Friday, September 21, 2007

those c-words

Maybe someone can help me with one of the great mysteries of church life in NZ for me.

Why is it that within the 'protestant' scene (particularly the Baptist one, for me) the word "Calvin" seems to be a dirtier 'C' word than the word "Catholic"? On which side of the Reformation did we actually end up?!

Now I am teaching spirituality and am finding some good stuff in the Catholic heritage. In my current role I have enjoyed fellowship with Catholic believers ... so that is not so much the issue. What befuddles me is how the Reformed (Calvinist) people are so marginal in the life of the NZ church. They are off in some eddy far from the mainstream which is unlike every other country of which I am aware. Time and time again I find this C-word to be one of the great conversation stoppers. Why is this? More importantly, what is missing in the overall church because they are confined to the margins?

In 1984, fresh from a mildly Reformed training overseas, I was travelling to my first NZ pastors' conference with a mentor. I asked him, "So how many Baptist churches/pastors would consider themselves to be 'reformed'?" I will never, ever forget his response: "None". While he wasn't quite right, he was well within the statistical margin of error!

The plot thickens even further when it is realised that the NZ Baptist scene was borne with an umbilical (and familial) connection to CH Spurgeon, the greatest Reformed/Calvinist Baptist of the 19th century. Something drastic has happened over the century. I just don't get it...

nice chatting

Paul

20 comments:

Rhett said...
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Andy said...

Paul, you are a genius! An astute and powerfully accurate reading of the current in contemporary church which resonates powerfully with my experience.

I was a convinced and passionate Roman Catholic (anglo-irish tradition) until the age of 19, invovled in youth leadership, active service and well on my way to becomming a priest/monk. Meeting Jesus, apart from the 'righteousness' of religion, put a stop to all of that.

The reformation though long ago, is no less relevant today. The attempts of many to do as Rhett suggests and re-merge differing traditions is precisely the reason to be more deliberate in our understanding of what the Bible teaches; and what it teaches plainly and clearly. The love of being fuzzy at the edges has led to a loss of clarity in the core issues that really matter.

What is mystifying is why the Church in NZ is so anti-Calvinist as a whole. Or rather, is it more apathetic towards definitions and suspicious of certainties; especially certainties which call into question the self-authoritative can do cultural value of Kiwi ingenuity?

My experience has been that Christians have been dismissive, suspicious and derisory of the Calvinist perspective in way that they would not be of Roman Catholicism. When I've probed and asked for clarity on both it is usually explained that in personal experience RC people don't fit a doctrinal/religious stereotype and that Calvinists are cartooned into a prejudicial stereotype. It is pervasive and strong within church culture her.

Roman Catholics and Calvinists (along with Lutherans and Arminians...) are people - varied and variable, with nuances and incosistencies. RC-ism and Calvinism etc are bodies of doctrine leading to practice. They are in sharp relief in many areas and (suprisingly) at times in harmony.

I'm a self-identified ex-RomanCatholic and convinced historical Calvinist (albeit nuanced) and on that I'm sure some of your readers will dismiss or commend my comment. I'm also an increasingly self-identified Kiwi. And feel the tensions that your post speak of.

I wonder if the disconnect between the Church in NZ and an identity as protestants that you allude to and Rhett mentions arises out of an active and passionate dis-interest in history that exists in the predominant culture here. Contrary to Rhett's wondering if it is a good thing, I wonder if this will lead the church to choppy and dangerous waters.

If this is so, if the captains of the fleet will not look at the Bible as the authoritative, sufficient and exclusive self revelation of God, reading the historical map of church life and doctrine and thus steering us away from the shallow waters of forgetfulness and fuzzy unity; those who survive will be forced to navigate back to a truer course in the lifeboats. Or is that overstating the case?

Rhett said...
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A. J. Chesswas said...

Rhett, I think that for those of us who have arrived at the Reformed position, the clarity and the beauty of what we see after years of muddling through arminian-infested waters is so inspiring that we become passionate about it and want to help others to the same understanding.

As a Calvinist, of course it is important for me that you, and anyone, reaches clarity on what Calvinism actually is. Just as it is important that you have clarity in understanding the difference between left-wing and right-wing politics - it will most ertainly help you no end in your journey through life.

I think the swing to Arminianism in NZ churches is a flow-on from the humanism that has become so dominant in popular culture - Arminianism fits far more comfortably with humanism in the way that it afford power to the human being and prioritises compassionate evangelism with its regular invocations of how *x* many people are dying in Hell and we need to create a programme that will rescue them all. It's also simpler and easier to understand, which seems to suit New Zealand today.

But why does New Zealand suffer this more than USA and Britain and the rest of the Christian world? Again, perhaps it reflects just how humanist and socialist NZ is in contrast to those countries. I wonder how popular Reformed theology is in Sweden...

Rhett said...
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A. J. Chesswas said...

"theologies such as Calvinism have sought to draw distinct and clear categories as to who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’"

I have to disagree with Hiebert here. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I wouldn't say five-point Calvinism affords us much more insight into who is or is not saved than any another theological framework. Especially given that God's grace in salvation is heavily emphassed rather than man's deeds or man's works...

Calvinists may believe once-saved always-saved, but they also (should) know that just because I saw a guy "make a decision" and "pray the sinner's prayer" doesn't mean I know for sure he's got a ticket.

I still haven't figured out why so many anti-Calvinists reiterate the "perseverence of the saints" doctrine as golden-ticket "eternal security" - it betrays the very meaning of the word perseverence. I think Luther's doctrine of repentance was a little weak and that somehow filtered down and people thought it came from Calvin... but no...

sorry if I'm rambling!!

Andy said...

Alan and Rhett,

Truth is that those who differ with me (or you) at the edges (ie truth which is important but non-essential for salvation) are not people we would want to disbar from fellowship are they?

Rhett - the stuff about Calvinism and Arminianism... those sort of 'high' and 'low' dichotomising statements arise out of and feed into mutual misunderstandings. I see the nature of the Arminian viewpoint on Scriptures teaching on the outworking of the Sovereignty of God - I appreciate its subtleties, but i disagree: I don't think that's where Scripture gets us. But to say that Calvinism has a low view of God's love and mercy could offend (if I allowed my hackles to rise) but it certainly doesn't aid understanding. The better thing to ask is HOW those who hold a Calvinist position understand the place of God's love and mercy...

I'd agree with some of Alan's observation about the rationale for the mood in the NZ church being more friendly to the Arminian end of the spectrum but I don't think that Alan was saying that Arminianism and Humanism are part of the same set of thinking (Alan, correct me if I'm wrong).

As for Rhett's point on Calvinists drawing disctinct lines... that isn't a necessary corollary of Calvinism: the concept of Election is precisely ONLY known to God rather than to the visible Church... I think this sort of misunderstanding was the fuel of Paul's blog and the cause/result of some of the stereotyping I alluded to.

As for the importance of history and choppy waters... I think there are several things present in the national Church here that make the waters choppy and dangerous but it comes down to a lack of confidence in the Bible as the word of God as supreme and sufficient for all things (2 Tim 3.16) pertaining to Godliness.

Both Calvinist and Arminian churches CAN hold a high view of Scripture but in practice they don't necessarily. Rhett you asked for a practical outworking of either/both... they are there but I think it interesting/compelling and culturally reflective that you should phrase it in this way

Rhett said...
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A. J. Chesswas said...

great response Rhett... i think Paul's chief concern was the marginalisation of Calvies... As a Reformed man I'm feeling really included and not at all offended by your comments :) :)

Rhett said...
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Lisa said...

Hi everyone, great conversation but am I going to go back and respond to Pauls original post if I may.

Earlier in the year I had the opportunity to spend some time in a very close but short relationship with some reformed brothers and sisters.

As a 22 year old who is in my first year of Bible College It was fantastic. Before meeting these people I had never ever heard of TULIP and all that came with it, been questioned on what I believed about spiritual gifts and why, or been made to think this long and hard about gender roles in the church (although I thought I had).

I had never conciously sat down and had someone talk to me and confront me about sola scriptua, sola fide etc In doing so I was really able to work out what I believed in and it was fantastic!

In saying this the particular group I was with were somewhat bemused by me. A 22 year old women who was persuing a BMin possibly to go into ministry. They did admit that some of their members saw their church as the only true church and that I could be seen as an outsider and would be viewed as an outsider and with suspicion, which greatly saddend me as we all share one baptism.

If you look at their webiste and read through some of their official church documents on their website, which I have done you will see that they draw some quite strict lines about who they will choose to interact with in a formal sense (have a look under the sister churches page or in the documents under syndoical) , which I think tends to go right down to the personal level with some members of the reformed church in new zealand.

www.rcnz.org.nz

In saying all of that though I think that the reformed churches add another colour to the church in new zealand that we aren't quite seeing and I would love it if a lot more people (espically young adults and youth) could! -

Dont take this to mean though that I am a full raging calvinist. I just think that the reformed people have a lot to offer :)

Richard said...

i don't think people in new zealand think in theological categories in a way that enables them to be "calvinists" or "arminians" anyway. people don't talk about such matters in churches much, as we are generally overly pragmatic and anti-theological anyway (if i talk about a sermon after church or disagree with a pastor the classic comment is "not everyone is a theologian" or, "it doesn't matter,i don't see how it affects our practice"). i think this pragmatism has made the evangelical church vaguely arminian (ie we/God wants to save as many souls as possible, therefore we go for the more revivalist/wesleyan model) and meant that more defined theoligical branches of the baptist church like reformed churches haven't grown up because they aren't seen as important practically. I also think reformed folk tend to a bit more fiery and opinionated than most kiwis like; i mean... the most popular representatives of 5 point calvinism over here is probably John Piper and John Macarthur...who tend to be fairly brutal towards christians who differ. My one experience of a reformed baptist pastor here was an old friend of my dad's who talked about how he told a blind woman she had no right to ask God why she shouldn't be blind...not exactly the best introduction to a tradition is was pretty unfamiliar with

i've found the reformed perspective i've encountered mainly through some of the TSCF staff and students like Andy, Scotty etc., and other more broadly reformed people like Mark Strom a helpfull corrective to some stuff i grew up with in church (the fuzzy pragmatic armianism that does indeed affect faith practice, especially in evangelism and worship, and the dualism of much of our faith). I'd still hesitate from calling myself a calvinist or an arminian though. The concern for me is that most church going people in nz seem very unaware of the differences, and don't seem prepared to really think about their theology in relation to doctrine and practice.

Jono said...

Not going to post a lengthy response, however I'd like to post some Spurgeon quotes. Also, I believe it was Whitfield who boasted in not having read any Calvin, but who was infact a Calvinist due to the fact he saw great Biblical truth in this system. I was/am the same way!

For those of you wanting to actually read some Calvin, here's his commentary on 1 Tim 2:3-5, the famous 'salvation of all men' passage.

http://www.reformedsermonarchives.com/cal11.htm

I'm in the process of slowly writing an article for the Baptist magazine talking about the influence of humanism in the church. While I do believe the NZ pragmatic approach to ecclesiolgy is the ideal breeding ground for Arminianism, never fear, because I'll also be speaking against what amounts to dead Calvinism. Maybe I'll get lynched for writing it, maybe it won't even get published, but I will try.

Anyway, here are the Spurgeon quotes:

"The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox's gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again."

""Salvation is of the Lord." That is just an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it. If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, "He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord." I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible. "He only is my rock and my salvation." Tell me anything contrary to this truth, and it will be a heresy; tell me a heresy, and I shall find its essence here, that it has departed from this great, this fundamental, this rock-truth, "God is my rock and my salvation." What is the heresy of Rome, but the addition of something to the perfect merits of Jesus Christ—the bringing in of the works of the flesh, to assist in our justification? And what is the heresy of Arminianism but the addition of something to the work of the Redeemer? Every heresy, if brought to the touchstone, will discover itself here. I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor."

"If ever it should come to pass,
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day."

"If Christ on His cross intended to save every man, then He intended to save those who were lost before He died. If the doctrine be true, that He died for all men, then He died for some who were in hell before He came into this world, for doubtless there were even then myriads there who had been cast away because of their sins. Once again, if it was Christ's intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own testimony that there is a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit of woe have been cast some of the very persons who, according to the theory of universal redemption, were bought with His blood. That seems to me a conception a thousand times more repulsive than any of those consequences which are said to be associated with the Calvinistic and Christian doctrine of special and particular redemption. To think that my Saviour died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the Substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine justice."

This is for you Rhett...

" But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one "of whom the world was not worthy." I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of Heaven."

"No doctrine is so calculated to preserve a man from sin as the doctrine of the grace of God. Those who have called it "a licentious doctrine" did not know anything at all about it. Poor ignorant things, they little knew that their own vile stuff was the most licentious doctrine under Heaven. If they knew the grace of God in truth, they would soon see that there was no preservative from lying like a knowledge that we are elect of God from the foundation of the world. There is nothing like a belief in my eternal perseverance, and the immutability of my Father's affection, which can keep me near to Him from a motive of simple gratitude. Nothing makes a man so virtuous as belief of the truth. A lying doctrine will soon beget a lying practice. A man cannot have an erroneous belief without by-and-by having an erroneous life. I believe the one thing naturally begets the other. Of all men, those have the most disinterested piety, the sublimest reverence, the most ardent devotion, who believe that they are saved by grace, without works, through faith, and that not of themselves, it is the gift of God. Christians should take heed, and see that it always is so, lest by any means Christ should be crucified afresh, and put to an open shame."

Paul said...

well, well, well - I go away for a weekend and look what happens. Good stuff ... and thanks particularly to Rhett for wading into this issue and drawing others with him.

I won't comment on everything ... but just say that Lisa and Richard capture something of my motivation in posting this blog.

The lack of an articulate and at-its-best Reformed presence in the mainstream of NZ Christianity has had its harmful impact. Putting it simplistically, the Reformed people seem to have a bigger God than the others and they seem more willing to start with him when it comes to life and faith. So convinced are they of God's mercy that God's mystery doesn't seem to concern them like it does for SO many Jesus-followers in this land.

I have so many passing conversations with people who are 'knotted' basically because their God is too small and their instinct with faith and life is too anthropocentric, rather than theocentric. They look at God through the grid of their own feelings and ideas, rather than looking at themselves through the grid of what God reveals to be the truth in Christ and in his word.

Afterall when we get to the end of the book of Job, it is Job who apologises - not God. Job recognises that his view God was too small.

Afterall when we come to Luke 24 and that faith crisis for the disciples - it happens because their knowledge of Christ as revealed in their 'Bible' was so limited. Doesn't it?!

A. J. Chesswas said...

What's really sad is that I didn't properly discover the Reformed perspective until AFTER I did a BCNZ diploma in Biblical Studies. When we did our theology paper we were told Calvinism = "double-predestination", and that we'd be accepting God had created people knowing they would be destined for Hell. The implication being we'd be brutal and heartless to take up such a position.

Now I can say, as I did in a recent post;

Some ask, where is the sense in this, of God allowing humanity to continue to reproduce, when it is a people on the highway to Hell. Why would he allow so many to be born if they are destined for destruction?

Yet in his wisdom, God tolerates the perpetuation of evil people because there amongst them, generation upon generation, he moves by his grace to save yet another, and another.

As the Apostle Paul says;

“What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” – Romans 9:22-24


I went to Bible College wanting a CRITICAL exposure to theology and thought I got it. It was only later I found that Bible Colleges are as bad as their secular counterparts when it comes to blindly harbouring certain ideologies and shunning others of equal merit.

Malcolm said...

From your big brother on the other side of the Tasman, I would say it is pretty similar. The Baptists are rather Arminian here too (as far as I can tell)

Not delving too deeply into the dialogue, I was more or less Arminian (from a Baptist church) until I got to Uni and involved with an AFES group (equivalent too TSCF) where I really put what I believed on a firm foundation. It really did enlarge my view of God and his mercy, especially towards me.

Dave Wells said...

Wow, some great thoughts in this one. coming back to your original post Paul, I wonder if the reason Calvanism is so marginalised in N.Z. is simply because we have not had many real quality proponents of the theology? The people we do have in N.Z. discussing Calvanism, in my experiecne only, seem to be limited in their theology. Obviously that does not do too much for the whole framework.

It is funny though, how some things just aren't popular.

I also muse over whether it is a part of N.Z.'s larger reaction to the American church/theological scene. Many current N.Z. Christians do not want to be lumped in with the "American Christian" stereotype, of which Calvanism is seen as the core, rightly or wrongly.

Blessings all, from Dave

Paul said...

Telling comments, Dave...

History records what happened to the denominational brand of theological education in NZ which should have held the Reformed tradition tightly - the Presbyterians at Knox College ... it ended up with a heresy trial in the 1960s! Actually none of our denominational colleges have had that strong enduring evangelical heritage which is able to include the Reformed faith somewhere in its embrace. It is most unusual. Aussie, UK, US, Canada ... none of these are like this.
My own sense is that this is partly why the charismatic movement was so pervasive here in NZ. It seeped in and filled a void created by a heritage of arid theological education. This is my 18th year in theological eduication in NZ and I am still surprised by how suspicious people are of it. 'A place where either you lose your faith (at worst) or your passion (at best?!)' ... and then it has very little to do with the mission of God in the world and much less with growing a church. What rubbish! It doesn't need to be this way...

One fascinating thing for me is that Reformed doctrine and Charismatic experience (and that is not the same as Pentecostal theology!) need not be mutually exclusive.

And yes, I am not sure that the Reformed people that do exist in NZ have really endeared themselves to the wider church. They are unusually isolationist (and yet the Reformed faith overseas overseas has spawned some of the finest 'gospel:culture' interaction anywhere) and they find their way to being known what they are agin, rather than what they are for. I find it so disppointing.

As for the American connection... again, I think you are right on the mark, Dave. That is just what I sense as well. NZers lose sight of how big the American church is. Every tiny space on the theological spectrum has its own array of colleges - and probably a publishing house as well. It is a huge and a very diverse place. There are lots of Jesus-followers who do not vote for George Bush, for example ... but the stereo-types tend to win!

Good stuff, Dave

Andrew S said...
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Andrew S said...

There is a fellowship of reformed baptist churches in NZ.
Check out their website: http://www.rbc.org.nz/
Their is one in every main centre and several in Auckland.