Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport (Book Review)

Lots of people today are pining for a kinder, gentler Calvinism.  I find myself within this camp most of the time.*

* Except when it seems to me that those kinder, gentler Calvinism proponents start sounding wishy-washy.  Then my orthodox contrarian nature rears its head calling for the pendulum to swing back into balance.

A friend recently handed me Richard Mouw’s little book “Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today’s World.”  Published by Zondervan, a large evangelical book company, it is a reasonable, gentle defense for Mouw’s Calvinist beliefs that have also been shaped by years of interaction with non-Calvinist evangelican Christians–especially those at Fuller Theological Seminary.  It’s a book that claims to focus “not on what Calvinists believe but on how they live.”  This is not really the case.  It is more of a both-and book rather than either-or.  Mouw writes to give a general introduction not only to the historic Five Points of Calvinism as they are acrostically arranged in the famous TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints), but also gives a brief introduction to a Reformed worldview as it has been expressed through the Dutch Reformed tradition (he does not interact with the Puritan / Westminster Reformed tradition).  Throughout his presentation he offers musings (this is often his writing style) on what a kinder, gentler Calvinism might look like in the real world of people relating to one another.

Mouw’s hook to today’s world is a scene from the movie Hardcore (warning: this is a movie that deals with themes unsuitable for many viewers–Christian discernment advised).  He describes the fictional meeting of a young woman and a pious Calvinist elder in the Las Vegas Airport.  The gentleman ends up explaining TULIP to her.  She recoils is disbelief that anyone living today would actually believe such horrible notions of God.  The elder, obviously flummoxed by his inability to demonstrate that his beliefs are relevant today, ends up appearing like the one who is out of touch and perhaps needing to get with the times.  Mouw uses this exchange to write his book that is really an extended meditation on what he would say to the young woman if he had an hour in the Las Vegas Airport with her.  Mouw is essentially asking the question: “What is a better way to explain the Calvinist understanding of the gospel and the Bible’s worldview than falling back on reciting the TULIP?”

His answer is not surprising, but it is satisfying.  Instead of using the TULIP, Mouw would rather use the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is thy only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Moreover, Mouw wants to stress the Calvinism and its world- and life-view as expressed by late 19th and early 20th century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper instead of the 17th century Canons of Dordt.  Not that he disagrees with or is embarrassed by the older expression of Calvinism.  He would just rather explain his beliefs using the more pastoral feel of Heidelberg One, and the more worldview-encompassing expression of Kuyper that the salvation of people express of the Canons of Dordt.

Richard Mouw, wishy-washy theologian?

For much of the book I found myself agreeing with Mouw but wondering if his defense is too much of a soft-sell.  I couldn’t put my finger on what his mood and strategy reminded me of–until he labeled himself in the book “a Calvinist on prozac.”  I laughed out loud.  Eureka!  That’s who he is!  And while I think I’d really like Mouw as a friend, he’s just not quite my style.  Close, but there doesn’t seem to be enough contrarian in him to push back against questionable and heterodox notions.

For example, in chapter 8 Mouw tackles the doctrine of election, particularly how it has been caricatured by many, including Dave Hunt, as a “select few.”  Mouw objects to Calvinists limiting the generosity of God.  He writes, “as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it increasingly difficult to draw sharp lines in my own thinking about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’  And this, too, I get from the Bible.  God alone will judge the human heart in the end.  He works in mysterious ways.  It seems to me that anyone who believes strongly in God’s sovereignty is going to live with a lot of mystery on this subject.”  I can see his point–that we Calvinists sometimes fall into the trap of thinking we know who is saved and who is damned–but Mouw’s conclusions are troublesome.  Mouw offers two people who he knows, both friends and both self-professedly NOT Christian, who he has “spiritual hunches” about how things are going to end up for them.  One is a kind Jewish rabbi who Mouw believes will finally bow the knee to Jesus when he looks into the Lord’s face after death, and that God will count all his serve to the God of Abraham as serve to Christ–even though the rabbi would disavow this service as done for Jesus (pg. 87).  The other is a woman who was abused by a father with a saintly reputation in the church.  She is unable to pray to God or even identify herself with Jesus or the Church.  But after identifying herself as an alcoholic and joining AA, she has seen a transformation in her life.  Mouw writes of her on page 88:

So I wonder, Is it possible that in this process of surrendering her will to her ‘Higher Power,’ she has, at some level of her being, reached out to accept God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ–even though she is at present psychologically incapable of articulating her experience in those terms?  Of course it’s possible.

Mouw then covers his tracks a bit to avoid appearing to be a universalist.  But he can’t bring himself to draw the line where God draws it, namely that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel is required for salvation.  This is where Mouw’s wishy-washy prozaic thinking arises:

I want to take very seriously what people say about what they believe.  The woman in AA tells me she is not a Christian.  And the rabbi is obviously a very devout Jew.  Neither of them wants me to turn them into Christians without their permission.  Furthermore, as a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, I do want them actually to call on the name of the Jesus (Romans 10:13), to acknowledge that he alone can save them from their sinful state.  In the meantime, however, I do live with my hunches about the scope of God’s generosity toward people like them.

In other words, Mouw cannot bring himself to tell his unbelieving friends that God’s judgment hangs over them as sinners, and that apart from Christ there is no spiritual niceness that will help you escape.  To be apart from Christ is to be outside the realm of salvation.  This is why the Christian missionary enterprise exists.  If Mouw’s hunches are correct, then nice religious people who deny Christ might go to heaven.

There are not many blights on this otherwise fine book.  But Mouw’s spiritual hunches are a big one.

Mouw has a few pointers for us Calvinists that we ought to take to heart.  All Christian traditions have blind spots–sins they struggle with more than other traditions.  Mouw turns the spotlight on us in his chapter “Confessions of a Traveling Calvinist.”

  1. Mouw observes that historically Calvinists has been embarrassingly weak in ethics.  He points to examples of intolerance and persecution, promotion of racist policies.  These should prompt Calvinists to cultivate a considerably larger dose of humility.
  2. Calvinists need to develop an ethos that desires to learn from others.  This might cause our theologies to look a little eclectic, but as long as our harsh edges are rounded off by biblical truth that other people and Christian traditions can teach us, then eclectic truths ought to become our new systematic truths.
  3. Calvinists need to learn the value of learning from diversity.  Mouw  means that we ought to value Reformed doctrine, but not at the expense of missing the deep commitment to Christ that many of our non-Calvinist brothers in Christ have.  Allowing doctrine to kill our love and affection for all of our brothers and sisters who we don’t fellowship with is not being Christlike.
  4. Mouw wants Calvinists to start being open to correction.  Is it possible that God is teaching other bodies of believers different lessons about his Word that we have neglected and therefore have misunderstood?  Mouw thinks this is possible and probable.  So Calvinists need to learn from others and be willing to stand corrected.  I say amen to that.
  5. This is one is the proactive side of the reactive fourth point.  Calvinists should make it a practice to get a second opinion from other Christians and Christian traditions who have a specialization in our concerns.  Getting a second opinion doesn’t mean we reject the first.  It just means we are being wise and willing to listen to others who might give us a new (or corrective) perspective.  Get the second opinion and then weigh the options in light of the Bible.  That is the path of wisdom and humility and genuine truth seeking.  Some Calvinists need to learn this.

Overall I would recommend “Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport” to Christians who are either antagonistic or inquisitive about Calvinism.  But I would add that Mouw’s spiritual hunches about the spiritual status of professed unbelievers, while qualifying as a second opinion, should not be trusted.

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