The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil (Or, Dealing with the Sparsity Objection)

JobThere are many of overlaps between the problem of evil in philosophy and apologetics (how could a good, all-powerful God allow such evil as we see in the world?)  and issues concerning the tensions between divine sovereignty and human effort in our theology of salvation (if God is sovereign over history, then what role does our will play in things?). How you answer the one question inevitably affects the approach you take in the other. And that’s unsurprising when we think about it.

What is God’s salvation other than a practical solution to the problem of evil as it exists in history because of human sin? The Triune God of glory has dealt with and met the evil of the world in the person and work of the Son according to the decree of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

Stepping back from the existential dimension, though, and addressing some of the more traditional formulations, there are a couple of different approaches that people take to answering the problem of evil at a philosophical level. These usually end up having a corollary in your theology of salvation.

Libertarianisms, Theodicy, and Salvation

One of the most popular responses to the problem of evil is to appeal to God’s gift of human freedom. God can be all-powerful and all-good and yet still allow human evil because he has created us with the great good of free will of the libertarian sort–the ability in every situation to do otherwise than you have done, without ultimate determination from God, the natural order, or even your own character. According this argument, that’s the sort of freedom you need for love and for truly moral actions. But the freedom to choose God, love, and the good also includes the possibility to do the opposite, and that’s what we’ve done. And so, God is good, powerful, and loving, and yet still allows evil because of his own sovereign decision to give us free will.

Now, if you take this route, most of the time you’ll end up affirming some sort of Arminianism or Wesleyan synergism in salvation, where this sort of free will is necessary also for salvation. A classic Arminian will readily grant the reality of human depravity and sin, the need for God’s prevenient grace (a grace that precedes and prepares) that spiritually awakens you, so to speak, in order for you to even respond to God and trust in his mercy and Jesus’ work on the cross. Contrary to some slurs, they are not Pelagians. But the freedom God awakens you to is the freedom to do otherwise–freedom of the libertarian sort that can still reject God’s loving invitation through the Spirit. The free-will defense or theodicy usually goes against any kind of theological determinism inconsistent with Arminian or Wesleyan views.

Calvinism, Theodicy, and Salvation

Typically, Calvinists and Reformed types don’t affirm that sort of libertarian freedom. Some are trying to work it out, with some very interesting approaches, but by and large, they will view freedom in a different light that is compatibilist–positing no ultimate dichotomy between God’s foreordination or human freedom. This is usually taken to be necessary for a more “robust” view of God’s regeneration and calling of us out of the bondage of the will in sin.

On this view, when God awakens your heart from its sin-dead slumber, it is not only a prevenient act of grace but an efficacious act. It not only enables you to maybe choose life, but transforms and reforms your will–not by over-riding it, but by healing and restoring it–so that you gladly, lovingly, and willingly choose it. This view of freedom views God’s choice, not as a threat to our freedom, but the only possibility of exercising true freedom–the freedom to love what we were made for. It’s not coercive, imposed from the outside, but awakening and transforming from within.

Of course, all of this is very condensed. But the key thing to see is that this view is not likely going to push you to lean on the libertarian free-will theodicy or defense. No, in fact, it’s more likely going to appeal in a very different direction to considerations regarding our knowledge of God’s purposes–epistemological concerns.

In a nutshell, most philosophers have agreed that if he had a good enough reason to, it is possible for an all-powerful and all-wise God to allow the evil in the world to exist. This is the assumption the free-will defense draws on–freewill, love, and moral choice is a good enough reason for the risk of free will.  Well, on that same assumption, some Calvinist philosophers like Stephen Wykstra and Alvin Plantinga have pointed out that there is a massive gap between our knowledge and the knowledge of an infinite God. Their point is this: if the infinitely wise God who created all things had a good enough reason for allowing all this evil, how are you so certain you would understand it?

Or, to put it another way, in order to know there isn’t a good enough reason, you’d have to know all that an infinite God would know in order to rule out the possibility. But you couldn’t possibly do that given your limited, finite knowledge of, well, everything. The scale between your understanding and God’s isn’t even that of a child to an adult, but more on the scale of an ant and a human. In other words, saying, “If I can’t see a good enough reason for evil there must not be one” doesn’t answer the question. Just because you “can’t see” a good enough reason, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

If that’s the case, then, while we don’t necessarily have an “answer” to the problem of evil like libertarian free will, it’s not a defeater for our belief in God. Given our belief in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have hope in God’s good purposes in the middle of evil even if we don’t know what those are. A God good enough to live, die, and rise for sinners is trustworthy enough.

Another Problem of Evil?

love freedom and evilBelieve it or not, all of that is just set up for what I really wanted to get to: dealing with an objection to a more Calvinistic view of God’s efficacious liberation of our will to respond to him. To do that, I’m going to quote from Thaddeus Williams’ fascinating work Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? Now, the title of the work is a bit misleading. Williams believes love requires freedom of the will, but not of the libertarian sort. His book is an exploration of the cluster of philosophical, biblical, and theological questions surrounding love, freedom, and the problem of evil.

Towards the end of the book he takes up what he calls the “sparsity objection” to the compatibilistic view of God’s liberation of the human will I outlined above–the one Williams calls “the Heart Reforming view.” Williams quotes philosopher Jerry Walls putting the objection this way:

Arguably, the most damaging strike against compatibilism is its utter inability to explain why God has not predestined everyone to freely choose him if freedom is really compatible with determinism. In our estimation, this is the mortal blow to the compatibilist. If this question cannot be answered convincingly, then compatibilists can hardly expect their position to be taken seriously by those who firmly believe in a profoundly loving and richly relational God.

That’s a tough objection. If libertarianism isn’t necessary for love and God can liberate our wills without violating them, why doesn’t God liberate more people’s wills? Why not liberate everyone’s will and purge the evil from the world immediately? Why are God’s chosen so relatively sparse? Williams gives at least four responses, but the one that’s relevant is one that draws on the insights about the limits of human knowledge:

The insight of Plantinga…applies when approaching the Sparsity Objection. The difference is that it is no longer the atheologian arguing against God’s existence, but the libertarian theologian arguing against the existence of one particular view of God, namely, a God with the ability to bring about Heart Reformation. If we seek to justify disbelief in the existence of a Heart Reforming God on the basis of the Sparsity Objection, then we find ourselves, oddly enough, in the same plight as the atheologian. We commit ourselves to a problematic premise….:

P2: It is impossible, improbable, or less probable than some libertarian account that a God with Heart Reforming ability possesses morally sufficient reasons behind withholding a more widespread exercise of that ability.

The fatal flaw of P2 is the same as that of P1, namely, how difficult the premise is to establish given the cognitive gap between God and us. Alston argues that the atheologian’s induction from “I can see no” to “There is no” is unjustified. Alston’s point holds true for the libertarian theologian who attempts to reach the conclusion “There is no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem]” from the premise “I can see no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem].” The induction rests on a failure to appreciate the Creator-creature cognitive gap. –pp. 167-168

In other words, just because you can’t see a good enough reason for God to call and liberate those that he does and not others, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a good enough reason. It’s just one that you can’t see. But you’re not God. You’re not the counter-intuitive Lord of all Creation who chose to redeem the world through assuming human nature, frailty, and the weight of sin and dying on a cross in order to rise to new life. That’s not the sort of thing you would come up with on your own. So maybe, just maybe, God’s ways in salvation are going to be a bit beyond us. That doesn’t mean they’re not true, though.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, obviously. And, of course, all of this matters only if Scripture points us to the idea that God’s liberation of the human will works this way. And that is a question I simply don’t have the time to address in this already longish post, which is why I would commend Williams’ work to you, as he spends quite a bit of time addressing that question. Still, in my reading and study, time and again I have come back the fundamental importance of this insight: God is the perfect Creator and we are but fallen-though-being-redeemed-creatures.

I suppose all of this boils down to an invitation to hear the wisdom of Job:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)

Soli Deo Gloria

Crisp’s Deviant Green Lantern (Libertarian) Calvinism

Note, becoming a Libertarian Calvinist does not result in acquiring Green Lantern powers.

Note, becoming a Libertarian Calvinist does not result in acquiring Green Lantern powers.

Oliver Crisp wants to broaden Reformed theology.

In his most recent book Deviant Calvinism Crisp aims to show that, contrary to popular perception, the Reformed tradition has been much broader and contained greater theological diversity than is commonly thought. This broadness was not a bad thing either. It’s not that we just hadn’t figured things out yet in the past, but rather that this diversity is a healthy, important feature of the Reformed tradition that needs to be recovered for its health and vitality.  In a sense, he wants us to remember that “always reforming” is a necessary part of the Calvinist theological ethos.

In order to do so, Crisp engages in a number of studies of retrieval theology, examining marginal, or “deviant” positions (eternal justification, Augustinian Universalism, Barthian election, hypothetical universalism) in Reformed thought on salvation to either show their plausibility, or legitimacy as species of Reformed thought. Although, note to the reader, be very careful in assuming Crisp affirms any or all of the positions he spends time arguing for; part of the time he’s simply creating space.

While I’ve found the whole thing quite instructive, among the most interesting studies so far has been his exposition of what he calls “Libertarian Calvinism.” Typically Calvinism is seen as a form of determinism according to both contemporary defenders and opponents. To be a Calvinist is to be a determinist, and therefore some sort of compatibilist when it comes to freedom of the will. In other words, under Calvinism, any “freedom” you have is only the sort that is compatible with God’s foreordination and determination of it. You’re free because you aren’t acting according to external coercion, because you’re doing what you most want to do–even though that’s been determined, in some sense, by God. God’s sovereignty in election and salvation and a compatibilist view of freedom go hand in hand.

Against this is usually set Arminianism with its “libertarian” view of freedom, which posits that the human will is free in the sense that it can choose between different options, and that choice was not determined in advance whether by God or any other cause. The buck stops with me in every sense of the term. Now, typically Calvinists are supposed to oppose this on various grounds, but especially because of the biblical witness when it comes to the bondage of the will–our inability to choose the good of salvation without God’s supernatural regeneration. Also, because of the fact that predestination and election to salvation seems to imply predestination and a sort of determinism in all things.

Crisp argues that, in fact, when we come to the Westminster Confession–kind of a standard document for international Calvinism–it affirms very clearly that God is sovereign in election, salvation, and that only those who are regenerated according to God’s eternal plan come to faith, and yet, it is metaphysically underdetermined when it comes to the question of freedom in general. In other words, the Confession lays down some parameters about God’s decree, salvation, as well as affirms the truth of human freedom without necessarily delineating how they all work together in detail. So theoretically one may affirm the Confession, affirm Calvinist soteriology, and yet hold that for the most part humans exercise freedom in a libertarian sense in areas other than those concerned with choosing the good of salvation.

Now for many that seems impossible, but a number of contemporary Reformed scholars have actually been making the case that, speaking historically, there have been Calvinists who affirmed precisely that kind of human freedom and contingency in history, all the while maintaining God’s sovereignty in election. But how would that work?

Here’s where Crisp gains +50 theologian points. He uses Green Lantern in an analogy to help us think this possibility through. Yes–that Green Lantern:

An analogy may help make this clear. Consider Hal Jordan. He is a normal human being who is able to make all sorts of free choices in his life that require the ability to do otherwise, consistent with libertarianism. However, he is unable to make choices that would require him to have the superpower of actualizing his thoughts immediately in concrete ways. As John Locke famously quipped, we cannot really choose to fly, because we are incapable of flying: in which case arguing that being unable to freely choose to fly is evidence that I lack the free will to fly is idle. Jordan is like this. He may want to fly, but he cannot: he has no superpowers. That is, until one day, when they are bestowed upon him by a dying alien who gives him a ring powered by a green lantern that acts as a catalyst by means of which he is able to transform his desire to fly into action. It gives him the superpower of being able to actualize his thoughts (with certain important limitations and qualifications that need not trouble us here). Because he has the ring, he can now fly, where before he could only dream of flying.

Now, Hal Jordan (a.k.a. the Green Lantern) is like a fallen human being on the libertarian Calvinist account of human free will in this important respect: like the Green Lantern, fallen human beings are incapable of freely choosing to perform certain actions absent intervention from an external agency. In the case of the Green Lantern, this agency is an alien with a power ring. In the case of the fallen human being, this agency is divine. In both cases, there is a class of actions that the agent cannot perform without the interposition of an external agent who brings this class of actions within reach: for the Green Lantern, this class includes actions that actualize thoughts about flying; for the fallen human being, this class includes choosing salvation.

Deviant Calvinism: Broadening the Reformed Tradition, pp. 86-87

Let’s pause a moment to note a few key points:

First, a respected analytic theologian just used the Green Lantern in an extended analogy to discuss Calvinism. Let’s just pause and sit with that reality.

Also, just to be clear for those who may be confused, Crisp later says that in libertarian Calvinism there is no denial that God ordains all that comes to pass, merely that he determines or causes whatever comes to pass. He determines and causes some, and merely permits and foresees others as part of his overall sovereign plan (pg. 87).

Finally, none of this settles whether we do, in fact, have libertarian freedom in most cases. That actually requires far more argumentation, biblical study, and discussion on the doctrine of God, concurrence, and providence. Still, and this is Crisp’s point, it seems that there is a plausible way of construing human freedom that is quite consistent with basic Reformed soteriology with respect to election, regeneration, the calling of the Holy Spirit, particular redemption, perseverance, and so forth.

It seems, then, that libertarian, or rather, “Green Lantern” Calvinism isn’t the philosophical absurdity that many have might have initially surmised.

“Broadening Reformed theology” indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

debateLast week Zondervan hosted a live-stream debate between some Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones) and some Non-Calvinists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). Now, while I was excited to watch, it just so happened that my internet was slow that day, so I only caught snippets and twitter commentary while it happened. Immediately afterwards I had a trip to get prepped on, so I didn’t get to watch it until this week.

Still, because a few people in different theological wings have asked me to comment on the debate, I figured I’d give it a shot. I tried to keep this brief and failed, but even with its length, I’ve limited it to some focused observations and reflections on a few issues with the first section of the debate. This is by no means exhaustive and I won’t even try to comment on all of the issues. Indeed, I’m sure many will find this utterly dissatisfying.  And that’s okay.

To begin, a word about the players.

The Players And Confirmation Bias

I’ll be honest, going into this I already had some ideas about it. For one thing, I knew very little about Austin Fischer. I knew he wrote a book about no longer being Young, Restless, and Reformed, but not much else. I thought Kevin DeYoung had a pretty incisive review of it, but honestly, I haven’t had time to read it. As for Brian Zahnd, while I was blessed and challenged by his book on beauty (which I still highly recommend), I’ve criticized him heavily before on other issues. Based on his online writing, his rhetoric towards positions with which he disagrees, especially the Reformed, is [retty belligerent and prone to violent caricature. He’s a powerful preacher who’s got a way with words and a heart for Jesus, but I wasn’t expecting much of a fair shake there.

With Montgomery and Jones, I was predisposed to root for them. Not only do I find myself in their Reformedish camp in general, I’ve favorably reviewed their book PROOF, and have been impressed with them even in their handling of serious brotherly criticism. Though I’ve never met them, I consider them friends.

I go into all of this simply to make one point: I definitely had a side going in and that affected the way I watched the debate. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case with anyone who was interested in the event, even if you didn’t know any of them. With the subject of Calvinism, like the subject of God, you’re never neutral about the arguments. One of the most perceptive comments on the whole thing came from Mike Cosper: “If you want to see some wonderful examples of confirmation bias, check out the hashtag.” A lot (most?) of us went in pumped to see Montgomery school Fischer, or Zahnd lay down his linguistic hammer on Jones.  We already knew the right answer, we just wanted to be publicly vindicated.

Debates

Which leads me to the format of debate. In my view, public debates are pretty limited. Not enough space or time can be devoted to the various pertinent issues involved, so most of the time both sides come away thinking of the other side, “Is this the best you’ve got?” To which I’d respond, “No, of course it’s not.” I know for sure that’s not the best Montgomery and Jones have. I’ve read their book. What’s more, I’m sure it’s not the best that Zahnd or Fischer have. They hinted in the direction of some more serious arguments beyond the rhetorically-freighted, one-liners they were throwing out there. Indeed, Fischer actually did some serious, responsible, exegetical work in his response to Jones on Romans 9, which made me suspect there’s more where that came from.

Calvin and Calvinism

Next, I’m going to say something that may shock most non-Calvinists, and indeed, many Calvinists as well: Calvin did not invent ‘Calvinism’.

Whether you’re speaking solely of the doctrines concerning election and salvation as they were defended and codified at Dordt (which Calvin was already dead for), or the broader complex of thought with respect to covenant theology, ecclesiology, etc, referred to as the broader Reformed tradition, you have to know that it goes beyond him. There are many other stars in the Reformed sky such as Bucer, Vermigli, Ursinus, Knox, and a host of scholastics who delved into these issues at length. I love Calvin, but as Kenneth Stewart has demonstrated in his 10 Myths About Calvinism, his exposition of election is not the only standard or normative one for the confessionally Reformed. Indeed, most of these theologians could point back to a number of top medieval theologians, including Thomas and Augustine as representatives or precursors to their own expositions.

In other words, it’s okay to be Reformed and then think you may have to adjust your exposition of election according to Scripture with respect to double, or single predestination. Many have done so even while remaining non-Remonstrant (Arminian), and so forth. So trotting out a Calvin quote doesn’t mean that Montgomery isn’t really being a good Calvinist, even if he’s cutting things in a way that Calvin wouldn’t have agreed with. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s going to say Herman Bavinck isn’t a good Calvinist because he humbly pushes back on the fairly common claim that the decrees of election are definitely about the revelation of God’s glory.

As a side-note, speaking of “Calvin’s system” as “beginning with philosophical theism” is, to be blunt, a blatant absurdity to anyone who’s read the current secondary literature, and knows about Calvin’s humanistic and vocally anti-speculative approach to the doctrine of God. One of Calvin’s most common targets were the theologians of the Sorbonne who engage in abstractions instead of the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, unlike most modern systematic theologies, the Institutes almost doesn’t have a doctrine of God philosophically considered, but instead treats the Trinity, and the nature of God as revealed in his works as Creator and Redeemer. To assert otherwise is only possible through gross ignorance of the subject, or in the face of the evidence.

Which brings me to the next point.

Jesus Rules and Philosophical Systems

Most Reformed are not intentionally twisting texts to get to a conclusion we’ve already decided on when it comes to the doctrines of grace. I certainly wasn’t. I still feel the weight of the arguments against it. I’ve said it before, but over the years I have only slowly inched closer to the Reformed side on this issue, quite reluctantly and usually through the side door of some alteration in my view of regeneration, providence, or something else that has a role to play here. Why? Because of a struggle to affirm all that Scripture affirms about God’s sovereignty, our choices, his decrees, our responsibility, his grace, and so forth.

See, despite ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’, most Calvinists don’t give ourselves the option of affirming an “internal conflict” within Scripture, as Zahnd talks about, and then using a very specific Jesus Hermenuetic to pick which parts of the Scriptures got it right. Because of the way we see Jesus approaching and affirming all of the Scriptures, we believe Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate affirmed and inspired the Scriptures as the Word of God written. All of it. So we’re trying to get it all in at once. I’ve made this point against Zahnd before, but if your so-called “Jesus-theology” causes you to shunt to the side texts that Jesus affirmed, or dismiss as ‘biblicistic’ efforts to incorporate all the texts to which Jesus constantly appealed, you might be doing it wrong. (Now, this isn’t to say that most Arminians do this, or even that Fischer would have done it, but still, coming back to my earlier point, this is the kind of important methodological dispute that a debate like this doesn’t give space to address.)

Plain Readings and Finding the Wright Escape Hatch

Easily the most commented on line of the night was Daniel Montgomery’s about a “plain reading” of Ephesians 1.  It was provoked by Zahnd’s earlier invitation to make sure we’re paying attention the “best” scholars, such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Karl Barth, and so forth when we make these theological judgments. Montgomery later basically said, “Yes, I understand we need to read Wright, Barth, and characters like that” but really, it’s hard to understand Ephesians 1 as speaking of anything else but unconditional election on a ‘plain reading’ of Paul, which is what we ought to get around to doing more often. To which Zahnd’s retort was, “Sure, it’s plain in your theologically-rigged ESV, with your horn-rimmed Calvinist lens, translation isn’t it?” At which point, I have to admit, I laughed. Touché, Zahnd.

Now, all of the twitter commentary about this was explosive and apoplectic. And to some degree I get it. Even though Zahnd came in kind of waving his hands about “scholarship” and so forth, seemingly writing off scholarship like that and referring to Wright & Co. as a bunch of ‘characters’ rubs me the wrong way. Still, I suppose I heard it differently because I’ve read their book. Of its 200 pages there were nearly 40 pages of endnotes showing their work in the Greek, the commentaries, and so forth (including a number of citations of Barth! in the German!). They did their exegetical and theological homework. Certainly Jones is no academic slouch. So maybe we should think Montgomery’s advocacy of a ‘plain reading’ isn’t quite what it initially sounded like. If it was, though, his practice is certainly a lot better than that.

Here’s the thing that struck me, though, with Zahnd’s earlier call for attending scholarship: Wright, McKnight, Hart, and Barth won’t necessarily save you from a Calvinist reading of Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 (or indeed, the rest of the Biblical witness to God’s sovereignty.) I mean, take myself. I’ve read D.B. Hart, and you know what? He’s mostly great, but I’ll be blunt and say he also seems to never know what he’s talking about when it comes to what Calvin or Reformed types actually say about things. When it comes to Barth, I’ll be upfront and say that I haven’t read his full doctrine of election in the Dogmatics.  Still, I’ve read the Epistle to the Romans, as well as competent, sympathetic distillations of the Dogmatics, and so forth and, you know, I’m not convinced Paul is teaching us Christ is the only Elect or Reprobate one ruling out individual election. 

Beyond that, I’ve actually read McKnight on the warning passages in Hebrews, as well as pretty much everything what N.T. Wright has to say on the subject (including his big Paul book). I’m a huge Wright fan, in fact, and back when I was very hostile to Calvinism, I dug into Wright’s big Romans commentary (especially his stuff on Romans 9-11) hoping to find an escape hatch from election. I even dug into James Dunn’s commentaries, just about everything he’s written on the New Perspective, and waded through the readings like those offered by Walls and Dongell in Why I Am Not a Calvinist looking for a way out of my Reformed friends’ arguments.

In the process I found a lot of good stuff. After that, I was much better able to set the passage in the broader framework of God’s purposes for Israel, Paul’s vindication of God’s name when it seemed that his promise to Israel had failed through their unbelief, and so forth. That said, none of these things rule out, or necessitate a non-predestinarian reading. In fact, I think they largely fit well with the older insights. And that’s a conviction I came to hold when I was fighting tooth and nail in my soul to write off more classically Reformed readings.

Finally, more positively, I’ll just say there’s a lot of good, top scholarship out there that disagrees with Zahnd’s top scholarship on the issue. For every N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, you’ve got a G.K. Beale, or a Michael Bird. For every Barth, you’ve got a Bavinck. For every D.B Hart, there’s a Kevin Vanhoozer whose trinitarian theology in Remythologizing Theology is just as philosophically-sophisticated, aesthetically-appealing, and, I think, more biblical than Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (although there’s much overlap). So inviting us to consider the great, “the best” scholars of our day, and then ripping off the names of top scholars who you think agree with you, doesn’t really get you places. Calvinists have plenty of names too.

Job, Lewis, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

Finally, one of the big issues of the night was the challenge by Fischer and Zahnd to explain why God would intentionally pass over, or create someone in order to be passed over, for salvation. Now, leaving aside the problem that unless you’re a Universalist or an Open Theist you still face a similar situation, I was fascinated by the response on Twitter, as well as by Fischer to the appeal to Job and mystery.

Faced with that challenge, Montgomery recalled what happened when Job challenged the justice of God’s judgments, or his wisdom in allowing Satan to torment him. What is God’s answer there? Well, read Job 38-42 and you’ll see it’s basically a long way of saying, “I’m the infinite God. You are a very finite, sinful human. You don’t have a scale for the difference between us. I was fine-tuning the galaxies, hanging up the Milky Way in the vast reaches of space, before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye. Why would you ever think yourself competent to understand my secret judgments?”

Ironically enough, Lewis makes a helpful point in this direction arguing for God’s rationality in the risk of gifting humans with free will:

Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

Mere Christianity, The Shocking Alternative

To some this sounds like a cop-out and I can get that. Still, I do find it interesting that Reformed theology gets dinged for being a too rationalist system, with a cold logic that leaves no room for mystery, and yet, when the Reformed do argue from Scripture that God himself says we ought not to expect to understand the mystery of his judgments, they’re charged with obscurantist irrationality.

This is why I’ve almost come to see this as sort of theological-aesthetic judgment. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering election, or you don’t.

Now, to this, Fischer may reply, “I still can’t see how anyone could argue it’s beautiful.” Sure. But most of us don’t initially see the Cross as beautiful, or wise either, until our hearts have been shaped and conformed to the paradoxical logic of the gospel. I’m not saying you have to buy election to see the beauty of the Cross. I am saying it’s not surprising that things which initially seem puzzling, weird, or terrifying to us, could eventually become beautiful to a mind submitted to the logic of Scripture.

Which is why I’d have to say I found Zahnd’s little line about rebelling against a Calvinist God a la Ivan Karamazov–returning God’s ticket, so to speak–so unhelpful. Back when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness–to call him a devil, and so forth–is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.”

Best to articulate the God of Scripture as faithfully as I can and leave hypothetical moral stands against the Creator to those atheists who have the time to fantasize about such things. My heart is rebellious enough without such a morally tempting exercise, despite its rhetorical force. (For more on the same topic, I’d suggest Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders piece here.)

At this point I’ve said far too much and yet not much at all. I hope I’ve not been too persnickety. I really do understand the trouble people have with these issues. What’s more, I have a terribly high amount of respect for the many thoughtful Christians who see this another way. At the end of the day, though, let me just say this: our basic posture here must be humility–to God and before the Scriptures which he has inspired by the Holy Spirit to testify to the saving Son who reveals the love the Father has decided to lavish on his children since before the world began.

Soli Deo Gloria

Naming the “New Calvinism” And What Counts As One?

Dr. Jones and Daniel Montgomery also authored this very helpful book on grace.

Dr. Jones and Daniel Montgomery also authored this very helpful book on grace.

Over the last few months there’s been an uptick in online conversation about what to call the movement associated with organizations like The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, readers of John Piper, and so forth. Actually, ironically enough, it’s mostly the critics who need a name–most people in the movement don’t really care. Still, some would call them New Calvinists, or Neo-Calvinists, or Neo-Puritans, or for those with sharper knives, even Neo-Fundamentalists. For my money, the best entry into the discussion comes via Dr. Timothy Paul Jones who argues for some sort of “Neo-Reformed” moniker.

After a lively historical intro, tracing why the other terms are all inadequate, Jones says we’d probably have to name it “Neo-Dortianism” since what we’re seeing is a the disembedding of the theology of salvation articulated at the Synod of Dordt (held in response to the Arminian Remonstrants), from its original Reformed home. Still, since that probably won’t get much traction, Neo-Reformed will do:

That said, it seems to me that the most accurate descriptor would be “Dortianism” or, if some prefix must be affixed to denote the distinct contours of the current movement, “neo-Dortianism” (see chart below for this taxonomy). Unfortunately, I don’t expect “Dortianism” to blossom into anyone’s preferred terminology anytime soon.* The events at Dort are too obscure and the term itself sounds too distasteful to end up emblazoned on anyone’s book cover. (Do you really think that Young, Restless, Dortian would have attracted anywhere near the number of readers that Young, Restless, Reformed did?) And so, of the options that are intelligible beyond a handful of theologians and church historians, “neo-Reformed”—though not without its difficulties—probably remains the least problematic nomenclature in an ever-multiplying pool of possibilities. And perhaps part of what the less-than-ideal “neo-” prefix could connote is the spread of Reformed soteriology not only within but also beyond the historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

This movement is best seen, though, as one minuscule current in a much broader stream that may be traced back into church history through an early seventeenth-century gathering of pastors in the Dutch city of Dort. Seeing the Reformed resurgence in this way turns our attention away from the latest parachurch conferences and star preachers and toward a far more vast and variegated history filled with events none of us could have planned and progenitors we would never have chosen. Recalling this crazy history in which the Remonstrants shaped the Reformed and “Calvinism” somehow leaped from caconym to compliment keeps us from slipping into smug self-satisfaction with passing illusions of success. It calls us to remember that we are nothing more than a few grains of sand in a majestic divine plan that’s far greater than any of us but that somehow by grace includes us. It calls us to bow in worship as we remember anew that we serve a God who is inscribing on everyone who rests in him—not only the Reformed but also the partly Reformed, the non-Reformed, the anti-Reformed, and a multi-hued multitude that’s never heard of the Reformation—the only name that ultimately matters: his own name and the name of his crucified Son (Revelation 22:4). “For what do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if everything you have was given to you, why brag as if it wasn’t a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

After that edifying ending, I’m sure you’ll want to read the whole thing here.

There is one question I have, though, and that’s “What counts as a Neo-Reformed type?”

I ask mostly because I’ve never really considered myself having come fully into the “neo-Reformed” or “New Calvinist” paradigm in the usual way. I mean, for me it was “Reformedish” by way Plantinga, Calvin, Vanhoozer, and some Keller, rather than Piper and so forth. (Nothing against Piper.) What I mean is that I was far more drawn in by Calvin’s view of the Supper, union with Christ, and so forth before providence, and only more recently have I been reconciling myself to more classic soteriology. Still, I write for TGC and have a twitter account, so I guess that makes me part of it?  Is it that I’m under 40, male, enjoyer of hoppy beverages, and bearded? (Conditions which all obtained before I considered myself Reformed, thank you every much.)

I guess I still don’t know exactly what makes you neo-Reformed as opposed to simply being new at being Reformed.

Feel free to read the article and then weigh in below!

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Calvinism Not Lutheranism? Books

Last week over at First Things James Rogers asked:

Why is Calvinism so influential among American Evangelicals while Lutheranism is not? We might describe the statistically modal convert to Calvinism—that is, the most frequently observed kind of convert—as a person like this: A young adult, usually male. Raised in a broad though indistinct Evangelical (and sometimes nominally Catholic) home. Bright. A reader. Searching for better intellectual answers to questions about God, Jesus and the Bible. Is open to becoming a pastor. Why does this young man so much more often become a Calvinist instead a Lutheran?

It’s a good question. When I was doing my theological searching early on, I found myself initially more attracted to Lutheranism given their apparent lack of emphasis on predestination as well as Luther’s fiery wit. (Also, I was in my anti-Piper phase.) In fact, many of us raised in more a-historical, non-denominational Evangelical backgrounds are likely to hear of Martin Luther as the Reformer, instead of Calvin, just because of the 95 theses and the issue of justification by faith. So why is it that so many of us end up learning the Westminster or Heidelberg catechism, instead of Luther’s?

Rogers lists a number of possible reasons I find worth summarizing here:

  • American Lutheran churches have tended to be ethnically-focused and insular. That alone just makes it harder to even find.
  • Beyond that, it’s hard to read your way in. Calvin wrote an influential systematics, while Luther’s works are more piecemeal and polemically-situated. That makes immersion in the one easier than the other.
  • In the same vein, Lutheran Confessional documents assume and refer to a lot of church history, so their clarity and accessibility leave something to be desired. Reformed documents tend to spell things out more cleanly, assume less, and verify more, making them welcoming to the newbie. The opposite holds true of the catechisms–Luther gives less and assumes more. Westminster gives more distinctly formative theology to the inquirer.
  • Ecclesiastically, Calvinists know their Bibles and confessions, on average better than their Lutheran counterparts, so you’re more likely to run into a Calvinist who knows their stuff.
  • Sacramentally, Lutheran practice and theology is even less accessible. Functionally, most Evangelicals are rockin’ a pseudo-Zwinglian view of Baptism and the bread & wine/grape juice. Making the jump to baptismal regeneration and Luther’s consubstantion is leap, both theologically and experientially.
  • Drawing on Lutheran theologian Philip Cary, he makes big contrast between the two modes of piety: one focused on the mental assent of the believer, and the other on Christ’s faithfulness alone as the sole ground of my comfort. The Evangelical/Calvinist assures himself by remembering he’s assented in proper faith, while the Lutheran has it because he remembers Christ’s faithfulness given to him in baptism. Lutheran air is made of thicker stuff than the Zwinglian rationalism and nominalism the average Evangelical is used to, so it’s a bit of more an awkward shift than simply picking up a Reformed soteriology.

Finally, he ends with an appeal to Lutherans to be as winsomely passionate about evangelizing for a Lutheran view of Word and Sacrament as Calvinists are about predestination.

Me with BooksReading My Way In – Given Rogers’ Lutheranism, his apology for it is understandable and somewhat slanted read of Calvinist piety is somewhat forgivable. Only somewhat, though, given the classic Reformed emphasis on union with Christ, which, honestly does all that the Lutheran’s does, as well as gives us a bit of a boost into sanctification. That said, his point about the cultural difference is a real one. Still, the more interesting point for me was the one about reading, because in my experience far easier to read yourself into Calvinism or Reformed theology. I would say there are a few reasons for this, though, beyond Calvin and confessional documents.

As DeYoung points out in the article I referenced yesterday, Calvinism (whether broadly or narrowly defined) has dominated the theological conversation in America since its founding. I mean, just think about the Pilgrims–Puritan Calvinists. Beyond that, Reformed thought, especially its soteriology, can be found across denominational lines be it Episcopal, Presbyterian, Particular Baptist, or whatever else. This is also the case in our revival heritage. While Finney is horrifyingly hyper-Arminian (and that’s really unfair to Arminians), much revivalist piety has still had a Reformed rooting. In other words, it travels well, which means that if you go digging into the literature, you’ll be able to find broadly Reformed thinkers in various places.

Institutionally it’s been better represented as well in terms of universities, publishing houses, and authors. This last one is probably the most pertinent one right now. Honestly, it’s easier to read yourself into Calvinism, because who knows of any good, current, pop-level Lutheran books, writers, or preachers? Tullian Tchividjian? (I kid.) Really though, the only current theologians I can think of are Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson–brilliant heavyweights, to be sure–but not exactly great book-club reading. Maybe someone might name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but again, not very pop or accessible, and at this point in history he’s become a figure that transcends confessional lines. There’s no current Lutheran author I know of, comparable to a Tim Keller or even a John Piper for popular reach.

So when a theologically-minded young man (or woman) goes shopping around for books on pressing theological subject, if he’s not pulled into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or some emergent, Heidegger-quoting business, it’s far easier to put a copy of Desiring God (Piper), or Knowing God (Packer), into his hands than find something written by a Lutheran. Or again, when a pastor is looking for a book to turn into a sermon series, it’s the Calvinists that are publishing en masse, so some Reformed emphasis will be bleeding into non-Reformed Evangelical preaching. That prepares the young Evangelical hearer to search for more of the that rich vein. Even picking up Rogers’ point about confessional literature, yes, I found Heidelberg before Luther’s Catechism, but I did so because of Kevin DeYoung’s excellent little commentary on it The Good News We Almost Forgot.

If you want my two cents, then, for why so many young, theological types choose Reformed theology over Lutheranism: books. Accessible, pop-level books that gave us a big picture of God, and a desire to read the thicker theologians and texts that we’d catch glimpses of in those pages.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can Calvinism Accommodate Other Systems of Thought?

Kevin DeYoung had an interesting little post last week. He essentially riffed on E. Brooks Holifield’s contention that, to a large degree, American theology for the first couple of centuries, “was an extended debate…about the meaning and the truth of Calvinism.” After filling out the historical picture a bit, DeYoung then gave his own four reasons why it’s unsurprising that American theology still is consumed with wrestling with Calvinism, or rather, Reformed theology:

1. It is an all-encompassing worldview which, when handled with consistency, does not easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.

2. It is a scandalous theology, utterly at odds with later American ideas of egalitarianism and self-determination.

3. It is so absolutely other-worldly–either in glory or in shame, depending on your perspective–that it begs for a response. It’s almost impossible to be indifferent to Calvinism.

4. When pastors, theologians, churches, denominations, and movements are gripped by the vision of Reformed theology, they tend to be dogged in their persistence to perpetuate it, defend it, and celebrate it.

The whole thing’s worth reading. I find myself mostly nodding my head at his four observations. Reformed theology is pretty comprehensive, definitely scandalous, demands a response, and commands loyalty. That’s part of what has drawn me in. I do find myself wondering about part of the first point, though, as to Reformed theology’s inability to easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.

I guess I’d have to ask, which rivals are we speaking of here? Are we talking about rival systems of thought in general like Buddhism or Marxism? Or just rival systems of theology like Thomism, or, Lutheranism, or something? If the first, well, yes, but then again, I’d say that’s a feature of Christianity in general, not merely its Reformed iteration.

If the second, then I’d say, well, maybe. From what I’ve come to understand (and I’ll easily concede DeYoung’s expertise here) certain types of Reformed theology are a little more open to taking on shared insights and emphasizing commonalities with, say, Thomism on the doctrine of God, or Lutheranism in justification and so forth. So, a post-Van Tillian, or Kuyperian might really emphasize the distinctness of the systems, while those steeped in post-Reformation orthodoxy might want to emphasize the catholicity and continuity of thought at points. Also, it may depend on what we’re referring to when it comes to the term “Calvinism.” Is it only Dordtian soteriology, or the broader framework of thought? Either way, that shifts the discussion. Again, these are just my novice impressions.

Certainly, I won’t dispute DeYoung’s closing judgment:

Although Calvinism is certainly not the dominant theological tradition like it was in the early days of this country, it continues to be a potent strain of religious devotion. Read through the most popular blogs and you’ll see the debate has not died down. When it comes to assessing Geneva, one person’s city on a hill is another person’s pit of hell.

Final question: What do ya’ll think? I’m particularly interested in those of you who have some familiarity with the Reformed tradition. How accommodating can Calvinism be?

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: My buddy Dr. Brian Mattson weighed in on the question here. The response is excellent and worth the read. His big takeaway:

Calvinism, as an all-encompassing worldview, and when handled with consistency, is superior to its rivals in the act of accommodating rivals.