Friday, September 9, 2011

Religion Friday: Calvinism

While Luther was beginning his reform movement in Germany, Zwingli and others were starting their own reforms in the Swiss Confederation. The two reform movements considered a merger at one point, but Luther and Zwingli disagreed on some key things, such as the real presence in the Eucharist. The Swiss reform movement was picked up by John Calvin, who clarified what the reformers believed.

Calvinism is best known for its idea of predestination, that is, God has already chosen who will be saved and who won’t. It can be outlined through the acronym TULIP:

Total Depravity: All people are born with inclination and willingness to sin rather than completely turn to God.
Unconditional Election: God has chosen those He will give grace to throughout eternity. Neither faith nor works will earn salvation unless God has decided it so.
Limited Atonement: Jesus’ sacrifice and atonement was for the elect only.
Irresistible Grace: If God has chosen someone to be saved, that person will be saved. It is not that person’s free will to choose salvation.
Perseverance of the Saints: The elect will always be faithful to God. If they fall away, then they were not the elect. God does not allow the elect to fall away.

Now, I was raised Cumberland Presbyterian, and sometimes when someone heard Presbyterian, they would go, “Oh, so you believe in predestination?” But I have never met someone who believes in the TULIP view of salvation. It’s always been my opinion that God exist outside of time. He already knows who will accept salvation and who won’t, but it’s still a choice for us humans. He gave us free will. He offers us grace. The burden is on us. That doesn’t diminish the sovereignty of God.

Of the five points, the only one that really jives with me is total depravity. Yes, we’re born with original sin. We like to sin. We’re inclined to sin, and it takes some work to not wallow in sin and try to live for God. But that’s another post for another time.

The perseverance of the saints is tempting. It’s the “once saved, always saved” mentality. Even some groups that don’t believe in predestination believe if you are really saved, you won’t fall away. If you fall away, then it’s a sign you weren’t really saved. Jesus commanded “Ye be perfect,” but He wasn’t saying we’d actually get there, just that we should strive for that. Trying, failing, apologizing, and trying again hopefully a bit better each time. Faith is a journey. Sometimes, people take the wrong path and wind up abandoning God. It doesn’t mean God wanted them to fall away, nor does it mean that any previous devotion and faith they had wasn’t genuine. We don’t have free will just until we make a decision; we have free will as long as we live.

Along with the limited salvation view, the early Calvinists wanted to limit a lot. Sola scriptura all the way. If it wasn’t in the Bible, it wasn’t done. This included the number of sacraments, the order of church service, and what types of music, art, or dance was allowed (not much). From this came some of the early American founders, whose strict rules and strong work ethic still affects American society. But something I never understood about the Puritans was, if God will save whomever He wants, and no one can resist or change that, what’s the point of having the rules, of working hard to be obedient, of arguing doctrine with others? Surely the elect would act properly without rules, and the un-chosen can go do awful things since God’s not giving them salvation anyway. Without free will, we don’t have to claim any responsibility. Every little detail was preordained by God. But wouldn’t that mean God inflicted us with violence, poverty, and hunger? I believe those are tragic outcomes from us using our free will to pursue sin. God allows us free will and its bad consequences, but He doesn’t inflict it upon helpless people who have no control over their lives.

There are some positives from Calvinism, though I’m inclined to think they are mostly secular. What is known as the Protestant work ethic, working longer and harder as a sign of moral character, still shapes the business world. In fact, capitalism’s rise owes a lot to the Reformers' work ethic and independence from authority. The idea of a representative church body is especially admirable. Presbyterians are called such because of the presbyteries, or ruling bodies made up elders and clergy to vote on church reforms. The highest authority, the General Assembly, has representatives from each presbytery, and makes decisions as a voting group. I got to participate as a youth representative for my denomination’s General Assembly. As a youth, I didn’t get to vote in the Assembly, but I was able to vote in the committee I was assigned to. The experience made me appreciate the democratic process and Robert’s rules of order. But I think over time, it has taken Presbyterianism further away from Calvinism than people realize. When the majority vote gets to decide on changes, there is no guarantee they are going to stay consistent with the original. I think that is why PCUSA recently allowed ordination of openly gay clergy; the members of General Assembly are products of their time, which will reflect social movements and prevalent opinions.

Again, it’s hard to give a number to people who adhere to Reformed theology. Recently, evangelical groups have started to adopt a “new Calvinism” theology, focused on God’s supreme control and the Bible as the only authority. PCUSA is the biggest Presbyterian church in America, with more than two million members. My cradle denomination, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, has around 50,000 members.

[Presbyterians are oftened represented by the Celtic cross, which includes a neverending circle on the cross. Sometimes there are ornate patterns, which I suspect Calvin wouldn't have liked.]

Next Friday: Anabaptists

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