All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical.
We need not be surprised at this, still less suppose that because it is analogical
it is therefore valueless or without any relation to the truth. — Dorothy Sayers
If you think about some of the most popular church leaders today—either in terms of congregation size or Web presence—an ungainly number of them are of the Calvinist persuasion: John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Albert Mohler, Tim Keller, John MacArthur. And consider the traffic garnered by bloggers such as Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, Tim Challies, and the whole Gospel Coalition gang. Recently, Taylor posted Mark Dever’s list of influencers believed responsible for this resurgence of Reformed theo-thought.
I have written before about how I came to reject Calvinism as a thoroughly biblical construal of the Faith, and so there’s no need to beat a dead hobbyhorse. I will add that, had I stayed in the Reformed world much longer, I probably would have either lost faith in a god at all or come to believe God was an amoral monster about whom we could know nothing other than that words don’t mean to Him what they mean to us. Even now, Reformed ways of thinking about God’s sovereignty still cling annoyingly to the back of my mind like old gravy from two Thanksgivings ago—I can’t use it anymore, because it’s not really good, and it’s just stinking up the joint. But damn if it don’t stick.
But you will never understand the “success” of neo-Calvinism (at least in the States—five-point Calvinists comprise a minuscule percentage of the number of Christians worldwide) if you don’t understand what they do very very well. And that’s preach.
Now that would seem counterintuitive: If your soteriology insists that God has predetermined who’s saved and who’s lost before the foundation of the world, then what’s the point of … well … anything. But in fact, Reformed preachers, as well as those found in any other confessional group, and in many cases better than those found in other confessional groups, have nailed the ability to accomplish four things in a sermon:
1. Expound the scripture under consideration in terms of its original context. (What was at stake back then?)
2. Situate the church today in terms of what this passage has to say. (What is at stake now?)
3. Explain what this means for the individual believer’s walk (sanctification/perseverance under trial).
4. Explain what this means for the unbeliever (justification).
Most preachers can do, maybe, two of these things well. It’s rare to pull all four off. Reformed preachers have a unique gift for doing just that. Tim Keller certainly does.
It is said that Arminians pray like Calvinists, wishing God to overrule the wills of those being prayed for, assuming they’re blind to their own best interests. But it could also be argued that Calvinists preach like Arminians, as if their auditors were free to respond to the message, and therefore truly responsible.
But buried deep in most of this preaching, like Indian arrowheads, are the five points encapsulated in the acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints. If you want to know what each assertion means in Reformed theology, consult Monergism.com or some place like that. A non-Calvinist source will prove too tendentious, like asking Loraine Boettner to explain Roman Catholicism.
Some Reformed preachers, however, have buried the points in only shallow graves, because up they pop like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And some, like John Piper, have no qualms about sticking them in your eye.
Recently, I’ve noticed some decided push back, some resistance to the Calvinist juggernaut. Both Roger Olson and Greg Boyd posted responses to Piper, who recently declared that God ordains and governs sin, which is hardly original given the thrust of Reformed thought. He just spelled it out for folks. (Boyd also got into it with Piper earlier this year when the Reformed Baptist declared that a tornado was God’s way of warning the ELCA that its moral theology sucked.)
But it is Jerry Walls’s recent series of videos that really caught my attention. Walls is a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and the coauthor of Why I Am Not a Calvinist. Needless to say, he has roiled these waters before. Check them out when you get a chance.
I am fascinated by how certain ideas perdure, no matter how awful. Richard Dawkins says that religion is like a virus, infectious and difficult to shake off. It’s a childishly reductive judgment, of course, but there are ideas about God that can infect your thinking in terribly destructive ways.
I know I said up top that I wasn’t going to ride this hobbyhorse again, but I do find it difficult not to unpack what John Piper’s theology means in the pews. Imagine for a moment a child raised in a Reformed church in which the idea that every terrible thing that happens to anyone is foreordained by God Almighty, that the wrath of God abides eternally on the vast majority of everyone ever born, that most of the people you meet are destined for an eternal garbage dump because … Adam ate the apple. You can’t say it’s because of their personal sin, because everyone sins. You can’t say it’s because they don’t believe, because the will is inherently defective, and no one can believe until God turns the lights on. It would be like asking a man blind from birth to describe Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm.” (OK, bad example. He’d probably get that one right.)
And you can’t even employ scripture against such arguments (John 12:32, 2 Peter 2:1, 1 Timothy 4:10, and 2 Timothy 2:19-20 as a response to Romans 9, etc.) because any and every verse is inevitably interpreted in light of presuppositions.
Now imagine that this child is thoroughly indoctrinated and so begins to consider how every awful thing that could conceivably befall a person is God’s doing. Not the inevitable result of living in a fallen world, not acts of nature, not primarily the act of some evil person, whether a liar, a thief, or a rapist. But an act of God, who foreordains each and every catastrophe, even the very sins of the liar, the thief, and the rapist. Oh, sure, He employs means, which is to say, He has accomplices…
Now imagine this child grows up and something terrible, something unspeakable, does happen to her. “Does God hate me?” she understandably wonders. “Is that why He [fill in the blank] me? Am I not one of the elect? Don’t I have real faith? Did God give, then take away, my faith? Or does God love me, but [fill in the blank] me to humble me? After all, there are no accidents. I know He didn’t just permit this to happen. Everything has a reason. And what reason can there be but that God is absolutely Sovereign?”
There are a lot of smart, loving, kind people who embrace and defend this theology. And who knows, maybe they’re right. And maybe Thomas Aquinas was wrong. Maybe human language is not analgous to divine language. Maybe justice and goodness and mercy mean something entirely different to God than they mean to us. Maybe what we have here is a trickster god who allows men and women to believe they are loved and saved and destined for glory but have in fact been hated, damned, and destined for hell from before they were so much as zygotes.
Look, the world is a pretty dreary place. Inexplicably terrible things happen every day. So maybe up is down. Bad is good. Left is right. Love is hate. God is responsible for every evil but never morally culpable. Maybe His secret counsels makes nonsense of all our God-talk.
I say this in all sincerity, and without a hint of snark: I find it infinitely more reasonable to believe in an evil god than in either no god or a good god. An evil god explains a helluva lot more about life on this earth than does a good god or mere randomness. And my temptation, what I must fight against, is not that the atheists are right but that the Calvinists are, at least in so far as they teach and believe that God foreordains sin and has predestined everyone either to heaven or to hell. Because if they are, then there is no good news in this world. There’s only bad news and worse news. We’re playing in a rigged game here. And I was never lucky, so I sincerely doubt I have suddenly won the election lottery.
So yes, I am perfectly willing to admit that Lutherans, for example, are wrong. Maybe God did not take upon Himself the full pain and penalty of sin for every last man, woman, and child. Maybe the sin issue, the judgment issue, the wrath issue, was not dealt with at the Cross, on Calvary, once and for all, for everyone. Maybe God does still use lightning strikes and tornadoes to punish people for doing something predestinarian theology says they were destined to do by God.
But think about a religion where it’s simply wrong, misleading, to say, indiscriminately, to a hurting, confused, even traumatized person that “God loves you”—and mean by love what we all mean by love, that He would die for you.
John Piper’s god is not tame, that’s for sure. But neither is he good. I would wish better for that child described above. I would wish for her both a truly good God and truly Good News: that Jesus is God. That Jesus is Good, because Jesus died for you. That neither Jesus nor the Father is the author of sin. That Jesus loves you. And always has. And that nothing can change that. Not even bad theology.