Posts Tagged ‘Justification’

What’s your C-factor? (Calvinism!)

July 11, 2009

Quiz here. This is a fairly lighthearted and unscientific quiz that covers not only the theological distinctives of Calvinism, but also attitudes to work, society and relationships. I got 81% Calvinist overall, with 100% in the “Beliefs” category, which sounds about right. I once came extremely close to ordering a T-Shirt from the web that read “Servetus had it coming” so clearly I’m too Calvinist for my own good…

(I don’t really!)

In fact, I found this quiz thanks to an article on BBC News: “Economic crisis boosts Dutch Calvinism”. Unfortunately, unlike the quiz which is actually pretty good at showing that the social and cultural aspects of Calvinism stem from the theology – i.e. taking the Bible seriously – the impression you get from the BBC article is that Calvinism is only about “hard work and frugality”.

Does Calvin espouse hard work and frugality? Well, yes, but in the context of “Christian liberty” as a response to grace:

“Certainly ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God, permitted, not destined, by divine providence for the use of man; nor was it ever forbidden to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine. This is true, but when the means are presented to roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with the present, and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God. Let them, therefore, suppress immoderate desire, immoderate profusion, vanity, and arrogance, that they may use the gifts of God purely with a pure conscience … to learn with Paul in whatever state they are, “therewith to be content,” to know “both how to be abased,” and “how to abound,” “to be full and hungry, both to abound and suffer need” (Phil 4:11).
Institutes III:19.9

Calvin urges moderation in the enjoyment of the gifts God has given – knowing both that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1Timothy 4:4) but that immoderate use of created things can quickly become spiritually distracting or even idolatrous. To “wallow in luxury” keeps our attention on the present, feeds a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross, and teaches us to ignore God.

But Calvin would have recoiled in horror from the idea that economic and social moderation is virtuous outside of its connection with Christ. Calvin’s motive for enjoining moderation and Christian liberty is to encourage Christians to glorify God in their living by enjoying His gifts without letting them eclipse Him. It is not even hard work done to merit salvation, but freedom given by salvation by grace to live for the glory of God. The motive is also (contra the BBC article) not political or to encourage hard work for hard work’s sake; it is theological, theocentric, God-exalting living completely informed by the unearned grace he has described only a few paragraphs earlier:

“…the law … leaves not one man righteous [and so] we are either excluded from all hope of justification, or we must be loosed from the law, and so loosed as that no account at all shall be taken of works… Therefore laying aside all mention of the law, and all idea of works, we must in the matter of justification have recourse to the mercy of God only; turning away our regard from ourselves, we must look only to Christ. For the question is, not how we may be righteous, but how, though unworthy and unrighteous, we may be regarded as righteous … when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God, as to the answer it could give, the confidence it would feel, if brought to his judgement seat, in such a case the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness.
Institutes, III:19.2 (emphasis mine)

If that excerpt had you nodding along in agreement, or even punching the air and saying “Amen!”, then you’re well on the way to being a Calvinist, no matter what you got on the quiz!

Seeing as I’ve stolen a cartoon from them, this is also worth a read: “Why I am a Calvinist” by C. Matthew McMahon.

More Justification – all the best tunes

April 11, 2009

Something else Mike Reeves highlighted in his talks on Justification at New Word Alive was the difference the Reformation understanding of justification made to the whole Christian experience. He illustrated this by comparing some of the music to come out of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation – the same piece (Hosanna) set to very different tunes by Palestrina and J.S. Bach. While I’m sure you can read too much into any such comparison, there is a pronounced difference in feel of the pieces – the staunchly Lutheran Bach’s music just seems to have a joy, a boldness, and a vitality in it that the beautiful but detached Mass by Palestrina lacks. “Bold I approach” indeed. If a nonmusician like myself may be allowed to wade into such discussions, the kind of music someone produces does tell us something about their theology. Indeed, talking of Bach, I came across this anecdote in The Times:

I once asked a famous conductor if he believed in God. “Only when I’m performing Bach,” he replied. “Then I start to think that if Christianity is capable of inspiring a human being to produce music of this sublime perfection, there must be something in it.”
… what Bach, Handel, Bruckner, Palestrina and the other giants of sacred music do is transport us – aurally, spiritually and intellectually – to a realm that is so adjacent to religious faith as to be inseparable from it. Music goes beyond words.

I wonder if this is something that is lost a little in the “worship wars” and debates over what kind of music we should play in churches. If the difference between Palestrina and Bach’s performances of the Hosanna (same words in both) reflects fundamentally different theologies of justification, then it does matter how we set the words of our hymns and songs. We shouldn’t let a good tune excuse bad or heretical lyrics; but equally we shouldn’t settle for poor, dreary or unhelpful music just because we’ve got the words right.

Justification – right with God

April 9, 2009

One of the tracks I went to at New Word Alive was called “Right With God” – a tour through the doctrine of justification by Mike Reeves, who works for UCCF. We started off in the second century AD and went through to modern-day debates over the doctrine raised by the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision. I’m hoping the talks will be downloadable from the New Word Alive site or Theology Network soon – they are extremelyworthwhile. (This is also worth listening to – a chat with John Piper on the subject of Justification and the NPP) In the meantime, I thought I would blog some of the more interesting things I learnt!

Often we assume some kind of simplistic view of church history – something like  ‘the early church fathers corrupted the message of the apostles until it was rediscovered in the Reformation’ (not a real quote!) but things aren’t so simple. Even by the second century there was a diversity in views of justification in the church – ranging from the sublime to the heretical. Reeves pointed out particularly the works-righteousness in Mandate 6 of the Shepherd of Hermas, (the two angels thing seems to have made it directly into the Qur’an – 50:17) which is even more pronounced in Mandate 7 – “Every creature feareth the Lord, but not every one keepeth His commandments. Those then that fear Him and keep His commandments, they have life unto God; but they that keep not His commandments have no life in them” which couldn’t be further from the joyful theology of the New Testament.

But often too, Protestants can think of Augustine as being a Protestant because of his emphasis on original sin and his battle against Pelagianism. Yet he also provides the basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification based upon the “infused righteousness of God” by putting primacy on Romans 5:5 in defining justification (understanding the “love of God” poured into our hearts as promoting righteousness within us, thus making us just). This is the root of the Reformation debate – is justification to be understood as the process of becoming more and more just, or is it a (forensic) pronouncement?

For Luther, justification was a declaritive act of God, and obtained not by penitence but by faith in the promises of God. Reeves did a great job of showing how Luther’s thought developed – he didn’t wake up one morning and decide to found a church, and the 95 Theses where it all began are not so much Protestant as a strand of Catholicism opposed to the abuse of indulgences. Luther considered what was actually going on during confession with a priest – the priest would offer the promise of God’s forgiveness, and the hope of forgiveness is not found introspectively through feelings of repentance, but in God’s promises. Contrary to what some have claimed, Luther was not the victim of an introspective conscience, at least, not when he was a Protestant – but instead placed all of his confidence of acceptance by God external to himself – in God’s promises of righteousness through faith in Christ. If any view is to be accused of promoting introspection, it should be Medieval Catholicism.

This view of Justification is a tremendously liberating truth – as shown in Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, which was very much recommended by Reeves. It also affects the rest of our theology – it provides a way of seeing God as loving rather than exclusively as a cosmic judge; it changes our understanding of what sin is and exposes self-righteousness and refusal to rely on God as the terrible acts of rebellion they are; it even changes our understanding of what ‘faith’ is. Faith is not a surrogate work or something we need to work hard at to “do”. If it were an inner resource then it would be sin, according to Luther, so “have I got enough faith?” is precisely the wrong question for the Christian to ask herself. Faith is a passive thing on this understanding – it is receiving the promises of God; taking God seriously in what he says. For Protestants, it is God’s Word which saves, not the strength of our faith. I wonder whether we do a good job of communicating this when we talk about “faith alone”? The faith-as-a-surrogate-work misunderstanding is one I’ve come across from a lot of people, including people who otherwise know their Bibles and Church History as well as anyone.