Reformed Theology, Great Commission, and Halloween
In honor of the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses (list of questions and propositions for debate) to the chapel door/bulletin board at the University of Wittenberg where he was a professor, I offer a “question” about a major theological movement within Protestantism.
What does Halloween have to do with it? For one thing, it was All Hallows Eve when Luther nailed the 95 Theses. But there is a particular horror related to the Protestant Movement that you need to experience. If you care, gentle reader, please read on.
I have been thinking deeply about the Great Commission and how the modern application of Reformed theology has been a significant hindrance to its completion. How can we obey the Lord with any sense of purpose if we do not believe our efforts to communicate the good news will have any effect?
When William Carey, Father of Modern Missions, presented an appeal to his church to engage in world missions, one of the elders responded harshly with these words: “Son, if God wanted to save the heathen he would do it himself. Sit down!”
I learn through dialog and engagement around big ideas. I hope you can take a few moments this Halloween, and at this important anniversary of the Protestant Movement, to consider how desperately a reform of theology is needed again today.
C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity is an essential read for every believer. As Lewis states, we meet in the proverbial “hallway” and we decorate our individual rooms (or denominations) as we wish. Sadly, sometimes those rooms are locked up, or have some additional requirement for admission.
As a faith missionary of 32 years with an international and interdenominational mission, I have been rejected and misunderstood by unbelievers, and sometimes by Reformed believers! I am a Calvinist, of the Dutch Reformed type. Therefore, I believe in cultural engagement and cultural stewardship as necessary outworkings of the mission of God.
Those who have read his books know that Lewis would not be properly labeled a Reformed theologian. The point of Mere Christianity is to increase dialog among Christians of every stripe. That dialog leads to a sense of shared mission, where denominational and doctrinal barriers have less importance and Christ’s love for the lost is of greater importance.
Some of my questions about Reformed theology may sound playful. If God has already done everything, what is he doing now? If he has already thought everything, what is he thinking now? If he cannot be moved, does he?
My more essential question is this:
Does the Reformed understanding of God, His unchanging nature, and holiness, allow God an active mission on earth today?
I have often heard it said that because God is holy, he will not even look upon a sinful creature. I’ve read RC Sproul, John Piper, and other Reformed theologians. I’m familiar with the “five points of Calvinism”: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. I’m not here to refute the wisdom of these tenets of the Reformed faith. I’m simply asking if a strict and universal interpretation of these terms, which are intended to magnify the holiness and limitlessness of God’s nature, tend to limit God’s character and ability to do good to the least of these. Does that limited view of the atonement, God’s capacity to act mercifully toward any and every being, cause the followers of a Reformed theology to also become somewhat less than the human beings God intends them to be?
One of my favorite of Lewis’ books is The Great Divorce. For those who have not read it, it is a fictional story about a group of people who ride a bus from hell to heaven. Lewis’ hero, George MacDonald is a resident of heaven who becomes a guide for the main character, apparently Lewis, who is one of the residents of hell, which Lewis described as the “grey town” below.
When one of the “grey town” visitors asks if anyone could go from heaven to hell, MacDonald got down on his hands and knees and plucked a blade of heaven’s grass. He explained that the bus and passengers came up through a tiny crack as small as the blade of grass. With a deep Scottish brogue, he said,
“All hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world, but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the real world.” He continued, “The damned are shrunk up in themselves…their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes are fast shut. First, they will not, in the end, they cannot open their hands for gifts or their mouths for food or their eyes to see.” “Can no one reach them?”, the visitor asks. MacDonald answers, “Only the greatest of all can make himself small enough to enter hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend.”
Lewis’ writings are contrary to a Reformed theology. It’s true only God can reach them, but Jesus does more than look upon our sin, he becomes sin for us. And now, having done it all, completing his task of providing salvation for all who would come, he commands us to go into all of that sinful world, and preach to everyone. He commands us to be active on his mission in a sinful world.
“In creating beings with freewill, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of… defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle; for to make things which are not Itself and thus to become… capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.”
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.
My discomfort with Reformed theology is fatalism, that mystical perspective of the willingness of a diety to choose (predestine) some for redemption, and to damn the rest. Here’s my problem: the followers of a Reformed view tend to be comforted in their theological position and privilege, their presumption that they are included and that others are destined for hell. I’ve actually sat in more than one Bible study where the leader has described how they can know whether or not a current unbeliever is destined for hell, and therefore does not deserve any attempt to communicate the good news that Jesus died for their sins.
Lewis’ vision is very different. While the Reformed position is that there are those who are predestined to hell, not by their own choice, but by the choice of the very One who entered hell on their behalf, Lewis’ position is humble, relational, inviting to all who would respond to the glorious good news.
One of my favorite theologians and missionary leaders of the 21st century is Lesslie Newbigin, who spent 30 years in India as a bishop of the Church in South Asia. When he returned to the United Kingdom toward the end of the 20th century, he had fresh eyes on the need to re-evangelize the Western world. I, too, lived in India. And now I see this land of plenty with fresh eyes. I see the poverty of being and the poverty of purpose in many of our fellow countrymen. I believe that poverty begins with an impoverished gospel, a humanly inspired attempt to grasp the greatness and glory of God.
Reformed theology claims God cannot look upon sin. It claims that God cannot smile, or rejoice over a repentant sinner; for if he did, he would change and no longer fit their definition of a perfect and holy God. Some argue that the scripture passages that describe God’s broken heart, his tears, or his joy, are merely anthropomorphisms, which are merely God’s attempts to communicate with us in terms that we can understand. They claim God does not truly humble himself, or grieve, or rejoice, for that would make him less than the perfect God of Reformed theology. They claim that he knows perfectly, and therefore ultimately controls, every action of all of his creatures. This impersonal, relationship-free, risk-free idolatry of God, is the Reformed theologian’s horrific attempt to describe God’s holiness, for, in the attempt to describe God’s greatness, the theologian has created a monster responsible for all the evil in the world.
I agree that God chooses to use terms we can understand. He told Phillip when asked to see the Father, he said, “Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus is the ultimate anthropomorphism. “He is the image of the invisible God” Col. 1:15, and “he is the expressed image of his person.” Heb. 1:3 He made himself in our image that we may see how we are made in his image. God became a man. He is personal and he is touched by the feelings of our weaknesses. He feels pain in his heart. Gen. 6:6.
In defining God’s holiness and unchangeable nature, Reformed theologians have placed God in a gilded cage far removed from any relationship, let alone loving relationship, with the objects of his affection.
I believe the most egregious and false accusation ever to be made against the Lord, who hung on the cross for every sinner’s salvation, was not the words shouted at him on that fateful day. Rather, the most egregious offense against the character of God is when we feebly attempt to defend his greatness and holiness, only to render him to blame for all the evil in the world.