Posts Tagged ‘John Cobb’

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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In the chapter entitled:  “Do Corporations Serve the Human Family”, from the book Progressive Christians Speak, Progressive Christians United ask the reader to consider the history of corporations rising out of trade and the industrial revolution.  That history reveals a rise of mechanization and technology and the temptation to understand organized human beings as part of a machine.  The authors note that corporations have major stakeholders as well as stockholders.  Stake holders include stockholders, managers, employees, customers, suppliers neighbors and society as a whole.  This understanding has emerged in Europe and Japan as stakeholder capitalism.  Stakeholder capitalism thrives where strong unions are informing and challenging corporations.  In the last quarter century, unions have been powerfully diminished in America.  This diminishment as coporation grow have given rise to another type of capitalism in America….stockholder capitalism wherein the goal is to realize a profit for those who invest in the company and those who hold shares.  The authors suggest that humanity can experience a better quality of life if there is a stakeholder capitalism at work.  So that entities like, Planet Earth, the poor and destitute; humanity as a whole are also stakeholders in the corporations activities.  Thus the success of the corporation is determined by its ability to consider all the stakeholders as it does its work.

The authors encourage the reader to take action through their congregations and adult education programs;  as consumers and stockholders attending to humane and environmental practices and policies;  and as citizens whose voice and vote and influence government. 

My particular interest is in the church as an organization itself.   For as an organization local churches can be tempted toward a more corporate model.  In fact this is the nickname for our largest churches.  Here growth /expansion have been primary energies if not primary goals.  Forfeited or at least under attended are the congregations that do not promise growth or expansion.  Clergy will declare that they have “done all they could do” or need to “move on” for their career or call.  This, in itself,  is permissible partly because America’s corporate mentality has the ability to infect clergy’s perception of their call to ministry.  I heard recently that within the call process, a minister declined further conversation with a church because of its mortgage.  While there may have been other reasons, not wanting to tackle the mortgage may be likened to a CEO who does not believe the situation is profitable enough to invest his or her energy.

 Assessing the church as a corporation may be, simultaneously, a serious impediment and a necessary evil in order to experience the church as the Body of Christ.  It may be a necessary evil because as the authors of Progressive Christian United note, corporations have at least four strengths that might be summarized as an ability to organize work, raise capital, think at a global level and transcend prejudice.  Congregations need clergy and leaders to attend to their life toward , at least, these very ends.  I believe every congregation can be affected in order to be better organized.  However, all organizational efforts must be reinforced by relational glue.  Assessing the church as a corporation has also served as an impediment as clergy live and move and make a living within the churches.  The temptation is to move on and up the ladder.   Congregations cannot survive this corporate type temptation.  Their need is for residential pastors who have the patience and long term interest for congregational redevelopment and restructuring.  They need pastors who have the relational fortitude to bury the beloved and welcome the stranger into a congregation continually over time.  The corporate idea that excellent CEOs are the heads of the largest companies is not a helpful idea for the church but it is pervasive.  There is an assumption that the best preachers, writers and administrators among pastors are in the largest congregations.  EVERY Congregations hold a promise to be the thinking, praying, community building, missional entities of our nation. If we succumb to a corporate model where the smallest are left to atrophy and die we may be left with terrific gaps of under-served communities in our nation where thinking, praying, community building…is compromised or absent.  All size congregations are stakeholders in the Kingdom.

I have a hunch that clergy do not want to be CEOs.  Some if not all of us must function like them but the corporate model alone does not help the human family nor the congregational family.  When the corporate model is balanced by pastors that are wiser than stockholder CEOS and take up stakeholding,  relational inspired leadership open to all types of congregations….then there an ability for God’s church to be a well-represented Kingdom Corporation.

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