In Theology We Trust: Confusing Human Tradition with the Will of God

The following article is taken from chapter 2 of my new book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs”:

“It is the studied judgment of this writer, and he is by no means alone therein, that doctrinal preaching is the most pressing need of the churches today.”[1] These words were originally written by an Evangelist named Arthur Walkington Pink. They can currently be found on a website for Providence Baptist Ministries.

According to Pink, sound doctrine is specifically derived from a system of theology known as “Calvinism.” Preaching based on this systematic manner of interpreting the Bible was believed to safeguard the church against moral lapse:

There is a solidity and soberness, a stability and godly fear seen in real Calvinists, which are not found among Arminians. There is an uprightness of character in those who espouse the Truth which is lacking in those who imbibe error.[2]

Pink’s emphasis on the importance of Calvinism to establish and maintain “truth” and “uprightness of character” in the church is not unique. It is shared, for example, by contemporary Christian leaders such as John Piper. In his book entitled, “The Pleasures of God,” Piper (2003) explains,

…this truth tends to preserve the church from slipping toward false philosophies of life. History seems to show that this is so. For example, toward the end of the eighteenth century, “Calvinistic convictions waned in North America. In the Progress of a decline which [Jonathan] Edwards had rightly anticipated, those Congregational churches of New England which had embraced Arminianism [another interpretive system of theology] after the Great Awakening, gradually moved into Unitarianism and universalism…. It seems as if there is something about the truth [of Calvinism] that stands guard over the mind and heart of the church and keeps her alert to tendencies and shifts that swing wide from the plumb line of God’s Word.[3]

In the eyes of A.W. Pink and John Piper it seems that the only thing preventing the church from falling away from God into error and immorality is Calvinism.

To help us understand what Calvinism is exactly, I think we can turn to no better source than John Calvin himself. In a letter to readers of his work entitled, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Calvin describes the objective of his efforts in the following terms:

In order that my Readers may be the better able to profit by the present work, I am desirous briefly to point out the advantage which they may derive from it. For by so doing I will show them the end at which they ought to aim, and to which they ought to give their attention in reading it.

Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added—our Lord having been pleased therein to unfold the infinite treasures of his wisdom—still every person, not intimately acquainted with them, stands in need of some guidance and direction as to what he ought to look for in them, that he may not wander up and down, but pursue a certain path, and so attain the end to which the Holy Spirit invites him.

Hence it is the duty of those who have received from God more light than others to assist the simple in this matter, and, as it were, lend them their hand to guide and assist them in finding the sum of what God has been pleased to teach us in his word. Now, this cannot be better done in writing than by treating in succession the principal matters which are comprised in Christian philosophy. For he who understands these will be prepared to make more progress in the school of God in one day than any other person in three months, inasmuch as he, in great measure, knows to what he should refer each sentence, and has a rule by which to test whatever is presented to him.[4]

What then is Calvinism? Simply put, it is an interpretive framework that tells people what to look for in the Bible, where to look, and how they should make sense of what they find. This interpretive framework consists of what Calvin referred to as “the principal matters” of “Christian philosophy.”

Given the period of history in which John Calvin completed his work, he was likely unaware that in setting up “the principal matters of Christian philosophy” as an interpretive lens for the Bible, he was facilitating what cognitive psychologists today refer to as “top-down processing.” Cognitive psychologist Robert Solso (1988) helps us understand what this process is and how it works:

Top-down processing is an important perceptual theory in cognitive psychology. The theory establishes the paradigm that sensory information processing in human cognition, such as perception, recognition, memory, and comprehension, are organized and shaped by our previous experience, expectations, as well as meaningful context.[5]

Psychologist David G. Myers further explains,

Our brains do more than merely register information about the world. Perception is not just opening a shutter and letting a picture print itself on the brain. We constantly filter sensory information and infer perceptions in ways that make sense to us.[6]

According to a well-known researcher in the field of cognitive development—Jean Piaget–previous experiences lead to the formation of basic assumptions about the world. These assumptions function like interpretive molds into which new sensory experiences are poured. He called these molds “schemas.” Schemas don’t simply help us organize new information. They actually affect how we see, or perceive, the world around us.[7]  What John Calvin may not have realized is that our previous experience and learning even affect the way we perceive (i.e. make sense of) things we read, including the Bible. Information that does not fit with our pre-existing schemas can be overlooked. Information that is not overlooked may be modified so that our current schemas (basic assumptions about the world) remain intact. When information that does not conform to our pre-existing beliefs and assumptions is overlooked or modified, psychologists refer to this as a “confirmation bias.”[8]

Myers (2007) explains that schemas and confirmation bias contribute to a psychological phenomenon known as “belief perseverance.” Rather than seeing new information objectively, human beings are strongly inclined to perceive and interpret the world around them in ways that confirm what they already believe.[9]

The realities of human perception have great bearing upon our understanding of John Calvin’s interpretation of the Bible. In his own words, he explained that “the principal matters of Christian philosophy” serve to guide readers of the Bible to what they should look for, where they should find it, and how they should interpret what they find. I can think of no better example of top-down processing than this. To understand Calvin’s interpretive schemas, though, we must understand exactly what he means when he refers to the “principal matters of Christian philosophy.” Fortunately, Calvin explains to us the origins of this philosophy in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”:

It is unnecessary to spend much time in investigating the sentiments of ancient writers. Augustine alone may suffice, as he has collected all their opinions with great care and fidelity. Any reader who is desirous to know the sense of antiquity may obtain it from him.[10]

Calvin’s dependence on the philosophical work of St. Augustine as an interpretive framework for the Bible is discussed at length by Alister E. McGrath, in his book entitled, “A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture”:

While Calvin’s major concern was the interpretation of scripture, his reading of this text was enriched and informed by the Christian tradition. He had no hesitation in developing the thesis he originally defended at the Lausanne Disputation—that the Reformation represented a recovery of the authentic teaching of the early church, with the distortions and spurious additions of medieval period eliminated. Above all, Calvin regarded his thought as a faithful exposition of the leading ideas of Augustine of Hippo.[11]

So, the interpretive lens through which John Calvin made sense of the Bible was the commentary work of St. Augustine, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hippo, whose work originated in the 4th Century A.D.. That’s important information for anyone interested in understanding how and why Calvin arrived at certain theological conclusions, but the investigation doesn’t end there. St. Augustine also thought that the Bible should best be understood through the lenses of the principal matters of philosophy. He didn’t call it “Christian philosophy,” however, because the system of thought he relied on to help him interpret the Bible was written long before the advent of Christianity. It can be found in the distinctly non-Christian writings of a renowned Greek philosopher–from the 4th Century B.C.–named Plato.

Augustine discloses his affinity for Platonism in his 8th book of Confessions:

Simplicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, “after the beggarly elements of this world,” whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word. (Augustine’s Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter II)[12]

The importance of Augustine’s introduction to Plato’s worldview is also documented by Michael Mendelson in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The single most decisive event…in Augustine’s philosophical development has to be his encounter with those unnamed books of the Platonists in Milan in 384. While there are other important influences, it was his encounter with the Platonism ambient in Ambrose’s Milan that provided the major turning point, reorienting his thought along basic themes that would persist until his death forty-six years later. There has been controversy regarding just which books of the Platonists Augustine encountered [O’Connell 1968, pp. 6–10; O’Donnell 1992, vol. II, pp. 421–423; Beatrice, 1989], but we know from his own account that they were translated by Marius Victorinus [Confessions VIII.2.3], and there is widespread agreement that they were texts by Plotinus and Porphyry, although there is again controversy regarding how much influence is to be attributed to each [O’Connell 1968, pp. 20–26; O’Donnell 1992, vol. II, pp. 423–4]. These uncertainties notwithstanding, Augustine himself makes it clear that it was his encounter with the books of the Platonists that made it possible for him to view both the Church and its scriptural tradition as having an intellectually satisfying and, indeed, resourceful content.[13]

To whom do some Christian leaders, pastors and evangelists turn for an understanding of the Bible that they trust to safeguard the church from immorality and error? John Calvin.

Upon whose philosophical principles did John Calvin rely to help him systematically make sense of God’s revelation in the Bible? St. Augustine.

Whose philosophy did St. Augustine use to help him derive “intellectually satisfying” and “resourceful content” from the Bible? Plato of Ancient Greece.

Calvinism, then, is a systematic method of interpreting the Bible through the interpretive lenses, or schemas, of a philosophy that predates Christianity by approximately 400 years. Do these lenses impact the way some Christian leaders today understand, preach and practice Christianity? Yes, they certainly do. In the next chapter we will begin explore exactly how.

[Chapters 3 through 5 explore the doctrines of predestination, dying to self, and the subordination of women to male authority.]

End Notes

1 Arthur W. Pink, “Practical Christianity; Part 2: Progress in the Christian Life; Chapter 7: The Doctrine of Mortification,” Providence Baptist Ministries, 7 January 2014, <http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Practical/prac_07.htm&gt;.

2 Pink, “The Doctrine of Mortification.”

3 John Piper, The Pleasures of God, (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 2003) 144-145.

4 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002) 22.

5 “Top Down Processing in Cognitive Psychology,” 17 March 2014, <http://home.gwu.edu/~droliver/TopDown/&gt;.

6 David G. Myers, Psychology: 8th Edition in Modules, (Holland, MI: Worth Publishers, 2007) 237.

7 Myers, 142.

8 Myers, 400.

9 Myers, 408.

10 Calvin, Institutes, 371.

11 Allister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin, (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1990) 131.

12 Augustine, Confessions, trans. Albert C. Outler, 12 January 2013, <http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/hum100/augustinconf.pdf&gt;

13 Michael Mendelson, “Saint Augustine,” ed. Edwards N. Zalta, Winter 2012, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 26 November 2013, <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/augustine/&gt;.

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