Jerry Walls vs. the Neo-Calvinist Juggernaut

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 CalvinistNeedless 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.

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9 thoughts on “Jerry Walls vs. the Neo-Calvinist Juggernaut

  1. what a nice post Anthony!

    I really wish that more Lutherans would read St Thomas Aquinas. We really cannot even understand the points made in the Augsburg Confession or , especially, it´s Apology, without understanding St Thomas, and, in turn, his fonts of St Augustine and Aristotle. Those Confessions are in counterpoint to all of those.
    Thomas was more gifted intellectually than Luther, Melancthon Chemnitz et al… combined.

    I would suggest that you consider that Calvinism , which is really Matured Melancthonian Lutheranism, is really just a “neo” form of Thomist Scholasticism with it´s tone perfect integration of Augustine with Aristotle. They just rearrange the furniture. Sometimes for the better. Mostly …not.

    Both are to accept a very reasonable exegetical use of reason and the rules of logic.

    That the Gospel must exclude anything at all we are able to see and do is totally contrary to the best moral thinking of reason and logic. Mercy, after all, is the precise opposite of the justice we deserve for what we have done and who we are. That is why the parables seem so crazy to us.

    And Lutherans push that “for YOU!” ALONE by faith, apart from works, by claiming that ALL we can see and are able to do is…. ALONE… about Old Adam driven by reason and logic , So there is a second ALONE in Lutheranism that makes Christ ALONE truly be ALONE as in alone alone.

    Reformed and Rome seek Life in something that can be done. Usually by distinguishing between the profane and spiritual , the secular and sacred, the civil vs churchly …. um … stuff. Lutherans say that exactly there, there is NO distinction to be made at all. “That which is not of faith is sin”

    That says, according to Lutherans that the opposite of sin is not goodness. The opposite of Original Sin is , ALONE faith in Christ. This is quite radical. And it is counter intuitive that is to say, counter logical and even , apparently, immoral or at least, amoral

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  2. I don’t want to stir the pot either but this Calvinist needs to say that good Calvinists believe that God elects who will be saved but that doesn’t preclude preaching; it demands it. God most often uses means to accomplish his purposes and the means of salvation is the preached word according to Romans. I don’t think it is inconsistent to be a Calvinist and preach well and persuasively. Calvinism emboldens evangelism, it doesn’t deaden it. “God has ensured the salvation of people so lets go out there and find them! Preach to all so that his sheep can hear his voice and come in!” That kind of thing.

    And as far as God ordaining the bad things that happen in life, you need to listen to the rest of what Piper has to say about that to get the whole picture. If God isn’t in control of tornadoes and tsunamis then the world is much more terrifying because you have no one to call out to when bad things come your way. God just can’t do anything about it so don’t ask.

    And a Methodist friend pointed out the Walls videos and asked for comment. I didn’t want to get in an argument over them mostly because I was still somewhat convicted by this clip from a Doug Wilson sermon:

    http://www.canonwired.com/featured/calvinistic-dross/

    Wilson doesn’t defend or define Calvinism, instead he warns against being a bully and dividing the Body of Christ.

    Oh, by the way, by the end of this post your presuppositions were showing. Just thought you should know. 🙂 You’re not arguing against Calvinism, at least not the Calvinism I know, but against a distortion of it. God does love the world and Jesus did die for the world but that doesn’t mean he atoned for everyone’s sins. People go to hell not only because Adam at the apple but they are judged for what they themselves have done according to the end of Revelation. If Jesus atoned for their sins and then they get judged for them, isn’t God being unjust?

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    1. Tim, maybe you’re right, and maybe I’m wrong. My real point (aside from noting the online push back from non-Calvinists) is that everyone should consider the real implications, the ultimate implications, of their idea of God. That’s all. What is it that you’re really telling people when you’re sharing the Good News or your construal of it.

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  3. I agree Anthony! As a wise Arminian professor I had in seminary said, “About a third of your theology is wrong. The trick it figuring out which third it is!” He also said that we shouldn’t start with the “clear passages” to figure out our theology. A passage that is clear to me would be difficult to him and one that is clear to me would be difficult to him. You have to include all of what scripture says. So when Jesus said that he gives his life for his people, that sounds like limited atonement. But when Paul says in Colossians that everything in heaven and earth is reconciled through the blood of Jesus’ cross, that doesn’t sound like limited atonement. We all, Calvinist or not, have to include both things the scriptures say.

    I would probably have listened to some of Walls if he didn’t start out the video I saw by saying that Calvinism is hard, demanding and morally offensive. I went to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School so that I could learn from Arminians and Dispensationalists as well as Reformed folks. I wish we’d listen to each other more. Myself included.

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  4. Good piece. I like your serious thoughtful stuff. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just not smart enough to understand Calvinism because that is basically what my Calvinist friends tell me when I object along the lines of determinism or what it seems like they are saying about the character of God. For years I tried to “get” Calvinism because I was so impressed by the intellectual demeanor of so many Calvinist preachers. I’ve decided to just accept that Calvinism like quantum physics is just beyond my comprehension. I’ve recently discovered the sacramental traditions and am learning to take comfort in the mystery. Thanks again for this piece.

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  5. “A passage that is clear to me would be difficult to him and one that is clear to me would be difficult to him.” Uh. That didn’t come out right. How about this:

    A passage that is clear to me would be difficult to him and one that is clear to HIM would be difficult to ME.

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    1. I would not have included my paean to Reformed preaching, which was absolutely sincere, if I didn’t think we had nothing to learn from each other. I still read Spurgeon. Talk about someone who could hit all those notes in a single sermon. But even he deviated slightly from Calvin. Whereas Calvin argued that you could be imbued with an “inferior working of the Spirit,” and so believe for a time but be lost ultimately, because you were never one the elect, Spurgeon tried to assuage congregants’ fears on that point my arguing that if you ever had even a hint of faith or trust in Christ that that was evidence of God’s working in your life and that God would always finish what he started.

      And by the way, and for the record, before someone else comments: I do not embrace all of the theological particulars of either Jerry Walls OR Greg Boyd OR Roger Olson. I’ve read books by all of them, and there are aspects of their teaching and writing I appreciate very much, but there are also serious divergences. But as I argued in my post, there are some ideas that threaten your very faith (or at least mine), and you make alliances where you can.

      (I actually got to meet Jerry Walls a few years back, at a dinner hosted by FIRST THINGS. He and Fr. Neuhaus got into it over how Walls, a Methodist, was not welcome at the altar of a Catholic church, but that Fr. Neuhaus was more than welcome to receive communion at a Methodist church. Wackiness ensued. Let’s just say, Fr. Neuhaus had a way of engaging in cordial, civil debate even when you knew he was, at least mentally, rolling his eyes…)

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  6. Anthony, thank you for your insight. I enjoy listening to talks regarding this subject.

    I think you are confusing “Calvinism” with “Hyper-Calvinism”.
    “Men are not lost because he is hardened; but they are haredened because they are lost; they are lost because they are sinners” Newell

    Romans 9:22 uses the middle voice to say “fit themselves” for destruction; therefore there is no such thing as double predestination (hyper-Calvinism)

    Man is fully responsible for his sin, not God. I think theologians on both side struggle as to apply God’s justice to sinful man. Piper leans towards Pink in the Hyper-Calvinist view dealing with this subject. I think presuppositions get in the way here when looking at the text.. It’s a common mis-conception to mix views of Calvinism with Hyper-Calvinism.

    Thanks again for your insight, I enjoyed reading and listening to your thoughts on the subject.
    Kevin

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    1. Kevin,

      I appreciate your contribution here.

      I always thought “hyper-Calvinism” was literally a rejection of evangelism, because that implicitly denied God’s sovereignty in election. (Spurgeon famously fought against this. In fact, there is a story about him, which may be legendary, but worth repeating: A Reformed critic chastised Spurgeon for his evangelistic approach to ministry: “Don’t you believe in election?” he asked. “Yes, I do,” Spurgeon replied. “Now let’s go and elect some more” — by way of preaching, which is a very Lutheran response.)

      The question is: What is John Piper? Is he a hyper-Calvinist? (Yes, he’s very “Pink,” who used to bemoan the tendency among some to complain when a picnic was rained out, because it meant you were second-guessing God’s control even of your leisure, never mind the weather.) Or has he just been frank about the ultimate implications of double predestination and God’s absolute sovereignty? I don’t think Piper misrepresents Reformed teaching. He’s just willing to articulate what most other Reformer preachers are willing to label “mystery.” I have no problem with leaving God’s omniscience/omnipotence and our person responsibility to an unresolvable tension in this life. But Calvinism really isn’t satisfied with the mystery. As much as it may warn about peering into the secret counsels of God, those secret counsels may be the difference between life and death for the believer.

      Also: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Cornelius Van Til: he was a very popular resource at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. He had no qualms about stating baldly that God foreordained even the Fall. I don’t see how you can believe that (and I’m not saying that you do, or even that all Reformed do) and not believe God is also the primary cause of sin in the world.

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