Hell, election, and arrogance

Despite Robert Burns’ own considerable moral indiscretions, he certainly had no trouble decrying religious phonies such as he saw in William Fisher, elder in Mauchline Kirk in 1785. In “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, Burns paints a vivid picture of a womanizing hypocrite whose excuses and even theological justifications strike me as authentic and potentially accurate. But forget those for this post. So as not to give the false appearance of indicting any of the Reformed with Willie’s moral failures, I will cut out all but the first five and final stanzas (but here’s the rest).

O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
Who, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell,
A’ for Thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done afore Thee!

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.

What was I, or my generation,
That I should get sic exaltation,
I wha deserve most just damnation
For broken laws,
Five thousand years ere my creation,
Thro’ Adam’s cause?

When frae my mither’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plunged me in hell,
To gnash my gums, to weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain’d to their stakes.

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ Thy flock.


But, Lord, remember me an’ mine
Wi’ mercies temp’ral an’ divine,
That I for grace an’ gear may shine,
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be thine,
Amen, Amen!

Love that meter and rhyme scheme!

Isolating the theological content, and certainly not including Willie’s justification of his own hypocrisy in the omitted portion of the poem, on the whole I found that the depiction of Reformed doctrine in the first four and last stanzas, with its preoccupation on God’s acting in the interests of His “glory” via damnation and grace to fallen humanity, sounded very much like presentations I hear nowadays.

But considering Willie’s pompous demeanor, I must say that the ugly side of his attitude certainly bears a resemblance to someone I recently interacted with. (H/T to Matthew Raymer for reminding me of this poem.)

Again, I want to be careful not to bind Reformed theology – and still less all those who accept it as truth – to the personal flaws of Willie Fisher. But I do have to ask: considering their insistence that total depravity of the will, monergism, and unconditional election actually highlight our need for humility, why is it that the popular stereotype of those who are the most committed to Reformed theology as being insufferably arrogant seems to find so many matches in the real world?

My guess is that it would be hard not to let the idea of being “chosen” inflate the heads of those convinced that it applies to them. I know it would be hard for me to chalk up my own election (if I believed in such a thing) fully to divine mystery: I suspect that deep down I’d feel pride in somehow being one of those few whom God thought He could use to bring Himself glory, no matter how much my innate uselessness was necessary to qualify me. I suppose that in the end, even if I believed I had no merit going into it, that the act of divine election itself would afford me a special status in God’s economy and be a coat of many colors difficult to wear in humility. I must say, I know many very humble Reformed people, and I must applaud them for not succumbing to the temptation they face!

But the problem isn’t just with the Reformed, is it? It’s with all exclusivist Christians. Heck, it’s with all humanity. How can we avoid it?

Perhaps it’s in loving “the outsiders”, even our enemies, no less than we love ourselves. In kenosis, we forget whatever privileges we think we have and devote our very lives to making them available to others. A deep-seated, God-empowered will to love and act in love to all indiscriminately; a conscious decision on our part not to elect some and damn others, or treat anyone as though God had done so.

Gosh, it’s still a difficult balancing act, but it’s worth trying to keep in mind.


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  • AMW

    That poem is unequaled. It just toppled my previous favorite for anti-Reformed satirical lyrics.

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  • Oh how reality doth mock theory. I remember John Piper arguing passionately that unconditional election is the ultimate humbling doctrine and sort of seeing how that could be but ultimately reality reminds us: folk who hold to TULIP are generally obnoxious and repulsive (though they no doubt find us to be so too) so that my theory is this: You can SAY that election is unconditional and even WANT to believe it but there will always be the deep-rooted belief that God is actually choosing people for salvation who are somehow, in some mysterious way, better, more worth saving. Indeed I would say that the modern man CANNOT accept pure random / arbitrariness but always posits a hidden cause.

    Having said that, I will conclude that I could live with TULIP, just without the L. Indeed if salvation is all from God then why should it be limited? Paul’s apparent argument in Romans 9 that the damnation of some reveals the glory of God to the rest is a bag of baloney and I would tell Paul to his face: people are not pots to be made and smashed at will you fool! It is this passage which fired inquisitions and demeaned humanity more than any other.

  • Steve and Marc, sweeping generalities are dangerous and almost always wrong.

    “Why is it that the popular stereotype of those who are the most committed to Reformed theology as being insufferably arrogant seems to find so many matches in the real world?”

    Perhaps because there are so many insufferably arrogant people in the church in general, even among Armenians (I’m pretty sure I could find one or two). I’m willing to bet that for every well-known Reformed prig you can name, I can name a very humble one.

    “My guess is that it would be hard not to let the idea of being “chosen” inflate the heads of those convinced that it applies to them.”

    This is just not true of almost all the Reformed people I know personally. (And I know a lot.) I could just as easily speculate about Armenians and say I would think that their doctrine naturally makes them arrogant. After all, what makes the Armenian different than his non-believing neighbor who has heard just as much about Christianity as he has? Why did he choose Christ? It must have been something innately good about him. Perhaps he was smarter, or has a more sensitive heart.

    Marc, your comment that people who hold to TULIP “are generally obnoxious and repulsive” is unbecoming of you as a Christian. Such a sweeping generality is very uncharitable and very far from the truth that I have experienced in my thirty years among Reformed circles.

    • Thomas,

      I apologize for riling you up. I value your opinion and your past contributions greatly!

      The irony of your assertion that “sweeping generalities” are “almost always wrong” gave me a good chuckle. 🙂

      This is just not true of almost all the Reformed people I know personally. (And I know a lot.)

      Please note that this post is a something of a response to an earlier post of mine that fills in some details. I tried to be careful to state that it was not the average believer on the pew who was likeliest to fall subject to my critique, but “those most committed” — i.e. the Reformed apologist who rails at Arminians (note the two i’s), who glories in being elect, and who gladly takes the opportunity to remind others of the doctrine of election. As I said in the earlier post about the choir, I know a great many Reformed people who are not prideful in this way. My impression was that the other believers in the choir were themselves taken aback by the reminder of what they actually believed. The choir member I described is probably the only one in my entire Presbyterian Church who comes off that way, and even he’s generally a nice enough fellow to be around.

      I have heard the defense you mentioned several times, to the effect of, “It’s the Arminians who are the most prone to pride, because they think that their merit secures their salvation.” The point is well-made, and there have no doubt been many, both Calvinist and Arminian, who prided themselves in their holiness, whether they deemed it a sign of or a contribution to their salvation. If there is a difference between the Reformed and the non-Reformed in this, it’s that in Calvinism, God Himself is playing arbitrary favorites: if I earned as much favor with God as the next believer, I only achieved salvation the same way she did, whereas if God chose me and that guy He chose to damn (for His “glory”), I can feel genuinely privileged, as though God made me the right way to begin with. There is pride in both, I grant, but I never heard anyone in all my years in non-Reformed churches who would boast of his salvation in a way that intentionally and contentedly excluded the damned (without hope) the way that choir member did; and virtually the entire choir acceded to his triumphalistic emendation because he did it with the cover of carefully selected Scriptures. I am afraid that neither my lack of experience with this sort of hubris before coming to this church nor this experience within my short time in this church are all that unique.

      I can’t in honesty back down from my observation that this is a stereotype of Reformed leaders. I will grant that their reputation for smugness probably has less to do with their doctrine than with their learnedness, which because of an admirable emphasis on education (attracting me to the church I’m in) is often quite pronounced. But seriously, Thomas, I doubt that the stereotype of the blustering and prideful non-Calvinist (not all non-Calvinists, myself included, are Arminians) is as common a stereotype in the church or the world at large, and then we must ask the question: why? What is it about the doctrines of Calvinism that might make them sound as though they were prideful, and even in cases contribute to true haughtiness or condescension? The notion of being “the elect”, “God’s chosen people” might come into play here.

      But importantly, rest assured that I have absolutely no intention of asserting that all or even most Reformed believers are arrogant. I think you may have missed the last two paragraphs of this post! I made it clear that this is not uniquely endemic to the Reformed, but to all forms of exclusivistic Christianity — all those who view us as the special beneficiaries of God’s grace to the exclusion of others. Also importantly, this is to say nothing of the truth value of this claim, only that it is subject to pride unbecoming of believers.

  • Thomas

    Thanks for the kind reply, Steve. I hope I didn’t sound too peeved–I love my particular church family and felt like the two observations I quoted weren’t fair. I see now that you mean to exclude the layman. I’m sorry for over-reacting. There is no denying that pride is a wide-spread sin among the PCA, but I think it has less to do with predestination and more to do with its heavy emphasis on knowledge and its tightly-woven theological system. I still think your observation to be rather over-stated. Ligon Duncan, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, my own pastor Mike Campbell, and others seem to be pretty humble guys. (Not that I can’t name a few who aren’t.)

    I also wasn’t really saying that it follows from Arminian theology that many of its adherents necessarily will be arrogant, but that the same kind of argument can be made. I myself am not so sure how true a Calvinist I am these days–I embrace free will and predestination and don’t worry too much about it.

    Presbyterians like to rewrite songs to dot their theological i’s. I roll my eyes every time. I wrote a post some time ago lamenting the change of “that all may come in” to “that WE may come in” in Fanny Crosby’s (?) song “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”