The day the tulip died, part 5

In 1999, I left college as a committed Calvinist. (There. Now you know how old I am.)

I turned down a job with a think tank in D.C. to enroll in seminary and study theology. I chose Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, a Baptist school that leans Calvinist. (It’s kind of hard NOT to lean Calvinist in West Michigan.)

Two things happened while I was in seminary.

One, I was introduced to something called narrative theology — which, ironically enough, would someday help to unravel my commitment to Calvinism.

Narrative theology is, in part, a reaction to systematic theology’s fondness for outlines. Traditional systematic theology starts with a topic — Christology (the nature of Christ), ecclesiology (theology of the church), soteriology (theology of salvation), etc. — and makes a series of propositional statements or claims about that particular -ology, each supported by a selection of biblical proof texts.

In this way, systematic theology treats the Bible more or less like a handbook from which various truths can be mined and neatly arranged into comprehensive doctrines. So for example, if you’d like to know what to think about predestination, you might look up all the verses that mention predestination, election, or some related topic; then try to harmonize them so they all appear to be saying the same thing; and voila! You have yourself a doctrine of election. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying to make a point.)

Narrative theology approaches the Bible first and foremost as a story. As much as possible, it tries to leave the Bible intact, rather than dissecting or reducing it to a series of propositional statements. Narrative theology doesn’t dispute that the Bible contains propositional truth. But it says biblical truth is primarily expressed in story form and thus is not so easily extracted to make neatly contained theologies.

That’s because the Bible’s primary purpose is to tell the story of redemption. It doesn’t set out to give us a comprehensive theology of salvation or predestination or whatever. Which might explain why you can find verses that appear to support an Arminian view of salvation and others that seem to support a more Calvinist perspective.

Two, I had to write a master’s thesis, and it just so happened (or was it foreordained?) that open theism was all the rage at the time. The idea of a limited God wasn’t new. What was new, however, was that a number of prominent evangelicals were arguing for what they called “divine self-limitation.” That is, they believe God is capable of doing whatever he likes. But God freely chose to limit his power in order to give us the freedom to accept or reject him.

This idea has all sorts of implications that make many evangelicals, especially Calvinists, uncomfortable. Such as the notion that the future is partially indeterminate and therefore unknown, perhaps even to God.

To make matters worse, the main advocates of open theism — Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd — had the nerve to still believe in things like the inspiration of Scripture, the trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, and other core Christian doctrines. Which made it difficult to write them off as heretics. (Not that it stopped people from trying.)

So far as I could tell, most of the responses to open theism (which came mostly from Reformed voices like John Frame, Norm Geisler, and Bruce Ware) retreated to the same proof texts routinely used to argue for God’s meticulous sovereignty. As for passages that seem to paint a different picture — say, of a God who periodically experiences surprise or regret — well, these were dismissed as little more than literary anthropomorphisms. (An interesting argument for conservative evangelicals, who usually insist on a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.)

So for my thesis, I decided to take a different approach, arguing that the biblical narrative, taken as a whole, can be read to support the idea of a God who meticulously controls everything, down to the tiniest detail.

It’s funny looking back at my thesis now, almost a decade later. (And if you’re really bored or have a lot of time on your hands or enjoy amateurish theological writing, you can view a copy here.)

It’s not that I disagree with everything I wrote in it. In fact, after re-reading my thesis for the first time in years, I was surprised at how much I still agree with what I wrote back then. It’s just that I don’t think anything I wrote actually proves meticulous sovereignty.

The way I see it, Calvinism relies heavily on two things to argue for meticulous sovereignty:

  • Specific examples of God intervening in history (e.g. his hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, his choosing of specific individuals like Abraham or Jacob, etc.)
  • Passages from the prophets and the writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) that use poetic language to speak of God’s power

I relied on both in my thesis. The problem is (as I’ve argued elsewhere), just because God CAN and DOES intervene in specific ways at specific times to advance his redemptive agenda doesn’t necessarily mean that he intervenes to the same extent in absolutely everything.

And it’s dangerous at best to make comprehensive theological claims from poetry. The irony is that some Calvinists, as noted above, use the “don’t take this passage literally” argument when it suits them. And the times that it suits them best are, arguably, when it is least valid to do so.

In other words, the passages they want to interpret metaphorically — passages that depict God feeling regret or changing his mind — are found most often in narrative texts. That is, passages which describe actual events. Yet when they come across what may well be a hyperbolic (but true in its own way) expression of God’s power in poetry, they insist on a literal interpretation.


Part 6 of this series can be found here.

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