27 January 2008

calling and freedom

The issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility - of grace and freedom - remains one of mysteries of the Christian faith. Whatever position one takes on these issues (and I mostly side with the stream of thought moving from Augustine, through Aquinas, to Calvin and Edwards), there always remains a significant degree of mystery.

I was thinking recently about how the way we speak reflects what we believe, particularly as that is expressed within the confessional Reformed milieu within which I find myself. One intriguing area of our theological grammar is how we sometimes speak of those who come to a Reformed understanding of the Christian faith and of those who move away from such an understanding.

When persons, through study, reading, the witness of others, consistent preaching, and for other reasons find themselves accepting a Reformed construal of Christian theology, their fellow Reformed travelers observe this, often remarking how God has "led" this sister or brother to a Reformed understanding of the faith. The primary agency is seen to be God's and the new understanding is considered a work of grace.

Of course, there may be all kinds of other factors that played into the transition: finding a spiritual home within a community of believers who are themselves Reformed, enjoying the aesthetically pleasing simplicity and reverence found in a particular instance of Reformed worship, coming to realize that Reformed theology generally embraces intellectual gifts that were under-appreciated within some other form of evangelical Protestantism, and so on - perhaps even enjoying the liberty to drink Scotch whisky with a clear conscience.

Reasons for theological transition are typically complex. And who is to say that God, in his providence, does not take up all these means to grow us up into the more mature and whole people he wants us to be?

On other hand, suppose there is a Reformed sister or brother who, for the very same sorts of reasons (study, reading, witness, preaching, community, aesthetics, appreciation of gifts, etc.) moves away from what one might take to be a more consistent expression of the Reformed faith. Suppose this brother becomes a Lutheran or Moravian or Anglican or Methodist or, indeed, a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Pentecostal. What is the reaction then?

In my (admittedly limited) experience, such a movement away from a Reformed understanding is met with dismay, sadness, fear, unease, and the like. The person is thought to have been "led astray" or even, perhaps, to have apostatized. And such evaluations often come with equal fervor and ease as evaluations of those who have come into the Reformed faith.

No doubt, of course, it is typically the case that the community of faith into which the person moves greets her with the same gladness and confidence in God's providential blessing as we would, had the person come to share in our Reformed understanding.

Moreover, the phenomenology of the transition is the same. Similar factors describe and explain, humanly speaking, why the change was made, whether it was a matter of conviction by scriptural and historical arguments, finding a faith community that felt like home, attraction to beauty or certainty or logical consistency, resolution of nagging questions, or whatever the case may be.

What then is the difference? The hand of God cannot be simply read straightforwardly off of one set of circumstances and not the other.

The difference lies, in part, in the belief that our own understanding of the Christian faith is true (or at least more true) and that the available alternatives fall short in some important way or ways. Or, perhaps, it is also the belief that other broad swaths of Christian expression flirt with spiritual dangers or fall into serious errors.

Yet, even if that's so, it turns out that our own understanding of the faith is one shared only by some and, perhaps, rather few other Christians. Moreover, it is not as if our tradition is without its own peculiar spiritual pitfalls and characteristic temptations, even if we are convinced the doctrinal errors have been minimized (indeed, perhaps some of the greatest temptations arise precisely from that conviction).

Consider another possible perspective. Is it possible to say, with consistency, that while our understanding of the faith is importantly true and embraces some great themes of the gospel with a particular emphasis and consistency that, nonetheless, other expressions of the faith may embrace other themes with greater emphasis, bringing out aspects of the biblical witness with a fidelity and fullness that we lack? If so, then must every transition away from a Reformed understanding be met with dismay?

It can be, of course, unnerving to think that there are others who do a better job than we sometimes manage, theologically and spiritually speaking. And given the often overly intellectualized cast of the Reformed faith, it is especially unnerving to think that there are others who have theological and scriptural arguments that someone who has understood Reformed theology might nevertheless find attractive and even compelling.

This last point, I think, explains why Reformed believers sometimes cast around for other explanations of why someone might come to understand things differently from themselves: it was the liturgy, or the sense of historical roots, or a sort of fundamentalism that wanted greater certainty, or the like. Those may all well be true or play a role (and perhaps rightly so) but still, sometimes, I think it is really a matter of an individual's finding better arguments or more compelling exegesis or a more consistent or attractive theological witness.

If these reflections mean anything, then perhaps they mean we should greet transitions within the wider church with a greater charity, whether they be towards or away from our own understanding of the faith. Might not a move to Lutheranism or Methodism also be God's leading? Might not the person in transition have a calling from God there, within that new faith community? Might not the lessons and insights taken away from exposure to one expression of the faith be a sort of gift to another?

This isn't to say that sometimes people don't make transitions for poor reasons or with bad motives or into situations that might rightly cause concern. If so, then we certainly should give good counsel and offer discernment.

But it does suggest that we should not be too hasty to draw a judgment, particularly since that haste might suggest our sense of security is premised upon our own theological acumen or that our boundaries are set up primarily to exclude others. Rather, we should show a willingness to recognize and embrace the Spirit's work wherever Christ is present in his word and sacraments.