Saturday, May 20, 2006

Interview with David Bentley Hart

So where was God in the tsunami?

Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.


The answers in this interview, coming from my younger brother, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, are all of them answers with which I wholeheartedly agree. This includes my brother's strong critique of Calvin. But, he and I have long agreed that it is time to treat Calvinism as a heresy, the same way we do Mormonism or the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses.

18 comments:

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

The last part of the interview was particularly moving. Your brother's reaction to the child's joyful dance and the way he reflected upon it were piercingly beautiful. Lump in the throat stuff.

I have written about Calvinism here, and called it a heresy:

http://members.ozemail.com.au/~frmkirby/Calvinism.htm

However, to treat Calvinism as on a par with Mormonism or JW Arianism would be unfair. Calvin and his followers have always accepted the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. This is extremely important. Calvinists are Christians.

It is also worth noting that with some adjustments it doesn't take much to turn Calvinism into Thomism. The latter, though perhaps less than perfect in its soteriology, is within the range of permissible Catholic opinion. Indeed, "moderate" Calvinists are virtually indistinguishable from Thomists in this area, I think, since they effectively qualify the 5 "TULIP" points in various ways (see my article above if you are a reader who is wondering why I suddenly mentioned a flower!).

Kevin D. Johnson said...

A fascinating interview.

I believe, in regards to "Calvinism", that it would be wise to distinguish between what Calvin actually believed and what is normally held today to be "Calvinism".

The "TULIP", as an example, is the product of the Synod of Dordt which took place in the early 17th century and does not necessarily reflect a complete view of Calvin and his teaching on these points. At the very least, interpreting Calvin and his work in light of these points is anachronistic. However, many today believe in a stunted version of the TULIP (ie. "five-point Calvinism") mixed with a Baptistic ecclesiology. I believe the "heresy" you are looking for is in that particular arena without question.

What I think many miss (and what the paper by Fr. Kirby above does not address) is that within the Reformed camp there is a significant amount of theological diversity that orbits around the main system Calvin put in place through his Institutes and other works--and this diversity reflects in many cases a healthy return to a more catholic understanding of the faith found in the Fathers.

This diversity has continued through the last five hundred years though diminished somewhat through the influence of the later Reformed scholastics and the Puritans.

In my view, Calvin was an intellectual giant of a man--but a man of his time and circumstance who quite probably would have been received *by all* as another great father in the catholic Church had the late medieval abuses of the Roman communion and the tragic circumstances of the Reformation not put itself in the way of such a gifted man.

albion said...

Agreed. Calvin was, in the core of his theology, thoroughly within the school of St. Augustine. Aside from his errors in sacramental theology and in ecclesiology, he was in the mainstream of Western Catholic theology. It is indeed some of his followers that raised the very Augustinian predestinarians aspects of his soteriology to the level of caricature in an attempt to answer the five points raised by Arminius in his strongly Pelagian writings. The TULIP 5 points of the Synod of Dort were a specific answer to Arminius' points, and , as is so often the case, a bit of an over-reaction.

In short, Calvin is as Christian as any other Protestant, and utterly distinct from such cultic heresies as the Mormons & JWs. Given the theological openness of 200 years before the Reformation, he would probably have developed into a doctor of the Church. Instead, his over-reaction to the heresies being bureaucratically advanced by the secularized rulers of the 15th century church led him into regrettable heresies.

poetreader said...

Oops!
Albion didn't say that last. I did.
Not quite sure how I managed to steal your identity,
but everyone please read the preceding comment as Poetreader says. Thank you.

ed

Fr. Robert Hart said...

In The City of God, Saint Augustine made it very clear that he did not believe that anyone was ever predestined for Hell. It a very different thing to acknowledge that man cannot choose God, since that requires grace that is beyond his own ability (refutation of Pelagius), from saying that God willed evil into existence, and deprived man of free will. For the first part, none of Calvin's own defenses clear him of the charge of making God the author of evil, whether or not He is so by derivation (my choice of words, aptly descriptive) in Calvin's system. The second part is a logical fallacy, since man is made in God's image, and therefore cannot lack free will. Fallen man cannot choose to turn to God simply by free will, having not the grace to do so. But, that is as far as orthodox doctrine agrees with Calvin, and as far as Calvin actually follows Augustine, in this matter.

Calvin inverts the heresy of Marcion, only he worships the evil creator god. Marcion was morally superior to Calvin, for though he was terribly wrong, he never worshiped the creator of evil. Also, to really understand a god whose predominant attribute is a combination of power and will (rather than agape), we must consider the influence of Islam on Western thinking.

And, none of this is Augustinian.

Kevin D. Johnson said...

Fr. Hart,

I think it is perhaps enough to note that Calvin would not have agreed with your assessment of his views or of his own interpretation or faithfulness to Augustine.

I would love to see the passages in City of God that you refer to.

No one is saying that Calvin agreed at all points with Augustine or even that he was always right in regards to these finer points of doctrine. Sometimes we see catholicity in fathers by how they disagreed with one another even if that disagreement spanned a thousand years.

Calvin obviously had a view of Augustine that is different than many hold today but that in no way means that his own view is necessarily incomplete or inappropriate in and of itself. Interpreting Augustine has its challenges even today (and I would say especially today).

I do agree however that the choice of Calvin and particularly others who followed in his footstaps to emphasize first the sovereignty of God over and above other attributes such as His love is perhaps a mistake with dramatic implications. It ought to be enough for us to note that the Scriptures seem to emphasize the love of God (especially in reference to our salvation and that of the world) over and above other emphases that the Church has deemed important to note about God.

On the other hand, the emphasis for Calvin was pastoral and one wonders how exactly these issues would have been addressed in a context free of the polemical environment of the Reformation where Calvin spent a good deal of his time combatting the excesses of the Church in the High MIddle Ages with weapons like a heavy emphasis on God's sovereignty. There is no doubt in my mind, for example, that later followers of Calvin removed from the direct context of the Reformation over emphasized this view of God's sovereignty to the point that it did border (if not cross the line) on heresy.

As a result, many tend to look back over five hundred years to Calvin with jaundiced eyes afflicted by the various partisan or reformational struggles between differing communions and lose the subtlety of Calvin's positions as he presented them. Then again, there is some truth to be told about the problems created by a view that emphasizes God's sovereignty more than the Scriptures have.

But the implication that Calvin looked to an evil creator god that is the reverse of Marcion's god seems quite groundless to me given that Calvin was very careful to follow the Fathers in regards to understanding God and Christ in light of the orthodox definitions of Nicea and Chalcedon. It should be important to us to charitably understand the completeness of his view of God as he states it in his writings rather than merely draw out possible implications of his view that Calvin himself probably wouldn't have agreed with no matter how far he was backed into a theological corner.

I really fail to understand how Calvin's view departs from creedal orthodoxy especially when as far as I know the Church has not seen fit to handle these sort of finer points of doctrine via Council or Creed. Is there not some room for Christian disagreement here within our folds?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I am well aware of Calvin's desire to be pastoral, and of his rather moving passages about charity (a subject that seems to embarass certain young Calvinist students). Nonetheless, it is not Calvin's followers whom I blame, but Calvin himself. Furthermore, I do not see that his view of an evil creator god is the reverse of Marcion. The problem is, Calvin's view of God is too much the same as the evil god of Marcion. Boiling everything down to the philosophical weaknesses at the heart of Calvin's theology, it is not possible, without an enormous contradiction of logic, to say that God deprived man of free will, and in additon that God predestined the Fall by His soveriegn will, but then to blame the existence of evil on "the actors themselves." If He willed it to be, and none can resist His will or even will freely, then He is the evil god of Marcion, whether Trinitarian or not. So, the error of Calvin, and his blasphemy, is essentially moral.

My brother has sent me an e-mail that says: "Frankly the confusion between Calvin and the late Augustine (whose doctrine, by the way, I also reject) reflects a failure to grap the difference between Augustine's subtle metaphysical grasp of the question of freedom and Calvin's utterly inept, philosophically crude approach to such issues.
...the 'heresies' to which I am referring are found not in the Synod of Dordt documents, but in book three of The Institutes. You might refer them to my book, where I deal directly with the passages in question." (Unlike my brother, I don't reject Augustine's doctrine.)

Interestingly enough, it is that selection from the Institutes that first showed me why I could never be a Calvinist-and believe me, there was a time when I tried to be one.

Kevin D. Johnson said...

Interesting...well...given that we're both in Phoenix maybe we should just take the discussion offline and talk about it over some good beer. :)

Which book, btw, is your brother talking about? I would be very interested to read it.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Minor point: My understanding is that Calvin denied human free will AFTER the Fall and due to it. He never denied Free Will before or at the Fall. That is, he did NOT say that the original sin was imposed rather than freely chosen by the first Man. This undermines the criticism of Calvin somewhat.

Also, once it is seen that Calvin accepts the Fall as freely chosen by Man, the predestination of God can consist in his knowing and choosing to create a world and First Man in which he foreknew this would happen. There is no need to posit that God wills the Fall directly or inherently. And God can effectually will that something happen contingently (i.e., by no intrinsic necessity) by just the means described above. Thus the event in question is necessitated in an eternal sense post factum, that is, not by God causing the choice for evil or desiring the evil but by God choosing the existence of the agent who he knows will choose evil because he loves these moral agents (persons) despite their bad choices and "respects" freedom.

poetreader said...

It has long been my observation that Christian Orthodoxy is thoroughly bound up with the acceptance of apparent opposites that seem inevitably in contradiction within the limitations of the human mind, but do resolve (beyond our capability to understand) on the infinite mind of God. Thus the Five Points of Calvinism (TULIP) are all quite in accord with Scripture and part of the Faith provided the converse five points of Arminius be also recognized as true. Heresy is not so much the statement of false propositions as the stressing of truths to where the also-true converse is denied. Calvin, unlike many of his followers, did recognize and affirm this principle.

Speaking of the Fall of Adam, our own tradition has enshrined in it an astoundingly counterintuitive concept. In the Exultet of the Easter Vigil: "O how great is thy providence in man's necessity, to make by the Blood of Christ from Adam's sin our salvation. O blessed iniquity, for whose redemption such a price was paid by such a Saviour! ..."

ed

Kevin D. Johnson said...

Never mind about the book request...I know which one you're talking about now. I forgot all this discussion got started in the context of your brother's interview about his book and views about the tsunami.

What a memory lapse!

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Fr. Kirby, I am a bit puzzled why you believe that Calvin saw man as having a lack of Free Will only after the Fall. The Institutes teach that the Fall was predestined. And Satan's Fall is supposedly predestined as well. Evil seems to be posited as some sort of necessity. The problem in Calvin runs very deep, and impugns the moral goodness of God Himself.

Poetreader, I really cannot reconcile these opposing views, or treat them as simply giving balance. TULIP is impossible to reconcile with the Bible itself. For example, Limited Atonement contradicts I John 2: 2. Furthermore, it contradicts the use of Saint Paul's understanding of "many" from Isaiah 53: 12. For, in the Epistle to the Romans he contrasts the One (Christ) and the Many (all of those made into sinners by one man's disobedience). So, even the Reformed fondness for the word "many" completely missed the point.

Kevin Johnson, I enjoy a hearty discussion on an intelligent level, and I like good beer (and I am still grinding your coffee beans into a strong morning stimluent). So, it's a good idea.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Fr. Kirby, I am a bit puzzled why you believe that Calvin saw man as having a lack of Free Will only after the Fall. The Institutes teach that the Fall was predestined. And Satan's Fall is supposedly predestined as well. Evil seems to be posited as some sort of necessity. The problem in Calvin runs very deep, and impugns the moral goodness of God Himself.

Poetreader, I really cannot reconcile these opposing views, or treat them as simply giving balance. TULIP is impossible to reconcile with the Bible itself. For example, Limited Atonement contradicts I John 2: 2. Furthermore, it contradicts the use of Saint Paul's understanding of "many" from Isaiah 53: 12. For, in the Epistle to the Romans he contrasts the One (Christ) and the Many (all of those made into sinners by one man's disobedience). So, even the Reformed fondness for the word "many" completely missed the point.

Kevin Johnson, I enjoy a hearty discussion on an intelligent level, and I like good beer (and I am still grinding your coffee beans into a strong morning stimluent). So, it's a good idea.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Fr Hart,

To quote a Calvinist quoting Calvin citing Augustine (!):

In speaking of the freedom of the will, Calvin distinguishes between three types of freedom, namely, freedom from necessity by compulsion, freedom from sin, and freedom from misery. On the application of this distinction to man he writes, "The first of these so inheres in man by nature that it cannot possibly be taken away, but the two others have been lost through sin." (2.2.5) The question of whether man is free from misery is a moot point, given the obvious empirical data pertaining to human suffering despite one's will to avoid pain. The question of whether humanity is free from sin finds answer in two sources, Scripture and human nature. Calvin is very careful to maintain the scriptural witness regarding the sinfulness of humanity, as well as regards the Fall as a determinative event in man's moral history. In this regard, Calvin necessarily distinguishes between necessity per se and compulsion . "The chief point of this distinction, then, must be that man, as he was corrupted by the Fall, sinned willingly, not unwillingly or by compulsion; by the most eager inclination of his heart, not by forced compulsion from without. Yet so depraved is his nature that he can be moved or impelled only to evil. But if this is true, then it is clearly expressed that man is surely subject to the necessity of sinning." (2.3.5) Quoting Augustine, Calvin affirms, "Through freedom man came to be in sin, but the corruption which followed as punishment turned freedom into necessity." (Ibid) Here then, Calvin posits that human nature necessarily sins, yet does so not by compulsion in accord with the individual's will. This view could be considered plausible and consistent if indeed the Fall precipitated the natural change in human nature which both Calvin and Augustine claim.

So, Calvin undoubtedly taught that Adam had free will before the Fall. As for the question of how he could also believe that the Fall was predestined but not caused by God, I have given one possible reason above. That is, God predestined the Fall only insofar as he chose to create a human moral agent he knew would freely choose to sin. Since God does not have to create at all and did not have to create this Universe in particular, there is a sense in which he can be said (in this mode of Augustinian-Thomist thinking) to have positively willed a Reality outside Himself that included the Fall, though he did not positively will or cause the Fall itself, its deficient nature being wholly determined by the secondary cause, the created will.

Another alternative, which would make him guilty of implying God is the cause of evil, would be to claim that Adam's continuance in goodness required super-added grace which God did not owe him and which he withdrew at some stage to precipitate the Fall. Some Calvinists seem to teach this, others do not. I have no info on whether Calvin ever taught this alternative.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The problem is that the Institutes state that the Fall, both of men and devils, was God's eternal will. It was part of the plan, and evil is necessary to this scheme. Here too, he speaks of Man's (and Satan's) action as transferring culpability from God, because the sin is that of "the actors themselves" (when defending against the objection that this makes God the author of evil). But, as I said before, this presents a problem of logical inconsistency. If God willed it to happen, and none can resist His will, the culpibility would in fact be His. And, of course a direct quotation from St. Augustine must modify this, since he never went to that extreme.

"I have given one possible reason above. That is, God predestined the Fall only insofar as he chose to create a human moral agent he knew would freely choose to sin."

That is very much in accord with a passage near the beginnig of Saint Athanasius' On the Incarnation. And, Calvin was always careful to try to be in accord with the Fathers (a rough count shows him quoting St. John Chrysostom even more than St. Augustine). But, this whole bit about the Fall and the existence of evil being part of the Plan, takes us away from the Fathers, and from Christian dogma. It does make God Himself the source of evil, willing it and thus creating it even if by derivation.

Some choose to acknowledge this, and defend it from the Bible: "I create good and evil." Of course, they fail to understand what it means, since "evil" in that verse speaks of natural disasters, and could imply nothing more than that the earth works a certain way, and man has left the protection of God's grace to embark on danergous frontiers. However, I believe the people who misuse this verse are very much in accord with the Institutes of Calvin, much as I tried long ago to believe the opposite.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

said...

The problem is that the Institutes state that the Fall, both of men and devils, was God's eternal will. It was part of the plan, and evil is necessary to this scheme. Here too, he speaks of Man's (and Satan's) action as transferring culpability from God, because the sin is that of "the actors themselves" (when defending against the objection that this makes God the author of evil). But, as I said before, this presents a problem of logical inconsistency. If God willed it to happen, and none can resist His will, the culpibility would in fact be His. And, of course a direct quotation from St. Augustine must modify this, since he never went to that extreme.

"I have given one possible reason above. That is, God predestined the Fall only insofar as he chose to create a human moral agent he knew would freely choose to sin."

That is very much in accord with a passage near the beginnig of Saint Athanasius' On the Incarnation. And, Calvin was always careful to try to be in accord with the Fathers (a rough count shows him quoting St. John Chrysostom even more than St. Augustine). But, this whole bit about the Fall and the existence of evil being part of the Plan, takes us away from the Fathers, and from Christian dogma. It does make God Himself the source of evil, willing it and thus creating it even if by derivation.

Some choose to acknowledge this, and defend it from the Bible: "I create good and evil." Of course, they fail to understand what it means, since "evil" in that verse speaks of natural disasters, and could imply nothing more than that the earth works a certain way, and man has left the protection of God's grace to embark on danergous frontiers. However, I believe the people who misuse this verse are very much in accord with the Institutes of Calvin, much as I tried long ago to believe the opposite.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Fr Hart,

When you say "this whole bit about the Fall and the existence of evil being part of the Plan, takes us away from the Fathers, and from Christian dogma", you would be right if you meant that God did not plan/intend sin. However, you would be wrong if you meant that God did not plan FOR sin. Once we grant the necessity of divine foreknowledge, which we must to be orthodox, we accept that God created some beings that he knew would freely choose evil. He intended to permit sin's existence. This does not mean that he caused sin or intended to do so.

So, the Fall was part of the Plan, not according to God's logically original, a priori intent but only as permissively willed a posteriori according to foreknowledge. If we do not distinguish between the permissive and the positive will, it is then we end up in a contradiction, it seems to me. It may be that Calvin denies this distinction, I don't know. But if he does not deny it, his stating that the Fall was predestined is not automatically heretical. It can be given an orthodox sense.

As for the objection that none can resist God's will, so if God willed the Fall he caused it, this suffers from ambiguity. To say that none can resist God's permissive will is effectively nonsense, since his permissive will is by definition not connected to causal action (apart from continuing to maintain the being of the agent whose actions are being permitted). In the case of permissive will, there is nothing to resist.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The Institutes go beyond this perfectly orthodox understanding (which was expressed best, for its simplicity, in a single sentence by Saint Athanasius, that God did not begrudge us our existence). For Calvin there does not seem to be a distinction between what God allows and foreknows, and what He causes by His power.

I would love to be proved wrong.