Posts Tagged ‘Calvinism’

Two kinds of freedom

August 29, 2011

Ron Swanson, the funniest character on TV.

In yesterday’s sermon on Romans 9:14-24, which often raises difficult questions of human freedom versus God’s sovereignty (not that it should if we understand Paul’s argument), I was tempted to quote my favorite character from my favorite TV show, Ron Swanson of Parks & Recreation.

Swanson is manager of the parks department in a smallish Indiana city, who is also an outspoken libertarian. He once said that his dream is to privatize the parks department and let Chuck E. Cheese’s manage it. “You want want to swing on the swing set? Drop in a quarter.” One time Ron was arguing with someone about diet and fitness. He said, “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 lbs, and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so. To me that’s beautiful.”

This kind of freedom may be beautiful from a political point of view, but it’s deadly from a Christian point of view. Left to our own devices, this is clearly the kind of freedom that we have. As Paul argues elsewhere in Romans (for instance, chapter 7) this kind of freedom enslaves us. So maybe our hyper-Calvinist friends bent on saying that human beings aren’t really free are not entirely wrong. Because libertarian freedom—freedom of choice—is not true freedom.

True freedom, Christianly understood, is freedom to be what God created us to be. At times, however, this freedom may look a lot like slavery: a voluntary kind of slavery in which we submit our free wills to God, to be re-shaped and redirected. True freedom means choosing to be constrained. Think of how St. Paul himself can joyously proclaim our freedom in Christ and say, at the same time, that he is Christ’s slave.

A couple of years ago, I went to a musical that the students at my wife’s school were putting on. One of the students, a 16 year old girl, played a violin solo—and it was quite good. I complimented her after the show. I said, “You didn’t sound screechy at all.” I didn’t mean to damn her with faint praise, but, let’s face it, 16 year-old violinists sometimes sound screechy.

She told me that she aspires to be a professional violinist. She practices four hours a day, every day—and that she’s has been doing so for years! No wonder she didn’t sound screechy! In a way, this young woman has voluntarily made herself a slave to the violin—through time, discipline, hard work. She’s had to forego most activities and interests that her fellow teenagers enjoy.

But consider what this voluntary slavery means: It means that she is free to do the thing she loves most—to play the most beautiful music in the world. Would even the most challenging piece of music stand in the way of her doing the thing that she most enjoys? Imagine the joy that this kind of freedom brings her.

On a larger scale, this is the kind of freedom that God offers us through Christ. I want to know and experience this kind of freedom in all its fullness.

About that controversial word “predestination”

August 16, 2011

In my sermon on Sunday, I didn’t say anything about predestination, a word that shows up in Romans 8:29-30. These verses are a Calvinist proof-text. I’m not a Calvinist, as everyone knows (John Wesley was no fan of Calvinism). And I’m not going to resolve the issue of the meaning of the word in this post. (Next week’s sermon over Romans 9 might afford me an opportunity to say something about it from the pulpit.)

Here are a few quick thoughts: Whatever Paul means by this word, he means as a word of assurance. He certainly isn’t telling the Roman Christians that some of them are saved and some of them are damned, and there isn’t anything they can do about it! Since he’s been laying out the means by which all humanity now becomes part of God’s covenant people, he likely intends to reassure Gentile Christians, especially, that their adoption into God’s family was a part of God’s plan all along.

After all, as we know from Paul’s argument so far, God didn’t send the Torah to his covenant people only to  find—to God’s surprise—that Israel failed to live up to it. The sending of God’s Son didn’t represent a change of plan. Rather, God intended to use the Torah to highlight sin and, through the cross, gather it up in one place in order that Israel’s Messiah (and humanity’s representative) could destroy its power once and for all.

And because of what God accomplished through the cross (whose victory was made manifest in the resurrection), everyone on earth now has the opportunity to share in God’s victory and become a part of God’s family.

Wow! That’s a hasty and inadequate summary of Romans so far, but you get the point. Whatever Paul is talking about, it shouldn’t be read through the lens of 16th-century Protestant theology, no matter how much Paul’s words here made their contribution to it; it should be read in the context of Paul’s argument about the Messiah and God’s covenant with Israel.

I vote that we make Bishop Wright an honorary Methodist. We're children of the Anglican tradition, you know?

Regardless, the most troubling aspect of predestination to most Methodists is the idea that God forces God’s will on some people—as if being “elected” by God were all God’s choice and humanity has no say in the matter. How does this leave room for personal responsibility? I like (surprise, surprise) N.T. Wright’s words on the subject:

Is Paul after all a determinist, believing in a blind plan that determines everything, so that human freedom, responsibility, obedience, and love itself are after all a sham? ¶ One can easily imagine Paul’s own reaction… “Certainly not!”… What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important.1

This is not to deny, Wright says, the “mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage.” But it does deny the “two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa” [emphasis mine].

Does this sound familiar? The deterministic view of conservative Calvinism represents the same two-dimensional thinking that characterizes contemporary discussions of evolution and the origin of the cosmos. As I’ve written about on plenty of occasions, people on both sides of the science-faith divide seem to agree with one another that either evolutionary processes explain how we got here or God explains how we got here, but not both. This is a false dichotomy: it’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Just as God’s action in Creation doesn’t compete with the physical laws of  the universe, so God’s will doesn’t compete with human will. As Wright says,

God’s actions and human actions are not, as it were, on the same plane… Woe betide theology if discussion of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from one by adding to the other.2

Thank you again, Tom.

1. N.T. Wright in “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 603.

2. Ibid.