I Agree With Myselves

I’ll bet you didn’t notice the self-contradiction at the heart of my last post, on the alleged inflexibility of Calvinism. Lots of words can sort of blur out the edges so you can’t see the contradiction as clearly as you might otherwise.

The point is that I noticed my own the contradiction at the heart of my piece. So I will take this opportunity, as a card-carrying Calvinist, to model what it means to be, ahem, flexible. In fact, we Calvinists can be—believe it or not—self-critical.

I began by saying that this issue of the tribal mentality or not “accommodating” the viewpoints of others is not really an issue of the theological “system,” but rather an issue of the human heart. Okay, I used some weasel-words: “much more an issue of the human heart.” A continuum/spectrum thing rather than a black/white thing.

But then I went on to formulate a thesis that sort of directly contradicts this: I suggested that Calvinism as a system better accommodates rival viewpoints, due to its unique understanding of the restorational (rather than hierarchical) relationship between grace and nature and, more importantly, the doctrine of common grace.

To demonstrate my tolerance and magnanimity I will now happily say that I agree with myselves. But it does require a bit more explanation.

You can, indeed, find inflexible, non-accommodating people in any theological camp. My illustrations showed that it really does cut across the theological spectrum. I read a comment somewhere the other day from a seminarian (A Barth-influenced one, as I recall) ripping the Reformed orthodox tradition for its overarching “system.” A brief comment without context is hard to rightly interpret, but one possible interpretation left me fairly dumbstruck, wondering if this person really didn’t realize that Barth’s “Christo-centric” post-liberal reconstruction of dogmatic theology is a system? A really dogmatic system, at that. Perhaps the irony was lost on him. Anyhow, stubborn refusal to listen to others is something deep in the human heart and it has all kinds of rationales, including the non-self-aware “I follow Jesus, not a system!” version. And you cannot ultimately blame a system for a lack of charity—an intellectual system is not a person, and persons, ultimately, bear responsibility.

At the same time, it is true that some theological systems make accommodation and flexibility far more difficult for its adherents. If, as a matter of belief, your system maintains that, say, anyone not regenerate is utterly incapable of good (as various strands of fundamentalism have it) you are less likely—I mean, a lot less likely—to pay very close attention to what an unregenerate person says or writes. In this sort of case, it simply is true that some systems of thought are worse than others at generating intellectual flexibility. And this was really the import of my case: since Calvin’s tradition has built into it an internally consistent avenue for appreciating wisdom and truth outside the “camp,” it is in this sense superior to other traditions in “accommodating” the viewpoints of rivals.

The relation of persons to their systems is a complex one. A person chooses a given theological framework and puts a healthy amount of trust in it. There is a sense in which you’re “giving” yourself to a tradition, willingly being formed by it.  This makes my first point about a “matter of the heart” versus “matter of the system” a bit misleading. Insofar as someone commits himself to a system (with his heart, no less), the system can and does, in fact, form him in a certain way. I also think this “giving oneself” to received wisdom is inescapable, not optional. We are not autonomous, but rely on others for very nearly everything we know and believe.

And that leads to precisely another way I think Calvinism excels (at least in its ideal): its emphasis on our need to always be checking our traditions against the supreme authority of God’s Word, that is, truly encountering and submitting to God, is really the only way for us to avoid having our “system” become a fruitless feedback loop, a hermeneutical spiral toward greater understanding rather than a hermeneutical circle of reinforced error.

So, I think myselves were right, but it is a bit more complicated than I made it sound. 

Brian Mattson