Posts Tagged ‘Calvinism’

The final petal of Calvinism‘s TULIP is the “P” i.e. the perseverance of the saints.  For Calvinism, this is the idea that the “elect” never lose their salvation in the eyes of God.  Back tracking through Calvinism, however, we come to understand that perseverance of the saints emerges from Calvin’s idea of ongoing sanctification throughout the believer’s life.   (Our previous review of the “elect” in my blogs of  10/25/2011 and 12/13/2011  are a sufficient critique of the difference between Calvinism and Calvin for this blog as well.)

Sanctification is, for Calvin, the continual renewal that goes on in the life of the believer as they are increasingly persuaded by Jesus’ life and ministry.  Calvin would say their heartfelt union with Christ provides for the continual sanctification but sanctification does not stand alone.   The essential twin to sanctification is justification.  While sanctification is the renovation of the individual believer, justification is a gift that Calvin imagines is bestowed by God through the life and ministry of Jesus.  Said yet another way, Calvin does not imagine that a human responsiveness as in sanctification is possible without the generous provision of God i.e. justification.

I have, for a time, had a brief but indelible friendship with a gentleman who committed much of his life to the work of the church.  When talking about the joy of working in the church, he, having been a sailor, likened his joy to scut work.  As he told me not long ago,  “Scut work is a euphemism from Navy parlance for garbage”.   Scut work within the church has an essential nature  that exemplified his industry among good Presbyterian folk.  The essential scut work of congregational and denominational life is found in the tasks that keep us connected to one another.

  • In the records of a meeting or concern for the vitality of congregations other than our own….scut work has a sanctifying effect in that we are involved in a bigger picture than our own immediacy.
  • Scut work of the church involves interpreting the rules and order of being a church in  personal way that allows people to value and honor their relationships more deeply and with greater complexity.  Such was the scut work of Jesus as he traveled house to house…. that continues into the present day sanctifying us when we take it up within our own responsibilities.
  • Scut work in the church is the giving of ourselves (our specific gifts and talents that are organized uniquely in each individual life) trusting in the gifts of others that when compiled realize not only the industry but also the joy of what it means to be the Body of Christ to which the Apostle Paul called the Corinthians and thus us.
  • Scut work is persevering for some 71 brief years, as one welcomes the Holy Spirit to hone the mind, heart and behavior  toward a loving and inclusive God.

One of process theology’s essentials is that truth is emerging.  The world changes and we, as Christians, are challenged not to resist change and hide unnecessarily within an orthodoxy.  Rather, process realizes that each orthodoxy began as a response to changes in world view and individual understanding within it.  What becomes orthodoxy began as a suggested framework by which we might wrestle with and pray about the new world views that continue to challenge the tradition of the church of Jesus Christ.  The perseverance of the saints from a process perspective might be exemplified by one who loves what has been and that same person, with courage, welcomes God’s next thing with a discerning, open  and joyful heart.

I believe that my friend was actively editing his own life, the life of his congregation and his denomination not only because it was what came naturally to him, but also because Jesus was the finest of editors.   Scut work is an unending process attending to the mundane so that the extraordinary may emerge.  Such work ironically produces a sweat-equity sort of joy that is perhaps our finest evidence of sanctification and the continued imagination for Calvin’s notion of justification.

It is my prayer that as I persevere, I might never be talked out of scut work which now has such a joyful face and life associated with it.


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Calvin’s Institutes were not a solitary brainstorm or revelation.  Calvin began as a student of Luther and Augustine.  When we consider the issue of God’s grace and how we receive God’s grace, we are essentially considering our own human limitations and how much intention we bring to the development of our faith. The Calvinism that systematized Calvin asserts that we are so completely limited or depraved that we have no real ability to receive what God has to offer and so God provides an irresistible grace that cannot be refused.    In the systematizing of Calvin, Calvin’s own attention to our tenacity and continual striving was neglected.  Charles Partee, in this work The Theology of John Calvin quotes  Calvin’s Institutes (Book II.3.13)  “The grace of persisting in good….is given us in order that we may will, and by will my overcome concupiscence (physical desire or craving)….The original freedom was to be able not to sin;  but ours is much greater, not to be able to sin.” This is not ‘a perfection to come after immortality,’ but connected with human will and God’s grace.'” (133).  Partee invites us to hold a tension that Calvin held.  We are both wonderfully created and profoundly limited.  Wonderfully created by God and profoundly limited in our ability to make our response to God.  But our inability is not overcompensated for by our Creator.  Rather the grace of which Calvin spoke was like a gentle envelopment by the Spirit that allows us to try again to  make a response through the church and worship and is appropriate to the wonder of our God-given nature.

Bruce Epperly in his most important work, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, has been cited in this short blog series for his critique of Calvinism.  My hope is to distinguish Calvinism from a true appreciation for Calvin’s original intent that there is a place for Calvin’s followers in the world of Process theology.   Essential to process theology is the idea that God’s love and grace is not coercive and manipulative.  Rather God’s grace is persuasive.   Note Epperly’s contrast between John Wesley the individual and Calvinism apart from John Calvin.  “While the impact of inherited sin can never fully be eliminated in an interdependent world, it can be transformed through acts of reconciliation and affirmation.  Although we cannot erase the results of decisions that cause pain for ourselves and others, we can open to the grace that is constantly moving in our lives, seeking in each moment “the best for that impasse.” (Whitehead,  PR, 244)  In the spirit of John Wesley, process theology recognizes the transforming presence of God’s grace in every situation, prior to any efforts on our part.  Unlike the Calvinist tradition, God’s grace is not irresistible and coercive but persuasive and inspirational.  Still, grace is constant in its intimate invitation to claim God’s healing and loving care, inviting people in undramatic and dramatic ways to say ‘yes’ to God’s ‘yes’ over and over again.” (91).

If Calvin is considered distinctly from Calvinism we note that there is much in common with process theology.  The sense that we are created wonderfully but that our responses are sinful and limited.  Additionally there is essential denominator….we are in process with a loving and grace-giving God that does not artificially blanket us with grace.  Rather God provides God’s love and interest into a space [grace]space in which we can strive to be faithful in a way that is at least congruent with God’s original aims and possibilities for our life.  Such grace/space is irresistible!

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It is important to say that throughout all Christianity, there has been very little substantive agreement on the doctrine of atonement.  Take for example, an excerpt from an article in Wikipedia which provides some definition and demonstrates how Calvinists, themselves, can disagree about the particulars of atonement.

The doctrine of the limited scope (or extent) of the atonement is intimately tied up with the doctrine of the nature of the atonement. It also has much to do with the general Calvinist view of predestination. Calvinists advocate the satisfaction theory of the atonement, which developed in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury andThomas Aquinas. In brief, the Calvinistic refinement of this theory, known as penal substitution, states that the atonement of Christ pays the penalty incurred by thesins of men—that is, Christ receives the wrath of God for sins and thereby cancels the judgment they had incurred.

The Calvinist view of predestination teaches that God created a group of people, who would not and could not choose him (see total depravity), to be saved apart from their works or their cooperation, and those people are compelled by God’s irresistible grace to accept the offer of the salvation achieved in the atonement of Christ.

The Calvinist atonement is called definite by some because they believe it certainly secures the salvation of those for whom Christ died, and it is called limited in its extent because it affects salvation for the elect only. Calvinists do not believe the power of the atonement is limited in any way, which is to say that no sin is too great to be expiated by Christ’s sacrifice, in their view. Among English Calvinistic Baptists, the doctrine was usually known as particular redemption, giving its adherents the name Particular Baptists. This term emphasizes the intention of God to save particular persons through the atonement, as opposed to mankind in general as General Baptists believe.

With an atmosphere of general disagreement, a careful consideration of assumptions is required.  Charles Partee’s attention to Book II of the Institutes proves an excellent and careful examination of Calvin’s confession on Christ’s work….further systematized to a doctrine of atonement by Calvinists.  Partee notes that one assumption at work when developing a doctrine of atonement is an artificial separation between God-the-offended and Christ-the-redeemer.  Of great significance, for those who appreciate Calvin apart from Calvinist systematizing, is that Calvin never separated the two.

Rather, Calvin strives to join the two together.  Christ’s work, for Calvin is at least three-fold.  Christ works as  prophet, king and priest.   “Christ as prophet presents God to us; as king Christ rules over us; and as priest he represents God to us.”(163)   Thus, Calvin  has a reconciling emphasis rather than a theory of atonement.  Again, Calvin’s priority, Partee notes, is union with Christ not Christ’s work apart or on behalf of human beings.

As stated in previous blogs, there is a difference between the unsystematized Calvin who is comfortable with tensions and even contradictions and the systematized Calvinist school that rose up out of appreciation for his teachings.   It is not only Partee that believes that Calvin himself offers no real doctrine of atonement.   Kristine A. Culp, in her work, Vulnerability and Glory, attends in detail to Calvin but does not mention the doctrine of atonement in those details.    Instead she explicates Calvin’s belief in the process-oriented work of the church that can be transformational for the person of faith.   Culp hones in on Calvin’s notion of divine accommodation which happens through the vulnerable and imperfect church that faithfully strives to exemplify the work of Christ.  I wonder can her emphasis be brought together with Partee’s?   So, rather than a doctrine of atonement, perhaps Calvin was really presenting a trajectory of reconciliation from the Creator to Jesus to Christ to the church to the seeking individual.  The trajectory may even become a cycle when individuals return energy and praise  to their Creator.  Trajectory implies process.

Process theology is offended by both words “limited” and “atonement”.   We process theologians believe not only in the value of all humanity regardless of denomination or religion, we also believe in the value of all creation. Thus the word limited will not do. Process theology refuses the Calvinists idea of election that God chooses some by privilege or by lottery (this was discussed in “The 2nd Petal of TULIP: Whose Going to Heaven” blog).

Additionally, process theologians do not believe in the substitutionary or satisfaction theories of atonement.  As Epperly notes:  “Contrary to much “orthodox” Christology, process theology contends that God did not want Jesus to die, but desire that the world might believe his message of God’s reign of shalom.  ….Process theology asserts that God truly suffered with Jesus on the cross.  God envisaged a different future for Jesus than rejection and brutality.” (Process Theology:  A Guide for the Perplexed, 73)    Let me close by saying that not only do Calvin and process thought have a common disinterest regarding a doctrine of limited atonement.  They also have a common interest.  This common interest invests in a transformation of the human experience to know a unity with Christ.

Process theology provides a specification to Calvin’s writings on the work of Christ.  “God does not operate from outside of the universe, violating its rules and suspending its laws to achieve God’s purposes; rather God works within all things, joining order, and novelty in achieving God’s vision for the universe and humankind. Process theology affirms that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world’ (2 Corinthians 5:19).”  (Epperly, 64).   Creative transformation is the term given to process theology by one of its premiere theologians, John Cobb.  Creative transformation is the joining of order and novelty lived out by Jesus of Nazareth emanating throughout the universe in a search for wholeness.

I believe that behind the idea of limited atonement lies a reformer and teacher’s original intent that all would experience unity within the scriptural record of Christ.  Beyond the reformer and teacher, lies process theology’s continue to reform our thinking for greater relevance and faithfulness to God today!

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An early and true thought belonging to Calvin is the notion of  unconditional election which gradually became a part of reformed theology’s assertions  about God.  According to William Stacy Johnson, unconditional election is defined as “…the belief that God’s selection of humans for salvation does not base itself on any human response, including a prior faith in Jesus Christ.”  The surprising last phrase of this excerpt I believe may be included by Johnson because Calvin attended so closely to the Hebraic scriptures in developing his idea of election.    Charles Partee notes that “Calvin knows that in the Old Testament God chooses Isaac over Ishmael and Ephraim over Manasseh.  And most directly ‘Jacob have I loved but Esau I have hated’.” (241)  Not to mention choosing Cain over Abel.    The notion of God’s surprising election of some came from Calvin’s respect and appreciation for the details of the Hebrew scriptures.

However, Johnson’s definition cannot go without critique.  It is important to note that Old Testament aside, Calvin measures his election or ours according to our communion in Christ but there is no assurance that this is God’s measure.   Therein lies some of the confusion about unconditional election.  Calvin never presumes that his observations regarding God’s choices from among human beings is a sufficient explanation of the mind of God.  Rather, Calvin’s election (also known as predestination) is a way for human beings to imagine the way that God knows them and stays active in their lives.  This includes (however unpopular it may be) the notion that some are not chosen (or reprobate) because they refuse to respond faithfully to God.  But again, Calvin does not presume that the mind of God works like this.  The idea of the unchosen or the reprobate is the way that we imagine how God is at work in our lives.

The tradition of our church has, in its systematizing work,  done some rearranging of Calvin’s work and the notion of election/predestination.  Charles Partee, in his book The Theology of John Calvin, takes important note of the role that Westminster Confession plays in such rearranging.

For example, the Westminster Confession, a hundred years later, deals with the Scripture in article 1, with God in article 2, and election in article 3.  (Jesus Christ is article 8!) At Westminster predestination is developed before the doctrines of creation, redemption, faith and so on.  In Calvin, eternal election is properly an attempt from the believer’s perspective to understand God’s love for those whom God chooses.  According to Westminster the doctrine is an attempt, from God’s perspective, to explain the eternal choice of those whom God will love.   Put another way, predestination in Calvin deals with our experience of God’s grace; in Westminster it deals with God’s bestowal of grace.  We can understand something of the former, but we can only guess about the latter. (243-244).

The distinction is crucially important.  For if Calvin portends only to offer election as a way to imagine how God works and loves us, then Calvin cannot be regarded as rigid as the tradition that rearranges him.   Kristine A. Culp reminds us that if we measure our election by God according to our union with Christ, the church is a vehicle for such union.  Calvin likened God first as a nursing mother and then the church as a school.  Further, he imagined  God  as a schoolmaster who repeats lessons while looking over the shoulders of developing and practicing students who are attending to scripture.  Such a vision of God, the church and individuals cannot be understood as rigid.

So we must read carefully when process theologians like Bruce Epperly draw out the Calvinist tradition as being rigid.  Calvin need not be thrown out with the Calvinist bath water.  Epperly asserts for process theology that “The universe is the theatre of divine artistry and glory, but unlike the Calvinist tradition, God glory embraces all creation, seeking wholeness for every creature in its particular environmental context.  God plays no favorites, but seeks abundant life for all creatures.”   (I believe Calvin himself uses the imagery of the world as God’s theatre.)   Note that Epperly’s statement reflects a similar direction as the Westminster Confession.  Both try to imagine the mind of God…Calvin keeps a respectful distance and true his humanist perspective invites the human mind, given the evidence of scripture,  to imagine God without pretending to know God’s mind.

I, personally, believe that the great reformer and teacher, John Calvin, would have appreciated process theology’s work toward greater explication of the way that we experience God choosing us over and over again.   Process theology’s assertion that God’s initial aim (i.e. God’s beginning provision of possibility for our lives) becomes God’s consequent aim (i.e. when we make our limited response that cannot fully realize God’s possibility for us) seems to me very much like Calvin’s notion of the parent or school teacher that returns to instruct us through our deficits and celebrate our competencies choosing not only us….but our emergence and our reformation.

Granted, process theology is suggesting an understanding of God’s mind but I think Calvin might forgive them that.

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The first petal on the T.U.L.I.P of Calvinism is the notion of total depravity.  Total depravity as defined by William Stacy Johnson, in his book John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century, “A belief taught by those who came after Calvin that human beings are so sinful that we are incapable of contributing anything to our own salvation including good works” (140).   While Calvin surely painted a bleak picture of humanity as inherited from Augustine and Luther, the largest part of Calvin’s theology was not sinfulness which takes up but five chapters between book one and book two of his Institutes.  Charles Partee notes, in his book The Theology of John Calvin,  that “For Calvin sin is a terrible reality, but it is not a major division of his theology.  Calvin should be understood as a theologian of God’s grace, not of human sin.  Sin is treated as a strange or foreign object in the body of Calvin’s theology… (130).   Later his followers would characterize sin as total depravity but this is not Calvin.  Calvin understood that sin was total only in so much as it had a total effect on the human being’s body, mind and soul.   This effect he called the stain of sin and the stain of sin gets passed on through the interconnectedness of the human community. (By the way, inter-connectedness is an essential notion of process theology.)  The modern image for stain of sin might be that our children are born into a society where there is air pollution.  They did not cause this problem, but they suffer from it and contribute to it nonetheless.  ” (Johnson 52)

Thus, sin is not the original sin that is imbedded like a seed in the human being.  Rather,  “Remarkably for Calvin sin is defined as an accident.  Sin ‘is an adventitious quality which comes upon man rather than a substantial property which has been implanted from the beginning.’ (II.1.11)” (Partee, 129) and “In connection with the reality of sin, Calvin simply refuses to carry his reflection to its logical conclusion.  Sin is a fact, but it is an accidental fact, which means it has not ultimate meaning.” (Partee, 131)  Thus Calvinism’s notion of total depravity must be contrasted with Calvin’s notion of ultimate possibility. For Calvin the human being is in the process of responding to sin through sanctification (increasing holiness) and that sanctification is a life-long process.

Kristine Culp, in her book, Vulnerability and Glory” rightly highlights Calvin’s “bearing the cross” as a response to the reality of sin.  “In contrast to the Stoic cultivation of apathy, Christians must constantly “train”, “keep” and “pursue” patience in face of real sorrow and pain.  He referred to the exercise of patience, moderation and humility in the face of suffering as “bearing the cross”.    … It matters greatly for Calvin, as for our day, whether theologies support responsive and responsible life and its flourishing before God.” (124)    The responsive and responsible life is not only an essential for Calvin but for process theology as well.

Epperly asserts in his book, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, that “Process theology understands the cross in relational terms as the result of human decision rather than divine necessity.” (73)  While Epperly’s summary of the meaning of the cross for process theologians may be more of a critique of traditional atonement doctrine, one can surely recognize a common thread between process and Calvin on the relationality of sin and the process by which we make our response to sin which is either the result of tragic decisions or Calvin’s accidental sin.

The answer to this blog’s question is that for Calvin the human being is subject to many complex situations in which sin is often an accidental occurrence but may also be intentional.  Because of this, we need God’s grace (which we will focus on more intently in a later blog) and we need to bear our cross.  Bearing our cross allows us to respond to the suffering that our sin causes keeps us mindful of God’s opportunities by which we can live more responsibly into God’s providence.  Those who cherish Calvin the reformer, pastor and theologian need not be dissuaded by the postmortem  development by Calvinism upon Calvin known as total depravity.  Further, those who treasure Calvin need to slough off the systematizing of Calvin by Calvinist.  Once we return to Calvin we find essentials of process thought already at work in Calvin’s Institutes.   Calvin understood imperfect  human beings who had not actualized the potential that God provided for their lives  to be worthy through their partnership with God,  interconnected and involved in a life long adventure of responsibility and response.    Not too bad….not totally depraved at all!

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Not many people may be interested in John Calvin as the subject of a blog.  John Calvin was a pastor and theologian of the 1500s who took part in the Reformation.  The Reformation was a time of great challenge to the Catholic Church and to their adherents.  Part of Calvin’s response to the Reformation was to write his magnum opus, The Institutes.   In them, Calvin confesses, at length,  his belief in scripture and its revelation to us that we could share union with Christ and that God‘s grace was sufficient for salvation.  Calvin’s institutes are not a systematic theology.  By that I means they are not an intensely rational work that proposes questions and answers.  Rather, they are confessional in nature.  That is, often with unanswered questions and statements that are not entirely rational, Calvin is expressing what he believes the scriptures reveal for our lives.  (It is important to remember when reading Calvin that even Jesus, as recorded in scripture, did not over-interpret Jesus own statements).

As people took note of Calvin and became students, they began to systematize Calvin’s thought.  They began to clean up rough edges around grace, election and depravity.  They compensated for Calvin’s lack of attention to atonement and sin by expounding on those subjects.   The result of the systematization is that Calvin is often confused with the systematized Calvinism that branches out into denominations like Presbyterianism and Baptist.

Calvin was fundamentally a progressive theologian.   His intent was to honor scripture as a unique revelation of what we can know about God and thus ourselves.  He was also a thinker that wanted the parishes of his day to be relevant for the 16th century in which he labored as a pastor.    Ironically the systematization of his thought does not lead to progressive interpretations of God at work in the world today.  To the contrary, systematized Calvin tempts us to understand God as a trickster elitist who has a plan but provides little certain revelation for the world.  Systematization makes a promise that there are rules and boundaries for understanding.  There is a rational step by step process by which we justify our beliefs in God.  But ultimately, a systematized Calvin evades the promise.

The way that Presbyterian congregations interpret Calvin is too often through the systemized Calvin.  The an acronym for the system is TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).   Not only Presbyterian congregations, but serious theologians from outside the reformed tradition often used the systematized Calvin as the launch for their critique.

No place is this more true than in the important work of Bruce Epperly and his Process Theology:  A Guide for the Perplexed.    Repeatedly throughout this important book, Epperly reveals his bias for the systematized Calvin by citing the way that Calvinism is at odds with Process Theology.   This is a very serious assertion.   Process Theology like few other theologies is interested in the relevance of our 21st century world for local congregations and individuals of faith.  It is progressive.  It attends respectfully to scripture while attending to the knowledge available to us through science, mathematics and the biological world.   Epperly’s assertion that those of us who revere and return to Calvin for our traditional life, are ill-suited to merge our theological life with that of Process Theology, requires a strong reprimand.   A strong reprimand will take the form of a tiptoed backtrack through the TULIP of systematized Calvin in order to find the essential message of the pastor and reformer that, in part, fathered the process of what it is to be Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).

Drawing on the work of  Charles Partee, William Stacy Johnson, Kristine Culp, and Bruce Epperly, we will make the argument that God is not  a mysterious trickster but a reforming God of process that may not always answer our questions but will never abandon us as we experiment and emerge.   Thanks for your comments and critiques as we recover Calvin, backing our tiptoes through the 5 points of Calvinism.

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John Calvin

Image via Wikipedia

On this blog, I will begin a project of looking at the essentials of John Calvin‘s theology in light of  Process Theology.  Very often, Calvin is regarding as too rigid and dualistic for process thought.  I hope to counter that claim.  This will involve redressing Calvin who is often best known by simplifications and misrepresentations of his complex work.   I hope to be successful so that the Presbyterian community who regard Calvin with respect can allow the essentials of Calvin to flow into the relevance and complexity of process theology whose integrative efforts promise to minimize blind spots in our continuing Christian journey.  I would welcome conversation from other Presbyterians from The Presbyterian Church USA  pcusa.org (or other branches of Presbyterianism) as well as process theologians from Process and Faith and Center for Process Studies at center4process.org

In the event you are not interested in John Calvin …. you might still be interested in this series which will address fundamental questions that we all have about scripture, how we know God, creation, how we are redeemed by God, what makes Jesus the Christ, as well as considerations of predestination and why we pray.   Hope you will join me and tweet me often to spread the word that John Calvin is not a rigid relic from the past but an expression of faith that is still in process!


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