If you’ve spent any time in the Reformed community, you have come across the term “Cage-stage Calvinist.” Essentially, a “cage-stager” is a person who has newly discovered the Doctrines of Grace and insists on telling everyone around him how right Calvinism is and how wrong everything that isn’t Calvinism is. They are so persistent and so annoying that everyone around them wishes he or she would be locked up in a cage until they stop foaming at the mouth.
But as awful as that sounds, it’s a pretty common issue with people who are new to the Reformed faith. I was a “Cage-stager” most of my freshman and sophomore years at Bible college. Just ask anybody in my class – I was known for being antagonistic and argumentative, often cornering people with manipulative questions so I could reveal the inconsistency of their views and convince them of TULIP. I’ve had to apologize to more than one person for this aggressive, intellectual elitism that was the very opposite of what the Doctrines of Grace should have been producing in me.
I’m not the only one either. Sadly, when people think of Calvinists, one of the words that often comes to their minds is “arrogant” or “argumentative.”
So what’s the deal here? Why are people who have newly discovered doctrines that teach the total inability of mankind to save himself and absolute grace of God to overcome that inability proudly declaring this knowledge like they came up with the idea themselves?
Well, I think there are a number of reasons for this discrepancy, but they all boil down to one issue: their hearts have not caught up with their heads.
Helmut Thielicke, in his excellent booklet A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, makes these remarks: “[T]heology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men truth and love are seldom combined” (37).
He says elsewhere, “There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena” (28, emphasis original). David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell summarize Thielicke’s observations on this issue succintly: “[T]he seminarian [or the new Calvinist, or the budding young theologian, or the well-studied layperson] can say a lot of things he can’t live” (How to Stay Christian in Seminary, 16, emphasis original).
If you will allow me a humorous analogy, think of the freshly Reformed Calvinist as a giraffe whose neck grows ever longer as he studies. He reads Piper and his neck stretches just a little bit. He listens to lectures from R.C. Sproul and it grows a bit more. After reading Bavinck, his neck sprouts three feet into the air! And then, he gets a copy of Calvin’s Institutes and suddenly, his head is nearly 6 feet from his chest! It might as well be in another part of the atmosphere!
In other words, the more information he picked up, the more distance he put between his head and his heart.
Now, this isn’t to say that information is bad in itself. However, the rate at which young Christians who read lots of theology (especially seminarians) gain knowledge can often create a gap between the head and the heart – between the knowledge and the action. This gap can create a great deal of inconsistency in living.
The cage-stage Calvinist preaches total depravity, but practices total arrogance. He insists on an unconditional view of election, but conditions his acceptance of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ on their understanding of Ephesians 1. He champions limited atonement, but limits his love to those who agree with his position. He harps on irresistible grace, but refuses to extend grace to those around him. He believes in the perseverance of the saints, but argues that anyone who disagrees with Saint Augustine will fail to persevere.
This is not Calvinism. This is not Reformed theology. But more importantly, this does not glorify God and this does not magnify Christ.
So, what are we to do? Stop reading the Bible? Delete all of our Podcasts? Burn all of our theology books? Are our hearts doomed to forever be distant from our heads? Are all those who ascribe to the Reformed faith destined to be heartless, arrogant intellectuals?
Here are three ways that you, as someone who embraces the Doctrines of Grace, can seek to unite your head and heart in a way that not only upholds orthodox theology, but translates those orthodox beliefs into loving, sacrificial obedience. I am indebted to Helmut Thieliecke, David Mathis, and Jonathan Parnell for much of this section.
1. Read the Bible Daily
This is non-negotiable. Whether or not you consider yourself a theologian does not have any bearing on your daily Bible reading. If you are a Christian, you should be in the Word of God daily. Not for a paper, not for a sermon, not for a devotional, not for family worship, but for yourself. Find a Bible-reading plan online and commit to following it faithfully.
2. Meditate on the Truths You Find in Scripture
Donald Whitney says that lack of meditation is the main issue most people have with their Bible reading (see his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life). When you finish your daily Bible reading, pick a verse that stood out to you and take a few moments to saturate yourself with the truths it contains. One of my favorite ways to do this is to develop a principle from the text, write it out in my journal, and then apply it to a specific area in my life. This helps bridge that gap between head and heart. Rather than just taking in information, you are spending extra time soaking up the truth of the Word. I take this method from Whitney’s book I referenced above. He lists a total of 17 ways to meditate on Scripture effectively!
I can’t recommend Whitney’s book on the spiritual disciplines enough. I’m only halfway through it and it has already been life-changing. His chapter on meditation is especially helpful. Buy it, borrow it from a friend, get it from a library – just get your hands on it and read it. And then implement it!
3. Be Quick to Repent
The more you learn about God, the more you come to grips with your own sinfulness. The gap between you and your sinfulness and God and his holiness will seem to widen every day. My father-in-law said that what you fill this gap with has a profound effect on your walk with God. Will you fill that gap with works? Or will you fill that gap with Christ’s work on the cross? When you fall to sin, do not despair. When you fail to live up to a sermon you just preached, do not give up. When you read Owen’s Mortification of Sin, do not declare yourself unsaved.
Instead, repent of your sin, turn to Christ, and embrace his forgiveness. Do not harbor secret sin. Do not assume that you are alone in your struggle. Do not hesitate to run to Christ after a failure. He is patient, loving, and merciful. Believe his Word when he says that.
4. Approach Your Academic Pursuits Devotionally
Finally, any time you approach the Word with academic intent – whether that be a paper, a project, a sermon, a devotional, or anything else of the like – approach it expecting to encounter God. Don’t assume that deep study of the Word should be devoid of devotional benefit. What you study should affect your heart. Mathis says that we should “never come to the Scriptures with anything less than a devotional approach” (How to Stay Christian in Seminary, 37).
While we will never be able to properly implement these principles 100% of the time, let us strive to inform our theological studies with these Biblical truths and allow them to be the key that unlocks the cage of our misapplied Reformed theology.
Posts have been pretty irregular around here lately, haven’t they? I’ve yet to develop a writing schedule that meshes well with my seminary/work schedule, so until then, expect 1 post a month until the end of this year. As always, I would love to interact with you either in the comment sections or on Twitter. Hit me up @1689Millennial! And don’t forget to hit that subscribe button below, you’ll get these posts delivered right to your inbox!
A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke
How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney