Friday, December 02, 2005

Parochial thoughts on Calvinism & Lutheranism

Paul McCain has written a piece highly critical of Calvinism.

Before I delve into the details, a few general comments are in order.

1.The Lutheran tradition has much to commend it. Lutheranism is a Christ-centered, cross-centered, Bible-based tradition. It has far and away the best musical tradition within Protestantism. More recently, it has been strong on Christian ethics, Biblical creation, and the inerrancy of Scripture.

2. Lutheranism has produced a number of formidable theologians like Chemnitz and Quenstendt. In our own time, John Warwick Montgomery is a walking encyclopedia and one-man university, while Eric Vestrup brings to his apologetic pieces the same mathematical clarity and crystalline logic that he does in his professional work. We welcome a keen-edged critic who can sharpen our own blade. Unfortunately, McCain is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

“It has come clear to me that for Calvinism, starting from the premise that the chief characteristic of God is his ‘ Sovereignty’…"

Where does McCain get the idea that Calvinism is an axiomatic system in which you rank the divine attributes, then infer your theology from God’s “chief” characteristic?

If he spent any time with the standard literature (e.g., Berkhof, Calvin, Hodge, Owen, Turretin), he would know, first, that Calvinism is not an axiomatic system, and second, that Calvinism doesn’t rank the sovereignty of God above other divine attributes. Although some Reformed doctrines are deducible from others, they also enjoy direct exegetical support.

It’s not so much that Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God, but that rival traditions deemphasize or deny the sovereignty of God. Calvinism is distinguished by its belief in the sovereignty of God, not because we believe that this is God’s “chief” characteristic, as if God had to have a “chief” characteristic, but because that’s what sets us apart from the others. Yet to say that it differentiates us from others is not to say that it takes precedence in our self-identity.

“…it makes perfect sense that the Sovereign God would lay down hard and fast rules and laws for all eternity but then turn right around and order his people to break them by putting, for example images in the house constructed for His worship.”

i) I guess the insinuation here is that Reformed theology has a voluntarist version of divine command ethics according to which right and wrong are simply a matter of God’s arbitrary fiat.

Actually, Calvin went out of his way to deny such a view, and mainstream Reformed theology has followed his lead. Cf. P. Helm, Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford 2004), chapter 11.

ii) McCain’s example is also very odd. Is McCain saying that there’s an actual contradiction between the Second Commandment and God’s instructions to Moses concerning the furnishings of the tabernacle?

What does that allegation, which attributes falsehood to Scripture, have to do with Calvinism per se?

“After all, in their system, this same God is the one who, despite telling everyone through His Son that He loves the whole world and that the atoning sacrifice of His Son was for the sins of the whole world, turns right around and decides to create some people just so He can send them off to roast in Hell, while others, He determines to be in Heaven.”

i) The allusion to Jn 3:16 and 1 Jn 2:2 simply ignores Reformed exegesis, as if we’d never said anything on this subject.

ii) Can McCain cite any Reformed theologian who says that God “creates some people just so He can send them off to roast in hell?”

iii) What is McCain’s own position? He doesn’t believe that God foreordains anyone to hell. But he presumably believes that God creates some people foreknowing that they will end up in hell. So he must create them with that destiny in view. Even if he didn’t predestine them to hell, he created them knowing full well that hell was their final destination.

“You don't really need the atoning sacrifice of Christ in this system. You see the Sovereign God simply is Sovereign. That settles it. I'm not really sure what point there was for Him to send His Son anyway, but I guess that too is just to be chalked up to the Sovereign God.”

This follows from McCain’s initial strawman argument about Calvinism as an axiomatic system that absolutizes the sovereignty of God to the exclusion of all else.

“And this Sovereign God is also so remote and ‘other’ from His creation, that we can not possibly suggest that this infinite God is capable of associating Himself with the finite.”

This description of the Reformed position is demonstrably false.

“In fact, it is an affront to this Sovereign Other in Calvinistic thinking to suggest that the actual humanity of a human being is so closely united to Divinity that He is now truly, actually present in, with and under bread and wine of the Holy Supper, even as he was in, with and under the assumed humanity from the God-bearer, the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin. Jesus is God, in the flesh, in the womb of the Virgin Mother. Christ, is God, in the flesh, on the cross, crucified, died and buried, risen again for our salvation.”

This is what McCain is really after. Again, the assumption here is that Reformed sacramentology is just another inference—in this case from the transcendence of God. But if you actually read Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian theologians, they will argue for their respective positions on exegetical grounds.

“And so it then is necessary for Calvinists to speak of a "spiritual presence" of Christ, but in such a way as to avoid at all costs actually regarding him as truly present where He promised to locate Himself: under bread and wine, with His actual body and blood, given from the hand of the pastor, into the mouth of the communicant. His Glory dwelt between the Seraphim, but it seems for Calvinism, that can't be truly said of the Man Jesus Christ, now and into all eternity as our Ascended Lord and King.”

McCain mocks the notion of a “spiritual presence,” but if you go over to a Lutheran dogmatician like John Muller, you are told that Lutheran theologians “explain the omnipresence of Christ’s human nature not by way of local extension, but by way of His illocal, supernatural mode of presence,” Christian Dogmatics (Concordia 1955), 280.

Uh-huh. And what, exactly, is the difference between a “spiritual” presence and an “illocal, supernatural mode” of presence?

“All this has come very clear to me and frankly the way my Calvinist friends over at Dave and Tim's place are handling images, is perfectly, rationally consistent with their theology. Rather than starting in the Mercy and Grace of God, made flesh in Christ Jesus, Calvinism proceeds first from speculations about the Sovereign Lord and then works itself out from there.”

Once again, McCain does nothing to document this allegation from the standard Reformed literature. Reformed theology proceeds, not from speculation, but revelation, and there’s no particular order in which Reformed theology proceeds. What is the order in which John Murray proceeds? What in the order in which John Owen proceeds?

“When a theological tradition holds out the message that there is finally no way to know if one is saved, or damned, other than to throw oneself into the arms of a Sovereign God’s whims, is it any wonder that the response to this will be emotionalism and revivalism, trying desperately to work up in the human psyche some assurance of salvation?”

i) Calvinism affirms, rather than denies, that a Christian can know he is saved—on the same grounds that a Christian can know he’s a Christian.

ii) McCain’s statement is illogical. If salvation or damnation were a matter of God’s mere whim, then we could not know our spiritual status by throwing ourselves into the arms of God.

iii) Can McCain cite one Reformed theologian who says that we are saved or damned by God’s mere “whim”? Calvinism consistently says that election is a demonstration of God’s sheer grace while reprobation is a demonstration of God’s justice and holiness. And reprobation further serves to underscore the gratuity of grace.

“When Calvinism holds out empty sacraments that are mere legal requirements to be obeyed, rather than actual saving actions of a merciful, loving Christ, present among His people as He has promised to be, is it any wonder people run from such "Sacraments" and the "Sovereign God" and throw themselves down at the feet of false prophets like Joel Osteen and other wolves in sheep's clothing like him?”

i) This is the nub of McCain’s argument. You need a certain Christology (the communication of attributes, resulting in the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity) to ground a certain sacramentology (the real presence), and you need a certain sacramentology to ground the assurance of salvation. The aim is to objectify the grace of God via the means of grace so that every communicant has an unmistakable, verifiable basis for the assurance of salvation.

That’s the logic of the argument. The problem, of course, is that it breaks down in practice since every communicant is not heaven-bound. Lutheran theology doesn’t believe that everyone who receives communion is heaven-bound. Indeed, Lutheran theology would readily admit than many communicants are hell-bound.

So McCain’s own logic doesn’t hold up under rational scrutiny. And notice, incidentally, that his own theological method is axiomatic rather than exegetical. He is beginning with the assurance of salvation, and then working by from that priority to its speculative preconditions.

ii) Does McCain have any polling data to justify his claim that people turn to the Joel Osteens of the world in reaction to Reformed sacramentology? Has a sociologist like Rodney Stark done a study on this? Where are the stats? Or is this just another example of McCain’s speculative theology?

“Let this point be clear and may God grant it for Jesus sake . . . The differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism, and all those churches that are spiritual heirs of Zwingli and Calvin, or reactions against it: Reformed, Presbyterian, Episcopalianism, Methodism, Baptist, Pentecostal, Non-Denominational, and all the rest – these differences are every bit as harmful, serious and threatening to the truth of God’s Word as the differences between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.”

This is a remarkably partisan statement. Couldn’t we at least distinguish between theological traditions that afford a credible profession of faith, and those that don’t?

“This blog discussion and debate over images and commandments has really helped me realize what a stark contrast there is between Biblical Christianity, and Calvinism and all derivations, or reactions, to it. To whatever extent Calvinism does teach and cling to the revealed Gospel in Sacred Scripture, I thank God, but to the extent that it does not, I, with Luther must say, ’They have a different spirit. They can expect no fellowship from me.’ Amen and Amen.”

This is a classic example of a vicious hermeneutical circle. He doesn’t fellowship with non-Lutherans because they’re non-Lutheran. Hence, all he really knows is Lutheran theology. He’s a Lutheran by default. He is able to maintain his prejudice intact by limiting his contact to a self-reinforcing community of the like-minded.

It’s just a geographical accident that McCain happens to be Lutheran. Change the time and place of birth and he’d be a Buddhist or Maoist or Hindu or jihadi.

Needless to say, not all Lutherans are that provincial. No one is more cosmopolitan than John Warwick Montgomery.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written. I have been stewing and brewing on Paul McCain's comments for days. They are really troubling. As is typical for a Reformed scholar such as yourself, you were able to rise above McCain's "your mother wears combat boots" rhetoric, to actually give a scriptural response. Thank you so much for your time and effort.