Weber’s Theological Mistake

One of Weber’s key theological mistakes concerns the doctrine of election. I know this point has been made before, but it is worth repeating – not least since I keep coming across it in other works as though it were a self-evident truth. Weber suggests that the elect are never certain of their own salvation. God may have elected them to salvation, but they are never quite sure. So they keep looking for signs of election within themselves. Good works become the key, since they are the outward manifestations so desperately sought. The source of this mistake is obvious, since he was trying to account –as an outsider – for the tendency in Reformed traditions to focus on works, despite the strong emphasis on grace. (I have written about that paradox elsewhere, in my book on Calvin.) However, Weber is profoundly mistaken concerning the doctrine of election, specifically in relation to the individual. A person knows, with distinct certainly, that he or she is elected. There are no doubts here, and one can never become an apostate forever.

But you can never be entirely certain concerning the election of others. One should not abrogate God’s role in the process of election and begin making decisions concerning others. The point of this part of the doctrine is to ensure humility rather than arrogance on the part of the elect. Often, the elect turn out to be unexpected, so no one should be written off. On this matter, Weber is partly correct. This uncertainty concerning others can lead to a search for outward signs – in others – of election. But his mistake was to extrapolate that humility to an uncertainty in the individual believer’s own sense of election. Of course, the reason for such a mistake is that he was thinking of Arminianism rather than Calvinism, but that is another story.


A radical glimpse in Psalm 124

Verse 7 of Psalm 124 reads:

Our life force (nefesh) has escaped as a bird from the snare of the bird-catchers;

the snare is broken, and we are free!

A radical glimpse? These are precisely the types of texts that radicals have treasured, along with famous texts such as Matthew 16:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Back to the Psalm. I am intrigued by Calvin’s comments:

Of the same import is the third similitude, That they were on all sides entrapped and entangled in the snares of their enemies, even as little birds caught in the net lie stretched under the hand of the fowler; and that when they were delivered, it was just as if one should set at liberty birds which had been taken. The amount is, that the people of God, feeble, without counsel, and destitute of aid, had not only to deal with bloodthirsty and furious beasts, but were also ensnared by bird-nets and stratagems, so that being greatly inferior to their enemies as well in policy as in open force, they were besieged by many deaths. From this it may be gathered that they were miraculously preserved (Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 5. pp. 87-88).

Uncannily reminds me of Lenin, who observes that a revolution is like a miracle. More pointedly, after the victory of the ‘civil’ war, he points out that his was indeed ‘a miracle without parallel, in that a starving, weak and half-ruined country has defeated its enemies—the mighty capitalist countries’.

What is the mark of a truly progressive theology?

Is it a commitment to social justice, to the inclusion of gays in the ministry, advocacy of refugees and ‘illegal’ immigrants, or perhaps the ideal of poverty in a world where the ostentatious display of wealth is deemed desirable? Possibly, but I suggest that the signal of a properly progressive theology may be found in the doctrine of salvation.

It all hangs on the relation between those mythical first human beings, Adam and Eve, and Christ. Or rather, it depends on the way one reads the narrative of salvation that emerges from the texts: from prelapsarian paradise, through disobedience and the ‘Fall’ into sin, to the role of Christ in redeeming us from that sin. In order to distinguish between reactionary and revolutionary readings of that narrative, I would like to deploy Ernst Bloch’s distinction between two types of utopia. A conservative utopia is backward looking, seeking to restore a mythical Golden Age that is a construction of that conservatism. The evils of the present age will be overcome by returning to a world that was once upon a time much more ideal. By contrast, a radical utopia is forward looking. The function of the myth of paradise is not to look backwards but forwards, for it projects an image of what might be but has not as yet been achieved. It offers hope rather than despair, anticipation rather than nostalgia.

How does this work with the doctrine of salvation? A backward looking doctrine sees Christ as the second or ‘last’ Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), who restores our prelapsarian state so that once again we commune with God. Christ thereby repairs the damage done by Adam and Eve. Irenaeus (second century) might have kicked off this theological tradition with his explicit mention of the ‘second Adam’ who restores humanity to the image of God, but it was the story the grew up around the tree of Good and Evil in the garden that gave full expression to this conservative understanding. That tree, after many trials, became the cross of Calvary, as Piero della Francesca’s (d. 1492) fresco depicts so well. In ‘The Story of the True Cross’ Calvary becomes the point at which the fateful events at the tree of the garden are overcome. In other depictions we find Adam buried under the cross, perhaps holding a chalice to catch the first drops of Christ’s blood. And of course John Donne and John Milton made much of the connection. For Donne, ‘Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place’, while in Milton’s Paradise Regained the whole story is structured around the restoration of paradise.

The problem with these approaches is that they rely on the ‘Fall’ to get salvation moving. Without that baleful moment, Christ would not have had to save us at all (forget that a Bible full of the frolicking of Adam and Eve in the garden would have been a boring text indeed). Two theological traditions of which I am aware negate the centrality of the negative moment and the consequent reactionary version of salvation. One is Eastern Orthodoxy, for which the Fall is not an exclusive prerequisite for salvation. How so? After St. Maximus, it offers a reading of Genesis 1:26 that distinguishes between the image and likeness of God: ‘Let us make humankind in our image [tselem], according to our likeness [demuth]’. Adam and Eve may have been created in the image of God, which was thereby fractured and blurred with the first sin, resulting in the unnaturalness of death. However, the likeness was entirely missing. Christ’s task in salvation is then not a simple reactionary process of restoring our prelapsarian state, our image of God, but a new state that Adam and Eve did not possess. In salvation one becomes not merely the image of God, but also the likeness. This is theosis, or deification, which designates a closer fellowship with God than even the first human beings experienced. Christ may be the second Adam, but he is also much more. All of which means that the Fall is not a necessary requirement for salvation, for Christ would have had to be incarnated for the sake of enabling us to achieve the likeness of God.

The other tradition is Calvinism and its doctrine of double predestination. Rather than rely on an act of fragile human beings, or for that matter the devil, to get the narrative of salvation moving, Calvin held that the eternal divine plan has already designated those who are saved and those who are not:

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. (Institutes 3.21.5)

Much castigated, this doctrine actually has a radical core. It relegates the Fall to one moment in a much longer narrative, one that extends before the village idiocy of the garden and beyond the moment of salvation in Christ. It is none other than the grandest narrative of all, for it concerns eternity. Of course, it is a stark doctrine, challenging our pride in our abilities and in freewill, full of divine ‘history on our side’, but it also a source of immense hope and confidence – precisely those features of a progressive theology of salvation I noted earlier. No matter how tough it gets, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem, it will indeed work out. Plus, it ensures that you aren’t riddled with guilt.

Spicy Reformed theology

Is Reformed theology spicy?

Given that one of the Romanian words for ‘spicy’ is ‘diabolic’ – as I found with the diabolical pasta I ate on my last night there;

Given that the main source of such spicy food is the sizable Hungarian (Magyar) population in Transylvania;

Given that the religion of these Magyars is Reformed (Calvinist) Christianity;

One can only conclude that Reformed theology is indeed diabolically spicy.

What do Deleuze and Calvin have in common?

More than one might think. As I was working through yet one more effort to answer, appropriate and overcome Deleuze’s resistance to theology, I began to think of Calvin. How so? Well, Deleuze sought to resist the contamination of philosophy by theology, celebrating the liberation of philosophy from its philosophical shackles in the 18th century. In this respect he is the obverse of Calvin: in a way comparable to Calvin’s argument against the contamination of theology by philosophy (found in Scholasticism and which becomes equivalent to paganism), so also does Deleuze celebrate the freedom of philosophy from theology. They might stand on different sides of the debate, but they share a profound suspicion of Scholasticism. In these days when more and more critics are keen to call themselves theologians and philosophers – a kind of neo-neo-Scholasticism – maybe Deleuze and Calvin have a point.

Chinese translation of Criticism of Heaven

One of the highlights at the recent Society of Biblical Literature meeting was to have dinner with some good Chinese friends – the ‘Chinese mafia’ as I call them: Ken-Pa Chin, Philip Chia and Samuel Chia. We’re cooking up all manner of projects, not least a Beijing-Taiwan conference on religion and political thought. But Ken-Pa also brought me the first volume of the Chinese translation of Criticism of Heaven. They have decided to translate and publish in two volumes, one on the Catholic Marxists and other on the Protestant Marxists. So here’s the first one, translated by Zhuang Zhenhua:

Ken-Pa has big plans, having set up a journal, Sino-Christian Studies, a book series and a translation series – which is where I come in. Next in line: a translation of my Calvin book (to unsettle the predominance of Reformed Christianity in China) and an author’s cut of Criticism of Heaven; that is, the original manuscript, which is about 250 pages longer than than current English text, which I had to ‘shave’ (on advice from Brill) by about 100,000 words to its current 500 pages.