Friday, 25 June 2010

God’s Love Shining Through A Prism: Calvinism (Part 1)

God’s love shines through a prism,
I’m so confused by Calvinism
From the song Room Despair by Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love, which appeared on their EP Audible Sigh (Compass, 2000).

In a recent post I reflected on the dangers of an overly systematic theological method and the Lutheran preference for a more modest form of dogmatics organised around loci informed by the classical sedes doctrinae, the scriptural passages or ‘seats of doctrine’ which authoritatively provide the subject matter for theological reflection. Theology exists in a dialectical relationship (yes, I have misgivings about the term ‘dialectical’ because of its philosophical overtones, but until a better term suggests itself, it stands) with the Gospel: preaching invites theological reflection which in turn informs preaching, and so on. So it is that bad theology will most likely result in bad preaching, where the Gospel message of the love of God for humankind in Christ is distorted or even corrupted; never let it be said that theology has no consequences in the life of the church! (Of course, it may be that by the grace of God and through some ‘felicitous inconsistency’, a preacher who holds to a system of doctrine which distorts or even corrupts the Gospel may avoid the errors of that theology in the pulpit.)

It is my contention that Roman Catholic systematics, which derives its system or pattern of doctrine from the authoritative pronouncements of the Council of Trent, fundamentally corrupts the pure Gospel by making the free human response to God’s grace decisive for salvation. See, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church [para 1993] which, following Trent, speaks of ‘man’s part’ in conversion being the ‘assent of faith‘. Roman Catholic theologians and preachers can set forth this positive view of man's contribution to his salvation because of the adulterated doctrine of original sin they hold, which retains some spiritual abiity on the part of fallen man. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church elsewhere speaks of our ‘collaboration’ with God in justification (and sanctification) and of our ‘growth in justification’. What is this, I ask, but a version of the “decision theology” one can hear proclaimed in any number of Baptist, Holiness or Pentecostal church bodies, albeit in more sophisticated theological garb and with a more tasteful liturgy?

In the Calvinistic system, on the other hand, God’s pure love for sinners in Christ is refracted through the prism of human reason in such a way as to seriously distort the Gospel message even to the point of unrecognisability, just as pure white light waves refracted through a prism are changed in direction and colour, or more commonly in our every-day experience, as an object refracted through pools of water is distorted - hence the title pic of the Golden Gate Bridge above. To be sure, Calvinism holds to original sin and man's spiritual inability apart from the regenerating grace of God, but it limits the grace of God to the elect, changing the Gospel message into 'bad news', or at least bad news for some (who are the elect?, am I among them?), rather than unqualified good news that the sinner can trust absolutely.

For example, here is an extract from an essay by the Dutch-American Reformed Biblical scholar Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), who has been the fountainhead of a modern revival of Biblical Theology in conservative, confessional Reformed circles (which has come to ultimate fruition in the ESV Study Bible), in which he struggles with the Biblical emphasis on the universality of divine love, but cannot bring himself to the point of affirming it:

"There is, however, still a third sense, in which Jesus leads us to ascribe universality to the divine love. This is done not so much in explicit form as by the implications of His attitude toward sinful men in general. We must never forget that our Lord was the divine love incarnate, and that consequently what He did, no less than what He taught, is a true revelation adapted to shed light on our problem. If the Son of God was filled with tender compassion for every lost human soul, and grieved even over those whose confirmed unbelief precluded all further hope of salvation, it is plain that there must be in God something corresponding to this. In the parable of the prodigal son the father is represented as continuing to cherish a true affection for his child during the period of the latter’s estrangement. It would be hardly in accord with our Lord’s intention to press the point that the prodigal was destined to come to repentance, and that, therefore, the father’s attitude toward him portrays the attitude of God toward the elect only, and not toward every sinner as such. We certainly have a right to say that the love which God originally bears toward man as created in His image survives in the form of compassion under the reign of sin. This being so, when the sinner comes in contact with the gospel of grace, it is natural for God to desire that he should accept its offer and be saved. We must even assume that over against the sin of rejection of the gospel this love continues to assert itself, in that it evokes from the divine heart sincere sorrow over man’s unbelief. But this universal love should be always so conceived as to leave room for the fact that God, for sovereign reasons, has not chosen to bestow upon its objects that higher love which not merely desires, but purposes and works out the salvation of some. It may be difficult to realize from any analogy in our own consciousness how the former can exist without giving rise to the latter; yet we are clearly led to believe that such is the case in God. A logical impossibility certainly is not involved, and our utter ignorance regarding the motives which determine the election of grace should restrain us from forming the rash judgment that, psychologically speaking, the existence of such a love in God for the sinner and the decree of preterition with reference to that same sinner are mutually exclusive. For, let it be remembered, we are confronted with the undeniable fact that this universal love of God, however defined, does not induce Him to send the gospel of salvation to all who are its objects."

Geerhardus Vos, The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980; 2001), 443–444. The article originally appeared in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 13 (1902): 1–37, and is also available on-line; italics mine.

I'll give my readers time to digest what Vos says here before analysing it further in part 2 of this post, which will follow early next week, d.v. (I'm presently on holdays and trying to catch up on some reading and other things!).

-- + --

I also take this opportunity to thank God for the author and presenters of the Augsburg Confession, presented before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg on this day, 25th June, in 1530.


Nick Mackison said...

Mark, I absolutely loved your post on Reformed Systematics versus Lutheran Dogmatics. It seems that Lutheran theology walks a mysterious (possibly biblical?) line between Arminianism and Calvinism. To this restless evangelical, perhaps the whole "chastised epistemology" movement (which in many cases leads evangelicals to emergent village, Rome or Constantinople) is better served in the confessions of Augsburg.

From what I've read so far (bits of Luther's Small Catechism, Paul McCain's blog and Gene Veith's book "The Spirituality of the Cross"), Lutheranism seems to be unlike anything I've come across in evangelicalism.

Matthias said...

my brother had a friend-still a Reformed Baptist pastor- who has had churches that have been quite small in membership. he is an ardent Calvinist,and being Northern Irish a rampant anti Papist. I wodner if the small congregations he ahs could be attributed to the fact that he has TULIPs' and not SOLAs'?
Hyper calvinism has been attributed to the advent of apartheid and for this alone ,i will not adhere to it.As one pastor in the Reformed Church of Australia said-"apartheid is a sin"

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Welcome to the virtual 'old manse'!
I think you're on the right track with your thoughts about the place of Lutheranism vis a vis other confessions (of course, I would say that!). If you liked Veith's book, I would suggest getting hold of John Kleinig's 'Grace Upon Grace', which has been published by Concordia. In the US it is available through CPH (link via Paul McCain's blog) or if you are in Australia via Australian Church Resources -

Every blessing and drop by again!

Pr Mark Henderson said...


The story of the Reformed Church in South Africa is a very interesting one and almost a parable of the dangers of the Reformed mis-reading of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Apartheid was a great injustice perpetrated on the indigenous peoples of SA, and the many abuses that went along with it, including murder by the state, were terrible sins. To think that it was all built on a misreading of the Bible is astonishing!

I have a friend who is a South African Lutheran and he says that the country would have gone up in flames and civil war if it weren't for Nelson Mandela's call to forgiveness and reconciliation.
Whatever one may think of Mandela's early life - let's remember he did opt for violent response to apartheid - it should be pointed out that in prison he attended chapel every Sunday. My friend's wife's grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who used to take the services and devotions in Robben Island prison sometimes.

Nick Mackison said...

Thanks for the book recommendation; I'll get a hold of a copy.

BTW, I'm neither American nor Australian but Scottish! Despite that there's not much of a Lutheran presence over here, I've been very interested in the theology, piety and practice of Lutheranism.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

A Scot!
Well, there are some native Lutherans in Scotland:

Nick, I hope you enjoy the book, it is well worth the read. Dr Kleinig was one of my lecturers when I was at seminary here in Australia.

Keep in touch and let me know if I can be of any further assistance. You may appreciate some of the essays I've recently linked to.