The liberality of John Calvin

The Lord commands us to do “good unto all men,” universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honour and love; but that this image is most carefully to be observed in them “who are of the household of faith,” inasmuch as it is renewed and restored by the spirit of Christ. Whoever, therefore, is presented to you that needs your kind offices, you have no reason to refuse him your assistance. Say he is a stranger; yet the Lord has impressed on him a character which ought to be familiar to you; for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say that he is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to grace with his own image. Say that you are obliged to him for no services; but God has made him, as it were, his substitute, to whom you acknowledge yourself to be under obligations for numerous and important benefits. Say that he is unworthy of your making the smallest exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess. If he not only deserved no favour, but, on the contrary, has provoked you with injuries and insults,–even this is no just reason why you should cease to embrace him with your affection, and to perform to him the offices of love. He has deserved, you will say, very different treatment from me. But what has the Lord deserved? who, when he commands you to forgive all men their offences against you, certainly intends that they should be charged to himself.

— John Calvin, quoted by Marilynne Robinson, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books.

According to Robinson, the much-derided Calvinist and Puritan strain in American Protestantism emphasized caring for the needy, because of, rather than in spite of, its supposed “legalism.” That is, because it valued the Old Testament more highly than some other Christian traditions, the Calvinist-Puritan synthesis was more influenced by the demands for social justice that are found in the Pentateuch.  God’s “liberality” as expressed in these demands is at the root of “liberalism” as a project of institutionalizing justice for the poor.

Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

A side of Calvin we don’t often hear about

From an interview with novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson:

[Calvin] writes very beautifully about the notion that any encounter with another human being is an encounter with an image of God.

If it’s someone offending against you, it is someone that God is waiting to forgive for his offense. And so it’s a sort of triangulation where you’re not in the trenches at war with some other person.

You are thinking, “This person is sacred to God. What is God asking of me in my encounter with him or her?”

Calvin does insist that when you see a human being, you are seeing an image of God. He says that the beauty of the image should override everything and leave you with only the will to embrace that person and help them to the fullest extent of one’s means.

The idea of a human adversary is something that he virtually eliminates as a concept that is possible to a Christian person.

And when you consider that he himself was under threat of death or his whole city was under the threat of death for decades and decades and decades, he was not speaking loosely. He was talking about a time when the Inquisition was very active all around them.

So for him to say you cannot legitimately call another human being your adversary is a very, very major statement.

I don’t know how accurate this is as exegesis of Calvin, but imagine how our interactions (politics–church or secular; online conversation) would change if we took this seriously.

Divine determinism and divine sovereignty

Marvin argues that a doctrine of divine determinism–that everything that happens, even apparently horrible things like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, is an expression of God’s will–is actually a more comforting doctrine than people sometimes give it credit for:

If this sounds harsh, and as I said last week, I am against harshness as a test of orthodoxy, then assuring people that God had nothing to do with the tsunami may be equally harsh. For then we live in a world where evils befall us from outside God’s will. And that raises a disturbing question: Is God’s arm, in fact, too short to save? Are we in fact in a s**t happens world where God wishes us well but can’t be counted on to do anything about it?

My problem with this view (and I don’t know that Marvin is whole-heartedly endorsing it) is that it provokes an equally disturbing question: if nothing happens “outside” God’s will, then why does God visit us with so much (apparently) undeserved evil?

It’s not just death, or premature death that poses the problem. Acute, prolonged pain and suffering are just as much of a problem, if not more so. And the suffering that happens, in many cases, goes well beyond any reasonable reformatory or punitive purposes that theologians may offer as explanations. As Clark Williamson argues, one criteria for doing contemporary theology is that you shouldn’t say anything you couldn’t say “in the presence of the burning children” of the Nazi death camps. Could we tell them that their suffering was part of God’s will for them?

This isn’t to say that God’s arm is too short to save, but to offer a different understanding of divine sovereignty. Whatever else we know, we know that God doesn’t in fact save people from undeserved suffering or death (that is, unless you have such an intense doctrine of original sin that no amount of suffering would be undeserved). Instead, I’d propose that divine sovereignty is an eschatological concept: it means that God’s purposes will ultimately triumph, despite the best efforts of fragile and foolish human beings. That’s different from saying that God controls the outcome of every event. It means affirming with Paul that our present sufferings aren’t worth being compared with the future glory, or with the seer of Revelation that God will wipe away every tear. It means that, in God’s time and by God’s power, “all things will be well.”


Doing a Google search, I came across this passage from evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz’s systematic theology:

Strictly speaking God’s sovereignty is an eschatological concept. It refers to the bringing to pass of the final goal God has for the world. This situation will emerge at the end of the historical process. When viewed from the vantage point of the eschatological end, therefore, God is fully and obviously sovereign.

When viewed from the perspective of present experience, however, it is not so obvious that God is sovereign. In fact, whether or not God is reigning over the world is presently an open question. In a sense, the present open-endedness of the divine sovereignty is implicit in the act of creation itself. The very existence of creation as a reality different from God raises the question of ultimate sovereignty: Is God sovereign over creation or is creation autonomous? (Theology for the Community of God, p. 106-7)

Citing Wolfhart Pannenberg, Grenz goes on to argue that, during the present age, God’s sovereignty is contested by the forces that work against God’s purpose. But God acts in history to establish his Kingdom. The eschaton is the point at which God’s sovereignty will be fully manifested. “In the strict sense, then, God is sovereign from the vantage point of the eschatological future” (p. 108).

I don’t know much about the context of Grenz’s overall theology (though I’m intrigued by this passage), but this sounds very similar to what I was trying to get at in this post.


Marvin has a follow-up post here. Like him, I’m attracted both to classical theism and to more contemporary process- or narrative-oriented approaches. And I agree that the classical view has much more sophisticated and able exponents than the pop-Calvinists who dominate much of the theological debate among American Christians. (To Marvin’s list, I might add a more contemporary figure like Tillich, though I understand Marvin finds Tillich boring. :))

I also agree with Marvin that there are no problem-free positions out there. There are theologies (such as some forms of process theology) that do seem to qualify God’s sovereignty to the point of impotence, or that make a fetish out of divine suffering. That’s part of the reason I’m attracted to a “neo-process” perspective like Clark Williamson’s, which incorporates some of the key insights of process theology without abandoning its commitment to tenets of traditional theology like creation ex nihilo and a strong view of God’s eschatological triumph. (Others who might fall into this broad middle ground: Keith Ward, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke.) Of course, such a position is open to criticisms from both the “left” and the “right” for being an unstable hybrid.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for classical theism of the Augustinian variety, especially in its emphasis on the mystery and transcendence of God. The deity of some process and other contemporary theologies can seem a bit too personal and chummy. Theology needs to preserve a space for holy awe and that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom.

Maybe what tips the scales for me is that I just find it impossible, on a gut, existential level, to affirm that God directly wills some of the terrible events that happen in the world. But it could be that it’s possible to square the circle and affirm traditional notions of divine sovereignty without being forced to that conclusion.

The evangelical crack-up: not all it’s cracked up to be

An honest-to-goodness evangelical pours some cold water on David Kirkpatrick’s NY Times Magazine piece on the splintering of political evangelicalism. (via Jeremy)

I’ve seen a number of outlets assume that evangelical dissatisfaction with Bush and the GOP must be dissatisfaction from the Left. While younger evangelicals may indeed have a newfound concern for issues like global warming and AIDS, this doesn’t mean they’re becoming liberal per se. And, as the threats of Dobson, et al. to bolt to a third party indicate, much of the dissatisfaction is from the Right.

David Sessions, the author of the Slate article, makes the interesting suggestion that the growing popularity of Reformed theology in conservative evangelical circles may account for the newfound focus on broader social issues. Neo-Calvinists like Abraham Kuyper were very big on Christ as the Lord of all and that his reign should encompass the entire social sphere. This is in sharp contrast to a kind of Left Behind theology that emphasizes snatching souls out of a society firmly ensconsed in a hell-bound handbasket. In this respect neo-Calvinism has a lot in common with Catholic social thought.

Lutherans, meanwhile, have historically been more skittish about this kind of thing. Obviously God is sovereign over all, but God relates to us in two ways. The two kingdoms doesn’t refer to distinct spheres of church and state, but to these two ways in which God relates to creation: redemption and conservation. The kingdom of the right, God’s “proper work,” is calling people to faith and repentance through the preaching of the Gospel. The kingdom of the left, meanwhile, refers to the way in which God upholds and conserves the structures of creation and society to provide for and promote human well-being in this life. Politics, for Lutherans, is not redemptive, but pertains to penultimate matters, to serving the neighbor in her concrete needs in this age. To Lutheran ears, the talk of “building God’s kingdom” that you sometimes get from both the evangelical Right and Left smacks of Calvinist-inspired Puritanism.

Three approaches to faith and works

In continuing the tradition of outsourcing quality theological reflection to my betters, allow me to link to this weighty post from Christopher on justification, sanctification and the various kinds of legalisms and antinomianisms that afflict the left and right.

The way I’ve learned to think about faith and works was that we are saved – i.e. restored to a right relationship with God – sheely by grace on account of Christ received through faith. This is the Reformation view shared by Lutherans, Calvinists, and many Anglicans.

But there’s a divergence about what role sanctification, or growth in the Christian life, means. Lutherans tend to say (at least when they’re being good Lutherans) that being continually rooted and re-rooted in faith will “naturally” produce good works (cf. Luther’s Freedom of a Christian). However, Luther, being the realist that he was, also recognized that our sinful impulses aren’t going to disappear until the consummation of all things, so in the interim we have the law to act as a check on them. I think this is properly described as the “civil” or first use of the law, not the much controverted third use.

Calvinists, by contrast, tend to have a more positive view of the law as a guide to Christian living and see sanctification as on ongoing process of being empowered by grace to obey God’s law. Naturally as a Lutheran I think the danger here is legalism and instrospectiveness; Calvinists would no doubt say that Lutheranism courts antinomianism.

An interesting third view, suggested as a distinctively Anglican one, is offered by Louis Weil in an essay called “The Gospel in Anglicanism,” found in an anthology The Study of Anglicanism, edited by Stephen Sykes and John Booty (1st ed.). Weil contends that Anglicanism, as it’s expressed in the prayer book and Articles of Religion, agrees with the Reformers on justification, but has a more sacramental understanding of sanctification:

While clearly within the Reformation tradition in its understanding of justification, Anglicanism distanced itself from both Calvin and Luther in ways which have been presented here. It is particularly with regard to the role of the sacraments as instruments of grace that Anglicanism maintained its own middle way: as Hooker wrote, ‘Sacraments serve as the instruments of God.’ They are thus God’s actions toward mankind, occasions in which through participation in the outward forms, men and women are involved in an active response to the grace of God. (p. 71)

In Weil’s view, the Anglican ethos sees sacramental and liturgical worship as the means by which God’s sanctifying grace is communicated to us. Through worship we participate in the mysteries of the faith and are linked to God’s purposes for the world. It is the primary means by which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. Sanctification, then, has its roots in this incorporation; it is a key part of acquiring the “mind of Christ” from which good works flow. If good works are the fruit of faith, perhaps we can see this as “watering the plant.” This is one of the aspects of Anglicanism that I came to appreciate and cherish during last year’s sojourn among the Anglo-Catholics in Boston.

In theory Lutherans (I can’t speak for our Calvinist/Reformed brethren) ought to have a similar sacramental piety. After all, Lutheranism was the “conservative” branch of the Reformation that maintained much of the Catholic practice that the more radical elements of the Reformation rejected outright. However, my sense among ELCA Lutherans at any rate is that this sense of participating sacramentally in the reality of the paschal mystery is not very common.

My heart’s with the Lutherans in insisting that we can never merit our relationship with God. Our righteousness is always a gift that comes from outside (extra nos) and there’s nothing we can or need do to add to it. However, I also like the Anglican emphasis on being incorporated into Christ through participation in sacramental worship. Or, to put it more simply, learning to love Jesus by spending time with him. It seems to me that this offers the promise of helping to give a shape to the Christian life that sometimes seems to be lacking in Lutheranism, but without reducing it to sheer moralism.

Predestination with a human face

Marvin has taken back up his series on “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” with posts on divine sovereignty and predestination. I commend the second one in particular. Though, I suppose you’re either destined to read it or not. 😉

God’s glory is etched on his creation

I’ve been reading this abridged Institutes of the Christian Religion that I referred to in the last post and liked this passage quite a bit:

Since complete happiness is knowing God, in order that no one should be prevented from finding that happiness, he has kindly put in our minds the seed of true religion we have already spoken of and has also displayed his perfection in the whole structure of the universe. So he is constantly in our view and we cannot open our eyes without being made to see him. His nature is incomprehensible, far beyond all human thought, but his glory is etched on his creation so brightly, clearly and gloriously, that no one however obtuse and illiterate can plead ignorance as an excuse. So with absolute truth the Psalmist exclaims, ‘He wraps himself in light as with a garment’ (Ps. 104:2). It is as though he was saying that when God created the world for the first time he put on outer clothes. He hung up gorgeous banners on which we see his perfection clearly portrayed. In the same place the Psalmist aptly compares the spread of the heavens with God’s royal tent and says he ‘lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind’ (Ps. 104:3): sending out the wind and lightning as his swift messengers. Because the glory of his power and wisdom is more ablaze in the heavens it is frequently called his palace. Wherever you look, there is no part of the world however small that does not show at least some glimmer of beauty; it is impossible to gaze at the vast expanses of the universe without being overwhelmed by such tremendous beauty. So the author of the epistle to the Hebrews sensitively describes the visible world as an image of the invisible (Heb. 11:3). The superb structure of the world acts as a sort of mirror in which we may see God, who would otherwise be invisible. (pp. 32-33)

Calvin on the Atonement and God’s wrath

One of the problems with penal substitutionary theories of the Atonement, at least as sometimes presented, is that, on the one hand, they present God the Father as being unable to be reconciled to humanity until his wrath is spent, but on the other hand, the Bible is very clear that the work of Christ is initiated and carried out by God the Father and the Son, not the Son acting on the Father as it were.

John Calvin, who is often regarded as one of the fathers of this understanding of the Atonement writes (in my heavily abridged version of the Institutes):

Before we go any further, we must try to see how God, who goes before us in mercy, was our enemy until he was reconciled to us by Christ. But how could he have given us that unique seal of his love — the gift of his only begotten Son — if he had not already freely embraced us in his favour? (p. 129)

What Calvin goes on to say seems to me to be that God has to make us understand how horrible our sin is, and that part of the reason why Jesus has to be crucified is to show this. “If it was not stated clearly that divine wrath and vengeance and eternal death hang over us, we would be less aware of our condemnation without the mercy of God, and less likely to value the blessings of salvation” (p. 129).

But what’s not clear to me is whether Calvin is saying that God is truly merciful but has to “put on a show” of being wrathful in order to impress upon us the awfulness of our sins. Or is he actually saying that Jesus’ death propitiates God’s wrath, objectively speaking? This seems to be implied by what he says later about the “guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God” (p. 131), but if so, then it seems to me that he hasn’t really addressed the apparent contradiction of God being our enemy but also acting to reconcile himself to us (and it’s interesting that Calvin says that God is was reconciled to us (p. 129), whereas Paul says God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Is this significant?).

It could well be that I’m just missing enough of the text that the argument isn’t spelled out more explicitly. Any Calvin-philes out there want to clear this up? Is the wrath for Calvin our perception which God alters by offering his Son, or does the Son objectively “satifsy” the wrath? Or both?

Our fellow travelers

Calvinist Richard Mouw reflects on our communion with the saints.