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.

inclusivism

Attending Catholic Mass, one will hear from time to time a prayer (below) that I think beautifully expresses what is called soteriological inclusivism, a view that I identify broadly within.  Inclusivism lies between exclusivism (which holds that being saved requires (except perhaps in infants or intellectually challenged persons) ‘conscious knowledge’ of Christ as Lord and Saviour) and universalism (which holds that God’s grace is so overwhelmingly powerful that it will win over against the wills and decisions of all people eventually, whether before death, or in some kind of post-mortem scenario).  Inclusivism expresses a hope, or perhaps a conviction, that whilst God will not ‘force’ his grace universally onto all people, it is nonetheless possible for some to, as C.S. Lewis put it somewhere, belong to Christ without themselves knowing it.

God alone may know the faith of some who don’t let others know it, or perhaps cannot even let themselves admit it.  A friend of mine once called this being “a believer who couldn’t believe”.  Here’s how it is expressed in the Catholic liturgy (as found in my copy of the 1982 version of The Sunday Missal; Eucharistic Prayer IV), when the priest offers prayers for the dead:

Remember those who have died in the peace of Christ
and all the dead whose faith is known to you alone.

selected v. elected

It’s a simple distinction.

When a panel of judges selects one competitor to be the champion, the others don’t benefit from the selection.  They go home losers.  (Cue Queen music…)

But when a nation elects a new leader, the entire nation benefits.  He or she passes legislation that they elected him to pass, etc.

The biblical doctrine of election is no different.  Israel in general, and Christ in particular, are God’s Beloved, not in the sense of being (randomly or otherwise) ‘selected’ out to win a prize that benefits nobody else, but so that the nations of the earth would be blessed through them (Genesis 12:1-3).  Never in the Bible is it said that Israel was chosen so that she could have exclusive rights to God and salvation.  On the contrary, she was chosen to pass on blessing and salvation – in all its forms – to all.

It is like a fire or police squad, or a hospital staff.  They are not self-serving teams, simply to make sexy firemen calendars, etc.  They have a mission and a calling to serve their community.  A doctor tells her smoking patient to change his ways not because “I’m a doctor and you can’t be”, not because “I am perfect in all ways”, but because she is a good and caring doctor.  That’s enough metaphor for one post. :)

full gospel

Some presentations and presenters of Christianity are, in my view, overly obsessed with the Death of Jesus such that they over-emphasise it, and end up marginalising the Incarnation of Jesus, the Ministry of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit of Jesus.  It probably wouldn’t be fair to use any label for the flavour of Christianity I inherited in my early years as a Christian.  Whatever label is used, this version of Christianity is too prevalent.

In this version I inherited, the only reason Jesus was born was to die for our sins.  His ministry seemed like just some time-filling activity before he died.  The Resurrection is like icing on the cake after the ‘main event’, his Atoning death.  The Ascension is basically ignored altogether.  And the gift of the Spirit is basically about empowering people to tell others that Jesus died for their sins.  The New Testament, and the study and explanation of it over Church History, however, contains a Gospel that is much fuller than this version I inherited (and which most of our modern and quite a few of our older worship songs tend to focus on).

The Incarnation of Jesus is not a mere stepping stone to the Cross (though it is not less than that).  It is the Creator entering and uniting to the Creation in general, and human nature in particular.  This, the Eastern Orthodox rightly emphasise, is itself a saving act.  All creation participates in the salvation that Christ effects.

The Ministry of Jesus does not merely fill time until the Cross.  Jesus life and ministry is an enactment and fulfillment of genuine humanness.  Everything that humans were meant to be and do, which was focused in the call of Abraham and his people ‘Israel’, Jesus achieved and demonstrated in his life.  He finishes the race we could not.  This is a saving act.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not a mere happy ending to the Cross.  Whereas the Cross entails Jesus taking Death (and Evil and Sin) onto himself and extinguishing it, the bodily transformation and translation of Jesus, the Resurrection, enacts and achieves the defeat of Death (and Evil and Sin).  It also achieves a kind of ‘beachhead’ (or ‘first-fruits’) into New Creation, the ultimate destiny and intended goal for all Creation.  This is a saving act – for all creation – including humans.

The Ascension of Jesus is not an undoing of the Incarnation (which would be a huge heresy), where the Son of God strips off his humanity and reports back to the Father that the atoning death was accomplished (and thus the body no longer needed!).  It is about the enthronement of Jesus to the place of ultimate authority – which among other things, entails a denial of any other entities claiming such ultimate authority.  This is a saving act, saving us from false authorities.

The Giving of the Spirit of Jesus is not simply a bit of personal motivation to tell people about Jesus dying for us (though it is not less than that!).  It is the gift of the ongoing personal spiritual presence of Jesus, enabling us, correcting us, leading us, empowering us, shaping us to become more like Jesus.  It’s not just about ‘evangelism’ (or exciting private experiences), but about becoming more human – more like the true human, Jesus.  The Spirit of the true human, Jesus, makes us truly human.  This ‘humanisation’ (or ‘re-humanisation’) is a saving act; it’s what salvation is all about.

And that’s the “full gospel” that the New Testament communicates.

scandalous particularity

God was (for most of our western egalitarian sensitivities) scandalously ‘narrow’ or ‘choosy’ or ‘particular’ in his way of saving his creation. He saves his creation by uniting to and thus transforming it. He did not unite to all created nature in general (this or that star, or planet, or soil or rocks, trees, etc.: the sun would have been perhaps a good marketing move, as many humans have seen the sun as divine anyway), but to human nature in particular. He did not unite to all humans of all traditions, all races, all places, all times, all genders, all vocations, etc., but to a Jewish, male, bearded, 1st century Palestinian carpenter. Lewis says it best: “The world which would not know Him as being everywhere was saved by His becoming local.” (Somewhere in his book, Miracles, and probably less-than-exactly quoted)

In and through the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and Spirit of this scandalously particular Man, God is (paradoxically) available to and for humans of all traditions, races, places, times, genders, and vocations in general.

freedom

I’m really appreciating how significant the theme of freedom is in the Bible.

Freedom is opposed to compulsion, captivity or slavery.

Utterly free of compulsion, God freely acts to create and sustain a free creation, particularly free and dangerous human beings, which constantly, continually and consistently become enslaved, manipulated, captive or otherwise enslaved to and by various kinds of anti-freedom things (aptly summarised as sin and evil).   Continue reading “freedom”