Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Power of the Almighty

I wasn't always a Calvinist. Like many Protestants of my generation my parents first attended a small neighborhood church. The church sang only hymns in the early 90s and then, in an effort to gain members, switched to the pithy "contemporary christian" music now found in the megachurches. The theology was pre-millennial (meaning that the Left Behind books served as youth group manuals) and generally avoided the hard questions of the faith. God was "our friend" . When you prayed, you were asking God for a favor, just like you would ask your mother or father for a favor.

This sort of belief was unsatisfying, which is why I made my slow drift into Calvinism. While I expect most of Ogden's readers to have a cursory knowledge of the term, I'd like to give a definition, and explain what I believe are its strongest points and do away with misunderstandings. The Fundamental belief of Calvinism is that God is Sovereign and good. He decides what happens in Heaven and on Earth, although he gives humanity freedom. Like all other orthodox traditions, we teach that God created humanity in His own image, that is, with an independent will, and that humanity used this will for evil. God sent Christ to save us from our sins, and we must accept living under the will of Christ in order to be saved. This is all rudimentary and basic, but here is where Calvinism differs from our Eastern, Catholic, Lutheran, and Arminian brothers in Christ. Calvin taught, after reading the scripture, that humanity was incapable of saving itself through works and required God's sovereign grace. The idea is not original, after all, Augustine taught something very similar to calvinism. humanity has free will, but we are so sinful, so corrupted, that faith in Christ is not a choice that is available to us. Bernard Lonergan, a Catholic theologian, believed that each person existed in different horizons, and that we were incapable of seeing beyond our own horizon. This is much the same, humanity, on its own, is incapable of freely choosing Christ. Although some have accused Calvinists of arrogance in believing themselves to be of the elect, calvinism is indeed the opposite. We believe that no person is capable of choosing Christ, and we are grateful if Christ has given us the grace to love him. Charles Spurgeon, a great Calvinist preacher, puts the contrast between Calvinists and Arminians this way

"Lord, I thank thee I am not like those poor presumptuous Calvinists Lord, I was born with a glorious free-will; I was born with power by which I can turn to thee of myself; I have improved my grace. If everybody had done the same with their grace that I have, they might all have been saved. Lord, I know thou dost not make us willing if we are not willing ourselves. Thou givest grace to everybody; some do not improve it, but I do. There are many that will go to hell as much bought with the blood of Christ as I was; they had as much of the Holy Ghost given to them; they had as good a chance, and were as much blessed as I am. It was not thy grace that made us to differ; I know it did a great deal, still I turned the point; I made use of what was given me, and others did not-that is the difference between me and them."

Calvinism is a tradition that that puts the power of God supremely above humanity. This is the underlying belief of Calvinism, we cannot save ourselves without God first acting to save us. The rest is simply the logical outgrowth of this belief.

Calvin's 5 points are as follow Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.

Total Depravity is once again, merely words meant to describe the state of a sinful humanity. While men may seek God, they cannot love God on their own. We are so sinful that we have willfully cut ourselves off from Him. This is perhaps one of the least controversial aspects of Calvinist theology

Unconditional Election is merely words to describe the belief that God does not save people because of their own action. When put this way, it is a belief that all Christians can ascribe to. However, other branches are uncomfortable with the logical fallout of this belief. God must have chosen those he wished to save. This is not to discourage anyone from seeking salvation, indeed, it is quite the opposite. It lets people know that no matter how sinful, God can still save them. This is not double-predestination(as hyper-calvinists might confuse some into believing). Humanity has damned itself.

Limited Atonement is perhaps the most controversial aspect of Calvinism because critics(and hyper-Calvinists) misinterpret its meaning. Limited Atonement does not mean that Christ only died for part of the world or only for the elect. It means that his sacrifice was only MEANT for the elect. God can and quite possible might decide to save everyone, but the penalty paid on the Cross was meant for those God has chosen for eternity.

Irresistible Grace is also often misinterpreted. It does not teach that the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted, it only teaches that those God has willed to save will be saved.

Perseverance of the Saints is in opposition to the modern evangelical notion of once saved, always saved. Modern evangelicals teach, erroneously, that if you say a little prayer when you are a small child, that you can grow up to be the next Hitler and still go to Heaven, because after all, you have fire insurance. Perseverance of the saints teaches that instead, those who fall away from the faith were never a part of the elect to begin with. As Christ teaches in the parable of the Sower, the plants sown in rocks or thorns died off, their faith never had a chance. This view is consistent with Christ's pledge that nothing can remove us from his hand while avoiding the ridiculousness of the modern evangelical ideas.

Calvinism is not some extreme, insane theology(although hypercalvinism, which is a misinterpretation that focus on the wrong aspect of the tradition is). It is a sensible, reasonable exposition of the faith that is much needed in today's America.


Ogden Chichester said...

You remember that piece I showed you some time ago comparing the Thomist views to Calvin? Do you think it would be of some benefit to summarise them here in the combox?

Anonymous said...

I've only read a little Aquinas but sure.