on calvinism

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.

Here and at other points, we must remember that we are talking about a God who is invisible!  We experience with all our senses all kinds of human activity: preaching, evangelism, discipleship.  But as with creation, the Scriptures point beyond what we see to an ultimate Lord whose Grace and Love enables and empowers it all.

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.

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.

Concluding Remarks

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.

past six days

The past six days for me:

  • Friday 25th Jan – Elephant TV posts the finished ‘evolution‘ episode, which I got to take part in.
  • Saturday 26th Jan – The band I’m in (Great North) plays at Parachute – even after our bass player received 6 stitches for (as you do) having a wine-bottle-ish chandelier fall on her head.
  • Sunday 27th JanGreat North plays a 3pc set at the Auckland Folk Festival, and is awarded a Tui (New Zealand Music Award) for Best Folk Album of 2012 for ‘Halves.
  • Monday 28th Jan – Auckland Anniversary Day.  Casual lovely day with Di & Tom at a park, a beach (with friends) and home.  Tom got stung, we think, by a little jelly fish several times on his legs.
  • Tuesday 29th Jan – I – after much psychological hesitation – published my personal photography FB page, which is sure to rise to the hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’.
  • Wednesday 30th Jan – is my birthday (34th)!  I received ‘special birthday toast’, a Blues Harp (harmonica), a special morning tea at work (Northcote Baptist), and am looking forward to a nice meal at ‘Mexico’ tonight in Takapuna with Frank Ritchie and his family.

evolution discussion on rhema

I was pleased to be asked along with Dr. Graeme Finlay (Senior Lecturer in the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre & Molecular Medicine & Pathology in the School of Medical Sciences at Auckland University) to take part in a talk-back show on Evolution and Christianity today.  I had to laugh when Graeme and the host Pat called me a theologian; last I checked, a lowly undergraduate degree in theology doth not maketh one a theologian :) The audio is here for any interested in our conversation.

band album

I can be spotted sometimes playing piano, guitar and singing backing vocals at local Auckland pubs.  This is because I’m in an “alt-country folk” band called Great North.  We have a new album out soon, and an up-coming ‘mass’-three-destination tour.  We have a fancy website. We have a free download our our single ‘whales’ on our ‘bandcamp‘ page.  Enjoy if you dare.

phantom parabolas

Saw this morning on TV1 Breakfast – not much (anything? maybe this??) about it on the net yet…

But according to TVNZ, “maths teacher Philip Lloyd, an Auckland man who has made a maths-changing discovery to do with parabolas.” (though the date of the above forum post is 2003, and the name is TJ Evert!!??  hmmm…)

Anyway, the discovery is cool – whether by TJ Evert in 2003 or by Philipo Lloyd more recently.  Apparently (if I’m wording this right – it’s been a while since algebra class!) equations with an ‘imaginary’ solutions for ‘x’  (([Dale refuses the philosophical tangent – no pun intended])) do not intersect the x axis.

The news is that a ‘phantom parabola’ can be plotted, which does intersect an imaginary x-‘plane’ (we always had to imagine the x & y axis’ did we not?).

The ‘ooh that’s a cool parallel with spirituality’ thought that I initially had may well be not much more than a play on the word ‘imaginary’, but hey…  Like the Flatland analogy (used by C.S. Lewis [unknowingly? i cannot remember] and Rob Bell), this would be another case of adding another dimension.  After all, we imagine real things all the time, don’t we?

So there it is.  I’ve sent TVNZ an email with the link above.  Will see if it’s relevant :)

burdens

Humans are the most vulnerable and needy at the beginning and end of their lives.

Prof John Wyatt describes (mp3PDF) the feeling of caring for his mother, stricken with dementia:

Even when my mother was tragically affected by dementia she was still on the journey. Close to the end of her life I visited her in the nursing home where she was receiving 24 hour nursing care. It was meal time and I was trying to feed her from a yoghurt pot with a teaspoon. “Open you mouth, here it comes…”. And I suddenly had a flashback – this was exactly what she used to do with me when I was an infant. And now the tables were turned.

We don’t like to be vulnerable and needy.  We are culture-trained to be secure and sufficient – on our own. Wyatt talks about the common phrase reflecting the fear we have of growing old, and thus vulnerable and needy.  “I just don’t want to be a burden to anybody.” (Or stronger, such as: “I simply will not become a burden to anyone!”)

But ‘being a burden’ to one another is one of the things that unites the human family together.  Our precious son, Thomas, was quite a ‘burden’ on the Special Care Birth Unit that looked after him as his lungs developed (having been born 7 week early); and he continues to be a ‘burden’ to us (nappies, feeding, lugging his gear around, etc., etc.)!

It is a cultural myth and a tragic assumption that human worth is only in ability to ‘contribute to society’.  But even given this false notion, those more ‘burdensome’ humans (babies, those with various kind of disability, the elderly, comatose, terminally ill, etc.), actually do contribute to society: they teach and mature the rest of us. I become a better human being having to ‘put up with’ others.  Wyatt continues about feeding his mother:

But in a strange sense this was not an evil, terrible thing. It was part of the narrative of a human life. She was learning more of what it meant to be a parent and I was learning more of what it meant to be a son. She was still my mother although tragically impaired and deformed. My duty was to treat her with love, respect and care.

Abortion and euthanasia are hotly divisive topics, and there are real people with real circumstances involved.  Most agree that the passive examples of ‘letting nature take its course’ ((A teleologically-loaded, and thus other-than-scientific, statement!)) such as saving the mother ahead of the baby and the removal of life-support in some cases are ethical.  But both are, in my view, justified far too often simply because a burden is being avoided. ((Take the common scenario of a sexually active teen girl having a pregnancy she (nor her sexual partner) were not planning on.  Could it be that having to face the responsibility of child birth and child-rearing may be just the thing that could help them not only avoid post-abortion depression, but also help them to mature and grow into responsible adult-hood?))  As we’ve seen, bearing burdens mature and grow us.  We hugely miss out by avoiding them.

Paul, in giving one of his various summaries of the essence of being a Christian, says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the Law of Christ.”