12 July 2015

Presbyterians & Predestination

Ephesians 1: 3-14 

7th Sunday after Pentecost/ 12th July 2015

People can say what they will about John Calvin (1509-1564). And they do!  But as Peter Steinfels wrote several years ago in The New York Times, marking the 500th anniversary of his birth—Friday was Calvin’s birthday, he would be 506 today—Calvin was “a religious thinker and leader who may have done as much as anyone to shape the modern world.”[1] Calvin’s often associated with the doctrine of predestination and then he’s quickly dismissed because we assume we know what he meant by the word.  People often confuse predestination with predeterminism (or just determinism)—but they are not the same. Calvin did not advocate for predeterminism. He was an advocate of predestination or, simply, what theologians call the doctrine of election.

As one of the theological heirs of Calvin, Presbyterians are often associated with the doctrine of predestination; it’s sometimes all that people know about us.  I’ve been in many conversations that go something like this: “You’re a Presbyterian?  How do you spell that? Oh, you’re the ones that believe in predestination.” And then I'm asked, “So, do you really believe that?”  And then I say, “Yes, I do. 

Around the edge of two pages at the center of The Presbyterian Handbook, a whimsical yet informative overview of Presbyterianism, with an illustration of Cool Calvin wearing sunglasses on the cover, you’ll find a black border that reads: WARNING: IT MAY TAKE MULTIPLE READINGS—AND TIME—TO UNDERSTAND THIS CONCEPT.[2] The concept?  Predestination.  

Let’s look at what it is—and isn’t.  Let’s go back to Calvin.

The contemporary novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Gilead (one of my favorite novels), is a huge fan of Calvin. She’s a deacon in her church in Iowa and has been reading Calvin for years—for fun! She also reads Calvin in order to make her life better, and therefore commends him to the church. She claims that reading Calvin’s beautiful French prose has made her a better writer, but more than anything, in reading Calvin (his sermons, his commentaries on scripture, his masterful Institutes), she has come to see the glory and wonder and amazement of God pouring through his writings. When Calvin wrote about theology, about God, he was not interested in rational speculative considerations of the divine, which, as he put it, “Flits about in the brain doing nothing.”[3]

The doctrine that consumed Calvin, and you can see it in the first ten pages of the Institutes, was the doctrine of creation. What I mean by this is not creationism, although Calvin believed in a literal reading of Genesis, but a view of the glory of God found in the created order, which, to the eyes of faith, gives profound witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Calvin said, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice,” and, therefore, we are “not only to be spectators in this beautiful theatre but to enjoy the vast bounty and variety of good things which are displayed to us in it.”[4] Calvin approaches this amazing world, the “theatre of God’s glory,” as he liked to say, with awe, amazement, or as he said, “wonderment.” 

God’s rule over the creation is sovereign. Our lives are held in the sovereignty of God. The beauty of creation overwhelmed Calvin, as did the beauty of God (yes, beauty), the God who has called, claimed, loved, and redeemed us in Jesus Christ.  And so Calvin invites us to serve this God in the theatre of God’s glory, in the world.  Robinson reminds us that “Calvin was a product of Renaissance humanism, a student of Greek and Roman classics who reread Cicero [106 BC-43 BC] every year, a writer of exceptional grace and lucidity in both Latin and French, a man of prodigious learning, who did not dwell on damnation but rather exulted in a sovereign but not at all distant God, a God whose glory was manifest in the goodness of the world and the potential of humanity.”[5]

Calvin believed the entire creation is shouting out the glory of God, shouting out the love of God, shouting out the redemptive power of God’s concern for us, all the time. Some see it, others don’t. And the reason people can’t see it—that is, naturally, unaided—is because of the power of sin.  Due to sin we can’t see what’s clearly there in front of our eyes. Because of selfishness or egocentricity, because of our brokenness, of our refusal to live into the vision God has for us in Christ, we turn our eyes and so we fall. We have to stop thinking of the Fall in Genesis as something that occurred once, a long time ago. Every time we turn our face away from God, we fall. Every time we turn away, we fall—again and again and again. This is the human condition.  It's what Calvin means by  “total depravity.”  This is not to say that there is no good in us, because there is; it is to say that there’s no area of our lives that is so pure, so perfect, so good, so loving that we can freely choose the pure, the perfect, the good; there’s no place in our lives unaffected by the brokenness, the woundedness of the human condition. It’s total. It’s comprehensive.  Sin is a problema huge problem—it constantly interferes with our ability to enjoy Godand we’re supposed to enjoy God. But we can’t will our way out of this predicament by being good.

Remember the story of “The Little Engine That Could,” who made it to the top of the mountain through an effort of thought and will? “I think I can. I think I can.” From a biblical perspective this is a deceptive strategy when it comes to God, or following Christ. I recently discovered that an early version of this story first appeared in the New York Tribune, April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing.  A brief version of the tale appeared under the title Thinking One Can in 1906, in Wellspring for Young People, a Sunday School publication.  It’s a fun story, but it’s lousy theology. Theologically speaking, we have to “Throw out the engine that could because you can’t.”[6]

We can’t work our way toward God. We are flawed through and through, every one of us, if not all the time, then often. We are continually dependent upon the graciousness of God to intervene, to do for us what we can never do for ourselves—namely, to freely choose God and love God completely with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27). Theologian Paul Lehmann (1906-1994) once said that Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity was a “most hopeful of all doctrines.”[7] That might sound odd. Why hopeful? Because it acknowledges that the source of our salvation and the course of our eternal destiny is not contingent upon our ability to choose or believe or be good or perfect, or whatever. 

Think about it. To believe that the source of my salvation is dependent upon something that I have to do, some good work or collection of works I have to do to make God happy, that salvation is contingent upon something I have earned, the result of having proved myself worthy of God’s love and acceptance, that God’s acceptance of me is dependent upon my ability to completely believe and trust one hundred percent in God would the worst possible sentence inflicted upon me. That’s not good news, gospel. In fact, it would be terrible news.  That would be hell. Because then I would be left in an awful state: knowing my own brokenness and my woundedness and the tragic flaws in my own life, I would never be able to live up to some idealized vision of what I think God wants from me. That would not be grace, but something else; it would be the opposite of grace.

Grace is God’s eternal, free choice to say Yes to me through Jesus Christ.  Grace is God’s Yes to you through Jesus Christ. Because salvation is a gift that cannot be earned, it has to be given, offered—and it has already been given through the grace of God revealed in life of Jesus Christ. God elects us, God chooses us, God makes the first move toward us. Calvin had such a high view of election—of predestination – not because he created the idea (because he didn’t), but because it’s found all over scripture. God elects Abraham and his children and calls them to be a blessing to the world. Abram didn’t wake up one day and say to himself, “Let’s say we leave home in Haran with the family, go to a distant, unknown territory, and begin to follow a new, alien God.”  God chooses people to be kings and priests and prophets. Jesus calls the disciples; they did not choose him first. Even Jesus Christ is the elect of God through whom God chooses to redeem the world. The idea of election emerges in Paul’s letter, especially this one to the Ephesians.

Through his experience of Jesus Christ, Paul came to understand—not in an intellectual way, but in an existential, heart-felt way—that he was accepted in God’s sight, not through any works of the Law or merits, but through the glorious grace revealed in Jesus Christ. These verses, 3-14, make up one long sentence in Greek; it’s an effusive, dynamic, (over)flowing expression of affirmation that leads to a crescendo of confession.  Calvin says, “Christ…is the mirror, in which it behooves us to contemplate our election; and here we may do it with safety.”[8]  Jesus Christ has set us free, and this freedom is granted to those who are far off from God and those who are near.  

We are abundantly free—accepted completely, through and through, in the eyes of God. For it is God’s plan, revealed in Jesus, to bring all people together into one people. God is working God’s purpose out through everyone and everything. Jesus takes us up into the high places with him, with God, to find communion with God.  Jesus takes us, takes us by the hand and escorts us into the presence of God—because we would never be able to get there on our own. Election is God’s plan to include us in the work of salvation through Jesus Christ.  Didn't Jesus say, “You did not choose, but I chose you” (John 15:16)? 

Now all of this might come as quite a shock to our egos.  Our egos operate with the assumption that we’re in control of our lives.  The ego thinks that it’s all about itself all the time.  This doctrine is a jolt to our system because we like to believe that we can choose what we believe and what we don’t believe, that we control our destinies, that we’re responsible for our own salvation. The bad news to the ego is this: No, you’re not

But because there’s more to us than our egos,  No, you’re not in control is regarded by the depths of our souls, however, as really good news. The soul rejoices in knowing that God is God. 

God always makes the first move toward us. Even when we think we made the first move, it was God placing this yearning within us, illuminating the deepest desires of our hearts. In our faith and in our doubt, searching after God, God is always drawing us into relationship with God.

The eminent twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), theological heir of Calvin, stressed, through a reading of Ephesians 1:3-14, that when God said Yes to Jesus in raising him from the grave, when God says Yes to Jesus “God has reached out to say Yes to all human beings in Jesus Christ. This singular and potent Yes is the true biblical doctrine of election. It is not that God is bound to some and unbound to others. In the biblical doctrine of predestination, God is bound to each one of us by being bound to Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.”[9]

Barth’s statement on predestination attempts to clear up some of the misappropriations of Calvin.  The Calvinists came along after him and wanted to determine who was among the elect and who wasn’t.  The doctrine of election should not be used in this way. Barth’s reading of the doctrine leans in the direction of saying that God’s Yes in Christ includes all of humanity and that we’re all saved. Who is in? Who is out?  That’s not for us to decide.  Grace, and with it election, for the two are related, “teaches that each of our lives is rooted in the gracious will and intentionality of God.” It’s meant to be a doctrine of encouragement and hope.[10]

Why? Because God is working through us and is committed to us, and will never leave us or abandon us. Why? Because God has work for us to do. Election is never a condition of privilege, but responsibility. Abraham and through him Israel were called, chosen, not because they were better, but because God had a job for them to do—to be a blessing to the world.

When we meditate and contemplate God’s grace toward us, the reality of our election—that God has actually chosen us—we soon discover that God has something in store for us, a new way to live and love, a new job to do, a new task, a project, a witness, a ministry—something.

This grace, this glorious grace is an extraordinary gift. To be chosen, to be elected, to be included in God’s redemptive plan and purpose is an amazing gift. As Paul suggests in this text, we’re grafted, “adopted,” into God’s plan—because God has work for us to do. When we remember our election we find ourselves empowered to serve, to live, to love in new ways—to enjoy God in new ways.
God might have elected us from the foundations of the world, but the working out of that salvation is not yet complete. We work out our salvation individually, but also in and through the communityit’s what the church is for. We might be elected, chosen by God in grace, but God isn’t finished with us yet, no matter our age. 

The poet Maya Angelou (1928-2014) expressed her amazement at people who boast that they are saved, who think that their growth in grace stops with their profession of faith, or who are confident in their status as Christians. “You are a Christian?” she asks of them, of us. And she adds, “Already?”[11]

The Christian life for Paul, for Calvin, for us as a people reformed and always being reformed, is living into the people we are by God’s glorious grace through Jesus Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever in the depths of our hearts. We are called to live into our election. Thanks be to God.

[2] The Presbyterian Handbook (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2006).
[3] John Calvin, cited in a lecture by Serene Jones, “Calvin, Creation, and the Holy Spirit.” Calvin Jubilee, Montreat, NC, July 9, 2009.
[4] From Calvin’s Commentary on Psalm 104:331, quoted by William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 135.
[5] Steinfels.
[6] Cynthia L. Rigby in her lecture, “Calvin and the Wondrous Glory of God.” Calvin Jubilee, Montreat, NC, July 8, 2009. I’m indebted to Cindy’s lecture for providing a larger theological context in which to frame the doctrine of election.
[7] Cited by Rigby.
[8] John Calvin, (1559), Institutes of the Christian Religion. III.xxiv.5
[9] Cited by William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 48.
[10] Johnson, 42.
[11] Cited in Johnson, 45.

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