels must have not been in the complete presence of God when they rebelled because if they were, they would be so overwhelmed by his holiness that they would not sin. That is not to say that God has absorbed our freedom of the will in Heaven. It is to say that in Heaven, we would never want to sin. Sin would be far from our thoughts. Just as the totally depraved man today cannot imagine life without sin, so the man in God’s Shekinah glory cannot imagine a life with sin.

Is Calvinist heresy? My response to Kerrigan Skelly seems to expose some of his (hopefully unintentional) misrepresentations.

If you would like to get in on the discussion about this, join my Theology Discussion Group!



Related posts