Encultured Theology

Given a choice, I have a tendency to pick the most difficult, most time consuming option, and sorting my theology out has been no exception. For the last 8 years or so, I’ve been assimilating, generally in a haphazard way as I uncover assumptions that seem to contradict each other. Seminary has been very helpful for me in this respect, because it has forced me to be a little less haphazard in the process, and it has put me in touch with the vast array of theological approaches to any given subject. Reading blogs has also helped, ironically sometimes more than the seminary. In seminary I’m presented with bare theological arguments, generally stripped of their encultured form, but if I’m reading someone’s blog and they express the exact same argument, I can see it fully fleshed in someone’s life.

In seminary I learn that Protestant Christians can be divided into two basic camps, depending on their view of salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinists (or Reformed Theologians, since the major thrust of the Protestant reformation came through churches organized by John Calvin) understand that man is totally depraved, that he cannot even supply the faith that is necessary to believe on Jesus Christ. Therefore, in order that men might be saved, God has selected some on which to bestow saving faith, essentially guaranteeing that they will persevere until the end. Since ultimately not everyone is saved, this means that other people are… not selected. Arminians generally take umbrage at the notion that God might have especially picked out some people to go to hell, since it seems to make God out to be capricious. (This is good. The first rule of theology should be, “if your theology at any point makes God out to be evil, stop. You’ve done something wrong.”) So Arminians insist that, while God has in fact foreseen who will and will not believe, he dispenses sufficient faith to everyone, and we each have a totally free choice whether or not to believe. The Calvinist replies that Arminian theology allows a person to take credit for making the right choice, turning faith into a kind of work. And the argument goes round and round.

In seminary I learn that the charismatic movement has its roots in Arminian theology. The charismatic movement takes its views on the supernatural from the Pentecostal denominations, and Pentecostals trace their roots back through the African Methodist Episcopal churches (AME). Methodism was founded by John Wesley, who was the probably the biggest proponent of Arminian theology in church history. He did more to promote Arminianism than Jacob Arminius.

These things are interesting, but it was on a weblog that I see how this affects the mindset of the believer: In this post, Alexander Jordan discusses the fact that, even as he’s being recognized as an important voice among charismatic/Pentecostal bloggers, he’s becoming uncomfortable with the whole system. The reason? He’s become a Calvinist. He still adamantly believes that the Spirit still does all the things described in scripture, but he’s “been questioning [his] beliefs about many popular charismatic practices.” To put some words in his mouth, they’re so… Arminian.

This was really an eye-opener for me. Lately I’ve also been settling more comfortably on the Calvinist side of things. To be honest, part of the appeal has been that Calvinists, because of their theology, tend to be more contemplative. The emphasis tends to be on study, on understanding what Christ has already accomplished. Having a worldview that is cohesive and all-encompassing is very important to most Calvinists. Since this is exactly what I’ve been looking for (you might say missing) most of what I’ve been reading, most of what’s been appealing to me, has been Reformed in nature. Arminians, again because of their theology, tend to be more active – the important thing is the working out of your faith, because it is quite possible to fall away.

But it’s been a great frustration for me, because a good number of Calvinists are cessationist. A very good Reformed theologian in the 19th century bought into the semi-deistic materialism of his time, and made a genuine effort at assimilating it into his theology, and the majority of Reformed Christians have been cessationist ever since. I couldn’t understand why these people couldn’t see the error that was right before them. It never occurred to me that it was because Pentecostalism… smelled… so Arminian.

4 thoughts on “Encultured Theology”

  1. A few eons ago, I attended the first Freedom Celebration in Clinton America. [We were living in Enid at the time] At some point, while I was there, I got into a conversation with a man on just such points. His comment to me was that I was the weirdest combination of Calvinist and Armenian he had ever met. My reply was that it was because both the Calvinist and the Armenian reflect different aspects of who God is. God is absolutely soverign. God has given man absolute free-will. What suprises me is that anyone has a problem with that. 😉

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