Sola Oratio: a book review

The Reformers railed and raged against abuses they found in the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They also were each devout men of God who prayed, believing how you approached God mattered. It is now 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the Wittenberg door. Thomas McPherson and Paraclete Press have come out with a booklet on the Prayers of the Reformers, with one hundred prayers, from twelve reformers, spanning three centuries.

prayers-of-the-reformersMcPherson is committed to preserving the prayers of ancient saints(he worked on another volume for Paraclete, Essential Celtic Prayers, perhaps more to follow).The focus here is specifically on the magisterial Protestant Reformers (and proto-reformers), so no Carmelites, Jesuits, Jansenists or Anabaptists. The twelve pray-ers are John Wycliffe, John Huss, Ulrich Zwingli, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, Thomas Cranmer, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza and Lancelot Andrews.

McPherson’s introduction highlights how these prayers declare confidence in God’s supreme authority, their dependence on Him for everything, our need for illumination through the Spirit and the Word, their ongoing trust in God, and the telos of God’s glory (7-10).  This is followed by brief paragraph-long biographies of each of these reformers, The prayers follow chronologically by each reformer (contemporary authors, presented chronologically by the year of death—the order of the list above): a hundred prayers in just over a hundred pages (pp 17-123).

A book like this is selective and not exhaustive. You could fill up volumes of prayers from either Luther and Calvin alone (they wrote almost half of the prayers in this book), or you could crib Thomas Cranmer’s entire Book of Common Prayer and call it a day.  Still, these prayers are well chosen, capturing the essence of protestant spirituality. Often McPherson includes a scripture reference ahead of each prayer, revealing what portion of scripture the prayer was reflecting upon. There are several prayers afre various, several about on the Lord’s Prayer (notably Tyndale), devotional prayers, prayers of discipleship, prayers to prayer when facing persecution and various difficulties, prayers for morning and evening, etc. I was surprised on how much I appreciated Zwingli’s prayers (three in volume, 22-27) and Beza’s supplication on bearing the cross (113).

Here are some prayers from Cramner, Luther and Calvin:

O Lord Jesus Christ, you are the bright sun of the world—ever rising, never setting—who with one look gives life: preserving, nourishing, and making joyful all things that are in heaven and on earth. Shine brightly, I pray, upon my heart, that the darkness of sin may be driven away by your inward light, and that I, without stumbling or offending you in any way, may walk in the pure light of day all my life. Grant this, O Lord, for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign for evermore. Amen -Thomas Cranmer (68, For the Light of Christ)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that you would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please you. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen. -Martin Luther (34, Morning Prayer)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I thank you my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have graciously kept me this day; I prayer that you would forgive me all the sins and wrongs I have done, and graciously keep me this night. For into your hands I commend myself, my body  and soul, and all things.  Let your holy angel be with me., that the evil foe may have no power over me. -Martin Luther, (35, Evening Prayer)

My God, my Father and my Savior, you have been pleased to preserve me by your grace through the night and you have brought me to this new day. Grant that I may use it entirely in your service, that I may think, say, and do nothing but to please you and to obey your holy will. May all my actions be to the glory of your name and to the service of others. And just as you cause the sun to shine on the world to give physical light, let your Holy Spirit illumine my mind to guide me in the way of righteousness. In everything I do, let my goal and intentionalways be to walk reverently and to honor and serve you., relying only on your blessing for my well being, and undertaking only what is pleasing to you. -JohnCalvin (84-85, A prayer for a new day).

There are other powerful prayers here. However, despite the quality selection and the book’s brevity, this is not a user-friendly volume, or at least not as user-friendly as it could be. There is no table of contents or index. That means that if you are looking for a particular prayer, scriptural theme, or topic, you have to flip through the book to find it. In an e-book format, this is not a big deal and certainly, the industrious reader can make their own index of meaningful prayers, but a scriptural or thematic index (or just a list!) would be helpful. I also wish that there were notes (footnotes or endnotes) which provided the sources of these prayers (i.e. what of the reformers’ works they come from).  I don’t think these notes need to be obtrusive, but when I read a moving prayer or quotation in a collected volume, I like to track it back to the source, which is difficult here.

These qualms aside, I think this makes a beautiful gift book, perfect for devotional reading and a great way to celebrate 500 years of ecclesia semper reformanda. I give this book three-and-a-half stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

Why I am not a crazy making Calvinist (or Arminian either)

Because some of my book reviews as of late have me reading some thoughtful books from confirmed Calvinists I’ve been toying with writing a post on why I’m not a Calvinist. Part of me wonders if any one over 23 really cares about the great Calvinist/Arminian/Openness debate. There are the few who have cracked open a case of Calvin and have ever after had to attend weekly support groups where they discuss their powerlessness before God, but for most of us who grew up evangelical, Calvinism may just be a life stage. This is how it worked in my branch of Evangelicalism:

  1. Say Sinner’s Prayer and go to church.
  2. Listen to countless sermons about heart warming Jesus who helps you be successful at life.
  3. Get involved in youth group and do fun things and learn the techniques of evangelism and how to do mass outreach on your heathen friends.
  4. Graduate from high school and go to college. Realize your faith is shallow and activist but not intellectually hearty, so you look for something a little meatier.
  5. Around this time you run into someone from the uber-reformed camp. They use words you never heard like expiation, soteriology, propitiation, antinomian, etc. They seem really smart so you join up. Of course you have no idea what they are talking about.

I’m kidding of course (maybe). But I do think the time when I was probably closest to Calvinism was when I was age 18-23. This was my story:

I had a dear friend who read Luther’s Bondage of the Will and decided he was a Calvinist (a fact that would have given Luther much consternation). He became passionate about God’s sovereignty over all things (especially Salvation) and he challenged our naïve assumptions about human freedom. My friend was smarter than me and he thought about the issues more. I was more forceful and a bit of a jerk so I twisted his words in argument to make him sound like he was saying that the rest of us weren’t really Christians. He got mad and the conversation was over (I apologized a few years later).

But as you know I am a reader, and so I read some Calvinists and better yet, I read John Calvin. I loved a lot of what I read. What I found intoxicating about Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty was his desire to give God worship for everything he possible could. I copied out this quote from the Institutes and referred to it often:

Moreover, although our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him, it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him. This I take to mean that not only does he sustain this universe (as he once founded it) by his boundless might, regulate it by his wisdom, preserve it by his goodness and especially rule mankind by his righteousness and judgment, bear with it in his mercy, watch over it by his protection; but also that no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine light which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.(Institutes, I.II.i)

I did, and do think that this is one of the most beautiful words on God’s providence and transcendence that I have ever read. I also read Charles Spurgeon’s words about human freedom and God’s sovereignty:

“That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.” (Charles H. Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit, 4:337)

To my mind this sort of Calvinism seemed okay to me because it acknowledged that God and human freedom/responsibility were both true, non-contradictory and somehow fit together in a way beyond all human comprehension. So for a while I called myself a Calvinist when pushed, but not the sort of Calvinist who needed everything in neat categories or had to understand everything and use big words no one understood.

But I didn’t stay there, I repented. I think in the end, I just wanted to remain apophatic about it(alright you got me, big word). God is bigger than our grasp and Calvinism, as it has come down to us through Beza and the various confessions seemed too neat and constricting.

This is where I appreciate Jacob Arminius, the Dutch Remonstrants, John Wesley and Methodism. I do not think Arminian theology is superior to Calvinism. Calvinists love to point at ways the danger of Pelaganism is always knocking at the Arminian door. But as a critique on Calvinism, it is pure gold refined in the fire.

You see, Jacob Arminius woke up one day and said, “you know the way we’re talking about God’s grace and sovereignty? It’s crazy making!” And honestly it is. Every time a tsunami robs hundreds of thousands from their home and livelihood, every time an addict overdoses, or a young foreign woman is sold into sexual slavery, or brutally murdered, Calvinism posits that this is the will of God (but not God’s fault). The implications of Calvinist’s conception of Divine election–that we are chosen by God, not based on our merit but by his good pleasure–is that there are those who are condemned to hell–not chosen by God so unable (and unwilling) to receive his grace. Double election, your destiny is either heaven if God deems to choose you or hell if God passively chooses you go there.

Arminius chose instead to base election on divine foreknowledge and the perennial debate about whether this weakened grace began (because divine foreknowledge bases God’s election on our receptivity rather than Divine power). For my money, I don’t want to say with Piper and others that God chose to rip down homes in tornado and call these ‘acts of God’ God’s fierce fingers. I also don’t want to say that nature is out of God’s control either. Do I believe in human freedom? Nope, only freedom in Christ. There are too many institutional and systemic forces that keep people locked into certain choices for me to be a full scale advocate of human freedom. On the other hand, freedom from addiction and bad habits comes through a person’s agency. So there are elements on both sides that seem right. I think the truth is more complicated than our various attempts to systematize it. Which means that I can appreciate aspects of various different theological accounts.

I haven’t said anything above about ‘Openness Theology.’ I really like some of the Openness people and have my critiques of their position too. But this post is already overlong.

So in my years of wisdom since my flirtation with Calvinism, I simply trust. I don’t know how it works out, I’m not naïve either.

Tomorrow I am reviewing a book about Calvinist super giant B.B. Warfield. Stay tuned: Same Mat(ichuk) place, Same Mat(ichuk) channel.

Calvin Seeks Pure Joy: A Book Review of ‘The Joy of Calvinism’

Joy of Calvinism We all know the stereotypes of the cranky Calvinist who is serious, doctrinaire and fervent but lacks joy. I think of the Danish sect portrayed in Babette’s Feast with their sour faces, scandalized by a good meal. But is this a fair portrayal of Calvinism? Author Greg Forster claims it is not. He argues in The Joy of Calvinism that not only do Calvinists have joy but that “if you want to understand the command to rejoice at all times, and still more if you want to obey it, of all the places you might start looking for help with the problem, the best place to start is Calvinism.(14)” And so he wrote this book as a sort of lay exposition of Calvinist doctrine to draw attention to the joy of Calvinism, especially as it relates to soteriology (salvation).

[Personal Note: At the interest of self disclosure, I read this book as a non-Calvinist but I am not an anti-Calvinist. My own spiritual formation has been shaped, in part, by my reading Calvinists and Reformed authors and I regard many Calvinist theologians warmly. Certain passages of Calvin’s Institutes bring me to my knees and I hear within his prose pure worship. But there are other voices that have formed me and I don’t feel like I can buy into the Calvinist system completely. Rather than saying I am a non-Calvinist, it makes sense to say that while others boast that they are five-point-Calvinists, I am at best a .5 Calvinist. It is part of my Evangelical heritage, but not necessarily where I theologically locate myself. Back to my review.]

Forster thinks Calvinists have not presented their own theology in winsome ways, often focusing on the things they don’t believe, rather than stating positively what they do believe. He observes:

It sometimes feels like Calvinists invoke the five points, then apologize for invoking the five points, and then explain how the five points don’t really mean what they seem to mean and aren’t really saying what they seem to be saying. This can’t possibly be the best way to introduce people to what we believe.(16)

So this book promises to get beyond TULIP (a modern summary of Calvinism), formulas and technicalities to what is positively wonderful about Calvinist beliefs. So after a brief detour addressing ‘five points about Calvinism’ and trying to correct many misconceptions (i.e. Calvinists have free will, aren’t saved against their will, are wholly defiled but not ‘totally depraved,’ do not deny God’s love for the lost, or concerned only with God’s sovereignty) most of the book is dedicated to presenting a positive account of what Calvinists believe. Forster divides his chapters into<
four headings, each addressing an aspect of God’s love: God loves you personally, unconditionally,irresistibly, and unbreakably.

By framing Calvinist doctrine in terms of God’s Love, Forster is able to draw out some of the pastoral implications of Calvinist dogma and show where Calvinists have drawn comfort from their core beliefs. That God loves us personally, is the positive implications of the doctrine of limited atonement/election. Forster claims that to say that God loves humanity is to abstract God’s love because real love is personal and involves doing concrete things for concrete individuals (48). To say that God loves unconditionally is to say that God’s choice of the elect resides solely in his own character and love and not on any of our techniques or our own character. To say that the love of God is irresistible means that when we experience God’s good work and love we cannot help but give ourselves over to him in wonder and devotion because of his goodness to him. To say that God’s love is unbreakable means that we trust that God will continue to preserve us and keep us on the path of salvation. All of this taken together, causes and sustains the joy of the convinced Calvinist.

Despite the merits of this book I think Foster occasionally comes across as uppity. He repeatedly diverges from his ‘positive presentation’ of Calvinism to show up other Christian traditions and I don’t think he always characterizes them well. For example, he argues that Calvinism alone places the hope of salvation squarely on the cross of Christ, but other Christian traditions set up a ‘salvation system.’ Roman Catholics are saved through the Church and the sacraments, Lutherans likewise trust the sacraments as ‘means of Grace,’ Arminians lay there hope solely on the moment of decision(53-54). Forster is quick to dismiss these other traditions for putting hope for salvation in something else besides Christ’s substitutionary atonement, but his quick dismissal betrays a low view of sacraments, ecclesiology and human freedom. He is also rather flippant in his characterization of each tradition. It would have been better if he presented the positive aspects of Calvinism without resorting to an apologetic and an ‘over and against’ posture.

I also disagree with his sole focus on soteriology. Calvinists’ sometimes focus narrowly on a theology of the atonement which looks at the cross and resurrection only but fails to place Christ’s redeeming work with little regard to the wider Biblical story. A focus on salvation is not wrong, per se. It just isn’t wright. I personally need a theology which is richer than one atonement model. I need to hear how Jesus fulfills the hopes of Israel, blesses the nations and brings his Kingdom rule to the earth. I get more joy out of stories than I do out of propositions.

I thought this book offered a good summary statement of Calvinist belief from someone inside their ranks. I think Forster did a good job of framing Calvinism as a theology of God’s love. Yet, in exploring the ‘joyful life’ from a Calvinist expression, I think J.I. Packer’s Knowing God or even John Piper’s Desiring God is a more helpful exploration of the theme. I would recommend this book to Calvinist friends seeking a better grasp of their own tradition and theological contribution.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for review. This is my fair and honest review.