Is John Calvin’s God Capable of Love?

After sitting dusty on my shelf ever since I bought it, I decided several weeks ago to crack open Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’ve been questioning my Calvinist upbringing for some time, mostly because I didn’t feel like I ever owned it. I was trained Reformed: Presbyterian church (PCA of course), Presbyterian college (Reformed Presbyterian, which even the PCA thinks is too stodgy). Mom and dad had RC Sproul on the radio and Tabletalk on the bookshelf. So I was thoroughly baptized in Calvinism and had been taught it exhaustively, even though I never really studied it per se. I had read plenty of Calvinists, but never Calvin. I decided to change that.

I now believe that if more Calvinists read Calvin, and not just other Calvinists, there would be fewer Calvinists.

Before I go on I’ll say that this is not a book review, a scholarly article, or even all that well thought out. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the Institutes, so I would expect that many will read this and respond to my objections pointing out that I don’t know all the facts. You’re absolutely right – I don’t. This is more my reaction as I encounter Calvin and Calvinism directly in the moment. It’s part of the process. I’m not going to bash him as a person, but I do have serious questions about his theology and reasoning(which God foreordained me to have before the beginning of time for the purpose of manifesting His glory, hallelujah). I’ll have more of these I’m sure in the future.

Is Calvin’s God capable of love?

As I read the Institutes I encountered a discussion of God based primarily in terms of will. It is God’s will that maintains the universe, that seeks his own glory, that creates and destroys, that is providentially manifest in every action and reaction from the cosmic to the subatomic. The answer to why God governs all these things has to do with manifesting God’s own glory and purpose according to Calvin. There is, at least so far in my reading, no mention of God’s love for what he has created, though. Continue reading

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Keep your friends close, and your “-ism”s closer

yes, that's Geneva in the background

I’m trying to work on a new post on Calvinism and having a bit of a hard time, so I thought I’d take a break.

I grew up Calvinist but only because that was the only pool I could swim in at the time. During and after seminary I questioned things more but still held on to a lot of it. Now I’m investigating the other side of the fence – that would be the more Arminian traditions including the Anabaptists – and even the contemplative Catholics like Thomas Merton. All of this has been great, and disturbing at the same time. Continue reading

Ideology and prejudice: when does free speech become hate speech?

I’ve noted, as you probably have as well, that civil discourse in this country especially around political issues is almost impossible to find on the Internet. Here’s a sample from some comments on a recent article on Salon.com:

“Rot in hell authoritarian scum.”

“Authoritarian progressives are the worst sort of humanity”

“You right-wingers are the most despicable cowards on the planet.”

“you gun freaks need to sit down and STFU you are a dumb ass”

This is only a fraction of the over 500 comments on the article. Sure not all were this blatantly abusive, but spread this vitriol over the entire internet and you can see how bad things are. Continue reading

Works and Grace

This morning I was having breakfast and skimming through the latest Christian book catalog that came through our mail when my son noticed the title of one of the books was on learning to “pray better”.  He asked, “How do you pray better?  Don’t we pray good enough already?”

I think this question goes to the heart of a lot of the problems we face as Christians, and maybe especially as Americans.  We have such a tendency to find ourselves, no matter how much we talk about grace, looking at our faith as a matter of how much effort we put in to it.  Sometimes that work is actual “work” – penance, good deeds, giving financially or of time. All these things in themselves are good, but we can easily fall into the trap of seeing these things as preliminaries and prerequisites for God’s grace to happen.

The Protestant mourns for his fellow Catholic brother, whom he sees as “works based” regarding salvation. Yet Protestants are just as trapped by the need to “do more” and “do better”. A glimpse through any Christian book catalog or bookstore shelf of popular Christian “inspiration” will prove my point. So much seems to be about doing more, doing better, gaining and striving. I think this comes out also in theology with the insistence that one’s theology be “right”. I remember growing up that faith wasn’t just about knowing Jesus, but knowing Calvin. You had to know the right things in the right way – not just Biblical truth but the correct interpretation of Biblical truth.

This, I think, is just another form of works. Grace is something we accept without any merit on our part, and to make that grace beholden to anything we do (and I think belief can be a form of works as well) negates that.

Can I pray better, read more, give more? Surely. I stink at all of these. But I gave up worrying for Lent.

What are You Fasting From?

Ok, maybe my grammar is a bit sketchy title-wise, but I like it.

I never fasted in my life, save for bloodwork or the occasional operation. Most of this came from my Presbyterian/Calvinist upbringing, which saw fasting as something a bit too “Catholic”, which is code for works-oriented. It was spiritually good but unnecessary at best, idolatrous at worst. Lent tends to be interesting at times because, as I’m the hospice chaplain in a secular company, I’m seen by some as this pillar of sacredness. Especially by our Catholic staff. It freaks them out when on a Lenten Friday I pull out a ham sandwich and dig in. It has provided some opportunites to teach what I know about grace and works.

But I’m rethinking things a little this year. Not so much about abstaining from food or drink or whatever. I understand why fasting from things that are pleasurable is supposed to connect us with the suffering of Christ. However there have been plenty of folks who, rather than fast from something, try to increase the good that they do. I think that’s a good way of looking at things and not quite so self-centered. But I was thinking today that if I’m going to fast, I’d rather fast from the things that pollute my life…worry, fear, self criticism. Life without chocolate only promotes misery and desire. But life without worry for 40 days? Hallelujah! What would it be like to not be afraid for 40 days, or critical of myself or others, or anxious? What can be more enriching and spiritual than that?

So I’m going to fast from worry. What are you fasting from?

The Message vs. The Medium

Tucked into a relatively interesting email by The Gospel Coalition on the “death of postmodernism” was a piece promoting a New England church planting effort.  No big deal I thought, but then I read on:

Amusing Our Church to Death

The church-growth movement has bought into the entertainment paradigm with catastrophic results. The unfathomable riches of God’s wisdom in Christ just cannot be plumbed by video clips and sermons on loneliness. The Christian message—salvation for hell-deserving sinners through Christ’s death and resurrection by faith alone—has been subjugated to the entertainment paradigm and predictably distorted, truncated, and even lost altogether. As a result, the church has become increasingly ignorant of its faith and, not surprisingly, increasingly confused about its mission.

This gospel distortion has spread with mind-numbing speed, resulting in a near wholesale return to the liberal church mission of the early nineteenth century. Rob Bell now wants to “save Christians” from a heavenly fixation by having them focus on the here and now.

And many have done just that. Churches have allowed the medium to dilute the message to the detriment of the mission.

The Medium for the Message

Christianity is all about proclaiming the message of the gospel. So what is a fitting medium? The message actually contains the medium God has endorsed—the Word. In the beginning was the Word, and in these last times, God has spoken to us by that Word, his Son.

The Bible is the inscripturation of that Word. These 66 canonical books are the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This we proclaim, as it was given and in its entirety. The message is the Word of the gospel, and that Word is the medium.

I see some problems with these arguments – glaring ones.  First off, I would agree that the church growth movement has some big warts at times.  Continue reading

Doctrine

I grew up so much in an religious environment where orthodoxy – not “O” like the church, but literally “saying the right thing” – was so important.  Knowledge of doctrine was pressed on us as much as knowlege of scripture.  Calvin may as well have been the 5th apostle.  And even when it came to scripture, we looked at it through the lens of doctrine.

I’m seeing now that I’m not nearly as focused or as interested in doctrine as I have been in the past.  That’s not to say that I’m not interested in doctrine, or that I think doctrine doesn’t matter.  But I do think that doctrine, arguments over doctrine, and pragmataic orthodoxy have had too much weight in the conservative churches.

Full disclosure for a minute: I grew up Presbyterian, first within the PCUSA but mostly within the Presbyterian Church in America, it’s stricter fundamentalist stepchild.  My pastor for most of that time would mention pornography and “filthy lucre” every sermon regardless of topic or scripture passage.  The youth group had a running bet on this.  The pastor read from King James only, even though the pew bibles were NIV.  The lecture we got on the evils of rock music included Dio and Iron Maiden but Neil Diamond.

Anyway my church focused so much on doctrine – on knowing what was right doctrine (i.e. Calvinism) and why other doctrines (i.e. Arminianism) were wrong – that I think the gospel got lost.  It started to become about comparing ourselves to other Christians and not being in error.

As I’ve become familiar with the breadth of experience in other Christian traditions, and come to understand some of the doctrines behind them, I’ve started to not really care so much about being right.  There’s a lot of “right” in my tradition, but there is also a lot of “right” in other traditions that can inform my own faith and walk.  In the same way, there are “wrongs” in some traditions, but I also need to look critically at my own beliefs as well and be willing to change.

Also, I’ve seen that focusing so much on being right can really stunt your walk.  After all, if you’re right, you only have to worry about maintaining the status quo, where you are.  But you don’t grow!  And if you’re not growing…

Experience

I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Jer 31:33

It’s relatively easy to accumulate knowledge if you put your mind to it.  I went through a spell of having 5 or 6 college courses on CD in my car at any time, on topics from Greek philosophy to “great Christians of the world”.  I called it Buick University, home of the fighting Taupes.

But I realized that most of this seeking after more and more knowledge was less helpful than I thought.  I knew much more than I did, for sure.  And that knowledge influences me in lots of ways.  However I started to see it as my own attempt not just to “better myself”, but to prove myself to myself.

I think my tradition (Calvinism) pushes this head knowlege a lot.  There is so much focus on doctrine, on saying the right thing and doing the right thing.  I remember hearing about arguments behind the scenes at church concerning the music not being as doctrinally sound as it should be!  And more arguments today about modern praise music being too “easy” or doctrinal.  Surprising, seeing that a lot of praise music is lifted literally from scripture.

I’m trying to move less into my head and into my heart.  I can know a lot, but if I don’t know God all that other knowlege just puffs me up or, even worse, distracts me from Him.  It’s easier to know Calvin or Merton or – gasp – Pau and Moses l than it is to experience God.

On Textual Criticism

During a brief lull in my day I peroused the news wires and found an op-ed piece by Bart Ehrman on the Huffington Post concerning biblical authorship.

Ehrman follows the academic tradition of viewing the biblical texts through the lens of textual and historical criticism.  That is to say, he doesn’t take anything the bible says at face value.  While I studied biblical criticism in seminary, I can’t say that I understand it completely.  However what I can say is that even what I do understand doens’t make sense all the time, at least to my logic and reasoning.

Textual criticism holds that most of the bible is at best a “pious fraud” or at worst, according to Ehrman, outright lies.  In his article Ehrman focuses in on the idea that only “the most rabid fundamentalists among us” still regard the bible as literally true and free from error, and goes on to say that significant parts of the scriptures are outright fabrications.  He focuses in on the latter half of the NT primarily, namely 1 & 2 Peter, and Paul’s letters.

Without going in to much detail as to why these letters are regarded as inauthentic (Ehrman doesn’t either), here’s the thinking: if you compare letters to each other there should be more similarities than differences.  Some letters are pretty certain to have come from Paul, others not so much.  So if we compare those that we aren’t sure about to those that we are sure about, they should be similar in style and composition.  If not, one is probably inauthentic.  Note that this is a very cheap-and-dirty version of the hypothesis here.  Letters like 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are probably not Pauline because they are so different from his other letters in form, thought, and theology so he couldn’t have written them.

However, here’s my own thinking on the matter.

Take a paper that I wrote in the beginning of my Systematic Theology class and compare it to one that I wrote (or maybe I did) at the end.  Will they be similar?  Yes, but how much so?  Thinking, wordage, form and maybe even structure will all be different.  There may even be inconsistencies from one to another.  Why?  Because I was a different person at point A than I was at point B.  That, I think, is a huge problem with this theory of criticism: it requires that people be consistent over sometimes long periods of time based on a very small sample size.  It seems like a lot to hang on a big assumption, and I don’t find the assumption to be necessarily valid.

Also, if the texts are not authentic, why are details like Paul’s urging Timothy to stay in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3) and to bring him a cloak that he left in Troas (2 Tim 4:13) included?  If I’m writing a pseudonymous letter, I would want to avoid such details as much as possible, because they can easily be refuted (I can see Timothy arriving in Troas – “A cloak? Paul who?”).

Are there problems in scripture?  Sure.  But I, along with the majority of my non-rabid Evangelical friends and comrades would suggest that these problems negate the message.  If Mark wasn’t written by Mark, does that mean it’s a complete lie?

Again, I’m not even trying to make this a complete refutation of textual criticism, Ehrman, or anything else.  This is more just me talking out loud than anything.  Take it at face value.  Who knows – maybe I didn’t even write this!