This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

It's John Calvin's 505th birthday

John Calvin is probably best known for his ideas on predestination, though most people don't really get him right on that. In honor of his birthday, I decided to post the explanation of predestination and the controversy surrounding it from The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Enjoy:


To understand this controversy, we need to define predestination and see why it is important. The idea behind predestination is that our salvation depends on God and not on ourselves. Although there are a number of passages in Scripture that talk about it (e.g. Rom. 8:29ff or Eph. 1), it didn’t become a major subject in theology until the fourth century. A British monk named Pelagius had argued that our salvation depended entirely on the choices we make; both original sin and substitutionary atonement are false, according to Pelagius, since neither Adam’s guilt, nor ours, nor the merits of Christ can be imputed to another person. You are on your own before God. Some people in the church were heavily influenced by Pelagius, but others rejected his ideas. The most important of the latter was St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine thought Pelagius’s ideas were not only false, but downright dangerous. Christ is the author of our salvation—it depends on what He has done, not what we have done. As a result, the decision about salvation is in God’s hands, not ours. And this is a good thing, since none of us deserves to be saved on the basis of our own merits. We have all sinned, and as a result, no one deserves blessings from God—salvation is a result of us getting what we don’t deserve, not what we do.
At this point, we need to distinguish between two different versions of the doctrine of predestination. Single predestination argues that God chooses some people for salvation, and judges others according to their own merits. Of course, that means they’ll be damned since no one measures up to God’s infinite standard of holiness. Double predestination, on the other hand, argues that God has a plan for everyone’s life—for some, it’s heaven, for others, it’s hell. God chooses everyone to either fly or fry; He doesn’t just leave us to our fate. This is a more severe version of the doctrine than singe predestination, though there’s no practical difference between the two in terms of the fate of those not chosen for salvation. There’s some dispute about Augustine’s views. Most scholars argue that he held to single predestination, others are equally sure he held to double predestination.
Whatever Augustine’s views, he won, and Pelagianism was declared a heresy. Between Augustine’s day and the sixteenth century, many variations of the doctrine of salvation emerged, with differing degrees of emphasis on human contributions to salvation. Pelagianism was out, but then there’s semi-Pelagianism, semi-Augustinianism, Augustinianism, hyper-Augustinianism, .... Catholic theology generally fell somewhere between Pelagianism and Augustinianism.
Luther, as an Augustinian monk, obviously was familiar with the history of the debate. And with his “New Theology,” he adamantly rejected even a hint of Pelagianism: we are saved by grace—God’s undeserved favor—and grace alone, and that comes from faith and faith alone. But faith itself is a gift of God, it doesn’t come from our actions or decisions. Period. But what this means is that God makes the decisions—if our salvation depended on our decision or on our responding to God in faith, then that decision or response would become the work which saves us, an idea Luther adamantly rejected. As a result, Luther recognized the need for predestination. It is a logical consequence of sola gratia and sola fide, and besides, it’s a good scriptural term. But Luther wasn’t willing to go any further than that. He believed that Scripture taught predestination, but he didn’t think it told us how it worked. So he simply said it happened and left it at that.
Calvin, on the other hand, thought that Scripture taught double predestination. At the same time, he didn’t think that it was an issue most people needed to deal with. Calvin was more interested in preaching the fundamentals of the faith and applying Scripture to life than in teaching about predestination, particularly because the discussion would likely distract from more important issues. So Calvin taught predestination in his theological works and biblical commentaries, but not from the pulpit. He simply didn’t want to focus on it in his public ministry. Unfortunately, he wasn’t given the chance to leave it in the background.

The Bolsec Controversy

Jerome Bolsec was a former monk and Catholic theologian who had converted to Protestantism and moved to Geneva. He was working as the personal physician of one of the nobles who lived outside the city and had become familiar with Calvin and his writings. He didn’t like Calvin personally and was irked by his ideas on predestination. So Bolsec took it upon himself to cause problems for Calvin with predestination as a wedge issue. His plan was simple. Calvin had too many things to do to attend the congregations (adult Bible studies), so Bolsec decided to go to one of them, and when the pastor asked if there were any questions, he would launch into his attack whether the passage being studied had any connection to predestination at all. Word would spread from there, and Calvin would never be able to get the lid on it; he’d be discredited, and Geneva would get rid of him. It was an ingenious plan, except for one slight miscalculation. Calvin was free that evening and showed up at the congregation. When Bolsec finished his presentation—remember, he had come gunning for bear—all eyes turned to Calvin to see how he would respond. Now keep in mind that Calvin had no formal theological training, and further that he was caught flat-footed by Bolsec. Despite this, he launched into a well reasoned, well argued, and well presented case, citing from memory extensive passages of Scripture and the church fathers verbatim. His presentation was so convincing that when it was over, one of the magistrates promptly arrested Bolsec for heresy.
Calvin was furious with Bolsec, not simply because he disagreed with Calvin on predestination, but because of the underhanded way he went about his attack. As a result, Calvin was out for blood at the trial. Bolsec was in fact convicted, but the Council overruled Calvin and argued that Bolsec’s heresy wasn’t sufficiently grave to warrant his execution. He was banished, though, and made his way to France. After starting a number of controversies in the Reformed churches there, he converted back to Catholicism and wrote a libelous (and fictitious) biography of Calvin that became a staple of anti-Calvin propaganda.
Bolsec did succeed in one part of his program, however: he made Calvin’s views on predestination a very public issue. Lutherans, who never really trusted Calvin because of his views on the Lord’s Supper, quickly picked up on it and began attacking Calvin as a heretic. Ironically enough these attacks soon led the Lutherans themselves to abandon predestination altogether, forgetting the fact that Luther himself accepted it. Calvin couldn’t let these challenges go unanswered, of course, and thus he ended up spending a considerable amount of energy defending his views on a doctrine he didn’t particularly want to focus on in his public ministry.