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.

grace and human effort

At the heart of the Christian faith is a conviction that salvation is God’s doing.  God takes the initiative in establishing, maintaining and perfecting the relationship with all of creation, and humans in particular.  Without God, there would be no salvation.  Period.

This conviction has tended to be accompanied by an emphasis that downplays the importance of human effort.  Most of all, it seems that in order to defend Grace, some feel the need to oppose any prescriptive statements about what Christians ‘ought’ to do, particularly when those statements are a) specific, b) all-encompassing, or c) strong.

I’m not going to get into the broad issues of biblical theology despite how relevant they are here.  Instead I want to focus on the basic compatibility of Grace and human effort.  And none of the following has anything to do with being under the Jewish/Mosaic “Law” (i.e. keeping kosher, observing Sabbath, or males being circumcised).

Augustine perhaps said it best:  “Without God, we cannot.  Without us, God will not.” (Google it)

Like a loving parent whose love moves them to refrain from doing everything for their children, God seems to require our active participation in our growth.  “God will not” do things for us against our will.

This not only means we must participate with Grace, but also that being exhorted, instructed, urged, or encouraged to do specific things should be a normal part of our training and instruction in Christian community.  This happens through preaching, teaching, discipleship and mentoring.  We need to be told what we should be doing.

Trusting in Grace doesn’t mean resisting being told what to do.  Quite the contrary, actually.

Yes, it is possible (and too common, actually) that “telling people what to do” is done from a negative posture of power, ego and control that runs against the values of the Gospel.  But it is also possible (and more common than we may admit) that “telling people what to do” is resisted simply due to our pride and arrogance of not wanting to do what we should.

The Grace and Love of God is so overwhelming, beautiful and true that it should cast out all forms of fear, including the fear of being told what to do.

Being told what you are doing wrong and what you ought to do instead, can indeed be a “gift”, and expression of Grace.  It can be a very practical way that God offers the power, assistance and help toward the transformation, healing and growth that all disciples of Jesus should experience.

varieties of shame

Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.

First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be.  I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour.  “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…”  All of these focus the shame on the person.

Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change.  But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite.  It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful.  They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’.  This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.

Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either.  To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!”  Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time.  However, it can also have the opposite effect.  I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect.  Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.

The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it.  And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.

I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong.  And I am distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something.  Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.

But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society?  Can that ever be helpful or healthy?  I am daring to suggest it can.

One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”.  This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way.  Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less.   In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.  Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?

How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful?  I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful.  In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.

So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame.  I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?

What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility?  Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame.  We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things.  It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.

Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm.  Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.

If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed.  But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.

Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful.  Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.

love is grateful

I recently came across this gem of a quote on Facebook; beautiful in its profundity, and breathtaking in its brevity.

“Grace is the essence of theology; gratitude is the essence of ethics.” – G. C. Berkouwer

It captures the heart of what any Christian thinker has ever tried to say about the fitting human response to divine grace.  The only way to respond to being given a gift is to say thank you.

My curious (and a bit obsessive) mind, always on the look-out for frameworks, pondered what the opposite might be.  That earning merit (and love) is the opposite of being given Grace (and love), and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad theology.  And that entitlement is the opposite of gratitude, and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad ethics.

In the back of my mind, however, was the framework of love and fear (wonderfully expressed by Michael Leunig here, scroll down and you’ll see it).  It left me thinking there must be a correlation between gratitude and love, and between entitlement and fear.  So I wanted to tease that out below (all the while hoping for a bit of it to drip down from my brain into my heart!)…

Love is grateful.  Fear is entitled.
Love is surprised at what it has.  Fear always needs more.
Love can freely give as it has received.  Fear always takes.
Love can accept what it disagrees with.  Fear tries to force it to change.
Love can cope without recognition.  Fear clamours for attention.
Love is empathetic.  Fear is narcissistic.
Love sheds tears on behalf of others.  Fear only sees its own pain.
Love can fail and try again.  Fear gives up.
Love is life.  Fear is death.

the uncomfortable freedom of Grace

I just finished a job at work, and not only did it take longer than I thought (I had to return to the job site to fix things), I didn’t do as good a job at it as I would have liked to.  The clients are satisfied and will pay the invoice, but the workmanship was not my best.  My errors involved trying to same time and effort: a.k.a. rushing and being lazy.

I was doing another follow-up job last week and I noticed a mistake that had been made by another team member.  It seemed that he had also tried to save time and effort.

It is so much easier to focus on the mistakes that others make than my own.  My tendency is to maximize and catastrophize the seriousness of others’ mistakes (“Wow, that’s pretty bad…“) and minimize and normalize the seriousness of my own (“Ahh, it’s good enough…” or “It’s not as bad as…“).

Grace is good news.  We are loved as we are in spite of our mistakes.  Grace covers our sin and shame.

But that’s not all Grace does.

Grace-powered love casts out and frees us from our fear, saying with the authority and voice of Christ, “Fear not.” (Me phõbos)  One type of fear we can let go of, thanks to Grace, is the fear of not being perfect.  When we don’t have to be perfect, we can admit our mistakes (or sins), even the serious ones; and we can be a bit gentler on the mistakes (or sins) of others.

This may be one example of the less “comfortable” work of Grace.  After all, Grace “teaches” (paideuousa) us (Titus 2:12).  This word for teaching is diverse enough to include usages concerning discipline and punishment or training.

I can’t speak for others, but I am grateful for the ‘uncomfortable’ help of Grace in assisting me to admit my mistakes and accept the failings of others.

a better word

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)

Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’.  Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant.  The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.

Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ.  Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:

  • undesirable.  The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”.  God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’.  There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least.  But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
  • unbearable.  The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”.  Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
  • unapproachable.  Animals stoned, sandals removed.  The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are.  It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.

By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.

  • better joy.  The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke.  Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek.  Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
  • better transformation.  The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently.  Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
  • better memory.  The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin.  The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.

In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture.  God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.

It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ.  As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

jesus within the good samaritan parable?

I’m currently doing a research essay on how the parable of the Good Samaritan has been preached in different times and contexts.  Interpretation and preaching have traditionally centred on how the story presents three characters, one of who is the exemplary Samaritan.

But in the research, I’ve found that some rightly point out that the Innkeeper is a fourth.  Apparently innkeepers were known to at times over-charge, and so the greed of the innkeeper provides another contrast to the generosity of the Samaritan who offers to repay any expense the innkeeper incurs in caring for the man (whose nationality or race are – deliberately? – never revealed).

Now, I’m probably not the first to see yet another person in the story, and I’ll have to check the commentaries, but the following lines suggest it to me:

On the next day [most MSS include ‘when he departed’], he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”

It is the phrase “when I come again” that tipped me off.  Was that a glimpse of the parousia just there tucked away?  I wonder it we glimpse Jesus himself in the person of the Samaritan; and by implication the church in the Innkeeper.  The ministry of the church is indeed (among other things) to welcome the lonely, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned.  Do we glimpse Jesus here, equipping the Church (giving of the Spirit?) to do their work, and promise a ‘repayment’ (reward according to deeds?) for how much extra they do?

trust and believe… criminals!?

Do you trust? Do you believe?

I’m not talking (at least in this post!) about God – I’m talking about convicted criminals!

Tapu Misa has written another thought-provoking piece about –among other things– the house-arrest conditions of Bailey Kurariki, suggesting that the public needs to trust him to learn how to live in society.

Continue reading “trust and believe… criminals!?”

brian walsh: targum of Romans 12:1-2

The Romans 1:1-17 targum wasn’t enough…

…I had to post this one as well…

Again, I advise reading these two simple verses in an easy-to-read translation before reading the targum…

In case it’s not obvious, Walsh is anything but a typical ‘republican-style’ Christian…

If this doesn’t stir your heart, check your pulse… Continue reading “brian walsh: targum of Romans 12:1-2”