Guest Contribution, Steven Nemes: An Eclectic Calvinism

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.

Steven is an MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University. He likes listening to avant-garde progressive rock music, watching The X-Files, and reading Jürgen Moltmann. Once in a blue moon he blogs at http://crucifiedgod.wordpress.com/

An eclectic Calvinism

by Steven Nemes

stevennemesMy 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.

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7 comments

  1. Great post, Steven! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how you are attempting to engage with Evangelical Calvinism. I find your dichotomy between philosophical engagement and theological engagement to be interesting. Most philosophically trained guys and gals I know, or of, attempt to do Analytical Theology–which actually doesn’t work all that well with Evangelical Calvinism. How might you attempt to bring some sort of rapprochement between analytical philosophy and Evangelical Calvinist themed theology,as you understand it, which is (EC theology) primarily rooted in the style of dialectical theology that someone like Karl Barth is most famous for; or Thomas Torrance’s style of theology that is dialogical and confessional in orientation?

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  2. And I see you making a move towards resolution here, Steven, and you give a some material examples; but at a more formal or prolegomena level, what doth Athens have to do with Jerusalem. or Babylon with Zion?

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  3. Hi Bobby,

    Thanks for the words of praise and accepting my humble admission to your forum. Almost thou persuadest me to write once more. 🙂

    As far as my dividing philosophy from theology, I think it is motivated in something like the following way. The philosophical conception of God the classical metaphysics comes up with is one that is so radically different from God as depicted in the bible that harmonizing one to the other would be violent and actually compromising. For instance, immutability understood as a sort of stability of God’s character over time, his unfailingly keeping his promises, etc., simply does capture all of what is meant (for instance) in Aquinas’ conception of God as actus purus, or in Plotinus’ view of divine simplicity. Likewise I take it that to ascribe mentality, intention, etc., to God in any literal sense is simply not possible on the classical metaphysics, and I don’t think Aquinas’ analogical approach is much help in this regard, though that’s a longer argument to make some other time. Conversely, I don’t think that the biblical writers thought of God in anything like the classical metaphysical picture would understand him: I see the biblical writers, especially in Tanak, as positing a God who is a dynamic personal reality, who really does interact with and is affected by the world, who’s got a more unstable (or perhaps better phrased, undefinable or mysterious) moral character, who brings about evil as well as good, against whom you can sometime complain and rage and lament with fervor, etc. They just think about God in such a different way because such was their experience with him.

    In light of the vast difference in approaches, I just don’t mix and mingle the two, because it seems to me this is the only way to take each seriously on its own terms without conceptual violence and compromise. Perhaps to some extent I compromise in the direction of the philosophical side, since I talk about the biblical metaphysic as ultimately false and misguided. But at the same time I refuse to do a metaphysical theology that attempts to talk about God in a soteriologically significant way apart from scripture; that would just make me a neoplatonist, not a Christian. I take the language of the bible to be a sort of ‘authorized’ way of speaking about that which is ultimately ineffable. I’m not a pluralist, I don’t think just any old religion will do, but at the same time I hesitate to call myself a full-blown realist about Christian theological and ecclesial language.

    As far as Athens/Jerusalem, or Babylon/Zion, I’m not sure how to answer the question. I suppose I think that there are genuine insights to be had in both domains, although I think Athens is a one-way road to Jerusalem; or perhaps philosophy may be understood as a kind of process of realization that you are in exile in Babylon, but on the street one day you hear that you’re invited to go to Jerusalem. Like I said, the metaphysical insights of the classical tradition lead to a God that is otherwise beyond human knowledge and apprehension. But I believe — for reasons as well as for (nonrational) causes — that I somehow mysteriously get access to this God, an access which is salvific and transformative, through the Christian religion (and of course through Christ and the Holy Spirit). Of course, while in Jerusalem you speak Hebrew, and you leave the Babylonian for dialog with your Babylonian friends. But the language you speak, although important, is not itself the salvation you receive; it is what is opened to you and offered to you through that language.

    These, at least, are some thoughts in response to your enquiries. Thanks for showing such interest; I wasn’t expecting much at all in response, to be honest, because I don’t fit a nice and easy category. 🙂

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  4. Bobby, I think I didn’t answer your question fully and concisely enough; let me try again.

    Re: analytic theology and EC-ism, I like EC-ist interpretations of critical theological issues and subjects, e.g. election, trinity, atonement, etc. I may or may not have agreements in methodology; I don’t know, it doesn’t come up for me. For me what is more interesting is presenting an interpretation of the text that satisfies my conscience and is textually plausible, and I think often EC-ism often accomplishes that. I may be something of a postmodernist about interpreting the biblical text, too, though I should note that Dale Martin’s Pedagogy of the Bible makes the point that a postmodernist approach may be quite sympathetic to the ancient approaches of some like Augustine, too. I think a strict grammatico-historical reading may be viable and valuable, a confessionally informed reading may have its value, an allegorical reading may be valuable, a contextualized (e.g., feminist or black theological) reading may be good, etc. I think to some extent the text (or rather, the Holy Spirit through the text) has a power to speak independently of the precise context in which it was first uttered or written. Part of the process is having “ears to hear,” so to speak, rather than simply a sharp mind to “find” meaning where the Holy Spirit may not be speaking so.

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  5. I hate making so many comments like this, but there is a typo in my first response.

    This sentence should read as follows: “For instance, immutability understood as a sort of stability of God’s character over time, his unfailingly keeping his promises, etc., simply does not capture all of what is meant (for instance) in Aquinas’ conception of God as actus purus, or in Plotinus’ view of divine simplicity.”

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  6. Thanks Steven,

    I have a friend who is a graduate from Talbot School of Theology’s MA in Philosophy of Religion program (years ago now); I was surprised on talking to him about the program how he said that what he had learned was distinct from theology, and that it was primarily a philosophy program, even if the content, at points, had some overlapping points of contact with theology. His sentiment sounds very similar to the way you are viewing this. I wish more analytical (so called) theologians could see this as clearly. Thanks again for spending the time that you did writing your post.

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