Calvinism: What it Is, and Why it’s Crazy

John_Calvin_by_HolbeinThis month, our Theology Book Club is going through Richard Mouw’s remarkable book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, in which he articulates a vision for how Calvinists might understand and hold their doctrinal convictions.

But first, what is this “Calvinism” thing I’m talking about?

Every school of thought has some core foundation on top of which they build every thing else–some assumption that guides and shapes the rest. In that sense, Calvinism is a cluster of beliefs that are centered around the idea that Jesus is Lord, or (in more traditional language), that the Triune God is uncompromisingly sovereign and has no competition in this area. That is the center of Calvinism from which everything else fans out. As Mouw summarizes:

“Unlike other traditions, Calvinism rigorously guards this emphasis on divine sovereignty by refusing to allow any other theological point to detract from it. [So] when Calvinists get around to attempting to explain the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, we are so concerned to protect the former that we are willing to risk sounding like we are waffling on the latter rather than to imply in any way that God’s power is limited.” (p.27)

If you’re only somewhat familiar with Calvinism, you likely think it was some archaic belief mainly held by cranky medieval Christians and Puritans that said God was in absolute control of every little thing and human free will was largely an illusion. Further, you may also have some vague sense that it’s super depressing, focuses almost entirely on how bad and useless humans are, and had some role in creating the American work ethic.

Continue reading

Do “Meaty” Churches & Sermons “Feed Us” Where We Hunger?

During my tenure as a coordinator of Christian education, I heard a lot from people about their hunger to know the Bible, so I hired professors from a nearby seminary and offered regular courses on the Old and New Testaments. People told me the descriptions sounded like just what they needed, but that was usually the last I saw of them. The classes were small and sporadically attended…. Yet every quarter, people asked for more Bible courses. They said they wanted more; they were not getting enough. So I offered more Bible and still no one came.

Finally I got the message. “Bible” was a code word for “God.” People were not hungry for information about the Bible; they were hungry for an experience of God, which the Bible seemed to offer them.

— Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life

The above quote was so insightful and helpful to me. At my church, we’ve spent years hearing people talk about wanting more “meat” or wanting to be “fed” more. When they say that, they often are thinking they need to feel cognitively challenged and stretched by information about the Bible or Theology.

Continue reading

The Belgic Confession: Church, State, & Reformation


As I prepare for ordination in the Reformed Church in America, I am wrestling with the documents, Creeds, and Confessions to which I will be committing myself. I invite you to reflect alongside me.

In the Belgic Confession, one of the most foundational documents of the Reformed tradition, there is an incredibly odd Article towards the end–number 36. It is about the Civil Government and it says, among other things:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race, our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. God wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings….

And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word….

The whole of the Confession is worth your time and reading. It is beautiful and ecumenical. Its desire is to bring people together and articulate the Reformed tradition in a charitable and loving way. And yet, this Article–the next to the last one in the whole writing–sticks out like a sore thumb in both tone and content. It’s so confusing. Why is it written this way? What do we make of it today?

Continue reading

Bible Nerds: Help Me Choose NICOT/NICNT Commentaries!

My go-to Bible Study software of Logos. They have some amazing sales every once and a while and right now they are having a great sale on the New International Commentary Series (popularly known as NICOT and NICNT). They are selling each volume at $19.99 a pop, which is amazing. I am really picky about commentaries, but I know a good deal when I see it. So, I’m enlisting your help to help me pick out a few of these for my library.

So…for those of you that have had experience with these, which would you say are really good and why? Which would you say are definitely not worth one’s time?

So you know what I’m looking for: I go to commentaries more for biblical critical scholarship, not systematic theology. Even though I am theologically conservative, I really do not enjoy commentaries by conservative Evangelicals that spend most of their time grinding their conservative axe against all those “big bad liberals”. Those commentaries end up being more about conservative theological apologetics than the text. For that reason, I find it far more helpful to engage with commentaries that have an openness and sympathy to critical (“liberal”) scholarship.

In short, if one of the primary selling points for a commentary is that it is “conservative”, then it’s probably not for me. I can think of so many other adjectives I would prefer came to one’s mind first to describe a good commentary. If a commentary writer is conservative, great! But breathlessly defending that dogma at the expense of the text isn’t helpful to me.

Okay sorry, soapbox done. What do you all think?

Developing Ancient Creeds & The Trinity


Yes, I graduated from seminary, and yet I still have a couple more classes I’m finishing up. One of them is going through the documents, Creeds, Confessions that define the theology of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America. I’m having to write a bunch of reflections on differents aspects of these writings, and I offer them here.

Every way of understanding the world involves creeds and confessions. “Creed” comes from the Latin word meaning “I believe”, and a Confession from the Latin for “acknowledge”. A Creed or Confession, then, is simply a distillation of what you acknowledge and believe. There’s nothing weird or particularly “Catholic” about it.

From Creeds to Trinity

If you are a Christian, no matter which part of the family you call home, your beliefs almost certainly fall in line with what have been called the “Ecumenical Creeds”, which are the oldest and simplest articulations of the Christian essentials. They include the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

Now, if you were going to start writing out the core of what you believe, where would you begin? The interesting thing about these Ecumenical Creeds is that they are built entirely, both in foundation and structure, around the doctrine of the Trinity. Why?
Continue reading

Who has a brand new Masters of Divinity degree? This guy.


After going to seminary nearly 8 years ago, dropping out after a year, and then returning 5 years later, I have now graduated with my Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies program at Western Theological Seminary. (Sorry for all those links.)

I was also proud and humbled to have been voted by the faculty to receive the Stanley A. Rock award in Pastoral Care and Counseling, “for outstanding work in pastoral care and counseling courses and formation for ministry assignments”.

So what now? Well, first I have to finish my last six weeks of classes before actually getting my actual degree. Then I will need to finish my requirements for ordination as a minister in the Reformed Church in America. After that? I’m still figuring it out.

I’ll still be in Philadelphia. I won’t be looking for a ministerial job outside my own church. I’ll continue my job in social work while other opportunities work themselves out. I still hope to do Ph.D. work in the future, but I’m taking a breather for the immediate moment.

Continue reading

St Teresa & A Woman’s Longing to Preach

François_Gérard_-_St_Theresa_(detail)Saint Teresa of Avila was a 16th-century mystic and Carmelite nun who traveled around teaching and writing mystical treatises on the interior life of maturing Christian spirituality and contemplative practices. (Here’s a great intro on her life.)

To read her writings and to read about her life is one of the most powerful testimonies to a woman’s place in the Christian church. She constantly rubbed the male power structures the wrong way and in many of her writings one can see how she bends over backwards to accommodate their concerns about a powerful woman, trying to demonstrate how a woman can teach and lead while also living in accordance to the doctrines of the scriptures. And yet, more than any intellectual argument, it is her grace, maturity, and powerful insight into the Bible, the Christian Life, and the human soul that are some of the greatest apologetics for a woman’s full right to teach and preach and lead in the Church. I am currently reading through her magnum opus, The Interior Castle, and it is breathtaking. I ran across this brief passage and lamented along with Teresa… Continue reading

Contemplative Thought for the Day (from A.W. Tozer)

We have but to get quiet, recollect our thoughts, wait for the mild excitement within us to subside, and then listen closely for the faint cry of desire. Ask your heart, “What would you rather have than anything else in the world?” Reject the conventional answer. Insist on the true one, and when you have heard it you will know the kind of person you are.

–AW Tozer (h/t Dr. Chuck DeGroat)

Israel, Day 3: A Roman Siege, the Northern Kingdom, & Hanging Out in Syria


I am back from Israel-Palestine, but the effects of this trip are still lingering with me, both emotionally and spiritually (and physically). I still want to share this trip with all of you. My time in this land will be popping up in many thoughts, reflections (and pictures) from here on out on this blog, but first, I want to keep documenting the basic schedule and images of what we did during the trip.

One key thing to remember about this trip was that it was not a vacation or tourist time. It was part of an “Intercultural Immersion” seminary course. Throughout our weeks here, our guides and professors repeatedly brought us to these moments of dwelling with the “Living Stones” of Israel-Palestine, and not just being enamored with the Dead Stones of ruins and biblical history.

This means that, in the days to come, you will see me write about our times hearing speakers and learning lessons about the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as time we spent at sites that have little to nothing to do with “Bible stuff”, but have a deep and visceral place in the minds and culture of contemporary Jewish and Arab peoples.

Continue reading

For Israel-Palestine trip updates, read this…


So… things have been crazy enough that I have not been able to regularly update this blog like I would have liked to. Tomorrow is our last day making visits in Israel, and then we fly back on Saturday, so any more updates from me are unlikely. But (somehow), one of my friends on this trip has been able to regularly update his blog about what we’re doing. So I want to send you there. He has great stories, reflections, and gorgeous photography from all over Israel-Palestine.  Enjoy and leave a comment for him!

10 Days in the Holy Land

Israel, Day 2: Christian Pilgrims, Jesus’ Home, and…I’m on a boat!

Both wifi and wakefulness are hard to come by on this trip. My body is still trying to get used to being 7 hours off. Anyway, my biggest lesson on this day was a small, but profound one: I’m having to repaint the mental images of the entire BIble in my mind.  Israel is in the Middle East, right? The Middle East is desert and barrenness, right?

Wrong. I can see why this was the Promised Land. It (so far) has been nothing but lush and beautiful. We’ve yet to see sand anywhere. If this were a movie, the overall color palette would not be a dry, arid yellow, but green, grey, and black. It lush and rocky. The beaches are gravel-grey, not yellow and sandy. It is beautiful. Hopefully my pictures can convey some of this. On this rainy day, we spent it around the area around Northern Galilee.

Starting tomorrow, we will be staying with Palestinian Christian families in their homes in Bethelehem, and we’ll likely not have much access to internet and modern conveniences. Don’t know when I’ll put another post up (I’m already a day behind in writing! We had a crazy day today!), but keep up in your prayers, and enjoy the pictures. Continue reading

My Pilgrimage to Israel & Palestine: Day 1

DSC_2033 (2)

A couple of days ago, I kissed my fiancée goodbye, boarded a plane in Philadelphia, and began the nearly 24-hour process of traveling to the Middle East for a two-week long trip to Israel and Palestine. Today was Day 1 (I’m 7 hours ahead, so while I’m about to go to bed, most of my readers are probably getting this in the afternoon).

I’m part of a team of students in my seminary program who are engaging in this Intercultural Immersion trip, where we will be spending time throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Anyway, I’m sitting here at the end of the first day. I’m exhausted physically, as well as emotionally. I had no idea just how disconnected my religious faith has been to the real world. I love historical things and enjoy walking in others’ footsteps and inhabiting their space once more. And yet, for the most important part of me, I have never had any material interaction with the physical, tangible stuff of my faith’s own story.

I realized today that I have learned to live my Christian life in such a way that I have no mental frameworks for how I’m processing this. I took for granted that I could have a thriving, deep, spiritual existence without having seen and walked the lands and places from which the beliefs were born. And yes, we can have such thriving spiritual lives without visiting this land.

But (to overuse a phrase people use all the time when they come back from this region), I feel like the Bible has transitioned from a silent, black-and-white movie, to a full HD Imax one. It’s crazy. I’m still processing it all. It’s surreal, to say the least.
Continue reading

A Male Feminist Wrestles with the Bible (come watch!)


This post is part of our on-going series about Male Feminist Theology.

When we last met, I tried to lay out a theology of the Bible that makes sense when we take into account the experiences of women–an experience that is marginalized, embodied, and connected to the earth itself. When you do that, you realize that a top-down understanding of the Bible is inadequate. The way God reveals himself is primarily from the bottom-up.  And that is how we should see the Bible–not as a divine dispatch from the heavens, but as an emerging reality out of the embodied, painful reality of human existence.

My argument was that the top-down idea that God spoke from on high and people wrote down his words in the Bible, is actually a patriarchal view that concentrates power and knowledge at the top and restricts it only to those with the privilege of being “in the know”.

Whether you agree with all that or not, there’s actually a bigger elephant in the room than our theological ideas about the Bible: the actual contents of the Bible itself. If you want to be sensitive to the realities of women in the world, what should you do when you approach passages (both Old Testament and New!) that disregard, demean, and disempower women?
Continue reading

How seminary changes your relationship with your church


I’ve got a new post up at Going To Seminary where I talk about how the difficulty of finding one’s voice in the midst of all the heroes you have going into seminary and the new ones you find. We end up doing a lot of mimicking and daydreaming about other people’s spiritual lives and gifts; it’s hard to find our truest selves in the midst of it. Further, I talk at length of the various ways that seminary changes the way that you, as a developing leader, relate to the leaders at your church. It’s also an interesting post to read on this All Soul’s Day. (On a side note, this post has a lot more to do with my experience years ago moving from one state to another for seminary than my current experience at my current church.) Check it out, and let me know what you think! Here’s an excerpt:

For many of us, attending seminary ends up changing our relationship with those people that have shaped and supported us and led us to that moment. For many, they are leaving supportive church families and leaders and doing school elsewhere. I’ve watched many of classmates have to go through a sort of internal “break-up” with their home churches and those pastors with whom they spent so much time. It hurts. They wonder why their pastors “back home” who were so supportive of seminary training won’t return emails. Can’t get together for coffee on school breaks. Won’t talk about possible job opportunities in the future.

Read the full post:
All My Heroes are Dead

Check out the rest of my Going To Seminary posts.

[image credit: “St. Jerome” by Caravaggio]


Enjoy the Post? Leave a tip with Square Cash!

What Should a Male Feminist Think of Our Messy Bible?


This is part of our series on Male Feminist Theology.

First, I have to say up front: this has been the hardest post of this series (so far).  Today we’ll talk about the theology of the Bible, in the next post we’ll talk about the actual content of the Bible. But first, let’s get the big picture again (because it’s been a while). 

There’s no such thing as a “neutral” theology. All articulations of theology are more sensitive to certain assumptions and concerns than others. What we historically conceive of as “regular ol’ theology” is, historically speaking, White Western Male Theology.

This series is an attempt to sketch a theology attuned to the heart of God towards our sisters all over the world who suffer more than any other single group. Women are (and always have been) by far the most abused, oppressed, poverty-stricken, and marginalized people globally. Therefore, I think there is a need for theology that speaks to this and frankly, our classical Western theology has come up short.

Continue reading