The Danger of Private “Revelations”

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.

A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.

Suboptimal Design, Evolution, and Anger at God

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C. S. Lewis once said that modern man places “God in the dock.” That is, moderns, instead of humbly submitting to God as the “clay to the potter,” they put God on trial and call Him to account for the evil and suffering in the world. Although Job, the Church Fathers, Augustine, and the other Medievals dealt with the problem of evil and suffering, it was modernity that developed full-fledged theodicies, broad-based explanations of why God created a world in which He permits evil and suffering.

A woman was driving down I-95 near where I live and was in an accident. She was rescued from her burning car. Only a few weeks later she choked to death on a piece of bologna in her home while her small children were asleep. This is one of those stories almost too painful to hear (like the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the soldier holds up his helmet that had been shot through and said something to the effect, “Hey look here! How lucky can that be” before a bullet hits him square between the eyes and kills him).

I have struggled with religious doubt all my life. I have also struggled with anger at God for the suffering of the world, especially (though not exclusively) the suffering of children. When I thought about the woman choking to death I thought of the suboptimal engineering of evolution. We walk upright and have developed the ability to talk, but that makes it anatomically more likely that we will choke to death. A human engineer would be fired for putting the food pipe and the windpipe where food can easily go down the wrong way. The epiglottis does not have a fail safe. I confess that my feelings were fury at God that He would use such as sorry a..ed process such as evolution to produce a suboptimal product that even a human engineer could design more efficiently. Other instances of suboptimal design can be mentioned: our mouth being too small for all our teeth, or our backs suffering pain because originally backs were meant for walking on all fours. There are young people who die suddenly and unexpectedly of a “primary electrical event” in the heart, some defect so small that our autopsy techniques and microscopic studies cannot yet identify it.

I do not know that there is an answer to the mystery of inefficient design this side of heaven. Some people might explain it in terms of a primeval Fall, but it is difficult to place that story in an evolutionary framework (although C. S. Lewis has tried). Given the sometimes violent behavior of our close relatives, the chimpanzees, toward one another, it seems that humans were always “fallen.” If that is the case, isn’t human suffering, pain, and death a part of the suffering, pain, and death that occurs in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” to use Lord Tennyson‘s words?

The Eastern Orthodox Church has the approach that makes the most sense to me–that the ultimate answer to evil and suffering is eschatological, beyond this life. Ivan Karamazov could not live with that answer in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, but like Ivan’s brother Alyosha,  I do not see that there is a choice if one wants to hold onto sanity. If God is evil or does not exist, then the world is absurd. I, at least, cannot live my life believing that. So my anger fades and I trust that God understands and will forgive this “miserable sinner.”

The Evil God of Calvinism

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Would a good God predestine some people to Heaven and the rest to Hell no matter what choices people made? The answer seems obvious–except for Calvinists.

The intellectual father of John Calvin was Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine developed a doctrine which amounted to “single predestination,” the notion that God predestines some individuals to Heaven. Everyone else goes to Hell by default, since all humans have sinned and deserve Hell. In the Confessions, Augustine even believes that unbaptized infants are going to Hell, giving a new meaning to the term “Burn, baby, burn.” Although the Council of Orange in the seventh century softened Augustine’s doctrine for the medieval Roman Catholic Church, John Calvin revived it and made it more radical than before. Calvin, influenced by late medieval Nominalism, believed that everything is subject to God’s sovereign will. He thought that the only way to preserve God’s total sovereignty was to posit predestination. To be fair, Calvin does not consider God’s choice of the saved and the damned to be arbitrary; he leaves it a mystery. But he does seem to accept double predestination–even if he were interpreted to accept single predestination, the result is the same–people are saved or damned without any choice of their own being involved. The seventeenth century Synod of Dort solidified hard line Calvinism into five points: Total Hereditary Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement (Christ only died for the saved), Irresistible Grace (the saved cannot accept or refuse God’s grace–it is granted to them unconditionally and they cannot resist it) and Perseverance of the Saints (“once saved, always saved”). This system is sometimes known as TULIP Calvinism. Contemporary Southern Baptists inconsistently accept perseverance of the saints without accepting a strong view of predestination.

The God of TULIP Calvinism is an evil God, period. Any God who would pick out some people to be in endless bliss with that God forever and choose to damn the rest to eternal misery in Hell is a bully, a monster, utterly unworthy of worship. A doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God is preserved at the cost of God’s goodness. The God of the Bible is a God of love, and love requires mutuality. A good God loves everyone, and everyone has a choice whether to love God and grow in that love. God’s grace is unmerited favor, that is true. None of us “miserable sinners” can stand in God’s presence as justified without His grace. But if we choose to receive that grace, God will help us to fulfill His will and grow in love to Him. God’s love is not arbitrary, it is not cruel, but we must accept that love or else God will let us live forever left to ourselves–and that is Hell. “God is not willing that any should perish, but demands that all men everywhere repent.” Sure, there are passages of Holy Scripture that Calvinists take out of context, but it surely says something about how the early Christians understood Scripture that NO ONE in the early Christian church, NONE of the Church Fathers came up with a Calvin-like doctrine of predestination before Augustine.

If the God of Calvinism existed, I would rather go to Hell, because living with such a deity would be worse than living with Satan himself.