Restoring God’s Reputation?

olsonI’ve been reading through Zondervan’s two recent books by Michael Horton (For Calvinism) and Roger Olson (Against Calvinism), apt spokesmen for their respective views on the doctrines of grace.  Both authors eschew attempts to find that (illusory) middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism and provide very helpful introductions to the issues at hand.

Olson ardently presses the question of how the God of Calvinism can be the one whom John characterizes as ‘love’ in his first epistle (1 Jn 4:8, 16).  Under the doctrine of predestination, the real question for Olson is not so much whether God could be just in unconditionally electing some and reprobating others but whether God could be said to act in love in so doing: if God could just as easily have unconditionally elected more, or indeed all, fallen persons and effectually called them to salvation, how is he love in choosing not to do so?  An Arminian account, Olson writes, with its doctrine of conditional election, is better-positioned to uphold God’s ‘reputation’ at this point.

This is certainly a pointed question for Reformed soteriology – and theology proper – but one that might be put to the Arminian view as well.  In explicating the Arminian approach to divine sovereignty, Olson writes,

[L]et it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world, do not say that God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled.  Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion. Even then, however, it was not that God tempted or manipulated individuals to sin. Rather, he knew what events, such as the triumphal entry, would result in the crucifixion (Against Calvinism, p. 99).

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Erotic Desire and Effeminate Worship Pastors

As many of you will know, Mark Driscoll, known for a lack of control over his mouth (to put is as lightly as I can) made a Facebook comment recently asking about people’s own personal experience with “effeminate” worship pastors. When I heard about this latest debacle by one of the “New Calvinists” favorite bad-boys, I happen to be reading Belden C. Lane’s new book, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality. Belden mines the depth of actual Reformed thought with a particular emphasis on Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and the strain of Puritans known as the “spiritual brethren.” In doing so, he develops a constructive proposal built on retrieval, with a particular focus on spirituality and ecology. It is, to say the least, a fascinating project.

My particular interest in light of Driscoll is a comment Belden makes concerning gender roles and the Puritans. If you have not read the Puritans, you may be surprised to find out that their spirituality leaned towards the erotic. Like the vast majority of interpreters in church history, the Puritans recognized the Song of Songs as a text on Christ and his bride. Belden notes this in a discussion of Puritan society that was unusually egalitarian, even as it held on to a patriarchal value system. Belden suggests that a major reason for this provocative balance was the fact that the men in society were struck with biblically induced gender dissonance. At once they were men who were meant to rule, govern, and lead, and yet their main identity was bride. They valued conquering their prize, and yet they were the conquered.
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Sabbath and Lord’s Day

I’ll extend the Calvin kick for another post, one that centers on his view of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Institutes, one stemming partially from the tension I might experience on Sunday as I both engage in spiritual and ecclesial activities and also head out to the pub to take in a Liverpool match.

For Calvin, the fourth commandment has three main functions: 1) to foreshadow and to promise to Israel spiritual rest which God will bring as the sanctifier of his people; 2) to provide a day for the assembled worship of God’s people; 3) to prevent oppression and overexertion of laborers (2.8.28-9).  In the old dispensation the Sabbath promoted meditation on the forthcoming ‘perpetual repose from our labors’.  However, its figurative and ceremonial aspect is no longer in force after Christ’s resurrection (Col. 2:16-17).  By participating in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14) we begin to participate in that promised rest and ‘[t]his is not confined to a single day but extends throughout the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God.  Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days’ (2.8.31).  In this connection, Calvin also reasons that meditation on that transformation work spills over into the other days of the week (2.8.34).

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Rome, Evangelicalism, and the Regulative Principle

In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services  and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old  covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this  side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  With an eye to helping those less  acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,

As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3).  But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it.  Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23).  Indeed, this had always been done.  But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply.  Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).

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Reading the Decree

I am going to be taking a look at the doctrine of election through a couple of recent releases – the first, by David Gibson, is Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (T&T Clark, 2009). This book has been out for a little while now, but I am also going to be looking at Suzanne McDonald’s new book Re-Imaging Election (Eerdmans, 2010). Here, I will focus my attention on Gibson’s read of Calvin and Barth on election. I think that this volume is particularly interesting because of the exegetical emphasis – putting Calvin and Barth’s exegetical considerations in parallel with their doctrinal development. Or, better, that for both thinkers, doctrine and exegesis are not two discrete tasks, but are united around, in one way or another, their “christocentrism.”

Utilizing Muller’s distinction between “soteriological christocentrism” and “principial christocentrism” Gibson invokes a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – extensive and intensive. A hermeneutic is christologically extensive when the center of christology “points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other” (15). Christology does not “dictate” or “control” but “shapes” and “influences” them. Likewise, a hermeneutic is christologically intensive when the center of christology “defines all else within its circumference” (15). This christology draws everything to itself, so that all other doctrinal material is read with an explicit reference to christology. Calvin and Barth represent these two facets respectively. Continue reading

Handing Over the Kingdom

I was reading an article the other day by Richard Muller entitled: “Christ in the Eschaton: Calvin and Moltmann on the Duration of the Munus Regium (the last post made me think of this). The focus of the article is on how we should understand Jesus’ handing over the kingdom to the Father, based most specifically on 1 Cor. 15:24-28. Moltmann’s worry, it seems, is that a certain interpretation of this would make the incarnation superfluous. In his The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, Moltmann writes,

The eternal Son of God so to speak retreats into the Trinity, and the man Jesus enters the host of the redeemed, or conversely, the whole of redeemed existence enters into the divine relationship of the unio personalis, i.e., into immediacy with God. The manhood of Christ which was crucified for the redemption of sinners no longer has a place in existence which has been redeemed and placed in immediacy with God” (258-9, see Muller, 31).

The problem, Muller argues, is that Calvin is clear elsewhere that this passage does not conflict with passages arguing for an eternal reign of Christ. There is some kind of distinction, in other words, in the consummation of all things, where Christ’s reign shifts but does not deteriorate. Continue reading

Moltmann, Calvin, and the Cross

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not exactly fashionable these days, so perhaps making its exoneration the topic of one’s first post on a blog is rather inadvisable.  Yet whatever a person’s opinion of the doctrine may be, it’s only reasonable to spend a bit of time wading through some of the caricatures in order to face up to the most robust treatments on offer, at which point a critic may begin properly to criticize and an adherent may begin to draw from such resources for contemporary restatement.

One criticism directed toward penal substitution is that it envisions discord within the Trinity: God the Father opposes God the Son in punishing God the Son on the cross (see, e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 147).  Interestingly, this concern about a rift within the Trinity brings to mind the language of Moltmann, a theologian, in my experience, not readily associated with the penal substitutionary construal of Christ’s death.  Commenting that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction he calls God simply “God” and not “Father,” Moltmann writes, “If we take the relinquishment of the Father’s name in Jesus’ death cry seriously, then this is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: if the Father forsakes the Son, the Son does not merely lose his sonship.  The Father loses his fatherhood as well.  The love that binds the one to the other is transformed into a dividing curse” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 80).  Of course, Moltmann goes on to speak of this as a voluntary separation on the part of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as the bond between them persisting even during the hour of separation.  The point, though, is that at least formally (materially as well?) a description like Moltmann’s could be implicated in the God-the-Father-versus-God-the-Son objection to penal substitution.

Calvin, the man typically credited with a formative influence on the doctrine of penal substitution, comes at the  trinitarian dynamics of the cross in a different way.  Continue reading

Calvin, Participation and the Gift

In this post I am taking a look at the broad billings-coverargumentation of J. Todd Billings in his book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford University Press, 2007). In this volume, Billings puts Calvin in conversation with present day theologies of of the ‘Gift.’ In doing so, Billings carefully explicates Calvin’s doctrine of participation in its own right, as well as  addresses a doctrinal lacuna in the secondary material on Calvin and participation (p. 18). Toward this end, Billings offers a comment and some questions concerning the task of the volume:

These issues raised by the Gift discussion provide an opportunity to frame old questions about Calvin’s theology in a new way. What exactly is Calvin’s theology of ‘participation in Christ’, and how does it relate to the activity (or lack thereof) of believers? What, if any, are the metaphysical dimensions of Calvin’s doctrine of participation? Does the notion of participation connect God’s self-giving and human self-giving in a fruitful way (p.2)?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Gift conversation, Billings use of Calvin isn’t arbitrary, but is seeking to salvage Calvin’s understanding of gift from these theologians. “Calvin denounced reciprocal notions that he found at the core of Catholic theology,” suggests Natalie Zemon Davis, Continue reading

Celebrating Calvin’s 500th birthday

The 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth (Quincentenary) will be celebrated around the world next year through a variety of conferences and symposiums. Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan (my alma mater) has provided a helpful listing of a great many of them.

One not listed there, “Rediscovering Calvin, Resources for Renewal Today”, will be held next June at Emmanuel College, Toronto, and will broaden its exploration of Calvin’s thought beyond theology and ministry to music and the arts. Another event, The Calvin Quincetenary taking place in Geneva in July, includes a tour of sites such as Noyon (Calvin’s birthplace), Orleans, Reims, Strasborg, and Bern, a cruise on Lake Geneva, a sermon in Calvin’s church, and a conference with an impressive array of international scholars and pastors (e.g. Henri Blocher, Bruce McCormack, Carl Trueman).

Prayer: Calvin

After we have been instructed in faith to recognize that whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God, and our Lord Jesus Christ…it remains for us to seek in him, and in prayers to ask of him, what we have learned to be in him. Otherwise, to know God as the master and bestower of all good things, who invites us to request them of him, and still not go to him and not ask of him – this would be of as little profit as for a man to neglect a treasure, buried and hidden in the earth, after it had been pointed out to him.

John Calvin (Institutes, III.XX, 1.)