The Land of the Free and the Free Lance

The Mencken Society, with which I am delighted to be associated, is republishing H. L. Mencken’s Free Lance columns daily for the next four-and-a-half years:

On the 8th of May, We begin daily publication (with the exclusion of Sundays) of Mr Mencken’s Free Lance columns, each column posted on its its anniversary date.

Mr Mencken produced this column six days a week for four-and-a-half years. In the first years (1911-1914), he took on political and other follies of Baltimore City and such fusty material is likely to be of interest only to very hard-core Baltimoreans. Mencken becomes far more interesting to the general reader after the eruption of the First World War when he is a severe corrective to British and American war propaganda.

(Feel the love.)

Here’s a sample of the love from May 10, 1911:

The United Railways Company’s pay-as-you-enter cars are roomy and sightly vehicles, and no doubt the company finds them good investments—but let it not be forgotten that they have no room for smokers! The right to smoke on the rear platforms of Baltimore street cars is not a privilege that may be granted or withheld by the company at its pleasure. On the contrary, it is an ancient right, in the English meaning of the term, with 50 years of enjoyment ratifying and reinforcing it. The man (or corporation) who would destroy it must beware. The Salle Law, the Laws of Mann, the Statutes of Justinian and the great writs of habeas corpus, quo warranto and certiorari are on the side of the plain people.

So far, the pay-as-you-enter cars are run upon but two lines. Smokers, being tolerant and patient, quietly avoid those lines. But let the new cars appear elsewhere—and a loud protest will be heard. I know plenty of smokers who are already drawing in wind for that roar. It will shake the town. We Baltimoreans are not New Yorkers. We do not conform our private habits to the convenience of public service companies. When we would dance we do our own whistling.

Against smoking on street car platforms three complaints are made, to wit:

1. It prevents the use of pay-as-you-enter cars, which save the company money.
2. It compels women entering a car to struggle through a crowd of smokers, white and black, and a fog of smoke.
3. Smoking itself is an immoral and indecent practice.

The first complaint need not detain us. The company is already making money, and so long as it is as well managed as it is today it will continue to make money—not enough, perhaps, to earn dividends upon its enormous stock, but enough to give every bona-fide investor a fair return upon his investment.

The second complaint is also trivial. The smokers who stand upon the platform make that much more room inside; their failure to claim seats is really an advantage to those women who desire seats, and a favor to the company. As for the perils and horrors of struggling through them, they are grossly exaggerated by the peevish. It takes, on an average, about four seconds for a woman to proceed from the car-step to the interior of the car—and in those four seconds she is not likely to inhale enough smoke to poison her. Women, in general, are not nearly so delicate as romance makes them. A woman who can stand half an hour of the Lexington fish market is well able to face a few blasts of tobacco smoke. It is only upon entering a car that she is compelled to cross the rear platform. Leaving, she may use the front door.

But smokers are a filthy lot? Not more filthy, in the mass, than non-smokers. If I were a woman I’d much rather brush by a darkey from the guano works on the platform than sit beside him for half an hour in the car. Workingmen, white and black, who happen to be in dirty clothes commonly show decency enough to stand on the platform. Standing there, they smoke—and often pretty bad tobacco. Well, why not? They are tired, and standing is a sacrifice they make for the good of others–a proof of innate delicacy, of a high sort of self-respect. Why shouldn’t they be allowed the compensation of a pipe?

The fact that that pipe is charged with oakum is irrelevant. Not one woman out of 10,000 can tell the difference between good tobacco and bad.

So we come to the last complaint—that smoking is immoral per se. Is it? I’m sure I don’t know. But admitting that it is, it must be apparent that a public service company is not chartered to purge the common people of sin.

The Philonomian Temptation

mezuzahSince some readers consider me clueless about the law to the point of being antinomian, the following essay, originally printed in the October 2002 issue of the NTJ, may be useful for clarifying the concerns of Oldlife.

Ever since the sixteenth century Protestants have had to bear the accusation of being antinomian. The logic was, and still is, simple. If you believe that salvation is based strictly on faith, not on works, you send the message that the way a believer lives does not really affect his or her standing before God. Despite (or perhaps) owing to this complaint, Protestants since the Reformation have done their darnedest to prove the accusation wrong. So successful have the descendants of Luther and Calvin been in correcting the impression that good works don’t matter in obtaining God’s favor, that Roman Catholics and Protestants have swapped roles, with the former being the church for an antinomian piety, and the latter’s denominations insisting upon good behavior for continued fellowship.

This is not a cheap shot at Roman Catholics (at least it is not the intent). The difference between Rome and Protestantism these days on good works actually works toward Roman Catholicism’s favor. The church that once accused Luther’s teaching of antinomianism has consistently made room for repeat offenders, the kind of sinners whom Protestants are quick to remove from church rolls. Roman Catholic history is filled with examples of believers who fall off the wagon, repent, confess their sin and find forgiveness in the church’s ministry. From whiskey priests to mafia dons, the Roman Catholic church has been a communion, despite its teaching on the relationship of faith and works, where the believer’s ongoing battle with sin is frankly acknowledged and accommodated. This makes it one of the great ironies in Western Christianity that the ones who originally accused Luther of sanctioning immorality have been the communion to provide what appears a roomier basis for fellowship than Protestants can muster.

The recent scandal surrounding Roman Catholic priests and pedophilia suggests that this may be changing, that, in fact, becoming an American church has involved becoming infected with Protestant philonomianism. This is certainly the impression that Richard John Neuhaus gives in his comments on the meeting of the United States bishops in Dallas to address the sexual misconduct of priests. The editor of First Things quoted one reporter who claimed that the American bishops “behaved more like Senators or CEO’s engaged in damage control than as moral teachers engaged in the gospel.” Neuhaus fears that the adopted policy of “one strike” and “zero tolerance” will prevent repentant priests from coming forward and seeking help and forgiveness. Even worse, he writes, is what the policy of retribution does to the church’s witness. “The bishops have succeeded in scandalizing the faithful anew by adopting a thoroughly unbiblical, untraditional, and un-Catholic approach to sin and grace.” They wound up with “a policy that is sans repentance, sans conversion, sans forbearance, sans prudential judgment, sans forgiveness, sans almost everything one might have hoped for from bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ.” Of course, Reformed Christians have a different understanding of the basis for a sinner’s forgiveness. But Neuhaus’ complaint, the bishops’ policies notwithstanding, implies that the language of mercy may be more the possession of Catholics than Protestants.

In Protestantism’s case, the adoption of an ecclesial posture free from charges of antinomianism is not only ironic but ridiculous. Yet evidence accumulates that demonstrates just how uncomfortable Protestants are with receiving and resting on Christ alone for all the benefits of salvation.

One such example comes again from Neuhaus’ journal, First Things. In the April 2002 issue Jerry L. Walls, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary wrote in defense of purgatory, thus proving to some in the NTJ’s offices that the line separating Wesleyans and Roman Catholics on sanctification is a thin one thanks to John Wesley’s curious doctrine of perfection. Walls begins on a weak note, one sure to get him and us in trouble. He asserts that Wesleyans “reject the notion that salvation is only, or even primarily, a forensic matter of having the righteousness of Christ imputed or attributed to believers.” God not only forgives, Walls adds, but “also changes us and actually makes us righteous.” The problem is that life is not long enough for the sanctification of believers. So much sin, so little time. In addition, Walls finds the Protestant notion of perfection in death to be unconvincing. Purgatory is the solution. For it is a teaching that emphasizes “the notion that no one can be exempted from the requirement of achieving perfect sanctity in cooperation with God’s grace and initiative.”

Walls admits that the idea of a time after death where the road to sanctity is allowed to wind on in proportion to a sinner’s wickedness appears to deny justification by faith alone. That is so if salvation is conceived in solely forensic terms. But Protestants were novel to separate justification and sanctification. And since “justification so understood does not make us actually righteous, it is simply irrelevant as an objection to purgatory.” What is especially interesting to note here is Walls’ conclusion since it bears on this matter of forgiveness and how sinners become righteous. “Appealing to God’s forgiveness does nothing to address the fact that many Christians are imperfect lovers of God . . . at the time of their death.” As such forgiveness “alone” cannot eliminate the unpleasant aspects of sin. “Other remedies are necessary, and . . . they may involve pain.” One wonders if Walls may have been present behind the scenes when the Roman Catholic bishops gathered in Dallas. His understanding of pain-added forgiveness would certainly square better with the policy of “zero tolerance” than Neuhaus’ idea of divine mercy’s recuperative powers.

Of course, Walls may be dismissed as a Wesleyan who, following the lead of the urWesleyan, collapsed justification and sanctification in such a disquieting way. Yet, Reformed Christians have of late been giving Methodists and Roman Catholics a run for obscuring the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness. In fact, many within the ranks of conservative American Presbyterianism show how willing they are to blink when the charge of antinomianism comes their way. In which case, Reformed Christians, like Walls, blur justification and sanctification in the hopes of making their theological tradition as good as they want Reformed Christians to be moral.

One indication of the confusion comes from an earnest Presbyterian elder who has written an unfortunate explanation of his views in response to some who suspect him of denying the Protestant doctrine of justification. A read through this paper suggests that his accusers have a point. (He will remain anonymous because of presbytery proceedings that have taken up this matter.) At one point, under the heading of “God’s Purpose and Plan,” he writes: “Neither the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, which all Christians receive at justification, nor the infusion of the righteousness of Christ (a false and non-existent concept taught by the Roman Catholic Church) can suffice for that purpose [i.e. being conformed to the image of Christ in true and personal righteousness and holiness]. Christ does not have an imputed righteousness; His righteousness is real and personal. If we are to be conformed to his image, we too must have a real and personal righteousness.” What is interesting about this quotation is that it is as hard on Protestantism as it is on Roman Catholicism. But because he denies Rome’s error the implication is that he is error free. What remains, in fact, is an error of Pelagian proportions.

Of course, this example could simply be an aberration. But the trouble is that theologians and pastors in Presbyterian circles have encouraged these ideas by what one might call a hyper-covenantalism. Because they believe that the Bible makes the covenant central to God’s relationship with man, all doctrines have the potential to be covenantalized. So, for instance, Peter Leithart on his website offers a paper in which he articulates a “biblical” perspective on justification. There he comments: “while Protestant theology rightly understands ‘justification’ as ‘courtroom’ or ‘forensic’ language, it does not take sufficient account of the full biblical scope of the ‘forensic.’ Following a number of recent studies, I take ‘righteous’ to be essentially a covenantal and relational term.” As such the main idea behind biblical righteousness is not “conformity to a code of laws,” but instead refers to “fulfilling obligations in a relationship.” On it goes.

It needs to be stated that Leithart does not go where the unnamed elder dared to go — Leithart does not deny the doctrine of imputed righteousness. But he does reflect where the equivocation of justification along covenantal lines, begun by Norman Shepherd twenty-five years ago and published recently as The Call of Grace (2000), has led. The impression persists that the traditional formulation of justification is passe and doesn’t reflect the recent scholarship. Just as bad, it’s not biblical but a theological imposition upon the text. Even worse, it’s responsible for keeping Roman Catholics and Protestants apart. As Shepherd stated in a Reformation Day sermon five years ago, “If we could get our Roman Catholic neighbors to see that the Bible talks about covenantal love and loyalty, and not about the merit of good works, and if we could get our evangelical Protestant neighbors to see that the Bible talks about covenantal love and loyalty, and not about cheap grace, then at least one major obstacle would be removed preventing us from seeing that the true church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We would have a catholic church that is reformed according to the word of God. This is the church that Jesus is building today.”

In this sermon Shepherd interestingly uses the word “comfort.” A covenantal understanding of justification does not offer comfort to the antinomians because the gospel’s promises are not “unconditional.” Nor does it provide succor to the legalists because the good works it requires are not meritorious. The problem is that the covenantal understanding of justification does not offer much comfort — period. For it still saddles sinful men and women with obligations that they cannot keep perfectly. Which leaves them in a bit of a pickle.

Here it might be worth considering why people are not comforted by the Protestant doctrine of justification. Even if we were to concede that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, which looks to Christ’s righteousness alone for justification today and on judgment day, even if this doctrine were not true, why wouldn’t Protestants want it to be? The psychological problems are easier to spot for Roman Catholics who anathematized Protestants in the sixteenth century and so are on record against justification by faith alone. A defense of truth (as Catholics understand it) along with a defense of the tradition drives Roman Catholics to deny the Protestant doctrine. The only possible explanation for Protestants abandoning the doctrine is that the truth of the Bible is at stake. But even here, if the Bible taught that our salvation depended in some small way upon our own righteousness or our ability to cooperate with Christ’s, why would any Protestant believe it? “Thus saith the Lord” has a certain force to it. But if the Lord says “you must be good in order to be saved” then the consequences of disobedience are just as great as those involved in obedience. For if men and women are honest with themselves, the thought of producing works good enough for God’s favor is downright scary.

But if Protestants who cozy up to the notion of obedience fail to notice the relief that Christ’s righteousness provides, these reformers of justification don’t seem to fathom how incomplete human righteousness is. As such, if classic Protestantism is susceptible to the charge of “cheap grace,” neo-Protestants are in danger of promoting “cheap works.” The point here is one well made by the Westminster Divines in chapter sixteen of their Confession of Faith. This is a section of the Westminster Standards that few of Luther’s Reformed critics ponder.

It is, of course, one thing to say that nothing the unregenerate man may do will please God, thus at least requiring Christ’s work to wipe the slate clean. But once regenerate, some are teaching, Christians may actually perform deeds that are acceptable. Not so, according to the Westminster Confession. “We cannot, by our best works, merit pardon for sin, or eternal life, at the hand of God, because of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, . . .” So much for the possibility of being re-justified on Judgement Day on the basis of our good works. And the reason is that our good works proceed both from the Spirit who makes them “good” and from us who make them “defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment” (16.v). In other words, our good works, the allegedly conditional part of the covenantal arrangement, are not very good. In fact, they come up short of God’s holy standard, thus making Christ’s righteousness the only sufficient basis for our standing before God. Sin goes so deep that perfection for the Christian awaits death or the consummation.

Yet the justification-revision school continues to be worried about antinomianism. They appear to fear that grace and mercy will lead to moral laxity. And so they contrive various biblical themes to water forgiveness down with obedience. In the process, they lose sight of how helpless sinful men and women are, both before and after regeneration. They make it seem as if believers may really keep the law because the promises are conditional, though not meritorious. The net effect is to ignore the depths of human depravity, as well as the burden that comes with always asking whether you are really good.

The Reformers were aware of this problem. The Belgic Confession in Article 24 (Man’s Sanctification and Good Works) concludes on this somber note: if we do not keep in mind that our good works in no way merit God’s favor, “then, we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed . . .”

Does this mean that we should keep on sinning so that forgiveness may abound? The apostle Paul stared that one in the face and said, of course not. Smoking two packs a day because you know you’re going to die anyway is not the best response to the blessings of this life (one pack should be sufficient). Neither is abandoning your wife a legitimate response to the idea that marriage is provisional and not part of the glorified state. The Reformed response, along with the Lutheran one, has been the third use of the law, even though the latter tradition has not always spoken in these terms. The basis for good works is gratitude, not fear. In fact, the release that comes from knowing that God’s demands have been satisfied by Christ frees the Christian to perform good works, though still polluted, from the correct motive — to glorify God, not to save one’s hide. The Augsburg Confession, Article 20 could not state it any better than when it declares: “It is also taught among us that good works should and must be done, not that we are to rely on them to earn grace but that we may do God’s will and glorify him. It is always faith alone that apprehends grace and forgiveness of sin. When through faith the Holy Spirit is given, the heart is moved to do good works.”

Forgetting forgiveness and loving the law has had many unfortunate consequences. But the greatest may be that Reformed Christianity no longer can be accused of being antinomian. Of course, antinomianism is bad, and that’s why the Reformed creeds assert the importance of good works. But at the same time, proclaiming the gospel in such a way that it sounds antinomian is very good, even biblical. Martin Lloyd-Jones had it right, when he wrote, following the lead of the apostle Paul:

The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. . . .I would say to all preachers: If your preaching of salvation has not been misunderstood in that way, then you had better examine your sermons again, and you had better make sure that you really are preaching the salvation that is offered in the New Testament to the ungodly, to the sinner, to those who are dead in trespasses and sins, to those who are enemies of God.

After almost five hundred years of hearing the charge of antinominan, one would think Reformed Christians could resist the philonomian temptation to turn Christ’s sufficiency into a blueprint for ethical enrichment.

Townsend P. Levitt

The Baptized Luther, Part One

(From the April 2001 NTJ)

The basic problem for any evangelical historian approaching Martin Luther is, of course, the centuries of mythology, literary, visual, anecdotal, that have come to surround the man and the Reformation in the evangelical tradition. How many third rate Protestant artists have painted their pictures of an angry Luther nailing the theses to the castle wall and thus symbolically putting a nail in the coffin of medieval catholicism? And how often have the sentiments of such artworks been echoed and reinforced in evangelical sermons and tracts over the years? Yet Luther himself in 1545 tells us that “when I took up this matter against indulgences, I was so full and drunken, yea, so besotted in papal doctrine that, out of my great zeal, I would have been ready to do murder — at least, I would have been glad to see and help that murder should be done — on all who would not be obedient and subject to the pope, even to his smallest word.” Clearly Luther’s own professed understanding of himself at this point in time has largely fallen on deaf ears in the tradition. Far from nailing up the coffin of the medieval church, he saw himself as operating within its framework for the furtherance of its mission.

A further complication in assessing the relationship between the Reformation period and that of the later revivals has been an argument from silence. In asking why the great Reformers and Puritans did not reflect upon mass movements of God’s Spirit in the manner in which Jonathan Edwards was later to do, the popular answer has often been that they were in fact living at times of awesome revival and were unaware of the extraordinary nature of the times in which they lived. This would appear, for example, to be the position of the influential evangelical leader, Martyn Lloyd-Jones who, perhaps more than anyone else, shaped the popular understanding within English and Welsh Calvinistic circles of the nature and importance of revival in the twentieth century. Hence, as the goldfish cannot analyze the water in which it swims, the Reformers and Puritans could scarcely be expected to produce a treatise on revival akin to The Religious Affections.

There is a sense in which, of course, the scholar should not be influenced by such images and arguments. Few who have ever read Luther will fail to see the irony of a man who rejected Ulrich Zwingli as a Christian brother because of his eucharistic beliefs being used as an icon by the most hardline Protestant conspiracy theorists in their crusades against the influence of the Papacy. Yet it is also very difficult for the evangelical scholar, with the theological commitments that implies, to approach the Reformation without trying to read the Reformation in terms of how it anticipates or legitimates movements of the eighteenth century and beyond.

While there is at least one comment of Luther which might lead us to believe that the success of the Reformation depended on little more, humanly speaking, than his ability to drink beer (a point which, incidentally, certainly marks him off from much later revivalism), a more fruitful avenue for looking at Reformation priorities is almost certainly the literary output of the central year of 1520. It was at this point that Luther laid out in its fullest form his manifesto for Reformation in the three great treatises: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; The Freedom of the Christian; and An Address to the German Nobility. These three works, produced at the point in Luther’s career when it was becoming clear that the Church of Rome was not going to institute a theological reformation from within, laid out for all to see the implications of his understanding of justification by faith for the realms of the sacraments, the Christian life, and the secular authorities.

To place sacramental theology at the heart of Luther’s Reformation should require no justification: the fact that he was willing to anathematize Zwingli precisely on sacramental grounds should indicate to us the importance of this to Luther’s program; and the fact that one of the three major treatises of 1520 is devoted to this topic is scarcely coincidental to Luther’s overall vision of Reformation. Furthermore, this point should immediately alert us to the fact that Luther’s understanding of what the Reformation is all about has a sacramental dimension which is not something which stands out in the later evangelical tradition.

The sacramental revisions which Luther proposes in The Babylonian Captivity present in pointed form ideas that had been developing in his mind throughout the previous five years and which had become increasingly focused in late 1518 and 1519. In brief, he reduces the number of sacraments from seven to three (penance still being considered a sacrament at this stage) and redefines them in terms of his understanding of the centrality of promise and faith. Thus, the sacraments come to function as outward symbols whose inner reality (and usefulness) is only available to the eyes of faith.

Most striking for the evangelical approaching Luther on the sacraments is his view of baptism, for it is at this point that Luther’s theology sits most uncomfortably with any reading of his spiritual life in terms of later conversionism. At the start of the baptism section in The Babylonian Captivity, Luther makes the following point:

But Satan, though unable to do away with the virtue of baptizing little children, has shown his power by putting an end to it among adults. Today there is scarcely any one who calls to mind his own baptism, still less takes pride in it; because so many other ways have been found of getting sins forgiven and entering heaven.

What Luther is alluding to here is the medieval stress upon baptism as a “first plank” for salvation which, once the recipient has again fallen into sin, is more or less abandoned in favour of the “second plank” of the church’s penitential system. Such an approach effectively reduces the significance of baptism to a point in the past and focuses the mind far more upon the various means which the church provides in the present for dealing with sin. As a result, baptism becomes less important than the present penitential system with which believers have to do.

Martin Kenunu

The Unconverted Calvin, Part One

From the NTJ, October 2000

Ask any living Calvinist if he believed in conversion and ninety-nine percent of the responses would be unabashedly affirmative. And yet, if you followed up with a question about where the Reformed creeds and catechisms teach about conversion, the answer would probably not be so swift or positive. One reason for the latter reaction might be that the Reformed confessions have very little to say about conversion per se. And when they do, they mean something very different from contemporary evangelical usage which regards conversion as synonymous with an instantaneous new birth or “born again” experience. For instance, the Canons of Dort, best known for outlining the mnemonic TULIP, describe true conversion as consisting of the external preaching of the gospel combined with the work of the Holy Spirit, who “powerfully illuminates” the mind, “pervades the inmost recesses of man; . . . opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised,” and transforms the will from being “evil, disobedient, and refactory” to being “good, obedient, and pliable.” That way of looking at conversion might satisfy the most zealous of low-church evangelists, until learning that Dort is not referring to a moment of crisis or decision but is actually describing the whole of the Christian life. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “genuine repentance or conversion” consists of two things: “the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new” (Q&A 88). It is not clear whether the Westminster Standards mention conversion.

Ironically, despite the Reformed tradition’s teaching about conversion (or lack thereof), many conservative Presbyterians continue to speak of it as an experience of the born-again variety and ask prospective church members for a narrative of conversion. This is the consequence of almost 250 years of Presbyterian congeniality toward revivalism. This is the Jonathan Edwards School of Presbyterianism that looks upon his conversion as a model for genuine faith. While a student at Yale, Edwards recalled that he felt:

a calm, sweet Abstraction of Soul from all the Concerns of this World; and a kind of Vision, or fix’d Ideas and Imaginations, of being alone in the Mountains, or some solitary Wilderness, far from all Mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in GOD. The Sense I had of divine Things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my Heart; and ardor of my Soul, that I know not how to express.

For Edwards, as for most other believers who have come to faith through revivalism’s direct appeals, conversion equals ecstasy.

But Edwards’ mountain-top experience of God is a long way from the older Reformed notions of regeneration, repentance, and sanctification to which the term conversion typically applies. For that reason, Edwards’ conversion may not be the best model. Here is where many experimental Calvinists, uneasy already about elevating an ordinary human being’s experience too high, would likely appeal to the apostle Paul, whose conversion on the way to Damascus makes Edwards’ look like chopped liver. At the same time, however, appealing to Paul has the disadvantage of establishing a norm for conversion that is so exceptional that Reformed believers, who are supposed to believe in the closing of the canon and the cessation of miraculous signs, could never hope to experience Christ in any way.

For this reason, a better source for thoughts about conversion than Edwards’ or Paul’s experience is the man from whom Calvinists derive their name. Ironically, John Calvin does not serve the interests of revival-friendly Presbyterians well because the record does not show convincingly that the French Reformer had any experience that would qualify as a conversion or that might even be regarded as remarkable. According to William J. Bouwsma, whose biography of Calvin admittedly has not received unanimous endorsement from orthodox Reformed and Presbyterians, “religious conversion is a more problematic conception than is ordinarily recognized.” As a “cultural artifact” or an “individual experience,” it is an event that marks a “sharp break with the past.” Accordingly, “life before conversion . . . is irrelevant except as preparation for this break or as a stimulus to repentance; life afterward is made new.” Bouwsma argues, however, that evidence for a conversion of this type in Calvin’s life is “negligible.” Most biographers have cited a single passage from Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms, written in 1557. It reads:

God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honorable office of herald and minister of the Gospel. . . . What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years — for I was so strongly devoted to the superstitions of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner, a raw recruit.

Bouwsma interprets this passage as nothing more than “a shift and quickening of his interests,” certainly nothing incompatible with the evangelical humanism that many university students at Paris espoused, simply a willingness to be more teachable. In other words, there was no decisive break in Calvin with his former life until he ran afoul of Roman church authorities. But becoming a Protestant, something that was gradual and progressive, hardly qualifies as “going forward” at the time of an altar call or experiencing a unique and immediate sense of God’s presence somewhere in the woods outside Paris. Protestantism was a reformation, not a revival. Evidence of its transformation came in the form of changes in doctrine, liturgy and church polity, not in hearts strangely or normally warmed.

As Bouwsma also observes, Calvin was not enthusiastic about conversion as a precise event in his discussions of Christian piety. He “always emphasized the gradualness rather than the suddenness of conversion and the difficulty of making progress in the Christian life.” In a statement that many contemporary Presbyterians would deem nonsensical, Calvin wrote that “we are converted little by little to God, and by stages.” In his commentary on Acts, Calvin was even reluctant to attach much significance to Paul’s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. “We now have Paul tamed,” he wrote, “but not yet a disciple of Christ.”

Consequently, Bouwsma attributes more to family circumstances and educational influences than to the movement of the Spirit in explaining Calvin’s move into the Protestant fold in 1535. The death of Calvin’s mother and his subsequent exclusion from his father’s household, according to Bouwsma, imparted a sense of homelessness that would later befit a French exile in Geneva. Then at Paris Calvin learned the three languages — Latin, Greek and Hebrew — that were so much a part of the Christian reform movement spearheaded by Erasmus. Bouwsma concludes that whatever conversion Calvin experienced it was not a radical break with his past but rather the fruit of personal, spiritual and intellectual seeds sown earlier in his life.

Just Grow Up

(From NTJ, January 1999)

A recent visit to Yale, complete with watching a Yale-Princeton hockey game, reminded us of the suffocating ubiquity of post-1950s popular culture. Being some twenty years removed from college life it was curious to see Yale undergraduates participating in the rah-rah spirit that college students of our generation studiously avoided in the name of being independently cool. Even more surprising was to see the overwhelming support for the Yale band, an extracurricular activity that certain boomers associated with losers and nerds. But here we were, in 1998, watching kids supposedly indoctrinated in the dogma of political correctness and postmodernism not just playing in but singing along with the band. Perhaps even more remarkable was that these nineteen- and twenty-year olds knew the words to the songs the band played. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Credence Clearwater Revival – it didn’t matter. These students sang along. The scene was almost surreal. These college students were joining in the singing of music that in our generation was supposed to be a pronounced statement against joining anything. Of course, one of the great myths of popular culture is that of the solitary individual who does his own thing, even while two-thirds of the teenage population are doing exactly the same thing. Continue reading “Just Grow Up”

The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns III

(From NTJ Jan 1997 and April 1997)

From: Glenn Morangie
To: T. Glen Livet
Date: 9/3/96 3:21pm
Subject: Psalmody -Reply -Reply

Glen,

Are you a ninny or what? How can you say that Reformed worship is not centered on the Word and then in the next sentence write, “God speaks to us and we speak to him.” That sounds to me like words are pretty central, and that it is God’s word at the center, both in calling us to his presence, and in guiding what words we say to him. Just a nitpick.

The example of preaching does not entirely settle the issue of non-inspired words in worship. If the Second Helvetic confession is right and the sermon, even from an unregenerate man, is the word of God, then there is something going on in preaching that is different from the words that non-ordained people speak. It certainly is not inspired in the sense of canonical revelation. But it is more on that order than the poem some proto-Unitarian wrote in the 18th century. Preaching and praying, then, are of a different order than poetry. Granted they are all words. But preaching and praying done by one of God’s appointed undershepherds causes something different to happen. God has promised to bless them in a way that he has also promised to bless his inspired word. But I don’t see any promise attached to the hymns the church may produce. Continue reading “The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns III”