I linked The Apostles vs. John Calvin on Facebook, and a friend rightly suggested that John Calvin is not the right target. We may or may not agree on the reasons, but he is correct. This post will cover the real target and the reasons for that target.
Calvinism is the target for two reasons. One, most of Reformation theology can be summed up under Calvinism. I found these quotes at The Apostolic Doctrine:
"If, in your investigation, you probe into the history and influence of Calvinism, you will discover that its doctrines have been incorporated into the majority of the great creeds of the Protestant churches" (The Five Points of Calvinism, David N. Steele & Curtis C. Thomas, Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 1963, p. 61).
"Calvinism has formed the doctrinal basis of the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church, the Episcopal Church of America, and in the main the Baptist and Congregationalist Churches, which include the United Church of Christ. Most aspects of Calvinistic ideology are found in the Nazarene Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and almost all so called “Evangelical” churches." (See McClintock & Strong, Vol. 2, p. 47.)
I would agree this is true. I would argue that this is a terrible problem, but not for the reasons you might expect. Though I disagree with each tenet of Calvinism's famous five points (TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints), I consider most of them much less dangerous than their deeper foundations, a false view of both the Atonement and final judgment.
In fact, these foundations precede Calvinism and even Calvin and the Reformation. The Reformation doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) was first formulated by St. Anselm in the eleventh century and finalized by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth. Both were Roman Catholics.1 Nonetheless, since the Calvinist understanding of the final judgment and the Atonement is "incorporated into the majority of the great creeds" and has "formed the doctrinal basis of ... almost all so called 'Evangelical' churches," let's touch on what that understanding is and why I pit the apostles against those doctrines.
The first reason for targeting Calvinism is the view of the final judgment that has infected almost all Protestant Christianity, but which is thankfully being cured by a healthy dose of the Information Age. Calvinists, along with many who are influenced by Calvinism, believe that God will punish even the smallest sin with eternal torment. Ligonier Ministries, for example, writes:
Of the 47 statements included in The State of Theology study for 2016 ... the responses to one statement stood out. ... The results show slight majorities either getting a belief right or, in most cases, getting a belief wrong. But not statement 17, "Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation." ... Glancing at the graph of the data shows this response not to be a simple majority, but rather a whopping majority. 61% strongly disagree. Another 12% disagree somewhat and 7% are not sure. That leaves only 21% agreeing with this statement.2
Personally, I would expect people to be thrilled to find out that people are not accusing God of torturing humans eternally for one small sin. If torturing terrorists during a human lifetime at Guantanamo Bay to prevent further terrorism is potentially immoral, how much more immoral would eternal torture for cheating on a fifth-grade test be!?
Apparently, Ligonier Ministries thinks it is not immoral at all! They write:
Eight out of ten Americans have an incorrect view of sin. As an implication, we could say that eight out of ten Americans do not know the biblical God. (ibid.)
The *biblical* God tortures people for eternity for "THE SMALLEST SIN"??? That would stop me from reading the Bible unless it was to prove the Bible said no such thing!
This is worth targeting. This is worth mounting a war against. Thanks be to God in heaven that a mere 21% of people who took their survey do not believe this slander against God. Thanks be to God that even the group most strongly indfluenced by Calvinism, the evangelicals, reject this slander by a small majority (54%). (ibid.)
The first idea, that God tortures people eternally for the smallest sin, leads to the second: God does not forgive sin without killing a human or animal.
Surely all of us who are in any way spiritually descended from the Reformation will recognize the lyrics of the hymn "Christ Alone" by Allen Asbury:
"Til on that Cross, as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
We all believe this, right? We all know that this is obviously true?
Yes. If we are western Christians. If, on the other hand, we are descended from Asian and Middle Eastern churches that have used the Greek language two thousand years, this is a horrifying thought.
Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo offered this scathing castigation of the concept of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice: “A god who demands the child-sacrifice of his own son to satiate his own wrath? That is not Jehovah. That is Molech.”3
Molech, of course, is one of the Canaanite gods. He demanded that babies be "passed through" the fire in his honor. He is spoken against throughout the Old Testament (e.g., four times in Leviticus 20:1-4).
Obviously, God did sacrifice his Son. That is the central theme of the Bible! It cannot be disputed. So what is this Orthodox archbishop castigating?
The answer is found in the words "to satiate [i.e., satisfy] his own wrath." Let us say someone were to commit a crime that infuriated me, and I was determined to kill the perpetrator. Once I found out it was my wife, whom I loved with all my heart, I knew I could not kill her. So I called my son into the room. I say, "Son, I am so angry that I have to kill someone. The problem is, it was your mom that committed the crime. I don't want to kill her, but I can't just show her mercy because I am holy and just. Would you be willing to let me kill you so that I don't have to kill your mom?"
The son might be the hero of that story, but I would be the villain. It would be useless to tell the court that I could not forgive my wife because I am too holy and just. Well, come to think of it, it might be useful. I might get time in a mental institution rather than a life sentence in prison.
God is not like this. His very nature is to forgive sin. When he revealed himself to Moses, he declared:
The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations. [Ex. 34:6-7, NASB1995; italics in original]
Psalm 136 announces twenty-six times that his lovingkindness is everlasting. Jeremiah's proclamation that the Lord's mercy never ends and is new every morning [Lam. 3:22-23] has been incorporated into many Christian songs and choruses. David cries out in Psalm 51, "Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, or I would have offered it. You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (vv. 16-17)
God can and does forgive sin without killing anyone or anything and always has!
Then why did Jesus die?
Because we were slaves to sin, and he loves us! No one, especially the Lord God Almighty, leaves his children in slavery if he can prevent it.
God's concern, and the reason for Jesus' death, is that we were slaves to sin. Sin was destroying us. Thus, Jesus died to "redeem us" (Tit. 2:14), "ransom us" (Matt. 20:28), and "free us" (Rom. 6:7) from sin.
I'm going to put this succinctly, and I will have to prove it in other blog posts. From Romans 1:18 through the end of Romans 2, the apostle Paul is arguing that at the final judgment evil people will receive death (esp. 1:32) and righteous people will receive eternal life (esp. 2:6-7). There is no scholarly interpretation needed to conclude this. It is both plainly stated and thoroughly explained.
From Romans 3 through Romans 8, Paul explains how faith in Jesus as the Lord and risen Son of God (Rom. 1:1-5; 10:9-10) can turn a sinner into a righteous man. He is not talking about someone who God pretends is righteous, but someone who actually is righteous. We were slaves to sin, but have become obedient (Rom. 6:17). "Being made free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:18).
This is the atonement, and we will be talking about both it and the ways God has equipped us to live righteously throughout these blog posts.
1The word "catholic" means universal. Among the second and third century churches, "catholic" was used to signify the unity of the churches in all the world. The descendants of those churches are no longer united. The churches in the Roman Empire cut off almost all churches east of them along with Syrian and Egyptian churches in the fourth century. In the eleventh century, the churches from Greece to the Middle East and the church in Rome mutually excommunicated each other. Thus, there is no longer a "Catholic Church." I always refer to the Catholic Church headed by the pope as the "Roman" Catholic Church. return to text
2Nichols, S. (2016). The State of Theology: Does Even the Smallest Sin Deserve Eternal Damnation?. Ligonier Ministries. Retrieved May 10, 2021 from https://www.ligonier.org/blog/state-theology-does-sin-deserve-damnation/. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this comment by Ligonier Ministries is that they have since removed this question from their "The State of Theology" web page. return to text
3Erdman, R. 1996. "Sacrifice as Satisfaction, Not Substitution: Atonement in the Summa Theologiae." Anglican Theological Review 96.3. Retrieved May 10, 2021 from http://www.anglicantheologicalreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/erdman_96.3.pdf. return to top