Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chesterton, Catholicism, and Calvinism

Piper Interacts with Chesterton

There have been several posts on Facebook recommending an appreciation of Chesterton by John Piper. You can find it here:

I appreciate Piper for many reasons, though I do not follow his
Ewdardsian Calvinism. It is not my purpose here to criticize Edwards, or Piper, or experimental Calvinism. It is rather to note two larger issues that occurred to me as I read the article.

Piper’s expresses his appreciation for Chesterton in this way: “Ever since my days at Wheaton College, when I followed Clyde Kilby’s advice to read G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, it has been one of my favorite books. I think it’s the only book I have read more than twice (except for the Bible). This is strange. Not only was Chesterton a Roman Catholic, he also hated Calvinism.” This raises for me the two bigger issues which are related to Chesterton’s Catholicism and his view of Calvinism.

Piper notes his disagreements with Chesterton’s Catholicism: “I still think at least half a dozen Roman Catholic distinctives are harmful to true Christian faith (e.g., papal authority, baptismal regeneration, transubstantiation, justification as impartation, purgatory, the veneration of Mary).” I agree – totally (as the kids say).

Yet Piper finds his heart beating with Chesterton’s in seeing and experiencing the world: “But I keep coming back to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. The reason is that we see the world so similarly…” In other words, Piper finds that he and Chesterton have the same worldview.

When he has reviewed a number of areas of agreement with Chesterton, Piper concludes: “These and a hundred other happy, world-opening agreements keep me coming back, because nobody says them better than Chesterton. Like C. S. Lewis, he sees more wonder in an ordinary day than most of us see in a hundred miracles. I will keep coming back to anyone who helps me see and be astonished at what is in front of my face — anyone who can help heal me from the disease of ‘seeing they do not see.’”

When we read what Piper and Chesterton mean we find that their worldview is not at all along Kuyperian and transformational world-and-life-view lines. It has to do with the way we live our lives and make sense of our world. What Piper finds so attractive about Chesterton is that he looks at the world through Christian, through Biblical eyes.

Now this confronts me with a big question which I can put in stark terms: Is Chesterton in hell? This seems to me different from saying that there are philosophers and artists who are not Christian, who are in or going to hell, but whom we find helpful in making sense of life and understanding the world because of common grace and natural revelation. But Piper likes Chesterton just because his worldview is distinctively Christian. Piper appreciates Chesterton, not as a created man, but as a redeemed man.

So what shall we do with those intelligently adopt and practice the Roman Catholic faith? These are not those who are “saved despite the church”, who somehow are justified by faith alone in Christ alone though the church teaches them otherwise. They are Catholics by choice and with understanding.

They are Catholics who confess the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds and accept the Chalcedonian clarification. They believe in the Bible and salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But they do not believe the Bible is alone the source of Christian teaching, nor that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ apart from human cooperation and participation.

The question is simple. Are all these going to hell? If the question is simple, is the answer? It seems to me not.

In addition to Piper’s appreciation for Chesterton’s worldview, there is Piper’s response to Chesterton’s hatred of Calvinism. Piper says that the Calvinism that Chesterton rejected is not the Calvinism Piper accepts: “But how then can Calvinism awaken such joy in me, and such hate in Chesterton? Because they aren’t the same Calvinism. He thinks Calvinism is the opposite of all this happy wonder that we have in common. The Calvinism he hates is part of the rationalism that drives people mad.”

Piper anticipates this in the last agreement he lists as examples of the “common ground” of their worldviews: “And we both believe that paradox is woven into the nature of the universe, and that resisting it drives a person mad. ‘Poets don’t go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. . . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.’”

One can agree with Piper that Chesterton got Calvinism wrong without agreeing with him that Edwards got it right. One can agree with him that Calvinism can live with paradox, or, mystery in the sense there are things we just don’t understand, probably cannot, and almost certainly will not until the kingdom of God. Even then there will be mystery, for God’s knowledge and ways are beyond us as creatures, not just as sinners. But, then the mysteries will not bother us as they do now. Not only will our knowledge increase but our faith will be perfect.

But anyone who accepts full-blown Calvinism, as Piper does, has got to face up to what it means, and it seems to us Piper is willing to do this. For instance, recently in Brazil a baby was born with two heads. At least initially both heads were functioning and taking nourishment. Now what does the Calvinist say to this? The Calvinist cannot just say, “This is what happens in a fallen world” or “in a world under the curse.” The Calvinist has to say in effect that, when God cursed the creation, he made a conscious decision that one of the consequences of sin would be that babies would be born with two heads and that in the outworking of the decision he determined that this two-headed baby would be worn to this woman.

Of course, there is nothing unique or insightful in the statement of the case in the preceding paragraph. Anyone who has wrestled with the problem of evil has had to face just such realities. If you believe in a God who determines in advance what will come up when the dice are cast, you have to believe that God wills everything that happens down to the most minute and seemingly trivial occurrences and all the way up to the largest and most consequential.

But one wonders if some well meaning Calvinists who want to uphold the truth and vindicate God do not rush to answers that are too simple, that do not really wrestle with trusting and affirming the goodness of a God who does things that baffle and perplex us. There are “why” questions to which there simply are no fully satisfying answers. Sometimes we can say no more than, “We do not know. But we trust.” Clich├ęs, platitudes, and simplistic answers will just not do. They well may be all that is needed for the faith of some, but that they will not suffice for the faith of all.

So the question is: Are the confident answers given as clear and satisfying as they are taken to be to those Calvinists who give them? And the simple answer to that seems to be, “No.”

Three words from a sermon by Richard Allen Bodey I heard in seminary have stuck with me, though I remember nothing else he said: “providence big with mystery.” I have come to that time and again. In this world we experience providence that confronts us with mystery we cannot solve. We take comfort in knowing that Jesus so entered into our humanity and our suffering that he understands our questions, our pain, our perplexity, and he does not reject us but understands and comes to our aid. And so by faith we continue to believe in God and affirm his goodness, though we do not understand. We DO NOT understand, but we cling to God nevertheless.

It seems to me that questions about the eternal fate of Roman Catholics and about Calvinism, such as are raised by Piper’s article, are hard questions that do not have easy answers. I have been a Protestant and a Calvinist from my youth, but I think God, creation, providence, redemption, and faith are more complicated than some realize or are willing to admit. It seems to me that answers humbly proposed by those who feel the weight of the questions are the ones most likely to edify true faith.

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