Friday, September 23, 2005

Will or willn't?

[Same weird-gap=Chinese-Word apology as in other posts...]

The aim of this post is to reflect on a riddle I see in Calvinism. But first, let me make a brief detour about why I am no longer a Calvinist (hey, it’s my blog). The final point of this detour turns out to be the point I ultimately wish to make in this post, so your time won’t be totally wasted getting to the bottom.

First, there is the fundamental issues of Scripture and Tradition. Calvin, like all the Reformers, simply missed the boat on this one. In a crash of sola scriptura polemic, they unfortunately threw out the baby of Tradition with the abuses of various traditions [on this, you can wade through an old Catholic Light comment thread I was in under my pre-Catholic nom de guere, Geistesweisheit]. By making only the first four councils truly binding in any way as Tradition, Calvin, as any sola-scripturist does on every front (esp. that of the biblical canon), ran into the problem of defending these councils as the only true interpretations of Scripture, when neither they themselves nor Scripture ever teach them, or any council, to be such.

Second, I see simply no way historical Calvinism can be reconciled with the Church’s truth about the truth of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice worthy of latria [you can check out two earlier posts I made about the Eucharist {under a different pre-Catholic nom de guerre, Trujillo} here, part 1 and part 2]. And even if such a “reformation” were made to salvage Calvinism, and rectify Calvin’s “lapse” in this regard, we ipso facto have even less reason to see him as anything like a reliable authority for the Church, nor anything less than a brilliant lawyer who sadly wrought the same ecclesial fractures he so sternly wrote against. Strangely enough, I had without doubt my most intense pre-Catholic Eucharistic experience in a (PCA) Calvinist service as I held the loaf for people to take from.

Third, once I encountered the Church’s bold claims about God’s Providence, particularly in St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology, I spontaneously felt the – and I must admit this impression – sharp, icy grip of Calvin slip from my neck. A good part of my embrace of Calvinism was that it filled a tremendous need, in my college years, for a real sense of security: away from home, awash in theories, growing on an unclear road, etc. Now, even though Nietzsche was right to point out that just because something fills a need doesn’t make it true, we should also remember the equally obvious retort he seemed to miss (which is a common occurrence in Nietzsche): just because something fills a need doesn’t make it untrue. There is no need to deny the fact, and good reason to affirm it: Calvinism’s “notorious” emphasis on God’s sovereignty and man’s utter reliance on grace alone is simply good biblical, Catholic truth (cf. Jimmy Akin's article on, basically, the question of "how Calvinist a Catholic can be"). And so merely because I loved Calvinism for reassuring me of God’s sovereignty, I had to face the awkward fact that, despite the typical Calvinist bluster of truly being the only people on the planet that truly understand the true need of true grace in true Christianity (eeesh), in reality, divine Providence is simply not the private property of Calvinism, or the Reformation generally.

Fourth, I came to see that the ontic divide Calvinism places between fallen sinners and the holy God simply decapitates the good news it claims to defend. This excessively stark divide in Calvinism, which ultimately becomes a theological and pastoral crisis of the first order, became clear to me in small touches of Providence. For example, one night I was (as always) rearranging and packing books) when I flipped through John Baillie’s _On the Presence of God_. (I can’t praise highly enough the book of his younger brother, D.M. Baillie, _God Was in Christ_!) To paraphrase Baillie (poorly), “By emphasizing so strongly the utter incapacity of man to respond to God’s grace, Calvinism actually ended up by incapacitating grace from reaching fallen man.” This was an unexpected touch of Providence which set alarms off in my head. In the same way, in the midst of my Calvinist-Lutheran- Orthodox-Catholic upheaval towards the end of college, I was flipping through Paul Tillich’s _A History of Christian Thought_, when I read (to paraphrase again), “Although there is a great emphasis on God’s sovereignty and will, there is surprisingly very little mention of God’s love in Calvin.” Alarms, alarms! And, as a final warning touch of Providence, one day a year or two ago I was “comboxing” with a committed Calvinist at Mark Shea’s blog, when I asked him point-blank: “Does God love me? Does God love you?” Now, this is one of the simplest, most obvious “Sunday-school” questions in the Christian Faith, and one which any decent Sunday school kid will immediately answer, “Well, duhh! Yes! He’s God, and God is love!” But the Calvinist’s answer? “I don’t know.” The only feeling stronger than my sheer revulsion at such a “Christian” answer was my deep sorrow for people who live by such a “gospel.” But, the hard truth is, that Calvinist was just being consistent. For as long as election remains the “inscrutable”, monergistic prerogative of God alone, no Calvinist can in good faith say she knows God loves her as one of the elect. At any moment – as the grieved confession of a wonderful Calvinist friend made so clear to me around the same time – “I could fall away and only then realize I was never really among the elect!” By laying so much weight on man’s “utter depravity”, Calvinism lost sight at a deep level of God’s exuberant, magnanimous love for all His creatures. By focusing so intensely on the deadness of man in sin, Calvinism has obscured, if not in fact rejected, the unparsimonious vitality of God’s life in Christ’s blood shed for all people.[1]

It is here that my semi-biographical detour ends and here that I would like to present the riddle I mentioned above. Realize, now, that by pointing out this riddle, I am not arguing in any strict or direct sense against Calvinism, merely that I am highlighting a bizarre paradox in an otherwise paradox free soteriology[2] According to Calvinism, and Christianity in general, God is free in the fullest sense. His freedom, the beneficent liberality of His will, is one of the defining elements in an orthodox theology of God. God has libertarian free will in the highest sense of the word. A second uncontroversial claim in Calvinism, as a form of Christianity in general, is the truth that God created man in His image; that man bears the imago Dei, the very likeness of God, in a human mode. This imago Dei is, classically, recognized in man’s creativity, productivity, (Trinitarian) social proclivity, (marital) fecundity, transcendent rationality and imagination, etc. And yet – get ready for it – despite his uncontested God-resemblance, man in Calvinism lacks one of the central features of God, namely, libertarian freedom! This is simply bizarre! So bizarre in fact that I am labeling a big fat theological “cop out” (yeah, yeah, that’s real “low,” I’m sure).

This, then, is Calvinism’s riddle of the "theletic lacuna": though humans are created in the image of a free God, they are themselves not free, even after being redeemed by the divine Spirit who instills freedom (cf. 1 Cor 3:18; Jn 8:32, 36; Rom 6:20-22; etc.).

Ponder this riddle with me and tell me your thoughts.

[1] A strange consequence: Calvinists rail all the time against Catholics “communing with dead” by invoking the saints, but according to their own soteriology, we interact everyday with people who are truly dead (in sin)! In the strictest Calvinist sense, then, evangelism/witnessing is nothing less than “contacting” the dead! Wowzers! Go, go, Gadget Irony!

[2] Another irony about Calvinism is its basic stance towards the Mysteries of Revelation. A transcendent God and immanent in creation – an impenetrable mystery! An unchanging eternal God immanent in temporal contingency – an unscalable mystery! An inerrant holy book written by fallible sinners – a humbling mystery! A man born of a Virgin – a sheer mystery! God and man united in the one person, Jesus – mystery of Mysteries! A holy God saving sinful men – oh, well that’s easy: God just incinerates their rebellion with irresistible grace and brings them home without the slightest complicating amount of synergistic freedom or failure. (Hmmm, which one of these is not the like the others?) [P.S. As Jimmy James Akin points out so nicely in _The Salvation Contorversy_ {pp. 90ff}, the very words of Scripture teach synergism. See the Greek, for example, in Mark 16:20 {sunergountos}, Romans 8:28 {sunergei eis agathon}, 2 Cor 6:1 {sunergountes} and 1 Cor 3:9 {sunergoi}.]

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