you are what you eat: john calvin, tony campolo and logical conclusions

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Friday, July 17th, 2009

you are what you eat: john calvin, tony campolo and logical conclusions

let’s begin with a cliché, shall we?
you are what you eat.
it’s cliché because it’s true. certainly we become what we consume. or, maybe more to the point, we are externally what we are internally.

it doesn’t take long in reading my blog or having ongoing theological conversations with me to find that tony campolo has greatly shaped the way i engage theology, scripture and others. the consumption of his words and thoughts have manifested themselves in my life—i am what i eat. i’ve referenced him many times before on this very blog (and will soon have another about him stemming from some audio i discovered).

today was no different. on his podcast, he offered his thoughts about john calvin on what would be his 500th birthday (which was last week). campolo had some very striking thoughts about calvinist theology that sparked many thoughts i’ve been having over the last several years. the most striking statement was a quote from erich fromm’s escape from freedom. fromm said,

nazism could not have risen in germany had it not been for calvinism and lutheranism.

wow. how ’bout them apples?

that’s a pretty strong statement that would certainly stir up a rousing debate. campolo and fromm, though, made a great point that i tend to agree with (though i don’t claim that all calvinists take it to this degree). the idea stems from the calvinist understanding of total depravity. in essence, if everyone who is apart from christ is totally wicked, unrighteous and depraved, then they are inherently a lower class than those who do have christ within them. why would we not, then, eradicate jews (especially, when you throw in the doctrine of unconditional election/predestination)?

whereas that’s a very, very strong statement (that i think is a very, very good point), even if you don’t take it to that extent, it does make you think about the issue of how one’s theologies affect the way he or she engages with others.

this is good time to pause and make a caveat to what i’m going to say. i get a little uncomfortable when people start aligning themselves with a singular “brand” of theology. “i’m a calvinist.” “i’m an arminian.” “i’m a wesleyan.” whatever. the reason i say that is i think—much like the issue in 1 corinthians 3—when we begin to define ourselves by one person’s set of theological dictums and not jesus, we’re really missing the point. with that said, when i talk about calvinism, specifically, i realize that the way the average modern day calvinist interprets/lives out specific theologies may not necessarily be the way john calvin intended or the extent to where he took it (i.e. total depravity, unconditional election, etc.). in other words, i’m speaking more to the average/actual application than to the strict definition of how calvin may have intended (although one could argue that the actual application is, in fact, what he intended).

let’s continue the total depravity line of thinking. what results when you view the people around you as completely void of good and able to have any altruistic motives? suspicion. disdain. objectification. snobbery. an us vs them mentality. a holier-than-thou mentality. and the implications could continue. i’m not saying these implications are necessarily inherent, but i’m just saying that those can certainly be consequences (and i think—as campolo and fromm suggest—those things have been historically apparent).

when we view people, instead, as “good”—as god called them—we place a higher value on people. other people aren’t the enemy, but friends. others aren’t to be quarantined, but lived with in unity. others aren’t unworthy of our relationships, but those whose time we value and honor. again, these implications could go on and on.

what does it mean if unconditional election (the idea that god has already chosen-before time-who would be saved and who would not be saved) is our predominant theological worldview? it means that sharing jesus with others has little consequence. it means that the way we engage others makes little difference. it might possibly lend itself to a “cheap grace.”

again, let mesay that i don’t fundamentally assume that calvinism takes these theologies to the presented extremes, but certainly, if you do take these things out to their logical conclusions, i think you end up with some unsettling outcomes.

the point i’m trying to make—by picking on our brother calvin—is that what we believe is directly relative to how we engage the world and others. so, what do you believe? how, then, does that compel you to see and engage the world?

because, of course, if we are what we eat, then we certainly are what we believe.


  1. taddelay says:

    I use to be right there in that camp, Calvinist from the moment I was taught it. It's really popular and very easy to take the Calvinist viewpoint in a Christian subculture- in fact, it's quite hard to even be accepted if you are not.

    I will forever be indebted to a couple of friends I made while living in california for a while, who were the first christians to ever point out to me that all of the predestination rhetoric in scripture is pointed to groups of people, not individuals, as if god wanted to stress that he chose a whole group to be a blessing and to work through them to heal the world. Even the 1st Ephesians calvinist clobber passage has talk of god intending to redeem all the universe. Any honest reading will be hard pressed to find any verse that actually points to the type of individual predestination the Calvinism describes. But pointing that out puts you at odds with highly religious people.

  2. Morgon77 says:

    The Nazi's actually got their ideas about Eugenics, sterilization of lower classes, etc. from the US.

    We were already practicing sterilization in prisons of repeat offenders at the time, and most of the heavy Eugenics philosophers were from here. A lot of the other things that they had messed with in their camps (0ther than the ovens and gas chambers) we had messed with at various points.

    Definitely, what Lutheran had to say about "how things are" influenced the local culture and their outlook on Jews, but Jews were really a convenient scapegoat for the hatred of the Germans at the outcome for WWI as anything else…much like many Christians seem to regard homosexuals and abortion doctors today.

    By the same token, many Baptists and Calvinists still practice aspects of what my pastor refers to as "The Princeton Theology Movement", from the late 1890's. In a desire to show the bible inerrant, they had to explain a lot about how the world is as it is…so all of the terrible things that happen, all of the things that are broken, much like that blind man that the disciples pointed out, exists for the glory of God. I.e., things are actually how God wants them, and the the things that happen will happen the way that God wants them to. This is not, I expect, precisely what Calvin or Luther intended (though Zwingly may have loved it). But it means that we have no need to build the Kingdom, or to act in Stewardship…all that really matters is that we believe in the inerrant word of God, and everything will happen as it's meant to.

    Also known in America as "Manifest Destiny".

  3. ryanByrd says:

    todd, great points. those are some very helpful insights on the matter.

    your thoughts about having to prove the bible inerrant come right along side what i was talking about as far as what you believe trickles down into how you actually see the world and engage other people.

    so, thanks for your thoughts!

  4. saintluke says:

    I was interested in the claim that no verses point to individual fore-ordination; but this one does for sure:

    "And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and AS MANY AS WERE APPOINTED TO ETERNAL LIFE believed."
    Ac 13.48

    Also, Calvinists don't look down on non-believers as a lower class. Calvinism stresses the image of God in all people, and depravity applies to the CHRISTIAN as well as the non-believer. So Christians are also of the "low because of sin"-class, but some non-christians are elect and are waiting to be brought to Jesus.

    I don't even think the large majority of Calvinists acts in the way that they have been portayed here.

    Luke Welch

  5. John Calvin's Jesus says:

    Hey Byrd! Get it straight I only died for a select portion of the human existance. This population is also involuntarily compelled to me by me. I use tools like crusades and inquisitions for this work. So if you want a relationship with me or to follow me, tough shit (thanks Derek Webb for making cursing cool in Xian circles) I can refuse who I choose.

    – Jesus

  6. Morgon77 says:

    Mark Driscoll is one of the heads of the new Calvinist faction of the U.S. (for better or for worse). He has stated the following:

    1. The only Jesus that he can follow is one who can beat him up.

    2. Women need to serve men with their bodies. Pastors who have strayed did so at least partially because their wives let themselves go and didn't keep themselves sexy for their husband's stimulation.

    3. We are blessed by God when we mock people who aren't Christians, such as Mormons.

    4. Anybody who would preach stewardship over the planet is a heretic, because they're focusing on the planet instead of Jesus, no matter what the bible says.

    This is not the voice of somebody who operates outside of a class structure.

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