Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Some Clarity on Calvin

“Calvinism” used to be a dirty word to me. When considered, I would gloss over the subject by rote dismissal, thinking such a concept contradictory to the foundational aspects of Christian faith, such as the independence and freedom of the human will. And who could blame me? I’ve "come of age" in a context where the imperative to “make a decision for Christ” was made to be the central function of the church. Every week, some well-meaning minister would offer some kind of emotional appeal to his audience to come forward and “choose Jesus.” The plea would usually go something like this: “The time to decide is now! Don’t delay! You could wake up dead tomorrow! Become a Christian! Join the team that’s going to heaven!” According to John Calvin (1509-1564), one of the fathers of the Protest Reformation, this type of faith—common to many in the modern church—is inconsistent with the witness of Scripture and accurate theology. Instead, Calvin seeks to reclaim and reshape the “catholic” theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, and the Apostles, because the Catholic Church had corrupted their teaching by superimposing a system of “works-righteousness.” Like Luther, Calvin holds firmly to the doctrine that humanity is saved by faith alone*, and in laying out the justice of predestination, he seeks to draw the church into a proper relationship with God.

The overarching principle of Calvin’s discussion of predestination is the preeminence and centrality of God in all things. All of humanity, the cosmos, and time itself exist to serve God’s eternal purposes, which are beyond human comprehension. In other words, this is Calvin’s way of turning our eyes again to the declaration first expounded in the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2). As I read it, Calvin’s desire is to reclaim the holiness of God, which is central to orthodoxy. And when people come to recognize the holiness of God, that is the beginning of real humility.

When I said at the outset that “Calvinism used to be a dirty word,” my main contention with the idea was I could not accept that I was not a free moral agent capable of independent action. Therefore, God could not predestine or determine all things outside of space and time, because I believed a God who determined that some of my friends and family should inevitably be consigned to flames of woe for all eternity for no cause whatsoever was simply unacceptable. The self or human centeredness reflected in such a view is precisely what Calvin sought to combat. The question Calvin asks is this: if salvation, or “election,” is not a matter of God’s will and control, but relies on the “decision” of the individual, does this not impose ludicrous limitations upon God? Calvin asks: “Would [you] wish God’s might so limited as to be unable to accomplish any more than [your] mind can conceive?” In this case, God would be deprived of freedom. Instead of acting as the cause and necessity of all things, the element of control would be stripped of God, now forced to respond in turn to the “decisions” of certain people. This God is not free, therefore, glory should not be ascribed to God. Why praise God for acting out of obligation? If salvation was simply a person’s acceptance of a series of propositions and promises, do not these people “earn” election unto salvation by merit of that decision? By ascribing all things to the predestination of God, Calvin asserts God’s freedom, and when a free God chooses to elect anyone from humanity—a race despoiled by sin—this is nothing but grace. Presumably, Calvin cannot conceive of grace operating in another way. If you are now wondering how there is any justice in God electing some for salvation while condemning others without regard for their merits, Calvin has an answer. Justice, by its very nature, demands that all people be condemned. The greatest injustice of all is that God would show grace to undeserving sinners, and for this, we should rejoice.

I realize I have forsaken massive parts of Calvin’s argument and probably misrepresented him as well, but I hope this summary will suffice to generate some thought and discussion on the subject. Let me conclude with an example of the illusion of human control provided by my professor, Dr. John Thompson. It goes like this:

You walk into California Pizza Kitchen and peruse the menu, which is packed with choices. You scan this extensive document from top to bottom but still cannot make up your mind as to what you’ll order. After some deliberation, you decide to go with the same pizza you’ve ordered on every other visit to the restaurant. In the end, did you really make a choice, or did you turn to a default position? How many of the events that comprise our lives are in reality defaults, or habits, or ingrained conditions of which we are largely unaware, but which invisibly control our day-to-day existence? The illusion of control is an obstacle to humility, and Calvin would have it demolished. Dr. Thompson also offered this thought to the class: “The most centering, humbling, transcendent moments are those when I realize God is working through me. I do not regard this as a violation of my will, but a feeling of surety of purpose. [That which is worked through me] was mine, and it was a gift” (paraphrase).

I’d love to discuss the issues further (since I don’t have a solid grasp on them myself), so feel free to comment.

I am indebted to Dr. John Thompson, Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary for exposing me to the nuances of Calvin and assigning a paper on the justice of predestination. If you encounter a compelling argument or enlightening illustration, it has most likely lifted and/or adapted from his lectures.

* This topic deserves a separate treatment, as it is frequently subject to gross misrepresentation or simple misunderstanding. If you’re not well-versed on the subject, I highly recommend reading Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian Man (1520), or his Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), because, it seems to me, there’s more to the argument than is commonly expressed in certain church circles.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Thoughts on the Politicization of Christianity

The other day I stumbled across a website called "Apprising Ministries," a kind of online blog whose purpose seems to be the policing of the entire spiritual world. This includes an avalanche of condemnations against what they refer to as "New Evangelicalism" and the emergent church movement among others. Although not alone, one institution that receives some of the harshest and most condescending rhetoric is Fuller Theological Seminary (and those associated with it), where I am currently studying. On this and a number of other cites with similar agendas, the prevailing idea is that Fuller is a "spiritual cesspool" and among the most powerful tools Satan currently employs to poison Christ's church, not to mention contaminate the purity and essence of our precious bodily fluids. Another website called "Slice of Laodicea" reflects this view well. Fuller is called, "a mystical hotbed of new age spirituality posing as Christendom...or should I say Christen-dumb" by one commentator. Another offers the following thoughts: "The flow of excriment and the odiferous spiritual stench coming out from Fuller Theological Cemetary gives a Biblical Christian more reason to meditate and respect God's wisdom in some of the often overlooked portions of Scripture." Not only is Fuller compared to a crap-filled sewer and gravesite, but this person goes on to suggest that the seminary is offers something other than Biblical education and training. Another contributor to the dialogue claims that her pastor was not accepted to Fuller because of his theologically conservative beliefs.

There is also included a kind of spiritual blacklist, which includes the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, (apostates within) the Southern Baptist convention and "evolutionists". Contemplative spirituality is attacked as well, so I suppose people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster would fall into the "apostate" category as well. Among those decried as heretics and teachers of apostasy are Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Rick Warren (the latter two are Fuller graduates). Rick Warren receives the greatest amount of criticism for a variety of reasons, and one of these jumped out at me. One person cites Rick Warren's use of the revenue generated by his book, Purpose Driven Life, saying that while Rick Warren repaid the church his entire 25 year salary, gives away 90% of his income, lives on 10%, and uses his influence to "mobilize Christians to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and combat illiteracy," Mr. Warren is guilty of practicing a "social gospel" and excluding "CHRIST!!!!" (yes, four exclamation points).

I recognize that these opinions represent the minority and not the majority of Christians, and for that I am thankful. Nonetheless, I write all this because I believe many within the so-called "conservative" camp hold to these kinds of views in varying degrees or permutations. From first hand experience, I have observed what many Christians consider to be authentic, Biblical Christianity, and the effects of such beliefs. This Christianity is characterized by a severe wariness of "intellectualism," disdain for the spiritual disciplines and "outer" works, an ironic insistence on sola scriptura ("only Scripture"), disregard and sometimes contempt for the traditions of the church, claims to exclusivity (which entails a wariness of nearly every other denomination and religion, and deep respect for the military and the necessity of "Christendom" as the means of maintaining God's kingship on earth). While I have never met a person as vehemently judgmental and self-righteous as the people writing on these various "Team Christian: World Police" sites, this kind of thinking is manifest in various forms. I believe this kind of discourse does far more harm than good, if any good at all. The most prominent result of this kind of rhetoric is increased polarization in the Christian community. It is people like these who contribute most to my despair for the future of the church and desire to simply remove myself entirely from such a contentious and smug context forever.

Allow me to address the Fuller issue first. Let me begin by saying: Fuller Seminary is not perfect. Nobody teaching or studying at Fuller Seminary is anywhere near perfect. All are covered by the grace of Jesus Christ. I have yet to meet anyone who claims otherwise. Fuller is comprised of a diverse student body from every corner of the globe and numerous religious backgrounds, including several Roman Catholics, Messianic Jews, and a slew of Presbyterians. Most are serious, committed Christians who serve in local churches of all shapes and sizes, or intend to do similar work for the glory of the kingdom of God, whether it be in the world of psychology, missions, or any other trade. Some are politically conservative, and some are theologically conservative as well, holding firmly to the inerrancy of Scripture as do the "Laodiceans." Some are politically and/or theologically "liberal" as well, while most would best be classified as "moderates" (I use quotes around these stupid titles because I can hardly stand writing them. They have become harmful labels one group uses to rally behind, or a lens formed to manipulate, distort, and marginalize the other group). Whatever political or theological position is held by a particular student or professor, Fuller is a place where tensions are welcomed and dialogue is fundamental. I take great offense to the ignorant abuses heaped upon the school and the thousands of people who worship, study, and teach there for the sake of Christ and His church. Classifying the school as a "mystical hotbed of new age spirituality posing as Christendom" is plainly wrong on many levels. Whatever "new age" means, to use the title to classify Fuller is astoundingly simplistic and reflects the opinion of a person who has nothing but the most cursory and biased exposure to the school. Secondly, the idea of "Christendom" would likely be offensive to most of the school's population as the term denotes centuries of intolerance, persecution, and war. Most students would probably join with Martin Luther in saying, "Take heed and first fill the world with real Christians before you attempt to rule it in a Christian and evangelical manner." Lastly, the school is no "mystical hotbed," and I don't know exactly how to refute that but to simply say: It is not true. That has not been my experience. I don't know what a "mystical hotbed" would look like, but I assume this person is insinuating that we students are encouraged to participate in Buddhist, Hindu, or other forms of eastern mysticism, rather than the classical Christian disciplines Jesus himself practiced, as well as the vast majority of the church fathers and lay Christians through the centuries. More on that topic later.

As for the "blacklist" that has been compiled, I will only address the idea that Rick Warren is guilty of preaching and practicing a "social gospel." Protestant, mainstream Christianity has come to be characterized by an emphasis on triumphalism (the victory of Christ), a de-emphasis on "works" (because we are justified by faith in Christ), and the priority of individual conversion (to belief in certain propositions about God, at the least). Triumphalism is a pervasive mentality in the modern church. What it lacks is the centrality of the poverty and suffering of Christ, which is also (supposed to be) fundamental for all Christians: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). As for Jesus' ministry, it was a very social one. The in-breaking of the kingdom of God at the hands of Jesus entailed the healing of the sick, caring for the needy and the poor, reframing the relationship between master and slave, male and female, mighty and meek; in short, establishing a new kind of society on earth. And regarding individual conversion, I think it's great, but amid all the evangelical fervor and proselytizing of unbelievers, what has been lost are the grander purposes God has been preparing for the church from the beginning, namely, the restoration of the entire world. If this is kept before our eyes, social action takes on a different character. Instead of acts undertaken to earn merits, to prove our faith or convert our neighbors, "works" take on a different character. They are the very real bandages dressing the very real wounds suffered by a world for which God was willing to die. After all, what does Christian faith look like aside from the work of Christ lived out in the community of faith which bears his name? The answer, I believe, is all around. This faith, predominantly internal in nature and concerned with "getting people to heaven," produces apathetic Christians who have little to offer a world that is crumbling to hell all around.

Finally, I want to share some of my thoughts on the broader issues involved in the politicization of the church, especially concerning the liberal/conservative dichotomy. I have seen and experienced each of these to some degree. First, intellectualism, in what I will (hesitantly) classify as "conservative circles," is regarded as a danger to orthodox Christianity and an impediment to genuine faith. The common effects of anti-intellectualism are contempt for "secular" academic institutions and their "liberal" professors (all of whom are believed to be lurking in the dark, waiting for some untarnished young Christian to abduct and befoul with their "worldly" ideas); unflinching skepticism of the biological, physical, and psychological sciences; and in some cases, it will produce senior pastors who plagiarize their every sermon without providing accreditation, I suppose so as not to appear overly "intellectual." On a personal note, certain "secular" professors have made a profound impact on me intellectually and spiritually. Second, I mentioned earlier that there is often found an ironic insistence on sola scriptura ("only scripture") in the life of the church. By this, I mean the Bible-thumping contention that "all of life's answers can be found in this book." There are several ironies here. To begin, most of the preachers I see waving Bibles in the air, offering exhortations to "read, read, read your Bibles!" and proclaiming that their churches practice authentic, Biblical Christianity rarely open the Bibles they thump. Some, like the plagiarist cited above, who take every reference from another pastor's outline in the first place, may not read the book at all. In regards to inerrancy, I say, who cares if the Bible's inerrant if nobody's reading it? The level of Biblical literacy generated in many so-called "Biblical" churches is pitiful. Many lifelong churchgoers lack a basic knowledge of the content, form, and style of the Bible, and lack the resources to engage in basic interpretation of the text. And the touted authentic brand of Biblical Christianity that's often preached bears little resemblance to the early church, except in some superficial ways (of course, to know this, you'd need a basic understanding of church history, which is also lacking). Third, there is an implicit disregard for the classic Christian spiritual disciplines and the traditions of the church. I believe that the lack of training in spiritual disciplines is a major contributor to the general lack of effectual discipleship. This I have, and am still, learning the hard way. For those who believe in the Platonic ideals of body/soul dualism, perhaps a lack of spiritual training is okay, because what they're preparing for is the blessed departure from the evil material world and the bliss of disembodied existence in heaven. For those who must deal with the body and the physical world and care for God's physical creation, these disciplines are central. Fourth, many churches and churchgoers are remarkably wary of their Christian brothers and sisters on different sides of the political spectrum. The conservatives don't associate with the liberals, and vice versa. Not only is this quite non-Biblical and unhelpful, it has prevented the church from making significant strides in other areas, such as racial reconciliation, closing the gap between rich and poor, and dealing with significant issues such as homosexuality. Again I ask, what is Christian faith if not concerned with (social) issues such as these? Last is the topic of "Christendom," or a God-ordained human government on earth, instituting Christian worship and practice by law. This is closely tied to the nationalistic sentiments that pervade so many conservative churches. I know many people who would be perfectly content to see Christendom (something that arguably reached its pinnacle with the reign of Emperor Constantine) firmly and inexorably established in America. This conflation of kingdoms is a dangerous thing, and has done more harm than good. As I mentioned before, Martin Luther himself argued against it vehemently. There is one word that best describes this God-and-America mentality: idolatry. To illustrate, I'll start a new paragraph.

A couple years ago, an unnamed church put on an Easter service extravaganza at a local sporting arena. At tremendous expense, the church blitzed the media with advertising, rented tons of hi-tech equipment, and hired a country music act to sing "special music," all with the intention of drawing "seekers" for the salvation of their immortal souls. Now, maybe you have a problem with Easter being such a circus, since it's supposedly the holiest day on the (Evangelical) Christian calendar. Well, you're right to be upset, but I'm not finished. After an unnamed preacher preached a plagiarized sermon, the pastel-colored choir sang a few songs, the offering plates were passed, and communion was unwrapped and consumed, the star attraction stepped onto the stage for the culmination of the Paschal celebration: Mr. Lee Greenwood. Solemnly, he took his mic, and to the accompaniment of a CD track, he sang "God Bless the U.S.A.," which was followed by thunderous applause. In retrospect, I believe this to be the absolute lowest point of my church experience. The faith I saw displayed that day is a show on par with a Britney Spears concert. It is consumer-focused, godless, and irreverent. It is idolatrous. It is everything I don't want the church to be.

In broad strokes, those are my thoughts on politicization within the church. It is my sincere hope and prayer that these thoughts of mine contribute to a thoughtful and peaceful dialogue aimed at reclaiming the heart of orthodoxy, that is, right belief. If my thoughts only generate more discord, then I'll throw them out and start over again. I am well aware of my own shortcomings and I'm aware that my opinions on the topics in this paper will doubtless shift as I mature. I'm aware I have probably left a lot unsaid as well. And to end with a word of agreement with those I have otherwise disagreed: I affirm the centrality of Christ. Christ supersedes all social and political agendas, every church doctrine and spiritual discipline, every disagreement. May Christ be our completer, our justifier, and our hope. Amen.