Posts Tagged ‘Protestantism’

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.

Creationism: All Luther and Calvin’s fault?

April 10, 2009

I managed to catch “Did Darwin Kill God” on iPlayer before it disappeared into the digital ether.  One of the members of staff in the Theology Department at Nottingham, Conor Cunningham, presented perhaps the most interesting (to me!) parts of the BBC’s Darwin season. Essentially, Cunningham was arguing for the “no conflict” position – belief in some form of evolution is compatible with the orthodox Christian belief in the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, the programme shared remarkable affinity with the argument of the evangelical scientist Denis Alexander’s recent book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?, both even quoting Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. What was especially interesting was how modern the Young-Earth Creationist position is.

However, one thing that stuck out as odd in the programme was how Conor Cunningham introduced the idiosyncratic views of Bishop Ussher with a sideswipe at Protestantism:

“The Reformation saw some Christians reject the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome, embracing instead the Bible as the sole source of authority. Scripture, not the Pope, was now their master. The decision of Luther and Calvin to question Papal authority opened the floodgates for anyone to read the Bible as they wished.”

To be sure, Protestantism’s sola Scriptura has been at least partly responsible for its “genius for fission” (A.E. McGrath) and denominalization. But I doubt either Luther or Calvin would recognize themselves in the description as encouragers of “anyone reading the Bible as they wished”. Such a way of phrasing it implies that the authority lies with the interpreter, not with the Bible. But for Luther and his followers, “Scripture is its own interpreter” (Scriptura ipsius interpres) and questions of interpretation cannot be resolved by an authority above the Bible (since no such authority exists) but by the Bible itself, as J.I. Packer argues:

“Scripture yields two basic principles for its own interpretation. The first is that the proper, natural sense of each passage (i.e., the intended sense of the writer) is to be taken as fundamental; the meaning of texts in their own contexts, and for their original readers, is the necessary starting-point for enquiry into their wider significance… The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others.”

With an issue like Evolution and Genesis 1-2, different interpretations are bound to arise – but the Reformers would insist that any proffered interpretation be subject to the authority of the Bible, and weighed on its intrinsic merits – including its plausibility (“Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by plain reason… I cannot and will not recant” – Luther). This is completely different to the idea that sola Scriptura and private interpretation amount to letting anyone make the Bible say just what they want it to say. Private interpretation of the text does not mean that the reader gets to interpret the Bible however they wish, but that they are to seek out the true meaning whether they like it or not. (In fact, it may well be that the Roman Catholic approach of resolving differences of interpretation by an authoritative judgement by the Church’s magisterial authority is more vulnerable to an accusation of placing the interpreter above the Bible)

Perhaps the problem is that so much of Protestantism believes the myth that private interpretation means exactly what Cunningham suggests it does – and so in practice actually reject the authority not only of the Pope but also of the Bible – the classic error of liberalism.