The Rhetoric Of Religious Dissent

One of the more obscure causes I have a great interest in is the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians [1].  Of course, Calvinism has been the source of a great deal of jokes, and some more serious discussion, and there are more than a few Calvinists who come here not to troll but rather to determine whether to read books about free will.  Earlier today, though, a friend of mine sent me the link to a fascinating paper [2] dealing with the result of anti-Calvinist writing on the state of religious toleration in the Dutch Republic, and I would like to discuss this paper and its implications on those of us who write about religious matters in the contemporary equivalent of pamphlets, in ponderous and foreboding blog entries as this one, or magazine articles or other related means.  As someone with a deep interest in the writing of satire and other works of literature with religious and political points to make, and someone who has a personal stake in the survival within societies and institutions for candid but temperate truth telling, it is striking how relevant these studies are to contemporary life.

How does one express dissent on matters of religion in such a way that one does not end up finding exile or intolerant abuse?  The dispute over free will versus determinism, which the author of the article considers “settled” because of the way it was handled within the Dutch Reformed Church, even if it continues to rage on, is nonetheless notable in the way that the debate was carried on by writers.  Some writers chose to write witty dialogues in play form, or elegant fables where meaning is woven into layers of discreet text.  Other writers engage in libelous or at least impolite polemical conflicts where the tension and hostility escalate as each side counters the accusations of the other.  Even discussions of matters like tolerance often find themselves hijacked by discussions of other matters of contention, to the point where people seek to co-opt others, even others long dead, in contemporary arguments.  The result is a situation where people on all sides of a dispute often seek to find the worst that can be said about others, to make it as public and embarrassing as possible, and to tie people with others in such a way as to discredit their argument by ad hominem argumentation.

One sees this particularly strongly in the Arminian controversy.  Those opposed to Calvinism saw that the Dutch Reformed church had not sufficiently distinguished itself from the excesses of Calvin’s Geneva, which included the burning at the stake of innocent men more righteous than Calvin.  There were libels based on false accusations about personal behavior and the false claim that a strong stand in favor of free will on the part of believers was a step towards accepting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  Long-dead figures like Erasmus, who never in fact split from Rome, even if his witty criticism of the corruption of the late 16th and early 17th century Catholic Church set the stage for the Reformation by bringing its abuses to public light, and lowering the resulting respect of the learned lay public for corrupt ecclesiastical authorities, became used as a way of demonstrating that the ideas of Arminius were not novelties, but were in fact of longstanding status within the Dutch Reformed tradition.

In some ways, those disputes are never entirely settled.  Even if a particular institution may know peace by throwing out those who disagree with them, the battle between different views can extent for many decades, or even centuries, after the original claimants are dead.  Even where the institutions made by disputants have radically changed or even collapsed after their death, so long as their arguments survive, even in the hostile prose of their enemies, those arguments have the power to attract those who are willing to stick up for ideas form a long ago that may not have received a fair hearing in times past.  There are no new truths, but there are many cases where truth claims are decided on grounds other than truth.  Then, of course, there is our own limited abilities to understand the truth.  We feel that a subject is too important to tolerate error, but our own ability to understand and grasp absolute truth is flawed and limited, and as a result we endanger our own place in judgment by being harsh to others in areas where we need mercy for ourselves.

At times the arguments of centuries ago appear to lack a sense of relevance to our own lives, but the argument between Calvinists and Arminians to this day remains important.  To be sure, the Calvinists won the argument within the Dutch Reformed Church, and Arminians ended up finding a great deal and trouble for their defense of truth against error.  Even to this day the subject can start rhetorical warfare–I have been unfriended on social media once it became clear that I was an open Arminian, even now, four centuries after the dispute began in the Dutch Republic.  Perhaps of even more contemporary relevance, I have witnessed several political candidates for high office in the United States who lost races they should have won because their Calvinist religious beliefs led them to make statements about rape and sexual abuse that lost them decisive segments of the voting public.  To be a consistent Calvinist in the contemporary political atmosphere of the United States is to be a political loser.  This is not to endorse our contemporary political scene in the United States, which I find deeply troubling, even to the point of being abhorrent.  Rather, it is to say that old arguments never entirely die off, they simply move to a new address and are fought over again by different people in different institutions, and sometimes with different outcomes.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to The Rhetoric Of Religious Dissent

  1. Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for sharing these reflections.

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