October Book Club: Un-Crazy Calvinism, with Richard Mouw

October’s Book book-mouw-calvinism width=

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport
by Richard Mouw

For my church‘s monthly Theology Book Club, we’ve been spending the Fall exploring some of the distinctive beliefs of Reformed Theology.

Well, if there’s any set of ideas Reformed Theology is most known for (and controversially so), it is surely that cluster of doctrines known collectively as “Calvinism”. That’s what we’re exploring this month through Richard Mouw’s amazing book, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport.

To be clear, “Reformed Theology” is a lot bigger than Calvinism. You can agree with Calvinistic thought and not be Reformed, and you can have a huge range of opinions on Calvinist doctrines while still being Reformed. And yet, it is so connected to the thought of my church’s tradition that it deserves a deep dive.
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John Calvin on Stupid Eucharist Theology (Happy Corpus Christi)


Yesterday was the Christian Church Holiday of Corpus Christi, where we celebrate that Jesus actually meets us in the Bread and Wine of Communion. It’s not merely a symbol to make us think of certain doctrinal ideas, but there are very real spiritual things happening in those elements. I’ve written elsewhere about this in detail.

Today, however, I want to offer you a funny little rant John Calvin goes on in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, he is responding to those that accused the Reformed tradition of making the Eucharist way too heady and rationalistic of an idea, sapping all beauty and mystery out of it. Here was Calvin’s response, encouraging us all to embrace the beauty and awe of Communion: Continue reading

Some Hopefully Not-Crazy Musings on Calvinism & Predestination

John_Calvin_by_HolbeinThe Christian family is large and diverse. The little corner of that family that I occupy is usually called “Reformed”, meaning they can trace a lot of their distinctive teachings back to John Calvin. Now, if theres one thing Calvin is known for (other than the burning a heretic thing) is a section of his teaching on Predestination–the idea that before everything, God “decreed” that only some people would be “saved”, and others would not be–they didn’t make the choice in that matter, He did.

Now, “Calvinism” wasn’t actually a thing until after Calvin had died, and he had a lot more to say about a lot of things other than Predestination. Nevertheless, having just recently re-read the portion of his magnum opus that deals with this issue, I can say that even the most caricatured, extreme articulations of Calvinism out there have a strong kernel of truth. Calvin was definitely a Calvinist, in all its untactful, harsh, unapologetic glory.

In college, I got super into Calvinism and took it way too far (Exhibit A; Exhibit B). I hurt a lot of people. Then I went to my first seminary and mellowed out on it. Since then, I’ve just been absorbing lots of different strands of thought around this issue, and haven’t really made a concerted effort to synthesize them. I’ve sort of been sitting in the Mystery of it all.

This seminary semester, though, I have to bring together all my thoughts on Predestination and its related doctrine of Election into some coherency. This means I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And today, I want to offer some of my random, contradictory, messy thoughts and get your responses and help. Imagine my brain on this topic as a big ball of yarn, with each strand of thought existing together all at once, not being able to distinguish where one thought ends, where the other begins, and how they can all fit together.

Strand 1

First, there really isn’t any such thing as “Free Will”. I can’t “choose” to have different parents, to fly, to shoot lasers out of my eyes, to breathe underwater, what color hair I naturally have, where I was born, etc. Arguably, the most formative, important, foundational things to who we are as people are unchosen. The point in saying this is to point out that our wills are not “free”, but are bounded by nature. All our choices are limited by our nature.
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Father Abraham, had many sons; and many sons, Moses did not.

Rothko-9-White-Black-Wine-1958So…I had my mind blown this past week.

I’m taking this class on the idea of “worship” in all its dimensions, and we read a few pieces that gave me an entirely new framework to understand the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and how God works in those stories. And no, I’m not exaggerating.

In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham, and it’s a little weird, mainly because it’s entirely on God. He promises that he will be Abraham’s God. He promises he will give him many descendants. He promises to make those descendants a blessing to the world. And, most importantly, he takes all of the potential negative consequences of breaking the covenant on Himself. In essence, he makes this covenant with Himself on Abraham’s behalf.

What’s Abraham’s part in this whole thing? “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”, the text says (and he’s supposed to circumcise his kids as a visible mark of his belief). This is one of the earliest and clearest depictions of the unconditional grace-driven nature of God’s relationship to humanity and the world–a relationship that would later be called “The Gospel”. In fact, the Apostle Paul would look at this moment in Genesis and say:

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

Okay….so what?
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On Not Following the Christian Blogosphere (a plea)


I pride myself on thinking that a large percentage of the readers of this blog have no idea of this odd subculture/alternate universe that is the “Christian blogosphere”. So for those that don’t know: there is a very large labyrinth of (largely evangelical) blogs and conferences and podcasts and websites that are dedicated to talking about “the” “Christian view” on any manner of things that (1) really don’t affect much of people’s real lives or (2) seem kind of weird to have a “Christian view” of.

It’s not simply talking about things from a Christian perspective (like this blog), but rather doing so with a particular reactive, evangelical, tribal “flavor”. I’m sure I fall into that at times here, but I’m not proud of it and I try to act against it.

the dangers of the Christian blogosphere

There are two primary things about the nature of these sites that more easily lend themselves to human weakness, I feel.
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Heidelberg (Hyper-)Calvinism? | (a celebration)


Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

So begins the Heidelberg Catechism, a 16th-century document written under extraordinary circumstances. Long story short, after the counter Reformation, different “princes” over different regions were allowed to declare what “denomination” their region would be. The problem for Frederick III? His region was split pretty evenly between Lutherans and Calvinists. And so, he brought together some people from different traditions, and had them write a document they all agreed upon. The Heidelberg was born.

This document is one of the main doctrinal statements of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and my church. I’ve read little bits and pieces of it in the past, but I recently sat down and read the whole thing. And I was pretty surprised.
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Confessions of a Lapsed Charismatic, pt. 1


{summary: Though rooted in a Reformed tradition that usually spurns this, I am very much a theological charismatic. I believe in the full, contemporary exercise of the Holy Spirit through his Church, including all of the manifestations this has had throughout Church History. And yet, though I “believe” these things, over the past few years, they’ve played a smaller and smaller part in my life. In this piece, I reflect on that.}

UPDATES: Part 2 is up, where I go through a brief history of tongues in a corporate church context. I’ve also posted Part 3, where I focus in on the why and how of individual praying in tongues.

Several days ago, the New York Times had a wonderful Op-Ed piece called “Why We Talk in Tongues“, by a researcher who is exploring this phenomenon. (It was also appropriate, as it is still sort-of, but not really, still Pentecost.) The piece seems to have been pretty popular. Playing around with Google Trends a bit, it seems that this article made the topic of talking in tongues more popular than it has been since “Speaking in Tongues” by Justin Bieber popped up on YouTube a few years ago. This article made the topic more popular than even Megan Fox’s revelation that she speaks in tongues (and is still a practicing Pentecostal).

It got some play all over my Facebook feed, and a couple of friends asked for some of my thoughts. That they asked for my opinion was both flattering and dismaying; it reminded me of how little I talk about this part of my spirituality among my church community.

I remember years ago, when I first found my church in Richmond, Virginia, right at the end of my first semester in college. I walked into this special evening service and I immediately knew this was where God wanted me. I joined the church and was exposed to a beautiful display of charismatic theology.

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When easy & simplistic proof-texting trumps the nuance & complexity of wrestling pastorally with the text

On Tumblr, a very, very dear friend posted this earlier, in support of the Doctrine of Double Predestination, which says that in eternity past, God predestined not only who would be saved (apart from their own works), but also those who would not be saved (apart from their own works):

“They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” 1 Peter 2:8

Double predestination

#it’s biblical

In one of the most widely used Bible commentaries in existence, I found these words written about this verse, starting with commenting on the word “also” (which isn’t found in my friend’s translation of the verse). I’ve changed some formatting and some grammar to make it easier to understand. Enjoy:

“also” [as in “as they were also destined to do”;  this is in the Greek, though Revelation 19’s translation doesn’t have this]—[this is] an additional thought; God’s ordination; not that God ordains or appoints them to sin, but they are given up to “the fruit of their own ways” according to the eternal counsel of God. The moral ordering of the world is altogether of God. God appoints the ungodly to be given up unto sin, and a reprobate mind, and its necessary penalty.

The phrase “Were appointed,” (Greek, “set,”) is an answer to the “I lay,” (Greek, “set,”) found in 1Pe 2:6.

God, in the active, is said to appoint Christ and the elect (directly). Unbelievers, in the passive, are said to be appointed (God acting less directly in the appointment of the sinner’s awful course) [Bengel]. God ordains the wicked to punishment, not to crime [J. Cappel].

“Appointed” or “set” (not here “FORE-ordained”) refers, not to the eternal counsel so directly, as to the penal justice of God. Through the same Christ whom sinners rejected, they shall be rejected; unlike believers, they are by God appointed unto wrath as fitted for it.

***The lost shall lay all the blame of their ruin on their own sinful perversity, not on God’s decree; the saved shall ascribe all the merit of their salvation to God’s electing love and grace.***

(from the “Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible)

What are your thoughts on this issue? How important do you think it is in the grand scheme of the Gospel?

Wright, the Neo-Reformed, & Unity in the Church (If you read one thing all day, let it be this)

easterDon’t worry, the title is not referring to this very blog post you are reading right now.  It’s actually referring to this article at Christianity Today by Brett McCracken:

Wrightians & the Neo-Reformed: ‘All One in Christ Jesus – A dispatch from Together for the Gospel and Wheaton’s Theology Conference with N.T. Wright

The article compares and contrasts the general ethos of two very different conferences that occurred very close to the same time.  One conference was the Together for the Gospel Conference and Wheaton College’s Theology Conference with N.T. Wright.

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“Independence Day?” by B.Rayshawn Graves – Reform & Revive

B.Rayshawn Graves, a Guest Contributor his way to becoming a regular on Reform & Revive just posted a new article.  He originally called it “Decision Day” but I renamed it “Independence Day?” for obvious American calendrical reasons.

The article contains a quote and some of Graves’ thoughts on the balance between God’s Sovereignty and our free will.  Here’s the article:


The Sweet Taste of Sovereign Suffering


I absolutely REFUSE to believe the following:

  1. I worship and believe in a God that spends half his time saying “Oh crap, did that just happen?” (Romans 8:28)
  2. Satan is just the evil version of God that pretty much has the same power and authority as Him. (Job 1:7-12; Zechariah 3:2; Matthew 16:23)
  3. God merely REACTS to the suffering Satan causes, thus making Satan pre-eminent and initiator of all bad things. (Isaiah 45:7)
  4. Every creature and being in all of the universe has a free will of self-determination EXCEPT God. (Isaiah 55:8-11)

Something that has been on my mind a lot lately, is this topic of God’s presence in a world full of suffering. Let’s face it: life is pain. You’re either coming out it, going through it, or about to enter into it. So . . . where is God in all of this?

We don’t worship a God that looks at the suffering of the world and says “Wow, that’s bad, someone should do something about that.” Rather, we worship a God that enters into this suffering and undergoes it Himself in order that His Will may be accomplished of saving His people and ushering them into His Glory.

My decision to finally get these thoughts down on the blog was because of an interesting message I read in my personal study of Micah. You can find some more context in Micah 2:1-5, here I give the verses of significance.

they oppress a man and his house,
a man and his inheritance.
Therefore thus says the LORD:
behold, against this family I am devising disaster,
from which you cannot remove your necks,
and you shall not walk haughtily,
for it will be a time of disaster.

The Hebrew word for “devising” can also mean “create,” “weave,” “fabricate.” The Hebrew word for “disaster” used here can also mean “evil.” So, this verse can reasonably read:

“Therefore thus says the LORD:
behold, against this family I am weaving together evil.”

If you want a more direct verse, look at Isaiah 45:6-7:

that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.

In both these passages, why is God directly weaving together and creating calamity and disaster? In the first passage we see that the intended result of this time of “disaster” is that the Israelites would no longer “walk haughtily” – or in other words: Discipline and Sanctification of God’s people. In the second passage, we see that the LORD is doing these things so that everyone may know that there is no other God but Him, and that He is in control – or in other words: Revelation and Communication of God’s eternal Attributes and Being. How does it do that? Suffering and evil cause something deep inside of us to want to cry out “No!” because something inside of us just knows that it isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Suffering shows us how fallen the world is and how unlike it was originally created to be. So, from these passages we can conclude three primary reasons for suffering, as it is caused by God Himself:

  1. God’s Glory
  2. Our Holiness (God’s Glory in us)
  3. Further His Redemptive Plan (God’s Glory in History)

Where did I get that last one? The context of Isaiah 45 is that this is the passage where Isaiah is prophesying about (and to) the ruler that would free the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity 500 years (I think) later! He calls him by name and country: Cyrus, king of Persia. The opening lines of Chapter 45 are “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus.” He refers to a pagan king who never believed in God (as far as we know) and calls him “his anointed”! Cyrus is anointed because he was chosen by God to free the people and so God says in this passage that he is opening every door and using everything to bring Cyrus to this point to display His Glory in the world, because God will use whatever it takes to bring about the redemption of His Creation, a pagan unbelieving King, light, darkness, or calamity.

Also take note that in all those purposes, God’s Glory is the key to it all. God’s Glory is at the center through every pain, every atrocity, and every evil perpetrated in the world. How does this help us? Well, it can’t – naturally. It really only helps some of us. Those whose very nature has been changed so that it delights in the Glory of God more than the glory of themselves. The natural man cares more about himself than the Glory of God. That is what conversion is. Heaven is an eternal revelation of the infinite Glory of God, being poured into the finite beings. Heaven is not eternal just because that’s how long it is – no, Heaven is eternal because it will take that long to exhaust the storehouses of God’s Glory for us to experience. The problem is thus: when people are born, they care about and enjoy every OTHER thing but the Glory of God. So, conversion is (and must be) the process of changing someone’s very nature so that they now delight in the Glory of God! It is to prepare us for Heaven. What does this have to do with suffering?

Well, two things:

First and foremost, the complete canon of Scripture testifies to the fact that (a) God does ALL things with His Glory foremost in His mind (even love us), (b) He is the one who actively causes suffering, tribulation, and pain in the world, therefore (c) He does it all for His Glory, which the converted soul now delights in, thus the Christian can delight in suffering, trusting that it is revealing God’s Glory in Him/Herself, the World, and History.

[UPDATE TO THIS POST: I should probably give an operational definition to the phrase “Glory of God.” It’s a nice concept, but what does it mean? The best way I have found to define it is thus: The “Glory of God” is the external manifestations of the manifold perfections of God. If that is your passion in this world, then you are converted.]

The second reason this helps the Christian I will discuss at length in my next post, but I assure you, it is Glorious (no pun intended).

I know this is very rough and hard to follow and my case isn’t made very fully. I just knew this was going to be long enough, so I had to try and compact somethings. Really, if anyone wants more Scripture on this, just ask. There is PLENTY to go around. Also feel free to leave a question if you see some philosophical, logical, or exegetical holes in my thinking. I’m sure there is a lot. Please let me know.

I appreciate everyone that reads this blog, and love you so dearly. Until next time.

The Bondage of the Will: An Exhortation to all Christendom

This post will primarily be a response to Tyler’s comment that the previous post on this site consisted of. A brief historical investigation surrounding the context of the piece I stole the title for this post from may help shed light on the passion I hope will come through.

[One quick note as a final point on the topic of the biases of the religious studies department at VCU: there is not a single full-time professor that is a professing Christian. All full-time professors in the religious studies department are either secular humanists or of other differing faiths.]

I want to put one more quote from Tyler on this post:

In reference to the other guy who posted here, Paul is an incredible orator and debater. He quite regularly makes atheists his unholy bitches on the record. He’s as committed to his faith as Stephen was, but he is smart enough to take you through an interesting dive into Judaism. His site can link you to some of the best arguments against the Bible on the face of the Earth, but the man is such an intellectual juggernaut that he builds a scaffold around the detractors, prays and then floats his way to the top.

The night I received this comment, I went to bed with the words “intellectual juggernaut” haunting my thoughts until I fell into my slumber. Sure, to an extent I was both flattered and encouraged by these words, but for the most part, I was deeply troubled and dismayed. I knew then that I needed to write this post.

This is to all Christians out there: I have known Tyler for over a year now, and consider him a dear friend and compatriot on this path called life. As he himself said in the comment, though, he is not a Christian, as most of my friends also seem to not be. We have had many, many talks. I have answered so many, many questions, read so many, many bible verses to him and for him and yet, he is not a Christian. Why?

It is true. I know a lot. I make it my business to know as much as I can about everything. I can theorize, postulate, formulate, philosphize, orate, debate, lecture, and preach with the best of them. I have read much, spoken much, debated much, and thought much. I can present the peculiar doctrines of the Christian faith in such form that little can stand up against it. I am indeed by all measures, forms, and fashions, an “intellectual juggernaut,” but what good has it done for Tyler? His soul now rests in the same state now that it did over a year ago. I have answered every question, withstood every refutation, stood in rooms surrounded on all sides by people differing in their beliefs from me in every way, shape, and form seeking only to see my demise, with him watching. I have presented the gospel in every way, with every scientific, psychological, historical, rhetorical, literary, philosophical, archaeological and spiritual backing, and to what end? None. As of yet.

My point in this whole post can be summed up thus: Christian, facts don’t save people, debates don’t save people, arguments don’t save people, intellects don’t save people, orators don’t save people, sermons don’t save people, philosophies and refutations don’t save people, nor do “intellectual juggernauts.” The Gospel of God by the power of the Holy Spirit through the atonement of Jesus Christ saves people. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16)

This Gospel of God has become so sweet and so precious to me in past year and a half, it pains me to see the affections of one I love so dearly, not turned to the only source of true delight in the midst of the inevitable sufferings life will bring. That is the Gospel. While we were yet sinners not seeking God, unrighteous not because of acts, but because of being; by nature children of wrath, who awoke every morning without God being their first thought, highest treasure, primary desire, most awe-inspiring thing, he sought us. He came and lived the life we were supposed to live and paid the price for the life we live now, so that those whose spiritual taste-buds are changed to have God and Christ be their sweetest desire, could be forever enthralled by Him, like 10, 000 sights of the supernova or the grand canyon. Not so that they could be delivered from pain and in that get joy and rest, but be given God Himself as our joy and rest so we can tread through the fires that all humans go through, not as a coping mechanism, but as a new being, rejoicing in all God gives them, good and bad.

Tyler, as I know you will read this, hear this: you are a vulgar, disgusting, evil man who has not only broken all the commandments of an eternal Creator, but also does not desire God, seek God, long for the grace of God to resurrect your dying soul and quench that eternal spiritual thirst for His life you know you need every time you ponder your life in the dark hours of the night before you sleep. Yet, though all this is true, God has found it to be His delight; His delight!; to see one such as yourself brought near to Him and have your affections changed so as to long for Him and receive Him as your joy and peace and happiness, that His “joy may be made complete in you,” that you may magnify his glory in this earth.

How can I say this with such confidence? Everything I just said is the story of my life. It is the story for every Christian walking this planet. It is the state of every Christian, at the point in their lives that their souls are called upon to see the revealed grace of God extended to them, to make them “white as snow,” and the make the only decision they possibly can: to long for God, and in that overflow want to obey Him. This is the Gospel that Jesus lived, breathed, and died. This is the Gospel that has saved every Christian since the dawn of time, from Abraham in Ur to Paul Burkhart in Richmond, VA to perhaps, Tyler Bass.

In summary, Christians, preach the Gospel, preach the Gospel, preach the Gospel! That is the only thing that can bring those we love to the only source and fountain of joy, peace,love, and rest they will ever desire, not our facts or knowledge.

Be not discouraged if you have not read every Lee Stroebel, Josh MacDowell, or C.S. Lewis book. Don’t feel useless or not “relevant” if people don’t call you an “intellectual juggernaut,” because those words will only haunt you as you realize the futility of all man’s wisdom, even that which defends God. How even that wisdom is only as good as God uses it to be. So desire that knowledge, seek it, but rely not upon it, for it is not the power of God for the salvation of all peoples. Only the sovereign work of God and the Holy Spirit can do that. So, preach what the Bible calls the “foolishness of God!” I mean, our savior died! According to the unChristian world, where’s the wisdom in that. It only goes to show you how this could not have been just “made up” by man. No human could ever come up with such a foolish story for a faith.

Only God could establish a story for redemption that was so wise beyond the perceptual framework of man that man would just have to push it off to the side and call it weakness and foolishness, when it has brought empires to their knees, for it is the power of God for the salvation of all those called to be His for His glory.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given Him a gift that he might be repaid? For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be glory for ever. Amen.”
–Romans 11:34-36

Regarding the seemingly bold statements made above about myself and my gifts. Christians, take note. I say all that in the Spirit of Paul when he said, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Cor. 15:10) All that I have done, said, and lived before Tyler has not been I, but the grace of God within me. I take no credit for the gifts given to me, but I will in no way demean them for the sake of a post-modern misconception of what humility is. I have great gifts, but they are not of myself, nor for myself. They are for the glory of God for the joy of all peoples.