Wednesday, November 19, 2008
John Piper explains Why Calvinists are so Negative
Here is a very interesting and indeed revealing brief interview with John Piper about why Calvinists not infrequently come across in such a negative and arrogant way. I find his explanation in some ways convincing.
What he does not add, that could have been added, is that, for whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.
And all too often, the apparent intellectual coherency of a theological system is taken as absolute and compelling proof that this view of God, salvation,the world must be true and all others be heresy, to one degree or another. But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong-- because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.
A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone's ability (or any collection of human being's abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a 'coherent theological system' without flaws, gaps, or lacunae. That includes Calvin's very fine mind as reflected in his Theological Institutes. The real paradox about the God of Calvin is while Calvin does all in his power to stress the enormity and consequent sovereignty of a great God over all things, sadly but inevitably even his God is too small to encompass everything that is said about God in the Scriptures, even just everything that is said about soteriology in the Scriptures.
While I certainly believe that God's own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God so we could be certain God exists and form that body of knowledge into a self-sustaining fully coherent theological system with one idea leading to another idea, and so on (and now we can all sing a chorus of 'Will the Circle be Unbroken').
A strong sense of assurance provided by the living presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not the same as intellectual certainty. Nor does God reveal so much about the eternal mysteries that a finite human mind could form it into an airtight theological system of any kind. Indeed, the Bible is pretty clear that God quite deliberately did not 'tell all' either in general revelation in creation or in the Scriptures(read Job), not least because God wants us to trust him and to build a trust relationship with him. What God has done is that God has revealed enough so that we may be redeemed but not so much that we do not have to trust God about the future.
I must confess that as a NT scholar I am inherently suspicious about theological systems like Calvinism or Dispensationalism or even Arminianism and the like which seem to foster certain kinds of feelings of intellectual certainty and even smugness about things that are in fact profound mysteries.
When someone brings up a topic like "why is their evil in the world, and why do even God's people suffer so much" rather than give a pat answer I am more apt to repeat the words of John Muir who said words to the following effect-- "We look at life from the back side of the tapestry. And most of the time what we see is loose threads, tangled knots and the like. But occasionally God's light shines through the tapestry and we get a glimpse of the larger design with God weaving together the darks and lights of existence."
I must tell you that whenever I have had a profound experience of God through reading his word or encountering God in worship or community, it tends to just humble me, and make me want to say something like what Joni Mitchell said about love--- "its love's illusions I recall, I really don't know love, at all". I have barely touched the hem of the Master's garment, I hardly know him though I long to know him better. In the face of the divine-human encounter, even Barth's Dogmatics appear to be little more than a good start to understanding God.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that we should not think logically and coherently about our faith, and do our best to connect the dots. Nevertheless, we should be placing our faith in God, not in a particular theological system. There is a difference. In the former case the faith is largely placed in whom we know and whom we have encountered. In the latter case the faith can be too often placed in what we believe we know about God and theological truth.
I always want to ask the 'theological certainty' folks who have this great conviction that their theological system must surely be exactly what the Bible says and means-- Where exactly does that conviction and ardor come from?
Not even Paul in the Bible dots all the i's and crosses all the t's of a particular theological system and more to the point, he has no compelling interest in doing so. He is interested, as are all the Scriptural writers in simply bearing witness to a truth and a reality they have not merely come to believe in, but which they have experienced and which has changed their lives. They still have questions and intellectual doubts, and we hear about them in various places and ways in the Scripture. Their faith in God is not based on a conviction that they have a coherent theological system which they in essence fully understand and can explain. Their faith in God comes from having a personal relationship with God which provided them with enough evidence to produce faith in God. They know enough to know-- that they don't know enough to produce a comprehensive system called 'the knowledge of God'.
Humility is fostered more by a recognition of and an owning up to what you don't know about God, than what you do. This is not because we do not know a good number of things about God both from the Word and the through the Spirit. We do. We know enough to trust God for what we do not know and understand. And in the end our posture should be that of Anselm-- 'fides quaerens intellectum' faith seeking understanding, not 'intellectus quaerens fidium' 'Understanding seeking and defining and limiting faith'.
[N.B. I have posted this now, instead of Friday, as I will be away from the blog until next Wednesday, at the National SBL meeting. In the meanwhile, ya'll just go to town discussing this little non-controversial post]
P.S. Yes I do know many Calvinists who are very gracious and humble, and for this I am truly thankful. Many of my teachers at Gordon-Conwell low these many years ago, come to mind, especially J. Christy Wilson and Richard Lovelace-- true saints.