Sunday, September 30, 2012

John Calvin on God's justice and the predestination of those who fall

How can God be just or fair in condemning those who deny him to eternal damnation when it is God himself who predestined them to fall in the first place? 

A friend asked me this question recently. I didn't know how to answer, so I told him to give me some time to look into this. I turned to Calvin to see if he has addressed this. Indeed he did. 

I'll paste Calvin's take on this issue below. The blue-italicized is my preface to each point. The bold-italicized are emphasis that I added on Calvin's original writing. The following section is from Book 3, Chapter 23:4, in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (USA: Hendrickson, revised edition, 2008), p. 627-628:

[The questioner asked isn't it unjust for God who has predestined people to fall to condemn them as if they are responsible for their own fall?] 
Were not men predestinated by the ordination of God to that corruption which is now held forth as the cause of condemnation? If so, when they perish in their corruptions they do nothing else than suffer punishment for that calamity, into which, by the predestination of God, Adam fell, and dragged all his posterity headlong with him. Is not he, therefore, unjust in thus cruelly mocking his creatures?

[Calvin's reply] 
I admit that by the will of God all the sons of Adam fell into that state of wretchedness in which they are now involved; and this is just what I said at the first, that we must always return to the mere pleasure of the divine will, the cause of which is hidden in himself. But it does not forthwith follow that God lies open to this charge. For we will answer with Paul in these words, "Nay but, O man, who art thou that replies against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?" (Rom. 9:20, 21).

[Calvin's foresaw the questioner would suspect that the God Calvin understood is arbitrary in term of justice]
They will deny that the justice of God is thus truly defended, and will allege that we seek an evasion, such as those are wont to employ who have no good excuse. For what more seems to be said here than just that the power of God is such as cannot be hindered, so that he can do whatsoever he pleases?

[Calvin replied to this suspicion by asserting that God's justice is mysterious and final. It may appear unjust to us not because God is unjust but because of our inability to understand it. To draw a simple and imperfect analogy: Parents know that going to school is good for their children. So the parents force their kids to school regardless of what the children think about school. To the children, their parents are not good in sending them to school. However, we know that the little children's judgement can not measure up to their parents. Therefore we should not conclude that the parents' judgement is not good simply because the children think that their parents are not good.]
But it is far otherwise. For what stronger reason can be given than when we are ordered to reflect who God is? How could he who is the Judge of the world commit any unrighteousness? If it properly belongs to the nature of God to do judgment, he must naturally love justice and abhor injustice. Wherefore, the Apostle did not, as if he had been caught in a difficulty, have recourse to evasion; he only intimated that the procedure of divine justice is too high to be scanned by human measure, or comprehended by the feebleness of human intellect. The Apostle, indeed, confesses that in the divine judgments there is a depth in which all the minds of men must be engulfed if they attempt to penetrate into it. But he also shows how unbecoming it is to reduce the works of God to such a law as that we can presume to condemn them the moment they accord not with our reason. There is a well-known saying of Solomon (which, however, few properly understand), "The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the fool and rewardeth transgressors," (Prov. 26:10). For he is speaking of the greatness of God, whose pleasure it is to inflict punishment on fools and transgressors though he is not pleased to bestow his Spirit upon them. It is a monstrous infatuation in men to seek to subject that which has no bounds to the little measure of their reason. Paul gives the name of elect to the angels who maintained their integrity. If their steadfastness was owing to the good pleasure of God, the revolt of the others proves that they were abandoned. Of this no other cause can be adduced than reprobation, which is hidden in the secret counsel of God.

Whether we agree or disagree with Calvin's handling of this issue, we must at least understand the coherence of his thoughts on this matter. It seems to me that Calvin is pretty coherent here.

Of course, coherence does not mean true. One simply need to read Chapter 10 of Alvin Plantinga's Warrant and Proper Function (USA: Oxford University Press, 1993) for a good exposition on the limitation of the criterion of coherence. Nonetheless, what is coherent does give itself some weight for being something thinkable, if not believable.

Do you still disagree with Calvin even after understanding the coherence of his view? If yes, do share why?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How to do church: Emergent movement and individualism

I've met up with someone (whose pseudonym is Kung) yesterday who joined a church which rides on the emergent wave. To Kung, one of the main attractions of that emergent church was that it welcomed Christians who were hurt by their own churches. It was like an oasis for those who are wounded either by other Christians or church leaders.

After some years being there, Kung got disillusioned by the emergent people, especially in the way they keep criticizing and mocking how churches have worked and still working in an 'irrelevant' and impasse way.

Besides that, Kung couldn't understand how could the emergent people who were the most vocal in mocking churches were also those who seldom attend Sunday service in that emergent church. Kung's friends would appear to have lunch and hang out with their churchmates after the service. 

On top of that, it was rare to have sermons preached on the importance of proclaiming the gospel through mission work and the need to live through the sanctifying process. Sermons were mostly about social justice with a slant towards inclusivism.

Whatever one may say about the emergent movement, one thing is clear in this case: there is a pervasive individualism which leads its followers to lose sight of the importance of ecclesial gathering for worship and for doing church. 

Such myopia resembles "the typical evangelical understanding of the church as the sum-total of individual Christians rather than as a single, corporate entity that is more than the sum-total of individuals." (Simon Chan, Pentecostal Ecclesiology: An Essay on the Development of Doctrine [UK: Deo, 2011], p.46. Emphasis original.) 

It is therefore not an overstatement that one of the characteristics shared among most of the leaders of the emergent movement is that they were from traditional evangelical churches. That movement was the product of their rebellion against their own evangelical tradition. (D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church [USA: Zondervan, 2005], p. 36.) 

If the sixteenth century Reformation has democratized how to do church, the emergent movement is hyper-democratizing it so much so that church becomes the individual.

Hence we have individual Christians within the emergent movement who think that they can do whatever they think right and practice whatever spirituality they deem interesting regardless of what the Church tradition nor the wider gathering ecclesial community holds as true.

My friend Kung has since bid goodbye to that emergent church and settled in one of the mainline denominational churches.

Scot McKnight is one of the most cautious and sympathetic conversational partners with Brian McLaren, the guru of the emergent movement. In a recent post, McKnight's disappointment with McLaren's project (which he sees as nothing but non-constructive criticism of churches) has again appeared:
I remember asking Brian McLaren, after he had written Generous Orthodoxy and then Everything Must Change, “What is your ecclesiology now?” and he told me then that he was working on it. I’ve not seen any book of his that seeks to answer that question.
The previous appearance of McKnight's discontentment with McLaren's project was in his review of A New Kind of Christianity two year ago:
"As a friend and a chronicler for two decades, I have watched Brian's work. [...] Brian has poked evangelicals in the eyes and chest by fixating on sensitive spots that bedevil them [...].

But I want to turn the following comment from McLaren back on him: "Sociologists sometimes say that groups can exist without a god, but no group can exist without a devil." Brian's devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks without using evangelicalism as his foil. [...]

Brian is not only poking evangelicals, he is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question. [...] Unfortunately, this book lacks the "generosity" of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself."
It is not hard to sense that McKnight is saying something like, "McLaren is just out to criticise everyone else except himself; To McLaren, everbody's Christian faith is not generous except McLaren's own."

And recently, McLaren led a commitment ceremony for his son's gay-marriage. How far more individualistic can such spirituality be?

Therefore what I think the emergent and the post-emergent Christians need is to re-look back into the basic of ecclesiology:
...worship is what distinguishes the church as the church. [...] The worship of the church is, properly speaking, the action of the triune God in the church. [...] That's why assembling together is so vital to the life of the church: it is what constitutes the qahal. So important it is that in an early Christian document, the Didascalia (third century), we are warned that absence from the assembly "cause[s] the body of Christ to be short of a member."
(Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community [USA: IVP Academic, 2006], p.42, 48. Emphasis original.)
The real work of building up the church is not in the constant mocking of it. Rather, it is in the hard work of breaking down individualism by retrieving the importance of ecclesial gathering for worship and for doing church.

If Rowan Williams is right that what the church really is is another way of saying what humanity really is when it is touched by God through Christ (Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ In One Another [USA: New Seeds Books, 2005], p.12), then to do church is to try to be human. For this reason, individualism that is embedded within some of the emergent groups cannot build the church because of its distorted view of humanity.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Clarifying Christian Charity

Some readers have expressed concern over what I've written about Christian charity. Their concern is valid and deserve mentioned. I think they are kind-hearted people who want to see a better society where needy strangers get helped. 

Due to their concern, they have come interpret what I wrote in ways that I didn't intend it to be. But I think this is not so much the fault on their part but probably more on my inability to communicate thoroughly and clearly (it is a constant limitation to deal with issues comprehensively in a blog post). Anyway, I would like to try to clarify what I've written in a form of a reply to one of the commentors.


Hi Jeannette,

Thank you for your comment.

You wonder if I blogged to encourage others to follow my example in the practice of Christian charity. Every blogger blogs for different reason. This means that there are bloggers who blog to encourage others to follow their example. Therefore you are right in seeing that what I have blogged in that post can be interpreted as doing exactly that. However, that is not my reason to blog.

My reason to blog is stated at the top right column: To articulate my self-understanding through writing; Hence Saunder Lewis' quote, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

Of course you are not wrong to interpret my post in the way you have. Everyone interprets everything with their own unique experience. Some call this "projection". For example, a child may project his/her impression of his/her own parents onto the teacher. If the parents are abusive, the child tends to be in a tense relationship with the teacher. Likewise, someone who once worked under a horrible boss may project his/her impression of boss to a new boss in a new workplace. The chances for eliminating projection is by getting to know the other person better. So, possibly you have encountered some events in the past that you have come to interpret this post in the way you did. May be you known of bloggers who blog to encourage others to follow their example. Add to the fact that you don't know me and vice versa, when you read this post, you have probably projected that impression onto me. So I hope that we can get to know one another more so as to eliminate such projection. Nevertheless, I'm interested to learn about your experience, have you come across bloggers who are encouraging others to follow their example? If yes, do share more.

I would like to say something regarding my evaluation of Lourdesamy. This may be read in the post, but probably I didn't manage to make my point more clear. What I want to say is that I was consciously witholding judgement when I first met him. I gave him the benefit of doubt, took time to get to know him. So I did not judge him prior to my finding out about the Tamil Methodist church at Bukit Batok. If I have shown pride in my session with Lourdesamy, I repent to God and to him. To the best of my consciousness, I was threading carefully not to fall to that when I talked to him.

Maybe you've come to this conclusion about me due to some experiences you had in the past or something you learned along the way. If so, do share about them.

Regarding giving out money to strangers. In Christian understanding of charity, it is not only about giving money per se. It is also about giving it in the right way to the right person as we understand him/her in our best possible evaluation. In practical terms, this means that Christians do not anyhow give out money before understanding what is going on. There are two reasons for this.

First, money is seen as resource given by God to us. How we manage it is accountable to God. This is implied in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25). Christians failing to do so does not make this understanding invalid; it only shows that there are people who claim themselves as Christian without knowing what that entails.

Second, Christians have (or ought to have) very realistic understanding of the capability of money as well as the falleness of human nature. That means when money falls into wrong hands, it can be used for wrong reason. Therefore it is all the more important that money is not simply being channelled to strangers; we don't know whether will they use or misuse it. This does not mean Christians do not give money to strangers. We do, but only to people we trust according to our best evaluation. (Of course, there are cases when such trust is betrayed, yet at least in this situation, our conscience is clear.) Our church funds have been channelled to various charitable works and agencies (which we know to our best ability) to help strangers. That's how we have to manage our limited God-given resources. No one can charitably contribute to everyone. Parents with children need to first provide for their own children before giving away money to feed other children or for so-called religious purposes. Likewise, children ought to do the same to the parents (Matt. 15:3-6). 

For futher details, do check out Douglas J. Schuurman's Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life (USA: Eerdmans, 2004), particularly pages 86-96, where the author engages the differences between the position of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas with that of the majesterial Protestant Reformers, Jonathan Edwards and Paul Ramsey on this matter. As Martin Luther crudely reflected,
Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and to deprive my family of it or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help, and then to suffer want myself and become a burden to others.
(Ibid, p.88)
And in John Calvin' comment on the love for neighbours and providing for those who are in our immediate responsibility:
Now, since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term "neighbor" includes even the most remote person, we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships. I do not deny that the more closely a man is linked to us, the more intimate obligation we have to assist him. It is the common habit of mankind that the more close men are bound together by the ties of kinship, of acquaintanceship, or of neighbourhood, the more responsibilities for one another they share. This does not offend God; for his providence, as it were, leads us to it. But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in ourselves.
(Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, transl. Ford Lewis Battles, vol.1 [Westminster John Knox Press, 1973], pp.418-419. Emphasis added.)
You may have different perspective, and I would like to hear about it. Let's say you are a pastor of a church, how would you manage your church limited fund while bearing in mind the two Christian perceptions mentioned above?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A letter to N on calling

I'm writing this to a friend who will be flying off for further studies. His decision did not come easy. The official arrangement itself does not help to make it less difficult. Many times this brother has doubted his decision. Looking at his former classmates, like myself who is now serving in ministry, makes him more skeptical over his calling. The following is written to destroy his optimism that fuels his skepticism, and choke his pessimism on his decision.


Dear N, 

When we were still studying, I was struggling with envy inwardly almost every other day. My peers and I were in our late twenties, approching thirty. While I was still studying on charitable donation (and some part-time earning), they were making decent living and saving up. While I was staying in hostel and commuting through public transport, they are setting up family, acquiring houses and cars. Their admirable life was an envy.

My guess is that you can sympathize with what is described above.

Your current phase in life is probably a dread. The surrounding uncertainty has made you doubtful over your decision. Fortunately, your doubt is incapable to eliminate your sense of calling. 

Remember the time when we were sitting at the dining hall talking about our calling? Who would have thought that I'm now doing what I'm doing, while you're keeping yourself on track with what you said you would do?

At that time, I thought we share the same calling. Yet time has taught me that we don't. It is a discovery to me that calling is not only characterized by our envisioned ambition, but entails the very process of how it is realized. Yes, both of us sensed that we are called to be in the academia for Christ's sake. But that is only one part of what constitutes as calling. The other part is the process about which we arrive at it. 

However, I think there is a third part to what constitutes a calling: The interdependency of different callings. That means the process of me pursuing my calling cannot be fulfilled without depending on your pursuit of your calling. A reflection of 1 Cor. 12:21-26.

This means that in order for me to continue my journey to actualize my calling, I need you to continue in yours to actualize yours; and vice versa. Only through this that both of us can serve the Lord and his church. In practical terms, while I contribute out of my exposure to local ecclesial community, you contribute out of your exposure to the academic ecclesial community. Bridges are formed in this way. How urgent do we need such a bridge in our context!

We need both soyabean milk and grass jelly to make soyabean milk with grass jelly! The sum is not the parts, just as soyabean with grass jelly is neither soyabean nor grass jelly.

For this reason, you are studying not only for Christ's sake, but also for mine. Likewise, I'm doing what I'm doing is not only for the sake of the Lord but also for yours. Our callings are interdependent to each other as well as others' calling. All members form one body.

Therefore, don't be disheartened or feel that you are the 'odd one out' among your peers who are being left behind. The fact is that everyone is. And when everyone is, no one is. All of us are contributing to the same Lord, and to one another.

So fly safe, enjoy life there with your wife, and get ready to rub shoulders with giants over at the other side!