Tag Archives: John Calvin

"Legitimate Rape" and the Reformed Tradition: A Guest Post

As a response to Rod’s post last week on Akin, sexuality, and rape, the conservative Reformed theological tradition [calvinist], Jeremy McLellan, writer and member of the Presbyterian Church in America offered to write a response, that is posted here on Political Jesus. Here’s Rod’s post, as a reference, The Quest for the Historical Mary: Akin, Rape Culture, and Christianity. You can contact Jeremy at jeremy.mclellan@gmail.com or comment in the post below.

Oil painting of a young John Calvin.

Oil painting of a young John Calvin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a member of the PCA and a graduate of Covenant College, I want to address the characterizations and concerns that Rod put forward last Thursday about the connection between Todd Akin‘s comments and our shared theological and ecclesial tradition.

In brief, I want to defend Calvinism from these charges, yet end with how a Reformed member of the PCA might challenge and critique Akin’s statements. I am bracketing off Rod’s broader point about secular Mariologies, which I think are unaffected by what I’m challenging.

First, Rod asserts that the Reformed version of supercessionism separates theology and history, but offers no proof to back up this claim. It is true that like nearly all Christian traditions, we believe the Church to be the continuation of the promise to Israel and therefore reject a “dual covenant” that confers any special parallel status to contemporary Judaism. But this type of supercessionism has nothing to do with how the biblical scholar or theologian regards the Jewishness of Scripture or our own status as Gentiles. After all, Tom Wright and Jimmy Dunn have expressed surprise that members of the PCA (being the theological heirs of Calvin, Ridderbos, and Vos) have spent so much time opposing the New Perspectives on Paul and its cousin the Federal Vision, precisely because the Reformed tradition has always affirmed a much more positive view of the Law as a form of God’s self-disclosure (Jer. 22:16) that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Second, Rod writes that the leadership of the PCA “has worked to silence scholars mentioning anything positive about Second Temple Judaism.” It is true that recent scholarship challenges a common way of figuring the “works of the law,” and this might have implications for exegeting passages that mention justification (particularly Galatians and James). So if Jews weren’t trying to earn their way into heaven, then what is Paul using the doctrine of justification by faith to address?

The problem is that no position paper has been published or trial has ever been conducted against “saying anything positive about Second Temple Judaism.” Professors of history and theology at Reformed institutions would find that characterization puzzling. At issue is whether those who reject the common caricature of the Jews (especially the Galatians) as semi-Pelagians also reject the doctrines that were developed with that caricature assumed, such as justification by faith, imputation, sacraments mediated by the Holy Spirit, and the perseverance of the saints. Those in the Federal Vision (post-Shepherd) who have been re-examined or tried for heresy have been exonerated for this very reason.

Third, Rod says the Wesminster Confession of Faith “is THE standard for the PCA in interpreting Scripture,” but this is misleading. The WCF’s first chapter states “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” The Westminster Standards are not, strictly speaking, HOW we interpret Scripture, but what we believe results from our correct but fallible interpretation of Scripture.

This is important for his other claims, because it’s exactly why PCA Position Papers are not enough to convict anyone of heresy, such as denying the imputation of Christ’s active obedience or affirming that baptism unites (in a limited way) even the reprobate to Christ. It is also why Leithart, Meyers, and Wilkens were exonerated by their presbyteries even though they held those minority positions. While we are certainly to receive the reports as pious advice and they are in some limited sense “what the PCA believe,” we are free to consider them poorly written, cited, and argued.

Finally, Rod asserts that Akin “believes that the blame of rape falls solely on the victims” and that “rape victims are cast as liars in conservative Reformed traditions.” None of the citations he provided support this view. While it is true that Akin cited a pseudo-scientific theory that (if true) might imply that a rape victim who became pregnant was either complicit (as in Augustine) or lying (a possibility foolishly mentioned in the OPC report), neither Mr. Akin nor anyone else I have read has ever said that the guilt falls on the victim. Even if they did, it is inconceivable to me one could place the blame at the feet of John Calvin or the Westminster Divines, since our entire theology rests on our refusal to infer desert from outcome!

A Reformed Response to Todd Akin

What would a charitable yet critical response look like from within the Reformed tradition? What are we to make of Akin’s comments?

The most charitable interpretation of Mr. Akin’s comments would be that he was using the phrase “legitimate rape” within the context of his belief that the female reproductive system had fallible ways of preventing conception if exposed to rape. This is of course false, and its assertion exhibits the kind of motivated reasoning common in the American culture wars. But it does not imply desert any more than the existence of my immune system implies that, if I do catch a cold, I am either complicit in the infection or lying about it to get out of work.

On the other hand, not only was Akin’s assertion false, but what he said was a certain kind of false belief that’s “akin” to thinking blacks don’t take showers, mentally ill people are violent, or gays molest children. If someone repeated those falsehoods, I would obviously correct their facts, but I would also doubt that they knew or listened to anyone who was black, mentally ill, or gay. I would also question whether they possessed the habits necessary to discover such truths, such as proactively checking their facts, listening to opposition charitably, and being willing/eager to be corrected.

In other words, the question is not just whether a politician thinks things that are true or false, but whether they possess the intellectual virtues that lead to the discovery of truth. I don’t fault Akin for speaking untruth, but for a lack of concern for truth in the service of affirming an admirable moral conclusion. This is in some respects a graver problem than intentionally speaking what one knows to be false in order to deceive. Stanley Hauerwas once said, “Lying is actually a considerable moral achievement.”

This needn’t be the case. Our own Westminster Larger Catechism treats these issues in a grave manner. Rape and incest are specifically forbidden (Q139) and we have an affirmative duty to the preservation of others from rape (138). To everyone, including those who are victims of sexual assault, we owe “the preservation and promotion of their good name,” “charitable esteem,” “defending their innocence,” and “an unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them.” We are further prohibited from “giving false evidence,” “unnecessary discovering of infirmities,” “raising false rumors,” and “receiving and countenancing evil reports.” We are additionally prohibited from “giving false evidence, “unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense” and “evil suspicion.”

It is quite difficult to imagine anyone bound to that standard believing in good conscience that the victim of rape or incest deserves it or implying without proof that her allegation is false. If they do, the fault lies with them and those who are charged with holding them accountable, not the Reformed tradition or the Westminster Divines.

Still, all Reformed Christians–even the most traditional complementarians in the PCA/OPC–should work to foster the conditions, practices, discipline, and virtues through which knowledge of the truth can be produced. Our own Standards demand it.

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End the Ref: Protestants Should Get Over The Reformation

As somewhat of a disclaimer, I would like to say this post comes from someone who remains very happy within the Protestant tradition. Additionally, do not mistake this as a call for us to stop celebrating Reformation Sunday; I do believe that it as a complementary holiday to All Saints’ Day as well as a valid alternative to the “secular” Halloween and all the junk that entails.

There are several problems with Protestantism today, and people like to pick and prod at each and every one of them. I think the overwhelming concern should be the lack of knowledge the average Protestant layperson has about Christian history. In part, this is the failure of Christian educators, but that would implicate all Protestants, since we are all teachers in our own way, whether it be as members in the choir, nursery directors, Sunday School teachers, or members of the board of trustees. I feel partially responsible myself; in an email exchange with a close friend, because I had failed to explain what the Nestorian controversy was, he was confused by my reference to it. Should it not be up the Protestant churches to distinguish what was once considered heresy from what we consider orthodoxy, and why?

This failure to educate, to teach proper doctrinal differences is due in large part because of Protestants’ tendency to solely venerate Christian history post-Reformation. If a pastor were to consistently go back before, to talk about Augustine and Jerome and Clement of Alexandria in any mainline or evangelical setting, any Sunday or Wednesday out of the year, she would get the most bewildered of faces. What does that have to do with us, laypeople would ask? I would say, “a whole lot!”

In the minds of many Protestants, the Christological and Trinitarian controversies are settled; if that is so, how come Nestorianism, Arianism, Marcionism, and Docetism still appear in popular forms, i.e., inspirational writing sections at Barnes & Noble and Half-Priced Books? The Reformation hero-worship endemic in evangelical and mainline Protestantism today presents for us a three-fold problem: first, it means a lack of knowledge of our own history, and therefore ourselves; second, it means a lack of discernment in the area of teaching–that is why people continue confuse the prosperity gospel with the Good News of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah–so they are ill-equipped to battle heresies. Thirdly, in trying to mimic the approaches to culture as the Reformers, things like the “Culture Wars,” play out much in the same way that Luther found protection under his princes and Calvin, his city councils. We end up being dependent on fixed and absolute political power structures to justify our positiosn rather than the Prince of Peace. It is not a matter of withdrawal versus separation, but a preference for faithfulness over infidelity to the Good News.

For this reason, we should End the Ref.

Translation is Interpretation: Calvin, CBMW, & Phillipians 2:6

Cover for a NIV Bible
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The ever vigilant Suzanne McCarthy, who works with translation issues and points out many of the ideological translating going around in Christian circles, has once again used one of the Reformers and the original Greek to refute the quite biased (and for the worst) translation of Scripture.  At least the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood do not claim to be objective in their readings of Scripture. Then, we would have a problem.

On Philippians 2:6, CBMW says:

The significant thing here is that some theologians writing for the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood have interpreted “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” as an indication that Christ is in some way not equal to God. Here Denny Burk writes for the CBMW,

First, this verse affirms that Christ has ontological equality with the Father with respect to his deity. That’s what “existing in the form of God” means. Second, the verse affirms that in his pre-incarnate state Christ did not try to obtain (or “grasp for”) another kind of equality which he did not have in his pre-existent state.What kind of “equality” did he refuse to grasp for? He refused to “grasp for” a functional equality with the Father that would have usurped the Father’s role as Father. In contrast to grasping for that kind of equality, the Son “emptied himself” and took the form of a servant (v. 7). In other words, in eternity past Christ determined not to usurp the Father’s role but decided to embrace his own role in the incarnation. Thus what we have in this text is both an affirmation of Christ’s ontological equality with the Father (vis a vis his deity) and a passing reference to his functional distinction from the same.  “

But Suzanne, quoting the original Greek, Calvin, and other translations:

This is what Calvin wrote about Philippians 2:6,

6. Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

6. Qui quum in forma Dei esset, non rapinam arbitratus esset, Deo aequalem se esse:

In the Latin Vulgate, the Greek word harpagmos, ἁρπαγμός, had been translated as rapina, meaning “rape, pillage, plunder and robbery.” This is how Luther and Calvin also understood this word harpagmos. Calvin wrote,

Thought it not robbery. There would have been no wrong done though he had shewn himself to be equal with God. For when he says, he would not have thought, it is as though he had said, “He knew, indeed, that this was lawful and right for him,” that we might know that his abasement was voluntary, not of necessity. ….

For where can there be equality with God without robbery, excepting only where there is the essence of God; for God always remains the same, who cries by Isaiah, I live; I will not give my glory to another. (Isa 48:11.) Form means figure or appearance, as they commonly speak. This, too, I readily grant; but will there be found, apart from God, such a form, so as to be neither false nor forged?

As, then, God is known by means of his excellences, and his works are evidences of his eternal Godhead, (Ro 1:20,) so Christ’s divine essence is rightly proved from Christ’s majesty, which he possessed equally with the Father before he humbled himself. As to myself, at least, not even all devils would wrest this passage from me — inasmuch as there is in God a most solid argument, from his glory to his essence, which are two things that are inseparable.

However, at least since the RSV, harpagmos has been translated as “a thing to be grasped.” This phrase occurs in the NIV 1984, NASB and ESV. The NRSV, on the other hand, has translated harpagmos as “something to be exploited” and the NIV 2011 as “something to be used to his own advantage.”

For the rest of the post and to make comments, please see this link.

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