What does your Calvin Look Like?

The NYTimes posted an article this week about Mark Driscoll and his church, Mar’s Hill, which they conveniently entitled, “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?”  Actually, the article is just as much about Calvinism as it is about Driscoll, in particular what the author calls “New Calvinism.”  She writes of Driscoll:

What is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.

Now, maybe it is just me and I am misreading, but I was surprised to find this author writing of the “resurrection” of Calvinism.  As a Presbyterian, I was pretty sure Calvin was alive and well in my own reformed tradition, which traces its roots back to Calvin and the church in Geneva.  

Turns out there is this movement that folks are calling “New Calvinism,” which is described in the article as a fight against a “limp-wristed Jesus” that has been coopted by the feminists.  Driscoll apparently rails against the mainstream church, which he says

has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

Hmm.  Interesting.  But he goes further than this, decrying the “feminization” of Jesus (Apparently there are just too many pictures of Jesus cuddling babies and lambs).  Jesus is supposed to be manly, a warrior, blah blah blah.

Nevermind that Calvin himself devoted a great deal of his Institutes to admonishing Christians against forming an image of God, or Christ for that matter.  Any image, he warned, becomes an idol that stands between you and the true God.  It becomes a crutch, a thing to worship in lieu of the God who is a mystery beyond the reach of our minds.  As another theologian, I believe Barth, said, the minute you think you have fully conceived of God, it is in that moment that you have truly lost sight of God.

But I digress.  The article goes on to make assumptions about Calvin, everything from painting this “new Calvinism” as the only Calvinism to re-asserting the mostly false myth of Calvin that he was directly responsible for the deaths of his detractors.  The author writes,  “John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness.”  Now I can’t speak with certainty as to the dinner party incident, but if I had to guess, the heretic she is referring to Michael Servetus, whom Calvin likely wanted to see dead.  However, he never ordered the death of this theologian–Calvin was not a political authority in Geneva, and did not have the power to make such decisions.  Maybe I am parsing hairs, but I hate to see Calvin’s history distorted.

 

Furthermore, the author makes the jump to claiming that questioning authority is equal to sinning.  Describing Driscoll’s leadership style, she goes to lengths to show that Driscoll is a power-hungry religious authority.  She describes incidents in Mars Hill’s past in which Driscoll dealt severely with those who disagreed with him.  In reference to such incidents, she writes of Driscoll:

“They are sinning through questioning,” Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.

Again…. Calvin himself questioned authory.  That is what the reformation was all about.  I don’t understand therefore how these sorts of claims can be thrown out in a NYTimes article as though they were commonly held fact.  

So I guess we get the picture by now that I take issue with this reading of Calvin.  Ultimately it seems more like a rush job on Driscoll’s church and theology more than anything else, but it is the case that Calvin seems to get caught in the crossfire.  Just because us Presbyterians aren’t constantly screaching about spiders on the edge of a precipice or eternal damnation, doesn’t mean that providence and Calvinism are passe.  Just because we don’t ascribe to a manly Jesus doesn’t make us wimpy.  False dichotomy, duh!

So yea, I am a bit peeved.  A bit discouraged.  A bit frustrated that my own Calvinist heritage can be so easily distorted.  Ultimately, however, I give it to God, trusting that God is working through and in all this, helping push us (gently or otherwise) past our assumptions about who God is and is not and towards a more holistic and healthy understanding of the mysterium tremendum.

Peace be with you

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4 thoughts on “What does your Calvin Look Like?

  1. word, sarah. word. i am also deeply disturbed and mad about all this. read the article on sunday and had to stop it frustrated me so. especially all his talk about “limp-wristed jesus.” really? c’mon, kids, c’mon. thanks for your commentary, sarah!

  2. Great post, Sarah. The Pat Robertson reference is quite funny to me. But nevermind that. I wonder what Driscol would have to say about this…I’m not too familiar with him, but it just makes me curious if any of it was inflated or taken out of context by the author who seems kinda cheeky. That said, the “limp-wristed” comments are something I have heard before and seem to be another way the fundies justify their stance for women not being in leadership, etc. It definitely reeks of self-projection.

  3. Great post, Sarah. I love the reminder that Calvin warned against making images of God. Thanks for speaking up for J.C., by which I mean the reformer, not the Savior (though I think the Son of Mary wouldn’t mind what you said either).

    Ben

  4. Thanks to Taylor, Ben and Sara.

    I actually found myself more interested in the column as I read farther along; the first paragraphs certainly disturbed me, however, so I totally get where you are Taylor.

    Sara- I wonder how Driscoll would respond as well; I imagine he likes the controversy, seems to be that sort of dude, and I bet that he didn’t even preach on it.

    Ben- glad you liked my JC appeal 😉 Now lets just hope that my Calvin skillz somehow transfer over to the polity exam…

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