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Who wouldn’t want to read John Calvin on The Secret Providence of God? Well, it depends what kind of book you are looking to read.

The subject is certainly an interesting one. The caveat is that the book is polemical in nature. He’s not simply asserting what he believes on this subject so you and I can be edified. He’s responding to “charges” made by a former student/associate of his, Sebastian Castellio. The editor’s (Paul Helm) indicates some of their prior relationship. But in the final pages of the  book Calvin gives us more information about their relationship. This book reeks of betrayal. Polemics and betrayal make for some bombastic language at times. It may also explain why this book is not as clear as I’d hoped at times (but perhaps this was me having been online too much, rotting my brain, or too focused on the good cigars I’d often smoke while reading this). I read this book intermittently over the course of a few months. Far too long for a book of its size (122 pages), but I’ve been busy with other matters.

All this to say, I’d be careful to whom I recommend this book. I would recommend this for more mature Christians who have an interest in Calvin because they’ve already read his more popular works. It would be of interest to students of the Reformation and theological methods. I would not recommend this to someone struggling with the doctrine of providence or unfamiliar with how to do theology.

Helm’s introduction informs us that this was, in fact, Calvin’s third response to his fellow Frenchman on the subject. I suspect his frustrating was mounting as would mine. They met in Strasbourg. Castellio’s strength seemed to be languages, and Calvin appears to have taken a liking to the man. For a time Castellio was rector of the College of Geneva. It didn’t last long. First, Castellio denied the canonicity of the Song of Songs, calling it a lewd book. Then Calvin worked with him on a translation of the Bible into French. They differed greatly, and argued, about their approaches to translation. As the relationship soured, Castellio resigned from the college. He seems to have accepted at least some of Servetus’ writings, for later in this volume Calvin calls Servetus his master (this could be figuratively since Calvin did consider him a heretic in the body of his response). But the execution of Servetus by the Genevan authorities led to Castellio’s personal campaign against them, and Calvin. He was not open about this, often using a pen name instead of his own.

“The work provides us with a small window onto the boisterous, argumentative years of the Reformation, not in this case to the main conflicts but to the skirmishes initiated by some of its lesser characters, such as Pighius and Servetus and, of course, Castellio.” (pp. 18)

Helm notes that Calvin was generally gentle and accommodating to those he considered open or friendly to his views. “But he is pitiless and unflattering toward those such as Castellio who openly crossed him.” Castellio, on the other hand, seems less concerned with clear theological thinking as to ridicule and misrepresent Calvin. His goal seems to be to repeatedly jab his finger in Calvin’s eye. If they lived next to each other in Bowling Green, one thinks he’s blindside Calvin and stomp him when Calvin got off his lawn mower.

“To Calvin’s intense irritation, here is a man, once a friend and follower, who is not impatient of the carefully crafted subtleties that Calvin sometimes uses to advance his position, and above all contemptuous of the God whose interests Calvin sought to advance. Even their Protestantism provides them with little common ground.” (pp. 19-20)

Helm then moves into some theological analysis of the book. He critiques Castellio’s method. The antagonist blurs theological distinctions so that he accuses Calvin of equal ultimacy regarding God’s decrees of salvation and sin/reprobation. Calvin follows a typical medieval view of the two wills of God: his secret will (decrees) and his revealed will (declarations & commands). Calvin depends heavily on Augustine in this volume, the only other author he quotes. Castellio’s method also relies heavily on reason while Calvin’s on revelation. Castellio sets reason above revelation. While Calvin obviously uses reason, he understands it to be bound to revelation. There are limits to the powers of reason as well as things not revealed to us. He invokes Deut. 29:29 (as any student of Calvin’s would guess). His introduction is helpful in understanding how each participant will engage in this disputation. Helm also notes, at the end, how Arminius’ own formulations are dependent upon Castellio’s. He built, as Muller calls it, a theology of creation, far more popular than Castellio’s. But both rejected Calvin’s theology of grace.

The book proper begins with a series of Articles, 14, Castellio generates (better, fabricates) from Calvin’s writings. He presents as series of strawmen arguments since they bear little to no resemblance to what Calvin actually wrote. He misrepresents Calvin. What is unclear is how much of this he actually believed and how much he purposely twisted just to tick Calvin off. As he explains these articles you do find instances of confusing logic, conflation of ideas, failure to make distinctions and more really bad theological method. Here are some example of him tying himself in knots (as I noted in the margins of my copy):

“If God wills sin, then the Devil does not will sin. That is to say, the idea that the Devil is God is a complete contradiction. If God wills sin, he loves sin’ and if he loves sin, he hates righteousness.” (pp. 45)

“… if the (secret) will of God often contends with his command, how can it be known when he wills or when he does not will what he commands? … For instance, if God commands me not to commit adultery and yet wills that I commit adultery, and yet I ought not to commit adultery, then I ought to do what is contrary to his will.” (pp. 45)

“Your false God is slow to mercy and quick to wrath. He created the largest part of the world for perdition.” (pp. 52)

“But the God of Calvin is the father of lies who evidently governs sometimes by what he says and at other times by his secret promptings.” (pp. 53)

He’s trying to make Calvin’s understanding of God appear to be a moral monster, and the Christian life not practicable because he can’t make simple distinctions. How you think matters. And this is some seriously stinking thinking. He also appears to operate from a denial of depravity. This is an unstated presupposition of his that seems to infect his reasoning leading to a number of faulty conclusions.

“… if God prompts perverse affections and then he flies into a rage, he hates the same people before the perverse affections arise, for to prompt perverse affections is the work of hatred. Therefore, he hates the innocent. For men are innocent before the perverse affections arise.” (pp. 50)

Castellio also attacks Calvin’s “students” as contentious and sinful. He puts all his arguments into the mouths of Calvin’s opponents while affirming them as personally unanswerable. There is one more claim that his “disciples” depend more upon Calvin “than upon reason.” Here he affirms his view of reason over and above Scripture, and denies that Calvin’s doctrines arise from Scripture.

The main body of the book is Calvin’s point by point response to Castellio. He works through the articles. This divides the book into readable chunks for busy people. Much of Calvin’s argument is that his doctrines are in fact derived for Scripture. He places Scripture above (not against) reason. Castellio argues for common sense, common sense, common sense => theology from below, subject to our judgment. Man is the arbiter of truth.

“But if you allow no other form of reasoning except what an earthly man recognizes, then by such arrogance and disdain you deny yourself access to the very doctrine of knowledge of which is only possible to someone with a reverential spirit. … Everything loses its authority and grace if it does not satisfy your reason.” (pp. 61)

Calvin also notes that he has already answered these objections three or four times thus far. He notes that these articles falsely represent his views. He notes his dependence on Augustine who also faced similar stubborn objections. Castellio frequently didn’t cite Calvin’s works. When he quotes Calvin, he takes him out of context. Some of the accusations he makes are similar to those that Paul faced and answered in places like Romans 9-11. Calvin’s point? “You aren’t arguing against me, but the Scriptures when we examine the tensions in Scripture” is what he’d say. In terms of those tensions and distinctions Calvin asks:

“Truly God invites all men to repentance; therefore, all might return to the road where he offers pardon. Now, what we must here consider is whether the conversion that God requires is according to man’s free choice or is a truly unique gift from God. Therefore, insofar as all men are exhorted to repent, the prophet rightly denies that God wills the death of the sinner. Why does God not convert everyone to himself equally? The reason is in the hands of God’s secret will.” (pp. 71)

He notes that Castellio also has to answer these great questions.

“This knot is also for you to untie. Since no one comes near to God unless the secret influence of the Spirit draws him, why are not all men without discrimination drawn, if God wills all to salvation? For from his discrimination it certainly is to be concluded that God has a particular secret way in which many are excluded from salvation.” (pp .73)

Calvin also unearths some of his other presuppositions: “Nor will you accept that the causes of wrath are in man himself” (pp. 74). Castellio rejects the depravity of men as the root of God’s judgment and man’s temptation to sin. He espouses a weak view of foreknowledge, separating God’s “power and his prescience” (pp. 75). He is judging God by feeble sense, to quote Cowper’s hymn on the subject. Calvin warns Castellio of dualism.  He reminds him that God uses primary and secondary causes (pp. 191). He schools him in the doctrine of concurrence- two or more persons willing the same action but for different reasons (God’s being good and Satan’s and men’s being evil).

There are moments you have to stop and think (especially if you’ve been distracted by your children) to sort out the argument. He will trace out Castellio’s argument at times so keeping the train of thought is essential.

He responds to the questioning of Calvin and disciples’ character with observations about Castellio’s.

“When I fed you in my home, no man had ever appeared to be more proud and more deceitful or more destitute than yo. Whoever does not perceive you to be an imposter and a cynic devoted to shamelessness, and a buffoon barking against piety, they are absolutely without judgment.” (pp. 118)

“But it must certainly be that you were too dull, because you were not able to understand what I have taught you, both in the familiarity of my own home and also what you heard when I so often preached in the public assembly.” (pp. 119)

“… you boast among your followers that study is empty and frivolous (the same study that is employed in philosophy, logic, and even theology) in order that you might gain more disciples for yourself. … You, on the other hand, request that untutored men who despise all learning and are inflated only with the breath of arrogance appear in public so that they may audaciously make judgments concerning the mysteries of heaven.” (pp. 120-121)

You see here the sense of betrayal that drives his harsh words. Still, these words are mild by some of today’s standards. We see a picture of Castellio as something of a fundamentalist Arminian. He was anti-intellectual; anti-scholarship in addition to exalting human reason. He was also, in Calvin’s estimation, a heretic. He didn’t just disagree, but held to views that Calvin put him outside the bounds of the Church. And so he ends:

“May God restrain you, Satan. Amen.” (pp. 122)

There is much here that is important to learn in terms of doing theology. There is some here that we should likely avoid in terms of doing polemics. We should continue to speak the truth in love. Lay out presuppositions to the light of day for evaluation. Clearly make proper distinctions. Reconcile the tensions found in Scripture instead of just proof-texting. Bur resist the temptation to denigrate the other person. Truth in the face of lies (even half-truths), and love in the face of animosity. I believe Calvin did the former but at times failed in the latter. May God have mercy on us all.

 

 

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We all struggle with anger. It is part of the human experience. Some of us struggle more than others. And our struggle may be different. Some people struggle to show anger. Others are always a road rage incident waiting to happen. Books about anger are varied in their approach and their quality.

Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness by David Powlison is a new book about anger. It is one of the better books on the subject of anger.

He begins by identifying our problem with anger. It isn’t simply the guy with the red face, huffing and puffing while he yells at everyone. Anger is more nuanced than that. It is also expressed in irritation, frustration, complaining and arguing. When we have a more appropriate, more encompassing definition we see that we all have anger issues. He describes the various relationships we have with anger, and the lies we can believe about our anger. He spends time explaining that this book really is about you, and everyone else.

He then explains anger as a function of love. If you never get angry you really don’t love anything or anyone. This is why God gets angry: He loves. He loves His people. He also loves all that is good and holy. Anything that harms His people or violates His goodness is subject to His anger. He responds with anger. Because He is righteous, His anger is always in the proper measure and about the proper things. Ours? A mixed bag. Sometimes we are angry because our “rules” are broken, our kingdom threatened; not God’s. Or our anger is too much or too little for the sin in question.

This means that anger is “natural”, a part of being in the image of God. But like that image, it is now distorted because of our sinfulness.

Powlison moves into the constructive displeasure of mercy. It “holds out promises of forgiveness, inviting wrongdoers to new life.” Anger can motivate to destroy sin. But it can also motivate us in constructive directions like patience and forgiveness. Anger isn’t always given the final word, sometimes that word is forgiveness.

“God is love, and God is slow to anger. He intends to make us like himself. To be slow to anger means you are willing to work with wrong over time.”

He distinguishes, quite helpfully, between attitudinal forgiveness and transacted forgiveness. The first is about you. It does not require the other person to ask for forgiveness. It is about letting them off the hook, absorbing the loss so you no longer want to destroy them. This enables you to approach them to reconcile which is the essence of transacted forgiveness: reconciliation. You can forgive without being reconciled (with an abuser for instance). Remembering that it requires two to be reconciled, you can forgive even though the other person doesn’t want to be reconciled or admit they’ve done anything wrong.

“The attitudinal forgiveness means you can always deal with things that poison your own heart. Transacted forgiveness and actual reconciliation are desirable fruits, but not always attainable.”

He then moves into two other aspects of constructive displeasure: charity and constructive conflict. Charity is, in some ways, hard love or love in hard times. You continue to seek what is best for the other person. Constructive conflict moves toward the person to do that hard work of not simply reconciling, but addressing the sin that sabotages the relationship.

The chapter entitled Good and Angry? focuses on God and His anger. His anger fills the Bible because the Bible is filled with humanity’s rebellion. Our anger does not need to be suppressed, but remade, redeemed. He then moves to James 4 to help us explain why we get angry. We are looking out for ourselves and our kingdoms. I noted in my margin that “we are all Frank Underwood building our own house of cards.” He then moves us to the reality that God gives more grace and what change looks like.

Powlison than proposes 8 questions to take your anger apart so you can be put back together. These questions are attempts to apply what he’d been talking about from James 4.

He then has a series of chapters on tough cases: forgiving unspeakable sins, the everyday angers, being angry with yourself and angry with God. This was, in my opinion, some of the best material in the book. He addressed topics that aren’t often addressed, at least helpfully.

While this is a very good book, I thought the real strength was in the second half of the book. He uses questions at the end of each chapter to help you process and apply the material. I need to go back over those questions. Since anger is such a common problem this would be a helpful book for pastors, elders, parents and just about everyone. It is accessible, easy to understand and helpful. It is a helpful addition for your library.

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If our wills are in bondage to our desires, which are corrupt, if there any hope for us?

This is the question we resume with from Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition. There is no hope in ourselves. Our hope has to be with God. The remedy is grace.

“Thus the Lord begins his work in us, inspiring in our hearts a love, desire and eagerness for what is good and righteous- or, more properly, inclining, training and directing our hearts to righteousness; he completes his work by giving us strength to persevere.”

This is not the same as a general removal of our depravity that leaves us in a state of neutrality that we find in some forms of Arminianism. This is the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant (Ez. 36:26-27). This must precede faith, or we wouldn’t believe. The “human will must be wholly remade and renewed.” He aligns himself with Augustine that ‘grace precedes every good work.’ Grace is not a response to our will, but our will works in response to grace.

Calvin shifts back to Scripture, noting Jer. 32:39-40; Ez. 11:19; 1 Kings 8:58. These all address the stubbornness of our hearts, and the grace that overcomes that stubbornness. In other words, this is no ‘philosophical’ matter but one of life & death; salvation. This is not an Old Testament idea, but we see Paul also teaching this. We see this in Phil. 2:13 and 1 Cor. 12:6; 15:10. Jesus affirms this in passages like John 6:45.

“We must indeed teach that God’s kindness is open to all, without exception, who seek it. But because no one begins to seek it until he is inspired from heaven, nothing here should be allowed to diminish God’s grace in any way.”

He goes back to Augustine. “In yet another place he states that grace does not destroy the will, but changes it from bad to good, and that once it has been made good it receives help. By this he means only that God does not push man by outward force, unfeeling, as if he were a stone, but that he is impelled in such a way that he willingly obeys.” And again, “the human will does not obtain grace through its own freedom, but that it obtains freedom through God’s grace.”

Calvin shifts to the problem of continuing sin in the believer. Calvin, following Paul (Peter, John, James …), notes that our deliverance “is never so complete that no part of us remains under sin’s yoke”. Regeneration does not end conflict in our hearts, but initiates it (Rom. 7 & Gal. 5). There is a new principle moving us toward love and righteousness, and a retention of the natural inclination toward apathy and unrighteousness.

“This produces a conflict which sorely tries the believer throughout his life, because he is raised high by the Spirit but brought low by the flesh. In the Spirit he yearns fervently for immorality; in the flesh he turns aside into the path of death. In the Spirit he purposes to live uprightly; in the flesh he is goaded to do evil. In the Spirit he is led to God; in the flesh he is beaten back. In the Spirit he despises the world; in the flesh he longs for worldly pleasures.”

Our heart and will become a battle ground. The regenerate person mourns their sin, which pains him or her. They affirm and delight in God’s law as we see in Psalm 119.

Even in his day, there were people claiming a form of Christian perfectionism. Some of the Anabaptists advocated this position. They think that regeneration is complete, and we have no more fleshly appetites.

He returns to the idea of man as sinner in bondage to Satan. He mentions Augustine’s analogy (also utilized by Luther in Bondage of the Will)of the will as a horse subject to the rider’s control. Calvin finds it sufficient in the  absence of a better analogy. “What is meant is that the will, being deceived by the devil’s tricks, must of necessity submit to his good pleasure, although it does so without compulsion.”

He then discusses the doctrine of concurrence with reference to the story of Job. In concurrence, more than one person wills the same action but for different reasons or goals. God, Satan and the Chaldeans all willed the theft of Job’s herds, but for very different reasons. We see this as well in the story of Joseph. God’s intention was very different from his brothers’ even though both willed Joseph’s servitude in Egypt.

“Accordingly, it is not improper to attribute the same deed to God, the devil and man. But the disparity in both intention and means ensures that God’s righteousness always appears blameless, while the wickedness of the devil and of man is revealed in all its shame.”

The bottom line for Calvin is fidelity to Scripture, for the Scriptures reveal the sovereignty of God over events big and small. He brings up a number of passages to illustrate his point. Satan, much like Assyria and Babylon in the prophets, is His agent to unwittingly accomplish His purpose. They serve His righteous purposes, even as they pursue their unrighteous purposes. Calvin notes God’s sovereignty over the “mundane acts of life.” He held to a meticulous providence, as God brings about “whatever he knows is needful, but also to bend men’s wills toward that same end.”

Calvin then addresses a series of common objections. First, necessary sin is no longer sin. While they “necessarily” have to do it, since God ordained it, it is still voluntarily chosen by them. He does not force them to sin, but they want to commit that particular sin at that particular time. Second, reward and punishment no longer apply. God is so kind that he rewards the graces which he bestows on people. The voluntary nature of sin makes punishment just. Third, good and bad are no longer distinguishable. If this were so, it would be so for God who does good “by necessity” or in keeping with his immutable nature. Fourth, exhortation and reproof become superfluous. They are, rather, the means God uses to help shape our choices. He not only ordains what will happen, but how and why.

“God is active in us in two way: within, by his Spirit, and without, by his word. With his Spirit enlightening the mind and training the heart to love righteousness and innocence, he makes man a new creature by regeneration. Through his word he moves and encourages man to desire and to look for this renewal.”

Calvin then notes a variety of Scriptural evidences including, the law and its commands, the command to repent, God’s promises & reproofs, his punishments and more. In many ways Calvin rightfully goes back to Philippians 2:13- For God works in us to will and work according to His righteous purpose. We are to believe that we are dependent upon God, but also that being gracious and powerful he consistently works in us to accomplish his purposes, which are good. This is an important doctrine which humbles us, and grants us confidence.

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I’ve been reading the new Essentials Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since this summer. This is not an edited version, but a new translation of the 1541 edition of the Institutes. I am enjoying it very much. As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought at times, I should blog about this. Unfortunately, for much of the fall I was editing my own book so there wasn’t much time to blog on it. I have a bit more time these days, so I thought I would go back. My desire is to encourage others to read this volume.

It begins with a chapter on the Knowledge of God. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume is not broken up into 4 books like the one edited by McNeill. The material is, at times, covered in a different order. Additionally, this edition is not as exhaustive as future editions would be.

The first paragraph is familiar:

“The whole sum of our wisdom- wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured- broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

As made in the image of God, we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing God. As we know God, we discover that “he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgment, mercy, power and holiness.” The purpose of this knowledge is that we would worship and honor him.

The purpose of knowing ourselves is “to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him in found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.” In other words, we see our depravity and the marring of his image that we might seek like in him. It sounds harsh, but it is similar to Paul’s discussion of the purpose of the law prior to conversion, to reveal our sin and drive us to Jesus.

This is why it is wisdom; this knowledge is to be acted upon, not simply studied abstractly. Knowledge of self is intended to encourage us to seek after God, and leads us to find him. Calvin then notes that “no one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself.” This is similar to Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw God in his glory and then finally saw himself as he really was.

Calvin notes that an awareness of God is common to all people. We all have some “understanding of his majesty.” Calvin is quite dependent on Romans 1 as he thinks through all of this. He is not a speculative theologian, but one who seeks to understand what has been revealed to us in Scripture, and its implications. Romans 1 instructs us that people turned from the true God to idols, “exchanging the truth for the lie ” (Rom. 1). In rejecting the truth, we have become perverted by self-will. Instead of seeking all good in God, we have settled for the lie of the Serpent in the Garden and seek it in and by ourselves: for our glory, not his. Instead of seeking to submit to him, people resist and rebel against him. As Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians, people are at enmity with God. We fall prey to superstition and servile fear. People flee from him, as a guilty Adam and Eve fled from the sound of God approaching them.  This servile fear is “not enough to stop them from resting easy easy in their sin, indulging themselves and preferring to give fleshly excess free rein, rather than bringing it under the Holy Spirit’s control.” In other words, pride drives us to think we deserve better, and know better than God what is good for us. Fear leads us to believe that God does not have our best interests at heart and therefore his law is oppressive.

As we discover in the Psalms, he is good and wants good things for us, including trusting him to guard, guide, protect and provide for us. He wants us to trust him to redeem and rescue us.

Calvin briefly discusses the “Book of Nature” or creation which reveals his invisible qualities. If we study nature, and we should, we will discover much that testifies to his wisdom. We also see that he is revealed in his works of providence. We see that foolishness has consequences. (see Psalm 19 for instance)

But, as Romans 1 makes clear our thinking has become dark and futile. We don’t see what we should see, even though it is clear. The problem isn’t the Book of Nature (natural revelation) but how we understand and interpret it. We are without excuse. Instead of believing, we “so obscure God’s daily works, or else minimize and thus dismiss them” so that “he is deprived and robbed of the praise and thanks we owe him.”

We are dependent on God’s special revelation (Scripture) as a result (the second stanza of Psalm 19). We needed a book because we are prone to forget and are easily led into error. To know God we are utterly dependent upon the Scriptures (and the Spirit’s illumination).

Here Calvin reminds us that Scripture’s authority comes from God, as his word. It is not determined by the church (contra Rome). He briefly develops the ideas of the Spirit’s inner witness, it’s wisdom and truth and history of the truth which confirm the authority of Scripture.

“It is therefore not the role of the Holy Spirit, such as he is promised to us, to dream up fresh and original revelations, or to fashion a new kind of teaching, which alienates us from the gospel message which we have received. His role is rather to seal and confirm in our hearts the teaching provided for us in the gospel.”

The chapter ends with a slightly different form of “triple knowledge” than that expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s mercy, one which the salvation of us all depends; his judgment, which he daily visits on the wicked, and which awaits them with even greater vigor, to their eternal shame; and his righteousness, by which his faithful people are generously preserved.”

“However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith.”

 

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Openness Unhindered is Rosaria Butterfield’s second book. Her first, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, was largely autobiographical and took the Reformed community by storm. Her story of how God worked to turn her life from that of a very liberal, lesbian professor of English and Queer Theory to a conservative, Reformed Christian who is married to a Presbyterian pastor. Her book succeeded in annoying many who are not conservative, Reformed Christians. They made some faulty assumptions, like that she think God makes every Christian a heterosexual. In many ways she was a threat to the narrative of the gay community.

Her second book really isn’t like the first. It covers some same ground as the subtitle indicates: Further Thought of an Unlikely Convert- Sexual Identity- Union with Christ. But how it covers it feels very different to the reader. There are portions that seem more like the section in the first advocating for exclusive psalmody. She’s writing much more like a professor teaching us what she used to believe and how it is incompatible with Christianity.

She steps into the sexual identity debate that is going on in the church. The concept is a “gay Christian” is becoming popular on one hand. And one the other some think that a Christian can’t even struggle with same sex attraction (SSA), confusing temptation with sin itself. This is what much of the first half of the book is about.

In the preface, she explains the title in terms of union with Christ. Paul’s union resulted in his being open and unencumbered about his life and struggles. If we are united in Christ, we can be open and unencumbered about our struggles instead of acting as if all is well though your inner life is filled with chaos.

“Even our struggles, our failures, and our suffering are redemptive in Christ. But there is blood involved. There is a cutting off and a cutting away that redemption demands. Stepping into God’s story means abandoning a deeply held desire to make meaning of our own lives on our own terms based on the preciousness of our own feelings.”

She sets up the method, so to speak, in the preface. She argues for God’s created order as one that includes norms and boundaries for life which includes sexuality and gender. They are not social constructions, but about essence. Many, however, are pragmatists and think these boundaries and norms don’t exist and can be manipulated to please ourselves.  These people deny the authority of Scripture. But there are also some who while affirming the authority of Scripture “unbiblically believe that the struggle is the sin (pp. 7).” They believe that conversion experientially restores all boundaries and norms sooner rather than later.

In other words, Christians can struggle with SSA because they are still sinners. The desires they experience are wrong, but they are not themselves sin. Those desires are not innocuous, but neither are they impossible for a Christian. The Christian, when experiencing them, is to put them to death in the power of the Spirit, as they would any other temptation. Christians can experience SSA just like opposite sex attraction, temptation to greed, revenge and any other sin.

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1

There is a method as she covers conversion, identity, repentance and sexual orientation. She works through these theological categories. At times she brings us back to her story, but this book is more theological than autobiographical. As she notes, life stories, including her own, “are messy, contradictory, and humiliating. (pp. 12)”  She says she had a heterosexual adolescence. The sexual meat market of college threw her for a loop, and she felt out of control and her sexual desires became tangled and confusing. For 6 years she dated men, but fantasized about relationships with women, “especially my friends from my growing lesbian and feminist community base” (pp. 13).

Here for instance she distinguishes between homosexuality and homosociality. The latter is “an abiding and deep comfort afforded in keeping company with your own gender, and finding within your own gender your most important and cherished friendships. (pp. 31-32)” Lines get blurry at times.

She then moves into identity. So often we carve out our identity from the wrong things: vocation, past experiences, social status etc. Today people build theirs on their sexuality. We have a tendency to hold to Sola Experiencia- where our feelings and personal experience shape our identity, forming the lens through which we see life. These, for instance, judge the Scripture instead of Scripture evaluating our experience.

She argues that a homosexual identity is not removed by a heterosexual identity, but by Christ. We are converted to Christ, not heterosexuality (though that is a norm by the created order). A person may never be free from SSA until glorification, but they are to find their identity in Christ, not their desires.

One of the issues I had with the book was some of the terminology she uses for sanctification. She follows Vos’ commentary on the Westminster Confession and using “infuse”. This is idiosyncratic. Protestants typically use imparted because Roman Catholic theology talks of us being infused with grace through the sacraments. She doesn’t say this, but this former-Catholic struggles with the use of the term. Vos and Rosaria are the only Protestants I know that use it. Not sure why.

Because God gives us grace, we are able to say ‘no’ to our desires for sinful things (see Titus 2). In Christ we have been sanctified and are being sanctified. We don’t have to act on our lust, hatred, envy etc.

She ends the chapter discussing shame which leads her into the chapter on repentance. Shame is about being exposed, reveled as dirty, disgusting and disobedient. Shame for past actions refuses to stay in the past. We feel it now afraid people will discover what we did back them. She points us to confession of sin that we may be cleansed of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). She distinguishes this from admission. Confession not only admits our actions were wrong, but also appropriates God’s grace.

In all of this she talks about original sin, which she sees as the great equalizer. We all suffer under it. Sin continues to dwell in us, and produces actual sins. She is highly dependent on the Puritans such as John Owen and Anthony Burgess. Because sin dwells in us, we experience temptation internally. We can either say ‘no’ to it, or ‘yes’ to it and sin.

In the 4th chapter, Sexual Orientation, she gets into theory and the history of sexual orientation. Prior to Freud no one thought in such terms. They thought in terms of behavior: that is a homosexual act. They didn’t think of themselves in terms of identity: I am a homosexual. She argues for this precisely because many Queer theorist and postmodernists argue for this. As a former English professor and Queer theorist she talks about why words matter, building a case against terms like “gay Christian”. This continues in Self-Representation or What Does it Mean to Be Gay?.

While she is very black and white, very theoretical, and sounds dogmatic (not necessarily a bad thing), she isn’t drawing lines in the sand. The next chapter, Conflict, is about her disagreement with other Christians about this. She recognizes that while these terms find their basis in a movement in which she was a mover and shaker, younger people don’t come at it with the same theoretical underpinnings and don’t mean by it what she believes it means. They agree to disagree without consigning one another to the region of hell.

She then moves into the living of the Christian life, focusing on community and hospitality. Her understanding hospitality  “starts with adoption and ends with keeping the Lord’s Day together, because the purpose of our adoption is worship. (pp. 150)” She starts with how community begins, which is important for Christians to remember. Community begins with a group of strangers, who have different ideas, passions and interests. True community is not homogeneous. We have Christ in common, but differ in many ways. Community recognizes that it is dangerous. We are in community with people who are sinners of all kinds. We can get hurt! But the perfect love of God is intended to cast out our fear. Open and unhindered, we share life together even the unpleasant parts of life like grief.

She then talks about how they have practiced hospitality in their neighborhood. I don’t think it would work in mine. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. That just means it is an example, not the only way. It is also shaped by her Covenanter convictions. In some ways it seems similar to her defense of exclusive psalmody in the first book. It all seems a bit too perfect (to this admittedly cynical soul).

She then moves into church membership, and why we should take it seriously. She is standing against the consumer approach to membership. She quotes from G. I. Williamson about how there is no perfect congregation, and no perfect denomination (oh that more people in my denomination would understand that!).

“As a pastor’s wife, I have seen the ugliest side of people when they start to believe that the sins of others in our church are intolerable, or when they pack up and leave instead of receiving the repentance of other, or sticking around long enough to work on reconciliation. The people who leave the church because they think they are too good for it have no idea that hurt that they cause- for the people who love them and miss them, and for the people hurt by the things they said and the things they didn’t say when they broke fellowship.”

This is a good book. It is not as easy to read as her first book. It does get more deeply into some very important ideas, theologically and philosophically. It gives those of us who haven’t read gay theorist a summary of sorts from a former-gay theorist.

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The subtitle to Bavinck on the Christian Life is Following Jesus in Faithful Service. In part 1 John Bolt laid the foundations of creation, law and union with Christ. In part 2 he framed it with imitation of Christ and worldview. In the third and final section of this book, The Practice of Christian Discipleship, Bolt gets to the areas where we follow Jesus in light of a Christian worldview.

For lack of a better term, I’ll use spheres. They could be called vocations, the places were are called. As Christians Bavinck stresses that our faith is not simply lived out in prayer closets and on Sunday mornings. We are to follow Jesus in our marriage, family, work, culture, education and civil service (politics).

In the historical context, Bavinck was often dealing with “the revolution.” It was a time of incredible instability in Europe. The impact of Rousseau and Marx were shaking the foundations of Europe. There were challenges and changes looming  in nearly every arena, sphere or vocation. As a result he was not writing in an Edenic setting or ivory tower. He was not only a theologian and churchman, but also a statesman. In many ways it is a situation that reflects our contemporary situation. Faith does not retreat from cultural challenges, but seeks to imitate Jesus by serving in the midst of such changes. But it always seeks to follow Jesus, not simply embracing change or preserving human tradition. For instance, women’s suffrage was a good thing, a good change reflecting their equal status as made in God’s image in civil society.

As Bavinck wrestled with these changes he doesn’t simply analyze the proposed solution, he brings them back to the real problem. For instance, “inequality” was looked at as the great cultural sin (sounds familiar, right?). He brings us to God’s providence to recognize that inequality is not intrinsically wrong. For instance, God has not distributed resources equally. Some geographic locations are rich in natural resources, and others lack. God has placed each of us in a particular place, to a particular family (with its own resources, or lack thereof).

But this is not the only, final word on inequality. We have to see it in light of the creation mandate as well. We are not to sit fatalistically with our lot in life. If we believe we are called to “subdue and rule” we will seek to maximize the resources and opportunities that do exist. (Either Bavinck or Bolt does not spell this out as clearly as I would have liked.)

Bavinck also brings inequality to sin. Some are motivated by self-love rather than love for God and neighbor. Therefore they oppress, exploit and steal. Some are lazy and refuse to maximize anything at their disposal but live for the present, not the future. There is no eschatalogical pull for them, no deferred gratification for something far greater.

Therefore, the pull toward socialism or the massive re-distribution of wealth doesn’t fix the problem. It fails to address sin (note the gross inequalities in every Communist country we’ve seen). Rather, ways must be found to eliminate oppression, exploitation, theft, laziness and entitlement not “inequality”. Inequality isn’t the problem.

Bolt applies Bavinck’s creational norm to the question of sexuality as well. Marriage is meant to be a reflection of the trinity- unity in diversity. One of the creational realities that must remain in marriage is procreation, unless providentially hindered. In other words, many of our supreme court justices, as well as citizens, don’t really understand the meaning of marriage. The gospel “restores” nature rather than overthrowing nature. It is sin which seeks to corrupt, destroy and overthrow nature.

Because our fundamental problem is sin, Bavinck focused not on social solutions to our problems, but brought us back to the gospel first (not only). People need to be restored to fellowship with God before they can see the real problems in society and apply God’s law to create an increasingly just society (as defined by God’s law which reflects His character). As a result, we must humbly accept the fact that there will be no perfectly just society until the return of Jesus because sin remains. Again, this does not mean fatalism but realistic expectations. It does mean we seek to address the real issues, not just the symptoms.

Bolt ends the book with Bavinck’s only printed sermon “The World Conquering Power of Faith”. This sermon ties a number of these things together. We cannot fix the world with the world’s means precisely because they are part of the world which is in rebellion against God. By faith we are able to “conquer” the world, but only because our faith is in the One who has overcome the world and is currently at work to make His enemies His footstool.

As a result, the Christian life of following Jesus in faithful service often looks foolish to the world. It often feels foolish. It seems so powerless, and the needs presented by the world seem so great: oppression, slavery (sexual & economic), mental illness, terrorism and violence, government corruption, sexual abuse, domestic violence …

People must be united to Christ by faith, seeking to walk in light of the law (justice) and the creation mandate (subdue & rule). This is how Bavinck views the Christian life.

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Some of my uncles growing up were in construction. Most of my brothers-in-law are in construction. So as I think about the 2nd part of Bavinck on the Christian Life, I think about a construction metaphor. If the first part was the foundation, the second would be the framing.

There were only two chapters in the second part. Recall that the foundations were creation in God’s image, the Law and union with Christ. The two chapters in this section are Imitating Christ and Worldview.

Bavinck understood the Christian life as one of imitating Christ. We need to see this in terms of God restoring His image in us, in accordance with the Law, through our union with Christ. I say this because may have seen the Christian life as imitating Christ, but meant something different.

Recall as well that this is intended to be an ordinary life, not viewed as radical. We partake of earthly goods, but they are not ultimate goods. We enjoy them as part of God’s good gifts, but they are temporal and temporary. As the song goes, hold on loosely.

Bavinck looked at the historical patterns of this theme. Bolt summarizes this for us. Bavinck identified dangers and wrong turns.

The early Church was a persecuted Church. This is because they claimed to be the only true religion, and Christ claimed their ultimate allegiance. Rome did not like that. With martyrdom a real possibility, it unfortunately became “regarded as a matter of glory and fame” (pp. 106). It became pathological, similar to what we see with radical Islam today.

Monastic separation created a divide between clergy and laity. Professional Christians tend to breed “incompetence and an unspiritual life-style.” He noted the rise of the Waldensians, and others, who simplified doctrine and emphasized holiness. Soon you also saw the rise of the “mendicant armies” who exalted poverty above all other virtues. Medieval mysticism came to see Jesus as model, not Mediator and Redeemer.

Any view of imitating Christ that neglects Him as Redeemer is sub-biblical and rejected by Bavinck. This brings us back to union with Christ as the primary element of imitation. He believed we were not to simply look and act like Jesus, but to be transformed inside.

Bolt then brings us to the Sermon on the Mount. Bavinck’s views shifted, with his latter view more nuanced. World War I lay between point A and B. It helped him see some problems with his understanding, and deepened his understanding. Bavinck understood it in its original context as to His disciples who would face persecution. We cannot simply woodenly apply it to our circumstances. The Sermon was about obeying the law of God in your circumstances. Our circumstances may be different, and therefore our obedience may look differently. They lacked power in culture, and were to let their light shine. “If the early church had tried to transform its world through cultural engagement, it “would have quickly drowned in the world’s maelstrom.” (pp. 115)” As Christianity loses power in the West, we need to recognize how we imitate Jesus will change. We will become more like the early church. We can’t focus on cultural engagement, but “simply” preach the Good News.

Bolt summarizes all this with “our following Jesus in lawful obedience is grounded and shaped by our union with the whole Christ. (pp. 117)” Therefore we focus on our obligations, not our rights. This is hard for sinful, self-absorbed people.

The chapter on worldview is more theoretical. Bolt covers specific aspects of the worldview in which we fulfill our vocations and imitate Christ in part 3 of the book. The concept of a Christian worldview appears to be first articulated by Kuyper in his Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton. Bavinck would also talk and write much about this topic. While the particulars were nearly identical, their methodology was different, as was their application. This lead to some conflict between the two men in later years. Kuyper was the more “dogmatic” of the two, and comes across as an autocratic leader. Bolt traces this history, and I won’t repeat it.

But one key area went back to regeneration. Kuyper viewed, at the risk of reductionism, regeneration creating two kinds of people with two kinds of science. Bavinck was more open to receiving the science done by unregenerate Christians. As image bearers, they could see something of the truth too. Kuyper was engaged in cultural conflict, Bavinck was more open to learning from non-Christians.

For Bavinck, a worldview broke down into thinking, being and doing. The relationship between these is important. For Bavinck,, being is first. As we become self-aware we think and do. Bolt notes that “worldview follows faith and union with Christ; it does not create faith and is no substitute for it. (pp. 125)” Worldviews are how we navigate our way through the world, other humans and God.

For the Christian, our worldview is about God revealing Himself to us, as well as revealing truth about ourselves and the world. God is faithful and good, revealing these things truthfully and reliably. While he acknowledges the distortions caused by sin, he doesn’t focus on them like Kuyper and Van Til.

“The essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God, and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.”

These frames, built on the foundation, will direct our understanding of the Christian life. We’ll get to that next time.

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