Hey there. Hi. How are you? Long time no see. I have been absolutely, head-spinningly, crazy busy. But here we are, on the eleventh day of February in 2020 and I’m finally writing the first real blog article of the year. Those who have hung around here before and know me, know this: I’m a big believer in an examined faith. If we don’t take the time to examine what we believe and why, we can end up with all sorts of crazy theologies in our heads and a lot of them can be nothing more than glorified superstition. In a time when the evangelical church is coming under increasing, and I believe deserved, scrutiny, Biblical knowledge a noble pursuit.
The truth is, it is easy to walk into churches that feel good, sound good and speak about nice things, but be none the wiser when it comes to what they believe. I also believe that, with the emergence of a trend towards going independent, ideas can permeate the pulpit and sound original, but hail from older theologies. Is this a bad thing? Not always. I’m all for modernising the word and making it more understandable and accessible. But here’s the thing: older theologies often have a little more conversation and criticism around them, meaning it is easier to see what is solid and what isn’t.
Before I delve into the basics of one of the big thinkers of the Protestant Reformation (circa the 1500’s), I want to say this: I’m a layperson. I don’t have a theology degree. I don’t claim to know it all. I’m just a regular Jo, working her way through life and trying to do her best with faith and followership. There are whole books arguing for and against this next topic! I’m just giving you my super quick cooks tour of it.
Without further ado, meet John Calvin. The TULIP guy.
The 1500’s were a turbulent time for Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, which had enjoyed a position of privilege in society, was undergoing the throes of what would later become known as the Protestant Reformation – a significant split from the institution. John Calvin was a French theologian born into a catholic family but later went protestant after studying philosophy, humanism and law. He stepped up to the plate in the mid 1500’s and began to help popularise a few things ideas that have hung on until today, namely; belief in the sovereignty of God in all things, and the doctrine of predestination.
Why did I call him the TULIP Guy? Because he had five points and the best acronym people have come up with for that is a flower. (Hey, I like flowers!) Christianity.com briefly explains the five main points of Calvinism as this:
- Total Depravity – asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person is enslaved to sin. People are not by nature inclined to love God, but rather to serve their own interests and to reject the rule of God.
- Unconditional Election – asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom he will bring to himself not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people; rather, his choice is unconditionally grounded in his mercy alone. God has chosen from eternity to extend mercy to those he has chosen and to withhold mercy from those not chosen.
- Limited Atonement – asserts that Jesus’s substitutionary atonement was definite and certain in its purpose and in what it accomplished. This implies that only the sins of the elect were atoned for by Jesus’s death.
- Irresistible Grace – asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith. This means that when God sovereignly purposes to save someone, that individual certainly will be saved.
- Perseverance of the Saints – asserts that since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else, those whom God has called into communion with himself will continue in faith until the end.
Okay! Big ideas here. Big ideas that have permeated church until today. I always used to just think “Yep, okay cool” when it came to Calvinism, but the more I grow in my faith and deconstruction, the more I can see some fundamental flaws in the logic. Most of them pertain to the middle three points. Let’s start with unconditional election: the idea that we are either doomed to hell or destined for heaven from the dawn of time is something I find deeply troubling. We have scriptures such as John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that *whosoever* believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life) or Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13 that guarantee that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Then there is Romans 5:18 that says “as through one transgression, there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness, there resulted justification of life to all.” 1 Timothy 2:24 talks about Gods desire for all to be saved, and Titus 2:11 speaks about God bringing salvation to all. 2 Peter 3:9 says that God’s desire is that none should perish. These scriptures seem to be at odds not only with unconditional election, but the idea of limited atonement too.
The idea that there is an in crowd destined for heaven and an out crowd destined for hell, and we have no choice as to which crowd we are in, is deeply flawed. Yes, I know there is that verse that says “many are called but few are chosen.” This is an unsettling parable that shows that even though the invitation to salvation goes out to all, only some show up. These are the chosen. The elect. And there is Ephesians 1:4 that refers to the elect that God has chosen before the foundation of the world. So I can see where Calvin was getting his ideas from. However, the greater story arc that stretches through the Bible shows the nature of God to be one where He wants to redeem all. Why would he then only redeem some and eternally doom the rest from before their time on earth begins?
All of this hails back to the idea of predestination and God’s sovereignty: ie. that we cannot change what God has already decided so we are sealed in our fate. Now, both of these can be argued biblically both ways. We could have two skilled debaters on the platform using only biblical knowledge as their argument and it would make sense.
But for me, there is a chink in the chain mail. Why send your only begotten son to die for only some? Why create a soul that you love, that you care for, only to decide from the outset that they are destined to burn. We are introduced to God as being “love” and as being a loving father. As a parent, this speaks to me. I have two beautiful kids. You want me to choose one to live forever in a glorious afterlife and the other to burn for eternity?
Nope. I’m choosing both of my kids for the good stuff. No one burns. So that’s me, with two kids. Two kids I love so much I’d walk through fire for them. I’m not writing either one of them out of the will. I love them, thus I will do everything I can for them.
In pulpits everywhere, we are taught about God’s unconditional and sacrificial love for us. It’s an argument seated solidly in scripture. How then are we supposed to argue that only some of us actually have tickets to take advantage of it, especially given all the scriptures I quoted above.
Now I get it; if God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and all the omni’s, then He already sees and knows our choices. He already sees and knows who will take Him up on the offer of salvation. But does that mean that it is not freely offered to all? I think not. A hard core calvinist, when asking themselves a few questions would have to come to the conclusion that God knew and even desired for sin to enter the world from the beginning, that there is no point praying to bring unbelievers to faith because its either going to happen or not anyway, that Jesus didn’t die for everybody, and if we take the concept of predestination to the extreme, that God ordained things like the holocaust, murders, tragedies or sexual crimes.
Now to the idea of irresistible grace – that if we are the elect, nothing we can do can separate us from God’s grace and atonement. It’s a lovely idea. So lovely. I believe in the all sufficiency of God’s grace. However, the idea that the elect get this conscience clearing superpass to heaven no matter what they do, while those who are not in the elect get the short straw and go to hell no matter what they do is troubling.
It paints God as a masochist. A bit of an arsehole dad – who made a whole bunch of kids and decided a large portion of them weren’t good enough to eat at the family table, and who killed one of them to redeem only some of them.
Now to the idea of total depravity. Okay – I have no problem with the idea of sin. Sin, as falling short of a lofty, Godlike standard is just the human condition. We are all flawed in some way. We are all great in some way. We are all doing the best we can. But calling it total depravity is a whole new level.
To say “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” is a recognition of our human flaws. It is a recognition that we are not God and we need God. I like that. I’m fine with that.
Now look to your local maternity ward. Inside the nursery, swaddled in whites, are tiny babies. They are so new to the world that they don’t have a functioning prefrontal cortex. They don’t have awareness of what is right and wrong. They have awareness of hunger, tiredness and discomfort. This is not total depravity. This is innocence.
I have two preschoolers. Even in all the tantrums and tears and the selfishness of always wanting the bigger slice or the cooler toy, I can’t call it total depravity. Inside their brains is a firestorm of growth. They are learning who they are apart from me. They are learning how to assert themselves, and the difference between justified frustration and an unjustified tantrum. Even now, I can’t call their poor decision making total depravity. Because as frustrating as it is, it is innocent.
If you argue that total depravity sets in at the point where a person has a fully functioning prefrontal cortex and can make conscious decisions, then fine. But answer me this: the emergence of the atheist movement over time seems to have shown that people can be altruistic and seek to create a better world even if they aren’t Christians. It seems to show that ethics and unconditional love aren’t the domain of the redeemed alone. I look to those who campaign for human rights and I see God in them regardless of whether or not they believe.
At what point then, do we become totally depraved? You can look at the Ted Bundy’s of the world and think “Yep, depraved.” You can look at the Hitlers of the world and think “Heck. Absolutely. Depraved.” But a four-year old who just wants to faceplate directly into the top of the watermelon instead of waiting for mummy to slice it? He’s just learning patience and doing badly at it.
For all have sinned, fine. For all are flawed, absolutely. Depraved? I can’t come at that. We are all just doing our best. It’s just a shame our best isn’t Godlike, or the world would be a more peaceful place.
Look – I was going to try and argue for Calvinism. But it turns out I can’t. Someone else can! Heck, if you feel like it, pop me a note and you can guest blog on it! Be my guest!
The Bible is a complex document. It is rich in historical and cultural context that we often miss. The Protestant Reformation was an important time in history where mankind started to re-take the reigns of faith that had been handed off to the clergy. It gave us an opportunity to participate in faith to a whole new degree. It was an important development.
But there is a line somewhere in the Bible that says God builds line upon line, and precept upon precept. We, as Christians, progressives even, in the year 2020, need to take our faith and understanding further. And that means understanding what it is built on now.
Until next time,
Kit K, predestined since the beginning of time to write this blog article and publish it without proofreading it on February 11th 2020.