Friday, April 10, 2009

Calvinism: Still Not Dead

This being Good Friday and all, the Egg pressroom is a spare and desolate place.  The staff is out, contemplating the death and sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Which reminds us of Calvinism.

The connection is indirect.  Many years ago, in a cheap hotel room in a developing country, Father Anonymous, then known as Seminarian Anonymous, found himself arguing with a Calvinist.  It was a wide-ranging argument, and dwelt mostly on the subject of whether children ought to worship with adults or in segregated ecclesiolae, little "children's churches."  (Our friend liked this idea, and insisted that letting kids worship with adults was "a ritual."  We agreed, and thought that rather proved our point, but he kept repeating himself.  It was a very confusing conversation, until an Episcopal interlocutor leaned over and whispered in our ear, "Remember, ritual is bad.")

Anyway, at some point in the conversation, our Calvinist friend mentioned the crucifix, and snarled, "Is Christ dead or is he risen?  Is he at the right hand of the Father, or is he still on the Cross?   Then why do you leave him hanging there?"  And we were reminded that, although Lutherans and Calvinists share a firm commitment both to the reality of Christ's Passion and the reality of Christ's Resurrection, the manner of our devotions is often very different.

All of which is meant to preface yet another report from the front lines of American Christianity.  According to the mainstream media, Calvinism isn't actually defunct.  It has (in the emerging, and unfathomable, media narrative) risen from the dead.

According to David van Biema in Time magazine (linked above), the "new Calvinism" (also "neo-Calvinism") is one of the "ten big ideas changing the world right now."   By this, they apparently mean "Calvinism as preached outside the traditionally Calvinist denominations.  

Here is the gist of van Biema's story:

Calvinism ... is a bit less dour than its critics claim: it offers a rock-steady deity who orchestrates absolutely everything, including illness (or home foreclosure!), by a logic we may not understand but don't have to second-guess. Our satisfaction — and our purpose — is fulfilled simply by "glorifying" him.  [In America, it was] overtaken in the U.S. by movements like Methodism that were more impressed with human will. Calvinist-descended liberal bodies like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) discovered other emphases, while Evangelicalism's loss of appetite for rigid doctrine — and the triumph of that friendly, fuzzy Jesus — seemed to relegate hard-core Reformed preaching (Reformed operates as a loose synonym for Calvinist) to a few crotchety Southern churches.

There is some truth to all this:  the lure of semipelagianism is strong, and works-righteousness is everywhere in our culture.  The rise of the "Buddy Jesus" has been strange to see. But the main current is hogwash.  Van Biema may overstate the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which is principally about the fate of souls, not of mortgages.  And his distinction between "liberalism" and "hard-core Calvinism" is just irritating.  The two aren't mutually exclusive.  It's like saying "all the Eskimo-descended people have turned into lawyers, so they aren't Eskimos anymore."  It means nothing, and would mean nothing even if it happened to be true.

Attentive readers will recall our amusement some months back, at a Times profile of Mark Driscoll, which promoted the same idea -- that old-style Reformed Christianity has long been a thing of the past, and is only now making a comeback from the pulpit of a young punk evangelist spitting in the face of his Arminian elders.  The brief Time piece adds to Driscoll's name those of John Piper and, notably, Southern Baptist leader Alfred Mohler.  (Mohler tickled us pink by saying that "The moment someone begins to define God's [being or actions] biblically, that person is drawn to conclusions that are traditionally classified as Calvinist."  Really?  So can we assume that he will begin preaching infant baptism, as prescribed by Calvin's Institutes, 4:16:7ff?).

The press does love its metanarratives.  But this one is sort of lame, and we hope they'll let it drop.  Calvinism hasn't risen from the dead; it has been doing just fine for five centuries, thank you.


Pastor Joelle said...

Regarding the crucifix - I have this argument with friends, colleagues often and I guess I am not catholic enough...for Good Friday, certainly, but I personally would prefer not to think of Jesus suffering day after day after day on the cross. There are times where I get my hope from the assurance that he's not still hanging there. But today's not really the day to make that argument...

Father said...

Would it help to think of the crucifix as a reminder of something that did happen, rather than an image of something that is happening now?

(I've always regretted that there is no easy way to represent an empty tomb -- perhaps a capital "C" with a period after it? Because that, of course, would be an extremely useful counterpoint.)

Pastor Joelle said...

To me the empty cross is the empty tomb. When I have said that I get the same type of argument you get from Calvinists about the crucifix "The empty cross doesn't prove anything! - of course it's empty, they took him down and buried him"

But you and I know images are not logical.

Too bad we can't have seasons for crucifixes and seasons for empty corss like paraments...

mark said...

Isn't there a cheesy sunday school painting everywhere reproduced with Jesus standing outside a cave with a stone to one side? Maybe someone could make a pseudo-icon of this that would be more acceptable to modern aesthetic sensibilities. Or, how about a cross with a bar sinister like the no camping signs?

Father said...

I really like that last idea, by the way. Of course, anti-Christians would think it was THEIR symbol.

Of course, there is an argument for the "Christus Victor" crucifix -- Jesus, superimposed on the cross but not attached, usually wearing a combination of priestly and kingly clothing. The idea is that it sends the same message.

But -- despite my very strong attachment to what Aulen called the "Christus Victor" theory of the atonement -- I have some doubts about that cross design.

First, it seems awfully busy. To the Passion and Resurrection, it adds two of the three "offices" of Christ (and I'm sure somebody has figured a way to get prophet's clothing onto the corpus too). While you're at it, why not write "logos" in Greek on his forehead?

And second, there seems to be a myth floating around that the CV crucifix is somehow the oldest form, an idea that I have been completely unable to verify by reference to any historical texts. This seems to be the clerical equivalent of an urban legend, spread by people who like to seem erudite without checking facts. It galls me to contemplate even inadvertently supporting them.

Still, it's a useful image, at least starting at sunset tonight.