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Posts Tagged ‘Doctrine of Election’

Perhaps the most typical understanding of John Calvin is as a theologian who asserted that God plays favorites.   You know how playing favorites works….you love all your children but the one that acts the most like you gets important slack in tough situations.    You try to manage your workplace “by the book” but you can’t help watching over that hard-working employee that gives 110%.  Even within the habitual behavior of another human being we have “favorites” things they do that we like and things they do that we do not like and our response to them indicates the preference.

The most surface understanding of John Calvin’s doctrine of election is that God plays favorites with human beings who do not really know if they are God’s favorites or not.  And so, we have to hope….be on really good behavior and hope that we are “in”.   Don’t let me interrupt this idea of Calvin if it is in important to you.  On the other hand, if you are a person of the reformed tradition say….in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and you are interested in the integrity of your tradition, what I am pulling together in this blog may be of some interest to you.

The problem with many traditional theologians is that their ideas and assertions were written in a remarkably different time.  For John Calvin, science, as we know it, was emerging (there is even evidence that he modified his thinking in order to accommodate science) but science then was not what it is today.  There is a terrific need in the church to bring today’s scientific knowledge and its questions into conversation with our faith.  If we do not …. our faith will become increasingly disconnected from those things such as medicine and technology that otherwise enrich our lives.   Process theology strives to honor the emerging world in which we find ourselves and in which God is surely still The Creator.  But there is not much connection drawn between process theology and the work of John Calvin.  In fact, many in the process community might mistakenly understand Calvin to be rigid and anti-process.

I believe John Calvin’s depth of thought and theological insight works well with process theologies assertions.  Thus, Calvin has a great relevance for continual emergence of science that so intrigues us.  I want to keep this simple so let me share three points.  The first point will be about why we are tempted to play favorites at all.  The second point will be about understanding election at a deeper level than  favoritism.  The final point will be show how the doctrine of election when understood at this deeper level, mirrors what we can know about creation as disclosed in our faith tradition and in the emerging world of science around us.

1.  The reason we play favorites is because we have a hope that our life has purpose and meaning.  One of the ways that we substantiate our purpose and meaning is by seeing what we value in others.  When we see it, we reinforce it thus making it larger and more pronounced.  When we have reinforced in others what we value about ourselves, our lives seem to have a purpose beyond just our individualism.   Playing favorites is about hoping that we have a purpose in God’s providence.

2.  The richest part of the doctrine of election is this belief that God creates each human being with intention and purpose.  As Stacy Johnson puts it, “Before we were, God was; that God thought of us and called us into being ; that God knows us by name; and that God has chosen to give us a future and a hope.” (John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century, William Stacy Johnson)  For Calvin, it is our servant like responsiveness to our neighbor and thus to God (through the church) that gives us a sense of but not a certainty of election.

3.  If election means that God knows us and calls us forward into the future, we begin to understand that Calvin is a partner to process.  For election is  very much like process theology’s understanding of a responsive God who provides a cascade of possibilities to all creatures.  Process theology critiques Calvin’s original intent out of his old world view of right and wrong or our temptation toward favorites.  In the spirit of sociological and psychological research….even the discoveries of physics and process theology asks reformed thinkers to appreciate the intricacy of responses that emanate from a human being, animal or molecule  given their matrix of relationships and circumstances.  The idea that God does not give up on us no matter the limit of our response to God’s possibilities is at least the image of a loving human parent is definitely more congruent with our belief that God is living and creating still.

Playing favorites limits possibilities to the extent that we are trying to affirm and promote our own selves. God is surely not an image of us in our most limited or selfish moments.  Being elect is not about who is God’s favorite.  Being among the elect is about having the sense that we are known and purposeful and then embarking on a discovery of  our capacities for one another in the face of God’s possibilities which are generous and abundant.

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