Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Popular Calvinist Myths (Part One) Calvin's Warning About Predestination

Pictured Above: Calvinist James Swan cautiously walks past a group of Arminians, Roman Catholic Apologists, and dispensationalists on his way to church this past Sunday.

Believe it or not, most Calvinists don’t hang around talking about predestination or the atonement. Maybe in cyber-space it seems that way, but in real life, this is not the case.

For example, I go to a very Reformed church. If you were to look in the hymnbook rack of the pew, you would find the Psalter hymnal. Flip to the back and you’ll find the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. These written confessions discuss "Calvinism." What you won’t find though in my church is a lot of people in the lobby before or after the service talking about the 5 points of Calvinism. During the service, you probably wont hear hymns being sung about predestination or limited atonement. Most of the time, the subject doesn’t even come up during the sermons. After the service, people aren't talking about "how great it is to be predestined" etc.

Why? Is it because I go to some liberal backslidden Reformed church? Absolutely not. We are very conservative. The reason actually is: the subjects of predestination, election, etc. are not “Bible basics”. They are not doctrines to discuss flippantly. They are deep and profound doctrines that require great care and handling when being discussed. They aren’t “Bible milk” –they are “Bible meat.” Even John Calvin gripped this. Most folks don’t realize Calvin didn’t really delve into these subjects in the Institutes until Book III. There was much doctrine that needed to come first. Calvin realized this- a good Reformed church will understand this, and a mature Calvinist should as well. I have (for the most part) avoided on-line discussions about predestination /election. It's important to have a healthy respect for the doctrines of Scripture. It's important to not use the Word of God recklessly.

But in cyber-space, this is not the case. These doctrines are thrown around like bouncing rubber balls in a china shop- causing all sorts of damage. Now, most of the time I blame non-Calvinists for doing this. They usually bring the rubber ball to the china shop and start throwing it, while some Calvinist chases after it to try to catch it, and throw it right back at where it came from. Some are pretty good at throwing it back, others end up simply breaking more china.

Here’s an old post I saved from the CARM discussion boards (2001). Check out this anti-Calvinist “rubber ball thrower”:

Why do Calvinists hate the love and mercy of God? Why do they hate the fact that God loves all men and seeks their salvation? Why do they get so upset with scriptures that teach of God's universal offer of atonement? Is it that they need to feel more special and above their non-elect neighbors?”

Now these are the words of someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.

Now, I’ve also heard a lot of negative things about John Calvin as the “originator” of Calvinism. Most of the time, I simply get the feeling those with a strong bent against Calvin never actually read Calvin. To echo the words of Ford Lewis Battles:

I can usually tell, when people speak of Calvin, whether they know him only by hearsay, have read a few pages, or sampled him anthologically. They have no clue to the wonderful interconnectedness of Calvin’s thought. They ask questions which a fuller reading of the Institutes could have answered.”

Source: Ford Lewis Battles, Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1980), 23.

I can usually tell also. Well, let’s do a little Calvin 101, with two tiny selections from Book III of the Institutes, chapter 21. Calvin offers a prefatory chapter on how to handle the subjects of predestination and election. Did Calvin just boldly rush into the Bible extracting Predestination and thrusting it onto the world? Read for yourself:

Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel. Since we see so many on all sides rushing into this audacity and impudence, among them certain men not otherwise bad, [Probably Zwingli] they should in due season be reminded of the measure of their duty in this regard.

First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder. He has set forth by his Word the secrets of his will that he has decided to reveal to us. These he decided to reveal in so far as he foresaw that they would concern us and benefit us.”

Source: Calvin's Institutes III.21. 1

Let this, therefore, first of all be before our eyes: to seek any other knowledge of predestination than what the Word of God discloses is not less insane than if one should purpose to walk in a pathless waste [cf. Job 12:24], or to see in darkness. And let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in this matter, wherein there is a certain learned ignorance. Rather, let us willingly refrain from inquiring into a kind of knowledge, the ardent desire for which is both foolish and dangerous, nay, even deadly. But if a wanton curiosity agitates us, we shall always do well to oppose to it this restraining thought: just as too much honey is not good, so for the curious the investigation of glory is not turned into glory [Proverbs 25:27, cf. Vg.]. For there is good reason for us to be deterred from this insolence which can only plunge us into ruin.”

Source: Calvin's Institutes III.21.2

These are only small snippets, and these words weren't a one-time-deal. I have other quotes in which Calvin says the same thing. These subjects must be approached with caution. But some go on to argue: these subjects shouldn't be approached at all. In part two, i'm going to look at another aspect of caution from Calvin on predestiantion and election: those who are too cautious.


FM483 said...

James - I think it is commendable that you are attempting to methodically establish your Reformed position. It is with great eagerness that I await your future posts on this matter! One thing I should like to point out is the beginning point of your analysis: God. This is key in understanding where your primary emphasis and ending point will eventually be - a kind of "predestination" if you will(no pun intended). Lutherans always begin and end with Jesus Christ. Lutherans even employ this in apologetics to unbelievers. They understand the resistance of unbelievers to accept the fact of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Holy Scriptures. Lutherans understand that once I person is acquainted with the one and only True God as He has revealed Himself in Christ, the Scriptures are spontaneously accepted because the resurrected Lord endorsed them and they testify of Him.

I noticed a television special a few days ago, hosted by Barbara Walters or some other professional newsperson. The discussion was to be about God and "What if He didn't exist"? The participants were a Roman catholic, Jeff Cavins(converted from some branch of Protestanism), a Rabbi, and an Islamic Iman. Right away I knew that no orthodox Christian could seriously particpate in any such discussion. This is because the Christian has met the one and only True God in Jesus Christ. What could any unbeliever ever offer in a discussion of the True God? All unbelievers could offer is human philosophy, which is tainted itself because sinful, fallible human beings are the authors of such thought processes. Does Christianity have anything to be learned about God from other religions? Rome apparently thinks so and it is reflected in the 1994 Catechism of the RCC.

James Swan said...

Your comments reflect the reason I’m attracted to Lutheranism- I believe it was the Lutheran scholar Robert Kolb who said (in summarizing Luther's theology)- "When you've said Jesus, you've said it all."

Indeed, it’s the Christocentric nature of Lutheranism that I find to be its strongest point- a point lacking in the church universal today.

On Christmas Eve, I went to a Lutheran candlelight service, at a church I had never been to before. The service reflected the Christocentric character of Lutheranism- I’m not sure how many people attending besides me gripped it, many seemed as if they were simply going through the motions. But for those who know their only comfort in life and death is Jesus Christ, the service was refreshing.

I'm much more familiar with Luther's writings than any other historical figure. While I may find myself agreeing more with Calvin doctrinally, I read Luther as if he was my pastor, counseling me. His Christocentric approach appeals to me emotionally. The same applies to my own pastor- Not one sermon goes by in which he doesn't point toward the cross, whatever the subject.