Why a Blog about Calvinism?
Today I learned – much after the fact – that Derek Webb no longer identifies as a Christian. This has some emotional significance for me, as I have been a follower of Caedmon’s Call (in which he played), and of his more recent solo musical projects.
Instead of discussing what it feels like to have a musical hero of yours lose his faith, I instead want to reflect here on Calvinism. The video in which I learned this discusses – or rather proposes – a relationship between Calvinism and atheism. Webb seems to be rejecting a thoroughly Calvinistic Christianity, as he understands it.
It is the understanding of Calvinism that I wish to dare to discuss below. My aim is to avoid academic jargon and to express the gist of what Calvinism is about, and to do so in a way that expresses Calvinism in what I believe to be it’s best form, whilst also hoping to show extremes that can arise along the way. I will use the long-established, and much-debated acronym T.U.L.I.P. as a framework.
What I hope to show is that, in its best form, Calvinism – like Scripture – aims to showcase the God of Grace as the ultimate agent at work in Salvation. This aim can be expressed in ways that perhaps do not show the emphasis that Scripture also puts on human participation with God. Likewise, rebuttals of Calvinism aim to recover a proper sense of human freedom and responsibility within God’s plan. In so doing, perhaps God’s ultimate sovereignty can be obscured to lesser or greater degrees. A simple, clear reading of Calvinism may be difficult, so wish me luck!
T – Total Depravity
The total depravity of humanity is about the devastating scope of the damage that Evil and Sin have done in humans. Few would try to deny that humans have their defects, but the key idea here is seen in the word ‘total’. Human failure goes all the way down, from head to toe. This doctrine is a way of resisting the idea that there is a basic, perhaps hidden, part of us that is untouched and good. And more to the point, that this part of us makes us worthy enough to deserve salvation, because God ‘owes’ it to us.
You can easily see how a doctrine like this can be – and has been! – taken to extremes. The doctrine itself aims at correcting the extreme of an overly positive view of human nature, and all corrections can become over-corrections. Scripture often says two things that need to be held in tension, rather than having to choose between them. On this topic, Scripture portrays human nature in both its positive and negative expressions. One scholar described this picture of humans as being simultaneously “resplendent with glory and awash in shame”.
In my own experience, this doctrine is helpful to keep me humble. And I have found that it is unhelpful or even dangerous to split myself too neatly into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts of myself. As I see it, even the parts of myself I thought were ‘good’ are tainted by selfishness, insecurity and pride. This doesn’t negate positive traits like intelligence, gifting or anything else, it just means that all of me, from head to toe, needs help from outside myself. The good news of salvation is not about me being smart enough to sort myself out, but about God being loving enough.
U – Unconditional Election
The unconditional election of God’s people is trying to say two things at least: one, that God has ‘elected’ or ‘chosen’ people, and two, that this ‘election’ or ‘choice’ flows entirely from his own graceful, merciful and loving wisdom, rather than a choice that is based on some quality that those people had, or didn’t have.
The very notion of ‘choosing’ or ‘electing’ some people is unpopular as it implies that the rest are not chosen, and thus have no fair chance at becoming one of God’s people. But the point being made here, and by Scripture as I understand it, is not that being chosen is to be contrasted with being ‘not chosen’, but rather that ‘election’ is to be contrasted with ‘selection’. God’s choice is free. It is free of influence from anything other than God’s own just, loving and gracious nature. Thus ‘election’ is not ‘selection’, as though God’s choice amounts to a choosy selecting of the ‘best ones’.
There are Bible verses that seem to say two things here. Some seem to show humans as choosing God, others depict God choosing humans. Again, rather than choose one or the other, I think the point is that both dynamics are at work. The point that Calvinism is making here – and it does square with Scripture as I understand it – is that God takes the initiative, not us.
L – Limited Atonement
The limited atonement of Christ is, again, focused on God as the active agent of salvation. The Church here is pictured as a bride which Christ pursued and died for. It is purposeful and intentional, rather than accidental or random.
Again, this has been taken to imply that God never cared to save people outside the Church, an idea that would not square with all of Scripture. God’s desire is for all, and Christ’s sacrifice was ‘unlimited’ in the sense of being enough for all. The language of ‘limited’ has to do with the specificity of those who end up benefiting from that sacrifice.
This is a point of doctrine that I think is best expressed at a very simple level. Too much word-play seems to over-complicate the simplicity of what is being said here. God took a people to be God’s very own, and this was ultimately accomplished through the atoning work of Christ. It was purposeful, and not an accident. God does not sit, nail-biting in heaven wondering who will partake of the salvation offered in Christ.
I – Irresistible Grace
The irresistible Grace of God is again focused on God as the active agent in salvation. This doctrine resists the idea that some are good, humble or clever enough to figure out Grace, whilst others aren’t. Rather, it is God who is seen here as casting a net of Grace, from which no human fish can escape.
Again we see the tension between God’s work and our participation – or in this case the possibility of our rejection of his work. In its best form, I don’t think Irresistible Grace is about finely tuned philosophical arguments about volition and human agency in conflict with divine initiative and sovereignty. I don’t think the point is that some people were created as Grace-resisters and others were created as Grace-accept-ers. The simple picture is of Grace doing precisely what it was given for.
Nothing in this doctrine, as I understand it, should conflict with our experience of human efforts appearing to result in human decisions for Christ, or with human choice appearing to choose against God and his forgiveness in Christ. It’s about the ultimate effectiveness of Grace.
P – Perseverance of the Saints
The perseverance of the Saints is linked with Irresistible Grace, in that it is picturing God as both the author and finisher of salvation. The idea being resisted here is of a God who gives us a nudge to get us going, and then abandons us to sort ourselves out the rest of the way. Rather, God is purposeful and powerful, initiating and completing the work of Salvation.
The problem for many is that we know that some people do – at least apparently – start out in the faith only to drop out – at least apparently – later. Again we are dealing with invisible realities here. Only God knows God’s choice, and I would also add that only each individual knows their choice. For me, this does not negate the reality of what we experience when someone – apparently – turns away from faith. God is simply and lovingly pictured here as a Shepherd who maintains and keeps the sheep.
There are more than a few minefields to avoid in all this, but I suppose such is the way with any good idea. T.U.L.I.P. is said to express the ‘doctrines of Grace’, and it is that active Grace of God, from the beginning to the end of Salvation, which these doctrines seek to give ultimate credit to.
Freedom is an essential aspect of God’s nature. God is not ‘conditioned’ by anything outside of God. Nothing outside of God makes God the way God is. All of this is very logical and squares with Scripture. The mystery of the God of the Bible, however, is that God is also relational, to the point where God takes flesh and unites to human nature in Christ, taking the form of a slave. God permits us to describe divinity using our little human words. Somehow, without ceasing to be free, God has eternally chosen to be the kind of God who is ‘both/and’: God is both the sole agent of salvation from start to finish, and yet God will not force salvation on anyone and requires – even at times pleads for – their participation in it. There is something deeply ‘illogical’ about the Gospel. The One who is by nature limitless, unconditioned and free, nonetheless chooses freely to operate in relation to humans in all of our weakness, sin, complicity, willfulness, indecision, and sputtering flights of kindness. God has chosen for salvation to be completed through his divine hand, grasping on to little human hands that think they are grasping on to his.
Humans participate in salvation through believing, obedience, fellowship, worship and mission, but it is God and God alone who is the Saviour. Without the Saviour, there would be no salvation which we could participate in.