Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Once Saved, Always Saved Deconstructed

Posted: March 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I was quietly minding my own business the other day when the following thought abruptly popped, fully formed, into my conscious mind.

The dogma “once saved, always saved” is soteriological monothelitism.

Yes, the inside of my head is often a strange and sometimes frightening place. That’s just a small taste of what it’s like in there. However, as I turned the thought around and looked at it from various angles, I realized it seemed more true than not. There’s a lot of information packed into that short sentence. In this post, I’ll try to unpack it.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “once saved, always saved” is a particular doctrine found among some modern Christian groups. I’m most familiar with it in a Southern Baptist context. Basically it’s a way of expressing the idea that once a person makes an authentic (and that’s a discussion in and of itself) commitment to Christ, you are sealed as a Christian and nothing you can subsequently will or do can change that status or your status as one of the saved.

In the history of Baptists in America, there are a number of strands which contributed to their development and formation over the years. Some of those strands were either outright Calvinistic or at least adopted some of the ideas of John Calvin, particularly the dogmas of total depravity and the perseverance of the saints. The latter is an intriguing, if misguided, dogma. It postulates a God who, for reasons known only to himself and which we can never know or understand, creates some human beings for salvation and others for eternal damnation. There’s nothing we can do to move from one category to the other one, but if we are in the group predestined for salvation, then we will be ultimately saved no matter what.

However, within this system there’s really no way to tell with which group you belong. Are you damned or are you saved? It’s within this context that the dogma of “once saved, always saved” seems to have developed over time. Basically, it holds that we’re all born damned. (Even so, most variations will give infants and small children a free pass from damnation. That free pass lasts until some uncertain age when the child is able to intellectually grasp the various doctrines and teachings about God.) Over the course of our lives, though, we always have the option to exercise our will and choose to commit ourselves to Jesus of Nazareth. Then, once we do so, we become a saint and cannot become anything else.

When you understand the context of this dogma’s development, it obviously is designed to address the uncertainty inherent in the somewhat older dogma of perseverance of the saints while retaining its preferred features. Since it first requires an exercise of will to become a saint, presumably one would know whether or not you’ve done so. In that way it removes the uncertainty. You can actually know whether you are in the damned or the saved group. (In practices, it doesn’t really work that way and very often those preaching or evangelizing will even deliberately try to instill doubt about your status.)

The dogma seems intended to provide assurance of a sort. You can actually know you are in the saved group and you can be certain that you’ll remain in that group as well. Until I understood that history, the way Baptists often talk about assurance and perceive a lack of assurance in other groups always seemed very odd to me. When you understand the context, it makes more sense.

Going back to my thought, soteriological is just the fancy English word we use for discussions about salvation. It’s really easy to talk right past each other if you assume that salvation automatically means the same thing to all people. It begs the question, what are you being saved from? And what are you being saved to? It even begs the question of what does it even mean that you are saved or are being saved? I’ve noticed that among Baptists, at least, salvation tends to be externalized. It’s something you possess rather than a process you are undergoing. In my mind, from the very beginning, I had an image of saving someone as an active process. That’s probably why I always felt like I understood the Fathers, who described the Church in various terms, but always as a vehicle for the ongoing process of salvation. The Church is an ark, rescuing us from destruction. The Church is a hospital for the healing of our souls and the restoration of our true humanity. Their metaphors describe a process you undergo rather than a thing you have.

And that conforms more to our normal experience of reality. Think about the times we might save or try to save others. If I save someone from drowning, it’s an action and a process. If I try to save someone from abuse, that implies a lengthy series of actions. If I try to save someone from an addiction that is destroying them, I’m committing myself to a long process with uncertain results. When you stop and think about it, salvation as a noun is really very odd. What’s the thing that it describes?

And that brings us to the last word in my thought, monothelitism. Monothelitism was the heresy that was finally resolved in the sixth ecumenical council. St. Maximos the Confessor, the one who wrote the texts of love I’ve been working through on my blog, was the great champion of that council, even though he did not survive to see it. He suffered greatly for the faith when it seemed all the powers stood against him. He had his tongue cut out so he could not speak and he had his hand cut off so he could not write. Nothing stopped him from teaching the truth about Christ, though, and his work kept the truth of Christianity alive from the ground up. Monothelitism is the teaching that Christ had only one will, the divine will. Basically, the divine will destroyed or overpowered his human will and guided him throughout his life without effort or opposition.

The problem with this view is that it makes Christ something other than fully human. If he had no human will that he had to align with the divine will, then he was not really like us. We have to struggle, and often fail, to align our will with God’s. If Christ did not share in that struggle, even though he never failed, then he cannot heal our own wills. It turns the Incarnation from something glorious and incredibly risky on God’s part into a sham.

Once saved, always saved” turns monothelitism on its head and applies it to us instead. Basically, it says that whenever we once commit to Christ, the divine will for all practical purposes obliterates our human will. Sure, we can still perform individual acts of evil, but we no longer have a will with which we can reject God. And whatever we may then be, I wouldn’t call such a creature human, much less capable of love. Moreover, if God simply wanted to turn us into subhuman creatures, what’s the point of the whole charade of history. He could have overtaken our will from the outset if such a thing were in his nature. Why would he wait until we had actually taken a step toward him to treat us so brutally?

No, I have to reject the idea that our wills mean nothing. God is truly not willing that any should perish, which means that it’s our wills that oppose his efforts. And it’s not God’s nature — it’s not the nature of love — to contravene or force the will of another, much less wipe it from existence. My struggle is to turn my will to God, who has already done everything necessary to save us all. I need to want God. It’s certain that he wants me.

But I retain always the power to turn my will away from God. It’s for that reason we pray for help, for mercy, which God offers in overflowing abundance.


St. Maximos the Confessor

Posted: April 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on St. Maximos the Confessor

If you study Church history, you can’t help but encounter St. Maximos the Confessor. He stood faithfully against the monothelite heresy, even when it meant standing against both the Patriarch and the Emperor. This heresy held that even though Christ had both a human and a divine nature, he had only a divine will. Such a man could not have strayed from the divine will, thus could not have been truly tempted. A Christ like that could never relate to us as one of us, nor we to him. St. Maximos held faithfully to the teaching that in Christ’s fully human nature, he also had a human will. Despite all temptation and suffering, Jesus kept his human will faithfully aligned with the divine will.

St. Maximos not only faithfully held to the faith, he confessed it widely and effectively in person and in writing. He was so effective that in his last exile, his tongue was removed to keep him from speaking and his hand was cut off to keep him from writing. His faithful assistant continued writing and St. Maximos’ works continued to be widely circulated and read. In 680, eighteen years after his death, he was vindicated in the 6th ecumenical council, which affirmed the two wills of Christ.

Once he was accused of esteeming himself the only Orthodox and the only one who would be saved and of believing all others were heretics would be condemned. His response has stayed in my mind.

When all the people in Babylon were worshiping the golden idol, the Three Holy Youths did not condemn anyone to perdition. They did not concern themselves with what others were doing, but took care only for themselves, so as not to fall away from true piety. In precisely the same way, Daniel also, when cast into the den, did not condemn any of those who, in fulfilling the law of Darius, did not want to pray to God; but he bore in mind his duty, and desired rather to die than to sin and be tormented by his conscience for transgressing God’s Law. God forbid that I, too, should condemn anyone, or say that I alone am being saved. However, I would sooner agree to die than, having apostatized in any way from the right faith, endure the torments of my conscience.

Though I have but a fraction of the great saint’s faith, I understand and share his response above. My scribblings here and elsewhere, such as they are, represent my effort to understand and express my faith in Christ. I do not intend to condemn anyone. I do not have that right and do not desire that responsibility.

St. Maximos has long held a special place in my heart and I’ve decided to blog through some of his works preserved in the philokalia. I’ll start tomorrow with his Four Hundred Texts on Love.


On the Incarnation of the Word 18 – Humanity and Divinity Manifested Through His Body

Posted: September 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 18 – Humanity and Divinity Manifested Through His Body

In today’s section, Athanasius is saying something a bit more subtle than simply that Jesus’ miracles prove he was God. But especially in our modern context, it seems to me that his deeper point can easily be missed. Athanasius is making the point that both the humanity of Jesus and the divine Logos were made known to us in and through his body in a thoroughly united and inseparable manner.

But these things are said of Him, because the actual body which ate, was born, and suffered, belonged to none other but to the Lord: and because, having become man, it was proper for these things to be predicated of Him as man, to shew Him to have a body in truth, and not in seeming. But just as from these things He was known to be bodily present, so from the works He did in the body He made Himself known to be Son of God.

The birth of our Lord from a virgin played a significant role in the theology of the early church. The central title given to Mary and affirmed in the strongest terms in ecumenical council is Theotokos. That’s interesting because the title itself is essentially a theological statement about Christ. In addition, the “ever-virgin” belief about Mary (which was essentially a universal Christian belief until the last two hundred years or so) rests in the tremendous honor given to Jesus.

Therefore, even to begin with, when He was descending to us, He fashioned His body for Himself from a Virgin, thus to afford to all no small proof of His Godhead, in that He Who formed this is also Maker of everything else as well. For who, seeing a body proceeding forth from a Virgin alone without man, can fail to infer that He Who appears in it is Maker and Lord of other bodies also?

Take a moment to read this section of the treatise in its entirety. Then read it again slowly. Let it sink below the surface.