20 June 2009

Here's Johnny!

(A line of people stands in front of a desk.)

"Name, please."

"John Calvin."

"John Calvin . . . Calvin . . . Geneva?"

"Yes. I'm sure I'm expected."

"Yes, indeed you are. The Lord asked that you be shown in as soon as you arrived. That door, please."

. . .

"Ah, John. Glad you could make it after all."

"Lord, surely there wasn't any question of that."

"I'm afraid it was touch and go, John, after that nasty Michael Servetus business. You know how I feel about murder."

"But Lord, it wasn't murder, I had civil authority to do that. I did it for you, for society, to make the world a better place."

"I can take care of myself, John, and I've never authorized anyone to kill in my name. In fact, you'll find that I am very concerned that people have the opportunity to follow their beliefs. That's how they come to me when I call them."

"But Lord, I'm afraid I don't understand."

"That's very clear, it seems. But you came through in the end, and now that you're here I have scheduled you for our lecture series on Remedial Christianity."

"Excellent, Lord. I'd be delighted to teach a class for you."

"No, John, you'll be a student, and will be for at least the next billion years while we try to help you get over some of these issues you have. Your instructor will be Michael Servetus."

"But Lord, I denounced him and had him burned as a heretic!"

"Why, yes. As a result he got here before you did. But I'm sure you'll do well. You have great potential, John."


Quakers and Calvinism have had a long and difficult relationship. The Quakers appeared in England during the difficulties between the Puritans, the Anglicans, and the Roman Catholics, and as each group struggled for political ascendancy, the Quakers ended up being persecuted by each in turn. The Quakers killed in Boston in the 1650s were done in in the name of Calvinist Christianity. Today, many of the disputes seem dated, because many of the modern Calvinists have abandoned the hard-line interpretations of their beliefs, in spite of the clear listing of the Westminster Catechism in the front of their manuals.

But not all, of course. The modern Reformed churches try to maintain the original Calvinist witness, and they often summarize their doctrine as TULIP. The very interesting website A Puritan's Mind explains TULIP like this:

Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints

How do these ideas fit with traditional Quakerism? In my opinion, they don't, which of course is why I am not a Calvinist. Here's what the terms mean:

Total depravity is "the extensive ruin of man's nature."

Unconditional election is the idea that God has "foreordained the eternal destiny of everyone whether to heaven or to hell for His glory."

Limited atonement is "a fundamental Christian doctrine which states that Jesus Christ came and died for a limited number of people."

Irresistible grace "teaches that when the Spirit of God is sent to change a person's heart, that person cannot resist the change."

Perseverance of the saints "teaches that once God has renewed the heart of the sinner through the application of the redemption wrought by Christ upon the cross, he will continue to be saved and show forth the fruits of that salvation."

The doctrine of TULIP is a fairly recent one in Christianity, although different parts of it have appeared and disappeared again from time to time. Not all of it is antagonistic to Friends's beliefs, and the biggest differences, in my opinion, lie in the U, L, and I, in the heart of the matter.

Unconditional election is tied closely to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, which in its extreme form teaches that all of us are helpless puppets, acting out a role in which we succeed or fail in our relationship with God based solely on his arbitrary decree. Under this totalitarian regime, we have no free will to approach God or to reject him. If God decides that we are to accept him, then we are rewarded for it by salvation. On the other hand, if God decides for us that we are to reject, it is our destiny to suffer for it. We therefore must accept responsibility--reward and punishment-- for decisions which we cannot affect.

Quakerism teaches that we indeed do have free will, that God challenges us to accept or reject him based on our own decision. In this conception, God created us to be willing companions, not puppets, and expects us to follow him and grow in his Light as limited participants in our salvation. We do not achieve this by works, or by obligating God to accept us by what we do, but by an act of our own will in not resisting the Light. "Turning to the Light," or "standing still in the Light" was how the first generation of Friends explained the apparent conflict between grace and works, and the idea still works for me. The typical response to this position from the Calvinists is to cry "Arminian!" after a Calvinist who softened some of John's doctrine, and I suppose they're correct.

Limited atonement is a tricky concept in Calvinism, and is closely related to unconditional election. While God has the capacity to save anyone he chooses, the Calvinist position is that not everybody has an equal shot. Because of unconditional election, many, if not most of humanity will live and die excluded from any possibility of accepting the atoning grace of God, no matter how sincerely they believe, no matter how desperately they love the Saviour, no matter what. If only at the the last minute, the atoning grace of Jesus will be snatched from their grasp, and they will die condemned to eternal punishment. As the explanation goes:

It is not that Christ's power is "limited" but rather His intent or use OF THAT POWER is limited to those for whom He died, and chose.
The Quaker position is that God's saving grace -- the Light -- is available to all people, and that God makes a genuine offer to all of us, no tricks, no foolery. Everybody has genuine opportunity to accept the salvation of God. The old Puritans worried endlessly about the state of their souls, because they never knew when their salvation might be pulled out of their reach, leaving them to wail and gnash their teeth in the dark, forever. The Quakers, on the other hand, held faith that God meant what he said when he promised everyone an opportunity to follow him, a view of much greater optimism.

Irresistible grace for the Calvinists means that once God decides to force you to be obedient or disobedient, you have no choice in the matter. In fact, it's not correct to even mention obedience, because the grace is irresistible. Your cooperation is forced, and there's nothing you can or should do. This differs from the Quaker position, which holds that you can indeed make shipwreck of your faith, and just as any human being is free at any time to turn to the Light, he or she is also free to turn away. The Friends hold that God would have willingness, and without the ability to deny God, a forced acceptance is meaningless.

The remaining petals of the five-lobed TULIP are total depravity and perseverance of the saints. There are lots of discussions about depravity, and the old Friends didn't argue much about what they couldn't change. If you believe in original sin, then it makes sense. The Quaker position is that we live in a fallen world, a result of a cosmic struggle for us between good and its absence. Like a child growing up in a family of alcoholics, we show the effects of our dysfunctional upbringing, even though the responsibility for it is not ours. So while original sin is nonsense, original sinfulness is inevitable--we will almost invariably fail to live up to God's hopes. But we will merit judgment only for our own transgressions, not for those of long dead ancestors. Notice I say almost invariably-- unlike the Calvinists, I don't limit the ability of God to assist us to perfection in our assignment to be obedient.

And lastly, perseverance of the saints is a point where the Friends and the Calvinists almost completely agree:
Those who are saved by grace and changed, desire to show forth the fruits of that salvation. God motions the heart to good work, and continues that good work to the end.
The Friends also believe that the influence of the Light sanctifies an individual, and that the result of this influence is a conviction of sin and a desire to be better. But the Calvinists assert that the individual is doomed to failure, to wallow in sin until death, to be snatched from damnation only by the imputed righteousness of Jesus. The Friends, on the other hand, believe that God desires a genuine righteousness, a true repentance, a changed individual growing in holiness in response to the Light, obedient to God and showing the results of that obedience.

All of this has been very brief, and it hasn't been my intention to misrepresent the Calvinists, just to show where their view of Christianity differs from that of the Friends. And of course, I think they're wrong, and the beatings, brandings, whippings, ear croppings, banishments, imprisonments, property confiscations, and executions of Quakers by the old Calvinists illustrate where I think the fruits reveal the nature of the tree. Today I wouldn't be executed by a Calvinist government for being a Quaker, and I continue to talk about God with the ones I meet, in hopes of helping them understand.

* * *
Michael Servetus (also Miguel Servet or Miguel Serveto; 29 September 151127 October 1553) was a Spanish (Aragonese) theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist. He was the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation. His interests included many sciences: astronomy and meteorology; geography, jurisprudence, study of the Bible, mathematics, anatomy, and medicine. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology. He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later developed a nontrinitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was arrested in Geneva and burnt at the stake as a heretic by order of the Protestant GenevaProtestant Reformer John Calvin. governing council, at the instigation of the