Tag Archives: Calvinism

Same Team!

DM of the Rings by Shamus Young, 2007

The image is from DM of the Rings, where Aragorn accidentally sends the armies of the dead to attack the Rohirrim.  It’s what I thought of during a discussion on evangelism at care group, when someone talked about how she had evangelized a Lutheran friend by convincing her that evolution was a lie.

Sometimes only Jean-Luc Picard can express things properly.

Setting aside the evolution bit for the moment, this girl seems to think that Lutherans are not Christians.  She probably shares the opinion I’ve heard often from Mark Driscoll and similar thinkers, that there are Christians in the Catholic/Lutheran/Anglican/Episcopalian/Orthodox church, but it’s despite the teachings of the church, not because of them.

This is, at the very least, an uncharitable and uneducated thing to think.  It’s also unbiblical:

Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.  But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also.  The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have tares?’  And he said to them, ‘An enemy of mine has done this!’  The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go gather them up?’  But he said, ‘No, for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them.  Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.” ‘ ” (Matthew 12:24-30 NASB)

It’s a parable about why the righteous and the unrighteous live side by side in the world, but it’s also an admonition against trying to sort out who’s who.  If we make ourselves mediators of who is a Christian and who isn’t, we’ll do a terrible job of it.  Yet people at my church do this all the time.  They are far too ready to say “Those people call themselves Christians, but they aren’t really.”  For instance, a young man gave me this response when I expressed amusement that we’re sending missionaries to the Philippines, a far more Christian nation than our own (92.5% to 76.8%, according to the CIA World Factbook).  Certainly there are people who call themselves Christians and aren’t; there are probably a great many of them.  But you shouldn’t want to make yourself the mediator of who’s in and who’s out.  Who put you in charge?  Are you all-knowing and wise?

As far as people go, I’d say you have to just believe people.  If they say “I’m a Christian,” it’s probably better to accept that than to erect more divisive walls than necessary.  After all, you are not the judge of their hearts.

With churches and other organizations, evaluating whether something counts as Christian or not becomes easier and a bit more necessary, since it seems fair to say that ecumenicalism should extend to things that are Christian and not to things that aren’t.  Still, the tendency is to define “Christian” as “someone who agrees with me about everything,” and thus we end up with both the Orthodox position that officially states that we don’t know whether the non-Orthodox are saved or not, and things like the ironically-named conference Together for the Gospel, where a bunch of Reformed pastors get together and talk about how Reformed doctrine is right.  (All eight of the headliners are from the twenty-four, by the way.)

If a line must be drawn, I propose the Nicene Creed/Ten Commandments test.  Any church or similar organization that acknowledges the entirety of the Nicene Creed and the moral truth of the Ten Commandments and obeys the latter to the best of their ability shall be considered Christian; anyone who doesn’t will not.  If someone denies the divinity of Christ, we can draw a line there.  Believing in evolution or ordaining women, not so much.  You can still have opinions about those issues.  You can believe that others are wrong.  You can do your level best to change their minds.  But you can’t condemn them as heretics.  It’s possible they’re not Christians; it’s possible that the one issue you disagree about is the difference between saved and unsaved.  However, if the distinction needs to be made, it’s wise to stick with the creed that the church has believed for more than 1600 years and regard the issues that they saw fit to include as important and those that they didn’t bother to mention as peripheral, rather than relying on your own judgment.

Church history buffs will be pointing out that using the Nicene Creed as a criterion would introduce a filiusque problem.  Indeed, but if I were to eliminate all splits in the church except that between Catholic and Orthodox, I would already deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

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Worst. Bible. Ever.

UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from The Contemporary Calvinist!  Allow me to direct you to some other posts you’ll disagree with, on the topics of literature, pride, evangelism, Arminianism, and the Manhattan Declaration.

A certain person who attends my care group owns the Reformation Study Bible.  My first reaction was “That Bible probably has the Book of Piper right in it!”; my second reaction was that it might be the worst Bible ever and is certainly in the broad category of “worst Bibles ever,” barring those with actual translation issues.  This has very little to do with its actual content, which, not having looked through it, I can’t evaluate.  It’s just an inherently flawed and, in fact, anti-Christian concept.  The blurb says:

“The Reformation Study Bible contains a modern restatement of Reformation truth in its comments and theological notes.  Its purpose is to present the light of the Reformation anew.”  -R.C. Sproul, general editor

Okay, it’s edited by R.C. Sproul, which immediately vaults it into “probably terrible” territory, but that’s not the central problem.  The real problem is the same thing that is, or would be, wrong with a feminist study Bible or the Scofield Reference Bible or The Green Bible or or a pacifist study Bible any other Bible that promotes a specific issue or viewpoint.  It is reducing the Bible to a resource used to support a position–environmentalism, pacifism, Calvinism, or whatever else–that someone already held.  In other words, it elevates one hermeneutic to, and above, the level of Scripture.

Flying in the face of the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura, the Reformation Study Bible shows that, in the eyes of its creators anyway, the words of Scripture are not sufficient.  They need to be propped up with notes guiding the reader to the correct interpretation, putting emphasis on verses that support Calvinism and glossing over ones that don’t.  Also in contradiction to Reformed tradition, the reader can’t be trusted alone with the Word of God: he or she needs a framework to ensure that he or she comes to the right conclusions about it.

Reformed people seem to be immune to the irony here because, for them, Reformed truth is Biblical truth.  As I said before about R.C. Sproul and his ilk:

Notice that the Biblical gospel is “articulated in the Protestant Reformation”–not in the Nicene Creed or even the Bible itself.  For R.C. Sproul, the Reformation is the gospel.  We are called, not to preach Christ crucified, but to preach TULIP.

So for them, infusing the Bible with their hermeneutic isn’t wrong because their hermeneutic is Biblical truth, pure and simple.  This is the essence of hubris: the assumption that the editors know everything about the Bible.  They understand what it really means to say; if it’s unclear, they’re there to fix it.  This is anti-Christian.  Any study Bible written from this mindset seems to me a strong contender for the title of Worst Bible Ever.

I do own a study Bible myself.  It’s a Zondervan NASB Study Bible, and its notes are mostly moderate and uncontroversial, focusing on textual structure and cultural context and often putting forward multiple interpretations on divisive issues rather than choosing a side.  Nevertheless, if I were to choose a Bible now, I would pick one with no notes at all.  The Word of God is the Word of God and the words of man are not worthy to stand beside it.

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Image from The Apologetics Group.

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Cognitive Dissonance

When all the logical points have been hashed out, there are a few informal strategies that I like to employ to judge the merits of an idea. One of these is that I don’t subscribe to any view that requires me to act as though it were not true.

There are two ways this can happen. First, there are views that force you to act as though they were false simply because there’s no other possible way to act. Solipsism, the view that all reality is an illusion created by your own mind, is the best example. If you’ve established that nothing you perceive is real, how are you going to react to it? You can’t. The only way to act is as though the things around you were real (you might, perhaps, decide that you should be able to do whatever you want since it’s all an illusion, but you’d still be doing whatever you want with the things around you, as though they were real). There’s cognitive dissonance between what you believe and how you act.

The other type of cognitive dissonance arises in views that are really bundles of moral, philosophical, and metaphysical beliefs that aren’t necessarily logical conclusions from each other. Here, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m returning to Reformed theology.  There’s an aspect of the first type of dissonance to Calvinism, especially the stronger forms.  Certainly anyone who denies free will has a whole barrel of problems in this area.  However, the main cognitive dissonance sets in trying to reconcile the principles of Calvinism with its commands.

My sister reminded me of this today as she told me about semi-open theology, an intriguing hybrid view that her church holds that allows for the possibility of God changing His mind (also a view that is neither Calvinist nor Arminian).  She pointed out that every Christian acts like an open theist whether he or she is one or not: everyone prays as though God might change His mind, even if they believe he can’t.  The efficacy of prayer is always a wild and woolly issue, but Calvinists are in a particular pickle because they’re commanded to pray even though they believe in a God who preordained everything from the beginning and who can’t possibly be influenced by human demands.

Prayer isn’t the main point of dissonance here, though.  Evangelism is.  I’ve already commented on the oddity of Reformed evangelism.  In brief, they are commanded to evangelize even though it can’t possibly be efficacious, because God has already chosen who will be saved and who won’t.  Defenses can be made (and were), but even when you break away from the idea of evangelism, the mechanism of evangelism still doesn’t work.  Even if you believe that Calvinism is compatible with meaningful evangelism, there is still no way to evangelize that doesn’t involve acting as if Calvinism weren’t true.

To evangelize, you must communicate with unsaved people and try to convince them that they should accept Christ.  This action contains multiple non-Calvinist assumptions.  Unsaved people, according to Calvinism, are incapable of coming to Christ, or even understanding Him; thus, talking to them won’t accomplish anything.  People upon whose hearts the Holy Spirit has been working are already saved, or inevitably will be.  What words are you going to use when talking to these people?  “Come to Christ?”  The former can’t; the latter already have.

The answer is that you have to talk to them as though you were a humble Arminian (or subscriber to a third viewpoint) who believes that it is possible for human motive will to play a role in coming to salvation.  It’s simply not possible to act any other way.  And I think there’s good sense in believing something that is compatible with the way you have to behave.

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Calvinism and Self-Identification

One of the evidences I mentioned of the intellectual pride of Calvinism is that Calvinists often self-identify first and foremost as Reformed.  This is different than, say, a Lutheran self-identifying as Lutheran or a Catholic self-identifying as Catholic because the Reformed church is not a denomination.  Identifying foremost with your denomination encompasses many aspects of your religious life, from whether or not you are comfortable with women being pastors to what style of worship you prefer.  This kind of identification is obviously just a statement of personal preference.  On the other hand, self-identifying as Reformed is an affirmation of exactly one thing: your theological beliefs.  This is not usually a statement of preference; it’s an assertion that you’re on the right side of the doctrinal dispute.  Here’s an example.

Tim Challies lists a very reasonable set of traits on his About page:

I am…

  • Christian – I affirm that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.
  • Protestant – I affirm the five “solas” of the Reformation.
  • Reformed – I affirm the doctrines of grace – principles known to some as Calvinism.
  • Evangelical – I believe the gospel (which is the original and truest meaning of “evangelical”).
  • Conservative – I am generally traditional and restrained in my beliefs and cautious towards change, especially when it seems to be change merely for the sake of change.
  • Unfinished – Though I find great beauty in traditional Protestantism, I realize that in some areas traditions may not be fully Scriptural. Where that is the case I am eager to change as the Spirit convicts me through the Word.

Can’t argue with that.  They’re listed from broadest to narrowest and Christian tops the list.  But you only get that by going to his About page.  If you just open up a post on his blog, however, you’ll find that the tagline is “Informing the Reforming” and the title bar says “A Reformed, Christian Blog.”  He may self-identify with six different concepts, but only one of them made it onto the front page.

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