Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On the day after adjournment

On the day after adjournment:
Presbyterian Outlook (free registration required)
"...Calvin goes on to argue that the quality of life of one’s fellow church members should not be the basis on which one decides whether to stay or leave the church. Speaking of those who would leave the church in offense over the behavior of others, he points to the Apostle Paul’s remarks in I Corinthians 5 and 11. He comments that “in thinking it a sacrilege to partake of the Lord’s bread with the wicked, they are much more rigid than Paul. For when Paul urges us to a holy and pure partaking of it, he does not require that one examine another, or everyone in the whole church, but that each individual examine himself.” (IV, I, 15). The theme of sections 17-22 of this chapter of Book IV is summarized as “The imperfect holiness of the church does not justify schism, but affords the occasion for the exercise within it of forgiveness of sins.” (Book IV, Section I). ..."
Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly has posted a reflection on the aftermath of this year's meeting in Birmingham. In this short excerpt from the middle of her article, she calls on John Calvin to offer a suggestion on how to approach al this talk of apostasy and schism.

Reading this triggered some memories of my reading the Book of Confessions several years ago, and I went back to the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XVII, and located this:

WE MUST NOT JUDGE RASHLY OR PREMATURELY. Hence we must be very careful not to judge before the time, nor undertake to exclude, reject or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected, and those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church. On the other hand, we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the Church. -- Book of Confessions 5.140
The section preceding the above quote likens the Church to a net that catches all kinds of fish (Matthew 13:47) or a field in which both wheat and tares are found (Matthew 13:24).

I sincerely hope and pray that the PC(USA) will not split over the PUP report, especially since so much that was good came out of GA 217.

We are not called to ignore problems in the name of "unity", but neither are we called to go through the field uprooting the weeds we see. We are to be vigilant and, as Calvin suggests, examine ourselves first, realizing that imperfection in the Church is not neccesarily grounds for schism.

Nearly 450 years ago there was near schism in the newly reformed Church, and the Second Helvetic Confession was a response to the charges and countercharges of heresy being hurled back and forth in the mid-1500s. The Church survived then, and the Church can survive today.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When Calvinism leaves you empty read this.

By Christopher Cuddy

Of all the doctrinal disputes within Protestant theology, I doubt whether there is any debate more popular than the perennial favorite: predestination. Evangelical Protestants love nothing more than to sit for hours and discuss the intricacies involved in God's role in the salvific process.

I was no exception.

The most common way Calvinist distinctives are expressed is through the acronym "TULIP." It is important to note that this acronym by no means exhaustive. Reformed Protestants believe many more things than those which are expressed by TULIP. TULIP, far from being a thorough expression of the Reformed belief-system, is simply an easy-to-remember presentation of the five major doctrines which distinguish Calvinists from the other sects within Protestantism. TULIP stands for the following doctrinal beliefs:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

I discovered Calvinism (also known as "Reformed Theology") when I was in junior high. My grandparents had loaned me a tape series by a popular Calvinist theologian, and I was enthralled with the apparent grasp of truth and reality that the Calvinist worldview seemed to posses. While I had never had any serious doubts about my Christian faith, I had always felt that the clich├ęd answers most fundamentalists gave to the objections posed by skeptics were insufficient. Calvinism seemed to transcend the shallow answers that I was used to hearing. When it came to issues like "why does God permit evil in the world?" "Why doesn't God save everyone?" "Is God in ultimate control?" Calvinism seemed to be the only system of theology that made true, Biblical sense of reality. I agreed with famed pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon that Calvinism is just "a nick-name for Biblical Christianity."

I poured myself into the study of the Calvinism and Reformation theology all throughout high school. It wasn't just my hobby; it was my life. I hung pictures of such men as John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Jonathan Edwards all around my bedroom walls. To me, Calvinism wasn't simply an option within Christianity: it was the only Biblically true system of theology. And to the chagrin of my parents, I would storm through our less-than-thoroughly Calvinist Church beating the distinctives of Reformed theology into anyone and everyone around me.

It was my passion. It was my life.

In the fall of 2002, I enrolled at Grove City College - a conservative, Calvinist, Presbyterian school. I chose Grove City because it was one of the most prestigious of the Presbyterian schools, and I expected it to provide a theologically astute environment. Little did I know that it would be at one of the most prestigious Calvinist colleges in the country that I would be hit with the truth-claims of the Catholic Church. I began investigating the Catholic faith that September, and by late-October - after reading about forty books and listening to dozens of taped lectures and debates - I was convinced: Rome was home after all. I transferred to the Franciscan University of Steubenville in the spring of 2003, and by the grace of God I was received into the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that Easter Vigil.

Although I am utterly convinced about the truth-claims of the Catholic Faith, my heart goes out to those friends and family members who, unfortunately, still have many misconceptions about Catholicism. We don't have the ability to alter their thinking. We cannot cause them to suddenly " fall in love" with the beauty of the Catholic Church. We can, however, pray for them, and we can make a sincere effort to dispel our misconceptions about the Protestant system of doctrine and belief. We can only expect them to make an effort understand where we stand, if we have already made an effort to understand where they stand. Thus, the remainder of this article will be an attempt to (briefly) explain 1) what Calvinism/Reformed theology really is, 2) why Catholics should be interested in the Calvinist worldview, and 3) how we as Catholics should respond/interact with our Reformed brothers and sisters.

What's the big deal, anyway? Why should Catholics be concerned with the Calvinists? Well, there are three main reasons why we, as Catholics, should pay attention to what our Reformed friends have to say.

1) Calvinists tend to be more theologically sophisticated than many of their fellow Protestants. Many main-stream Protestants downplay the importance of theology. They argue that theology only creates strife among the people of God and that it should be avoided. They'll say things like: " Christianity isn't a religion: it's a relationship," and they'll try to argue that theology only hinders true communion with God.

Calvinists don't say this. In fact, Calvinists are usually the ones out there stirring up the waters. They love to ask the tough questions and point out the holes in people's belief systems. They are aware of the issues over which the Reformation was fought, and they take great pride in the historic roots of their theological heritage. They know why Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Church door in Wittenberg. They know what drove John Calvin to establish his church in Geneva.

Theology does matter, and these people know it.

2) There are similarities between Calvinists and Catholics. This may surprise many people - how could a Catholic believe anything similar to John Calvin!?!? - but it's true. The idea of the covenant is at the core of Reformed theology. Contrary to the dispensationalists who attempt to separate and divide salvation history into a series of unconnected events, the Calvinists see a strong continuity between both the Old and New Testaments. Calvinists also tend to have a high view of the visible Church. Church participation and membership aren't merely helpful to the Christian life; they are absolutely necessary. They also tend to have a high view of the sacraments. Most Calvinists believe in infant baptism, and many of them believe that communion isn't merely a "commemorative" celebration (the fundamentalist view) but a time of true, mystical communion with our Lord in heaven.

Finally, 3) Calvinists tend to be very anti-Catholic. While there are many sects and denominations within the Protestant Church, the Calvinists are often the most volatile when it comes to the differences that exist between Protestant and Catholic traditions. They are the most volatile because they have the deepest sense of the doctrinal differences that lie between Catholics and Protestants. They know what the debate was about back in the sixteenth century. They know what the debate is about today.

All of this being said, what, exactly, is Calvinism/Reformed Theology? What does it really mean to be named after one of the most feared men in Church history? The best way to answer these questions is to examine the Latin Protestant slogans made popular during the Reformation. They are as follows: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Sola Scriptura. These three slogans are at the core of the Calvinist cause, and they are foundational to the Protestant belief system.

The first slogan (Sola Gratia) points to the Protestant belief that salvation is by "Grace Alone." Martin Luther and John Calvin were disenchanted with (what they believed to be) the Catholic understanding of salvation. To them, human merit was not only irrelevant to one's justification, it was detrimental! Humanity is radically corrupt because of the Fall in Genesis 3. There is no good left in mankind. Man is basically evil. Every action he performs is sin-ridden at best and thoroughly evil at worst. Man is so fallen that every "good work" that man is able to perform must come solely from the grace of God. Thus, everything we do - whether it be helping the poor, little old lady cross the street, or embracing the saving news of Jesus Christ - is solely because of God's grace.

It is important to note that Catholics and Protestants define "grace" differently. A Protestant, typically, will define grace as "God's unmerited favor." A Catholic defines grace as our "participation in the life of God" (CCC #1997). The Catholic Church understands grace to be not only God's favor but nothing less than His divine life! Thus, the Catholic can join the Calvinist in proclaiming that justification is by grace alone. But the Catholic is always quick to point out that grace is far more real, divine, and life-giving than the Calvinist realizes. Grace is not merely the direction of God's countenance; it is the extension of His own life and being!

The second slogan (Sola Fide) builds upon the first. Extremely dissatisfied with the Catholic understanding of salvation, Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that salvation occurs by "faith alone." Human merit contributes nothing to the salvation process. It is a free gift achieved through faith alone. Contrary to Catholicism which teaches that justification is an ongoing process, the Protestant Reformers believed that justification is a one-time, instantaneous event. While John Calvin continually stressed the need for a growing obedience and love for our Lord after the "moment" of justification, he always stressed the point that the initial moment of justification was - itself - by faith alone.

The third slogan (Sola Scriptura) was the formal cause of the Protestant Reformation. This was the driving principle of the Reformation. Basically, Sola Scriptura ("Scripture Alone") teaches that no one is obligated to believe any doctrine that he cannot - explicitly! - see in the Bible. While Luther and Calvin both believed that the writings of the early Church Fathers were valuable, they taught that the Bible was the only thing that could bind the hearts and souls of Christians. It didn't matter what the Church said. Everybody had the right to decide for themselves what the Bible teaches. An infallible interpretation of Scripture was viewed as being both arrogant and impossible. How could anyone claim to have understood Scripture with certain infallibility?

It is upon this foundation that the Calvinist belief-system is built.

The most common way Calvinist doctrines are expressed is through the acronym " TULIP." It is important to note that this acronym is by no means exhaustive. Reformed Protestants believe many more things than those which are expressed by TULIP. TULIP, far from being a thorough expression of the Reformed belief-system, is simply an easy-to-remember presentation of the five major doctrines that distinguish Calvinists from the other Protestant sects.

TULIP stands for the following doctrinal beliefs:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints
Total depravity is perhaps the most misunderstood of the five-points of Calvinism. Like most people who first hear the phrase "total depravity," my mind conjured up an image of a hardened criminal sitting on death row, awaiting his execution. I imagined a man so calloused by evil and sin that his every action was laden with evil intent and desire. Although this is how total depravity is commonly understood, it is quite inaccurate. Contrary to what the title might suggest, total depravity is not the belief that fallen human beings are as sinful as they possibly can be (a belief that would perhaps better be titled: utter depravity). Total depravity should be understood in terms of the "radical corruption" of human nature, or the " total inability" of the will to choose the good. A Calvinist believes that the effects of original sin are so great that man no longer has the ability to choose the good. He is bound to sin. He loves evil and darkness. He hates Truth and the Light. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that we have " wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto" (9.3).
Catholic Response: For a Calvinist to be truly consistent with this belief, he has to believe than even babies who die at birth are necessarily doomed to hell because of the depraved condition of their soul. It doesn't matter that they, themselves, never had the opportunity to commit any sins. All that matters is the fact that they are born radically corrupt. While many Calvinist squirm at this point and argue that God "makes exceptions" when it comes to those who die before the age of reason, they are still faced with the true gravity of their theology. It is impossible for God to punish someone unjustly. How, therefore, could God fully damn the soul of a stillborn child for sins he/she didn't commit? Such a position is indeed repulsive and contrary to the character of God.

In paragraph 405m the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that original sin is a "deprivation of original holiness and justice." However, it notes that "human nature has not been totally corrupted" (emphasis added). Original sin is the result of Adam and Eve's act of rebellion. We are un-graced because of the fall. We lack the sanctifying grace that we originally possessed. But we are not totally depraved. Because of Adam and Eve's sin, we lack our original status as covenantal family members with God (original justice). We have fallen from that original position of grace. We are now "dis-graced creatures." We have fallen from our filial position in God's covenantal family. We now transmit human life apart from the divine life for which human life was created. We impart a fallen nature to our children. However, we do not transmit Adam and Eve's personal sin. God does not look upon a newborn baby and see Adam and Eve's specific/personal sin. We are all implicated in Adam's sin, but we don't receive Adam's sin. We receive a wounded nature that is deprived of grace and inclined towards evil (concupiscence), but we do not receive a totally depraved nature. Thus, as the Catechism states, original sin is sin "contracted and not committed." We are born into a "state [of sin] and not an act" (#404).

Unconditional election is connected to the "Reformed view" of Predestination, and it builds upon their belief in total depravity. Because mankind is so radically corrupt, so thoroughly sinful, and so diametrically opposed to all things good (especially the ultimate Good: God Himself), man cannot even take the first step towards saving grace. In his book, Grace Unknown, noted Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul presents the Reformed view of election as follows: "From all eternity God decided to save some members of the human race and to let the rest of the human race perish" (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997, p. 141). Thus, the reason why some people "choose" to embrace God is because God chose them first. God's choice is " unconditional." His sovereign choice is not at all dependent upon any inherent good or merit he sees within us. A Calvinist would vehemently disagree with the belief that God merely "foreknows" who will come to saving faith, and thus bases His choice upon human decision. God isn't a celestial Santa Clause who looks down the corridor of time to see who's been "naughty or nice." He chooses us not because He sees any particular value or worth in some that is lacking in others. Rather it is only because of the mystery of His sovereign will that He chooses some and not others.

Catholic Response: Many Catholics are shocked when they discover that the Church actually permits one to hold a view similar to the Calvinist view. While the Church by no means enforces it as dogma, this is a legitimate doctrinal option for an orthodox Catholic. Generally speaking, those within the Church who embrace this view of predestination are called Thomists (i.e. people who follow the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas). The Thomists argue that God's love is the cause of all goodness, and thus no one would be better equipped to choose God (the "Ultimate Good") unless he were more loved by God. God's love infuses and creates goodness in things. Granted, God gives grace to all ("sufficient grace"), but to certain people He gives an "extra-measure" of grace that infallibly produces results ("efficacious grace"). I cannot (in-and-of myself) muster up enough "goodness" to embrace God. His special love and grace are necessary even in my initial decision to choose Him. Contrary to what one might think, it isn't a matter of God's efficacious grace or human free-will. Rather, it is a matter of God's efficacious grace and human free-will. It is only in and through God's grace that we can truly be free. Again, the Church does not teach that one must adhere to this view, but it is important to note that it is a legitimate option with the Church. (For an extensive treatment of this topic, I recommend that one read Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's excellent book entitled Predestination (Rockford: Tan Books & Publishers, Inc., 1999)).

Limited atonement is the perhaps the most controversial of the "five-points of Calvinism." Limited atonement refers to the belief that Christ's death on the cross was only designed for those whom He had chosen to save (i.e. He only died for the predestined "elect"). Not surprisingly, this doctrinal affirmation has been the source of much controversy within Protestant circles. Many people feel that it undervalues the efficacy of Christ's death on the cross.

It is important to understand, however, that Calvinists are not questioning the infinite value of Christ's death. They agree that Christ's death is sufficient for all, and that it could theoretically atone for the sins of each and every person. What they don't believe is that Christ's death is efficient for all, and that it actually saves each and every person. They believe that because He has chosen a limited number of people to be saved. He will only die for that limited number of people. The argument runs something like this: 1) the purpose of Christ's death was to save people, 2) God only chose a set number of people to be saved, therefore 3) Christ only died for those whom He had chosen to save (the elect).

Catholic Response: Scripturally, the Calvinist position is difficult to hold. 1 Timothy 2:6 states that Christ "gave himself as a ransom for all." 2 Corinthians 5:15 says that Christ "has died for all." 1 John 2:2 says that Jesus is "the expiation for our sins, and not of ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." In light of these and many other passages in Scripture, the Calvinist understanding of limited atonement quickly crumbles. The Bible is emphatic about the fact that Christ's died for all men. The Catechism states that the Church "following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: 'There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer '" (#605).

While we must affirm the universality of Christ's death on the cross, it is interesting to note that there is a sense in which Christ's atonement is limited. While Christ died for the sins of all men, it is quite obvious that not all men have, in fact, received the full benefits of Christ's death (or else all men would be saved). Rather, Catholics believe that while Christ went to the cross with the intention of making salvation possible for all men, He did not, therefore, necessarily make salvation actual for all men (this would be the heresy of universalism). The salvific effect of the atonement is limited by those who receive (and those who do not receive) the benefits of Christ's saving death on the cross.

Irresistible grace can be summed up in the brief statement that " regeneration precedes (saving) faith." That is, Christ regenerates fallen human beings - making them spiritually alive - and gives them both the ability and the irrevocable desire to embrace Him. No one can resist God's efficacious call. It is impossible for someone to be regenerated by God and not embrace Him. Why? Well, building on the previous three "TULIP points," the Calvinist believes that regeneration so opens up the eyes of the sinner that he will not be able to refuse God's call. The offer of salvation is just so beautiful and attractive that no man will be able to reject it. A Calvinist does not believe that God drags people into heaven, kicking and screaming. Once a person is regenerated, there is nothing that could possibly prevent him from embracing His Savior. He enters the gates of heaven with inexpressible joy because that's the only place where his heart can find true rest and contentment.

Catholic Response: One of the crucial differences that exist between Catholics and Calvinists is their understanding of when and how regeneration occurs. For a Catholic, regeneration - spiritual re-birth - occurs at baptism. For the Calvinist, baptism is important, but it does not necessarily have regenerative powers: it is possible for someone to be baptized and not be regenerate (and vice versa).

It is interesting to note, however, that a Catholic does not have to disagree with the Calvinists about the existence of grace that is " irresistible" or "efficacious." As noted earlier, too many people reduce the issue to a matter of human free-will or divine grace, when it is really a matter of human free-will and divine grace. God is a God of love, and His love produces "irresistible" results in us: His chosen sons and daughters.

P is the final letter in the Calvinist's five-point TULIP, and it stands for perseverance of the saints. Perseverance of the saints is the belief that once God has begun a saving work within the life of a Christian, He will not let that person (ultimately) fall from grace. Sin and temptation are still very real in the lives of God's children, but it is impossible for a true Christian to renounce his faith. A Calvinist emphatically rejects the idea of mortal sin. Any person who is 1) truly chosen/elected by God, 2) truly saved by Christ's death on the cross, and 3) truly drawn to our Lord, will not forsake his salvation. He can't lose his salvation, nor will he want to. A Calvinist will admit that there are a lot of people who go through a " conversion experience" and later appear to fall-away from their faith. A Calvinist can only shrug when confronted with these unfortunate instances and say that the person was never truly saved in the first place.

Catholic Response: One of the most jaw-dropping verses for me as a Protestant was 1 John 5:16-17: "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal." (emphasis added). How more obvious could the Biblical writer be about the existence of "mortal" sins? While all sins are evil and harmful to the sinner, there are sins which are fatal to the spiritual health of one's soul. It's a Biblical fact: some people do fall from grace. This is something that we have all seen experienced. Rather than causing us to despair, however, this should drive us to our knees in earnest prayer, asking our Lord to ever and always strengthen us in our battle with sin and temptation.


Sadly, many of our Reformed brothers and sisters have been subject to severe and gross misunderstandings. In our contemporary culture, the words " Calvinist," "Reformed," or "Predestination," are riddled with negative connotations. This should not be the case. Granted, the Catholic Church is in serious opposition to many distinctives of Reformed theology, but that doesn't mean that there is nothing good to be found within "Calvin country." I encourage Catholics to sincerely love their Reformed brothers and sisters. Calvinists, far from being the Church's most severe and mortal enemies, are, in many ways, extremely close to the teachings of the Church. Catholics disagree with Calvinists. But Catholics need to put aside their anti-Calvinist biases, and disagree in love. I left Calvinism for the Catholic Church not because I was brow-beaten by anti-Calvinist Catholics, but because I was shown that Catholicism was a theology of love, and that the Church cared about the eternal state of my soul far more than it cared about my anti-Catholic tendencies.

Secondly, we should pray for our Calvinistic friends. One of my favorite spiritual writers is St. Francis de Sales. He was the Bishop of Geneva, Switzerland around the time of the Protestant Reformation. While Geneva may not mean much to most Catholics, Geneva carries a lot of significance for Reformed Protestants. Geneva was John Calvin's home for many years. It is where he taught and preached.

While St. Francis is famous for many different things, he has a special place in my heart. He was used of God to help lead many Genevan Calvinists out of their Reformed groups and back into Christ's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Sure St. Francis put a lot of effort into his ministry - writing books/tracks, engaging Calvinists in charitable dialogue, etc. - but fundamental to all of his efforts was his commitment to our Lord in prayer. Prayer is powerful. Don't underestimate how vital and indispensable it is to one's spiritual growth and effectiveness.

Only God can change minds and warm hearts.

Thirdly and finally, we must not shy away from sharing the beauty and riches of our Catholic faith with our Reformed brothers and sisters. Most people dislike disputes and confrontations. I am no exception. If I can avoid an argument, I will. Many Catholics treat their faith like a secret. They try to keep it hidden from the watching world. This is not the way it should be. We should boldly proclaim the truths of our faith in love.

Don't hesitate to share your excitement about the Catholic Church. Don't shy away from presenting the truths of your Catholic faith. Will people get offended? Possibly. Will people get angry with you? Maybe. Will Calvinists in particular feel especially passionate about the issues that divide Catholics and Protestants? Probably. But trust me: I would not be here writing this if it weren't for Catholics who lovingly proclaimed the truth of their faith. If two people - who have now become dear friends - had not lovingly shared with me their joy and enthusiasm for the Church, I would still be on my anti-Catholic diatribe. If they had merely shied away from sharing the joy that is deep within their soul, I would still believe that the Pope is the anti-Christ.

Please don't shy away from the truth of your faith. God has given you the most precious of gifts. Don't be ashamed of it!

Love, Pray, Share. God's in the business of working miracles. Anything's possible.

Christopher Cuddy is a Research Assistant for the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (www.salvationhistory.com) and a Staff Apologist/Writer for NextWave Faithful (www.nextwavefaithful.com)

He can be reached at ChristopherJCuddy@hotmail.com and by phone at 740-283-1016