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Posts Tagged ‘Process and Faith’

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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Two left hands forming an outline of a heart s...

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Love is the third emotion explored by Robert C. Solomon and his described as the most favorite of our positive emotions.   But again, Solomon is going to understand love as not thing that happens to us but an engagement with the world and a series of choices.  He notes that love is not only the discovery that another person is loveable but it is the bestowal of virtues that “make a person valuable to us” (27).  Surely there are situations that are beyond our control in partnership.  Given that caveat, it is equally true that when love endures it is because we have made the choice to move forward with an imperfect and at times even crazy partner.

Solomon notes that fairy tales ending is really the beginning of love.  For it is after the hero and the heroine are joined and riding off into the sunset that the real work begins.  And by real work, I mean real choices.  Solomon’s lecture implies that love has more to do with the lover than the lovee.  Additionally, our ability to engage critical thinking about our choices and our willingness to learn and adapt (when the situation is not an abusive one) may be the strongest patterns of behavior in long-standing relationships.

The irony is that within a loving relationship there will surely be times when we don’t feel in love at all.  Indeed, other emotions arise like fear , anger, shame etc.  Those, seemingly antithetical emotions challenge and critique love.  If we hold them in tension with love, they provide a path….even if it is  sometimes a narrow path, forward.  An active love is dependent upon the regular challenge of antithetical emotions that, like a good workout in the gym, strengthens our choice to continue the task of loving.  Then, with serendipity, we receive warm and wonderful moments of reward that even if they are brief run deep like a spring fed well and we can return to them to be nourished.

Process theology asserts that Our Creator imagines many wonderful possibilities for each of us.  But as we live imperfectly and narrow our possibilities and potential, God moves courageously forward with us….choosing to love us.  As faithful creatures, outside of abusive relationships, this might be behavior we would want to discipline ourselves toward.

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While process theology has a technical language all its own.   It is  a language worth learning because of its applicability to every day circumstances.  For example, an otherwise well mannered boy on the verge of becoming a teenager has an afternoon meltdown when his parents ask him if he has completed his chores.  Not only has he not completed his chores, he is ranting about how little freedom he has and how suspicious his parents are of him.  In order to communicate all these things, he employs a sarcastic tone and tears.  How could this otherwise discouraging and seemingly futile situation be understood as a hopeful one?    With the help of process theology.  First a brief definition of terms:

  1. Enjoyment, in process thought, describes the process of realizing that each individual is one among many and that individuals arise uniquely out of the many.  Enjoyment is not so much associated with pleasure as it is with a sense of becoming in the world.
  2. Intensity is dependant upon complexity where a variety of contrasting things are brought together into a moment or experience.
  3. Harmony is characterized by individuals or circumstances that do not clash strongly with our previous experiences or understandings.
  4. Creative self determination is the process by which individuals participate in creating themselves out the material that has been given to it in the past. 

So, on the verge of adulthood, a young man, in order to enjoy himself more fully, challenges the harmony of his household.  He constructs some intensity through tears and sarcasm in order to say to the world “hey, I am not just along for the ride!  I do not want to just be told!  I want to participate in the creation that God started.”   In short, he uses the afternoon to practice taking part in his own creative process.   After the catharsis, he comes to his parents and apologizes and delivers the evening’s harmony.

 All of this might be a great frustration to his parents, if it were not so thrilling to be reminded that no child is born just once.

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