Saturday, September 20, 2008

Calvinist Thinking: Total Depravity

I have a strong conviction about how to read the Bible. When we read a verse of scripture we should never interpret it in a way that is opposed to the clear meaning of other scriptures. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34 says, 'Women should be silent in the churches'. Taken out of context this seems pretty straight forward but when we read the rest of 1 Corinthians- much less the rest of the Bible- it is clear that women do speak and teach and proclaim within the Body of Christ. So we conclude that Paul is speaking about a specific situation here and not as a universal all-time rule for women in churches. By the same token Paul says many things about the character and nature of God, Man, Creation, etc. But we must always keep these in line with what has been revealed in Jesus. In John 14 Jesus makes an incredible announcement. He tells Philip and the disciples that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. Do you want to know what God is like? Look to Jesus. So here is my point: Any interpretation of the Old or New Testament scriptures that is contrary to what Jesus has revealed to us about God can not be correct. Or to put it another way, we don't read Paul to find out what Jesus is like we look to Jesus to explain what Paul was talking about. This all sounds terribly complicated until we look at Total Depravity in the Calvinist system of thought.

Total Depravity according to Calvin meant that everything about Mankind is fallen and broken by sin. To Calvin's way of thinking this is a critical point in his theology because it sets up the number one point that John Calvin wanted us to understand about God. He chooses us, we do not choose Him. WE CAN NOT BY ANY MEANS FORCE GOD TO DO ANYTHING. I happen to believe that. But I do not understand Total Depravity the way some Calvinist consider it. Here, I will diverge from what some of you may have been expecting, namely a scholarly discussion of what Calvin thought. I am actually not too terribly concerned about what Calvin himself thought. I am much more concerned with what we think and in the conversations I have with Calvinists and non I am concerned with this Total Depravity issue. You see, Calvin may be right but I have two things to say about this. One, I believe that Man was made in God's image and that no matter how badly Sin has messed it up it is still in there. You can see it in the beauty of friendship, love, and forgiveness in Christians and non-Christians alike. I see this as God's original splendor still percolating beneath all the filth we have covered it with. So, while I- and every non-Calvinists I know- agree that there is no part of Man that does not need the redemption of Christ I will not yet declare Man totally depraved in the way that some Calvinists seem to think of Man. Man is not wholly evil. Second, Jesus does not see us this way.

If Total Depravity is technically correct or not too many Calvinists and non use it to misunderstand how God looks upon Man. When Jesus sits next to prostitutes and tax collectors the Word does not record Him thinking, 'What a bunch of despicable reprobates! There is no good thing in them and they make my skin crawl.' On the contrary, the Pharisees are rather annoyed with Jesus because He not only teaches them but seems to genuinely enjoy being with them. I know, I know, we are fallen, corrupted, 'All have fallen short...' Yes, I understand that. But when Jesus looks on the Rich Young Ruler who rejected Him the Word says, 'He loved him.' Think about that for a moment. Some of you may have thought, 'Ok, I know God loves me but it is solely because of the work of His Son. It is because of Christ's sacrifice for us that God can stand to look at us.' Or, some of you might think 'Well, of course He loves me. He knows all things and He knows what I will become in His Kingdom. He loves me for what He will make of me.' But the Rich Young Ruler rejected Him and would never become any more than what he was- in fact, he was probably never closer to the Kingdom than at that moment and the Word says he walked away. I have seen those who walk away and I bet some of you have as well. What they go on to become is never pretty. No, somehow Jesus loves us. He does not love the sin. He does not love us for the good things we occasionally do. He loves us.

Now, some may step in at this point and say, 'I see that He truly loves us but that is because He is so loving. It has nothing to do with who we are. We are yet totally depraved, utterly sinful.' My only response to that is that sometimes we say things we just don't think through. God does not love sin or depravity and yet He loves us. Therefore there is something about us that is not sin or depravity. I have a teenage daughter. If she came home one day and told me that she was a loving person and that is why she is going to marry a totally depraved, sinful, immoral man I would have a less than positive response to this. God loves us and He plans on marrying us!

Total Depravity is a good way of understanding our relationship to God in regard to our salvation. We have nothing and can do nothing that demands God's love. But do not then go on to understand that is all Man is. The King of Kings truly loves us. He finds a value in us that I do not comprehend but as we relate to one another it is perilous to forget that the King loves those whom you love, those whom you hate, and yes, even Democrats and Republicans. Let us treat each other with this love and leave Total Depravity on a theoretical shelf to be pulled down only when we get too prideful. But in my life I have seen more people rescued by the certain knowledge of God's love than the hell-fire sermons of a vengeful God who may or may not save us against His better judgment.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Calvinist Way of Thinking

Theology is an interesting subject. It can be studied, analyzed, debated, or even gulped down whole like a glass of cold milk. Many of us do the latter. Well, of course we do. We grow up with admirable people around us who spout off probable or improbable things and we swallow them whole not so much because of what those ideas are but because we trust the person spouting them off. As an example look at what it means to be a ‘conservative’ in American life. If you are conservative you believe in the sanctity of life and therefore you are against abortion. You believe in the Second Amendment and therefore you are against gun control. And you believe that Capital Punishment is an acceptable form of punishment within our criminal justice system. I defy any of you to have a conversation with any conservative and leave off one of these positions. If you do you will quickly be told that you are not a conservative at all and as we know good Christians are conservatives and therefore you are not a good Christian. Some of you are saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute that won’t happen!’ Yes, my friend it will. And if we set the glass of milk aside and look at these three completely disparate issues we will see that it is ridiculous to equate the three in any meaningful way. Sanctity of life is a biblical issue. God created us and we should respect that. Gun Control? Give me a verse of scripture on that. It may be a valid discussion to have within our society but it is not a moral issue biblically. If I am opposed to gun ownership in our society it does not make me a cursed liberal God-hater. If I believe that Capital Punishment is wrong that does not make me a tree hugging hippie. So, you get my point I hope. I have brought up three volatile issues that will surely have your head reeling by now and I am trying to show that we don’t have to believe all of them in order to be a biblically faithful Christian even though we have been told we must by good people.

This unhelpful ramble brings me to Calvinism. We have been told by some good men and women that all Calvinists hate missions and if we give any space to them in our Churches then missions will decline and we will fade away. That is of course, non-sense. There are now and always have been lots of God loving, Bible believing, missions focused Calvinists just as there have always been those who believe in man’s free will to choose who never ever share the gospel with anyone. That is a false argument that has kept many in fear for too long. The truth is that some of my superiors here on the mission field are Calvinists. They love Jesus and they love to tell others about Him. I believe that Calvinists within Southern Baptist life have reminded us of important doctrines like purity, God’s sovereignty, and God’s grace. I am not however, a Calvinist. I think that the doctrines of Calvinism fail to describe to us what God is like. I believe that good theology tells us what God is all about- Theology is supposed to mean ‘the study of God.’ So, with all that I have said under our collective belts I would like to lay out what I believe about Calvinism and therefore what I think God is really like.

Calvinism best describes itself as doctrines of grace. When they talk about Grace there is much we can agree on and much that I like about the way they say it. But Calvinism is usually described by their famous TULIP. I think that this is interesting because the TULIP does not describe everything that Calvin himself believed. I remember talking with my supervisor who is a Calvinist once and someone came and joined us. After we continued our conversation for a moment the newcomer said, ‘Hey, are you a Calvinist!’ He was clearly surprised to find a Calvinist as a top leader in our missions agency. Before our leader could reply I said, ‘Yes, he is. We would complain about his infant baptism if we weren’t afraid he would burn us at the stake!’ It was very funny but it was not true. Even though Calvin believed in infant baptism and did have just one enemy burned at the stake my friend believes in neither of these things and yet is a Calvinist in good standing. I don’t understand that I just accept it as reality and move on. So, we will stick with the TULIP which stands for the following:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Now, because this post is long enough as it is I will unpack each of these issues over the next couple of days. This subject touches on the Mission but as you can see it is a departure from my usual story telling agenda. I will return to story telling about what God is doing but I wanted to get my thoughts down about this important issue. I hope it is helpful for you as well as a good exercise for me.