Calvinism in the wild

A few weeks ago, tracking back from his blog on 8 Gnostic Myths, I became acquainted with Robin Phillips, a very interesting blogger on Christian subjects of more enduring interest than which heretic or con man is predicting the end of the world later this week.

But Gnostic Myth #2 averred that “the resurrection of the body, is the goal of personal salvation” (emphasis added). The longer blog to which he linked on that point, which was targeted at a competing “immortality of the soul” view, left me fairly certain that Phillips was not a well-formed Orthodox Christian, though he illustrated this blog on bodily resurrection with a familiar Orthodox icon.

So: probably not Orthodox. Yet he recurrently and trenchantly criticized as Gnostic, or at least semi-Gnostic, many figures of Calvinism’s history over the past few centuries – Jonathan EdwardsCharles Hodge, even  Calvinism generally. He alluded to his high view of the Eucharist in Gnostic Myth #8 – higher than found almost anywhere in Calvinism since Zwingli ousted Calvin (let alone what is found in the revivalist Churches emerging from and after the Second Great Awakening).

He certainly recognizes that there’s a strong strain of Gnosticism and Docetism in Protestantism generally. He asked “Is Protestantism Heretical” as a debate set-up with a couple of Orthodox guys – a debate that never really lifted off as it broke down immediately over definitions.

He admires William Dyrness’ laments of the artistic impoverishment of the Reformed tradition (i.e., Calvinism, if you’re unaware of their essential synonymity), and of the loss that came with the transition from Altar to Pulpit as the focus of worship.

So I began to suspect that he was an astute convert from Calvinism to Roman Catholicism.  His blog titled “Why I am not Roman Catholic” has tantalizingly vanished from the blogosphere.

Yet when I went looking for a straightforward declaration from him about his faith, I discovered that at last report he was Calvinist — “kind of” (his own qualifier). Calvinist enough to attend a Reformed Presbyterian Church at least, while lamenting Calvinism’s Gnostic tendencies.

He also criticized the penal substitution theory of the atonement, characteristic, if not a sina qua non, of all Western Christianity for nearly a millennium, and evidenced on that point at least a bit of familiarity and sympathy for the Orthodox (“Eastern”) view.

* * * * *

When I encounter guys like Robin Phillips, or the aforementioned William Dyrness (who I heard on Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 109), or even Daniel Clendenin (the only Evangelical I know who seemed to understand Orthodoxy but walked away anyway), I wonder “why do they remain Reformed or Evangelical?” Phillips and Dyrness obviously have some major issues with their tradition. Why can’t they see what I saw and move on? Why do they linger to build a syncretistic sub-version of their tradition?

There’s a maxim attributed to John Henry Newman that “to be deep in history is to cease being Protestant.” Maybe Dyrness can remain Protestant because he’s deep in art, not history. But Phillips pretty clearly knows his history, especially of early heresies like Gnosticism and its fellow-traveler, Docetism. Why then does he remain Reformed? I’m pretty confident that he’s not consciously engaged in syncretism.

I have some conjectures:

  1. They have deeply internalized the concept of semper reformanda, which I understand to mean “we’re always straying from truth and always needing to return.” Their critiques thus might be seen as attempted course corrections, and par for the course, in saecula seculorum.
  2. They have deeply internalized the Reformation mottos sola scriptura, sola fides, sola this-and-that and cannot long entertain any full-orbed Christian tradition that rejects anysola” and explicitly honors received teachings. (“Teachings,” by the way, is what Protestant translators call “paradosis” when it’s good; “tradition” is what they call it when it’s bad. It’s the same word, spun in translation.)
  3. Like the True Believers in Communism or Capitalism, they reason from their ivory towers that The Real Thing has not failed, but really hasn’t been tried yet in all its pristine glory.

I’m more of a lex orandi, lex credendi guy than a semper reformanda guy or a sola anything guy. If I stray, the Scriptures will help correct my course, but I find them formally insufficient. Catholic apologist Mark Shea makes the distinction between material sufficiency and formal sufficiency (adding “the Magisterium,” which Orthodox reject):

Material sufficiency means that all the bricks necessary to build doctrine is there in Scripture. However, it also teaches that since the meaning of Scripture is not always clear and that sometimes a doctrine is implied rather than explicit, other things besides Scripture have been handed to us from the apostles: things like Sacred Tradition (which is the mortar that holds the bricks together in the right order and position) and the magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (which is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things — Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium — are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God.

For the Orthodox, the list would be more like Scripture, liturgies and other services of the Church’s cycle, and prayers. Since we don’t tamper with the services (we just translate to vernacular, occasionally add new saints or optional Prayer Book prayers , and very rarely add new hymn texts), I get a very full-orbed experience, that touches both mind and heart, when I appear to sing so many of our Parish’s services. I dare say it “renews my mind” (Romans 12:2) in a way that preaching never did.

The third conjecture is the source of my title. If the Reformed faith, so elegant in the ivory tower, incorrigibly fails in practice, one should start to suspect that there’s something wrong with the theory. If the Calvinist plant only thrives in the hothouse, withering or dying in the wild, maybe there’s a problem in the seed.

And it does fail in practice, wither in the wild. For instance, have seen firsthand the casual handling of Eucharistic elements by Elders in a very Reformed church, and having heard of as bad or worse from Missouri Synod Lutherans, I can say fairly confidently that the Reformed (and Lutheran) views of Eucharist expressed on paper are not truly believed by the elders under pastoral supervision.

I believe with John Henry Newman that “to be deep in history is to cease being Protestant.” I also believe that to be really deep in history is to cease being Roman Catholic, too.

I can prove neither of those quips by syllogism, as the Orthodox guys found when debating definitions with Phillips, but I believe it, and believe I’ve experienced it.

Any Protestant readers who think they really understand Orthodoxy feel free to chime in on why you’re still Protestant.

But please: if you only have read secondary sources (i.e., Protestants explaining the errors of Roman Catholicism and/or Orthodoxy), restrain yourself. In my experience, only Mr. Clendenin really has understood Orthodoxy from outside, and his only explanation for remaining Evangelical was something vague like “I think Evangelicalism still has something to offer.”

I try to honor that same principle by focusing my critiques on Evangelicalism and Calvinism, both of which I’ve lived from the inside. I don’t beat up, for instance, on Arminians and Pentecostals doctrinally, having never lived them. Ditto Roman Catholicism. I shot off my mouth about that when I was a Prostestant, rendered unjustifiably cocky by reading anti-Rome secondary sources.

So: does anyone who really understands Orthodoxy care to chime in on why you’re not Orthodox?

2 thoughts on “Calvinism in the wild

  1. I don’t know that I would claim to “really understand” Orthodoxy, but I think that, for the purposes of your question, I actually do. I was Orthodox for about ten years (OCA and Antiochian), served as a tonsured Reader, choir member, and Church school teacher (of adults), and completed the OCA Diocese of the West’s two-year Late Vocations Program (“night-school seminary) under Fr Alexander Golitzin. So I have (A) studied Orthodoxy in depth and (B) experienced it first-hand over a fairly long period of time.

    So why am I not Orthodox? It’s complicated — too complicated to summarize in a combox entry — but a very large part of it is that while I believe all of the teachings of the Orthodox Church to be true, I don’t believe in her claim to be the Catholic and Apostolic Church, because the Orthodox Church (at least in the West) does not behave as if she believes it herself. The jurisdictions here are not true local manifestations of the Catholic Church; they are exarchates of Old-World Churches. As exarchates, their mission is not to spread the Gospel but to conserve the cultural patrimony of the ethnicities that they represent. That is not the mission of the Apostolic Church, so I can’t recognize organizations that behave that way as Apostolic Churches.

    St Innocent learned Aleut so he could preach to the Aleuts and translate the Gospel and the liturgy into Aleut. In the Orthodox Churches in America today, the Orthodox expect Americans to learn a foreign culture as a pre-condition of being Orthodox. One of those two approaches is backwards, and I think St Innocent is the one who had it right.

    Sorry to be blunt, but you did ask.

    1. Fair enough. My “filter” was intended to minimize or eliminate uninformed comments, which I’d feel obliged to correct at length.
      Your comment is not at all uninformed. It makes me feel fortunate to have come into Orthodoxy in a Parish that was “pan-Orthodox,” and where it’s “the ethnics” who find our parish culture a bit off-putting. I don’t think I’m one who could have made what I consider the “right call” had I had to learn a foreign culture to do so.
      After posting the preceding and then mulling over your comment, I realized that English is common, and becoming commoner still, in Orthodox parishes in Anglophone North America. If the task of translating Orthodoxy is cultural as well as linguistic, though, we’ve got a problem because of the lack of much coherent United States culture.
      I’m still mulling, but work beckons.

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