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Posts Tagged ‘William Stacy Johnson’

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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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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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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