Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Monday, March 23, 2009

A measured response to Neo-Calvinism

Time magazine has informed us of ten trends to watch in the coming year, and one of them is the resurgence of Calvinism, embodied in the works of author's like John Piper, and numerous young pastors in America. One friend ponders the reasons for it's resurgence here. While I agree with his assessment of why the movement is strong and growing, I'm not at all certain it's a good thing.

Brent says in his post that "Calvinism is about certainty" In a world of post-modern cynicism, and the despair that comes with feeling ideological rootless, it's not surprising that the pendulum would swing, and that there would be a rise in the popularity of 'solid answers'. But what does the fact that a movement is growing really prove? (I'll point out that Islam is also growing rapidly in America). Perhaps it only proves that we like certitude, and the light speed cultural changes of the 21st century only serve to increase our hunger for answers we can believe in; live for; die for.

There's a great deal that's commendable in this because I do believe that we're made for a life of faith, a life where there are truths in which we believe utterly, truths to which we're willing to commit our very lives. Lacking such truths, we'll forever run around in a field of inquiry, never landing solidly enough to jump into God's calling for us. Suddenly, at the beginning of a new millennium, along comes a movement that tells us exactly how things are, and we find ourselves ripe for solid answers. "You had me at hello..." we say, realizing that we're finally home.

It's dangerous though, to offer people MORE certainty than the Bible itself offers, and this is one of the problems I have with the new Calvinism. Go ahead and declare the apostles creed as those truths agreed upon by the early church after much debate, prayer, and finally, declaration. Tell me it's true. Show me it's true. Invite me to believe it's true. I'll stand with you, knowing that I'm standing on solid footing because each of those declarations is easily defensible for anyone who believes the Bible to be our final authority source.

Neo-Calvinism doesn't end with declaring high certitude about the core beliefs found in the Apostle's creed, though. It goes on to tell me, systematically, about my depravity, the depth of it, how it means that I'm dead, and how, because I'm dead, I can't choose God, and that because I can't choose God, God needs to choose me, and isn't it cool that God chose me! Me! ME!! (and implied... 'so sorry about you', but don't question God's love or justice because the fact that He chooses any of us shows what a cool God He is...etc. etc.)

I won't debate those declarations because there are many places in the Bible where God does, in fact, declare that He chooses us. But I will suggest that this is only half the story. While Jesus offered some words that clearly indicated the Father's choosing and calling and sovereignty, He also said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink". If not anyone can come and drink, this seems like a bogus offer. Why would John the Baptist even make an offer like this if change wasn't a real possibility? Or consider the examples of Moses' and Joshua's invitations in the Old Testament to "choose life". What? Was there some fine print somewhere that I missed which read, "offer not available to the non-elect"?

The tired old argument between Calvinists and Arminiests about the nature of free-will and God's sovereignty is a classic example of how dangerous, in some settings, certitude is. The reality is that we're treading on the ground of mystery when we try to ascertain the interplay of man's choice and God's activity. Probably both are true, in ways that can't be harmonized adequately this side of eternity. There's some MYSTERY here, and when we fail to leave the mystery as mystery, offering instead a systematized answer, we do damage to the scriptures, and the systems we create run the grave of risk of distorting the character of God, as is evidenced by the doctrine of a limited atonement, which is a logical consequence of Calvinism, yet not in keeping with God's character in the Bible.

But now, suddenly, at the beginning of the 21st century, after 2000 years of failing to dissect the argument well enough to settle it, a few men have come along and figured it out for us. The answers, missing for literally millenia, are now here. "Thank you! Thank you! I can sleep now at night knowing the mystery is solved."

Nope. Not really. It's the wrong way to go, not because Calvinism is popular or unpopular, but because it's presumptuous. Our neo-Calvinist friends may think they have found, in John Calvin and his system, the perfect interpretation of all the mysteries of scripture, but many good people don't agree, and among those good people there are plenty with the good fruit of Christ's life present. Calvin's system, while offering allegedly solid ground, implies a degree of certitude that, when the cat's out of the bag and people begin to have questions of their own, will leave them feeling a little misled. Far better to say this, because there are, in truth, many areas where we're all still learning.


At 23/3/09 19:35, Blogger Michael W. said...


i don't have much more to say.

At 23/3/09 19:55, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

I wish you had more to say, because what you said only leaves me suspicious that you're reinforcing my premise, which is that neo-Calvinists are prematurely certain regarding their system. There are plenty of people out there who have doubts about the whole limited atonement thing, not because of a lack of 'word', but precisely because of a commitment to it.

At 23/3/09 21:10, Anonymous graham said...

Love this post Richard. Maybe because you've articulated some of my own suspicions about the certainty in the T-U-L-I-P camp... which just makes me feel better about myself and stokes my ego (a devilish trap when dealing with Theology).
BUT- when I strip my own ego aside (because, after all, that is what is irrelevant) and search for gospel and only gospel, I realize that it is for everyone and it truly is Good News. I can't imagine the Good News being irrelevant to anybody for any reason...

On another note,
I also am craving certainty in my life (esp. in uncertain times) and certainty itself is not the "enemy"... in fact, wouldn't it be nice if following God required no faith, but pile upon pile of empirical evidence and fact .... that in and out was cut and dry. The problem is, a broad understanding of scripture, which unfortunately, is lacking in evangelicalism doesn't really allow for certainty... there is too much mystery like you say... and contradiction.

Anyhow, don't need to go on and on. I think this post is relevant... in our world, and definitely in our city.

At 23/3/09 21:49, Blogger Kevin said...

It is also interesting to note the times throughout history when moments of uncertainty have led to unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by people grasping for any kind of solid footing. This is American anti-immigration legislation in the eighteenth-century which still echoes loudly today; this is the rise of a fascist state in 1930's post-Weimar Germany which led ultimately to systematic genocide; this is a single act of terrorism that has led to catastrophic civilian casualties in two wars and the destruction of basic human rights in the name of preserving justice.

It seems to me that what we are in need of, more than any kind of scriptural rigidity or religious institutionalism, is a radical willingness to be genuinely and honestly afraid, alone, and in need of God's presence. This is not a need out of our depravity, though, but a need that comes from the fundamental fact that (and I'm going to pull my own Jerry McGuire quote, here) God completes us. It's not about God being the stern, authoritarian voice that we have been somehow lacking and it's not about God finally giving us the spanking that we have been trained to believe that we deserve (thank you very much Dr. Dobson): it's about intimacy and wholeness, but that comes at the cost of our certainty.

At 23/3/09 23:31, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken said...

Perhaps the funniest "coincidence" in reading your post tonight was the code word for posting a comment... "dunce". Made me stop and think hard before writing anything. But that is not really what I wanted to share.

My wife had an encounter last week with a friend who beat her up a bit about Calvinism being absolutely correct. After supporting the position you outlined in their discussion my wife was astounded when her friend told her the one thing she really admires in my wife's life is her absolute certainly in God and His commitment to us!!! She went so far as to state that she doubts all the time! What a confession from a classic Neo-Calvinist. If she is so certain in her conviction why would there be doubt in God? I laughed when she shared this with me as I have often encountered the same crazy contradiction many times.

Good outline of the "conflict", Richard. We have talked long about this subject over the past couple of years and I am so glad you have the courage to post it for conversation. God gave us logic and I cannot believe He would so blatantly play us for fools by saying so much in scripture that the Neo-Calvinists see as patently untrue or at least inaccurate. I have yet to find one that can explain that dilemma.

The ENTIRE Word.

'Nuff said.

At 24/3/09 05:25, Blogger Roy said...

Between the words over the years of a local Seattle Calvinist pastor and another Calvinist group at godhatesfags,com, I've had about enough of Calvin for a lifetime. I envy the certainty that some of my friends have had over the years who subscribed to this idea but it never seemed graceful or loving to me - two traits I was taught initially were pretty important aspects of the Christian life. And I always thought it would be interesting to meet a Calvinist who believed they weren't one of the elect.

At 24/3/09 08:57, Blogger Rebecca said...

Thank you for addressing Neo-Calvinism. I myself have been a bit obsessed with researching it lately. I'm afraid my response has not been quite so measured. It is a bit infuriating to read that a man with as much force as Mark Driscoll would assert that "God hates us."
I noticed you referenced Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamozov in a previous post. The picture that has been haunting me the most as I explore Neo-Calvinism has been that of the Grand Inquisitor. Free will seems to speak to the very nature of God's love for us. To reject the premise that God desires us to choose Him not only goes against the beautiful and difficult picture drawn by Dostoevsky, it disregards the very nature of God portrayed in both the Old and New testament. God's love is certain. The only uncertainty rests in our desire to choose Him over ourselves.

At 24/3/09 11:17, Anonymous Graham C. said...

Richard, good post. Although I didn't appreciate the sarcasm when summarizing the Calvinist position, I agree with what I think you are saying, that there is no real "answer" when it comes to the mystery of salvation. Growing up Calvinist I've had to give my certainty and come to think of Salvation as one of those mysterious unions in Scripture that we can theorize about all we want, but won't be able to get our heads fully around this side of heaven. Just as the Trinity is three separate entities in One God, as Jesus was fully God and fully Man, so God has chosen us and draws us to Himself, yet calls us to respond to His universal call to repentance and new life.

Whichever way the Calvin-Armenian pendulum is swinging I think it’s important to note the dangers of taking either side to its full logical conclusions (as you have with discussing limited atonement), while avoiding demonizing or an "us vs. them" mentality, so we can sidestep the "classic Protestant backbiting" talked about in the Time article.

At 27/3/09 08:50, Blogger kylesale said...

I'm going to have to agree with Graham C. I usually find your thoughts enlightening Richard, even if I'm not in complete agreement.

Sometimes, however, I think you slash your own tires with such heavy sarcasm. It makes your post, or preaching, seem equally as based in biased certitude as those whom your challenging...often souring what for me could be a thoughtful dialogue.

I'm interested in the Neo-Calvinistic movement and have been reading some of Calvins works. I'm finding that it is often Calvins followers, not the man himself, who turn people off (gee...does that ring familiar?).

I agree with you that espousing theological certitude is perilous, mystery abounds this side of heaven! I know you're well studied but I would encourage others to do some reading before casting any theological argument aside.

At 28/3/09 14:21, Anonymous Lauren said...

thank you, richard, for this post today. it literally came as a cool drink of water after a week of dwelling on the time article that i read last monday, and after seeing an abc news interview with a local pastor who holds to the doctrine of predestination. both the article and the interview left me feeling very disturbed. i absolutely agree that there is mystery in the bible, and that there are passages that speak loudly of God's sovereign will and choices "jacob have i loved, esau have i hated" and "those God foreknew he also predestined..." and more. but i just can't believe that these passages are the whole story, because otherwise the good news really isn't the good news for so many. and that conclusion really would lead me to question God's character. i realize that that is a bold statement, and who am i to make such a bold claim. but Lord have mercy, Scripture also tells us that "for God so loved the WORLD that He gave His only Son," and "for He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should find eternal life." i wish i had more certitude myself...that the Bible laid some things out a whole lot more clearly for us than it does. i have questions about many things. but as you stated in your post, there seem to be some central things we should all be able to stand on as followers and disciples and seekers of Christ. one is that that the good news is for everyone. it's availble to everyone. isaiah 55:1,6-7 (nrsv): "ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! come buy wine and milk without money and without the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts, let them return to the Lord that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." john 1:12: "but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God."

At 28/3/09 14:29, Anonymous Lauren said...

one more thing: i'm going to have to respectfully disagree with kylesale here. i actually thought that you, richard, were quite fair to the calvinist position in this post. rather than being turned off by sarcasm, i felt you really were leading us into a true dialogue and encouraging us to search the Scriptures for ourselves. you said there are reasons why people swing from one side of the pendalum to the other - that it is understandable, and that there are passages that do point to God's sovereignty and choice of His people. but ultimately, you shared with us why you disagreed with this position - or at least have serious reservations about it - and i found that very helpful. you were both fair-minded and humble, i thought, but didn't sit safely on the sidelines, either. i thank you for that. and as your last sentence stated, we ALL still have a lot to learn in our christian walk, and who of us can't agree with that?

At 29/3/09 12:01, Anonymous thomas said...

Along the lines of kylesale's comment I feel like it is easy to judge the ideas of Calvin and his followers solely by how they have been put into action in the worst possible way rather than by the (often extremely complex and nuanced) ideas themselves (I would call this the lowest common denominator argument - and it is one that is used of Christianity in general frequently - ie. "look at the way Christians have been intolerant in the past, who cares if Jesus said 'love your neighbor,' I'm judging Christianity by the actions of militant Crusaders). There is a tremendous amount of theological treasure in the long stream of Christian thinking that emphasizes the sovereignty and transcendence of God of which Calvinism is one part. As you say in your post Richard we are all still learning, and always will be.

I agree that a desire for certainty is extremely dangerous and harmful. However, it's not the exclusive realm of Calvinists, I myself (and I assume others) have been fantastically certain of my own theological claims.

I think the appeal of neo-Calvinism must run deeper than a desire for certainty, and as a Christian from a different tradition and background this makes me wonder what part of the gospel are we on the other side with our own certainties about the fallacies of the TULIP slogan perhaps missing? Like I say, I agree that the offer of certainty is a big part of the equation, but there are easier to swallow offers on the market than the Calvinist/neo-Calvinist God - so I think there must be something more there, and it may be something that my own particular stream is lacking in some way.

To change the direction of the conversation slightly - what can we learn from Calvinism and neo-Calvinism (both their mistakes and their strengths)?

At 29/3/09 20:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 30/3/09 13:27, Blogger Kevin said...

In response to Thomas:

I think that one of the most prominent gifts to receive from Calvinism/Neo-Calvinism--which is often lacking within dialogues around that particular theological ethos--is the emphasis on giving glory to God. While the argument about the specific form of predestination often rests at the forefront of our attentions, one of the actual purposes of predestination is to take our minds off of our own personal salvation long enough to realize that we are not the point; while God desires to be reconciled to humanity, God does not need to be. The question of God becomes less about who is in and who is out (for none can know for certain, no matter how much Calvinism may be shaped around certainty) but one of worship: will we, whether or not we are saved, give praise to the wellspring of creation? Will we die to ourselves such that we might even forsake paradise in the name of glorifying God?

At 3/4/09 09:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a very important conversation.
Especially for this city.
Especially for the church in this city.
I come from a Reformed/Calvinist tradition that is really serious about Scripture and thinks that Calvin had some really good things to say. But rather than trace our relationship to Calvin through folks like Piper/Driscoll/Macarthur (who honestly make me queasy), we go through some folks like Abraham Kuyper who uphold the lordship of Christ, grace, engagement with culture, and the belief that God is redeeming all things. This is the real "neo-calvinism" and it has been around for a while.

For the sake of future conversations, I'd encourage you all to check out this neo-calvinism (for a rough description, check out Wikipedia - always a good place to start! - many of you will discover you are already neo-calvinists. And let's call this Time magazine thing "New Calvinism" so as not to conflate these two different worldviews/theological perspectives. So I guess we have Calvinism, Neo-Calvinism, and New Calvinism. And many more too, I'm sure.

At 10/4/09 01:34, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Richard ... my cousin forwarded this post of yours to me. I appreciated your measured response and agree wholeheartedly. There's mystery there that we lose if we need certainty that comes from either extreme.

Blessings from Asia ... Jonathan & Cindi W.


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