Ugly Theology

facepalmThere’s good theology and bad theology. And then there’s ugly theology – it’s not just bad, it’s bad in a nasty way (a face-palm seems appropriate). Within the Reformed tradition, there’s nothing quite as ugly as Hyper-Calvinism (well, perhaps one or two other candidates). What is it? The New Dictionary of Theology passes on two definitions, which are a bit further down, but here’s my take…

Hyper-Calvinism takes the theological emphasis of John Calvin (and other Reformers) on God’s sovereignty and presses it so hard that it eclipses some very important scriptural truths, namely:

  • Human beings have agency (they make choices) and responsibility (their choices have consequences) in God’s cosmos. Hyper-Calvinism effectively denies this. It’s fatalistic.
  • The Scriptures teach us to look at God’s works and life in general from a human perspective (our true and proper perspective as finite creatures receiving grace from an infinite God, who reveals himself to us). Hyper-Calvinism trades solely in looking from God’s secret perspective. Very infrequently, the scriptures give us a glimpse of things from that perspective, but it’s rare.
  • God’s secret will is…well, secret. Hyper-Calvinism says it is our business to discern God’s secret will, as if it was revealed.

What’s particularly ugly is wrapped up in those last two points. Hyper-Calvinists forget their place as human beings in God’s cosmos, and the humility that goes hand in hand with that. They begin to believe that they can see wholly from God’s perspective. So, Hyper-Calvinism represents an immense pride (not just theologically, but often personally). Pastorally, where Hyper-Calvinism is at work in a person, or a community, immense damage is being done. Discouragement, despair, legalism, fatalism, repetitive and excused sin – all these are present. Friction, schism… I could go on. It all gets particularly ugly…

Here’s how it quite often comes out; the mantras of the Hyper-Calvinist:

  • “If you’re chosen, you’ll be saved. If not, you won’t. There’s nothing you can do to change it. So, there’s no point seeking God.”
  • “Don’t pray, God can’t hear you. Don’t worship, God’ll get cross. And definitely don’t take communion. Unless you’re chosen. Then it’s OK. But you probably will never know if you’re chosen.”
  • “There’s no point telling people about Jesus. If God has chosen them, they’ll be saved, and God doesn’t need any help from you.”
  • “You need to ask yourself: are you chosen? Are you born again? Only when you know for certain that you are/have, you’ll be safe.”
  • “If you disagree with my way of looking at things, you’re probably not chosen. So, I should have nothing to do with you.”

All of these are ugly distortions of the Bible. And, you’re thinking: surely nobody says that! Thankfully, Hyper-Calvinists are few and far between. But, where they’re present they can be hugely destructive. Hyper-Calvinism is bred in the incubators of dualistic Pietism, which is why it’s so important to emphasise the goodness of creation, the glory of humanity as the Image of God, and the reality of human choice – as well as the Goodness, Sovereignty and Glory of the Creator: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just like the Holy Scriptures do.

Anyway, here are the New Dictionary of Theology definitions of Hyper-Calvinism:

It is a system of theology framed to exalt the honour and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners. It puts excessive emphasis on acts belonging to God’s immanent being —the immanent acts of God—eternal justification, eternal adoption and the eternal covenant of grace. It makes no meaningful distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, thereby deducing the duty of sinners from the secret decrees of God. It emphasizes irresistible grace to such an extent that there appears to be no real need to evangelize; furthermore, Christ may be offered only to the elect (from P. Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, 1689–1765, London, 1967).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., p. 324). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will of God and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of sinners, notably with respect to the denial of the use of the word ‘offer’ in relation to the preaching of the gospel; thus it undermines the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them; and it encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect (from the unpublished PhD thesis of C. D. Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill, University of Edinburgh, 1983).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., p. 324). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Addressing Pietism and ‘The Thing’

calvinA busy few weeks attending the British New Testament Conference and researching at Tyndale House has kept me away from World Without End. But, my mind has been turning over the things that I’ve posted on previously: the influence of pietistic dualism (the strict separation of natural and supernatural) in the Church. Whilst away I had a stimulating conversation about the influence of Pietism in Welsh evangelicalism. Just yesterday, I read an interview with the first Jesuit head of the Catholic Church – a Pope who celebrates the particular mysticism of the Society of Jesus. Closer to home, there is the mystical dualism of the traditional local Catholicism and the evident strong strain of pietistic mysticism (with its attendant dualism) in Scottish Presbyterianism, especially in the Highlands and Islands. In a previous post, I noted Bavinck’s view that this kind of pietism was incapable of the Reformation of the church. The Reformation project at its very heart sought to fundamentally connect the natural and supernatural.

Conventionally, the Reformation of the sixteenth century is seen exclusively as a reformation of the church. In fact, however, it was much more than that; it was a radically new way of conceiving Christianity itself. Rome’s world-and-life view was dualistic; her disjunction between the natural and supernatural was a quantitative one. By returning to the New Testament, the Reformers replaced this with a truly theistic worldview that made the distinction a qualitative one. Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, 235.

The Reformers’ healthy, biblical view of Christianity (a ‘Worldly Christianity’) was rooted in the place they afforded to the doctrine of creation. It was good ol’ Jean Calvin who took this furthest…

In the powerful mind of the French Reformer, re-creation is not a system that supplements Creation, as in Catholicism, not a religious reformation that leaves Creation intact, as in Luther, much less a radically new creation as in Anabaptism, but a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures. Here the Gospel comes fully into its own, comes to true catholicity. There is nothing that cannot or ought not to be evangelized. Not only the church but also home, school, society, and state are placed under the dominion of the principle of Christianity. 238

But, this great principle of the Reformation – of the goodness of creation, of God’s purpose to affirm and renew all things in Christ – did not take root. By the time of the Westminster Confession, this aspect of Reformation thought is waning. In Bavinck’s words, ‘the Reformation retreated into itself’. The dualistic outlook remained.

I’ve become convinced that it is Pietism that is at the root of some of the common problems found in traditional Highland Presbyterianism. Congregations which have retreated from the world, which are unable to either mobilise or contextualise their mission, which show little concern for social justice, and which have a negative view of language and culture – these congregations can be identified, but why are they like this? They have ‘the thing’, that intangible, nebulous affliction discerned through its symptoms. To my mind, ‘the thing’ is rooted in Pietism and must be addressed by a truly Reformed, Worldly Christianity. Mere ‘Evangelicalism’ cannot be the answer, because Pietism is alive and well in that school of thought as well. If we want a focus for the on-going task of Reformation in Scotland, then the all-embracing, most-wholeheartedly biblical, creation-affirming principles of Calvin’s Reformed thought are what we must grasp and apply.

The Church, Our Mother

cyprianIt was Cyprian who said:

You cannot have God as your Father, unless you have the Church as your Mother.

Many Presbyterians aren’t used to thinking of the Church as Mother. It all sounds a bit ‘high church’. Of course, the Roman Catholics do adopt this language – which may explain why many Presbyterians do not. However, in a day when some seem to think that attendance at Church is optional in Christianity; when some have no intention of submitting to the discipline of the church; and when people leave and join churches as if the were changing their car, the idea of our relationship with the Church as our Mother is one which needs greater attention amongst Presbyterians.

It’s always a good idea to turn to Jean…

But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, (Mat 22: 30).

For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa 37: 32; Joel 2: 32). To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel,” (Eze 13: 9); as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance,” (Psa 106: 4, 6). By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.                                              Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.4

Of course, Calvin’s words are mirrored in the Confession, which states that outside of the visible church (made up of those ‘that profess the true religion, together with their children’) there is ‘no ordinary possibility of salvation’ (WCF 25.2). You cannot be part of the visible church if you are invisible; if you do not ordinarily attend church services. Neither can living like that be in any sense a profession of the true religion. Calvin is not wrong to say ‘the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.’

Rebaptising Christians

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Over the past months, I’ve heard of more than one instance where evangelical churches have either re-baptised, or were planning to re-baptise, Christians who had already been baptised in another church. It always deeply saddens me when I hear this sort of thing. It is deeply divisive to adjudge another church’s administration of a sacrament to be so deficient as to make it invalid. There aren’t many things more damaging to church unity. The logical conclusion of such a position is that someone might always get a ‘better’ baptism somewhere else!
In churches that call themselves reformed, this ought not to happen. If being reformed means anything, then surely it means we’ve got time for John Calvin!
…if we have rightly determined that a sacrament is not to be estimated by the hand of him by whom it is administered, but is to be received as from the hand of God himself, from whom it undoubtedly proceeded, we may hence infer that its dignity neither gains or loses by the administrator. And, just as  among men, when a letter has been sent, if the hand and seal is recognised, it is not of the least consequence who or what the messenger was; so it ought to be sufficient for us to recognise the hand and seal of our Lord in his sacraments, let the administrator be who he may.  
This confutes the error of the Donatists, who measured the efficacy and worth of the sacrament by the dignity of the minister.    Such in the present day are our Catabaptists, who deny that we are duly baptised, because we were baptised in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism.  Against these absurdities we shall be sufficiently fortified if we reflect that by baptism we were initiated not into the name of any man, but into the name of the Father,  and the  Son, and the Holy Spirit; and, therefore, that baptism is not of man, but of God, by whomsoever it may have been administered.    Be it that those who baptised us were most ignorant of God and all piety, or were despisers, still they did not baptise us into a fellowship with their ignorance or sacrilege, but into the faith of Jesus-Christ, because the name which they invoked was not their own but God’s, nor did they baptise into any other name.    But if baptism, was of God, it certainly included in it the promise of forgiveness of sin, mortification of the flesh, quickening of the Spirit, and communion with Christ.    Thus it did not harm the Jews that they were circumcised by impure and apostate priests.    It did not nullify the symbol so as to make it necessary to repeat it.    It was enough to return to its genuine origin.    The objection that baptism ought to be celebrated in the assembly of the godly, does not prove that it loses its whole efficacy because it is partly defective. (Institutes, IV,15,16)