Teaching Calvin at Berkeley
Earlier this month a professor of history at Berkeley shared in the New York Times how he uses John Calvin in his class to expand the imagination of his students. He lays out for them quotes from Calvin’s Institutes on Predestination and watches the anger rise from his students. Secular, Christian and non-Christian students alike protest the idea of this sovereign God undercutting our rights to liberty and autonomy.
None of the students are persuaded by Calvin’s logic. But again, Calvin probably knew that they wouldn’t be, since many of his own readers weren’t either. For this saying “no,” the rejection of this terrible idea, is a natural, even reasonable reaction. “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin exclaimed.
Human reason seeks to subject God to itself, but predestination tells us that we cannot. Reasoning itself needs to come to an end before humans can experience the proper relationship to God.
Here we can see something special about the theological reasoning that Calvin practiced. This is not philosophy, after all. His work is not aimed at an abstract audience. Instead it is a direct address to you. Confronting the doctrine of predestination is a kind of psychological experiment. Nothing else can “suffice to make us as humble as we ought to be” as “a taste of this doctrine” of predestination, as Calvin put it. Exactly here, in this rejection and anger, Calvin insists, you finally feel in your gut the greatness of God. You finally feel the difference between his Majesty and your limitation.
How Unreasonable IS Calvin really?
I personally don’t find Calvin nor predestination unreasonable at all. It is humanity and our illusion of autonomy and self-determination that I find unreasonable. Every day the disabled, the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the normal are born into this world and the vast majority of them will not live charmed lives. You may be born the wrong race, gender, color, nationality or to the wrong family or parent and no matter what you do you won’t live the life of Brad Pitt. Then again maybe Brad Pitt’s life isn’t that good either.
God gets pulled into the equation on both sides of the argument. Secularism and atheist have convinced many people that it is simply up to us to get what we want, whether that be a selfish agenda of grabbing and shaking the world to provide to me what I desire, or it might mean marshalling the powers of this world to enforce whatever vision of equality or justice I believe to be right, beautiful or true. In either case it is up to us.
The cry of the Berkeley students is that God had better butt out, or at least we had better shout down any religious notion that he does not.
On the other hand the world is filled with religious people of nearly every religion that demand that God, however they conceive of him, her or it BE involved. We want God to hear our prayers, defend our team, listen to our side, deliver the outcomes that we believe are good, right and desirable to us and those we love. To this end we pray, do religious service, try to figure out what moral or monetary coin God desires that will prompt the use of divine power to make the world as we simply know it ought to be.
Within this power relationship two things keep coming back around. Will God give us the information we need to prevail over our adversaries, and when our arm is too short will God use divine power to intervene to overcome our more powerful human adversary.
We we read through the book of 1 Samuel these issues are engaged. The text wrestled with these issues, not in abstract but in narrative form as we see God working through the drama of Saul and David.
David as Just a Refugee or King in Exile?
Over the last weeks we’ve seen David grow up, from the boy filled with childlike faith, to the young adult learning that evil is in every heart, even that of the Lord’s anointed, to the refugee who becomes a leader of Saul’s basket of deplorables. Chapters 23 through 26 are a vital part of the story of the making of David the King especially with respect to his relationship to Israel’s God. Saul is the foil.
This relationship between David and God has everything to do with the questions raised by the Berkeley prof using John Calvin to shock his students. Right from the start David is the man after God’s own heart but what does that mean? David has been prophesied and anointed to be Israel’s savior but David isn’t just spending years watching the sheep waiting to be discovered. He kills Goliath, marries the king’s daughter, flees from the king’s spear while making covenant with the king’s son.
All of this happens with the backdrop of the broader question of monarchy. Around the world succession of leadership is a relatively simple process, the new leader kills the old one. Since Darwin we are inclined to imagine that this comes to us from the lions and the chimps. The alpha male once possessing sufficient strength takes for himself what he wants, which is power, females to breed with and the force to maintain his advantage over weaker rivals. David has promise but he’s at this point no match for Saul so he flees.
While David his hiding in the desert surrounded by his deplorables word comes that an outpost town of Judah is harassed by the Philistines. What should he do?
On one hand he is simply an outcast, and exile. He bears no responsibility to Israel whose king has made him to flee. On the other he is an anointed king of Israel who has been tasked by God to deliver the people from their enemies.
The Relationship with God you Thought you Wanted
If you remember last week God has been quietly, in the time of David’s misery been making him into a king in exile, complete with an army, a prophet and a priest who took with him the ephod. The ephod had the Urim and Thummim which was the official instrument of divine communication between God and his people. This is deeply ironic because Saul had always possessed the kind of piety that demanded knowing outcomes before deciding to follow in faith. David now possesses this gift. God had departed from Saul refusing to answer his questions but in this chapter God is right there every time answering all of David’s questions.
Most of the time when people want God to answer our questions we imagine God’s answers are decrees that cannot be violated, in the same way that we hear Calvin’s ideas of predestination. You might notice that when David asks whether Saul will come to Keilah God says “yes”. You might notice that Saul does NOT come to Keilah after all. Why? Because David left and after he did Saul heard about it and saw no reason to head down to Keilah to kill him.
Now we might ask “Did God’s word to David that Saul would come to Keilah fail to come to pass?”
You’d have to say “yes, it didn’t happen even though God said it would.”
Why aren’t we bothered by this? We’re not bothered because we understand the implicit nature of communication. When David asked “Will Saul come to Keilah” and will they give him up to Saul the unspoken but understood part of the question was “if I stay”. There is in the story plenty of prognostication. Because it is God speaking the information feels like insider information even though an advisor who knew Saul or knew the people of Keilah would probably give the same answers based on knowledge of them and knowledge of human nature. The fact that this is God changes things.
But What About Divine Intervention?
While we sometimes pray to ask God to reveal things to us that no human can, often we pray that God would do something for us that we can’t do for ourselves. It is interesting in this story that God, who obviously gave David the power to kill Goliath, doesn’t just eliminate Saul. David still has to flee. David still has to fight Philistines for himself without hail or storm or darkness, all things God has used to fight Israel’s battles for her before. God still has to act the warrior, the politician, the leader, the general and the king. David still runs back into the desert and will for the next few chapters play hide and go seek with Saul.
What chapters 24 and 26 will get into will be again the question of providential circumstance and our responsibility. In both of those chapters David will be given an opportunity to take the life of Saul while David’s friends are encouraging him with their own performance of divine prophesy. Could it be a coincidence that Saul goes into the very cave where David is hiding to relieve himself? We will go deeper into that question next week when we look at chapter 25 which really is the central chapter in the rise of David and the demise of Saul. In chapter 23 we are forced to ponder what type of “partner” God really is and whether the story we are working on is finally his or ours.
When it comes down to it we really don’t want a partnership with God, we want a utilitarian relationship where God is the tool we use to get what we want and to shape the world as we desire. David seems to have all of the assets to make that kind of relationship with God work. God answers his questions. God backs up his childhood faith. God, however, doesn’t fight David’s battles for him in the ways we would like him to. David’s life is filled with the peril and drama that makes for exciting stories but is in the moment often horrible to live though. David is anxious and afraid and suffers loss and humiliation and God seems to do little or nothing about it, even when God will through the ephod seem to always answer his calls.
The Misery of Predestination
The reason the students at Berkeley are so offended by this God is precisely the reason that Calvin, and the professor after him, present God in this way. Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6 and Daniel 4 on the lips of Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel 4:34–35 (NIV)
34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”
Many of us experience this as misery. We want to be in charge. We want to have control. We want to bend the universe to our wills. We may in fact in a small scale have felt ourselves to be successful at this but all of this success for human beings is short lived. The age of decay will destroy the works of our hands in this age and we will be forced to face who and what we really are. The Bible calls our knowledge of this truth wisdom.
What Calvin, this Berkeley prof and our hearts reveal is that we ultimately trust ourselves more than anything else in the universe. When it comes right down to it we demand that God and the universe recognize and reflect this trust we place in ourselves. The irony of course is that humanity is 7 billion people trusting more in themselves than in their neighbor. We have lots of sayings about this but yet the practice endures.
Deliverance in Predestination
What Calvin and others want us to see and to do is to relinquish trust in ourselves and fall into God’s hands. Calvin knows that this is tremendously difficult for us and so he employs this strong medicine to jolt us from our self-sufficiency.
In a similar way through out these trials of David this is the same test he faces. Can David trust God? Can David believe that it is not what David does that will make David but what God will do through David that will ultimately accomplish the plan that God has. We doubt God, we doubt the plan, we even doubt his goodness but God invites us to trust him.
This was obviously seen in the moment of utter despair for the son of David on the cross. Jesus’ enemies saw that moment as the destruction and elimination of Jesus and Jesus’ friends saw it as the end of God’s kingdom. Three days later in the resurrection suddenly the painful and frustrating life of Jesus and his humiliating death took on a whole different light.
Calvin’s insight, which was not actually unique to him but pretty much shared by many Christians before him was that because this kind of trust in God is unnatural, he draws us to him in ways that are often despite and against our own desires. Jesus’ disciples don’t use the cross as part of their plan for the victory they imagine they want, the cross comes in and shocks them into realizing that this is God’s work and through his hand he is saving them sometimes against their own wills.
Often Calvin’s take on predestination is criticized for making people passive and idle. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Tim Keller in a sermon “Does God Control Everything” notes that if you really believed you were in control of your life you should be paralyzed. Even the slightest decision could send your life careening down a path that you can’t foresee and you would be powerless to arrest.
David, seems liberated by all of this, not bound.
Psalm 18:27–29 (NIV)
27 You save the humble
but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.
28 You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
my God turns my darkness into light.
29 With your help I can advance against a troop;
with my God I can scale a wall.
Again, we ought not to take a verse like this, put it on the wall and forget the rest of the story. David’s life will be filled with triumph and setback. Knowledge of God’s deliverance doesn’t mean we won’t fail or we won’t suffer. Jesus, David and all the saints had all of it. It means that in a strange way predestination releases us from the need to control final outcomes because that is God’s doing. We should devote ourselves to grateful response in alignment with his will.
Next week when we look at 1 Samuel 24, 25 and 26 we’ll see just how difficult and dramatic that can become.
Paul, your point about the profound beauty and truth of God being in control is, of course, true. What you do not do is wrestle with the issues of individual predestination and its corollary, reprobation. I think the point of God’s umtimate control is really subsumed under providence, while predestination is a separate issue. The fact that God does draw us to himself is necessary, clear, and important. Whether this involves choosing a particular and predetermined number of people is not a necessary corollary in my opinion.