A reflection on the theological doctrines of four men who have been a spiritual influence in my life.
Readership: All; Christians;
Four men in particular.
- Dark Brightness is a Reformed Calvinist, part of the neoreactionary movement and the Manosphere.
- Ed Hurst is from a Reformed background, but he goes heavy on Hebrew epistemology and Christian mysticism.
- My current Pastor is from a Buddhist background, but later became a Calvinist and is prone to ranting about Arminianism.
- My father was from a Reformed background, but then became a stalwart firebrand Baptist for most of his life, and an elder in a Methodist church after his retirement.
Last year, I used to read Dark Brightness every morning as a source of daily inspiration. But then he experienced some technical difficulties, and his site was down for several months. So during that time, I switched to reading Ed Hurst’s epiphanies at Do What’s Right. (His blog has since relocated to Radix Fidem.)
Perhaps this adventure was at the hand of God, because I found that Ed’s posts were more closely attuned to the challenges I was being faced with in my spiritual life. Over the last few months, Ed and I have developed a mutual respect through sporadic email correspondence. I have corresponded with DB off and on, but I can’t say that we ever really connected on a deeper level.
Concerning my father, I need to offer a brief, ecclesiastical history of my family to provide the background for the epiphanies discussed later in this post.
My paternal grandmother, who had divorced around the age of 40, afterwards served as a deaconess in a Presbyterian church for about 20 years, nearly until her death. As a young man, my father abandoned Calvinism. He won’t say much about this specifically, but from what I’ve picked up from my talks with him over the years, I can just about guess how things went. He could not agree with several points of Calvinist doctrine and practice, and he needed to get out of the church where his mother was a deaconess so that he could “find God” on his own.
Instead, he joined a Bible study with a group of other men. By 1968, the men in this Bible study had founded a Baptist church, which grew exponentially in its first decade, and is now the largest Southern Baptist church within that particular suburb of the largest city in a Midwest state.
My mother came from a Lutheran background, but after marrying my father, she saw the need for the family to be united in the faith, so she agreed to be baptized into the Baptist church.
So this is how I came to be raised in a Southern Baptist church. Since then, I’ve had a long journey in expanding my ecumenical understanding.
Later on, while I was attending college out of state, my mother divorced my father. It may be of interest to my readers to know that over a dozen divorces rocked our church at exactly the same time that my parents divorced. In order to escape the incessant prattling, both my parents started attending different churches.
My father attended a Nazarene Church, and then an American Baptist church for a while. But the leaders of these churches wanted to run their church like an entertainment business and a real estate business, respectively. No one took his doctrinal arguments seriously, and no one appreciated the wisdom he had gained from his experiences in starting a church and being a deacon for 25 years. He was often embroiled in arguments with pastors and deacons about the purpose of the church and how a ministry should function. Eventually, he abandoned the Baptist church altogether. Since he retired, he has been attending a Methodist church regularly. They still don’t take him very seriously, but they do have an immense respect for him.
Scrutinizing the Theology*
What drove my father into a crisis of faith? What led him to eventually stop attending the Presbyterian church as a young man?
The doctrinal points of Calvinism and the Presbyterian Church that bothered my father the most (at that time in the mid-1960’s), were as follows.
- Unconditional Election, which asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom he will bring to himself. His selection criteria is not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people. Rather, his choice is unconditionally grounded in his mercy and divine providence alone.
- Limited Atonement, in the sense that it is intended for some and not all. In other words, Only God has the power to elect.
- Female leaders in the church, including his own mother, who was also divorced. He didn’t agree with this because the Bible clearly states that women should not teach or hold authority over men. (See 1st Timothy 2:12)
The first two tenets above are included in the Five Points of Calvinism. Combining these together, it is concluded that only God chooses who “gets saved” (a Baptist term) and who doesn’t, and people have no choice in the matter.
Earlier this year, my current pastor said to me,
“People are as close to God as they want to be.”
This statement sent me into a tailspin. In light of Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement, how can my Calvinist Pastor say that people can be as close to God as they want to be? Is he only referring to the elect? I asked him this question, and he said, “No, that’s true for everyone.”
Since then, I’ve always been confused about this apparent contradiction. Not only because (1) it didn’t make sense to my understanding, but also because (2) it just didn’t agree with my own experience.
I know there are some people who wish to be closer to God, including myself, but God keeps them at some distance, fighting a losing battle in life. I’ve come to understand that God does this with certain individuals (e.g. Hosea, Job), because He has a purpose for that. When this is the case, God’s purposes are often hidden from that person’s understanding. But this does not mean that God is not watching out for them.
I know I have been one of those people in the past, but now, not so much. It really hurts to want to be closer to God, but not being able to find any way there. It feels like a cosmic rejection, and I suppose it is, in a sense. But God’s purpose was/is to help others somehow, and I know my suffering has helped many others. God knew I am willing to sacrifice for them. (Sigma’s are like that.) It seems that I now have the responsibility to tell the world (through blogging, I suppose) what I have learned from this experience.
Another reason I had a hard time swallowing the Calvinistic laissez-faire approach towards salvation, is because I am a true believer in evangelism. My Baptist upbringing had baked the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) into my faith at a young age, and that will always be a part of me. But also, I know from first-hand experience that evangelism brings people into the Kingdom. To combine the Baptist and Lutheran standpoints on this issue, evangelism is how God uses people to reach those who are predestined to be a part of His plan.
Are we Hedged In, or Locked Out?
Concerning the apparent contradiction, I found an explanation in one of Ed’s posts, Theology and Practice – Divine Sovereignty (May 6, 2019).
Because spiritual truths can only be communicated through parables, Ed establishes three different theoretical archetypes of people. Those believers living by a heart-led conviction through faith are called “sheep”. Those believers subject to a legalistic conscience are called “slaves”, and unbelievers as “cattle”. As a comparison, the Bible labels the last group as “goats”, which emphasizes their stubborn rebellious nature, whereas Ed’s word, “cattle”, brings out the fact that they are “herded” (controlled and used) by God.
In this post, Ed brings out the Calvinist belief that what we do here on earth doesn’t have a direct correlation to our eternal destiny. He wrote,
“The Bible says that in the Fallen Realm, humans do have choices. There is an element of volition that justifies separating out sheep from cattle. Anyone can be a sheep under His covenants. Most of humanity sees no reason for it, and so end up herded like cattle. Why was the Pharaoh of Exodus herded like a bull? Because he refused to be a sheep. He thus left God no choice but to train him like a rodeo bull that would buck and twist and refuse to be led quietly to his own benefit. But did Pharaoh end up in Hell? That’s a separate question that only God can answer, and He’s not telling.”
It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that Pharaoh was, in fact, doing God’s will, and that we might see him sitting next to the Father in glory. Could the death of his first born son prove to have been the Flaming Sword of Self-Death that brought him into salvation? I have to wonder, was Hitler also doing God’s will? Stalin? Mao? Soros? Obama? Trump? (Insert your favorite bad guy here)?
“Often in the New Testament, the term “salvation” does not refer directly to being Spirit born. Spiritual birth is implied as the natural culmination of the self-death, but it’s never held forth as a direct offer. Scripture flatly states that God alone understands spiritual birth, and controls that process entirely. No one can choose spiritual birth; their fleshly nature excludes it (see Romans 8 and “carnal mind”). However, it is possible to be a good servant of God without being family. It’s a false dichotomy to assume all His sheep are born-again. The Bible says quite clearly that one can reasonably choose the noble path of obedience to the Law Covenants, that one can be heart-led without spiritual birth. The Scripture frequently demands that people submit to Jehovah as Lord from the heart, that this is a human choice He holds open for all humanity.”
In other words, God gives us a lot of choices within this earthly realm, but the extent of our volition ends at the tips of our tongue and fingers. We’re judged by what we do or say, but that judgment has nothing to do with our election.
“Lots of people camp in the shade of Eden without ever getting through the Flaming Sword gate. This is what the Old Testament Covenant of Moses was all about. It was to bring everyone close enough to see the Flaming Sword, the final requirement of self-death to become a member of God’s family. The fleshly nature had to taste execution by the hand of the one who had the fleshly nature. For those whom God has elected for eternity, the process is easy. They already have the power to choose self-death. Those who lack election won’t find that power.
I think the concept of self-death** entails one of the most misunderstood concepts about God. People want to believe that “God is good”, but in their minds, “good” means anything that they enjoy, benefits their lives, or fulfills their better desires. They cannot possibly entertain the idea that God actually requires a death in order to be close to him.
Brett Stevens discussed the misnomber of “good” in yesterday’s article at Amerika, entitled, Meditations On Evil (17 October 2019). His concept of good and evil is that,
“Evil destroys the world; good enhances it. These definitions are a far cry from what people use in their place, where “good” means “benefits me” and evil means “obligates me or causes losses.”
Stevens is right on target about people having an inverted concept of good and evil, but the definitions he offered are only marginally better. From the Christian perspective, Good is what brings people closer to the Flaming Sword of Self-Death and into His Family, and Evil is what takes them further away from it, or makes them ignorant of it.
The paradox of the Gospel is that what’s Good in God’s eyes may very well be repulsive and vile to the person who doesn’t trust God enough to endure a spiritual death in the crucible of this broken world.
Further on, Stevens writes,
“Evil then represents less of a moral choice than a mental state. Someone who is motivated by revenge against the world will have a desire to control which does not consider the consequences of its acts; control is a closed-circuit loop, a sealed feedback cycle, in which control only exists to perpetuate control and everything else is a means to that end.”
Stevens’ first sentence (in bold) is fair, but then he gets sidetracked in a subjective, worldly application. God has no intentions of either enhancing the world, nor destroying it, but only to use it to break mankind’s bent towards spiritual self-reliance, and bring them into His fold. Power, money, and control are just the means by which people often seek to avert a self-death, and that is what makes the desire for these things evil.
Now returning to Ed’s post,
“But an awful lot of shalom is available to folks who just can’t go through that. And this is why the New Testament refers to the kind of “salvation” that means heart-led obedience to Christ as Lord, the Living Law of God, but does not make it necessarily equivalent to spiritual birth.
This is where mainstream evangelicals fail: They do not make adequate allowance for the household of God to include willing servants who aren’t slaves. It’s easy to understand how most of the world is going to Hell and are thus unwitting slaves of God’s plans. And it’s not too hard to grasp how His Children are not slaves. But virtually no one among evangelical leaders understand the place of free servants in the household of God. […]”
Being one myself, I can say that Evangelicals can’t understand this point, because they lack the Calvinistic awareness of the ultimate sovereignty of God over the will of man. Within the Baptist context of Free-Will, everyone is considered to be willfully minded, and therefore, any person who is not a believer, is deemed lost and degenerate. (See figure below.) Evangelicals consider themselves to be servants to the Word of God and slaves of righteousness. As such, a believer who has selfish motivations or who refuses to submit, is considered to be a very poor servant.
“Our church activities should assume conversion is separate from spiritual birth. And we should be very careful to make conversion not a sales pitch, but a genuine choice for someone drawn to it on their own volition. The church is a converted body of people who cling to a shared covenant. [Evangelicals should not] assume everyone [who believes] is born-again and so build policies and activities on that. We need a radical redefinition of church that aims at the heart-led way of serving Christ.
I can know that I am born-again. That is the power of conviction in my heart. You cannot know for sure that I am born-again, even if I tell you. What you can know is that I am heart-led and committed to Christ, if you use your heart as a sensory organ to discern my heart. That’s the basis for doing church. That’s the proper basis for building a theology about the sovereignty of God.”
After being inspired by Ed’s insights, I’ve constructed a diagram that explains my current understanding of the different sectarian doctrines based on their stances towards Free-Will (Arminianism) vs. Predestination (Calvinism), and what appears to be their Biblical “labels” (Sheep, Servants, Slaves/Goats, Cattle, and Sons). The red dotted line represents the Flaming Sword of Self-Death.
After arriving at my own understanding of the doctrinal concepts of Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement, it seems to me that the adjectives should be exchanged. That is, the idea that God has the final decision about who will enter into heaven should be called Limited Election, and for those who are chosen by God for some unimaginably illustrious purpose in the next life, there is Unconditional Atonement.
The purpose of Evangelism is to…
- advance God’s Kingdom on earth.
- make people aware of the Gospel.
- make people aware of their place in God’s Family.
- lead people to realize their potential and purpose in God’s Kingdom.
- help spell out the choices available to them in life.
To revise my Pastor’s statement, I would say that people can be as close to God as God wants them to be. Up until that point, they can be as close to God as they want, but no further.
To adapt Ed’s statements, people who do not want to be close to God are, nevertheless, still used by God to accomplish His purposes.
* Since I am lacking formal training in a theological seminary, I’m sure someone well-steeped in doctrine will disagree with something here. You’re welcome to explain why in the comments.
** “Self-Death” is not the same, and should not be confused with suicide. Here, the idea of Death is figurative, meaning an end to the false identifications we have with our ego, mind; and body, and the death of the human will to self-preservation and self-determination.