Archives For Calvinism

Yesterday I spoke to Dad whose 3 year old boy somehow climbed inside his truck in the Texas summer heat and couldn’t get out again. Dad was asleep taking a nap after church. Jacob was supposed to be down for a nap too.

His Dad still speaks of him in the present tense.

First, it broke my heart to hear his grief and guilt held barely at bay by the willful flat tone in his voice. Later, it pissed me off- filled me a mushroom-cloud-laying fury- to hear how the preaching and teaching of his upbringing- supposedly ‘biblical’ theology- did him damage by telling him that his little boy cooking inside his car could be chalked up to divine sovereignty.

“God has a plan” they told him.

“There’s a reason for everything.”

“Bullshit,” I told him, “a world where everything is the direct and immediate unfolding of God’s will is NOT the world as the New Testament sees it.”

For as often as we read it at funerals, we forget: the reason Paul works to reassure in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers and Principalities in the world contending against God and working to separate us from him.

Calvinists of a certain stripe often exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.

Listening to Jacob’s Dad speak of Christians telling him to see in his son’s tragic death the ‘good news’ of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle who cautioned, in so many words: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy.

Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.

Worse, the God conjured by such espousals of ‘sovereignty,’ the God who would will a little boy’s death for any reason, eternal or otherwise, is, quite simply, evil.

Evil is not good just because God is supposedly the One doing it.

Better to say- God cannot do evil exactly because God is good.

The ancient Christians believed that not even God- who is goodness itself- can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free and sovereign, then, is NOT for God to do whatever God wills. For God to be free and sovereign is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Those who claim “God has a reason for______” suppose that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character. If God wants to will the death of a little boy trapped inside a hot car, then God has the freedom to will Jacob’s death, no matter how inscrutable and unnecessary his death seems to us.

To which I say as I said to Jacob’s Dad: bullshit.

Jacob’s Dad asked for book suggestions. What theologians could he read to find a different God than the god who supposedly willed his family guilt and grief for the shits and giggles some call ‘sovereignty.’

I told Jacob’s Dad about my teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart.

In his little book The Doors of the Sea DBH recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.

Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike too many of the Christians Jacob’s Dad encountered along the way, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.

As Hart writes:

“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”

“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

In other words,

if there is indeed a reason for everything,

if there is a reason for why Jacob was lost to his Dad and his Mom,

then there is no reason to worship God.

Not because God does not exist

but because he is not worthy of our worship.

I asked Jacob’s Dad what he wanted to hear God say to him when he arrived in heaven. He paused, hedging against the hint of sacrilege, and said “I’m sorry.” Far from sacrilege, it struck me as the most faithful of responses.
Jacob’s Dad, Jason, wrote a book about his loss. You can find it here.
Look for our podcast with him soon.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909For Episode 34 of our Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast I got to sit down with my former teacher and ongoing muse and man crush Dr. David Bentley Hart. Anyone who’s spent any time here at Tamed Cynic will already know DBH’s name and his influence upon me. He was my first theology professor at the University of Virginia, coming not long after I became a Christian. As such, he had a lasting imprint upon my faith and thought.

David Bentley Hart may well prove one day to have been the most significant theologian of the 21st century. He is the author of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, Atheist Delusions: Christianity and Its Fashionable Enemies, and The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. You can find all his books, including his work of fiction here.

You can find a short Wall Street Journal essay that served as the genesis for The Doors of the Sea. It’s a great starting point into DBH for newbies and laity.

And, as you’ll hear, he’s just translated the New Testament for Yale University Press.

With his famous dog Roland at his feet, DBH discusses the Church’s loss of classical theism, the (evil) God most Christians worship, the logical incoherence of Process Theology, Hell, Christian Freedom, Reformed (mis)translations of Scripture, and his own personal suffering.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Rob Bell and others.

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For those of you getting this post by email, here’s the link to the podcast for you to cut and paste:

http://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-34-all-creation-afire-as-a-burni

 

 

 

 

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

 

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine. For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

And since Reformation Day is upon us, I thought I’d offer you some DBH quotes on the ‘Protest’ that continues to sever Christ’s Church.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

The first cut is the deepest. Here, DBH lays the fault of contemporary atheism and the rise of the ‘Nones’ squarely at the feet of Protestantism, in particular the Calvinist god it unleashed.

1.

“In detaching God’s freedom from God’s nature as Goodness, Truth, and Charity — as this theology necessarily, if not always intentionally did — Christian thought laid the foundations for many of those later revolutions in philosophy and morality that would help to produce the post-Christian order. It was inevitable after all, that the object of the voluntarist model of freedom would migrate from the divine to the human will, and that a world evacuated of its ontological continuity with God’s goodness would ultimately find no place for God within itself. And, in early modernity, when the new God of infinite and absolute will had to a very great degree displaced the true God from men’s minds, the new technology of print assured that all Christians would make the acquaintance of this impostor, and through him come to understand true liberty as a personal sovereignty transcending even the dictates and constraints of nature.

Moreover — more crucially — the God thus produced was monstrous: an abyss of pure, predestining omnipotence, whose majesty was revealed at once in his unmerited mercy towards the elect and his righteous wrath against the derelict.

And he was to be found in the theologies of almost every Protestant school: not only Jansenism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism).

That modern Western humanity came in large measure to refuse to believe in or worship such a God was ineluctable, and in some sense extremely commendable (no one, after all, can be faulted for preferring atheism to Calvinism.”

Here, DBH points out that in an attempt to be more biblical, respecting the 1st commandment and stripping the Medieval altars, the Reformation violated that most basic of implications of the 1st commandment: God is not a god within the universe.

2.

“The [Protestant] mysticism of bare and unadorned worship (which idolatrously mistakes God for some object within the universe that can be lost among other objects), and other tendencies to imagine the soul is purified by being extracted from the life of the senses or that God is glorified by the inanition of the world…

such thinking offends simply by being unbiblical, insufficiently chastened or inspired by the doctrine of the incarnation.

It’s unable to grasp that the trinitarian God is already full of fellowship, joy and glory, and requires no sacrifice of worldly love- the world adds nothing to God.”

And now for a definition:

Analogy of Being =

{The analogy of being presupposes that there is a similarity between God and his creatures. God of course does not exist as his creatures exist. He is infinite, eternal, and non-contingent. Nevertheless, he can be said to exist, as can his creatures even if there existence is profoundly different. Hence there is an analogy of being existing between them. Moreover, God’s attributes (wisdom, power, goodness, etc.)though infinite and eternal, can be observed as existing in analogous manner in creatures who also possess them. There is a similarity with a still greater dissimilarity between God’s reality and his creatures. Such a claim about God allowed the ancient Church Fathers to claim that their statements about God’s nature were realistically true, while at the same time allowing for divine mystery. The rejection of the analogy of being has been one of the chief tenets of Protestant Christianity.}

 

Let the quotes resume…

3.

“The rejection of the analogy of being has the very effect so dreaded: it reduces God to the status of a mere being, in some sense on a level with us. To state the matter simply, the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of ‘being,’ but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures.

Apart from the analogy of being, the very concept of revelation is a contradiction.

Only insofar as creaturely being is analogous to divine being and proper to God’s nature, can God show himself as God, rather than in alienation to himself; there would be no revelation otherwise, only legislation.”

 

Because I love Karl Barth, I love this quote. DBH, like Barth before him, is not afraid to throw some elbows.

 

4.

“If rejection of the analogy of being were in some sense the very core of Protestant theology, as Karl Barth believed, one would still be obliged to observe that it is also the invention of antichrist, and so would have to be accounted the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant..

All things in creation- all the words of being- speak of God because they shine within his eternal Word.

Calvinism: Old Debate, New Day

Jason Micheli —  September 19, 2014 — 1 Comment

CalvinismDebate_BannerTo prove that I’m not completely a narcissist- or that I’m at least sufficiently self-aware to pretend that I’m not a narcissist- I thought I would offer you a few nuggets from others that have come my way and proved fruitful for my own reflection:

Brian Zahnd is a pastor, author and blogger who, like me, has been deeply influenced by David Bentley Hart and the work of the early Church Fathers and Mothers. Brian recently represented what I’d call the ancient view of God and the atonement in a debate with Calvinists sponsored by Christianity Todayzahnd-photo

Don’t let the Calvinists’ propensity to machine-gun scripture citations fool you into thinking they’re making an argument, and don’t let it fool you into missing how deeply biblical Brian’s argument is itself.

The videos are long and, if you’re a theology nerd, that’s wonderful. Listen while you make dinner.

 

 

 

imagesIs it because we have no TULIP of our own?

I wonder after reading this article in the NY Times about the Neo-Calvinist revival. I have my hunches. You?

Here’s the article:

For those who are sad that the year-end news quizzes are past, here’s one to start 2014: If you have joined a church that preaches a Tulip theology, does that mean a) the pastor bakes flowers into the communion wafers, b) the pastor believes that flowers that rise again every spring symbolize the resurrection, or c) the pastor is a Calvinist?

As an increasing number of Christians know, the answer is “c.” The acronym summarizes John Calvin’s so-called doctrines of grace, with their emphasis on sinfulness and predestination. The T is for man’s Total Depravity. The U is for Unconditional Election, which means that God has already decided who will be saved, without regard to any condition in them, or anything they can do to earn their salvation.

The acronym gets no cheerier from there.

Evangelicalism is in the midst of a Calvinist revival. Increasing numbers of preachers and professors teach the views of the 16th-century French reformer. Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Tim Keller — megachurch preachers and important evangelical authors — are all Calvinist. Attendance at Calvin-influenced worship conferences and churches is up, particularly among worshipers in their 20s and 30s.

In the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the rise of Calvinism has provoked discord. In a 2012 poll of 1,066 Southern Baptist pastors conducted by LifeWay Research, a nonprofit group associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, 30 percent considered their churches Calvinist — while twice as many were concerned “about the impact of Calvinism.”

Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist.

But in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism, and at churches that used to worry little about theology. In 1994, when Mark Dever interviewed at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Washington, the hiring committee didn’t even ask him about his theology.

“So I said, ‘Let me think about what you wouldn’t like about me, if you knew,’ ” Mr. Dever recalled. And he told them that he was a Calvinist. “And I had to explain to them what that meant. I didn’t want to move my wife and children here and lose the job.”

Mr. Dever, 53, said that when he took over in 1994, about 130 members attended on Sundays, and their average age was 70. Today, the church gets about 1,000 worshipers, with an average age of 30. And while Mr. Dever tends not to mention Calvin in his sermons, his educated audience, many of whom work in politics, knows, and likes, what it is hearing.

“I think it is apparent in his teaching,” said Sarah Rotman, 34, who works for the World Bank. “The real focus on Scripture, and that all the answers we seek in this life can be found in the word of God. In a lot of his preaching, he does really talk about our sinfulness and our need of the Savior.”

That focus on sinfulness differs from a lot of popular evangelicalism in recent years. It runs contrary to the “prosperity gospel” preachers, who imply that faith can make one rich. It sounds nothing like the feel-good affirmations of preachers and authors like Joel Osteen, who treat the Bible like a self-help book, or a guide to better business.

“What you’d be hearing in some megachurches is, ‘God wants you to be a good parent, and here are seven ways God can help you to be a good parent,’ ” said Collin Hansen, the author of “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists.” “Or, ‘God wants you to have a good marriage, so here are three ways to do that.’ ” By contrast, Mr. Hansen said, those who attend Calvinist churches want the preacher to “tell them about Jesus.”

Some non-Calvinists say that the rise of Calvinism has been accomplished in part through sneaky methods. Roger E. Olson, a Baylor University professor and the author of “Against Calvinism,” is the Calvinists’ most outspoken critic.

“One of the concerns is that new graduates from certain Baptist seminaries have been infiltrating churches that are not Calvinist, and not telling the churches or search committees who are not Calvinist,” Professor Olson said. According to what he has heard, young preachers “wait several months and then begin to stock the church library with books” by Calvinists like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. They hold special classes on Calvinist topics, he said, and they staff the church with fellow Calvinists.

“Often the church ends up splitting, with the non-Calvinists starting their own church,” Professor Olson said.

At its annual meeting in June, the Southern Baptist Convention received a report from its special Calvinism Advisory Committee, which addressed charges both of anti-Calvinist prejudice within the denomination and of unfair dealing by Calvinists.

“We should expect all candidates for ministry positions in the local church to be fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine,” the report read.

While many neo-Calvinists shy away from politics, they generally take conservative positions on Scripture and on social issues. Many don’t believe that women should be ministers or elders. But Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, said that Calvin’s influence was not limited to conservatives.

Liberal Christians, including some Congregationalists and liberal Presbyterians, may just take up other aspects of Calvin’s teachings, Dr. Jones said. She mentioned Calvin’s belief that “civic engagement is the main form of obedience to God.” She added that, unlike many of today’s conservatives, “Calvin did not read Scripture literally.” Often Calvin “is misquoting it, and he makes up Scripture passages that don’t exist.”

Brad Vermurlen, a Notre Dame graduate student writing a dissertation on the new Calvinists, said that the rise of Calvinism was real, but that the hoopla might level off.

“Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the ‘emergent church,’ ” Mr. Vermurlen said. “And five years ago, people were talking about the ‘missional church.’ And now ‘new Calvinism.’ I don’t want to say the new Calvinism is a fad, but I’m wondering if this is one of those things American evangelicals want to talk about for five years, and then they’ll go on living their lives and planting their churches. Or is this something we’ll see 10 or 20 years from now?”

1101480308_400This week we continue our sermon series through Romans by taking a look at Romans 3.9-20, a passage with an important place in Protestant history.

Paul’s insistence in 3.9 that ‘no one is righteous, not one,’ a phrase that hearkens back to Genesis 18 and the story of Sodom, has been the cornerstone of the Calvinist doctrine of ‘Total Depravity.’ It’s the ‘T’ in Tulip acrostic of Calvinist theology.

Total Depravity holds that because we’re all under the power of sin every act and aspect of our lives is compromised by sin.

Even are good deeds are ‘like filthy rags’ because ultimately they’re motivated not by a desire to serve God or neighbor but to justify our own selves.

I’ve never been able to swallow total depravity hook, line and sinker. It’s always struck me as a doctrinal answer in search of a theological problem- a problem I don’t necessarily agree Paul was primarily addressing.

The notion of total depravity made me remember this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, a liberal theologian from the 20th century and one I’m not normally given to quoting in any positive way (save the title of this blog):

“Man loves himself inordinately. Since his determinate existence does not deserve the devotion lavished upon it, it is obviously necessary to practice some deception in order to justify such excessive devotion.  While such deception is constantly directed against competing wills,seeking to secure their acceptance and validation of the self’s too generous opinion of itself, its primary purpose is to deceive, not others, but the self. 

The self must at any rate deceive itself first.  Its deception of others is partly an effort to convince itself against itself. 

The fact that this necessity exists is an important indication of the vestige of truth which abides with the self in all its confusion and which it must placate before it can act. 

The dishonesty of man is thus an interesting refutation of the doctrine of man’s total depravity.”

Niebuhr’s point is that our self-deception itself presupposes that somewhere deep down within us we know that we’re not living out who we were created to be and that we disobey God.  Even if this is only on the subconscious level it undermines the notion that we’re completely depraved in the Calvinist sense. It also suggests, contra Calvinism, that non-Christians as creatures of God still live their lives imbued with the grace of the imago dei.

Our guilty conscience, then, might be the best sign we have for hope.