Giving Calvinism a ... longer glance


(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

I’ve typically been more dismissive of things like predestination and Calvinism than my actual knowledge of them would warrant, I’m sure. Usually I see it as some sort of frontal assault on the whole edifice of free will, an edifice on which I’ve planted flags and staked out some intellectual commitment. My response to the Calvinist (and to Determinists too) is to give the obligatory nod toward the boatload of scriptures they have in support of what they’re saying, and then to wish I could hear them also incorporate (or explain away?) the other boatload of scriptures that it seems to me they are ignoring. If we really have no freedom, if God really does determine and do everything, then where does this leave the “Choose Life!” exhortation of Deuteronomy 30 or the “Go and sin no more” command to the woman in John 8 (will be returning to this one below), or the many imperatives to be doers and not just hearers … to randomly pick a few from that second boatload that Calvinists never quite seem to get around to addressing (or so I here imagine).

Yet now I feel I may have been more properly introduced to the issue at hand by one young seminary professor, Dr. Jono Linebaugh, whose New Testament survey classes I’ve been listening to; (sorry, they’re understandably behind a registration wall as Knox Theological Seminary protects its course offerings, but perhaps something like it is out there on youtube – you can certainly find other great talks from Dr. Jono Linebaugh like this one about preaching; -only 590, now 591 youtube views which means he is an undiscovered treasure.)

But this young theologian of the reformed church has now given me what I suppose must be a better representation for where the Reformed church is coming from on some of these issues, and I want to wrestle with it online here where others can weigh in on what has returned to being a live issue again for me. He did it with the following teachings (paraphrased through my own recollections here).

He spoke of the debate between Luther and Erasmus. Apparently Erasmus stands in for what would sound like the traditional Christian approach to me, in thinking that people are obliged to respond to God. God accomplishes the hard work of salvation, yes, but people have to accept it. We have a choice to make. Luther, on the other hand, responds that actually in thinking so, Erasmus has shifted the focus of salvation away from God and onto the human. This so-called “tiny” matter of the human needing to accept God’s grace in Christ is really a huge thing – it’s the linchpin of the whole enterprise. Now suddenly it is the human who has accomplished their own salvation by giving the correct response to Christ. And it is no “tiny” matter at all; it is everything. Okay – so set that debate aside for the moment, Dr. Linebaugh revisits the story of the adulterous woman.

“What if”, he asks us to imagine, – what if the woman caught in adultery after she had left, un-condemned by Jesus; what if she repeated the offense, was caught and brought before Jesus again? What would happen? Dr. Linebaugh concedes that a lot of Christians get angry with his answer, but I think his response remains sound … we could imagine the angry Pharisees (and even Jesus’ own disciples) delighting in this new test of what Jesus would do … “How many times are you going to forgive her, Jesus? – up to seven times?” (perhaps seventy times seven?). At this point we all recall what Jesus has taught elsewhere, and we know the answer cannot be anything other than the realization that the woman’s salvation had not (and never did) rest as some condition of her obedience. Jesus did not say to her “…if you don’t want to be condemned, then go and sin no more.” Had he done that, her salvation would become her own work. Instead Jesus really says “…did no one condemn you? Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Her salvation is 100% contingent on God’s mercy and 0% on her own future works of obedience. And if we think otherwise we begin to let law and works creep back in to a salvific role that only the cross can properly fill. The “Go and sin no more” is Jesus telling her she has been freed from that life; that she should not (need not) return there. It most emphatically is not him threatening her that she has now used up her one mulligan and so had better straighten up going forward, or else.

So to my mind, Dr. Linebaugh (or all the other prior theologians he is following in this) have an unimpeachable take on this. How indeed could we think otherwise? Luther; score 1; Erasmus-0.

That much seems settled to me; so is my thinking aligned with the reformed tradition now? And yet there is still the little matter of that other boatload of scriptures which still have not gone away! John writes some pretty hard things in his other epistles about the true status of sinners or of those fail to love. (see 1 John 3). And yet in the first chapter of that same epistle we read that if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. And John doesn’t seem to be limiting that observation only to unbelievers. And yet that is key. We are to be cleansed of that sin so that in Christ we are no longer identified as sinners. Yet, even as believers we all know that we continue to sin; as Paul so passionately agonizes over in Romans 7. One cannot escape that tension even from one side of the page to the other.

So those of you who do hail from the reformed traditions … how do you put all this together? Do you let the locus of so-called “free-will” come into its own only in the context of Christ’s setting us free? As in, apart from Christ I am not free to do anything other than sin; but thanks to Christ I am now free to live righteously in him? We still hold each other responsible for our choices, whether we are believers or not, and that universal responsibility seems to be another key ingredient that cannot let Erasmus’ challenge be seen as entirely defeated above. Freedom and responsibility are inseparable twins, I think. And the Bible speaks of both often enough that neither will be easily dismissed.

Perhaps as I continue with more of Dr. Linebaugh’s N.T. survey lessons, some of this will become reconciled somehow. But if any here have input, I’d be interested.

[with edits]


(Jon Garvey) #2

Merv - I’ve been telling you this for years! :grinning:

Just one small point to ponder - you quote from Luther’s Bondage of the Will, which is indeed an important read, not only because Luther was not Reformed, but because the very first Lutheran defence (by Melancthon) was on election, and not, as you might expect, on faith. It was a significant matter in the earliest Reformation, because of the primacy of grace over human desert, to which you allude.

But Calvin wrote a book on a similar subject, much less polemic than Luther’s treatment of Erasmus, called The Bondage and Liberation of the Will. Nobody seems to be familiar with it, or they might ask themselves how he could write on the liberation of the will if he didn’t believe in free will.

The Augustinian view of the will, which like Aquinas before them the magisterial Reformers adopted, was conceived as a middle way between the determinism of some early writers, and Pelagianism, in which grace was little more than being given a conscience, and the gospel being in the world, the key thing being human effort and hence getting what one deserves.

But a lot of people grow up hating a parody of Reformed theology constructed by its opponents (few of whom have read Pelagius, Augiustine, Aquinas, Luther OR Calvin!)


(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

Maybe you were softening me. But in the end it was the preacher-man wearing a tie and smiling from a pulpit who may have pushed me over. (I’m still pushing back, though.)

I wish I could say that I quoted from it because I had actually read it! But thanks, now that you tell me where it comes from, I should acquaint myself with more primary sources on this; both from Luther and Calvin. Not to mention the many others to be sure. I gather Calvin was much more nuanced in his approach to Erasmus than Luther, though it sounds like neither would have been as simplistically one-dimensional as my short post would seem to portray. May the messy complexity (and/or beautiful simplicity) of real truth and great historical thinkers processing of the same find its way into my head! Thanks for sharing.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

Here is where I think I may still be pushing back, Jon. There is an unmistakable element of expectation that scriptures seem to lump together with the gospels and with any bearer of good news … (“how beautiful are the feet of him who brings good news” … originates is in Isaiah) and that good news, in Paul’s letters comes with an exhortation. “Believe in your heart and confess with your lips” and so forth, and these are not isolated passages.

So in this reformed theology reading, the good news is really: “you have already been saved (if indeed you are one of the elect), and you don’t need to do anything.” In fact, there is nothing you can do to unsave yourself if you were elect and nothing you can do to save yourself if you weren’t. (though the progressive view hopes, and the universalist view insists that the latter category is ultimately an empty set.)

The only reason (on this view) that missionaries go out to the world is because we were commanded to. It is a matter of being faithful. Not a matter of actually saving anyone, which we can’t do anyway. I can see that. But the delivery of good news that is yet contingent on something sounds different than the delivery of already realized good news. My exhortation for you to not travel down some given route (when you are still mapping out how you will travel) is a lot different than my telling you afterwards --“Oh hey! Aren’t you glad you didn’t take this route? There was an accident and you would have been stuck in traffic for hours!”. The latter is a celebration which requires nothing of you. The former is a warning that leaves the outcome contingent on your response. There are too many passages that make the missionary imperative look more like the former way than the latter.

Perhaps when I finally get around to reading some of what you suggested, this will become more clear.


(Laura) #5

The topic of predestination came up in my Sunday School class a few months ago, and I heard the gentleman next to me mumble: “Can of worms…”

So kudos for your bravery here. :wink: I suppose I tend to fall more in line with your initial view of Calvinism. Personally, I’m wary of jumping on any particular bandwagon, as unifying as it might feel, when it risks (as it seems to me) waving away so much scripture.

I do think balance is possible. I grew up in a very dispensational church, and so discovering Calvinist authors (modern ones) as an adult was mostly a good thing – Tim Keller and others have helped me gain a better understanding of grace. But, overall I just can’t bring myself to align with one or the other. I do believe that scripture teaches God is sovereign. And I also believe it teaches that he gave humans free will. There are many scriptures to support both (which is why I’m not going to bother with any proof-texting!), and I can’t help feeling like I’d be slicing the Bible in half by claiming the “label” of either one of those perspectives. This isn’t always easy, because I was also raised to have unshakable answers for everything, so perhaps that has made me overly wary of labels.

I do think either “side” can bring up interesting moral dilemmas. One that came up on the forums recently about the “age of accountability” questioned whether it would be more merciful to kill everyone before a certain age if God sent all babies to heaven (which also questions what it means to be “born into sin”). On the other hand, pairing Calvinism with the idea of eternal conscious torment (which I don’t believe scripture teaches) means God created the majority of people to spend eternity tortured in fire.

I guess the whole debate often seems too “systematic” to me, treating the Bible too much like data rather than a progressive story. But I can also see how one’s view on this can have a large effect on everything else they do, so I’m sure it’s worth looking into.


(Christy Hemphill) #6

To add to your question, in this parody of non-Reformed thinking, why is salvation equated with obedience or acceptance of grace and not the work of Christ on the cross that made salvation possible? Do these non-Reformed Christians the author is arguing against actually believe that they are saved by their obedience or decision to follow Christ and not that they are saved by grace through faith? That is where this argument falls flat for me. Obedience and acceptance are not “the work of salvation.” “The work of salvation” cannot be accomplished by us. I don’t understand the logical leap that equates the gift with the acceptance or rejection of the gift. I don’t follow the logic of how the all-God-ness of salvation is somehow undermined if humans have any agency in responding to God’s work.

Obviously obedience matters a whole lot when it comes to discipleship. The Great Commission is to go into all the world, preach the gospel, baptize people, and teach people to obey Jesus’ commands. I think you would have to work pretty hard to convince me that “the gospel” Jesus is referring to is what many Reformed folks mean when they say the gospel (something that only has to do with salvation).


(Jacob) #7

I know the question is directed at the Reformed and I grew up Lutheran. One thing where Luther differs is the idea that some people are predestined to not be saved - he did not believe that. He didn’t believe in a limited atonement. Luther seemed to be more comfortable with paradoxes. I think the Lutheran attitude is God did not reveal to us how everything “works” and we couldn’t understand it even if He did.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Yeah – I knew even as I was writing the original OP above that I was carelessly painting with a wide brush and that Luther and Calvin aren’t going to be lumped in together on everything, and Jon and now you are right to jump in with reminders of all the necessary and important distinctions.

@Elle, and @Christy, you echo exactly where I am (and have been) comfortable leaving my understandings. And to some extent, Elle, I do still think the whole question can be consigned to some theological ivory tower where it need not impinge on my everyday life or even on what a preacher ought to deliver from a pulpit. The pot will never be privy to all the counsels of the potter. Period. We have our marching orders, our guide and example for what a faithful life looks like, so what more do we need? The existence of free will (or not) should have exactly no effect on my life choices and activities. So why all this historical fuss of trying to peak behind this curtain? My only answer to that is that authors of the past (including writers of Scriptures themselves) thought these to be worthwhile things to ponder. Job seems to invite its readers to be privy to developments “behind the curtain” even if the character, Job, in the story gets his hand slapped for thinking God was in any way obliged to give answer. (unravel that one!). Many other scriptures bring these things up in proximal enough ways that we seem to be invited to at least meditate on such things.

That last sentence is indeed the crux of the matter (so to speak) and where those representing the “predestination” side of this may be parodying the former side in its own turn (if I may pretend to be aloof from both sides). …having been called away in the middle of writing this; I’d better post and see what’s now been added in reply, but I do have one more question I may be adding.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Okay … @Christy, to finish my thought above; so what do you think of how Dr. Linebaugh’s treatment of the “woman caught in adultery” passage? Do you agree that he followed that with a fair conclusion? Because that was the main feature that had impressed me to give a lot of this another look-see.


(Laura) #10

Meditation, perhaps – proceeding to labels is probably where I’d get off the train, as that’s not something we see in scripture, at least in that way. And even though Job sort of got his hand slapped, he was commended for his faith – which I think is echoing what you say above, that we simply aren’t going to have the answers for these kinds of deep questions, and probably shouldn’t try to. (Ultimately it was Job’s friends who got their hands slapped far more, because they tried to convince him of the reasons why he was suffering, and even God said they spoke things of him which were not true – I suppose I take from that that sometimes questioning and expressing (even if anger) is better than trying to find a “surefire” answer to some things).


(Mervin Bitikofer) #11

I realize how amusing that was now after I wrote it and you quote it … to think of Job getting his “hand slapped” after everything he’d just been through [what?! you’re going to ‘slap my hand’ now? … followed by snorts of derision]. Indeed, as you point out, he was about to get his hand “unslapped” while his “comforters” in turn would learn a thing or two.

And yet all of us are characters in a larger story here which includes that story being told us! We’re allowed to peek behind the curtain of Job’s world, perhaps, but not our own? Maybe the real lesson is I should stop fixating on all this stuff, go out and love family and neighbor!


(Christy Hemphill) #12

I guess I have a problem reading the passage through a lens of soteriology. Did she walk away “saved” in the sense we use “saved”? How? Jesus had not yet accomplished his work of salvation, so I don’t see what her response has to do with salvation in that sense. Why are we equating forgiveness of her adultery with salvation? I don’t see how Jesus condemnation or lack there of has to do with her “salvation”? His forgiveness was a response to her actions. And we hope she responded to his forgiveness with action/obedience. Isn’t the NT definition of faith often simply acting/obeying? Just because faith is active and to some degree agentive does not make it a “work.” I reject that idea.


(Laura) #13

Hehe, I don’t mean for my hang-ups to contradict anyone else’s desires to learn. I think we can attempt all the peeking we want, especially if it’s driven by a desire to truly know God better – just because some turn it into a dogma doesn’t mean it has to be that way.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #14

I don’t think Jesus salvation was only effective to just one direction in time (forward). It seems to me there would be a pretty good history of theologians agreeing that Abraham et al. are all also saved in Christ. So I don’t see time as the issue here (at least not for me.)

Your other questions, though, I’ll have to ponder a bit more. Leave it to you to confront me with messy realities as I’m trying to tie up my neat little package here! So is it wrong to conflate Jesus’ lack of condemnation of her with salvation in the fullest sense of that word? I mean --how do you imagine this playing out at the Pearly gates? “Yeah --I know I told you I wasn’t condemning you then, but this is a whole 'nother story here – you still needed to say the right words after that.”
I do see your point, though. She still has the freedom to reject Christ even after that moment. He is hardly going to force himself down people’s throats. So I am solidly with you on that.

Good points.

And how often did Jesus use the phrase “… your faith has made you well.”? Yes, the “boatload” on the non-Calvinist side of this still seems largely unscathed. I’ll have to take Jon up on some of his reading suggestions.


(Christy Hemphill) #15

I think at this point I’m solidly in the boat with Wright and McKnight and a bunch of other NT scholars who think we have mistakenly read the Gospels and defined “the gospel” as being about personal eternal salvation instead of the imminent and coming Kingdom and lordship of Jesus Christ. I don’t think Jesus came to preach most importantly “believe in me and go to heaven” I think he came to preach “follow me as Lord and be a part of my Kingdom now and forever.” Salvation is an essential part of that, but it’s not the ultimate goal and point of it all. Turning away from our sins and recognizing Jesus as Lord is the essence of following Jesus, and I think that is what this passage is showing. I don’t think it’s offering a lesson on “how to be saved.”


(Laura) #16

I remember coming across this statement once as an adult and being briefly shocked at how “bad” Jesus’s theology was. :wink:


(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

Don’t even get Peter Enns started!


(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

I’ve been banging on that drum too for the last few years, and don’t intend to stop. Can I keep one foot in your boat while trying to straddle the other too? It just gets a bit awkward then the boats insist on sailing different directions. Thanks for reminders about scripturally sound work (reformative work in many ways!) being done now. I’ve read and highly respect N.T. Wright (and probably McKnight too, though I’m not sure how much I’ve read him directly).

I am happy that I don’t need to worry about which boat Jesus is in since we can trust him in any case as Lord, making this whole exercise not much more than a theological curiosity. What a luxury I have now to think that way! (Do I hear some of the church fathers spinning in their graves?)


(Jay Johnson) #19

Not discouraging you from taking another look-see, but the woman caught in adultery passage is a late addition to John’s gospel. According to Carson’s commentary on John, “These verses are present in most of the medieval Greek miniscule manuscripts, but they are absent from virtually all early Greek manuscripts … All the early church Fathers omit this narrative: in commenting on John, they pass immediately from 7.52 to 8.12… Although most of the manuscripts that include the story place it here, some place it instead after Luke 21:38, and other witnesses variously place it after John 7:44, John 7:36, or John 21:25.”

It may be an authentic story that circulated for years before finding its way into John’s gospel, but it’s not the best choice of passages for reconsidering one’s theology. Just sayin’. :wink:


(Mervin Bitikofer) #20

Yeah – I was well aware of that as I’m sure seminary professors would be too. I pay attention to footnotes in our bibles and know about the “added ending” on Mark’s gospel too. While keeping my eyes open to such things, they don’t bother me so much because I’ve already committed myself to trust in God’s hand in the whole process of canonization that brings each culture and century the translations that it has. It makes no sense to me that we choose to trust that God inspired “some original autographs” but then decide that we can’t trust God to also be part of all the redaction, compilation, and canonization processes fomented over the centuries to bring us what we have today. We’ve already accepted that many/even most of these books weren’t actually penned by their namesake disciple, so it bothers me very little if some testimonies were added on a bit later.

Some of the problems Christy raised are the more substantive issues that any thorough going Calvinist would have to find answers for, and that is what steers my world substantially more.

[…and you are absolutely correct that we shouldn’t build entire doctrines off of one passage. If I thought that’s what they were doing, I wouldn’t even be musing about such things in any thread. We just choose what we think are key passages to best illustrate a proposed concept. And I make no apology about using the passage about the accused woman because there are so many key lessons to be drawn from it. It is, in my layman’s opinion, one of the most inspired passages in the New Testament.]