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Posts Tagged ‘The Theology of John Calvin’

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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