Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Wild Card 14-16: Calvin, Modern skepticism and Big-time Doubt

           I was particularly captivated by Lane Chapter 15 on Saving Faith, so most of my Wild Card discussion pertains to this section of the book. As I dove into reading this, I thought about the sixteenth-century reader who undoubtedly has ideas about faith and at least if atheism did exist, it was a rare and distant idea.  What struck me was how readily Calvin identified doubt but how much confidence he placed into faith and that God’s “promise of grace” can be a place where the “heart of man can rest.” (3.1.7)  He defined faith then as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed, to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy spirit.”  (3.1.7)  While Calvin continues to counter the other definitions or ideas regarding faith, he nevertheless is living in an age of faith where truth is still embodied in faith, even if theologians disagreed as to the nature of that faith. But, what about the modern age when truth, for many, is not necessarily defined by faith but perhaps by unbelief.  How does a modern reader understand Calvin in this context?  And how might we as pastors help the modern non-believer find truth in faith? 
            Calvin does treat those lacking belief briefly in his Institutes, but he looks at them as the non-believers and really keeps them out of his discussion other than to note that they are “no better than the devils” and even more “they stupidly listen to and understand things the knowledge of which makes even the devils shudder.” (3.1.10) While in the sixteenth-century it is perhaps easy to write them off, what about the wide-acceptance of unbelief as the cornerstone of truth?  In a way, it seems as if Calvin would have us write-off these people as hopeless and unnecessary for the church, yet as unbelief becomes the basis for truth in the modern world will the church die? (Stanley Hauerwas might have us think so)  In the sixteenth-century, this was such a small group of people that the theologians could write them off, but it was still an age of faith.  What about today when non-belief is an accepted societal truth? Or in other words, there is a visible atheist presence.   While I do believe that “faith will ultimately triumph over those difficulties which besiege and seem to imperil it,”  (3.2.18), I think it is harder to find faith to those not introduced to the church or to those confident in modern rationalism.  As Calvin notes our own “ignorance is an obstacle and a hindrance” to faith, and if people aren’t experiencing the “hope of the faithful, their ignorance will stifle them.”  So, Calvin can't account for those who today who live growing non-Christian reality, but certainly their "ignorance" is a disheartening commentary  on  the modern world.   (Perhaps this is our very urgent call friends).  
           This question arises from my discussion:  How do we as heirs of Calvin help the modern non-believer find truth in faith and not lose heart in their disbelief?   This is prompted by two experiences of my own in response to my own doubt.  1.  From a Methodist minister and college chaplain:  “You can pretend you believe and still enjoy the community of the church.  I actually don’t believe any of it myself.”  Or 2.  (Presbyterian minister) “If you doubt, then you aren’t saved by God, so don’t doubt.”

Christy Dempsey


  1. Interesting you should bring this up. This issue has been floating around in the back of my mind almost since we started reading the Institutes (but also influenced by reading Luther in our Hist 2 class). You are right, if we are saved by faith alone, then what does that say about doubt. Are we condemned by it?

    I think doubt is probably a sin, and we can draw this conclusion from the fact that the first half of the Ten Commandments are about our relationship with God. Especially, that one that includes "No other Gods..." and the one that alludes to "No Idols". This sounds like a bad thing, but it really is a good thing, because I believe it is just another sin for which Jesus will ultimately forgive us if we make the mental effort to make the right intellectual choice.

    The truth is we are constantly searching for understanding and meaning. We would not have massive works of theology that disagree with each other if we did not. Doubt is just a way of pondering the possibilities. In the end, the key is to consciously choose faith.

    I don't think we have to do this blindly. We can see God in nature as well as revelation. I think there is also a strong logical case for God as well. Even Thomas Paine wrote in "Age of Reason", "...it is the fool only, and not the philosopher, or even the prudent [person], that would live as if there were no God."

    1. Interesting response. Of course, this gets into the whole question of prevenient grace. Putting this into Calvin's context, it seems like we can choose not to believe - a sin - but to believe is part of God's providence.

  2. Christy, you touched on a real challenge for leaders of the church today. In today’s post-modern world, the claim is that there are no absolute truths. Of course there are absolute truths, like gravity! We also have absolute truths imbedded in our conscience that tells us what is right and wrong. Think of murder or rape: absolutely wrong. Our conscience also leads us towards striving for love, compassion and generosity.
    This modern generation hangs its hat on being open and accepting. Many would say it is okay to believe what you want, as long as you don’t impose those beliefs on others. That is a belief they hold as true, so they have no problem imposing it on others. They believe we should all think this way. Maybe understanding their perspective on being open and accepting will help us to better reach them for Christ.
    I wonder if faith for today’s culture has to be even more intentionally an invitation to “taste and see.” Come as you are, with your questions and doubts and let’s do life together. My job is to plant seeds by being as “Christ-like” as I can be with love and compassion as well as to be as authentically real as I can be, with my own doubts and questions. I trust and believe that God will show up in our lives.
    P.S. I love your cartoon!!

  3. Hi Christy, I would like to speak to your second experience with the Presbyterian pastor. I guess I would present the challenge to that pastor as follows:
    If we look at Mark 9:24 we see a man who has come to Jesus for the healing of his son. The disciples were unable to do it but we do see that Christ does indeed heal this boy, even in the face of the father's doubt.
    gives several examples of the faith experienced by Jesus' disciples, and acknowledges the fact that doubt does exist but does not keep God from working miracles.

    1. Thanks Ric - In retrospect, I think the pastor was trying to be positive and encouraging, but for someone who doubted as much as I did, I just felt lost. I was pretty sure I was "going down" and the instruction of the church that we were "entering the mission field when we left" only made me feel alienated. I was really lost, A pastor who would have responded as you suggested and with those examples would have very much soothed my restless soul

  4. I think of the reformed tradition that is based on "faith seeking understanding". This to me is from Calvin. He starts off in the first book talking about how we know God as our Creator. There is something inside of us that "naturally" knows God. Calvin would have us consider the relationship between God and ourselves. He attempts to move us away from idolatry and into a right relationship with God. The latter books show us how God works to change us and guides us to eternal life. So, my thoughts are that Calvin didn't address the existence of God. He assumes that we all have the ability to know God and was more concerned with our getting the relationship right.

  5. My thoughts are simply that when we approach our neighbor in a non-judgmental manner, and when we bring and show mercy to those we meet, churched or unchurched we allow Christ to become tangible in these encounters and conversations.

    I have found that the most endearing wisdom has come from individuals who are unguarded and whose speech is often common. And where there is this kind of attitude there is a wider and more open heart to hear. And so, when these elements are in place, an open conversation is possible and what can be shared is that doubt is not something to fear, but something to come to understand as part of the human plight. We call out in our despair and ask in prayer for help, we all call out for help, that is the truth and the wisdom which I believe will help the "modern non-believer find truth in faith".

    Calvin speaks of the conflict within a believer's heart, (3.2.18) where he speaks of the division of flesh and spirit. And I paraphrase: "The godly heart feels the sweetness of the divinity as well as the bitterness of grief due to calamity; the heart rests partly upon the promise and partly trembles recognizing its own inequity; partly rejoices with expectation and partly shudders at death. This is the imperfection of faith, which reflects the partially flesh partially divine heart of a believer".

    I am convinced that to doubt is to simply say, "I believe, help me in my disbelief".

    Both the 'pretender' and the 'executioner of those who doubt' represent to me a very sad representation of the church today. And what saddens me more is that what you have shared is not a surprise to me.

    Bringing the light of the Lord to those in need is being thwarted by 'our own', and to some extent we are getting in our own way. Anyway, my thought is that by un-masking ourselves we become more authentic, more approachable and are more effective in the pastoral roles we accept.

  6. People go through difficult situations in life that tests our faith. Each person responds to these things differently. Some walk away from their faith, and some cling to it even tighter. Jesus gave the parable of the seed sower to help us understand that a lot better. We are going to come into contact with all sorts of people with various background and baggage. But I believe everyone is one step away from being turned around to a right relationship with God. No matter how far they seem off the correct path or direction in their life, the work of the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to penetrate the darkest heart and most wayward person. Just because a person walks away from their faith or the church doesn’t mean they weren't at one point completely on fire for God. They have allowed the thorns of this life choke them out. But we can all be made good soil again. We shouldn’t discredit God’s ability to transform at any stage of life.

  7. Christy, thanks so much for bringing out this side of Chapter 15. You raise many of the same questions I had when reading it. He started his chapter with sure and certain faith and then moved to doubt. I think you are correct that many people today would need to do that in reverse order. In a way, a faith that starts very small and finds a way to grow large even while maneuvering through doubt might be just as strong a faith that starts out solid, but gets assailed by doubt at every turn. To use your cartoon as an example, it seems that in this day and age, we may need to start at the bottom and climb! I think Calvin would say that God is actually pulling us up the stairs.

  8. Thank you Christy for a very thought provoking wild card week. I am replying under Sharon, because I had another thought as I was reading her reply. You cartoon is very thought provoking. I am drawn to some of the newer discussions about youth in the church and starting with mission. The thought is that folks are committed to mission, but not necessarily the church. The culmination is that the youth becomes committed to the church through the networks and relationships developed through mission. Then I read Sharon’s response and came up with the mustard seed parable. I thank you both for a stretching week of discussions.