So, from my first post, it’s easy to see that Reformed theology doesn’t have everything wrapped up any more than other doctrinal systems. Yet as Chris said in his comment, there seems to be a feeling that Reformists base their conclusions on “scripture alone” and they have more scriptural support than any other group. After all, they are the majority tradition, right?
Could this be because they keep telling you that’s the case? Let’s cover some philosophical and historical ground here…
Actually, Reformed theology leans very heavily on classical (Greek) philosophical foundations that have little to do with the Bible. These philosophical foundations describe the character of God in a particular way. Philosophers and theologians have always struggled to define appropriate attributes for God to possess. Xenophanes despised the Greek gods’ inappropriate behavior and proposed a criterion of “decency”: traits that he believed deity should possess. God should never behave as human do.
Plato’s version of God is perfect, needing nothing, and is sufficient in every way unto itself. God maintains his state of perfection by experiencing no “joy or sorrow” – nor does he love since he needs no relationships. Because of God’s perfection, he “mingles not with man.” Plato also takes a deterministic slant to the cosmic order stating that all human affairs are predetermined, yet how this happens is a divine mystery (I heard that before). Even God is subject to fate – “Not even God can fight against necessity.” Aristotle believed there must be an “unmoved mover” who is the first cause of all motion in the universe. In order to remain unmoved and independent of all forces, God must also remain completely separate from the world.
Augustine, the father of Latin theology, emphasized Hellenistic traits of God as well. He maintained the traditional divine attributes the Greek philosophers did: “Whatever is changeable is not the most high God…that is truly real which remains immutable.” Therefore, neither God’s knowledge nor his will ever changes. Along with these beliefs, Augustine adopted the concept of foreordination or predestination – humans cannot thwart God’s will for “the will of the omnipotent is always undefeated.” Scriptures showing God changing his mind were written for “babes” and do not reflect God’s true nature. Augustine also believed that natural events on earth were designed by God at the beginning of time and hidden within the natural order of life (sound familiar?). With Augustine’s endorsement of these philosophical attributes, the transcendent, unknowable and inaccessible nature of God became permanently etched into Western theology.
Now, stick with me here – I’m going somewhere. When the Reformers attempted to develop a new system of theology apart from Catholicism, they merely fell back on the same familiar philosophical assumptions Augustine had found so useful. This also included philosophical attributes of God like immutability and simplicity. So, while making slight changes, the Reformers only reinforced the inherited view of God’s unavailability.
Calvin was even more structured in his understanding of God’s nature and interaction with creation. He also characterizes God as immutable, simple, impassible and self-existent. Echoing Luther’s view of sovereignty, Calvin stated that God does not will something because it is good; rather, an event in life is good simply because God willed its occurrence. The mysteries of God’s will should remain a mystery: “Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself.”
Understandably, Calvin’s opponents had trouble reconciling his belief that “nothing takes place by chance” with the idea of God as a loving father. But Calvin helps us understand his line of reasoning: the perils and tragedies of life’s existence at that time would have been intolerable if all events in life happened as a result of arbitrary chance. Submitting to God, the Christian could at least believe that the miseries of life were intended for his own good. So, Calvin’s view of God was a product of his environment, not ours.
Okay, what does all that mean? It means that though Reformed theology is well developed (and that promotes security), it sacrifices the practical elements of God’s goodness. Rather than accepting God because he is good, we are told to accept God’s goodness simply because He wills it. Though Reformists say that they are the majority tradition, historically the majority of people have rejected at least part of their concept of God.
Here are a few quotes from across the spectrum to illustrate. Commoners during the Reformation turned to folk magic to bridge the gap between themselves and a remote view of God. In 1594, Lutheran inspectors in Germany reported that “the use of spells is so widespread among the people here that not a man or woman begins…or refrains from doing anything…without employing some particular blessing, incantation, spell, or other such heathenish means…” They weren’t exactly “leaning on the everlasting arms,” were they? Enlightenment philosophers wholly rejected the same view of God as well. Since God had already distanced himself from humanity, the rationalists merely pushed him further out of the frame into a state of inactivity. They finished the job classical theism had started centuries before. Voltaire questioned the character of a deterministic God and his foreordination of a disastrous earthquake in Lisbon in 1775. The philosophes’ underlying motivation became liberating the Western mindset from what Voltaire called a “religion that believes in a cruel God.”
In the 1840s, Andrew Jackson Davis, prior to his conversion to Spiritualism, struggled with his Christian upbringing. A member of the Presbyterian church, he rejected the “God clothed in Calvinist attributes, also in His eternal decrees of election and reprobation and also in many other points of faith ascribing unamiable qualities to the Deity.” Protestant Liberalism was also a reaction to this view of God. Lyman Abbot, looking back upon his Puritan upbringing, loathed the view of God as a “kind of awful omnipotent police justice” and himself as “a scared culprit who knows he is liable to punishment but does not clearly know why.” In the twentieth century, Carl Jung, the son of a Reformed pastor, had experienced the demoralizing aspects of Western Christianity. He wrote, “I am aware of my unconventional way of thinking and understand that it gives the impression that I am not a Christian. But I regard myself as a Christian…but I am at the same time convinced that…the present situation seems to me to be intolerable; therefore I think that a fundamental further development of Christianity is absolutely necessary.”
Now, we can pretend all these people are stupid and delusional and rebellious…or we can really look at what they are saying. People from Christian, occult, and secular traditions are all hinting at the same thing: the Reformed view of God is unacceptable. Though they disagreed on basically everything else, they certainly agreed on that! Maybe a theological system that implicitly undermines the character of God isn’t the best way to go.
Next, practical implications for everyday Christians.