January 22, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: September 13, 2015 (+Wilco!)

Disputatious Theologians, Günther

Whenever you are ready, I’d like to tour the dark side of this thing we call theology. I have high hopes that, once we emerge on the other side, we may be better theologians for having confronted some aspects of theology its promoters usually ignore.

I hate theology when it’s without humility. Theology and humility. They ought to go together without much trouble. I mean, this isn’t rocket science. It’s infinitely bigger than rocket science. On his deathbed, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.” We know this is the proper attitude toward our theologizing, but it’s not our normal working stance.

The idea of knowing the truth about God has to be about the most seductively dangerous kind of knowledge we can claim. The more we learn, the more humble we should be. Following the usual theories of knowledge, If God is infinite and incomprehensible, then the more we know, the less we know. That is, when ignorance is replaced by knowledge it opens vast new spaces of the magnificently unknown, and we should be humbled.

Take the modern astronomer. He appears to know far more about the universe than his ancient counterpart who thought the stars were pinpoints of light held by gods or angels. But does the modern astronomer’s increased knowledge make him or her truly knowledgeable, or does it make him or her stupefied with wonder and amazement at what we know and all we don’t know?

So how did we miss this in modern theology? Arrogance, not humility, marks theological discussion and debate among evangelicals and protestants. You would think a few years of reading and study had opened up the mind of the Almighty to be picked through like a card catalog at the local library. The posture of a Biblical theologian ought to be constant worship and wonder, not glibly asserting all that he or she knows for certain.

Remember the story about the reporter asking Karl Barth what was the greatest theological truth he’d ever heard? The answer from the wizened old professor was, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Great answer.

I hate theology when it bullies real ministry. Those who are worried that I am going over the edge into some sort of postmodern skepticism need to remember one thing about me, the one thing that allows me to say “I hate theology” with a measure of authenticity.

I’ve been to four plus years of seminary, and lived to tell the tale. Until you’ve walked that mile in my shoes, sit down and listen.

When I was in seminary, I sat in a classroom and watched students heckle the gentle and zealous Dr. Louis Drummond as he talked to us about personal evangelism. I watched students in the campus “Evangelism Club,” ridiculed openly as idiots by graduate students who held evangelism in contempt. I heard professors talk about how to deal with the ignorant and unlearned back at the church, those benighted laity who weren’t fortunate enough to know what was really going on as the anointed ones practice the mysteries of Biblical criticism. A friend heard pro-lifers called “fools” by a professor of Christian ethics. Of course, all these distinguished individuals were theologians who would rather theologize than eat ice cream.

I was on church staff during my seminary days at a church near campus. Like any church, we had a lot of simple things to do if we were going to be a church. Staff the nursery. Cook meals. Have prayer meetings. Evangelize. Pray. Minister. Fill committees. Paint the fellowship hall.

The problem was that we could hardly do these things because our church was populated by seminary students and faculty. Theologians. You couldn’t pray. You had to theologize about prayer. You couldn’t have a church dinner. You had to theologize about the poor and economics and justice. You couldn’t adjust the thermostat without a theological debate. The theologians rendered the church virtually paralyzed. (You don’t even want to know what a simple Sunday School class or youth group turned into in this tyranny of the theologians.)

As one might expect, the theologians seemed to always avoid those little jobs the rest of us did because they just need to be done. Incarnation is a great idea, as long as you debate it instead of practice it.

I hate this, and I am not ashamed to say so. Christ didn’t call theologians, he called disciples. Let’s follow Jesus, not just talk about the two natures. He didn’t establish a seminary or a library, but a church, which is a pretty down and dirty business that does a lot more than just stare at its confessions in wondrous rapture and awe. He didn’t give the great debate assignment, but the great commission. We’re on mission with a God who is doing great things in history. Or are we? Some of us are theologizing about ministry so much that we appear to be undermining ministry itself. It’s a great commission to make disciples of all nations, not a great commotion about who can be more literal about the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

Theology has an important role to play in everything the church says and does. But that role is a servant role, not the role of a bully who intimidates simple, obedient people from obeying and serving. This sort of bullying theology seems to fit right in with the Pharisees who never could get over Jesus’ interest in healing and helping people on the Sabbath. They had theologized themselves to the point of having a God interested more in Sabbath rules than in helping people. They felt perfectly comfortable lecturing Jesus as an ignoramus, all the while walking on the other side of the street whenever they encountered the opportunity to minister.

My advice to theologians everywhere: if you aren’t part of a ministry or a church that is actually ministering to people, praying, giving, going, and sharing compassion, you have no authority to speak to those who are. Memos from the library won’t do. In love, I’m telling you to take a vow of silence. Don’t lecture the man giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name if you aren’t giving anything but advice and lectures.

I hate theology when it becomes the enemy of personal devotion. At this point I need to share a story about people who are still alive, but it’s such a clear example of what I’m talking about that I can’t avoid it.

Recently, a young friend posted a message on her web page about a book she was reading. The gist of the post was, “I want to love God and hate sin, and this book is helpful to me in that goal.” Given what I know about the Bible and Jesus’ message of repentance and holiness, there was nothing to complain about in the post. It wasn’t a post about the true nature of justification. It was a heartfelt, human aspiration to be more Christ-saturated and Spirit-transformed. With that sort of simple desire to love God on the table, you know there’s going to be trouble.

The problem was that, theologically speaking, some could fault the theology that was cited from the book. It wasn’t precise and it wasn’t entirely up to reformation confessional standards on the true nature of sanctification. The more sophisticated the theologian, the more criticism of the book might be possible. That 0.0003% of the population that knows theology might be “concerned.” And one theologian spoke up. It was a simple glancing blow, but it burned my toast. It made me hate theology with a new intensity.

Now I have no quarrel with theological analysis. I do it and will continue to do so. I have no objection to sincerely and directly warning someone that there is a better way or a clearer truth. It’s the loving thing to do. I have no problem with theological discussion of personal piety. Any theologian may write and comment to his or her heart’s content on the modern devotional writers popular today. It’s a service to the church.

The problem here, as is so often the case, is that theology too often stands in judgment over personal devotion as either 1) ignorant or 2) legalistic. I’ve been guilty of this, I’ll quickly admit. I’ll also say it’s ugly and I hate it. I hate it a lot.

Let’s be really clear here. God is a lot more jazzed about a person who wants to avoid sin and love Him than he is about anyone’s expertise on historical and systematic theology. When we’ve reached the point of thinking we are doing God a service by discouraging personal piety because it doesn’t measure up to some theologian’s standards, we’re bad off.

See, the true theologians are tempted to live a life generally free from such petty concerns as personal repentance, devotions, prayer, private worship and pious expressions of love for God. Good theology covers a multitude of sins. Who has the time for such wastes of mental energy when you can read another chapter of some theologian’s dogmatic explorations of the decrees? That need to debate is so much more intense than the desire to pray, isn’t it? Another book, or a time of devotion? Why is the choice so easy? (It’s Wretched Urgency III: The Agony of the Theologians.)

Am I bugging you yet? Good, ’cause I’ve been bugged for a long time, and I want other people to suffer with me.

If the theologian has a service to render here, I wonder if he or she could find a way to render it without making the ordinary Christian feel like a moron for not realizing what a waste of time it was to read a book by a non-theologian that encouraged you to love God and hate sin? Is there a way to help us with those theological gifts without belittling the non-theologian? Without seeing ordinary piety as dangerous? Without making it appear that theology is the better way, and ordinary devotion is the way of lesser, fallible mortals?

I think it was that well known theologian, The Rock, who used to say, “Know your role.” If the heresies that frolic in the minds of non-theologians stir you up to the point of book burning, maybe you need a new career. There is a role for theologians who comport themselves in a way that ordinary Christians trust them and value their words. See J.I. Packer, Don Carson and N.T. Wright for excellent examples.

I’ve got no time for myself or any other theologian who can’t see the beauty of a heart that passionately wants to follow Jesus because we’re too ticked off about some book he’s reading. Sounding gong. Clanging cymbal.

I hate theology when it acts like it’s revelation, rather than fallible human effort. My BHT friend Jim Nicholson gets the credit for this one. For those of us who believe in the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, it appears that more than one practicing theologian has a note from God excusing him from something the rest of us have to live with all the time: the pervasive influence of sin in every area of human life, including the intellectual exercises necessary to theology.

It seems strange to say, but it appears that some Protestants are ready to defend their theologizing as correct on the basis that God must somehow preserve the church from error. Do Protestants really think this way? The heirs of Luther really talk like this about this very human, thoroughly fallen exercise called theology? Unfortunately, yes, and with consequences that range from the mildly annoying to the devastating.

As many have said before, theology is potentially dangerous precisely because once we have arrived at the “truth,” we’re sure that God is on our side. The conclusion seems to guard the process in the minds of some theologians. What may be true in a conclusion–that we are privileged to know the mind of God–should not be generalized into some kind of authority that resides in the whole process or in an individual person.

Perhaps the best example of this is our beloved Reformed T.U.L.I.P. Is God committed to the TULIP? Or is it human theological effort? Is it our shorthand, our thoughts and words? Or did God send it down here to bless us, and it needs to be carried before us into battle like the ark? (Careful, don’t touch it!) Of course, I believe that, to some extent, TULIP presents a shorthand summary of what good people believe scripture says, but the fact is I have to make a conscious decision to treat TULIP as less than scripture. It’s NOT revelation. It’s theology, and it’s the product of sinful minds thinking less than perfect thoughts. As a human thought, it’s no more divine than the menu at MacDonald’s.

In fact, are we ready to admit that scripture nowhere implies that knowing what scripture says changes the fact that what we think is, and always will be, fallen and depraved? Having scripture in our minds doesn’t change the nature of my thoughts or invest me with authority or infallibility. (See Christian history for examples of what happens when you get this wrong.) Salvation by grace through faith doesn’t have small print that says “mental works” done in the name of good theology are exempt from the all-corroding influence of sin.

I’ll go one more level on this game. Could we quit quoting theologians like they are the 67th book of the Bible? Behold the following barely fictionalized sentence: “I believe that (insert theologians of choice) have been used by God to (insert preserve, recover, discover, clearly communicate, etc) the true Gospel.” Anyone heard that before? Stated like it was as certain as “In the beginning, God…”

Enough already. This just won’t work. “Theologian of choice” in the above game is a depraved sinner who was privileged to graciously receive light and put some fallen version of it into print. His words and work may change my life. It may put me in my Bible or lead me to worship, serve and love Jesus. But I can’t say anything about this character that approaches revelation or divine authority. (Funny how Christians turn their heroes into such supermen, while the Bible pulls all its “heroes” right down into the mud with the rest of us.)

Take John Piper’s theology of Christian hedonism. It’s impacted my life in a powerful way. It’s been a lifesaver for me, and I’m more grateful to the guy than I could ever say. But he’s a fellow stinker, and his theology is fallen and flawed, and there is no authority–NONE–in Piper’s version of Christianity that’s greater than someone else’s.

It should be said for the record, the problem here is rarely with the theologian. It’s with his fans, and I’ve been as guilty as anyone. When we can quit toting around Calvin as if the Bible was incomprehensible before him, then we may have properly repented. Hate theology that creates celebrities with authority. It’s a good thing we have theologians, as long as we remember that they are just like us. Don’t burn the books. Burn the posters and autographed t-shirts.

I hate theology that must swat every error on sight. In the summer, we have flies here in southeast Kentucky. I don’t like them, and so I often teach with a rolled up newspaper within reach. When a fly lands near me, I swat him. Now I don’t mind, because I hate the flies, but my students have frequently noted that it goes beyond distracting when I am swatting away between every third word, or stalking the room chasing down the one I’ve missed.

Welcome to an analogy that describes some of the theologically minded. They are right, errors are intolerable, and they are going to swat them on the spot. Like my classroom, pretty soon the main event is swatting flies, and nothing else really matters.

When I first met a full-blooded Calvinist, it was one of these fly swatters. No matter what I preached about, he came by the next day and explained to me how I had violated the tenets of Calvinism. Did I realize I had called for people to make a choice? You can’t do that. And did I know I had strayed into the wilderness of Arminianism on several occasions? Swat! What about that invitation? (This was back in the day.) Swat, swat…SWAT.

I feel sorry for you if you have to teach, pray, preach or otherwise communicate the Gospel around the theological fly swatters. You’ll spend most of your time getting whacked, and you are going home angry–and bruised. Yes, you may go home, read the Bible and change your mind (or not), and the theological fly swatter will be encouraged to continue fighting the good fight, one pesky fly at a time

Which brings me to the question, is the theologian’s conviction that he is right and that theology matters more than niceties a reason to excuse poor behavior? I mean, after all, wrong teaching can send people to hell. It can destroy the church. It dishonors the Gospel. Truth is what matters. How can a real theologian overlook error as if it didn’t matter? As if error were insignificant? Once you are aware of the truth embodied in your theology, the smallest, most commonly accepted error is really the doorway to hell, and you should have no regrets about pulling the cord, bringing the train to a screeching halt and shouting “Fire!” to the souls in imminent danger of damnation.

In the mental health field, they call this Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It’s treatable, but the patient must admit his or her problem and take his or her medication.

I suppose there is nothing that has made me feel sickened at the prospect of talking theology like this behavior. It’s theological wretched urgency. It’s a kind of works theology. It’s ungracious. Despite what some think, I don’t believe Jesus gave a daily Matthew 23 tirade to every Pharisee he met or upon every erring word he heard from a small town rabbi. I believe he laughed a lot, shook his head and told another story. I don’t think Paul–an intense guy, for sure–couldn’t pray with other people because their theology bothered him so much he had to correct them on the spot. I don’t think it’s a manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit to lie awake at night thinking about the burden of being the only one within twenty miles who is right, knows the truth and can correct the erring.

Again, I hate to say it, but there are mental illnesses where the patient has a “messiah complex.” I must save the world. Argue with everyone. Straighten out the mistaken before it’s too late. Any sermon, any statement of personal devotion, any discussion of personal religion becomes a hill to die on for these people. They can’t see it, and they convince themselves that their “ministry” is being God’s red pen grading everyone’s theological papers. If there are repercussions to their fanaticism, guess who’s the victim and who’s the persecutor or the liberal heretic or both? Righto.

We all err. We believe errors. We propagate them. We read them. We tolerate them. All our theologies carry errors. Only Jesus is that Final Word without error, and he doesn’t come in a systematic theology textbook edition yet.

We ought to strive to be as theologically correct as possible. We should encourage one another in that pursuit. It’s permissible to be abrasive if the situation calls for it. Obviously, no one likes to be told he is wrong. But I’ve got one more point to make, and I hope we will all listen carefully, because it’s the key to what I am feeling and what I am trying to communicate.

I hate theology that ignores our humanity. Ultimately, theology doesn’t matter. What matters in this universe, right behind God in and of his Trinitarian self, is the human person.

In the 1928 novel, Mr. Blue, Myles Connolly put this soliloquy into the mouth of his central character. Put the theological fly swatters up for a moment and read something wondrous. (Thanks to Peter Robinson at The Corner.)

[Blue] put his hands into his trouser pockets and leaned backward, his face toward the heavens, now filling with stars.

“I think,” he whispered half to himself, “my heart would break with all this immensity if I did not know that God Himself once stood beneath it, a young man, as small as I.”

Then, he turned to me slowly.

“Did it ever occur to you that it was Christ Who humanized infinitude, so to speak? When God became man He made you and me and the rest of us pretty important people. He not only redeemed us. He saved us from the terrible burden of infinity.”

Blue rather caught me off my guard. I might have admitted in him a light turn for philosophy. I did not expect any such high-sounding speculation as this. But he was passionately serious. He eyes were glowing in the dark. He threw his hands up toward the stars: “My hands, my feet, my poor little brain, my eyes, my ears, all matter more than the whole sweep of these constellations!” he burst out. “God Himself, the God to Whom this whole universe-specked display is as nothing, God Himself had hands like mine and feet like mine, and eyes, and brain, and ears!….” He looked at me intently. “Without Christ we would be little more than bacteria breeding on a pebble in space, or glints of ideas in a whirling void of abstractions. Because of Him, I can stand here out under this cold immensity and know that my infinitesimal pulse-beats and acts and thoughts are of more importance than this whole show of a universe. Only for Him, I would be crushed beneath the weight of all these worlds. Only for Him, I would tumble dazed into the gaping chasms of space and time. Only for Him, I would be confounded before the awful fertility and intricacy of all life. Only for Him, I would be the merest of animalcules crawling on the merest of motes in a frigid Infinity.” He turned away from me, turned toward the spread of night behind the parapet. “But behold,” he said, his voice rising with exultancy, “behold! God wept and laughed and dined and wined and suffered and died even as you and I. Blah!—for the immensity of space! Blah!—for those who would have me a microcosm in the meaningless tangle of an endless evolution! I’m no microcosm. I, too, am a Son of God!”

He finished his outburst with a great gesture to the stars.

My humanity matters. I hate theology when it takes away our humanity and reduces us to carriers of ideas. Students in a class, always in danger of failing. Dummies being terrorized by the smart kids and belittled by the teachers. I hate theology when it makes the smart kids, good readers and high IQs into the real Christians, and the rest of us into fodder for their razor sharp arguments and endless citations. Where is the beauty and the dignity of humanity in all of this?

This is why I find myself needing to read Brennan Manning and Robert Capon, because they are in awe of God, Jesus, and the fallen image bearers. I love to listen to White Horse Inn, because no matter what the topic, they can laugh, joke and enjoy music. I love Steve Brown’s jocularity. In fact, call it an ego stroke, I like my own sense of humor more than my theological mind. I’ve thought some deep thoughts, but they were all gifts of grace popping into a mind that usually thinks more of sex, dirty jokes and slugging percentages than it does of the love of Christ. If that’s not a hoot, I don’t know what is.

Theologians need to meditate on God’s inexplicable habit of wading into the river with us sinners. Clothing Adam and Eve. Giving a break to Cain. Hanging out with Abraham, Moses, Noah, David and Elijah. None of them were great theologians. All could be petty and were frequently wrong. They were notorious sinners. The theologians are down at the temple, oiling up the big religion machine only they understood. God’s favorites are chopping down Philistines, writing poems and romancing women. Now there’s a God I can appreciate.

Theology can become a club to beat down the gentle children of God. If it knows God so well, it ought to act like the God it knows. The good shepherd. The gentle healer. The weeper over Lazarus. The one who makes water into wine. Jesus wasn’t one of the Pharisees in theology or in personality. When he got angry, it was because they didn’t see the need to heal a man on the Sabbath. What would he say about some of our theological tricks that separate believer from believer over “confessional” matters in the footnotes of the footnotes? When everything becomes war between the theologian and the erring world, cruelty and barbarism are excusable. After all, God–and nothing else–is important. Right?

That people matter to God–erring, ignorant, people–seems lost on too many theologians. They can sit behind their books and debate the angels on the head of a pin, while someone with unacceptable theology lives out the Sermon on the Mount and dies loving people in Jesus’ name. The theological mess isn’t excusable. I concede that point quickly. But the lack of humanity is worse. It’s outrageous. It’s dangerous. And I hate it.

• • •


  1. yup.

  2. Wow, I don’t remember that one. Excellent.

  3. What does TULIP mean?

  4. A wonderful image of true humility can be found in the Paradiso where Dante describes one of the Popes who, after spending his whole life working out a complex description of the hierarchy of the angels, dies, and when he gets to heaven discovers that he is completely wrong. Dante tells us that this Pope thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

  5. “I, too, am a Son of God!” Yes. Written eleven years before I was born by an obscure novelist I never heard of before. It’s still fairly controversial. This morning in order to express my subjection to the thoughts and opinions of some high ranking Latin speaking Christians several millennia back, I was supposed to recite along with everyone else in reference to Jesus of Nazareth, “God’s only Son.” It ain’t true. I won’t say it any more. I, too, am a Son of God, tho I prefer to think of it as Child of God. I’m speaking for myself, not trying to change your ways.

    No one besides you knows this. I just slide over that phrase and say “God’s Son”, which is true, and isn’t excluding our sistren in the process. No one can tell, unlike with the Nicene Creed where there are whole passages I no longer want to say. Heretic! These creeds were written to weed out people like you who don’t believe correct doctrine. There’s a few more places in the Apostle’s Creed that I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what they mean but I’ll let that slide for now. In comparison with the Nicene it’s clear and positive. Not as easy to remember as “Jesus is Lord.”

  6. faced with unspeakable suffering, we often hear people say ‘there are no words’ . . .
    so there must be other unspoken ‘languages’ available to convey Christ to the world . . . maybe then there is some truth in the hymn ‘Be Not Afraid’ that us ‘and you will talk to foreign men and they will understand’ . . .

    sometimes what is conveyed ‘to foreign men’ touches that part of our shared humanity that needs no words http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/11/07/article-0-1939ED2E00000578-412_634x399.jpg

  7. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for posting this.

    For some time I’ve been struck by how a lot of theology is as much a weapon as it is reflection on God and God’s Word.

    Theology is necessary because human beings think and ask questions. We can’t do without it. Yet, so much of academic theology strikes me as being as much about getting tenure as reflecting on God. If you could blow this stuff into a kleenex, you’d be able to use the kleenex again.

    (Feeling cranky in allergy season. . . )

  8. As I reflected on this some more, I recalled the distinction that I believe was made by Gordon Lathrop between Primary Theology and Secondary Theology.

    Primary Theology is worship and prayer. Primary Theology is something we do, approaching and engaging with the One True and Living God. Secondary Theology is everything else that we think and say *about* God. Both are useful, but PT is essential. ST must grow first out of PT or else it is empty and nothing but wind.

  9. John Calvin’s T.U.L.I.P. –Revised

    This is my revision of, and almost total disagreement with (historical theologian and Martin Luther contemporary) John Calvin’s T.U.L.I.P. acrostic (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints)

    T–disconnecTion of man from God because of sin. (Lostness.) But man obviously still has a conscience and the ability to do human-sourced good works of civic righteousness and to freewill-choose, though he cannot choose God or Jesus without God’s calling and enablement, which God, who is the Spirit of God, who blows around like the wind, gives to every human soul that has ever lived.

    U–God’s Unconditional choosing of love for His Elect–specific individuals were chosen for salvation before the foundation of the world. Christ died for the sins of every last human soul that ever lived. God, who is love, therefore reaches out to everyone. His Elect are those who believe by His grace and leading, who are foreknown and forechosen by God in His omniscience. (God calls everyone to Himself. Most refuse.)

    If we are saved, it is all of God’s grace. If we are damned, it is entirely of our own rejection of God and/or Christ, specifically. God gives to each man the measure of faith to possibly savingly believe. Whoever calls on the name of God, “have mercy on me a sinner,” goes down to his or her house justified, and, as such, is sealed and irrevocably saved.

    Sadly, most people, the overwhelming majority, “the world,” reject God and will be in the Lake of Fire in eternity.

    But no one can say they did not have the opportunity to be saved, with or without the witness of the overt preaching of the eternal Gospel.

    And, eternal torment is never more than what is deserved, but is exactly what is deserved.

    L–un-Limited Atonement of Christ for the sins of all mankind–the entire world. God so loved the world. (see John 3:16). If God had merely so loved His people, He would have said that. God wants all people to be saved. God, obviously, does not always get what He wants. In the case of the salvation of human souls, only a “few” are saved. Only the “remnant” is saved. The overwhelming majority of people, “the world,” –are not saved for the simple reason that they do not want God.

    I–A word found in the dictionary under the letter “I.” (Certainly people can resist God–Jesus righteously complained that the unbelieving Jews were resisting Him to His face because of their hard hearts.) They did not come to Jesus for salvation not because they were unable, but because they would not. It was their will not to come to God.

    To say that those who will savingly believe find faith in Christ “irresistible” is meaningless. Those who believe do not ultimately resist. Those who resist without believing are not saved.

    Those who savingly believe are blessed by God’s grace.

    P—Preservation of the saints, all the way to Heaven. Saints are those who, so says the Bible, have once believed in Jesus and are irrevocably saved and sealed by the Holy Spirit, regardless of possibly zero visible or invisible spiritual fruit in their lives.

    –Curtis Smale,
    My blog: graceinsightandart.wordpress.com

    Yes, I agree with Michael that theology can be a idol. But I think getting salvation and sanctification right is of the utmost importance to the church. Salvation and sanctification depend on it.

    • I read the other day an account of a meeting between John Knox and John Calvin. Imagine a dialogue between a pestilence and a famine!

      — Robert Green Ingersoll, “How To Be Saved” (1880)

    • You can agree or disagree with the TULIP formulation as you will. But, for the record – *Calvin did not create it*. Dutch Reformed theologians did, almost a century AFTER Calvin, at the Synod of Dordt.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Late in his life, Karl Marx said “I am not a Marxist”.
        Charles Darwin is reputed to have said “I am not a Darwinist”.
        Could Calvin similarly say “I am not a Calvinist”?

        • Sounds like a bad internet meme to me. 😉 But the answer to your question is “yes”. Calvin, in his *Institutes*, devoted little space and time to election and predestination – ironically because he found it pastorally unhelpful.

    • Why in so much of fundamentalist-evangelical theology is there so little mention of the great Mercy of God?

      Oh, there’s all the talk in the world about God’s anger and ‘righteousness’, but that seems to be where it all ends.

      A theology devoid of kindness and mercy is perhaps meant to inspire fear and help in ‘discipline’ and ‘control’, but it can never be a theology reflective of Jesus Christ, no.

      No wonder the campaign against ‘Red Letter Christianity’ and the SBC stance on getting rid of the Baptist Faith & Message phrase that Our Lord was the ‘lens’ through which we should view and interpret sacred Scripture. No wonder. And now we hear some in the SBC talk about Baptists ‘dying on the vine’ . . . where, dear God, they cut themselves free of The Vine when they pushed Our Lord out and replaced Him with their own pet interpretations of the Bible . . . very sad, but there it is.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Because love and mercy don’t Scare ‘Em Down the Aisle and Into the Kingdom.

      • I think, because humans are transactional by nature (or “Law-based”, for my Lutheran friends out there) – that is, “I do X, I get Y in return”. For the “successful”, this usually ends up in pride (i.e. Job’s comforters, Pharisees) – for those who aren’t, despair (lepers, tax collectors, etc). This is not an old phenomenon – even Paul had to deal with objections to a mercy-based Gospel (Romans 6).

        Since you mention fundamentalists and evangelicals in particular, I would make a further, darker observation. I can’t say that I’ve seen this sort of Calvinist hyper-theological nonsense anywhere other than in white middle-class churches – IOW, the “successful” as I defined it above. There’s a great deal of pride and defensiveness about it – and that’s not even factoring in the hostility towards societal social nets that’s developed over the past couple of decades.

        God’s mercy is a great leveler – and if others are getting for free what you “earned”, you tend to get pissy about it (ref. The Parable of the Field Workers, and the Older Brother in the Prodigal Son).

    • “I think getting salvation and sanctification right is of the utmost importance to the church. Salvation and sanctification depend on it.

      If by “getting salvation and sanctification right” you are referring to adhering to carefully parsed formulas like T.U.L.I.P (however you define the terms) I suspect you are missing the point by a long mile. Salvation comes when we place our trust in the person and saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the basis of our salvation and our faith is the activator.

      We don’t really need to understand the mechanism by which he accomplishes our salvation any more than we need to understand the mechanism of a car to start it, or of a television to turn it on. Our faith can be helped, edified, and built up by exploring and adoring the beauty of excellence of Christ and his work, but to say that without the completely correct acrostic formulas, mastery of complex theological constructs, or the comprehension of specialized academic terminology we can’t be saved…well, that’s just silly.

  10. Brilliant! Thanks for re-posting this classic Michael Spencer article!

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