Reading John Calvin

So the other day I found another podcast worth a regular listen. It’s called Into Theology: Reading Great Works of Theology Together. It grabbed my attention because in the first several episodes the hosts discuss John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. “Aha!” I thought, “Here’s my chance!” Whereas on my own reading the Institutes felt a little intimidating, now I would have some (hopefully!) helpful guides. I took my copy of Calvin off the shelf, blew off the dust, and prepared to dive in.

I’m on the 3rd episode of the podcast and on page 99 of the Institutes (it starts on p. 35 when you skip the intro and Calvin’s “Prefatory Address to King Francis”). Listening to the podcast is helpful, because it gives some context to Calvin that makes him easier to understand. Though he’s certainly not impenetrable as a writer. But it’s not like reading modern theology or any modern prose for that matter. However, when read slowly and thoughtfully, you find little bits that stick out which are simply briliant.

There are a couple of passages that have stuck out to me thus far. The first is how he begins the whole thing. He says:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28].

Calvin, Intitutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chap. 3, part 1.

I appreciate how Calvin here talks about how we can’t know ourselves without knowing God and how, when we become self-reflective, our thoughts naturally turn to God. That is, we were made to think about God. Of course, as Calvin goes on to say, quite often human beings do not pursue right knowledge of God and end up creating idols. But I just thought his way of beginning the Institutes was very insightful.

In the other passage he is talking about the relationship and the difference between general revelation in nature (what we know of God through what he has made) and special revelation in Scripture (what we can know because God has directly revealed it to us through his word):

Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers but also opens his own most hallowed lips. Not only does he teach the elect to look upon a god, but also shows himself as the God upon whom they are to look.

Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chap. 6, Part 1

I love where he says that God opens his own most hallowed lips. What a powerful and wonderful way to describe the inspiration of Scripture.

When you decide to read a great work of theology, you needn’t worry about being a genius who picks up and remembers and absorbs all the details. I certainly don’t! Sometimes it’s simply about immersing yourself in a great thinker’s thoughts enough to have your thinking stretched here and there; and in that way to have your mind, and perhaps your heart, more deeply and fully directed to the One who is the source and subject of that theologian’s work.

So if I manage to keep on going through Calvin, I will probably keep sharing what I find now and then.

My Favourite Podcasts

I really love podcasts. I listen to a bunch, some more often than others. Here are some of the ones I especially appreciate:

Christianity and Hard Questions

Unbelievable: One of the best apologetics podcasts out of the UK. Usually involves debates between a believer and atheist /skeptic or between believers who hold different positions on various theological issues.

Apologetics Canada: A homegrown podcast on various ethical and theological issues and how we respond to our culture. One of the only podcasts that deals with these things from a Canadian perspective.

Christians and Culture

The Holy Post: Hosted by Veggie Tales creator, Phil Vischer, writer/speaker Skye Jethani, and others. Tackles cultural issues from a Christian perspective in a humorous, winsome, and thoughtful way.

The Movie Proposal: Skye Jethani and Josh Lindsey review movies and TV stories from a faith perspective.

Christianity and Struggles

Mid-Faith Crisis: Two Christians out of the UK with two points of view chatting about how to live as a person of faith when you are questioning your faith. Funny, thoughtful, and a good example of how to have a conversation when you disagree. Even I disagree with these guys about some stuff, but I still enjoy them!

Surprised By Grief: The two hosts, having experienced profound loss themselves, reflect on how to deal with grief as people of faith.

Christian Theology

The Bible Project: These guys have also done a ton of fantastic videos that are free on YouTube. Lots of deep dives into the books of the Bible and themes and topics in the Bible.

Mere Fidelity: Deeper conversations on various theological topics between 3 or 4 theologians. Very well done.

Ask NT Wright Anything: NT Wright is one of the premier New Testament scholars in the world today. Here he answers questions sent in by listeners. Hosted by Justin Brierly, host also of Unbelievable.

Theology in the Raw: Hosted by Preston Sprinkle, who interviews various Christian leaders and teachers on a variety of topics. Sprinkle has written a great deal on LGBTQ issues from a traditional Christian view on sexuality and personhood.

Obviously, these podcasts reveal my tastes. There are others I also listen to occasionally. I’m sure you could suggest others. But perhaps one or two of these might bless you and encourage you. If you want to share your favs with me, put the link in a comment.

Rob Bell, Peanuts, and Why Theology Doesn’t Save

Thank you, Charles Schulz.

I needed to say that first.

So, I think much of Rob Bell’s theology, particularly in books of his like Love Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is riddled with confusion and error. His positions often seem unclear. When questioned about what he’s written, his muddled answers only add to the uncertainty people have about his beliefs. Either his thinking is this murky or he’s simply being disingenuous. Whatever the case, while there is (or has been) much about Bell I do appreciate and admire, I’d have a hard time making the case that he is an orthodox evangelical. Certainly most prominent evangelical leaders have written him off as a false teacher and heretic.

I say all this, but I still might meet Rob Bell in heaven. Despite my objections to his stance on the doctrine of hell and his affirmation of same-sex marriage, he might very well still be my brother in Christ. And like others in this life who vehemently disagree with Bell over biblical interpretation, I just might have to spend eternity with him.

There’s only one reason I can say this. And it’s not that theology or theological beliefs are unimportant. Our beliefs are incredibly vital; profoundly so, in fact. How we think shapes how we live. What we believe shapes our actions. More significantly, there are beliefs that are true and some that are not. Truth matters to how we live, to how we worship, to our relationships with one another and with God.

So there’s still only one reason I can say that I might have to share eternity with Rob Bell. And the reason is: my theology is not what saves me.

If theology is really important to you, you might want to sit down and breathe. I will explain.

Part of what I want to say is that each of us has an imperfect, incomplete, even sinful theology. None of us has it altogether right. Between what we believe and what is truly the case there is a gap, a space that we will never be able to cross this side of the new heaven and new earth.

There is also a distinction between what I believe in my head and what God is doing and has done in my heart and in my life. Plenty of us were saved without having our creeds and confessions memorized and without having written a flawless statement of faith. Those of us who are followers of Jesus spend a lifetime growing in our theological understanding and maturity. Some of us never get past the basics of middle-school Sunday school lessons; others of us may end up wrestling with the theological giants of church history. Either way, the extent of our knowledge doesn’t necessarily determine our spiritual position or our spiritual maturity. I have Christian brothers and sisters much wiser than I am, even though I have studied theology at the graduate school level. That this can be the case is likely no surprise to anyone.

So, again, it is not what I believe that saves me. I can have impeccable theology. My grasp of biblical history might be disturbingly accurate. But I could be far from God. Intellectual pride might be an obstacle to repentance. Academic acumen is no barometer with respect to my relationship with God.

All that said, there remains a connection between theological beliefs and our relationship with God. Obviously, if I do not believe I need to repent of my sins but instead think that my good only needs to outweigh my wrongdoing, then this might be an indicator of where my relationship with God might be. If I think that human beings are intrinsically good, then my ears might very well be deaf to the gospel save God’s willingness to open them wide to his proclamation.

In any event, it is not the act of my believing in something that redeems me. Similarly, it is not my increasingly clear understanding of biblical Christology or my growing grasp of Trinitarian doctrine that restores me to God. Rather, these beliefs name (or try to name) who God is and what he has done to make such restoration possible.

One of the reasons I even wanted to flesh these thoughts out (and no doubt imperfectly) is that I often see Christians from one identifiable camp or tribe labeling believers from another group or camp. The tone of the discussion gives the impression that because so and so believes (or at least seems to believe) this that there is no way they will enjoy being in the presence of the Creator God for all eternity.

But while it’s true that someone’s theology might be all wonky, I think we need to stop short of judging their relationship with God. Yes, enter a theological debate with them. Ask hard questions. Press for clarification. But always do so in a winsome, kind, and gracious way. And even if we think that given their theology there’s simply no way they could be genuinely Christian, I think we should keep such judgments to ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I know full well that the Bible is clear that we are to watch our life and our doctrine closely. I know that there are basic beliefs that are non-negotiable. What bothers me is what seems at times to be a lack of humility in intra-Christian debate. There are participants who always appear so sure of their positions and therefore of the erroneous beliefs of their opponents. I’m not sure this approach either furthers dialogue or provides a sound witness to a watching world.

All I know is that there has to be a balance between standing up for theological truth and integrity and demonstrating humility and grace in doing so. Speaking the truth in love ought to be our approach. Speaking with the person you disagree with and not simply about them might be a start.

In the NT becoming one of the saved doesn’t appear to require absolute theological correctness. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Or as Jesus tells us, Repent, and believe in the good news. Theological maturation proceeds from rather than precedes conversion.

There is much in my own theology that is unfinished, wrong, and, no doubt, silly, influenced by culture, tainted by my own sinfulness, and in need, therefore, of repair and clarification. Whether or not my theology is closer to God’s truth than that of Rob Bell’s theology may be beside the point. Theology may in some sense be foundational but it is not fundamental. Our minds are to be transformed and renewed, yes, but this will happen to each of us with varying degrees of maturity and depth over the course of our lives.

Of course, in the end growing in our theological understanding takes intention and willingness on our part, the desire to grow in our knowledge of the God who has made us and redeemed us in Christ. And I dare say the presence of this desire to grow in our understanding of God because of his love for us says more about our relationship with God than does the level or quality of our understanding.