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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Partee’

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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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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