Tag Archives: Reformed Theology

Confronting the book that made me want to quit Christianity

In Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  As a reformed theologian, I couldn’t agree more, though as a reformed feminist theologian, I want to remove the masculine language for God.  His statement is really a co-opting of the answer to the first question on the Westminster Shorter Catechism – “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  Although as a Baptist child, I never said a creed or a confession in church, I had heard that phrase and took it fully to heart when I sang in youth choir and worshipped God.  I imagined that whatever heaven was, it was like one big choir concert with all of creation as the choir and God as the audience.  So as a young woman who felt that God had a calling on my life, I signed up for an Introduction to Missions class when I was at Oklahoma Baptist University (because God only ever calls women to be missionaries).  Piper’s book was our primary textbook.  Instead of making me want to glorify and enjoy God, it made me hate and resent God.  I took to reading Bertrand Russell and decided after a couple of semesters that I was an agnostic.  

John Piper jumps to a conclusion based on inverse logic and then decides to live there: “The chief end of God is to glorify and enjoy God forever.”  He offers several scriptural texts as proof for how much God revels in self glory.  Piper then asserts that because God is God and therefore different than us so the rules don’t apply to God.  We are particular and finite whereas God is infinite.  However, he completely fails to utilize the best philosophical solution orthodox Christian theology has for this quandary: the Trinity.  I’m not saying that John Piper doesn’t believe in the Trinity since he mentions Jesus and the Holy Spirit; I’m saying that he hasn’t through what faith in a Triune God means.  If you’ve ever read The Shack, then you can understand what I’m getting at.  The three mutually indwelling individuals who operate with such love for one another and unity of purpose and character are not a solitary monad sitting up in the sky saying, “I’ve brought my powerful army to destroy your planet to make way for a hyperspace bypass.  You were too busy worrying about the movement of small pieces of paper and thinking yourselves great for making digital watches to actually see that notice and thus make the special evacuation ship that departed five minutes ago?  Well I posted it in a book of archaic poetry I wrote about my awesomeness.  Here, let me read some of it to you before I exterminate you pathetic worms.” 

Except that horrifically, John Piper’s version of God has a worse torture fetish than Adolf Hitler.  Despite the fact that John Calvin only wrote a page on Hell in 1500 pages of the Institutes, the index of Piper’s 255 page book lists 20 pages on the subject but only a paltry 4 about hope.  When Piper does scriptural exegesis or engages with other theologians and writers, he singlehandedly chooses to interpret their words in the most negative and cruel way possible, reducing the beautiful complexity of their fear and trembling before God to a single univocal argument in favor of sadistic tyranny.  The best example of this is a letter in a footnote that he must include in his citations for academic integrity purposes from a conservative evangelical that accuses him of using “proof texts as knock-down arguments when they have alternate interpretations” and being “overly dogmatic.” (Page 120)  One of Piper’s most sickening quotes is that, “the horrors of Hell are intended by God to be an infinite demonstration of the value of the glory of God (page 28 and also page 120).”  My first thought upon picking up the book and reading this quote after 15 years is, “why do you imagine God is an insecure man who needs to prove his manhood by threatening his children with a belt?  The words ‘value of the glory of God’ pour from your open wounds straight onto the pages.”  

God is not the bully standing in some cosmic kitchen yelling, “Make me a sandwich.”  As Jimmy Carter poignantly says, “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women.  They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”  The tragedy of John Piper’s philosophical jumping to conclusions about the chief end of God without considering any philosophical implications of God’s triune nature is that in a book on missions, he scarcely mentions the Holy Spirit.  It is after all, basic Calvin and reformed theology that while scripture is the spectacles that help us see God and teach us to worship God correctly, the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us interpret scripture.  

If you want to know how I didn’t completely become an atheist at OBU, it’s because the Holy Spirit convicted me deep down inside that God, Jesus, and the Bible were real and that all of it was true, but that this narrow, destructive way of interpreting them was not.  It’s because somewhere in an “angry God” sermon about suffering on the cross, a still small voice whispered, “but isn’t Jesus God and therefore showing us God’s real character?”  And in my darkest hour, it convicted me that it wasn’t God whose love had conditions. The healing place in the rift between our society’s deep hunger for social justice and the harshest words of scripture is found in a theology of the Holy Spirit.  If we seek illumination from the Spirit, then the “option” to selfishly interpret holy teachings to subjugate anyone will continue its firm and certain trajectory into oblivion. 

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Heterosexism is a Sin that must be Renounced

The first woman I heard preach was a lesbian at a UCC church in Cambridge, Massachusetts that then became my church home in my early twenties.  In Hope and Suffering, Desmond Tutu states that if apartheid were shown to be a Biblical teaching that he would burn his Bible and cease to be a Christian.  These two statements that may seem like they have very little to do with each other are both the legacy of reformed theology.  It is the same Calvinist Congregationalists in New England who are remembered for scarlet letters and hysterical witch trials who now wear rainbow pins that declare “open and affirming,” and actually embody that ideal by ordaining and installing GLBTQ clergy.  Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 1994 that apartheid was repealed in South Africa.  Apartheid was an abuse of reformed theology to justify keeping whites better than blacks. 

I stumbled into that church in Harvard Square with belief in God and anger at church.  When I arrived, I found love and hope and my faith again.  We actually read more scripture in worship in that church than any other church I’ve ever attended.  I was also struck by how much we prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance in our decisions.  But then the reformed understanding of church is “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit. The Bible is the glasses through which we come to knowledge of God and ourselves.  But the Holy Spirit helps us understand how we should use and interpret scripture.  We are always being reformed because more often than not we exchange the glory of God for mere idols of our own invention. 

I had only been attending First Church a few weeks when they announced they were calling Mary as pastor.  Everything I had ever been taught to that point was that homosexuality was a sin but then I had also been told that women couldn’t be pastors.  I had an internal struggle in which I prayed to God to really convict me if this was a sin.  It should have been easy since this was not my personal “sin” and I had yet to invest much emotional energy in these people.  Yet, I felt no such personal conviction and had to admit to myself that every prejudice I could muster belonged to someone else, but not to me.  I know now why; Homophobia is rooted in sexism and I was deeply wounded by sexism. 

When I see articles like this one about “Reformed” Christian marriage, I cannot help but see echoes of the same reasoning used to justify apartheid.  The real reason same sex marriage threatens traditional marriage is because it exposes the rigidity of traditional gender roles.  There are times when I think that we can lay out most of the big issues with which our current generation struggles with the church and link them all to heterosexism based on gender essentialism.  Our emotional struggle with substitutionary atonement (that God demanded Christ’s death to satisfy God’s honor) has to do with beliefs about maleness that our current generation understands less and less.  We struggle with concepts like eternal damnation because most of us do not apply outdated gender essential categories of maleness to God even when we call God “him.”  We do not imagine that this sort of attitude towards sinners and those who disagree with us as normative for femaleness.  And in our current time, most of us cannot see this sort of anger as normative for maleness either.  Today’s good father changes diapers and offers to make his wife or his husband a sandwich.  Maleness as distant, authoritative, arbitrary, and only showing anger as an emotion is becoming a relic of the past that our current generation overwhelmingly rejects. 

In No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes about the psychologically dehumanizing effects of growing up in an apartheid culture and being taught inferiority.  The example that struck me most was a gut reaction of fear he felt when there wasn’t a white man in the cockpit on a turbulent flight.  He realized in that terrible moment that he had “accepted a white definition of existence.”  What he described in this experience resonated with the type of doubt and self doubt I know too well as a woman in our heterosexist world.  Accepting a culturally constructed, male dominant definition of existence and marginalizing our own experiences is not trusting God, scripture, or confessions over our feelings; it is trusting culturally constructed, male dominant feelings.  For protestant Christians who emphasize the priesthood of all believers, it is allowing other people’s experiences to mediate between us and God.  

When reformed Christians speak of total depravity, what we mean is that we are so blinded by sin that we cannot perceive the fullness of life that God intends for us.  Any arguments for heterosexism based on looking at common patterns of human behavior cross culturally, past or present are based on an assumption that we can determine good, evil and the fullness of God by looking at ourselves. This flies in the face of reformed theology. If heterosexism is the second oldest sin then it is only because sin itself seems so natural.  

The Belhar Confession was written to renounce the sin of apartheid.  It states, “Therefore we reject any doctrine which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation.”  Heterosexism is at its core an absolutization of natural diversity that is hindering and breaking the visible and active unity of the church.  The crisis of today is that many are letting their Bibles collect dust and ceasing to be Christians rather than accept that heterosexism is a Biblical teaching.  Reformed theology has everything to do with renouncing this sin.

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