Tag Archives: Calvinism

Hell, Freedom, and the Predestinating Gospel

This has given me new angles on troubling questions, questions I have guessed were less about God and more about neo-Calvinistas in the U.S.A. I posed several of those questions in a previous post, “A Question About Christian Theology.”

Eclectic Orthodoxy

But what about HELL? This is always the first question posed when confronted with Robert W. Jenson’s understanding of the gospel as unconditional promise. If the Church is authorized to speak the Kingdom to all comers, does this not imply universal salvation? In his youthful systematics, Story and Promise, Jenson refuses to answer yay or nay:

What is the point of the traditional language about damnation? Two points only. First, damnation is not part of the gospel. The gospel is not a carrot and a stick: it is unconditional promise. Damnation is a possibility I pose to myself when I hear the gospel and instead of believing it begin to speculate about it—which we all regularly do. Therefore, this book, which tries to explain the gospel, has talked only about Fulfillment and will continue to do so. Second, damnation would be that we were finally successful in self-alienation from our…

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Marilynne Robinson’s Calvinism is an alternative to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism

The Gospel Coalition’s bloggers frequently praise Marilynne Robinson, and that’s only right. She has won a Pulitzer Prize, and she has written acclaimed novels and essays.

Better yet, Robinson has been open about the influence of John Calvin on her thought and her work. The Gospel Coalition bloggers couldn’t be happier, and who could blame them? A Pulitzer Prize-winner apparently has soaked deeply in Calvin.

Based on Justin Taylor’s past Gospel Coalition blog posts, Marilynne Robinson is once, twice, three times a Calvinist lady (apologies to Lionel Richie).

As recently as Sept. 22, 2014, Robinson received glowing praise for  Lila: A Novel.

None of that is a problem. But there is a problem. On crucial issues, attitudes, and dispositions, The Gospel Coalition and Robinson couldn’t be farther apart.

I suspect the distance between them is ignored because in The Gospel Coalition, the “Calvinist” label covers all sins.

But never mind what I suspect. Let’s take a look at some excerpts of what Robinson says — all of which I admit I like:

Here’s an excerpt of the Religion News Service’s interview with Robinson:

Q: Gay marriage is one of the culture’s hot-button issues right now. Can people coexist in that controversy?

A: Sometimes I wonder about the authenticity of the controversies themselves. My own denomination (the United Church of Christ), has blessed same-sex relationships and married them as quickly as it became legal in my state. It has been a process that’s gone on for a long time. Nobody gives it a thought, so when you read in the newspaper that there are people calling down brimstone, it’s startling. In time it will become an old issue for the culture that simply will not bring out this kind of thing anymore.

Q: For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?

A: It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.

Search The Gospel Coalition site. Good luck finding any blogger or pastor simpatico with Robinson’s views on same-sex blessings and gay marriages and biblical interpretation.

(My golly-gosh! She sounds like an Episcopalian!)

It’s not just same-sex marriage that reveals striking differences in the mentalities of The Gospel Coalition members and the mentality of Robinson.

In her interview with The Paris Review, Robinson says several things that are far too moderate and liberal to appear in The Gospel Coalition’s posts. Here’s a sampling:

I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.


At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.


Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.


Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.


The idea that you draw a line and say, The righteous people are on this side and the bad people are on the other side—this is not gracious.

That last excerpt seems the antithesis of The Gospel Coalition posts, which seem to draw all kinds of lines.

And maybe they’re right to draw lines. It’s hard to define something when it can be anything.

Funny, though, how those lines curve around a liberal who claims Calvin.

The Gospel Coalition’s lines don’t curve around liberals who merely claim Christ — search the site for critiques of Peter Enns, Rob Bell, and Brian McLaren.

Those folks will be whole and redeemed in the eyes of The Gospel Coalition — if only they claim Calvin.

That’s the underlying problem: it’s never really about Jesus and the Bible. It’s about precise angles on Jesus and the Bible, not allegiance.

Allegiance is such an internal thing, such a hard thing to pin down, the only way to prove allegiance is to espouse very specific, very precise views. Who goes there? Calvin groupie or Other?

It’s like a gang initiation — how far are you willing to go to be one of us? Claim Calvin, and you’re in.

Yes, plenty of other groups do this, too.

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’

When New England Puritanism departed from Calvin’s view of the Church, guess what happened?

“The Puritan changes often brought the New England theology perilously close to gnostic Christianity,” writes Philip J. Lee in his book, Against the Protestant Gnostics. “Of particular concern is the Puritans’ concentration on self and their tendency to regard humanity from an elitist perspective.”

Lee goes on to evaluate a development in later New England Calvinism that gave us much of the mess we’re in today:

“Rather than God entering into covenant with His people Israel or with His redeemed Church and the individual participating in covenant insofar as he is related to Israel or Church, under this new form of Calvinism, the individual makes a covenant with God directly; it is a one-on-one relationship. The influence on North America of this theological shift has been enormous.

“Closely connected to the conflict of corporate covenant with individual covenant was the Puritan preoccupation with the elect. Again, when the founders of New England society first landed, their Calvinism was pretty well intact. Thus, though their Church required a certain number of the intellectually elite to understand and convey the rather intricate dialectics of Reformed theology, the Church itself was not elitist, either from the point of view of intellect or spirituality. Church membership implied not a full understanding of a particular doctrine but rather an appreciation of God’s good will toward his people. And most of the early Puritans in North America would have agreed with their mentor, Calvin: ‘It is not our part to separate elect from reprobate … …. we acknowledge as members of the Church all who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite with us in acknowledging the same God and Christ.’ …

“This mood of charity prevailed in New England in the early days….

“Despite its orthodox beginnings, however, New England and, finally, most of North American Protestantism was to fall into other hands which were neither catholic nor charitable. An evangelical elite was to gain ascendency and make the question of conversion the central question of Christianity.”

— from Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip J. Lee

Calvinism as a galvanizing experience

This new New York Times Magazine article about Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll spurred plenty of thoughts, but there’s one passage I want to consider.

Calvinism is a theology predicated on paradox: God has predestined every human being’s actions, yet we are still to blame for our sins; we are totally depraved, yet held to the impossible standard of divine law…. Driscoll found his way into this tradition largely on his own. He recently earned a master’s degree through an independent-study program he arranged at a seminary in Portland, Ore. Years ago, paperback reprints of old Puritan treatises in the corner of a local bookstore piqued his interest in Reformation theology. He came to admire Martin Luther, the vulgar, beer-swilling theological rebel who sparked the Reformation. “I found him to be something of a mentor,” Driscoll says. “I didn’t have all the baggage he did. But you can see him with a quill in one hand and a drink in the other. He married a brewer and renegade nun. His story is kind of indie rock.”

I think what makes Calvinism so intriguing and compelling is its galvanizing, integrated worldview.

When people are young, their first galvanizing experience tends to be their only galvanizing experience. Let’s say you grow up marginally Christian with small-town values and a few vaguely-defined questions and frustrations about life, parents, church, and your hometown.

You go away to college and you have a galvanizing experience with existentialism (even though that’s a broad movement) through a great professor and/or literature and/or philosophy and/or art. It’s like a thunderclap or a revelation: suddenly existentialism makes sense to you and addresses those vaguely-defined questions and frustrations. It explains things in a way that makes sense to you where you are.

One way or the other, you follow the existentialist thread throughout your college career because it provides an integrated point of view, an organizing principle for all the random data and experience of life. Your decision-making and values, for at least the first few years out of college if not the rest of your life, are influenced directly or indirectly by existentialism (if not by reading Nietzsche, then maybe by watching David O. Russell or David Cronenberg movies).

The refreshing and enlightening experience of such a galvanization is probably fuel enough to keep you going for years — meaning, you’re probably not going to think, “OK, so, I had best be intellectually thorough with this new philosophical orientation; I’ll go back and read Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Neoplatonists, Confucians and Neo-Confucians, Thomists and Neo-Thomists, Kant, Wittgenstein…” No, you probably won’t be that intellectually thorough. You won’t need to do that much homework, because that galvanizing experience of existentialism was just what you (thought you) needed at that time, and it reoriented your way of thinking and reorganized the world around you, and now you cannot imagine needing anything more.

It’s probably the same with how some people experience Calvin, or Aquinas, or C.S. Lewis, or innumerable others. When something feeds you, you feast on it. Why stop feasting on something that tastes so good and run around to all the other options on the buffet? You’re not trying to fulfill some academic standard of intellectual thoroughness. You’re trying to live a life. Read what feeds.

This, to me, is a fascinating psychological aspect of us as human beings. The actual content of whatever produced the galvanizing experience could include a high degree of truth, or a mix of truth and falsehoods in varying degrees, or no truth at all. But many of us have those moments when a new system or a point of view strikes the hot iron of who we are at a certain moment. The change can be lifelong — and, in the case of Mark Driscoll, influential.

-Colin Foote Burch

John Calvin as a ‘misunderstood humanist’?

In 2004, Marilynne Robinson “returned to fiction” — for the first time in nearly two decades — “with the novel Gilead, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, Home, came out this fall,” according to this introduction to an interview with the author in The Paris Review.

…When a question gave her pause during our interview, she’d often shrug and say, “Calvin again,” and then look away as if the sixteenth-century Frenchman were standing in the room waiting to give her advice.

Robinson is a Christian whose faith is not easily reduced to generalities. Calvin’s thought has had a strong influence on her, and she depicts him in her essays as a misunderstood humanist, likening his “secularizing tendencies” to the “celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman.”

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.”