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control and calvinism

Saturday, 13 January 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

I have not written much concerning theology or religious things in some time. In fact, I have chosen to write more entries concerning the life around all of us. I have focused more on the injustices that I see and am seeking to further develop my ability to ask questions and challenge systems. This entry, however, is a turn toward Sophia, the liberative embodiment of wisdom that has recently re-emerge within Christian theology.

Some important claims: I have abandoned some of the dogma that rules the Judeo-Christian world, because I have read and experienced where this dogma has perpetuated the subjugation of women and children. As I have read philosophy and see how slowly but surely the world of polytheism has slowly become more monotheistic, I felt it was important to see how this strict monotheism [that is ONLY ONE GOD] has perpetuated dominance over women, children and the earth. Christianity has never been a strict monotheistic faith or spiritual practice [for some there are difference between faith and spiritual practice]. And so, I have also begun to look at the idea of the world and one’s worldview and where the questions of philosophy, theology, feminism, liberation, sociology and anthroplogy fit. This is largely due to my own skepticism–that inner part of all of us that questions things and the world around us! My entries have tended to be not simply reactions to the world, but on some level there are those viseral responses; thus, my entries are attempts on focusing more specifically upon sociology and feminist theories while using theology as a tool. I have found that the stories of Jesus are indeed empowering. In fact, I find these stories to be activist oriented. While these stories are empowering to me, these stories and much of the Christian testament, including the Hebrew testament, have been used to subjugate and abuse women. These stories that I have found to be empowering and helpful are stories that the majority have used to keep the powerless without power.

In many ways I have begun to look at theological issues through a different lens and with different tools, though my heart tends to battle and rebel against the overarching world of the Protestant and Roman Catholic theologies. Today was one of those days as I wondered why when I listen to the sermons of Matt Chandler, a fellow classmate of mine from Hardin-Simmons University, I feel and sense as though the theology that he is preaching perpetuates a theology of control and subjugation? I recognize an explanation is necessary.

As I listened to a sermon that Matt Chandler gave to a group of pastors, I couldn’t help but hear how his charisma is actually the vehicle for his “calvinist” theology. When I think back to his preaching at Grace Bible Study in Abilene, TX, he was charistmatic and passionate–wanting student to be engaged in the way of Jesus. The only problem with the outcome was that no one ever questioned his sermons. I hated that and continue to hate the fact that folks [“good Christian folks”] don’t question what is given to them on Sunday morning from the pulpit.

Back to Matt’s sermon…

It is clear that he is passionate; it is clear that he is severely conservative and perhaps even a biblicist; and, it is clear from his sermons that his preaching is derived from a singular reading of the Christian testament. I have some questions regarding his methodology and hermeneutics.

1. When ever was Christianity singular?

Returning to St. Augustine [an important Church Father] who actually used Plato in his attempt to superimpose Platonic understanding on the Christian faith. And then what about St. Thomas Aquinas who used Aristotle’s idea of contemplation as the highest ideal to reach God–the Unmoved Mover. The list goes on to the Female Medieval Mystics who sought to practice a real live connection to Jesus–most often feeding on the Eucharistic elements. So, clearly in these three examples, the Christian tradition is not singular. The Christian tradition is a composition and practice of the philosophical, natural, textual, experiential, and practical elements of life. There is so much to the Christian faith and Christian practice from methodology to practice to its interdisciplinary nature that to reduce it to the sermons that are preached by a charistmatic calvinist preacher from Texas [with whom I attended college] is an injustice to the faith and another attempt by the male symbolic to hold the faith at arms length from the masses. Once again, the faith is in the control and is maintained by white men. How sad!

2. When really did “Calvin’s TULIP become the overarching element that guided theology?

This is an interesting question to me considering that this was never the invention of the French born, Geneva based Lawyer turn pastor Calvin. He himself was a lawyer and became a minister of the pulpit in Geneva. Calvin rejected papal authority; something central to the Protestant Reformation. Calvin focused more precisely on the text [meaning scripture] rather than relying upon commentators, though he was well acquainted with the Church Fathers. His textual and exegetical analysis was historial or grammatical analysis. He became a believer in the evangelical way which has become the modern day Reformed theology. Though Martin Luther and John Huss were around during this time participating in the Reformation, they both became original thinkers of that movement. Calvin, however, did not. He was a great logician and thus became a systematizer of the movement and not one who created or became an innovator of doctrine. As a lawyer, he became a systematician which evolved into classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels called: Systematic Theology. However, he himself was not completely “aligned” with the Protestant Reformation.

Calvin’s thoughts and the thoughts of his followers have become the voice of present day evangelical theology–what the media portrays as evangelical that is.  And so, where did TULIP emerge?  It was actually at the Synod of Dort where his thoughts were articulated.  It can be said and found in his writings that Calvin had a profound commitment to the holiness and sovereignty of God.

His first work, finished in 1534 was a document that sought to refute “soul sleep” as taught by what Calvin called “Anabaptists.”  Encouraged not to publish the document when he originally completed it, the document was published in 1542.  This document showed Calvin’s commitment to mastering a method of biblical interpretation and had become, in the words of Karl Barth, a “theological humanist and biblicist.”  Which is to say that no matter how true a teaching is, he was not willing to lend an ear apart from the World of God.

Perhaps that is the issue with Matt Chandler’s sermons.  No matter how true it is to be supportive of a pro-worker agenda or the freedom of choice for women, if the pro-worker agenda or the equal status and freedom of choice for women is not literally spelled out in the Hebrew or Christian testaments, then it must not be true or Chrstianity.  What interpretative lens does one use to determine that the Hebrew and Chrstian testatments don’t support the pro-worker agenda or the freedom of choice for women???!!!

On other fronts, Calvin was also a business person in his founding of the silk industry in Geneva.  He was quite the man back then, eh? And still there is more history…John Calvin had been exiled from Geneva because he and his colleagues, namely William Farel and Antoine Froment [a woman finally though quite the “masculine” women], were accused of wanting to create a “new papacy.”  In fact, he wanted to institute changes to city governance and religious life.  While still in Geneva, William Farel asked Calvin to help him with the cause of the Church–the chruch now is becoming more of a political force and the 16th century was becoming quite the political century in many ways.  And so, in a sort of political and theocratic vein, Calvin wrote of Farel’s request, “I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course.” Together with Farel, Calvin attempted to institute a number of changes to the city’s governance and religious life. Their attempts at changed produced the writing of a catechism and a confession of faith, which they insisted all citizens must affirm.  The city council refused to adopt Calvin and Farel’s creed, and in January 1538 denied them the power to excommunicate, a power they saw as critical to their work. The pair responded with a blanket denial of the Lord’s Supper to all Genevans at Easter services. For this the city council expelled them from the city. Farel travelled to Neuchâtel, Calvin to Strasbourg.  And so, a strict opponent of the Roman papacy, Calvin set up at Bishop and holder of  this Calvin-esque theology.

For three years Calvin served as a lecturer and pastor to a church of French Huguenots in Strasbourg. It was during his exile that Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow with a son and a daughter. He also came under the influence of Martin Bucer, who advocated a system of political and ecclesiastical structure along New Testament lines. He continued to follow developments in Geneva, and when Jacopo Sadoleto, a Catholic cardinal, penned an open letter to the city council inviting Geneva to return to the mother church [that is, the Roman Catholic Church], Calvin’s response on behalf of embattled Genevan Protestants helped him to regain the respect he had lost.  After a number of Calvin’s supporters won election to the Geneva city council, he was invited back to the city in 1540, and having negotiated concessions such as the formation of the Consistory, he returned in 1541.

Upon his return, armed with the authority to craft the institutional form of the church, Calvin began his program of reform. He established four categories of offices based on biblical injunctions:

  • Doctors held an office of theological scholarship and teaching for the edification of the people and the training of other ministers.
  • Ministers of the Word were to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise pastoral discipline, teaching and admonishing the people.
  • Deacons oversaw institutional charity, including hospitals and anti-poverty programs.
  • Elders were 12 laymen whose task was to serve as a kind of moral police force, mostly issuing warnings, but referring offenders to the Consistory when necessary.

Critics often look to the Consistory as the emblem of Calvin’s theocratic or a sort of papal rule. The Consistory was an ecclesiastical court that might be similar to how we understand the vatican for Roman Catholics.  That is, the consistory  consisted of the elders and pastors, charged with maintaining strict order among the church’s officers and members. Offenses ranged from propounding false doctrine to moral infractions, such as wild dancing and bawdy singing. Typical punishments were being required to attend public sermons or catechism classes. Whereas the city council had the power to wield the sword, the church courts held the authority of the keys of heaven. This was for sure a political voice–the church now was very visible in Geneva but NOT at all free!  The church and the theology that supported the church was very much in control and centrally controlled by Calvin’s understanding of scripture and the city council.  Punishments didn’t come easy for those who resisted.  In fact, the maximum punishment that the consistory could decree was excommunication, which was reversable upon the repentance of the offender. However, the officers of the church were considered to be the state’s spiritual advisors in moral or doctrinal matters. Protestants in the 16th century were often subjected to the Catholic charge that they were innovators in doctrine, and that such innovation did lead inevitably to moral decay and, ultimately, the dissolution of society itself. Calvin claimed his wish was to establish the moral legitimacy of the church reformed according to his program, but also to promote the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities.

Surprisingly, recently discovered documentation of Consistory proceedings shows at least some concern for domestic life, and women in particular. For the first time men’s infidelity was punished as harshly as that of women, and the Consistory showed absolutely no tolerance for spousal abuse. The Consistory helped to transform Geneva into the city described by Scottish reformer John Knox as “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles.” In 1559 Calvin founded the Collège Calvin as well as a hospital for the indigent.

Now, what is apparent is that Calvin, through much struggle, gained political and ecclesastical power.  Calvin became the central figure for his theology and practice.  While this theology and practice became a sort of theocratic rule for Geneva, this same theology and practice is alive and well in evangelical circles.  In fact, I see it and hear it in the sermons that the pastoral staff preach at The Village Church in TX.  Where has freedom gone?  What happened to the soul competency that is found certainly in protestant and free church documents, but also seen in some Catholic circles?

I end with intuition…I do think that Calvinist theology and subsequent doctrinal practices are controling despite any sort of recent findings concerning “domestic life and women.”

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