Judgment and Doing Justice (Zahnd Review Follow-Up)

crucifixion rutledgeA couple of days ago, I wrote a very lengthy review of Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Since then, I’ve received a number of questions of various sorts, but there has been a cluster of them I wanted to briefly speak to right now.

One of the main concerns motivating many who are attracted to the message of Zahnd and associates of his is the social justice component. They’re vocal advocates online and in the world for pressing issues of social justice such as poverty, government violence, criminal justice reform, war, trafficking, and a number of other of the issues which plague our world. They connect this concern, this activism—rightly!—to their commitment to living out the ethic of Jesus. Jesus didn’t just come to live and die to get rid of individual sins but to challenge the principalities and powers, to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.

Now, the inverse of that is that many (especially on the younger end) are concerned because the Evangelical churches they’ve grown up in seem to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to the social issues which concern them. They vote for Trump. They vote for war. They support torture. They seem to be (and often truly are) apathetic to issues of White Supremacy, police violence, and don’t seem to care about anything but abortion or gay marriage.

For this set, reading my review, the question is, “Okay, you’ve defended retribution, penal substitution, and even God’s wrath, but now what? What real-world impact does your theology make?” A program of non-violence stemming from a non-violent God taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seems to lead directly to non-violent action, while there seems to be a direct link between the theology I’m defending and, well, everything that’s wrong with Western Christendom.

I can’t give a full answer to that here. To do the job properly would involve a few chapters of corrective historiography, a deep dive in issues of just war theory, and a half-dozen other points. I actually think (once again) Joshua Ryan Butler’s books, Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion, Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, and even John Stott at the tail-end of his classic The Cross of Christ (and his works on ethics which stand consistent with it) are a far better resource at this point. Still, I’d like to sketch a few points.

But first, two caveats.

Points of Theological Order

Abuse does not remove proper use. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just about every Christian doctrine can be abused in some way that leads to terrible consequences. Teaching on forgiveness—a concept we all believe in—can lead to views of cheap grace which let people off the hook for caring about a life of discipleship and justice. Or, they can be used to short-circuit the work of confronting offenders with their sins, or retraumatizing victims by making them “reconcile” with their offenders too quickly, or without regard for proper concerns of safety and wisdom. That said, we don’t want to scrap forgiveness, but teach it properly.

What I am saying is that misapplication can happen easily for a variety of reasons. People are sinfully inconsistent, for one thing. Also, they happen to be very good at drawing faulty conclusions from true premises. What’s more, they can actually just sin and willfully turn from their stated beliefs when it is in their interests. I think this must be born in mind when it comes to certain historical cases people make to tar teachings on these subjects.

Second, the connections between various doctrines is not always as tight as people like to make them. For instance, I happen to believe in penal substitution as well as Just War theory. Someone like Darrin Snyder Belousek would argue that this comes from my buying wholesale into the same retributive package. He argues that accepting the one means you have to accept the other (and by implication, distortions such as aggressive criminal practice and militarism). But that’s not necessarily true. The issues are certainly related, but their justifications can actually be distinguished (theologically and Scripturally) from each other.

For instance, it’s fully possible to reject penal substitution as a moral confusion and affirm just war as a moral necessity for governance in the world. If I’m not mistaken, I believe Nicholas Wolterstorff holds such a view. Conversely, Miroslav Volf has held just the opposite and argued quite forcefully that it’s precisely the promise that God will repay, will handle justice in this life or the next, that allows for the practice of non-violence here and now. To quote Volf:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

-Exclusion and Embrace, p. 304

Similarly, Preston Sprinkle and my own podcast mate Andrew Wilson are pacifists who hold views of atonement, divine retribution, and OT authority of the sort I defended in the Zahnd review. So they read key verses in the Gospels and the Epistles differently than ones I do that have to do with human responsibility, citizenship, and so forth.

Beyond this, though, the positive question is what does (or can) this theology do on the ground?

News for Victims and Victimizers

Well, first, I think it gives us good news for both victims and victimizers—and this in various ways.

It gives good news to victims of injustice. First, as I argued, it tells them that God takes their pain seriously. He hates what has happened to them as well. God is opposed to rape. God is opposed to racism. God is opposed to lynching. God is opposed to grinding dehumanization. He knows, he hears, and he has taken account of it. No matter who has ignored you, no matter what “justice” system has turned a blind eye to you, the Judge of the World has not—he has known you and your pain and has a will to do something about it. Indeed, he has become one of you—a victim—in order to do just that. As one friend puts it, God is in solidarity with the victims. That is part of the message of the cross.

And not only that—he brings healing with him. He has a will to put an end to such things and restore creatures to himself. Including you. God has come in the flesh to save the world. He has come to reveal God, to condemn sin, to bring resurrection life, healing and wholeness to all who would repent of their sins and turn to him. You can turn to him and be healed and not let vengeance consume you, but let him heal your wounds.

To the Victimizers

This brings me to the other side: it gives good new to the victimizers. The good news is that despite their darkness, despite their wickedness, despite the real depths of their injustice, God offers salvation to them who repent. To those who turn, they have the promise that all they have done can be blotted out. It can be dead and buried and they too can be reunited with God, have life, to have the fullness they chase through their sin. Some fear repenting because they do not know if there is any way to come back. They don’t think there is an atonement for what they have done and surely God cannot forgive it, so they persist and throw themselves headlong down the road of sin. The cross says, yes, even your sins—the sins of an oppressor like Paul, who counted himself the chief of sinners! (1 Tim 1:15)—can be put aside as well.

But, it also stands as a warning to them. We need to remember that the prophets inveighed most harshly against the political and religious leaders of Israel. Ezekiel condemned the shepherd for the waywardness of the sheep—for devouring them and letting them go astray unto death. Isaiah and Amos go after the rich who unrighteously take advantage of the poor and pervert justice against them. They condemn the priests and the prophets who allow the people to fall into idolatry (an injustice to their souls and to God), and sexual immorality (an injustice to their bodies and each other). They condemn nations who make war for glory, power, and might and warn that God’s wrath will come against them. And that same instinct sees most of Jesus’ harshest condemnations were for the religious and political leaders of his day who were either grinding the weak into the ground with burden, or the rich for their callous treatment of the poor.

Speaking plainly, the wrath and judgment of God against sin is a motivator to stop sinning. That’s how it is used in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Now, I don’t think that is opposed to showing people how sin eventually eats itself up, destroys itself, and is a way that just “naturally” leads to death either. But Scripture gives us more than one way to invite people to turn from their sinful oppression.

These two sides—the invitation and the warning—are important messages I think disciples of Christ need to be able to present as they follow their master in standing against injustice. We have a message of warning and hope. We have a message that says the world will not always carry on this way. The kingdom of God is coming in salvation and judgment, therefore repent as Zaccheus did and make restitution, do justice, turn from wickedness, and let the Lord transform you. Otherwise, your ways will lead to ruin—some of it visible in the consequences you may see in this life, or those you don’t think are coming in the next.

I don’t see these notions interfering at all with the work of justice in the world. I see this as fully compatible with motivating Christians to stand vocally against sin and oppression of all sorts, while simultaneously offering a vision of Christlike reconciliation.

Retributive Justice As a Check on Power and Vengeance

One point I want to underline is that this notion of justice is also a firm ground from which to speak truth to power. The judgment of God says that no matter how high or lofty, how powerful or mighty, dominant the powers that be, they will be held to account by God—either in this life or the next. This, I think, can give strength and courage to the reformer at work in City Hall, the protestor in the streets demonstrating peacefully for justice, the defense attorney working to protect the falsely accused and disadvantaged, the prosecutor trying to bring the corrupt to justice for oppressing the weak, and the resister who sets themselves, as Christ did, against unjust power. No matter the power standing against you, you will take up your cross and follow Christ, bearing the burden of opposition, from persecution against you from the powers that be.

Second, as I said, it is a warning to those in power in a variety of ways. For example, I think considering concerns about retributive justice can help spur productive action about criminal justice reform. Part of what’s so troubling about it is the rampant inequities we find, as well as the disproportionate nature of some sentencing which has landed, especially on people of color. Knowing that God is a God of justice who is opposed to false imprisonment, unfair and unjust treatment of inmates who are, nonetheless, Image-bearers—all of this should motivate Christians to either lobby, vote, or support efforts at criminal justice reform in those ways which God has called them, in whatever offices God has called them (voter, legislator, law enforcement officer, civil servant). God is “not a respecter of persons” (Rom. 2:11), favoring the strong or powerful over the weak, or one race over another, but is a true judge and demands right judgment from human representatives.

Which means also that those Christians who are at work in the justice and political system, all forgiven and cleansed sinners who stood condemned as well, should be moved to carry out their work without a spirit of retaliation. Mercy can temper even the work of justice in the world. The same patience that moves God to restrain his judgment so that men might repent (2 Pet. 3), can imbue our work with patience, keeping us from spiteful retaliation. It should make those in authority who wield the sword wary of coming under God’s judgment through the unjust treatment of those over whom they govern. They now govern and work as disciples.

Indeed, surprisingly enough, a concern for matters of retribution might slow us down in our march towards violent solutions to our local and global problems. Even for the Just War theorist, there needs to be a concern than in your duty to love your neighbor, or administer the sword (Rom. 13), you do so in a way that reflects God’s justice, which is never petty, never a matter of overkill, or lust for blood. It is about trying to secure peace, so that righteousness might thrive. If you really believe this, you have a strong motivation to seek whatever non-violent means you can to resolve or restrain evil until the point is forced.

Reconciliation

This brings me to another point about what this looks like on the ground. One chap brought up my Palestinian heritage. What does the gospel I’m looking to defend mean for the Palestinian people on the West Bank? Or efforts for justice in Charleston? Or Ferguson? I have to say, I think it can impact it in a dozen different ways I don’t have the space to articulate. I also think that beyond atonement, we have a number of other doctrines (anthropology, eschatology, union with Christ, ecclesiology) that should be shaping our thought here. I’ve said this before, but no every doctrine has to do everything. And trouble comes when we try to force them to.

With that said, as I mentioned above, I think seeing the cross as the judgment of God on sin—including my own—moves me to pursue justice in this world in a non-retaliatory way. I’m not out looking for vengeance—that’s God’s work (Rom. 12). I am out seeking to follow Jesus in bringing shalom to the earth by repenting of the ways that I participate in sin against God and my neighbor. And I am out looking for the best ways to invite my neighbors to do the same. I will extend the mercy of the gospel and work as best as I can to be at peace with all.

Indeed, I will aim to be a peacemaker, insofar as it is possible, not holding people’s sins against me against them in a pale imitation of the forgiveness God has shown me. Even when I attempt to hold someone accountable for their wickedness, or restrain them from committing more, I do it as a way of loving my neighbor who they are harming, as well as the offender himself, for I do not want him to destroy himself in sin. I think these principles can be at work in the streets of Ferguson, as well as the villages of Palestine, or any other place that Christians are called to witness to God’s grace and justice.

In other words, I don’t think any of my argument rules out disciples taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously as a road-map for discipleship for the church in the world. Indeed, even though I do affirm Just War theory and the distinction between public and private offices, I think there are even ways to apply the Sermon on the Mount to rulers and authorities in political office.

And as a member of the Church, I will do all of this as a way of witnessing to the complex, multi-faceted glory of the gospel which judges sin, saves sinners, liberates victims, and reconciles the warring nations within itself as it shares the bread and wine of God’s body broken and blood shed for sin.

This has gone long, and I still have left so much out. For instance, we could talk about the positive ways that an account of atonement such as the one I am advocating could incorporate some of Girard’s insights in order to stop scapegoating and weaponizing our victims (I have tried to do that here). All the same, I think you begin to see the way that none of what I’m arguing for need blunt the work of justice in the world. Preaching the cross as justice ought lead to just people.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cure that Killed the Patient (Or, Sorry Zahnd, Marcionism isn’t a Better Option)

tumblr_mr9zzaTmj01rj8v6zo1_400A while back John Piper put out a video that defended God’s right to judge the Canaanites by the hand of the Israelites in the conquest narratives of the OT. He said something along the lines of “God is God, he made you and doesn’t owe you jack, so if he takes your life, you really have nothing to complain about. Also, God can use whom he pleases to do so.” Roughly.

Predictably, some people got mad. I mean, I get that. It’s a tough subject and any answer is going to be kind of awkward (although, honestly, at this point Piper could say that God loves kittens and somebody would snark, “But only elect ones, right?”). Beyond just general Facebook furor when it hit, it recently provoked a frontal-assault/response from author and pastor Brian Zahnd. For those who don’t know, Zahnd has been a rising voice on the Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Left since his book “Beauty Will Save the World” came out last year. I actually read it and loved it, even if I did have some qualms about the pacifism peeking out here and there.

Well, pacifist though he may be, Zahnd came out guns blazing with accusations of voluntarism against the monstrous God of Calvinism, and, just the slightest bit of Muslim-baiting in his provocatively titled, “John Piper and Allahu Akbar.” As you might have picked up, I didn’t love this post quite as much as the book and I’ll get to why in a minute. But first, a few quick caveats.

To be clear, I don’t particularly care to defend Piper’s views here as he is a big boy who can defend himself. Nor is this is denial that the OT narratives involving the conquest and destruction of the Canaanites require some serious consideration. They do. Actually, while we’re on the subject, I’d commend Paul Copan’s work on the subject in the book “Is God a Moral Monster?” or this summary article paying attention to historical, genre, and canonical considerations here. Finally, I too am very concerned about the misuse of Scripture to promote violence.

What I do want is to look at is Zahnd’s reponse, which, to mind, left something to be desired in terms of theological honesty as well as, well, ‘soundness of teaching’? (I don’t want to say orthodoxy, given his clear, robust Nicene and Chalcedonian faith.) Yes, I’m putting on my argumentative Reformed hat again, which I do try to stay away from, but, in all fairness, Zahnd shot first.

Well, without further ado, here are a few points in no particular order.

Yeah, never taught that.

Yeah, never taught that.

Calvin’s “Ism”

Zahnd found a cute short-hand for Piper’s theology of sovereignty, or rather, that of “Calvin’s disciples”, which he dubbed “Calvin’s Ism.” He then proceeded to rail on it, lamenting the way Piper and others would go to such great lengths to defend the “Ism” to the point of creating a monstrous voluntaristic/nominalist God whose will is what it is, simply because it is, and so forth. Don’t you know that we should look at Jesus, not what Calvin thought about Jesus?! Away with such Greek-philosophy-influenced, metaphysical barbarisms!

scumbag girardIt’s typical anti-Calvinist boilerplate that fires up the troops and so forth, so I get it. As one of “Calvin’s Disciples” though, I simply wanted to stop and point out that, as a matter of historical fact, Calvin strongly repudiated the overly-voluntaristic and nominalist tradition popular in his day at the Sorbonne flowing from theological giants like Scotus and Ockham. (Incidentally, I always find it funny when guys who basically riff off of French social theorists like Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory when it comes to the Gospel, have the gall to call out “Greek philosophical categories” in more traditional theology.)

Calvin explicitly rejected a view of God’s unrestrained will, or absolute power, divorced from God’s justice or God’s goodness. While he unabashedly defends God’s complete sovereignty over human history, he simultaneously condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power.” (Institutes 1.17.2) That’s just one among many examples.

Again, it’s a fun phrase, and when you’re driving the punch-line home, why not pick a baddie to rip on your fanbase already doesn’t like? Calvin’s perfect for that, especially since most people haven’t actually read him much. But, in this case, Zahnd should probably find another whipping boy to pin the voluntarism charge on.

Killing is Not Always Murder

Moving more to the point, Zahnd tells us that God could never have ordered the conquest and judgment of the Canaanites in the way the narratives portray it because that would involve killing which is murder and God would never order murder.

So for some this next point might seem basic: while all murder is killing, not all killing is murder. For others, this is a basic false distinction that they rejected as un-biblical a long time ago.

I’ll just say that a prima facie reading of the Scriptures, especially the OT legal code (Exod. 21), shows that while God hates human death, the law that he handed down seemed to recognize a distinction between killing and murder. Actually, very early on in the narrative of the Torah, we find out that the reason he allows for some killing is precisely because he hates murder (Gen. 9:6). Murder is unjustifiable, but executions and judgments seemed to be accounted for and even commanded by God himself in various places in the OT law and the subsequent narrative. Of course, that raises the issue of the reliability of the OT on this point.

Which brings us to the really big issue with Zahnd’s post.

Marcionism isn’t a Better Option 

See, Zahnd says we shouldn’t let something like the Old Testament slow us down when we’re thinking about these things:

And don’t let the Old Testament work you into a corner. You don’t need to defend the Old Testament to the extent that you find it necessary to justify genocide. God forbid! We can simply say this…

The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ.

This is a perfect example of what Andrew Wilson has called the “New Marcionism“, which, while not explicitly repudiating the OT the way Marcion did, insists on seeing such a radical discontinuity between the God we see testified to in the OT and that of the NT that it has much the same effect.

Let me unsympathetically paraphrase Zahnd for you to see the problem: “The ancient Israelites who wrote the Holy Scriptures got some stuff wrong, but we know better now that Jesus came. We know that Jesus would never order something like that, so we know that God didn’t order something like that, so just don’t trouble yourself about it. The verses are just wrong. I mean, sure, Jesus said that the Scriptures all pointed to him (John 5:39), and the law is to be perfectly fulfilled (Matt. 5), and we can assume he read those parts, but he couldn’t possibly have meant all of it. Sure we have parallels in the NT with Revelation and God raining down judgment, etc. not to mention Jesus himself casting down judgment of his own, but again, don’t let that trouble you. Nevermind the deeply pervasive theology of God the Warrior who goes before Israel in battle that informs much of the OT, and depends on some of those “mistaken assumptions”–just try and skip those bits. I mean don’t worry that this even figures into Luke’s telling of Acts as a conquest narrative. Just squint until you see it properly. God wouldn’t do anything like that. I mean, don’t bother trying understand the difference between God’s administration of covenant justice in Israel v. the Church because of Christ’s ushering in a new phase in redemptive-history. It’s not that the same God can manifest his eternally good and beautiful character in consistent, but historically-distinct ways. We have the much easier option of saying the Israelites just got it wrong. Simple as that. Don’t worry about what that does to undermine the authority of the OT and its ability to actually point to Jesus Christ. Please don’t trouble yourself with the way this sort of crypto-Marcionism might spill into the subtle anti-Semitism of viewing the Old Testament as an inherently inferior text like the old-school German Liberal scholars who made this sort of argument popular back in the early part of the 20th Century. I mean, no big deal.”

In a dispute with the Pharisees in John 10:35, Jesus tells us that the scriptures cannot be “broken.” The Greek word there is luo which can be translated “to destroy, to tear down, the break to pieces” (Louw-Nida 20:35).  Essentially, it can’t be ignored, released, explained away, or rendered null or void. Except, that’s exactly what Zahnd suggests we do with those uncomfortable bits.

On ‘Christocentric’ Readings (Or, The Cure that Killed the Patient)  

Here’s the thing, when your “Christocentric” reading of the Scriptures leads you to ignore or deny parts of Scriptures the way Christ says shouldn’t happen, you might be doing it wrong. Realize that this isn’t about whether we’re going to read the Bible in light of Jesus, but about how. Does the revelation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen shed light on and transfigure the testimony of God’s dealing with Israel, or simply deny, or downgrade its validity by cutting chunks out?

Of course, this goes to the deeper theological question who we’re going to allow God to be? Will we allow him to reveal himself as a God who, though simple in essence, is narratively-complex in his self-rendering in the history of Israel?  “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7) Do we let Jesus be both the one who longs to shelter Jerusalem under his wings to save them, all the while forcefully proclaiming God’s impending, violent, judgment on their sins (Matt 23:29-39)? Do we allow for the full picture of Jesus to emerge, or the one we’ve shoved into our pacifistic Procrustean bed, and shave off the verses that don’t fit?

Tom needs a drink after that.

Tom needs a drink after that.

While some of us are tempted to take Zahnd’s path of essentially rejecting prior revelation as the mistaken assumptions of our spiritual fathers, Might I suggest a surer, admittedly less comfortable, course? It is a route that N.T. Wright offers up in his answer to Wilson on the issue of the New Marcionism:

“There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then … these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going.

“I hold this within the framework I articulated this morning, which is to say: from the call of Abraham onwards, what God is committing himself to do is to act to bring about the restoration of the world, but to act through deeply flawed human beings, who constantly need to be reminded that they’re deeply flawed. That then produces all kinds of (to our mind) ambiguities. And I see all of it coming together in the cross. The cross is the moment when I see Israel’s God performing the salvific event, which is simultaneously the worst and most blasphemous act of judicial, theocidal murder than one can ever imagine. And somehow the cross itself says: these things are now reconciled.”

Of course there’s more to say, but I’ve already said too much for what’s an allegedly short blog post. (May God forgive my lies.) The end of the matter is that while Zahnd may find Piper’s alleged voluntarism to be a gross misrepresentation of Jesus by distortion, his own neo-Marcionism leaves us with a highly-abridged Bible, and therefore an abridged Jesus, which is hardly an improvement. While offering a solution to the Bible’s problematic texts, Zahnd is inadvertently administering the kind of cure that kills the patient.

Soli Deo Gloria

Responses to “Calvin Killed Servetus!” by Denomination (Or, Dealing with Theological Moral Hubris)

men_debate_calvinism

HT: The Sacred Sandwich

It’s a well-known fact that the heretic Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva during Calvin’s pastorate there. This is universally condemned by both Calvin fans and foes alike. At least it should be. What’s often debated is Calvin’s role in the whole affair and what impact, if any, it should have on our judgment about the man, his theology, and the subsequent theological tradition that follows him. And indeed, it is problematic. That anybody could think that burning at the stake those with whom we disagree on theological matters is, in any sense, compatible with the Gospel of the crucified Messiah, is a morally disastrous lapse in judgment to say the least.

So what do we say to this? Especially when the subject is brought up in order to discredit Calvin or the Reformed tradition as a whole?

Two Classic Responses
1. The General Point. The first typical (and I believe valid) response is to make the general point that one wrong action, incident, statement, or even habit, doesn’t necessarily invalidate someone’s entire career. Obviously, one can find dubious actions and statements in the biographies of most of history’s heroes. Lincoln’s anti-slavery record is brilliant and yet he made statements that by contemporary standards (as well as transhistorical ones) are quite racist. Martin Luther King Jr. broke his marital vows to Coretta Scott King numerous times. And no, this isn’t just prudery or relativistically equating personal sexual misdeeds with corporate violence. By engaging in the adulterous trysts he did, he risked the public moral integrity of the entire Civil Rights movement he came to represent. At the biblical level, one might point out that not a single figure in the Bible, even its authors, comes out clean except for Jesus. In that sense, Calvin keeps company with the long line of saved wretches like Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul.

2. Moving to Calvin. Second, one can move to the particulars of the case, placing Calvin in his historical context. Clearly, he wasn’t the only one at the time to make that lapse. Calvin was unfortunately a “Constantinian” in the sense that he un-biblically mixed the authority of the State with that of the Church. But then again, so was everybody else. It’s easy to forget that Servetus was already condemned to death by the Roman Catholics. He escaped a death sentence in Vienne to run to Geneva. Similarly, if the Lutherans had gotten their hands on him he would have been executed. When the Magistrates of Geneva asked the magistrates and theologians in places like Zurich, Basel, and Wittenberg, they all agreed that Servetus should have been burned.

Further, Calvin had earlier explicitly warned Servetus in correspondence not to come to Geneva or things would not go well for him there either. He even risked his own life at one point to go meet him in an area outside of Geneva where he himself was a wanted heretic in order to reconcile theologically. It is not the case that Servetus was the victim of Calvin’s peculiarly authoritarian personality that flowed from his inhuman, predestinarian God. If anything, it was an inherited, though still culpable, flaw in thought and practice. It should be noted that Calvin held no explicit political authority in Geneva and was not even a citizen until much later in life. He did play theological witness in the trial, while at the same time arguing with him in private in prison, urging him to recant. Beyond that, he is reported to have pleaded with the city elders to, at the very least, execute him in a more humane manner than burning, but rather by hanging. (Now, to us that doesn’t sound like much, but comparatively-speaking that’s something.)

To place it in a broader framework, sadly Servetus was one of many heretics tried and executed in the Reformation era by both Catholics and Protestants of all stripes–they were universally more violent and barbarous times. To put it bluntly, the reason Servetus is brought up today is that he was a little more famous, something of a symbol, and because it’s an easy way to criticize and single out Calvin. For more along these lines, see R. Scott Clark’s post on the “Calvin as Tyrant Meme“, and a more complete summary of the Servetus affair here.

Dealing with Theological Hubris by Denomination
Now, while all of these points ought to be considered and weighed, there’s another way to handle the whole charge: the tu quoque (“you too”). Admittedly, it is formally a fallacy, but in response to the ad hominem nature of the “Servetus” denunciation, I think it has a part to play in the discussion. It’s more commonly-observed that most of us suffer from chronological moral hubris, the malady that makes us think we obviously wouldn’t have done what our historical forebears did if we had been there, attributing to ourselves a righteousness in some particular area that is only ours by dint of our social-historical location. What also needs to be recognized is how easily people fall into denominational or theological moral hubris, in thinking one’s own tradition has no truly dark stains in it. This particular hubris is commonly-spotted whenever the Servetus charge is raised.

In order to remedy this situation, I thought it would be helpful to begin to catalog differing “Calvin Killed Servetus”-type rejoinders to some of the major theological and denominational traditions. Some might find this dubious and divisive. I sympathize. I find my writings dubious most of the time as well. In this case, I’d like to think of it as a helpful moral reminder to cool your theological jets when it comes to traditions other than your own. It’s a negative task, with a positive goal: greater humility towards the various wings of God’s family.  That’s a little easier when we remember that everybody’s got something–I just thought it might be helpful to list some of the biggies.

Note: this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be denial of the fact that each of these denominations have martyrs, and gentle heroes of the faith. Still, in no particular order, here goes:

  • Anglicanism – Long history of violently persecuting Puritans, Dissenters, Lollards, Society of Friends, Catholics, and everybody not going to the State church. Also, Henry the VIII. ‘Nuff said.
  • Anabaptists – John Leiden and the freaky weird, violent, Munster incident. I’ve long been convinced the Anabaptists saw the beauty of pacifism partly because they got their lunches handed to them at Munster. I know that’s not entirely true, but… (For contemporary Anabaptists brought in via John Howard Yoder, you might want to think about his shady legacy.)
  • Roman Catholics – Do I really have to? Well, just off the top of my head: the Inquisition, various Crusades, vaste swathes of Papal history…
  • Eastern Orthodoxy – Some crossover highlights with the Roman Catholics, (Crusades), 1000s of years of collaboration, collusion, and sanctioning of corrupt governments by various patriarchs and theologians in the church. In our own day, one thinks of the persecution of fellow Christian Evangelicals in Orthodox countries like Russia supported by current patriarchs.
  • Lutherans – Well, Luther wasn’t a daisy himself. Most of us know that, but let’s just mention two: “The Jews and their Lies” and the Peasant revolt.
  • Methodists, Baptists, Society of Friends – All three of these streams and denominations, in their American iterations at least, have, alongside of others, had devastating struggles with slavery and racism. For quite some time it was perfectly acceptable to own slaves within the Society of Friends until the valiant efforts of John Woolman. Both the Baptists and the Methodists had separate African-American counterparts formed because of white racism.
  • Pentecostalism, Charismatics – Now, when you start moving closer in historical distance to the current day, denominations and traditions are less likely to make some of the tragically violent mistakes of their pre-cursors, simply by dint of cultural and political shifts. Given that the rise of Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements in the last 100 or so years, most of the excesses will be of the more common sort: pastoral indiscretion, financial shadiness, abuses of power, and widespread problems with heresy and false teaching. This can happen in all streams, though.
  • Non-Denoms and Young Denoms – Of course, there are many random theologically-indeterminate, non-denominational evangelicals, or maybe emergents, who don’t feel very bound to any tradition and sit loose with respect to Christian history as a whole. They might pride themselves on their virtually stainless record. Let me just say that having a decent theological-history that goes all the way back to the 70s is nothing to brag about. That’s like boasting about your perfect attendance on the second day of school. The reality is, in some way you’re dependent on what comes before so you, regardless of whether or not you acknowledge it.

As I said, this is a far from comprehensive list. It’s open to revision and addition. Sadly the history of Christian sin and failure is broad and wide. Thankfully so is the grace of God. He can use the broken and sinful to do his good work. People like you and me. Even people like John Calvin. Just something to keep in mind next time you’re about to write of a particular thinker or an entire tradition. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: Benjamin Corey wrote a version of this Calvin argument recently. Honestly, there’s not much new here. The one extra point I did want to address is his comments about “Calvinists” who’ve never read Calvin, nor grappled with the roots of their theology. The implication is that:

  • To be a proper Calvinist is to follow the teachings of one man, John Calvin.
  • If you would just look at the source, you’d see it’s a spoiled well.

Let’s take those in reverse order. First, this is essentially a version of the genetic fallacy. The fact that my fourth grade teacher was a drunk and a torturer of puppies would do nothing to invalidate him as a source of history, mathematics, English, or anything I may have learned in his class. Also, see the whole article above.

Second, the term “Calvinist” originated as a pejorative insinuating that the Reformed Churches took their teachings only from one man, John Calvin, that they were novel, and so forth. In fact, “Calvinism”, so-called (thought of only as predestination), had its origins (excluding the NT), at least as far back as Augustine, and much of the Medieval tradition, which affirmed a very robust account of predestination (Anselm, Aquinas, Ockham, not to mention Luther, etc). Also, Calvin had a ton of contemporaries (Bucer, Zwingli, Viret, Vermigli, Musculus, etc) who taught in various churches and cities in and beyond Geneva, who crafted confessional statements and wrote theology consistent with Calvin’s, independent of Calvin, and even, at times, influencing Calvin. It is, then, a gross theological caricature of “Calvinists” or the Reformed based in historical ignorance to say that we are limited to, or even find our roots in this one teacher. It’s simply not true.

For more on this sort of thing, I’d point you to Kenneth Stewart’s 10 Myths About Calvinism.

Sam Harris, the End of Faith, and “The Myth of Religious Violence”

I’ve begun reading Sam Harris’ breakout work on religion and violence The End of Faith that gained him notoriety as one of the “4 Horsemen” of the New Atheism. In prepping for a teaching series on the intellectual objections to Christianity in the fall, I thought it appropriate to read some of the popular literature on the subject.

To be honest, before beginning to read it I was scared…of facepalming the whole way through.

My only acquaintance with Harris’ work was his debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame last year. In my opinion Craig thoroughly trounced him, but I was struck by Harris’ cool, composed, unflappably secure attitude that all religious belief was basically nonsense, and demonstrably so. He was a great communicator, if not always the clearest-thinking philosopher. (In point of fact, he is not a philosopher, but rather has his Ph.D. in neuroscience.)

Nothing about that judgment has changed since reading the majority of his manuscript. He writes marvelously clear prose and has a peculiar gift for asking questions with an incredulous tone–in print. He also excels in finding particularly horrifying stories of violence associated or motivated by religious belief, and purposefully picking the least charitable reading of any given text of scripture he can. That being said, my faith is in no danger from his philosophical arguments against Christianity, simply because there aren’t many to speak of. Or, if they’re there, they’ve been answered over and over again.

The one truly positive thing I can say that I appreciate about Harris’ work is that he is refreshingly free of postmodern squishiness when it comes to moral relativism, or even metaphysical relativism. He is a realist and understands that beliefs link up to actions in important ways. He also understands Christian theological claims about the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, etc. are claims about reality, not just subjective statements about my consciousness, (unlike so many postmodern theologians.) This, in fact, is a crucial portion of his argument; it is precisely the absurd beliefs of the religious that lead to insane, unjustifiably horrible violence.

I am not interested in giving a full review and critique here. That has been many times over and would be rather pointless. What I want to do is draw attention to the fact that this work is basically a popular example of the conventional wisdom on the subject of religion and violence that William T. Cavanaugh writes about in The Myth of Religious Violence

In a short lecture entitled “Does Religion Cause Violence?” he outlines his argument deconstructing the “conventional wisdom” like this:

But what is implied in the conventional wisdom that religion is prone to violence is that Christianity, Islam, and other faiths are more inclined toward violence than ideologies and institutions that are identified as “secular.” It is this story that I will challenge here. I will do so in two steps. First, I will show that the division of ideologies and institutions into the categories “religious” and “secular” is an arbitrary and incoherent division. When we examine academic arguments that religion causes violence, we find that what does or does not count as religion is based on subjective and indefensible assumptions. As a result certain kinds of violence are condemned, and others are ignored. Second, I ask, “If the idea that there is something called ‘religion’ that is more violent than so-called ‘secular’ phenomena is so incoherent, why is the idea so pervasive?” The answer, I think, is that we in the West find it comforting and ideologically useful. The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality. 

Cavanaugh does this and more in his book, and delivers on his promises in the lecture as well. I highly recommend both.

Now, I read this a while back, but when I was reading Harris’ work, I ran across a passage that sounded remarkably familiar. I returned to this lecture and I found that Cavanaugh had addressed Harris’ work specifically. If you’ll pardon me, I’ll quote him at length again:

Sam Harris’s book about the violence of religion, The End of Faith, dramatically illustrates this double standard [Secular violence is rational, but religious violence is irrational and unjustified]. Harris condemns the irrational religious torture of witches, but provides his own argument for torturing terrorists. Harris’s book is charged with the conviction that the secular West cannot reason with Muslims, but must deal with them by force. In a chapter entitled “The Problem with Islam,” Harris writes: “In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.” This is especially a problem if such people gain access to nuclear weapons. “There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. . . . In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.” Muslims then would likely misinterpret this act of “self-defense” as a genocidal crusade, thus plunging the world into nuclear holocaust. “All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns.”

In other words, if we have to slaughter millions through a nuclear first strike, it will be the fault of the Muslims and their crazy religious beliefs.

This, to me, is the most amazing, (and dangerous) irony in Harris’ work. Essentially, Harris believes, that some religious people’s beliefs are so dangerous to other people’s lives, that we should take their lives, and possibly millions alongside of them.

Harris is absolutely right: our beliefs matter when it comes to dealing with violence in the world. Some beliefs are dangerous. What he’s missing is the fact that some of them are his own.