Calvin’s Fragile Doctrine of Divine Sovereignty

King’s College London

When I started my doctoral work at King’s College London, I was a Calvinist. When I finished my doctoral work, I was not. My transition away from Calvinism was largely a result of reading the primary sources, looking at what Calvin himself wrote as opposed to simply reading the writings of Calvinists. Since contemporary reformed thinkers tend to present a sanitized version of Calvin’s thought, it can be a real eye-opener to spend some time in his own writings.

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Calvinism’s Existential Problem

In Part 3 of the 5-part series I wrote for Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy on why I stopped being a Calvinist, I explored the existential problem that arises from the split teleology inherent in Calvinist metaphysics and their fragmentation of God’s will into competing modalities.

Reformed theology generally affirms that with respect to God’s revealed will, the telos or goal of each and every individual includes eternal union with Him, but with respect to His hidden will, the telos of certain individuals includes eternal disunion with Him. This means that for everyone that isn’t saved, there is a dual telos, for in one sense God’s desired end for such people is salvation, but in another sense it is damnation.

One of the problems I raised against this model in Part 3 of my series is a purely personal or existential problem I encountered when wrestling with this framework.

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Wisdom From St. John of Kronstadt

“Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really any faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.”

                                             —St. John of Kronstadt (1829-1909)

Doing the World as it Was Meant to be Done

David Fagerberg’s book Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology explores ways in which the liturgy spills out into everyday life, and how all of the world can begin to be viewed through sacramental eyes. Here is a gem from pp. 79-80.
“…there is something wrong with how we look at [the] world. We have inherited amblyopia from Adam and Eve, and the eye that has become lazy is our spiritual one. We let our wandering eye rest not on creations true teleology, but only upon its usefulness to our own self-satisfaction. The world becomes worldly when we do not use our spiritual and sensible eyes together. That accounts for why Christian doctrine must walk the paradox of simultaneously affirming the good of nature, and rejecting the natural as the ultimate end of human existence. The world has not caused our idolatry, rather our idolatry has wronged the world. St. Paul says it groans in the travails of childbirth until man and woman take up their abandoned post of cosmic priest again (Romans 8), and Kavanagh says we can only finally do the world the way it was meant to be done if we are restored to this liturgical relationship with the world. Sometimes the overly spiritual Christian suggests that redemption consists of turning a blind eye to the world, but in fact redemption consists of having our proper activity returned to us in both domains–the profane as well as the sacred.”

Refuge in Insignificance

Moore’s law, which expresses itself in computers becoming smaller and smaller, seems to parallel what is happening in our machine-mediated discourse. Our public discourse has been shrinking at a rate rivaled by the speed at which the integrated circuit has diminished in size.

When fax machines first appeared, it was like magic precisely because they could transmit so much text. I remember standing in wonder at the fax machine in my father’s bookstore as it dropped page after page on the floor. When email appeared, it was again astonishing that so much text could be sent over the computer. People would spend hours crafting careful email messages that drew on the tradition of letter writing.

That didn’t last very long. As our communication media have evolved through instant messaging, text messaging and finally Twitter, what has come to attract us is not length but brevity. Our communication media orient us to eschew complexity and depth, to give preference to what is brief and transitory.

At least, that is what dawned on me when reading Nicholas Carr’s chapter on Twitter in his brand-new book Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations. This chapter, which is a reprint of Carr’s 2007 blog post, points out that Twitter’s great accomplishment has been to fragment the fragments, enabling us to turn any event in our lives, no matter how trifling, into a headline. Twitter dignifies the banal and glorifies the boring by enabling us to turn any experience into a stop-the-press bulletin. Twitter thus “wraps itself and its users in an infantile language” in which we can take refuge in the insignificant. Carr’s closing paragraph connects Twitter to emerging Virtual Reality technologies:

As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.

Customized Communication in a Virtual World

The year is 2060. Professor Updike stands to take the podium for the keynote speech at his university’s annual communications conference.

Professor Updike is a clean-shaven African American man in his mid-forties. To the audience, however, these details are irrelevant. Everyone in attendance is wearing virtual reality glasses—a technology that allows each person to customize their own reality and seamlessly overlay that reality onto the physical world. This technology, at one time experimental and cumbersome, has now become normal and ubiquitous. In fact, it has become unusual not to see people wearing these glasses, although there remain some neo-Luddite holdouts in the rural areas.

Through their VR glasses, some people see Professor Updike as he would have looked twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate. Others have adjusted their VR settings to see him as a white person, or another race of preference. For still others, the professor appears to be giving his speech completely nude.

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Addiction and Pain-Management

Helping people who struggle with pornography has never been a focus of my writing ministry, even though I have written extensively about sexual ethics and modesty. I have never personally struggled with porn and I have always found it distasteful and kind of “icky” to talk about. However, that will be changing. Last Saturday Salvo Magazine asked me to report on a conference at Gonzaga University on how porn has become “the new drug.” I came away from the conference convinced that this is a crucially important topic that requires just as much of my attention as some of the other issues I frequently write about. So keep an eye out for my report in upcoming editions of Salvo Magazine.

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Conservatism in Historical Perspectives

In looking again at my earlier post, “The Non-Conservative Mind of Donald Trump”, it occurred to me that the article lacked some of the important historical perspectives necessary for appreciating how someone as liberal as President Trump can pass as a conservative. If I can be forgiven in advance for painting with a very broad brush, I would like to survey the evolution of conservatism from Burke to Trump, as a supplement to the comments I made previously in my articles “The Republican Retreat to Identity Politics” and “Trump and the Eclipse of Conservatism” and “The Non-Conservative Mind of Donald Trump.”

WWI put an end to the remaining vestiges of the old order, a bloody climax to the French Revolution.

The origin of conservative politics goes back to Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution. Nothing describes the French Revolution better than the adage “When Paris sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold.” As the revolutionary spirit gradually spread through all of Europe during the nineteenth-century, the result was that monarchy after monarchy collapsed. Ancient systems, structures and norms were not reformed but wiped away, usually replaced by tyrannies far more destructive than the ones that had preceded them. Finally, WWI put an end to the remaining vestiges of the old order.

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Colson Center Series on Nominalism is Back Online

I occasionally receive requests for links to the series of articles I wrote for the Colson Center from 2012-14 about Nominalism and Realism. Unfortunately, the Colson Center lost all my articles when changing servers, and hence these articles have been unavailable. However, I have gradually been republishing all my Colson Center articles on this blog, and thus I am happy to announce that my entire series on Nominalism and Realism is now available at the following links:

Since writing those articles, I have also authored a three-part series to explore the question of whether John Calvin was a nominalist. Here are links to that series: