Category Archives: Calvinism

A Question About Christian Theology

Why would God tell us to love our enemies if at least some of our enemies are beyond redemption¹ and God has already decided to destroy at least some of them², so by asking us to love them, God therefore is asking us to do something that would be loftier and nobler than what God is willing to do³

¹ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, some are predetermined to be beyond redemption (predetermined in this case because of points made in the following notes). Then again, maybe none of “our enemies,” the ones who ultimately really are enemies, are beyond redemption. Furthermore, it might not be clear right now who “our enemies” really are, which might be one reason to love those who appear to be enemies.

² By choosing to save some and to damn others. This point of view, while very present in Christian theology, is difficult because God cannot choose to save some without choosing to not-save others. When One is an all-powerful being*, not-doing must be just as volitional as doing. When all-powerful, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created.

*or even all-powerful and outside of being

³ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, that God does not love those whom He created yet knows ultimately will be His enemies, and additionally, assumes that God has decided to create some to ultimately become His enemies. In other words, God creates some people He does not love or plans to stop loving. So, by calling humans to love their enemies as themselves, God has asked us to do something noble and good that He neither is willing to do nor desiring to do, which you should admit is kind of strange. Again, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created. Oddly enough, two verses later, Jesus asks, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” So maybe by asking us to love our enemies, God is asking us to follow His characteristics or part of His nature.

The question seeks a coherent explanation of both the command to love our enemies and the interpretative and systematic traditions which affirm non-universalist positions on predestination and election in which some individuals are intentionally created by God for the purposes of committing sins and thereafter being held accountable for the sins without being given grace and therefore damned. Is there some achievable coherence between God’s decision to create some people to experience His wrath and God’s command to love our enemies?

Happy G.K. Chesterton on Sad William Cowper

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton begins an illuminating passage on madness, predestination, reason, and poetry with some observations about the English poet William Cowper:

“[O]nly one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

What John Piper’s selective outrage says about New Calvinists

The blogosphere and Twitterverse move quickly, but perspectives stick around and change slowly.

I went back to the search engines after the recent shocks of learning that disgraced and disgraceful Pastor Mark Driscoll spoke at the Gateway Conference and at Thrive Leadership Conference.

While searching the Internet for Driscoll-related material, I found a November transcript of a Desiring God audio interview with John Piper in which he claims “no regrets” for partnering with Driscoll.

That should be peculiar. Driscoll’s track record as an untrustworthy, vicious bully has been established by numerous people who used to work in his own organization. Read the evidence here.

It’s extraordinary to hear someone as revered as Piper give a pass to a bullying pastor — while banishing someone who has a different point of view.

Look beneath the surface of Piper’s handling of Mark Driscoll versus his handling of Rob Bell, and you’ll discover the operating principles of so-called New Calvinism as well as old-fashioned fundamentalism.

Those principles may be articulated as follows:

1. If you state the correct beliefs and ideas, you will be forgiven for any ethical violation.

2. If you do not state the correct beliefs and ideas, you will not be forgiven for your incorrectness, even if you have a good ethical standing.

If the above sounds a bit like political correctness or Soviet communism, congratulations; you’ve understood a foundational theme of this blog: instances of authoritarianism might be driven by different ideas, but the methods are still the same.

Piper, you might recall, famously tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell” with a link to Justin Taylor’s blog post entitled, “Rob Bell: Universalist?”

In that post, Taylor quotes — wait for it! — Piper, who once wrote:

“Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.”

That sounds good. But let me point out at least two significant problems.

1. First, Piper’s selective banishment of Bell. Has Piper said “Farewell” to notable Christian universalists like Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, William Barclay, and George MacDonald? (Notice, too, Taylor’s selective treatment of Marilynne Robinson.)

2. Second, Piper’s self-contradiction when the topic is hurting people. There ought to be no question that bullying and bad-mouthing one’s own ministerial staff and underling pastors “dishonors God and hurts people.” That’s what Driscoll did, according to accounts by more than 21 former underling pastors in his own organization.

In fairness to Piper, he says, nobly:

“My regret is that I was not a more effective friend. Mark knew he had flaws. He knows he has flaws. And I knew he had flaws. He knew that I knew he had flaws. There were flaws of leadership attitude, flaws of unsavory language that I think is just wrong for Christians to use, flaws of exegetical errors, say, in regard to the Song of Solomon.”

I admire this much about Piper: “…I was not a more effective friend.”

However, Piper does not say, “Farewell Mark Driscoll,” despite Driscoll’s horrible behavior. On a separate occasion, Piper said, “Farewell Rob Bell,” never mind how hard it is to love one’s enemies after banishing them.

Maybe all that can be explained. In New Calvinism, only bad ideas, like universalism, hurt people. Nothing sensory, like bullying, really matters.

A fundamental problem underlies that mode. Traditionally, the Incarnation was considered a guide against heresy. Jesus was considered fully God and fully human, the ultimate illustration of humankind’s both spiritual and organic natural.

When emphasis is placed on only the spiritual (including ideas) to the exclusion of the organic (including the senses), humans and the Incarnation are degraded.

The New Calvinist mode degrades the concept of Incarnation, making the sensory world less than valuable. It’s almost ghostly — did Jesus Christ really suffer? Well, only if He had bad beliefs! Nails and flogs and thorns are nothin’. Embodiment is nothin’.

Christ sorta suffered — but then how could He possibly have suffered, when He had all the right beliefs?

Bell causes suffering through expressing Christian universalism, which at least has a precedent in Protestant theology (Barth, Ellul, Barclay, MacDonald).

Driscoll causes suffering through repeatedly degrading his spiritual flock, which has no justification anywhere within Christianity.

By most accounts, Bell is a sweetheart.

By most accounts, Driscoll is a narcissistic, unrepentant sociopath.

But, Driscoll has the right New Calvinist ideas, so who cares what he does?

Sure, Driscoll has faced his critics and lost his post at Mars Hill Church. But then he got speaking gigs at Gateway and Thrive.

And Piper came down oh so softly on him, calling him a friend, admitting he knew about Driscoll’s leadership problems.

Which suggests to me that abhorrent behavior gets a pass from New Calvinists, at least among New Calvinists.

Apparently, sensory suffering under Driscoll isn’t real suffering — otherwise, leadership problems would be seen as a real threat to real people, not a minor issue far, far underneath Correct Belief.

Furthermore, as Piper says, God made it all happen anyway. All sin has its source in God, according to Piper.

So this doesn’t make sense to simple-minded folks like myself: God made Driscoll into a bully, and God made Bell into a heretic, but only one matters to the people who insist God not only predestined individual souls but also preordained everything that happens in this (lesser, non-spiritual) organic realm.

Oh wait — God set up the contradiction, too. My fault.

God set up the selective outrage.

God set up this post.

God set up your reading of this post.

So quit complaining — it’s all God’s idea, from peonies to pedophilia.

He cues the earthquake and then He cues your tears — and He’s creating your sense of outrage at Rob Bell’s universalism and your lack of concern with Mark Driscoll’s vicious bullying.

It’s like your complaints and comments implode into nothingness. They weren’t even yours to begin with.

But rest assured — you’ll be held responsible for what your Almighty Creator made you do, whether He made you believe the wrong ideas or He made you bully people.

Anglicanism, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker in the context of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition

Histories, like texts, are matters of interpretation, and some interpretations are more credible and authoritative than others.

For this post, I’ll rely on the interpretation of William C. Placher, who at the time of writing the below excerpts was professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College.

Here’s Placher on Thomas Cranmer, who was appointed to Archbishop of Canterbury (leader of the Church of England) in 1532:

His interests lay less in systematic theology than in church history, especially the history of liturgy, and in writing the Book of Common Prayer he produced the foundation of much English religion and one of the glories of English prose.

In Cranmer we should see a big piece of what makes Anglicanism distinct: historical liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer, at least according to Placher, in his book A History of Christian Theology (The Westminster Press, 1983).

Now, Placher on Hooker:

In the late 1500s Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity set out a “middle way” between the extremes of Catholicism and Calvinism, a thoughtful and moderate theology that rejected the authority of popes for that of Scripture alone but drew heavily on Christian writers of the first several centuries in interpreting the faith. Such scholarly attention to the early church has been characteristic of English theology ever since, and the theological compromises developed by Hooker and other produced a degree of peace. Some questions of liturgy and church organization, however, could not be compromised — one either had bishops or did not, knelt to pray or remained standing, and so on — and these issues therefore became the center of English theological debate.

In such controversies the Puritan party desired to purify the church — purify it of theological vagueness, moral laxity, elaborate liturgy, and bishops. The English Puritans often claimed to follow Calvin, but Calvin had acknowledged the legitimacy of a number of different forms of church organization and liturgical style.

Placher suggests the Puritans were not seeking the “middle way” of Cranmer and Hooker. He also suggests that the Puritans, as self-proclaimed followers of John Calvin, were not really on the same page as Calvin.

At the same time, as Placher sees it, Hooker was not interested in either “extremes” of Catholicism or Calvinism, suggesting neither the Church of England nor Anglicanism are properly Calvinist or Puritan in essence (nor are they Roman Catholic).

As in his assessment of Cranmer, Placher also identifies in Hooker a concern with early church traditions that pre-date the canonization of the Bible as the Puritan knew it.

For more context related to Anglicanism, Scripture, Reason, and Tradition, please also see:

Anglicanism and ‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the ‘one-third Anglicans’

‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the ‘one-third Anglicans’

Must-read: Stanley Fish on Terry Eagleton’s book, ‘Reason, Faith, and Revolution’

Dusted Off: Brunner on the lack of Christian education in Protestant churches

From Christianity and Civilization, The Gifford Lectures, Part 2, delivered by Emil Brunner in 1948:

“No doubt, the Church of the Middle Ages did a tremendous work of education by its religious apparatus and by its effective endeavour to permeate the whole of life by its sacramental practices. No wonder, then, that in this epoch the conflict between Christian theology and the Socratic idea of education was covered by the actual educational work of the Church.

“This lack, however, became much more dangerous in the Churches of the Reformation. Here the sacramental training and Church habits were reduced to a minimum. On the other hand, preaching and teaching the doctrine of the Bible was pressed almost exclusively. These two facts together created an enormous educational vacuum. Whilst in theological knowledge the New Testament origins of Christianity were rediscovered, it was almost completely forgotten that the original Christian Church was before all a living community, that the Holy Spirit worked primarily by means of communal life, and that at that time the younger generation received their Christian influence and instruction not merely through preaching and teaching but through training in Church life. The educational vacuum, which became more and more obvious, is primarily due to the lack of capacity and even of endeavour on the part of the Reformation Churches to develop a Christian community life. Certainly, there exists a considerable difference between Lutheran and Calvinistic Churches. Calvinism, and even more the sects deriving from Calvinism, have paid much more attention to the formation of living communities than the Lutheran and even the Zwinglian Churches, where the identification of Church and civic community worked in the opposite direction. But the tendency toward orthodox intellectualism developed the same vacuum even within the Calvinistic Churches. The orthodox intellectuals’ emphasis on doctrine is the main cause of the educational vacuum of Protestantism.”