Thursday, May 30, 2019

Serene Calvinism?

To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of Calvinism. It came as a surprise, then, when I learned that a noted contemporary theologian and progressive seminary administrator is a great admirer of John Calvin’s theology. That theologian is Serene Jones, president since 2008 of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.
The Five Points of Calvinism
Long ago I was taught, and then through the years I taught, that the five main emphases of Calvinism can conveniently be summarized by the five letters of “tulip.” That is, Calvinism is primarily about theological beliefs that stress
Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints
Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I heard some about the T and a lot about the P of TULIP, but little of the middle three terms--and while in seminary, I came to reject the traditional Baptist idea about the fifth term, which was usually expressed as “once saved, always saved.”
Actually, these “five points of Calvinism” were summarized after Calvin’s death in 1564 (at the age of 54) at the Synod of Dort (1618–19), convened by the Dutch Reformed Church to settle a divisive controversy initiated by the rise of Arminianism.
The latter theology, named for Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560~1609), particularly opposed the Calvinist emphasis on predestination (unconditional election). More than a century later Arminianism was endorsed by John Wesley and has through the centuries since been the underlying theology of Methodism/Wesleyanism.
Serene’s Calvinism
About ten weeks ago, Serene Jones’s new book Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World was published. It is a very honest book, a mixture of memoir and theological reflection, that describes how the author has wrestled theologically with various personal issues. 
In the Introduction, Jones serenely states: “John Calvin is the one who exerts the most influence on my own theology.” Then she begins Chapter 1 with a brief quote from Calvin.
In the second chapter, Jones tells how in 1994 she was given her grandmother’s copy of the 1559 edition of Calvin’s major work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. But by then, she wrote, she had “already read my newer two-volume version from cover to cover at least half a dozen times” (p. 23).
(I don’t know what version Jones read, but the 1960 version published in The Library of Christian Classics is 1,800 pages long!)
Serene(‘s) Theology
It turns out that the only one of the five points of Calvinism that Jones writes much about is the T of TULIP. Yes, there is a lot about grace from beginning to end--and the last word in the book is, literally, “grace.” But she really does not present it as something irresistible.
She does write a lot about original sin, though, about what Calvinism has long termed “total depravity.” That means that “sin is extensive, persistent, systemic, and collective” and that people are kidding themselves if they think they can get through life “without being tainted by it” (p. 259).
That understanding of sin helped her through the traumas of abuse by her grandfather, repeated verbal abuse by her bi-polar mother, and grief because of a painful divorce.
When I completed the reading of her new book, it seemed clear that now, in spite of the above-mentioned traumas and other trying experiences, Jones has developed a theology which makes it possible for her literally to be a serene (=calm, peaceful) advocate of Calvin’s theology.
On the last day of July, Jones will celebrate her 60th birthday. I wish her well on that special day and pray that she will have many more productive, and serene, years ahead.


  1. Just for fun substitute 'grace’ for ‘sin’: [Grace] (original blessing?) is extensive, persistent, systemic, and collective; [we don’t get through life] without being [enlivened] by it. I hope to continue to have eyes to see the presence of grace and ears to hear shouts of joyous recognition! Shalom

    1. Thanks for your perceptive comments, Dick. I think Serene would agree with you. The first part ("station") of her book is titled "Sin and Grace." On the last page of that section she writes, "Grace is always there. Grace is more original than sin" (p. 62).

  2. Here are pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing the life and work of Serene Jones to our attention. She is new to me.

    "All of us are depraved, although I am not convinced that we are totally depraved. I must admit, however, that I am not well versed as to how the concept of total depravity is defined by theologians; I may be reading too much into it.

    "Last night, a Chicago Cubs batter hit a foul ball into the left field stands at Wrigley Stadium and hit a four year old girl. She had to be taken to the hospital. When the batter saw what had happened, he broke down at home plate and had to be consoled. He is a father himself with small children. What I saw was not depravity, but compassion. It was all deeply moving. The news media this morning did not know the condition of the girl, but of course we all hope she will be OK. (And the Cubs need to put up more netting to protect their fans.)

    As for free will versus determinism, in the broader sense of all activity, free will may be a myth, although certainly a useful one. I really do not know whether we live in a fully deterministic world, with a bit of randomness, or in one where a certain measure of free will actually exists. It is a very old philosophical problem, yet unresolved."

    1. "Total depravity" is in some ways an unfortunate term, for it is so easily misunderstood. It does not mean that everyone, or everything, is completely as sinful as they possibly could be. It refers, rather, to the total pervasiveness of sin. That is, we humans, for example, do not have sinful parts, such as our bodily nature, and non-sinful parts, such as our "spiritual" nature. No, all parts of all persons--and all parts of society at large--is corrupted by sin.

      This theme is discussion in her third chapter, "Original Sin(s)." At the end of that chapter she writes about "white supremacy" (which might have better been called "white privilege"). In that connection she writes that Calvin "reminds us that endemic sin is much bigger than just individual intentions" (p. 59).

  3. A Thinking Friend in Georgia sent a email what I paste here in its entirety.

    "This Serene Jones?"

    1. Yes, that Serene Jones. And she has been much criticized for statements she made in that article--and I do not agree with all she says in that interview. But I encourage you to read the article carefully and don't completely reject what she says because of the headline.

      As is often the case, I basically agree with what she affirms and have questions about what she denies.

  4. Here are significant comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas:

    "Thank you, Leroy. I think many fail to understand the total depravity of Calvinism. I say this in part tongue and cheek. In my early ministry I felt compelled to seriously study Calvinism. In fact, I was so inquisitive I later learned that some thought I was a Calvinist. But a Calvinist I could never intellectually be.

    "I was interested in Calvinism because it was reemerging within the SBC. In retrospect, I am amazed at how powerful the urge to conform with others can be. Dr. Honeycutt’s words have served me well over the years… 'Being Christian does not mean we need to put our brains in our hip pocket.' Reason and intellect have served me well. It was always presented as 'part of Southern Baptist history.' 'All the SBC founders were Calvinists.' Etc.

    "But I could never reconcile the ideas of the absolute sovereignty of God and the real freedom of the human individual. Nor could I ever reconcile the ideas of a God of absolute powerful and absolute love, the theodicy issue, no matter the sophistry of wordsmithing. Some things are simply to be dialectical, held in tension. I now see Calvinism as an expression of theological hyperbole, the absolutizing of everything God even though it ultimately diminishes the dignity of humanity, a violation of Psalm 8 and the 'image of God' concept."

  5. Local Thinking Friend Bill Ryan makes comments:

    "My favorite theologian, novelist and essayist, Marilynne Robinson, in her early book of essays "The Death of Adam," also has some valuable comments about Calvin."

    1. Thanks, Bill.

      I've read Robinson's novels 'Gilead' (2004), 'Home' (2008), and 'Lila' (2014) and remember that especially the first of the three had quite a bit about Calvinism--but I don't remember any of the details. I have not read "The Death of Adam." I may want to check that out at some point. One reviewer wrote, "One would have to search far and wide to find another contemporary novelist writing articulate essays defending the theology of John Calvin."