Monday, February 8, 2016

A Calvinist Friend's Facebook Challenge

Evidently for a limited-time full-length lectures were being streamed for free on R.C. Sproul's Ligonier website. So one of my Calvinist friends posted the link on Facebook, saying he'd like to get the feedback from some non-Calvinists on a series called "What Is Reformed Theology?" 

Yes, I watched all twelve lectures—that's four HOURS of viewing. But R.C. Sproul is easy to watch (and the playback can be sped up). I've long called him my favorite Calvinist (Doug Wilson is a close second). Sproul is respectful of other views, winsome in his advocacy and empathetic in his application. There was hardly a word in his first six sessions that I wouldn't whole-heartedly applaud. In particular I love that he admits the entire project of theology is one of creating "systems." Calvinism and Arminianism are constructs, schools-of-thought attempting to understand God and his agency in creation/humanity.

Right away I was struck by how often Sproul commends the historic "creeds, communions and confessions" in promoting his Systematic Theology. All thru the series, over and over again Sproul seems to be making the case for Reformed Theology being the new Catholicism. He uses the word "catholic (small-c)" repeatedly. He asserts that Reformed Theology is the dominant, accepted Protestant Orthodoxy. This is debatable. But to the extent that he's right, it flows out of entrenched, old-world institutions (ie: Lutheranism, Presbyterianism), then gets grafted into new-world ones (ie: Baptists, Pentecostals). Sproul's brief tour thru the historical development of the Calvin/Arminius controversy made me realize that the 5-point remonstrance of Arminius was itself seeking to "reform" theology, not unlike Luther's own 95 points.

A pause for a word about the euphemism "Reformed Theology." I'm bothered that Calvinism seeks to claim ownership of the entire Protestant Reformation. Not one of Calvinism's 5 Points includes the true northstar of The Reformation, sola fide (Faith Alone). And all Protestants— Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Nazarenes, and many more—are legal heirs of The Reformation, though they do not identify themselves with the theology of John Calvin. So I respectfully refuse to call it "Reformed."

Anyway, it wasn't until session seven ("Total Depravity 1") that I came upon a point of disagreement. Sproul quoted—and then imaginatively interpreted—Psalm 51:5 "I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." He contends that this poetical passage demonstrates "Original Sin," passing it along genetically to the infant and making baby David guilty at birth. Two things: first, the verse can credibly be read as saying his PARENTS sinned, but more importantly, there's too much non-poetical scripture asserting the innocence of babies to refute this notion. A short article lays out a simple case against THIS verse being used to support inherited, metaphysical sin.(

Sproul even articulates what my friend Winkie Pratney has called Doggie Logic: "You're not a dog (sinner) because you bark (sin), you bark (sin) because you're a dog (sinner)." This was not a throw-away line, Sproul made it the capstone of his argument. I'm sorry, but citing a single verse of poetry and backing it up with a cutesy non-Biblical aphorism seeks to imply that there is ample Biblical support for the notion of sin being a created substance within human DNA. And doth not even nature itself (ie: dogs) teach this? Uh, no . . . it doth not.

I appreciate Sproul's highlighting the point that Augustine is the real founder of the "reformed doctrine" of Original Sin. I hadn't known Augustine was the founding sponsor of the seminary Martin Luther graduated from. I can't imagine any Evangelical finding comfort in that association, unless they were raised in a Reformed/Calvinist tradition. Augustine's towering influence on Luther greatly contributes to my wariness about Original Sin in particular, and Calvinism in general.

Alas, once Sproul begins peeling back the TULIP, starting with Total Depravity (which he prefers to call Radical Corruption), things begin to go downhill for me. Having set the table so invitingly, he then sets about answering questions Arminians aren't asking. Like his utterly (pun intended) spurious point that Total Depravity doesn't mean Utter Depravity (ie: even Hitler loved his mother and fed his dog). Come on RC, remember that we Arminians are the ones who believe there's a "little faith" in all of us...enough to repent and receive Jesus' offer of forgiveness. 

Next Sproul proof-texts Total Depravity from John 6:63-65, to wit "no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father." These words of Jesus are instructive, to be sure, but not exhaustive: Jesus DID have more to say on this topic, most pointedly after his resurrection when promising to send the Spirit of Truth. Calvinists may have more passages than this one to defend Moral Inability, but Arminians have vastly more verses—including many spoken by Jesus—persuading us that humans DO have the ability (and responsibility) to repent and believe. And of course the Holy Spirit "woos" us, drawing us in as moths to the flame. That's what Jesus promised would happen when the Spirit arrived.

After watching Session 9 on Unconditional Election, with Sproul anchoring the theory in Romans 9, I recognized his pattern. I'll call it Old Chestnuts, Deep Weeding and Straw Men. Misapplying Romans 9 has become an old Chestnut to me since I first heard it in 1974. That chapter is so plainly not about individuals' salvation: scripture often uses the names of people to refer to groups and nations. Romans 9 is about Christ changing the terms of the covenant between God and people. 

Next, when defending Limited Atonement in Session 10, Sproul assures us the one thing this term doesn't mean is Insufficient Atonement. Huh? That's a Straw Man argument: no Arminian anywhere ever advanced that point. What we've argued is that Jesus died for "all." Then his third tactic is deployed in an attack on the most common passage used to refute Limited Atonement... and here he goes waaay out into the Weeds on Greek tense and translation. Would that he'd been as rigorous in dissecting Romans 9 as he was with 2 Peter 3:8.

Despite watching all twelve lectures, I will not here dissect any more of them. The Facebook Challenge was addressed to non-Clavinists, and Sproul's premise is that there is much misunderstanding about "Reformed" theology. Turns out I really don't have any significant misunderstandings about it. (For any reader not familiar with TULIP, the two remaining points are Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.)

Sproul, when all is said and done, is a partisan here. Helpfully, he admits up front that this whole dispute is about The Doctrine of God. In my years of observation, I've seen Calvinists promote God's greatest defining attribute not as love, but as power. Sproul and his crew love to talk about "sovereignty," a word that often-times can be translated as "shut up." As in "who are you to answer back to God," as if only a Calvinist can have the mind of Christ. These five offensive ideas about God's unilateral, coercive and sometimes cruel/unjust actions (double-predestination) cannot be separated from the time in which they were first cooked up. In the 1500s governments in Europe ran the churches, and they had officials called Inquisitors, whose job it was to arrest, try and execute those who had the wrong view of, say, antelapsarianism. As agents of the state both Luther and Calvin were active participants in some of these trials.

The most frequent concern I hear from Calvinists is that we Remonstrateurs weaken God's power if we argue that His will may sometimes be thwarted. This, to me, is what John Calvin, who wielded great secular authority, was most worried about: power. And when you think about it, upon his (and Luther's) shoulders has been built a significant theological and ecclesiastical edifice. In our time many believers see little or no value in this temporal legacy (ie: denominations).

I had never before spent so much time listening to a presentation of systematic Calvinism. But over the course of my adult life it turns out that it's kinda like long-term exposure to the Mainstream Media. Anybody actively pursuing the faith has come upon The Five Points repeatedly in books, sermons, videos and discussions with other believers. None of these five positions was articulated in my Baptist (NAB) church growing up—not even "Preservation of the Saints." So when I began to encounter them they struck me as strange. Indeed, Sproul himself confesses to having been "repulsed" by them as a young seminarian. 

In the end I find great comfort in America's fresh contributions to the development of Christianity, starting with the second Great Awakening (Charles Finney), thru the Stone-Campbell movement (Churches of Christ), the Azusa Street revival (Pentecostalism) and the Jesus Movement ("charismatic" evangelicalism). Methodism, of course, first unleashed Arminius' views in England, then quickly brought them here where they really took off. But it has been the rise of Baptists, Pentecostals and some other groups on this continent—folks who have evangelized around the world—that has in many ways superseded Calvinism. They are very much a new wine-skin that can absorb/include Calvinists, but not be DEFINED by Calvinism. The newest wave of non-denominationalism further erodes the foundation of so-called "reformed" theology, and is in itself a kind of reforming wave.

And that is the reaction of one non-Calvinist to R.C. Sproul's engaging—but utlimately flawed—presentation.