Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What Piper overlooks about the "Cage Phase" crowd

John Piper, one of the most recognizable voices of modern Calvinism, had a thoughtful commentary about those militant Calvinists which Jared is calling the "Cage Phase" Calvinists -- the ones who are so unChristian in the way they treat people that the other Calvinists are hinting they should be kept in a cage until the militant phase is over. May God bless Piper's efforts at addressing this problem; I think that commentary was a great start. But still he misses a few important points that seem very plain from the outside. This is a delicate topic, and I realize I am not fully up to the delicacy that this requires. Commenting on another Christian group from my place inside Christianity but outside that group is a sensitive thing. And commenting on a large group, there is some internal diversity: not every Calvinist is a 5-point TULIP Calvinist, much less a Cage Phase Calvinist. I pray that, if any Calvinist should read this, that the take-home messages would be, first, my view of how things look from the outside when it comes to the "Cage Phase" crowd, and second, what I believe it would take to make a real dent in the problem.

Piper's take
Piper acknowledged that the most argumentative Calvinists come across as if they are not Christian at all: as if the love of God did not register as a reality in their lives. Piper attributed this to the intellectual streak within them. I have to admit to amusement whenever someone attributes their group's worst actions to the fact that they're in some way better than the next group; the hint is that if other groups were as intellectual as the Calvinists, they would likewise have the same problems. Bless Piper, I suppose many groups think of themselves as intellectual; but I have known many intellectuals, and they do not come across the same way as the Cage Phase crowd. While we're on the subject, the Cage Phase crowd does not come across as intellectual at all; they come across as angry, bitter, and harsh. It seems to be wishful thinking to attribute this to intellectualism.

A look at the Cage Phase phenomenon
No doubt there are Cage Phase sorts in every group. I have seen some of my own (Lutherans) behave badly, and Martin Luther was undoubtedly a hothead. Still, some groups have a noticeably large and persistent problem with militants, and Calvinism has such a problem. For a little perspective, let's take a quick look at another public group with a sizable Cage Phase subset: the modern atheists. Loud and vocal group of militants there? You bet. Granted, they congratulate themselves on being Bright, and may even attribute their PR problems to being more intellectual than everyone else. But from the outside, the self-congratulatory spin is not very convincing. The Cage Phase atheists are not noted for being intellectual, but for being angry, bitter, and harsh. This caustic approach to others does not come from being brainy. In fact, I suspect it has more to do with atheism itself: those who believe that reality is nasty and brutish can easily have their minds corroded by the acid harshness of those beliefs, until the way the militant atheists behave is the mirror of their worldview.

Sovereignty as the doctrine of raw power?
Piper supposes that Calvinism is noted for its "intellectual rigor" and "powerfully coherent doctrines". Yet Piper supposes the draw for the militants is the "intellectual" bit, not the "rigor"; the "doctrines", not the "powerful" aspect. Calvinism's most distinctive feature is giving pride of place to the Doctrine of Sovereignty. This does not draw intellectuals; it draws militants. Moreover it is as likely to encourage or create militancy as intellectualism.

Take, for example, Piper's exciting initiative to add a new teaching ministry to his church: a seminary. That is a wonderful concept. I have at times wished that the local churches would all offer a seminary-level evening course each semester and watch their people become trained and knowledgeable. I applaud Piper's initiative.

Still, when I read the press release at Adrian Warnock's blog, a few things struck me hard about the bulleted points describing the new project. The first bullet point covered sovereignty, naturally (for a Calvinist). While there were quite a few bullet points, not one mentioned God's love or Christ's salvation. In fact, not one bullet point mentioned love or salvation at all. In all those bullet points, the only mention of Christ was a mention of what we might do for him. Though in keeping with the power-oriented doctrines of Calvinism, the press release does hit the militant keywords in the bullet points: "sovereignty ... rigorous ... disciplined ... wartime lifestyle". All of these have a place in God's teaching, but not such a prominent place to the exclusion of other things. I wonder if he can hear himself -- hear what he is emphasizing and, more than anything else, hear which of God's truths he is neglecting: there is no mention of love at all, and Christ is hardly mentioned, and that fairly far down the list. I do not think the Bible reflects the same priorities as that bulleted list. It makes me concerned for the seminary and for all whose spiritual leadership or spiritual care is shaped by those priorities.

Harshness in the Calvinist view of God?
One thing gets a completely free pass in Piper's discussion "Why Are Calvinists So Negative?": the thought that the harshness of the Calvinist doctrines might play any part in the harshness of the Calvinist militants. The Calvinist militants are typically 5-point TULIP folks. If anyone is unfamiliar with the TULIP, long story short the only reason anyone goes to hell (according to TULIP) is that God had no interest in saving them, that God sovereignly chose not to elect them for salvation and that is the ultimate cause of their damnation. Granted, the damned deserved punishment for doing evil. Still, as God could have saved them by simply wanting to save them (according to TULIP), it is at best misleading to mention the waywardness of the damned when it poses no meaningful obstacle to their salvation. Ultimately the cause of their damnation rests with God. As with the atheists who believe reality is nasty and brutish and behave accordingly, there is a certain effect on the mind for someone who worships and studies a God who does not love you. The way in which militant Calvinists treat non-Calvinists is much the same way in which the TULIP Calvinists suppose that God treats the non-elect. The prevalence of militant, harsh, and bitter people in the Calvinist camps is not an accident; it is related to the teachings of God's own priorities according to the Calvinist system.

Perspective Check
Thank God that a good number of Calvinists are not Cage Phase Calvinists. Piper mentions only the positives of what the Calvinists call the "doctrines of grace": the humility of knowing that God has saved us and not we ourselves; the relief of knowing we cannot do anything to save ourselves and need not do anything to save ourselves. There are many Calvinists who keep a positive focus by concentrating on only the positive parts of Calvinism, and thereby build up the positive in their minds and in their interactions with others. Still, I would trade every theology article I'd ever blogged for one thing: for the Calvinists to put Christ crucified in the place of honor rather than putting God's sovereignty above Christ, to value God's weakness which is stronger than man's strength. When we look at God's sovereignty, we do not know the mind of God. Instead, we know the mind of God by looking at Christ, the one who loves us and teaches us about the love of God, the one who laid aside sovereignty and authority to be a servant. There we know the mind of God. He who sees Christ sees the Father. He who does not see Christ does not see the Father truly.


Lynne said...

Thank you for articulating something that has been floating around in my hewad for a while. I used to be a Calvinist (long story) and it seriously impeded my dealing with some serious abuse issues, and left me close to despair. it left me believing that certain things that happened were God's sovereign will for me, that he wanted me to be treated like that. How could I feel loved by a God like that when I was most desperately in need of love? I had to start all over again with my crucified Jesus and discover, instead of a God who willed cruelty and abuse, a God who wept with me in my pain. There I could begin to find healing ..

The harshness of some Calvinists, especially cyber-ones, seems to fit their doctrines; we do become like what we worship.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Lynne

Long time no see.

I'm sad to hear about the troubles you've had. I wish you freedom from worry, guilt, shame, the shadows that can be cast over our lives. I wish you God's peace in Christ's wounds.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Wonders for Oyarsa said...

I find myself in hearty agreement - indeed, one might also think of the brute power of the will of Allah, and the ferocity of his most zealous followers.

Anyway, David Hart had his own tussle with this more radical Calvinism in his book The Doors of the Sea:

At its most unfortunate, this exaggerated adoration of God’s sheer omnipotence can yield conclusions as foolish as Calvin’s assertion, in Book III of the Institutes, that God predestined the fall of man so as to show forth his greatness in both the salvation and the damnation of those he has eternally preordained to their several fates. Were this so, God would be the author of and so entirely beyond both good and evil, or at once both and neither, or indeed merely evil (which power without justice always is). The curious absurdity of all such doctrines is that, out of a pious anxiety to defend God’s transcendence against any scintilla of genuine creaturely freedom, they threaten effectively to collapse that transcendence into absolute identity - with the world, with us, with the devil. For, unless the world is truly set apart from God and possesses a dependent but real liberty of its own analogous to the freedom of God, everything is merely a fragment of divine volition, and God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power. One wonders, indeed, if a kind of reverse prometheanism does not lurk somewhere within such a theology, a refusal on the part of the theologian to be a creature, a desire rather to be dissolved into the infinite fiery flood of God’s solitary and arbitrary act of will. In any event, such a God, being nothing but will willing itself, would be no more than an infinite tautology - the sovereignty of glory displaying itself in the glory of sovereignty - and so an infinite banality.

This is why I say that, within Ivan’s arraignment of God’s design in creation, one can hear the suppressed but still prophetic voice of a deeper, truer, more radical and revolutionary Christianity. For if indeed there were a God whose nature — whose justice or sovereignty — were revealed in the death of a child or the dereliction of a soul or a predestined hell, then it would be no great transgression to think of him as a kind of malevolent or contemptible demiurge, and to hate him, and to deny him worship, and to seek a better God than he. But Christ has overthrown all those principalities that rule without justice and in defiance of charity, and has cast out the god of this world, and so we are free (even now, in this mortal body) from slavery to arbitrary power, from fear of hell’s domination, and from any superstitious subservience to fate.

Weekend Fisher said...

Ok, now "Doors of the Sea" (which had been on my radar for awhile) is going onto my wishlist.

For if indeed there were a God whose nature — whose justice or sovereignty — were revealed in the death of a child or the dereliction of a soul or a predestined hell, then it would be no great transgression to think of him as a kind of malevolent or contemptible demiurge, and to hate him, and to deny him worship, and to seek a better God than he.

Unfortunately, I have seen exactly this happen: I have seen Calvinism as the stepping-stone to atheism. I have watched someone lose their faith as they came to Calvinism. It was not pretty. The person is (last I heard) now one of the cyber-trolls at Internet Infidels. It is impossible to have Christian faith (trust) in a God who is not trustworthy.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF