One catalyst for this has been a marvelous article called Teaching Calvin in California, by Berkeley history-of-religion scholar Jonathan Sheehan. Sheehan argues for the educational importance of engaging with that dread text of the Reformation, Calvin’s Institutes, including the (then and now) outrage-inducing doctrine of double predestination – that is, that both the saved and the damned are the way they are because of God’s choice, that this choice is just and cannot be disputed, and that both the salvation of the saved and the damnation of the lost equally display God’s glory. “The classroom erupts in protest”, writes Sheehan. “Calvin teaches us, Be careful what you believe in. Investigate what your own views demand…” By their own engagement with “the terribleness of Calvin’s challenge”, Sheehan’s students are already obtaining a hands-on education – “participating in the intellectual revolutions of the modern world.”
The point about double predestination is not that it is illogical, or even that it is unscriptural; Calvin mounts a ruthless case, starting from the locus classicus in Romans 9-11. It’s not our minds that revolt against the doctrine; it is our guts – that fine biblical word σπλαγχνα, translated by King James’ men as “bowels and mercies” in Phil 2:1. To put the problem simply, we just can’t swallow it. (Hence the wide variety of alternative theological proposals, upon which rigorous-minded Calvinists look down.)
But I’ve also been thinking about Calvinism through watching the travails of American evangelicals as they endeavor to show love and welcome to LGBTQ people. Bear with me a moment because I think there’s a connection here.
Wind the clock back fifty years. Christians are unified (more or less) on the purpose of marriage: to quote the Book of Common Prayer, “for the procreation of children…for a remedy against sin…for mutual society, help and comfort.” Marriage provides the stable context where children can be brought up; and it channels sexual desire in a fruitful direction, specifically, into the direction of deep, lifelong mutual covenant love, “both in prosperity and adversity”, matching the Genesis admonition “It is not good for humans to be alone”. And everyone ‘knows’ (remember, we wound the clock back) that none of these purposes can apply to homosexual unions: they have no place for children, they are promiscuous and volatile, they provide no opportunity for lasting commitment. What’s more, we also ‘know’ that homosexuality is a psychological disorder which can be fixed – true, the “ex-gay ministries” like Exodus International are still in our future, but the idea that the gay person can change by “making different choices” is already part of the furniture. Work your mind back into this fifty-years-ago perspective, and the whole complex of ideas around Obergefell vs. Hodges make no sense at all.
But times have changed. A majority of people personally know LGBT couples for whom “it is not good to be alone”; couples who find deep fulfillment (“mutual society, help and comfort”) in relationships which look just as much like long-term covenantal unions as most heterosexual marriages. What is more, the idea that LGBT people can “make different choices” to become straight has collapsed along with the whole ex-gay movement. The only fallback position for Evangelicals that seems consistent with the available evidence is to say that an LGBT orientation, per se, cannot usually change but is not a sin; but that (on the basis of the half-dozen “clobber passages”) allowing that orientation to overflow into action is inevitably sinful. Thus, an LGBT orientation should be interpreted as a call to celibacy; that is the new evangelical orthodoxy, hauntingly expressed in the personal testimony of Wesley Hill (Washed and Waiting).
However, “It is not good for humans to be alone” still stands; there is no clause in Genesis limiting this to the straight. As a result, Evangelicals are left with a picture of a God who calls all humans into the gift of covenant relationship, but who arbitrarily decrees that seven percent or so of them should have a sexual orientation which makes it impossible to legitimately fulfill the mutual desire which fuels such relationships for just about everybody else. Just as, in Calvin’s world, the reprobate desire Heaven but can never attain it, so our LGBTQ siblings are doomed to desire a fulfillment which is never to be within their reach. We recognize, once again, the specter of double predestination. And once again, it is not logic or Scripture that cry out against it. It is the σπλαγχνα, the guts. The picture of the world so presented is hard for the “bowels and mercies” to accept. (Hence, in my opinion, the way organizations like Inter-Varsity are now resorting to naked authority to uphold their preferred interpretation on this issue, when they have long agreed to compromise on (say) the mode and timing of baptism, a matter that was once regarded as of equally life-shattering importance.)
A friend wrote recently on Facebook, “I know several people who in their guts [my emphasis] want to affirm LGBT relationships; they simply don’t know what to do with [those half-dozen] Scripture passages.” Jonathan Sheehan would say, perhaps, that these people are experiencing the power and danger of a good argument. Personally, I would think back to Jesus, “stirred in his bowels” (a different Greek word, but the same idea) before the obscenity of the tomb of Lazarus (John 11), and I would like to share one piece of advice.
Go with your gut.
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