5/27/2010

By Grace Alone

A spiritual autobiography of my college years

The four years I spent in college were incredibly formative for me. I grew a lot, met my wife, developed some ideas on manhood and fatherhood that I am still working out, joined an Anglican church, and became (more or less) a Calvinist.

Despite all the changes, there’s a coherence to my journey – ways in which my experiences in high school paved the way for the earthquakes of college. In this post I will attempt to trace the influences, circumstances, and arguments that characterized my largest theological shift – from a broadly Evangelical Arminian to an John-Calvin-loving Anglican. This is more for my benefit than yours – I want to catalog it before it recedes from memory - but you are welcome to read along.

The largest shock of college was discovery the astonishing breadth of theological opinion. In high school I didn’t know that there were people who weren’t dispensationalist, that most of the Reformers (Luther/Calvin/Cranmer) practiced infant baptism and believed in some sort of Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, that the early church practiced a form of Christianity that looked significantly different than my own. I discovered that there are people who take the authority of scripture just as seriously as I did, but who arrived at radically different theological conclusions.

So all of a sudden I was surrounded by an incredible breadth of theological opinion that I couldn’t dismiss out of hand as “unbiblical”. I even discovered that most of my reasons for objecting to Roman Catholicism were based on radical, uncharitable oversimplifications that couldn’t survive meeting or reading actual Catholics.

At the same time, I was dragging around a lot of guilt. I had spent most of high school feeling guilty for my besetting sins, for not having the will to get rid of them, and (especially) for being thought of by others as much better than I was.

One criticism of evangelicalism is that the gospel is generally used just to get you in the door. God has saved you (from hell) by grace through faith, but once that is accomplished the emphasis on God’s grace drops off precipitously, mostly replaced by moral imperative and law. The teaching focus, once you’re “saved” (in this narrow sense of eternal destination), is on Christian practice and growth in holiness as our work in response to God’s incredible love and sacrifice rather than on the continuing work of the gospel – God’s free and unmerited grace that saves us from sin by transforming us into Christ – in our lives.

Whether that is a valid criticism or not, it certainly describes my experience of evangelicalism (although, to be fair, it was filtered through a personality prone to working). Exhortation to holiness was often motivated by the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice – as if we owed it to Christ to be holy because of what he’d done for us. This suggested a mode of sanctification in which our efforts come from our guilt at the disparity between God’s love for us and our love for God.

I spent many years in an attempt to grow through my own effort, impelled by a sense of guilt and responsibility to God. In case you are wondering, this does not work. It only weighs you down so that you cannot stand. Although I didn’t know it, I came to college desperately in need of the gospel. I found it in two unexpected places.

Calvinism

I like arguing as much as (maybe more than) the next guy, and on my college’s bulletin-board system I discovered real live Calvinists just begging to be argued with. Near the end of my freshman year, I found myself in the middle of just such an exchange. Sitting in my dorm room, reading a new reply to one of my posts, I thought in frustration “Why do they always respond to my philosophical objections to Calvinism by quoting the Bible!??”

Uh oh.

I caught myself immediately, of course, and had a horrible thought for the first time. “Oh no… what if it’s true?” That kicked off an investigation that lasted at least 6 months. I read Augustine, Calvin, John Cassian (for a semi-pelagian perspective). I re-read most of the New Testament. I did a word study examining every one of John’s usages of kosmos (world) in an attempt to figure out how to read John 3:16.

Augustine was actually more influential than Calvin in the final analysis. He helped me to really think about election for the first time. Prior to this I thought of it as code for “God sending people to hell because he wants to”. Here was another perspective: predestination originating not out of the raw power of Divine sovereignty but the utter sinfulness and complete inability of man; predestination as new life for those dead in their sins; predestination as completely free, extravagant grace to sinners so lost they are unable to even respond to God on their own.

This resonated. Left to myself, I certainly felt completely unable. That explains it! But along with the bad news came much better news. Here, finally, was something I could rest in. Here was a place to lay my burden down and let myself be carried. I could pray with St. Augustine “Lord, grant what you command and command what you will”. I felt like I understood the words to Amazing Grace better than I ever had before. His grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace – not my own efforts - will lead me home.

In the end what pushed me over the edge was John Piper’s article Are There Two Wills in God? and the realization that my strongest objection to Calvinism (“Why does he then find fault? For who resists his will?”) was responded to explicitly by Paul in Romans 9:19ff. It seemed to me, not that Calvinism made perfect sense of all of the Bible, but that it made more sense of more of the Bible than did Arminianism.

Because my exploration was all very ad fontes, I felt (and still feel) somewhat outside the Calvinist mainstream. I didn’t see any need, for example, to embrace the formalized, systematic “5-point” formulation of Dordt. “Predestinarian” is probably a better label for me than “Calvinist”, but for brevity and convenience (and because John Calvin was such a swell guy) I usually settle for the less accurate title.

Anglicanism

At roughly the same time I discovered Anglicanism, almost by accident. I attended an Anglican service with a group of friends because one of them suggested it and, hey, why not? That Sunday the sermon mentioned Gregory of Nyssa, who we were currently reading for class. Here was a convergence between what I was learning in college about the early church, and Sunday morning. I was immediately interested. There are places with a sense of community and continuity with the historical Church!

I found in the middle way of Anglicanism something that I didn’t know existed: fidelity to Scripture and the solas of the Reformation, alongside a continuity with and respect for the saints, traditions, and wisdom of the Church. Further, I found that this placed me closer to the Reformers theologically than I had been before. At a high mass with incense and vestments and sacraments, I was surprised to find myself feeling more rather than less Protestant.

More than anything else, though, what attracted me to Anglicanism was the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. My experience of communion prior to that had been as a memorial – a personal remembrance of Christ’s death. It was something that I did, not something that God did. I usually found myself trying to work up enough emotion in my heart to make the experience worthwhile. And as before, the responsibility of success and guilt of failure was a weight that I carried. Something was missing.

In Anglicanism I discovered it was God that was missing. I learned to understand the Lord’s Supper as an act of grace in which Jesus feeds and strengthens his people with his body and blood, and I learned that this was dependent, not on my inconstant will, but on God’s unchanging promise.

This objectivity was something I could rely on. I might come to the Table in fear and trembling, in wonder, in tears, or in dead unfeeling. But I always came to hold out my hands and receive something from the Lord. And I knew that I could trust him to fulfill his promise. Another weight fell from my shoulders.

Postscript

And that is how my college-years yearning for the gospel was satisfied. I came to realize that sanctification isn’t about paying God back for saving me, it’s about God turning me into a new person. And I learned to rest in the electing grace of God and the grace of Holy Communion as the means by which the good news of the gospel continued to work in my life to root out sin and establish virtue.

That was more than seven years ago. The dust has settled now, and although my theology is something of a moving target, it hasn’t changed drastically since.

I’m still predestinarian, although I’m even less interested in “Calvinism” as a formalized theological system than ever. I’m also suspicious of systematic theology in general. Grand systemizations build a rigorous, logical framework based on a certain understanding of some key passages, which encourages passages that don’t fit to be shoehorned in somewhere. If your main concern is systemization, you might not even notice that you are doing violence to the plain meaning of a text in your attempt to get everything to fit neatly together. You can see examples of this everywhere you look – Calvinists, Arminians, Protestants, Catholics.

Instead, I’ve come to think that it is best to stay as close as possible to the Bible, letting your interpretation be informed by the doctrines and teaching of the historic Church. This means that not everything will fit together neatly. But that’s exactly what we should expect of a transcendent God. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature! It is far better to stay close to the words of Scripture, even if that leaves you with unresolved questions and apparent contradictions.

So I’ve learned to live with uncertainty and ambiguity much more than my college self would have. And I am always re-learning my need to sit down at the foot of the cross and rest.

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