Tag Archives: Reformed Theology

My Catechism: Intro and Q1

I don’t have a Presbyterian background, so I was not taught the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a child. Yet, somehow I learned the first question: What is the chief end of man?

In spite of the archaic use of the words “chief” and “man”, I think it would be clear to most people that this is a question about purpose. A fair paraphrase would be, “What is the main purpose of humanity?” Some might prefer the more common question; “Why are we here?”

Since I’m not a Presbyterian, I don’t suppose it would surprise you to learn that my response to that question isn’t the one prescribed by the catechism. Please don’t click away just yet. This isn’t going to be a critique of the catechism. I’m not going to go on at length about why I think the catechism is wrong in one way or another in an attempt to undermine the Reformed theology reflected there. Instead, I’m simply going to answer each question for myself in accordance with my current (limited and fallible) understanding of Scripture as a sort of exercise. I’m sure that there’s something beneficial to be gained by doing this, even if I don’t exactly know what that might be at the moment.

In future posts, I’ll give the question, my answer and cite relevant passages of Scripture…if in fact I think there are any. Yeah, that sounds strange. If you’re familiar with the catechism (or just the Reformed way of doing things) you know that there are Scriptural references for each response. I concede that not referencing the same (or any) passages may amount to a tacit criticism of the catechism/Reformed theology…and that’s how I’ll leave any criticism-tacit, not explicit.

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end (main purpose) is to be the image of God within Creation, to increase in number, exercise authority over the Creation and to do God’s will on Earth as His will is done in Heaven.

Genesis 1:26-28
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Matthew 6:9-10
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

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What’s Wrong with Calvinism?

I’ve never been a fan of Jean Calvin’s theology.

Even before I learned who Calvin was or what his five points were all about, I was in disagreement with him by way of his theological descendants on such things as “once saved, always saved”. As a young adult, I took an interest in Reformed Theology when a friend of mine became active in a Presbyterian church. I made a point of understanding the debate between Arminism and Calvinism and what I found was that Calvinism is a biblical doctrine. No, seriously. I had not realized that Reformed folks held a high-view of Scripture and that the “Doctrines of Grace” where thoroughly rooted in the Biblical text. That being said, I believe that a doctrine can be biblical and still be wrong. How? Flawed hermeneutics.

Calvin and company viewed Scripture through a flawed hermeneutical lens which resulted in seeing such things as ‘predestination’ and ‘perseverance of the saints’ when a different lens would have revealed something else. Thanks to a sermon by Mark Driscoll, I realized one evening not long ago that my problem with Calvinism is this metaphorical lens through which it views and interprets the Bible.

Mark was teaching about the doctrine of Predestination in his series “Religion Saves + 9 Other Misconceptions” when I had my epiphany. After a reference that he made in his lesson to two ancient church fathers; Origen and Augustine, I found myself thinking, “What about Jewish theologians?”. I realized that Mark was citing two people from Gentile backgrounds who read the Scriptures with Greco-Roman eyes. (See this and this.) As I thought about it some more, I understood that this is my problem with the doctrine of Predestination as well as Calvinism as a whole: it is the product of a Western/Gentile worldview and not an Eastern/Jewish worldview. Consequently, I went in search of Judaism’s take on predestination aka “determinism”(For an interesting discussion on God’s sovereignty and philosophical determinism, see this. For one rabbi’s attempt to answer questions on determinism, see this.) . Here’s what I found.

Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived comfortably in the lap of the Roman Empire wrote for his Roman patron(s) that there were three main sects of Judaism in his day and that one of the ways to distinguish them was by their deterministic views. According to Josephus, the Sadducees were the least deterministic, believing that God had given man free will and left him to get on with life. The Essenes were the most deterministic, holding that all is mapped out. No choices. No freedom. All is decided. Between these two poles were the Pharisees who held that while God sovereignly rules his creation, he permits humans the moral freedom and responsibility to choose between right and wrong.1

The Bible is clear: Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee. In fact he was a rather “successful” Pharisee, meaning that he was very good at doing and being whatever it was that made one a Pharisee. Why not then assume that Saul held typical Pharisaical views of theology? Furthermore, when Saul of Tarsus became the Apostle Paul, why believe that his Pharisaical education evaporated and was replaced with Calvin’s systematic theology? It seems to me that when we read Paul’s statements about God’s “foreknowledge”, “predestination” and “election”, we should strive to understand them from the perspective of a first century Pharisee and not St. Augustine via Calvin and other Reformers.

I believe that Calvin’s systematic theology goes wrong because it interprets the Scripture from a Western/Greek perspective. Fate is a Greek concept; not a Jewish one. (Note: fatalism is not a feature of Calvinist theology, however it seems to me that it is a common error among Calvinists.) That isn’t to say that there weren’t Jews who held ideas which were similar to “fate”. However, there is not much reason to believe that the Apostle Paul was one of them. In fact, there is reason to believe that as a Pharisee, Paul held a sort of middle position which acknowledged the sovereignty of God without relinquishing the ability of men to make genuine moral choices (as opposed to predetermined moral choices). Consequently, any interpretation of Paul which sounds more like hard-determinism is, in my opinion, suspect. That would include Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.

NB: In the interest of transparency and honesty, readers should know that everything in green was added following comments by Kyle. They were not present in the original post which his comments address.

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It’s a Metaphor

I enjoy reading the blogs and apologetic websites of folks in the Reformed Theology camp, which is good because there seems to be a lot of them out there. Yet, there are times when I get a bit frustrated with Calvinists. Most recently, I felt this frustration with an Australian Presbyterian pastor whose sermon I was listening to.

The sermon was on the doctrine of Total Depravity, which essentially says that there is absolutely nothing in all of Creation that has not been broken (corrupted) by the Fall of Adam and Eve. When it comes to humans, the Calvinist position tends to be that we are so corrupt that we are incapable of having a faith that results in salvation (aka “saving faith”). The metaphor that is used to illustrate this comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. (Eph. 2:1-2)

The pastor argued that just as a material corpse is non-responsive to external stimuli, so is a spiritual corpse. Before the dead spirit can accept the grace of God, it must be brought to life by the Spirit of God.

I think this is simply forcing the metaphor to say more than what Paul meant for it to say.  It’s a metaphor! The letter to the Ephesians is full of them. Gentiles are said to be “far away” from God, while Jews are said to be “near” and yet it’s clear that Paul isn’t talking about distance. He’s making a statement about relationship. Paul says in Chapter 2 that Jesus made “one new man out of the two”, but no one would suggest that Paul was saying that Jesus physically fused two male human beings. He was referring to classes of people; insiders and outsiders or simply enemies and their reconciliation.  Later in Chapter 5, Paul says to the Ephesian Christians “You were once darkness but now you are light in the Lord.” He didn’t mean: people =  darkness  or even people= light. Even the phrase “in the Lord” is a metaphor. Metaphors are limited and do not indicate a direct 1 to 1 correlation.

When he says that we were “dead in transgressions” Paul is simply making a strong statement about the abhorrent state of humans apart from Christ. Without Christ, we are as good as dead because when Jesus comes to judge the world, we will be separated from Him who is the Truth and the Life. (I tend to think that the expression here is similar to the one that we’ve heard in other contexts where someone ominously threatens to kill someone by saying, “You’re dead meat!” ) Whenever someone lays hold of this metaphor of the human condition apart from Christ and makes it say that humans are as responsive to the call of God as a dead dog is to the call of it’s owner, I think they’re saying something that Paul was not saying.

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