Bruce McCormack on ‘God’s Gracious Election in the Theology of Karl Barth’

Whether on the subject of beer or theology, Bruce McCormack is always worth listening to (he’s considerably less reliable on the subject of sports), and that not least when it comes to the subject of Karl Barth and the doctrines of election. Here is Bruce’s lecture titled ‘God’s Gracious Election in the Theology of Karl Barth: Musings on a Possible Way to Move Beyond the Calvinist/Arminian Divide’ given last year at the Rethinking Arminius Conference held at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Calvinism and Law: a conference

Calvinism LawThe International Reformed Theological Institute (ITRI), an affiliate member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, is organising its tenth International Conference. It will take place between 2–7 July 2013 in the picturesque town of Sárospatak in Hungary. The theme will be Calvinism and Law – a relationship with a long history, and with no shortage of contemporary relevance. They have also issued a call for papers. These, and relevant questions about the conference, can be emailed to Albert Nijboer before April 20. More information is available here.

Please note too that a listing of other forthcoming theological conferences is available here.

A wee report from the Confoederatio Helvetica

A few weeks ago, I was in Switzerland. I was there for a meeting with the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and to attend a fascinating conference on Churches and the Rule of Law for which I was invited to be a respondent to a paper on ‘The Bible and the State’ by Jim Skillen. It was a wonderful gathering of some very impressive minds, stimulating papers and friendly souls. A number of folk have asked me for a copy of my response. It can be downloaded here. I understand that a final version will, in due course, appear in published form as part of the John Knox Series.

But the trip wasn’t all ‘business’. One – this one at least – simply doesn’t travel half way around the world and not squeeze in some extra-curricular activities! So the itinerary included time in Lausanne (whose cathedral is among the most beautiful I’ve visited anywhere in the world), Neuchâtel, Montreux, Zermatt and the Matterhorn, the Bernese Oberland and the Junfrau (think Queenstown on some serious steroids), Lucerne, Safenwil (a real highlight for me, for obvious reasons), Basel (where I continued the Barth trail), St-Ursanne, Jura & Three-Lakes, and, of course, a significant amount of time in the amazing city of Geneva where I breathed in some more reformed air. Suffice it to say that, coffee and that terrible Calvinus beer excluded, Switzerland is amazing, and I hope to return.

Evangelical Calvinism

Congratulations to Myk Habets and Bobby Grow on the bringing to birth of Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. It’s good to see this baby come full term. The Table of Contents reads:

Prologue: Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church. Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier


1: Theologia Reformata et Semper Reformanda. Towards a Definition of Evangelical Calvinism. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow

Part 1: Prolegomena – Historical Theology

2: The Phylogeny of Calvin’s Progeny: A Prolusion. Charles Partee

3: The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism. Adam Nigh

4: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature. Bobby Grow

5: The Christology of Vicarious Agency in the Scots Confession According to Karl Barth. Andrew Purves

Part 2: Systematic Theology

6: Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is. Gannon Murphy

7: “There is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ:” Christologically Conditioned Election. Myk Habets

8: A Way Forward on the Question of the Transmission of Original Sin. Marcus Johnson

9: “The Highest Degree of Importance”: Union with Christ and Soteriology. Marcus Johnson

10: “Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan:” J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry. Jason Goroncy

11: “Suffer the little children to come to me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Infant Salvation and the Destiny of the Severely Mentally Disabled. Myk Habets

Part 3: Applied Theology

12: Living as God’s Children: Calvin’s Institutes as Primer for Spiritual Formation. Julie Canlis

13: Idolaters at Providential Prayer: Calvin’s Praying Through the Divine Governance. John C McDowell

14: Worshiping like a Calvinist: Cruciform Existence. Scott Kirkland

Part 4

15: Theses on a Theme. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow

Epilogue: Post Reformation Lament. Myk Habets

Weekly wanderings

Lindis Pass

I tidied up the kitchenette, I tuned the old banjo …

Michael Jinkins on ‘Myths and urban legends about John Calvin’

4Firstly, don’t forget to enter the Who said it? competition. It closes on Friday. Suggestions so far have been fascinating.

Now, enjoy this post by Michael Jinkins on ‘Myths and urban legends about John Calvin’:

Recently I asked Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, what resources she finds particularly helpful in her vocation as a theological educator and church leader. She said, “This may sound corny, but John Calvin.” I don’t think she sounds corny at all, but, then, I’m a Calvinist. Or a Neo-Calvinist. Or maybe a Crypto-Neo-Calvinist. Anyway I agree with Serene – and with David Steinmetz writing for “Faith & Leadership” here.

This year we Calvinists have been busy baking birthday cakes with 500 candles on them in honor of John Calvin whose influence has been noted, lamented or celebrated by figures as divergent as the sociologist and economist Max Weber, the journalist G. K. Chesterton and the novelist Marilynne Robinson. As a public service to all non-Calvinists, I have assembled a myth-busting primer on the Protestant Reformer.

Myth No.1: John Calvin was a sour puss.

Martin Luther is usually cast as the fun-loving, beer-swigging, warm-hearted Reformer while Calvin is caricatured as dour, the sort of person who (as one Episcopal bishop once notoriously described him) “sucked sour persimmons for fun.” In fact, Calvin was the Reformation’s chief apologist for fun. For example, he reminds us that God created food and drink “for delight and good cheer,” not simply for nourishment. Quoting the Psalms he tells us that wine is given to us to gladden the heart, and olive oil was made for dipping bread. Here’s a person who knew his way around a Michelin Star restaurant (never forget that Calvin was French!). According to Calvin, God did not create the world merely for utilitarian purposes, but for beauty and pleasure.

Myth No.2: Calvin was a tyrant.

Recently this myth got some highly visible air time in “The New York Times Magazine” in an article titled: “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?” The article profiled a preacher who justifies his refusal to listen to the criticism of lay leaders by citing Calvin. When a member of his congregation complained, for example, the pastor suspended the complainer’s membership, explaining, “They were sinning through questioning.” The author of the article commented, “John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.” In fact, Calvin could and often did say it much better than that. Calvin distrusted the vesting of power in any individual (himself included), and abided with decisions made by the ordered bodies of his church and city even when he did not agree with them. Calvin believed that God makes God’s will known through groups more reliably than through the will of individuals, and there’s no better guarantee against the abuse of a leader’s power than a vigilant group in which authority is shared.

Myth No.3: Calvin and Calvinism are identical.

This one’s tricky! There’s an assumption that everything we call “Calvinism” actually came from Calvin. A colleague recently mentioned that he was sitting on a plane reading a book about Calvin. The flight attendant saw what he was reading and said, “I know about Calvin. He’s the TULIP guy.” In fact, the well-known “five points of Calvinism,” memorialized in the acronym TULIP (Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints) dates from the century after Calvin (the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619), and represents the high water mark of “Calvinist Scholasticism” in which the warm personal evangelical movement that Calvin led was distorted by a calcified reactionism. Calvin scholars like James Torrance and T.F. Torrance, R. T. Kendall and Holmes Rolston, III, have helped us differentiate between Calvin and his latter-day disciples.

Myth No. 4: Calvin was a religious fanatic.

There certainly is a popular perception of Calvin as a sort of religious fanatic or zealot. After all, there are some Christian Fundamentalists to this day who claim him as their spiritual father, and let’s not forget the various heresy prosecutions that have followed in the wake of “Calvinism” especially in Scotland and the United States. In fact, Calvin himself deserves to be remembered both as a “Renaissance Man” and a “Humanist.” Calvin was part of that remarkable Renaissance movement that included Thomas More (the brilliant Catholic “Man for all Seasons”) and Desiderius Erasmus (the Dutch scholar known for his critical studies and satire). The humanist movement swept away the cobwebs of superstition and obscurantism and placed the Bible, freshly translated, in the hands of ordinary Christians. Calvin, like other humanists, was also a critical scholar of the Bible who believed that knowledge and wisdom, scholarship and science are not enemies of the faith.

Myth No. 5: Calvin was sadistic.

Obviously this myth is supported by the burning of Michael Servetus (a person who had the distinction of being considered a heretic by both the Protestants and the Roman Catholics and of being a physician who discovered how blood circulates in the human body). Calvin opposed Servetus’s teachings. Calvin denounced him to the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Calvin believed that Servetus’s heresies were dangerous to the future of the Church, and he wanted him silenced. In fact, however, what is less well known is that Calvin argued that Servetus not be burned at the stake. The conventional picture of Calvin cruelly twirling his moustache like Snidely Whiplash while Servetus burned is baseless. Calvin urged the courts to spare Servetus from burning, which Calvin considered a barbarous method of execution – and to behead Servetus instead. Okay, this one sounds like cold comfort even to me, and even if Calvin thought Servetus “had it coming” (to quote Clint Eastwood). The fact that Calvin believed the church was locked in a life and death struggle with Servetus, and that the magistrates had no other responsible alternative than to execute him, does not necessarily mean that Calvin was sadistic, though he does appear to have been a pretty typical product of a cruel age on this score. The burning of Servetus ignited a firestorm of controversy among Protestants as to whether such measures are ever justified. Incidentally, Servetus was opposed to the use of force to promote religion long before he was sentenced to death.

[Source: Faith and Leadership]

Creational Ethics Is Public Ethics

The Journal for Christian Theological Research has just published an article by Guenther “Gene” Haas, ‘Creational Ethics is Public Ethics‘. The paper presents the framework and key doctrines relevant to public moral engagement as found in the Reformed or neo-Calvinist tradition shaped by Abraham Kuyper and his disciples. Haas’ thesis is that Christian ethics is public ethics because it is creational ethics. Christian ethics has a place in the public arena because it is the articulation of the creational moral order that constitutes and guides all human beings. Neo-Calvinism considers the creation order as foundational. The fall of creation and its redemption must be understood in relation to this foundational doctrine. But the creational order also shapes the nature of Christian involvement in the public domain. The final section highlights some implications of this for involvement in public life.

Kuyper on Calvinism and the Arts: A Theological Reflection

Kuyper on Calvinism and the Arts: A Theological Reflection

Jason Goroncy, February 2006

Unless otherwise stated, references are to A Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1931).

Why didn’t reading Kuyper on the arts inspire me to go and write a song?

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the founder of neo-Calvinism (or Kuyperianism), worked as a pastor, theologian, newspaper editor (for two newspapers), and politician in the Netherlands, organising the Netherlands’ first political party. In his spare time, he also started the Free University of Amsterdam, and served as Prime Minister.

In his chapter on Calvinism and Art, Kuyper makes plain his three-pronged agenda: (i) Why Calvinism was not allowed to develop an art-style of its own; (ii) What flows from its principle for the nature of art; and (iii) What it has actually done for its advancement. The chapter follows this structure.

Many who were both inside and outside Calvinism saw it as merely a doctrinal and ecclesiological position, but Kuyper was resolute that Calvinism be understood as a comprehensive worldview, and argued that ‘Calvinism made its appearance, not merely to create a different Church-form, but an entirely different form for human life, to furnish human society with a different method of existence, and to populate the world of the human heart with different ideals and conceptions’ (p. 17).

Under the umbrella of an emphasis on divine sovereignty, Kuyper’s Calvinistic vision called people to thoughtful, active, artistic, engagement with – and in – the world precisely because the world, and all that is in it, is God’s. According to Kuyper, there is no such thing as truly secular, or religiously independent, art. This is to say more than simply that no one works in a vacuum. It is to state that all art is ultimately derived from Religion – Christian or otherwise – although this may come via political ideology, the latter illustrated in Roman and Byzantinian architecture (pp. 149-51). How could it be otherwise if God is indeed ‘the deepest root’ (p. 151) of all human life? With the secular-sacred divide abolished, human creatures are those ‘who, priestlike, must consecrate to God the whole of creation, and all life thriving in it’ (p. 52). This gives all of life a purpose that Christian dualism cannot deliver. All of life is entirely meaningful to God and must be lived for His glory. It was in this, Kuyper argued, that Calvinism freed art, and artists, from the shackles (and pockets) of the Church and gave art back to the world.

Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, ‘by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammelled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator’ (p. 30), empowers God’s people – indeed all people – for engagement in the world. Because of this common grace, Kuyper concludes that ‘the life of the world is to be honoured in its independence, and that we must, in every domain, discover the treasures and develop the potencies hidden by God in nature and in human life’ (p. 31). In Kuyper’s vision, monastic withdrawal from the world is not an option. More importantly for our purposes here, Kuyper affirmed Calvin’s insistence that human artistry is a gift given by, and pleasing to, God, whether or not the artist is a confessing Christian (p. 160-61).

But here there is an important inconsistency in Kuyper’s thought. When it came to science, education and, arguably, politics, Kuyper called for a distinctively Christian expression on the basis of the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian worldviews. However, on art, Kuyper leaned much more heavily in the direction of emphasising common grace: ‘Aesthetic genius, if I may so call it, had been implanted by God Himself in the Greek, and only by hailing again, amid loud rejoicings, the fundamental laws of art, which Greek genius had discovered, could art justify her claim to an independent existence’ (p. 159; cf. p. 162). Why did he not allow his emphasis on common grace enough command in the spheres of science and education? According to Kuyper, the Greeks had discovered God’s fundamental law for art, and as such provided the foundation upon which all art should be built. This conclusion is not only inconsistent with his view of science and education, but guts the arts of their true foundation in the incarnate life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Kuyper never makes it clear why science needed to be built on a Christian foundation, but art did not. One gets the impression that, for Kuyper, Athens is good enough for art, but for more serious (in his view) human endeavours, one must go to Geneva. Is it because he fears that art makes a more dangerous master than a willing servant and is much harder to harness after it has been freed by reformation faith? Or is it because at the end of the day, i.e. despite his comments regarding the necessity of art to permeate the whole of human life (p. 163), he considers art an ‘optional extra’, a luxury, of human being. (On this see PT Forsyth, Religion in Recent Art, 145-6; cf. pp. 2-4)

But why is Athens good enough for art? Surely religion has done more for art than art has done for it. Did art make or break Athens? If Kuyper is right in affirming this for other human pursuits, why not for art?

On a related note, Kuyper states that the reason that Calvinism did not develop its own architectural style was because it was committed to a ‘higher principle’ (pp. 145-6) and because it had ‘reached a so much higher stage of religious development’ (p. 152), though one is left to wonder exactly what this ‘higher principle’ and ‘higher stage’ might be. Again, Kuyper notes that ‘Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality’ (p. 149). Again, what is this ‘vigorous spirituality’ that Calvinism sets one free for, and why are the arts (materiality?) seemingly excluded? Furthermore, why is art, which Kuyper refers to as ‘one of the richest gifts of God’ (p. 143) to humanity, identified with immaturity? Is Kuyper too shackled to Hegel at this point?

Kuyper scraped the bottom of the barrel to find support in Calvin’s references to art. In the Institutes, the only references to art/ists are largely negative, discussed in the context of idolatry in 1.11.12, and the Creator/creature distinction in 1.5.5. There is a brief mention of artistic expression as evidence of the imago dei, particularly when accompanied by the ministry of the Holy Spirit in 2.2.14-16 (cf. Tracts 1:352). Calvin’s commentaries are little fuller with references, as is betrayed by Kuyper himself in the need to resort to the example of Jubal and Tubal-cain in Genesis 4:21-22. This is not to say that Calvin’s theology does not offer a rich canvas on which the artist can begin. On the contrary, despite his seemingly personal indifference to art (as opposed to Luther), the landscape and depth of Calvin’s theological vision, not least his doctrine of a ‘big’ God, and of creation, makes human artistry both inevitable and glorious.

What Calvinism brought to the arts was:
(i) a positive doctrine of creation;
(ii) a grown up God big enough to handle the world He had made;
(iii) a ‘profound conception of religious liberty’ (p. 147);
(iv) the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (p. 168);
(v) the release of it being the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful (p. 165-8);
(vi) a sense of the importance of human vocation;
(vii) a God-honouring alternative to the Renaissance;
(viii) a God-honouring secularism;
(ix) an affirmation that human artistry is a gift given by, and pleasing to, God, regardless of any religious commitment;
(x) a broad vision of human society; and
(xi) the means through which artistic expression was freed from its ecclesiastically controlled chains (p. 167).

A final comment: Roy Attwood has helpfully reminded us that the Creator of the aesthetic sphere calls His image bearers to be busy doing faithful aesthetic acts: ‘While the world may be busy pursuing “art for art’s sake” or treating aesthetics like it rested on the bottom of the food chain, Christians should adorn their lives, their homes, their worship with humble acts of aesthetic faithfulness because they know the Creator and Lord of Aesthetics delights in them.’ In God’s first act of creation, God gave those who bear His image the capacity to also be creators, to offer back to Him – everlastingly – faithful, and new, aesthetic acts for His glory and for the delight of our fellow creatures. From the very beginning, the Lord of Aesthetics called His covenant children to be busy aesthetically. But it awaited the ultimate revelation of God’s creativity which concerned not the calling forth the creation in an act of creative love, but in calling it back as a new creation in grace, to give art its true meaning. In other words, Art matters not primarily because the creation has been created by God, (‘No Art is possible to a religion which begins with a text like “Cursed be the ground”.’ Forsyth, Art, 144) or even because it has been enfleshed by Him, but because it has been redeemed by Him in His most creative act. Only a world not merely enfleshed but crucified and re-created in a Holy Redeemer can offer to the arts any stable footing.

I wish that Kuyper saw and emphasised that this, too, is something that the reformation rediscovered.

Some discussion starters:

§ How accurately does Kuyper reflect Calvin/ism?

§ ‘What is the world that art takes for granted?’ (Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2005, 135) If, as Williams puts it, ‘art helps us to understand creation’ (Ibid., 161), what sort of creation does Kuyper present to us via his views on art? Is Kuyper’s world a world in which we are invited to look through or to enjoy and affirm the integrity of for its own sake?

§ ‘Would a world without art lose one of its ideal spheres?’ (p. 152)

§ How does one ‘use’ art prophetically to name the truths that (i) the creation is good, (ii) sin is a reality, (iii) sin does not have the last word, i.e. hope is certain?

§ Has Protestantism removed the arts from the cathedral only to place it in a gallery?

§ How does art ‘not merely … observe everything visible and audible, to apprehend it, and reproduce it artistically, but … discover in those natural forms the order of the beautiful, and … produce a beautiful world that transcends the beautiful of nature’ (p. 154; cf. p. 156-7, 163)? Is there genuine newness involved here, or merely the disclosing of what is hidden? Does art exist to name what is? To create something truly new, i.e. that wasn’t before? To surprise God? To hallow the ‘ordinary’? To spiritualise the material? How are artists able not only ‘to produce a beautiful world that transcends the beautiful of nature’ but also to perfect Nature (Forsyth)? Is this precisely not the very activity of the Sabbath day, thus linking it to both creation and redemption?

For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted – better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
(Robert Browning, Fra Lippo Lippi, 1855)

If, as Browning states it, the point of painting something is not to reproduce it exactly (which is impossible anyway), but rather to represent it in such a way that it enables others to see the reality of that which is represented for the first time, (‘Art is interpretation’, Forsyth) in what sense might it be fair to envisage human creative activity as ‘unreal’? Are reproductive prints art?

§ What are we to make of Kuyper’s comment concerning the prophetic necessity in art itself to refuse to accept the world as it appears, i.e., that ‘art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster’ (p. 155)? What does one think that Kuyper thinks that artists will do in the new creation?

§ Affirming that ‘the world after the fall is no lost planet’ (p. 162), Kuyper goes on to say that ‘the world now, as well as in the beginning, is the theater for the mighty works of God and humanity remains a creation of His hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation, here on earth, a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God’ (p. 162). In what sense can human artistry be said to contribute to creation’s completion, or continuation?

§ Does the particular doctrine of election, as expressed by Kuyper on pp. 166-7, still offer the same liberating power for artists?

§ Are we convinced of Kuyper’s argument (pp. 165f.) that had the Reformation not touched Europe so deeply, Rembrandt (if he painted at all) would have painted differently? Why? Why not?

§ Is Kuyper’s argument sufficiently ‘Christian’? What difference would a more intentionally (i) Trinitarian, (ii) Incarnational, and (iii) Soteriological theology, make to Kuyper’s argument and justification for the arts?

§ In light of the ugliness, and hidden beauty, of the Christian gospel, Jüngel writes: ‘Beauty and art are both welcome and dangerous competitors with the Christian kerygma, for in the beautiful appearance they anticipate that which faith has to declare, without any beautiful appearance and indeed in contrast to it: namely, the hour of truth’ (Theological Essays II, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000, 81). How can this tension be overcome so that art can be considered not as an ‘optional extra’ of human being, or of the telling of good news, but as the constraining means of that being and telling?