Here is our first submission and guest contribution from Steven Nemes. I have gotten to know Steven over the last year or so through contact with one of his friends, Pastor Larry Garcia. Steven is a great brother, an excellent thinker (as you will read), and someone who genuinely loves Jesus–which is what it is all about! Thank you Steven for offering us with this first contribution to my new and unfolding idea of an ‘Evangelical Calvinist Forum’. To everyone else, Steven’s article represents a great example of what you (other potential contributors) can do; i.e. that is tell us why Evangelical Calvinism as you understand it is attractive to you. Or, on a negative side, why Evangelical Calvinism is not attractive to you, etc. Here is Steven Nemes, enjoy and be encouraged.
An eclectic Calvinism
by Steven Nemes
My tastes are eclectic, whether in movies [Mulholland Drive, Ostrov, City Lights, Aguirre: the Wrath of God] , music [Kayo Dot, Genesis, Secret Chiefs 3, Morton Feldman, J.S. Bach], or theology [Douglas Campbell, T. F. Torrance, Athanasius, Jurgen Moltmann, Isaac of Nineveh, Dumitru Staniloae, Karl Barth, David Brondos]. Evangelical Calvinism, at least far as I understand its insights and principle commitments, enters into my very eclectic theological vision in some critical ways, though in other ways I may be the furthest thing from an EC-ist.
In the first place I find myself compelled by the classical metaphysics which informed the philosophical theology of numerous Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and pagan philosophers for hundreds of years—the kind of synthesized aristotelian and neoplatonic metaphysic that informs the philosophical theology of Thomas Aquinas and others. This metaphysical vision compels me to posit the existence of God, the ultimate ground of the existence of everything else, ipsum esse subsistens, the One, immutable and metaphysically simple and eternal and necessarily existent and impassible and so on.
I take it that the more famous evangelical Calvinists – Torrance and Barth come to mind – held a dim view of natural theology and were disinclined to acquiesce to its call, suggestions, proposals, insistings, etc. To some extent I am inclined to agree with both parties – God as the classical metaphysical tradition conceives of him is largely unknowable, describable more or less in only negative terms (incomposite, immutable, etc.), so it would turn out that natural theology actually does not tell us much about God at all; revelation is necessary for that.
Yet there is no denying that revelation in the Judeao-Christian tradition depicts God most of the time in a very different light: he changes his mind about things, he goes back and forth between being angry or letting go of his anger at Israel, he suffers and feels for his covenant people, etc. It would be ridiculous to suppose the biblical writers had the same metaphysical vision as Aquinas, Plotinus, and Aristotle; no, it seems to me they painted a picture of God which is fundamentally contradictory to that of these latter thinkers.
This contradiction between two sources to which I am fundamentally committed leads me to a sort of endeavor to harmonize, the result of which may sound like this. God as ipsum esse subsistens doesn’t become this or that, but always is – yet his effect on things is not always the same. The example given to explain how this is possible in the scholastic tradition is this: the sun is always burning just the same, but it hardens clay and melts ice; in other words, different effects are produced because of the difference in the natures of the affected objects, not in the cause. As a Christian I am committed to the belief that there are critical insights about God, his purposes for the world, his nature, etc., had by the writers of the scriptures, insights they received because of God’s activity upon them at the right times and places. These scriptures tell us something real about God, though they were expressed in the context of a metaphysic which may be unenlightened and ultimately to be rejected. But this doesn’t negate the significance of the insights themselves: that God is for the world, that he loves the world he has created and intends good for it despite all appearances to the contrary, and that this has been made especially clear in the person of Jesus Christ who is himself God among men.
(As a side note, it seems to me my belief in divine simplicity makes these convictions about God all the more comforting and trustworthy: if God is for me and that is fundamentally who he is as a matter of strict metaphysical necessity, then I can live fearlessly and with peace in the world knowing this fact, something which would be unavailable to me if I affirmed a kind of fundamental divine freedom that allows him to go beyond or against even what he has done in the past. And of course this is not a fact I’ve come across through rational speculation or by gleaning insights from nature; it was one had through the scriptures, themselves a product of divine (and human) activity.)
To add a further complication into the mix: I am not bent on harmonizing all descriptions of God’s activity in Tanak or Second Testament, for instance, with the metaphysical picture of the world and its implied doctrine of God. I do metaphysics and think metaphysically in the philosophical context, whereas I do the language and think biblically when I am involved in the ecclesial and cultic context. Why? Because these are two distinct spheres of my life, two distinct domains of experience and of life. The language of the bible is how I engage in acts of religion, such as going to church or preaching or praying, whereas the language of the classical metaphysics is how I do philosophy. I suppose I am not a hardened and committed realist about language, nor incredibly optimistic in human epistemological capabilities in understanding the world and formulating an accurate interpretation of it. These are just two ways of thinking and speaking – the philosophical and the biblical – which I think put me in a certain critical and important touch with a reality that is ultimately beyond my description. This makes me think of ‘religion’ in more practical terms, as a more practical than theoretical enterprise – a conception to which my actual practice does not always live up, I admit.
Where does evangelical Calvinism come into all this? I think its theological methods, insights, proposals and interpretations are all very compelling as interpretations of the data of scripture. For instance I think it’s doctrine of election as christologically informed is very compelling, and Barth’s arguments against the tradition’s take on election in Church Dogmatics II/2 are very good. “In [Christ] we were chosen” – I think such a statement nicely summarizes the notion of a derivative election of humanity through Christ’s own election; of course it says that we were chosen, but the election of Christ is implicit in his very title as “anointed one.” I think that the EC position on the universal scope and efficacy of the atonement, for instance, is adequate to the teaching of (for example) 1 John 2.2, where Christ is spoken of in the indicative mood as the hilasmos for our sins and also for the whole world, the adjective “whole” here functioning naturally as a universalizer, to include the entirety of the thing being described. This affirms Christ as an actual hilasmos, not a potential one, for all of the world, believers and nonbelievers included.
To summarize, then: I belong to the classical metaphysical tradition and posit God as immutable, necessarily existent, simple and incomposite, impassible, and all the rest; but this God is accessible in a soteriologically significant way through the church, her scriptures, her sacraments, etc.; and the best way to understand these scriptures – the best way to talk about God from within the conceptual universe of the scriptures, in other words – is largely the way EC-ists do. This is my eclectic Calvinism.