The last of Steven Anderson’s reasons for hating Calvinism is Calvinism’s effervescent debate culture. Apparently, Calvinists love to debate. I largely agree that this is an accurate stereotype, and I do agree that it can become toxic. Calvinists have a word that describes the phase that many go through shortly after becoming a Calvinist. They call it the “cage-stage.” Apparently, the name derives from Calvinists you need to keep locked in a cage for a while due to the fact that they so aggressively go after non-calvinists.
I have been cage-stage, and I see it a lot. I do think there is some truth to Anderson’s charge. So many Christians grow up in non-reformed traditions that when they are finally exposed to the doctrines of grace known as Calvinism, they often respond viscerally. It’s almost as if they feel they’ve been lied to their entire lives. Sometimes they respond from pure excitement, as they now see something so plainly which they never noticed before, and want others to share in that joy. Either way, it is not uncommon for Calvinists, especially recent converts, to be extremely argumentative, and to be on the prowl, looking for a non-calvinist to devour. The good news is that it does seem that mature Calvinists recognize this fault and attempt to teach the younger ones grace and maturity, and it also seems like prominent Calvinists do attempt to use their platforms for policing the ranks.
However, none of these admissions are. an indication that there is no room for healthy, biblical debate. As we will see in a moment, the Scriptures are abundantly clear there is. Also, Anderson does not appear to be limiting his criticism to cage-stage, adolescent, internet Calvinists. He seems to also have mature men who have challenged him to moderated, public debates in his cross-hairs as well.
So, what does the Bible say about debating?
Paul the Debater
Beginning with the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:1-3 is a good place to start.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women (emphasis mine).
Not only does Paul debate with large crowds of Jews, reasoning about the Bible with them, proving things to them, persuading them, but Luke also tells us this was Paul’s “custom.” This was not a one time event; it was not a slip-up. This was Paul’s ministry. It was habitual and intentional. Paul loved to debate. You could even call it a “culture.”
And it was not only with the Jews that Paul was happy to debate. Likewise, he was willing to debate Gentiles who showed up as well. Acts 17:16-17,
Now while Paul was waiting for [the brothers] at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there (emphasis mine).
Pastors as Debaters
Not only did Paul set the example of debate, he outright prescribed it for his fellow elders. Hear how Paul commands pastors to rebuke false teachers in Titus 1:10-11,
For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.
How is a pastor supposed to shut the mouths of deceitful teachers? This can be done apart from a debate, but it certainly includes debating.
Apollos the Debater
Paul not only debated, and commanded debate, but at least one of his companions took after Paul. We see this in Apollos according to Acts 18:27-28,
… When [Apollos] arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus (emphasis mine).
Apollos is praised for his debate skills among the Jews. Unlike Anderson, the Bible does not describe his actions here as being a mere “pissing-contest.”
Jude Prescribes Contention
When Anderson regularly reminds his audience that the Scriptures call us to avoid being contentious, refusing to qualify that appropriately, he has created an artificial biblical contradiction. While Paul called his pastors to debate, Jude calls even the laity to engage in the practice. Jude 3 commands us to be “contentious,” even from the only English translation that Anderson accepts,
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints (emphasis mine).
We are supposed to be contentious; we are called to contend for the faith. This is debate.
Jesus the Debater
If you are not yet convinced by Paul, Apollos, and Jude, please consider that our Lord Jesus Christ, God in flesh, was no stranger to public debate. Matthew 21:23-27
And when [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Jesus here not only entertains the Pharisees’ question, but He proceeds to obliterate them in what is clearly a public debate. The question Jesus asked was what some call a “gotcha” question. It was not sincere; it was not simply to understand the Pharisees better; Jesus was not ascertaining information; Jesus was intentionally trying to stump them (and He succeeded).
Jesus’ response to their admission is even more debate-like. Do not apply a pious gloss to His “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” If you don’t laugh when you read that, you read it wrong. This is scathing, and funny. Jesus is mocking them.
I one time preached a sermon on Matthew 22 where Jesus debated and stumped the Sadducees and Pharisees again. Our Lord and Savior was not opposed to debate; in fact, His debates are often showcased throughout His ministry.
Who Were These Men Talking to?
All of these examples become more injurious to Anderson after he defines more precisely what he means by a debate or an argument. While responding to foreseen criticism that he himself is argumentative, Anderson says,
“[L]ast time I checked preaching is not an argument because there is only one person talking; who am I arguing with right now? wouldn’t it take two people to have an argument right now? Who am I arguing with? There’s one person preaching!”
Although I think the nature of what he does is very apologetic/polemical, and could very well be called argumentative, I am willing to grant his definition that a debate requires more than one person interacting live. I do so because it further embarrasses his position. After all, go back and reread the examples from Paul and Jesus and Apollos above. They were not preaching. They were face to face with others. There was; in fact, at least two people. By Anderson’s own conclusions, they were all engaged in sinful contention.
Anderson did quote many passages which discourage a kind of debate and contention. No one is denying their presence in the Bible. Let me prove my point by quoting one of them
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain (1 Timothy 6:3-5).
Throughout the Old and New Testament, the Bible commands Christians to avoid foolish, pointless, debate which often breed strife, controversy, and other sins. However, the job of the Christian exegete is to harmonize texts. This is a problem for Anderson in more than one way. Anderson loves to scream Bible verses without contextualizing or harmonizing them. The fact of the matter is we know these verses cannot mean what Anderson claims-that fairly regular debate is sinful-because Jesus debated fairly regularly. Anderson makes no attempt to harmonize, which means he is not actually interested in what the Bible says. Rather, he is interested more so in dissuading people from a particular theological tradition. This, among many other examples, is why Anderson actually fits the bill of 1 Timothy 6:3-5.
Is Calvinism the Culprit?
Among the amateur E-pologists patrolling the internet looking for scrums is a good deal of non-Calvinists. As he did already, Anderson has once again blamed Calvinism for something not unique to Calvinism.
Any Christian that has a love for theological accuracy enjoys debating Scripture. Entire debate groups on Facebook exist where non-calvinists engage fervently in debate with Calvinists and others regularly. It seems that debate obsession is more linked to people who are convinced they know what the truth is and feel competent to articulate why, and less with one soteriological outlook. For a more specific example, what I hinted at earlier I will say explicitly now: Steven Anderson is extremely argumentative.
As it stands, the 1st century Christian faith was established on rigorous apologetics. It was a faith unafraid to challenge and destroy the religions of man. To this day, it stands on the shoulders of men like Paul, Apollos, and of course, the Lord Jesus Himself, as they boldly confronted people in their culture with truth, love, and argumentation. These men engaged in aggressive evangelism and public discourse. And if Calvinism must take on the reputation of producing the kinds of Christians who continue that tradition, we will wear the badge proudly.
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20)