Orthodoxy and heretics like Calvin?

Jarrod McKenna

Jarrod McKenna’s Wednesday’s with Gandhi:

“Today I rebel against orthodox Christianity, as I am convinced that it has distorted the message of Jesus.  He was an Asiatic whose message was delivered through many media, and when it had the backing of a Roman emperor it became an imperialist faith as it remains to this day.”

Mohandas Gandhi, (May 30, 1936) from “Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings” by John Dear, p. 79

I’d like to start this post not just with a quote from Gandhi, but a quote from 3 others:

Quote 1.

“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.”

Quote 2.

“Anyone who can be proved to be a seditious person is an outlaw before God and the emperor; and whoever is the first to put him to death does right and well. For if a man is in open rebellion, everyone is both his judge and the executioner; just as when a fire starts, the first man who can put it out is the best man to do the job.”

Quote 3.

“If what I’m saying about the centrality of Calvary-looking love is right, we need a major paradigm shift on how we view orthodoxy – which in turn should effect who we see as the “heroes” of orthodoxy.”

If the words of this last quote were written and acted on in the 16th century the writer could expect a second baptism of the involuntary variety where you never come up for air again.  These aren’t the words of some dreadlocked, kingdom-fuelled, commune starting, dumpster diving, fringe-dwelling, freegan, (eco)activist, permaculturalist wanta-be  (but thanks for reading my posts anyway ;)) but of Charismatic-Evangelical megachurch pastor, and theologian, Dr. Gregory Boyd.

So what his problem?

Well… quote 1 and 2 were written in the 16th century.  Not by some crazed peasants fuelled by a violent feudal variety of liberation theology on some crazed apocalyptic crack (but enough about Münster). Rather from the two men that many evangelicals consider the golden boys of the Reformation:

  • Quote 1: John Calvin (after the execution of Servetus for preaching a non-Trinitarian understanding of God )
  • Quote 2: Martin Luther (in a pamphlet one historian described as “boldly encouraging the slaughter of peasants” who held agendas other than that of the Elector of Saxony)

Now Dr. Boyd and I aren’t arguing for a reactionary “they sinned so I’m going to discount their whole work”. There are too much faults in my own life to be able to even want to argue something like that (!!) and there is also too much richness in the work of these brilliant men. On that logic we also have to discount the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, John H. Yoder, Gandhi and… well… everyone except Jesus! 😉 That kind of dismissive approach shows little spiritual maturity and a lack of hard work in coming to terms with, and removing the logs from, our own eyes in our own contexts.

So from a deep desire to first remove our own logs and then assist the church in doing likewise, this recovering sinner would like to raise some questions regarding the bench marks for orthodoxy. Why is it that the litmus test for orthodoxy for many evangelicals has been frozen in the 16th century in the thought of brilliant men who never the less had theologies that made it possible to disobey Christ’s commands to put away the sword, love our neighbour and even enemies like God has loved us (ie. not drowning, beheading or burning those who disagree with us). In particular questions about the bench mark of “orthodoxy” being systems of theology which fail to preach Christ crucified in ways that keep Christ central for atonement AND discipleship.  That have found approaches to preaching Christ crucified in ways that have failed to bear fruits that look like the church refusing to crucify others!! That have failed to continue reforming to an extent that we no longer perpetuate a history of Christianity that looks like the patterns of this world and nothing like the Christ who rejects the sword and goes the way of the cross trusting only in the faithfulness and sovereignty of a God who hears the cry of those in captivity.

Pastor Boyd suggests 16th century magisterial reformer John Calvin of the “worst heresy imaginable” in killing those who were in error. Greg’s argument:

“The New Testament defines agape love by pointing us to Jesus Christ (I Jn 3:16). To love someone is treat them like Jesus has treated you — dying for you while you were yet a sinner… Now follow me: If love [not a sentimental ideal but incarnate in Jesus] is to be placed above all else, if everything else is to be considered worthless apart from love and if everything hangs on fulfilling this one law, how can we avoid the conclusion that refusing to love even our enemies is the worst heresy imaginable? To miss this all important point renders whatever other truth we may possess worthless.”  

I wonder if one of the biggest heresies in the church today is a clever trick where by we keep the centrality of the cross in our understanding of atonement yet have created systems where the cross-shaped love of Jesus is not central to how we understand issues of power, of how we get things done, how we do conflict, how we relate to enemies, our way of being in the world (ie. following Jesus or “discipleship”). And I wonder how any theological system which is blind to this can be considered fully “orthodox”. For surely right belief leads to right practice?  And maybe it’s not until we start to practice what Christ commands of us that we can start to understand our belief. For doctrines (not a popular word but important none the less) such as the Trinity aren’t just boxes to tick but profound realities of who God is to be expressed in our lives.  So it seems that not just Servetus but Calvin was also in error regarding how he understood the Trinity because it didn’t express itself in refusing to kill his enemy because of the kenotic, self giving love, love that is seen in the Holy Trinity.

I recently wrote to our blogging mate Andrew Jones (aka tall skinny kiwi) regarding discussions of the Reformation:

Mate I was thinking the reformation conversation seems very ‘Magisterial-centric’ (did I just invest a word?). I don’t understand why we let Calvin or Luther set the bar for “orthodoxy”. What about the radical wing of the reformation that insisted orthodoxy lay in the witness of the early church and were therefore willing to die but not kill for Christ? I feel embarrassed that the conversation gets so nasty. While we don’t kill our brothers and sisters today over difference (in doctrine… we might still kill them in difference of nationality if asked by our nations in war) we still don’t think loving each other means not attacking each other. Why is that? What about Jesus’ Lordship in this area? If we really think each others in error should there not be tears in prayer for one another not ‘virtual burnings’. I think the church is still in need of a savour who rejects violence, and I think we have one in Jesus. Surely these conversations can be opportunities to for the church to journey deeper in the process of sanctification, of ‘divination’ as the Orthodox have put it, in become more Christ-like. If we can’t love our sisters and brother well how are we going to love our enemies?

Today there is a direct correlation between the theology of these 16th century magisterial reformers and evangelical leaders in the U.S. like James Dobson and Don Carson who actively oppose other evangelical leaders in actions like the ‘Evangelical Climate Initiative’ to prophetically confront the biggest ecological disaster in human history.  This is the same group that reject much of the work of who I think is one of the most promising thinkers on a ‘Jesus shaped orthodoxy’, N.T. Wright. They do this on the basis that his scholarship challenges some of the ways the Magisterial Reformers have taught us to read the Bible in light of their argy-bargy in the 16th century. And while gifted communicators Mark Driscol are able to use these Reformers to critique some of the stuff that passes for Christianity today such as the “success, self help and saved by rapture” nonsense, until we can let Christ be central to our critique we will not recover the dynamic faith and faithfulness of the early church which challenges the practice of these reformers (and our) comfort with violence.

But I’m not holding Gandhi up as a theological alternative. Gandhi was far from Christian orthodoxy in his beliefs and though I think conversation with his life is incredibly fruitful for discussing the log in our eye as westerners who claim to follow Christ, I have never held him up as providing a theological framework for deepening ourselves in the biblical narrative. Yet the “orthodoxy” which Gandhi rejected I think is no orthodoxy at all. An orthodoxy with an “imperialist faith”, that plays the chaplain to the kingdoms of this world that crucified our Lord is not “orthodox’’ (lit. “Right believe”) but a dangerous heresy. (for those interested here’s a link I put to a short 2min interview with Dr. Cornel West on this subject and photos of our Peace Tree ‘commun(e)ity’ and our initial response to the recent gang killing on our streets). 

So this plea for a Jesus-shaped orthodoxy will not be found in out arguing each other but out living (out witnessing! 🙂 ) each other. We remember the only way we can deepen in orthodoxy is by prayerfully seeking to do so in a way that reflects the way of Christ, after the likeness of the mutual love of the Triune God who is fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. In the love we see in the cross and the power we see in the Resurrection. We must learn to engage in ways where we deepen our journey of discipleship. Where we become more aware of our own desperate need for God’s transforming grace that lead us on the exodus journey out of our own captivity to the cycles of domination that can never witness to what God has started in Jesus, the kingdom of God.

ABC’s Radio National did an interview with me and others on parts of the Reformation traditions which insisted that following Christ means living Christ-like lives where we drop our weapons that we may pick up our cross: Here’s the link if interested

and an article on the “emerging peace church movement” and an orthodoxy in keeping with the witness of the early church: click here

25 thoughts on “Orthodoxy and heretics like Calvin?

  1. Dear Jarrod,

    Hope you are well. Thanks for the interesting piece bro. However, I’m not sure that Calvin and Luther have set the bar for orthodoxy today. We have had too many revolutions between us and the reformation (industrial, political, intellectual, economic) to say that Calvin and Luther set the bar for Christian orthodoxy now. Heck, the 18th century evangelical revivals changed all that. Most Christians I talk to about Martin Luther mistake him for Martin Luther King; they have no idea what the reformation is.

    At least, as I get around (most weeks) to different churches, and mingle with different ecclesial coeteries, it seems to me orthodoxy is set by Hillsong and / or American-type-fundamentalism. These differ (as Mark Noll says in “America’s God”) from reformation Christianity as much as the reformation from 16th century Roman Catholicism.

    Moreover, I’m not sure (given the post-modern or late modern experience of the West) that too many people these days are interested in orthodoxy (“right belief”) at all. Indeed there’s not much of a desire for ortho- anything (whether orthopraxis or orthokardia). Most seem interested in affectio (feelings / experience).

    Just my 5-cents worth.

    God bless you,


  2. Right on Jared!

    If Christ-like love is the ultimate test for orthodoxy, shouldn’t we regard the early Anabaptists as our true heroes? It’s why I think people who think like you and I should seriously consider becoming Mennonites.

    Peace on ya


  3. Dear Greg,

    When you say that the “early Anabaptists” should be our “true heroes” who do you mean? The early Zurichers considerably upset public peace, interuppted church services, engaged in iconoclasm, called Zwingli the Anti-christ, and declared that God’s judgement was about to come upon the city. Hoffman predicted the Lord’s return and inspired the Munster debacle? Muntzer helped inspire the peasants’ revolt (and the many deaths that ensued)? The Zwickau prophets sent Wittenberg into public turmoil with their prophetic claims to read people’s minds? Karlstadt helped ruin many statues and paintings in iconoclasm? And many of the ABs actually rejected secular society rather than attempt to transform it (is this why Menno et. al. couldn’t believe that Jesus was truly human, and only had “celestial flesh”?).

    I’m not wanting to point the finger at the Anabaptists, but simply make the point that every tradition has its dark side.

    Haven’t many Christians in the past wanted to make love the supreme orthodoxy? It’s not only Anabaptists (whatever that epithet means–I’m sure you’re aware of the historiographical problems of AB definition). Calvin and Luther certainly believed that love was the supreme calling of the Christian (read Luther’s Freedom of the Christian or Calvin’s Institutes). To focus on one particular tradition I think will end up causing more heat than light.

    The issue is not that Christians don’t want to be loving, or that the Anabaptists are the only true loving tradition, but this: what is love itself. Both pro- and anti- gays claim their position is most loving. Both pro- and anti- abortionists claim their position is most loving. The issue is not simply that love is orthodoxy.

    Love is meaningless unless we can define what is the good (i.e. so when they can express love truly). And that requires ortho-doxy (“right thinking”). It’s not only ortho-doxy, but one can’t love without it.

    God bless you,


  4. I think Calvin is misrepresented here?

    I am not sure where you got your quotes from? Calvin although was he was an expert witness in the trial of Servetus and was his political and theological enemy, lobbied the authorities against the death sentence, that application was refused.

    Here is a quote worth reflecting on the trial of Servetus:

    “The trial began and as it progressed, it became evident that the authorities had two choices: banish Servetus or execute him. They sent to their sister cities Berne, Zurich, Schaffhausen and Basle for their counsel. The counsel from each city was the same: execute the heretic. The method of burning alive was chosen. Calvin intervened to appeal for the more quick and merciful beheading as the method of execution but the council refused and on October 26, 1553, Michael Servetus was executed. It is strange that this incident should bring such odium upon Calvin and another example of the hatred of orthodox Christianity that it has.”

    “Further still, it must be remembered that Calvin’s role in this entire matter was only that of expert witness at the trial. The idea that Calvin was “the dictator of Geneva” is utterly unfounded in fact. Calvin was never allowed to become a citizen of Geneva. He was technically among the habitants — resident legal aliens who had no right to vote, no right to carry weapons, and no right to hold public office. A habitant might be a pastor or teacher if there was no Genevan citizen who was qualified for the position. This is why Calvin was allowed to be pastor of the church there. But he was always denied access to the decision-making machinery.”

    dodgey research leads to dodgey conclusions and dodgey applications…



  5. “dodgey research leads to dodgey conclusions and dodgey applications…”

    I totally agree mate.

    this may interest you:

    “Calvin himself had told his colleague Farel that if Servetus ever returned to Geneva, he’d “never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” After the burning, Calvin said, “Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that (they allege) I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.”… Even Calvin’s staunchest defenders (such as B. B. Warfield) grant that Calvin was ultimately responsible for Servetus’ death. They simply minimize his culpability by saying he was “a man of his times.” I regard this response to be very weak. Jesus and the early Christians lived in very violent times yet refused to conform to them. ”

    this may interest you:


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  7. Dear Greg,

    I’m not wanting to endorse Calvin’s stance on Servetus. However, it can be very easy for us to point out the blinkers of past cultures while not being aware of our own.

    We have the luxury in the modern West to think about not exercising capital punishment because we have the technology (jails, effective police forces, separation of the powers etc. etc.) to keep anti-socials, murderers, and the like alive but contained. We can enjoy a society where the mob doesn’t rule. Compare our fortunate situation to the continent of Africa and its cauldron of political unrest where innocent people suffer as all kinds of coups occur.

    The 16th century was an age that didn’t enjoy the technology that we do, and it was tremendously easy for the mob to get out of control, and for better or worse the state used the death penalty to keep some sort of order. Was it possible to keep order without it? I can’t answer that question, but I want to be sympathetic to the times rather than easily pass judgement from my privileged position.

    Servetus wasn’t simply seen as a heretic but ALSO a public menance who showed clear signs of mental disorder. His personality was very provactive. This caused many to fear: people who stirred up social unrest could do great damage to the life of innocents at that time.

    Moreover, during the Servetus trial Calvin’s enemies held power in Geneva (Calvin never had any political power at anytime in Geneva). And THEY appointed Calvin to prosecute Servetus, precisely because they wanted to see Calvin suffer in the process as the butt of Servetus’ vitriol. Indeed, the Perinnist party kept prolonging the trial because they reveled in Calvin’s suffering.

    Calvin himself suffered physically from migraines, breathing difficulties, arthritis, pulmonary tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, ulcerated haemorrhoids, bowel problems and kidney stones. And all that without pain-killers. Life was very painful and cheap in the 16th century. 50% of people died 7 years old and under.

    Calvin just prior to the Servetus trial had basically made up his mind to leave Geneva because of death threats on his own life from his political opponents.

    Furthermore, through Calvin’s influence from Geneva some 10% of French population and 50% of the French nobility were converted to the evangelical cause. This was all before many of them were slaughtered on the Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre. Many more Calvinists were martyred than Anabaptists in the 16th century.

    Calvin was wrong about Servetus, but I don’t want to point the finger too easily at him. There are too many logs in my own eye (And I haven’t even begun to talk about the social reform in Geneva, and it’s more tolerant stance towards those of other beliefs, something that the standard Anabaptists never achieved then because they departed from society).

    God bless you dear brother,


  8. “Servetus wasn’t simply seen as a heretic but ALSO a public menance who showed clear signs of mental disorder. His personality was very provactive. This caused many to fear: people who stirred up social unrest could do great damage to the life of innocents at that time.”

    Sounds like Pontius Pilate speaking there. . .

  9. Grendel:

    The sentences you cite is an historical rendition not a theological opinion. How can that be “like Pontius Pilate”? I don’t see the connection?


    Where did your Calvin citation actually come from? What is the source? There’s lots of apocryphal Calvin quotations that were made up by his opponents that have taken on a subsequent life of their own (Alister McGrath’s bio of Calvin shows lots that can’t be found in Calvin’s writings or have no ground in primary sources). I have a whole raft of them sitting on my hard drive.

    It’s important that we don’t bear false witness here brother.

    Every blessing,


  10. Marty – I’m not concerned with the source of the phrases, rather their tone which seem oddly like the reasons given by the Pharisees and accepted by Pilate for why Jesus should be killed. It seems odd to me that those throughts about Servetus should be phrased in that way. I would have thought that the commentator who wrote them would have recognised the ironic nature of what he was writing.

  11. Dear Grendel:

    Ok, thanks for the clarification. The difference is that historically Servetus appears to be quite guilty of the accusations made about him (not just in Geneva but over his life).

    Dear Gav:

    The best introductory biography of Calvin I think is still T.H.L. Parker’s little one. It is crisp, clear, balanced, and well-researched.

    God bless you brothers,


  12. Marty – my main problem is that I reckon that historically you can make a pretty good case against Jesus as a rabble rouser, disturber of the peace and threat to the order of society. I’m also NOT claiming christ-like qualities for Servetus who was probably a fricken loony, but historical perspective does give one some odd angles and the justification

    for his execution that was narrated seems on that basis, unsound, even now.

  13. Dear Grendel,

    I’m not wanting to say that any sort of rabble rousing is out.

    Yes, Jesus sounded like a rabble rouser, but there are different reasons for rabble rousing. Rabble rousing for illegitimate reasons in an unstable culture can mean great suffering (including death) for innocent people. History teaches that; some countries now are still a testimony to it.

    However, when there is great suffering of innocent people because of corrupt powers that be, rabble rousing may be the best option for change.

    God bless you,


  14. G’day Marty,

    Sorry for the delay I’ve been a bit crazy busy before I go to Indonesia for the Historic Peace Church Conference. Marty I’m also sorry to hear you dad isn’t doing well. We’ll pray for him tonight at our meeting for business.

    Re: reference I thought I made a link to it if not I’ll post it. I remember first seeing it when I took Reformation History at a secular uni as a philosophy unit, (It was very interesting studying the reformation with people that weren’t Christians including the average Aussie agnostic, Muslims, Buddhists and a lecture with a strong like for Marx that was post Catholic.) But I can’t seem to find it again.

    I’ll link to where I found the quote resently.

    Grace and peace,


  15. here’s the recent place I found it:


    G’day Gav,

    If you’re interested Greg recommends this book:

    *Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography. Argues that Calvin was directly responsible for 38 executions in Geneva (other scholars argue he was at least indirectly responsible for as many as 58).

    and these on this subject:

    *”Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West.” A very scholarly work that includes a good section on how public outrage toward Calvin’s murder of Servetus contributed to Christianity finally become a religion that tolerated religious differences. Sebastian Castellio played a major role in creating this outrage.

    *”Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva.” Kingdon is one of the foremost scholars in the world on Geneva under Calvin. This book, published by Harvard Press, relies entirely on original sources and presents an incredibly harsh picture of Geneva under Calvin’s rule. For example, a number of children were imprisoned, tortured and even executed for being disrespectful to parents (though I’m not certain I got this information from this work).

  16. Grendal I’m with you mate. Much of those comments sound more like the crucifiers that the crucified Christ.

    Marty, I’m not sure if we need to define ‘the good’ or study Plato to understand or define love. I think we just need to study the life of our Lord and that all the definition we need. 🙂 And I agree with you about rebel rousing if it looks like a rebel rousing that rejects the sword and takes up the way of the cross like our Lord. 🙂

    It’s also worth saying (since no one else has) that Servetus if a very different bloke when read from different sources. I’m not defending him because of him theology (trinitarian understanding of God is very important to me), but I have a friend prof. Ray Gingerich who edited, “Transforming the Powers” (which is fantanstic!), and preached at network Vineyard when he was in Perth who teaches his students about the life of Servetus, his significant contributions to medicine (first bloke in Europe to discover the pulmonary circulation) and his desire to see Jews and Muslims come to faith in Jesus and his reputation of being someone of fine character before he fell fowl (and wrote nasty letters to) Calvin.

    And while I agree we can’t judge people out of their context it’s also true that there were many Christians who lived through violent times but refused to kill because of the gospel. We can’t say this of Calvin and Luther however. But there is still much we can learn from them.

  17. Dear Jarrod,

    Thanks for your reply brother. I didn’t know you were off to Indo. I’m assuming it’s got nothing to do with surfing … Anyway, here are some further thoughts in reply to yours.

    Firstly, I’m not with you that we don’t need to discern what is good. The Bible is explicit about this:

    Hebr 5:12 (NIV) In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

    Here is the nexus between having a mature knowledge of Christian truths (orthodoxy) precisely so as to distinguish bewteen “good” and evil (orthopraxis).

    Heck, this is precisely how Paul prays for:

    (i) the Colossians (1:9-11), that they would learn God’s will [desire, i.e. what is good], and

    (ii) the Philippains (1:9-11), that they would discern what is “best” (i.e. the supreme good).

    Love in our culture has become meaningless, precisely because it’s not concerned with what is good.

    I’m not quite sure why you raised Plato in all this.

    Secondly, to say that to determine the good we just have to read the life of Jesus, is of course, the position of Yoder. However, I’m not fully with him here. The life of Jesus alone for ethics is necessarily reductionistic. There’s also the rest of the NT canon. There is more to the NT than the four gospels (central though they are). There’s so much to learn about love from Paul’s and Peter’s letters. And John is the apostle of “love”.

    Thirdly, when it comes to Calvin we need to deal with the evidence, and not hearsay. Secular universities in this area are not bastions of truth (from my experience). Just look at biblical studies here! Yes, you linked to Greg Boyd’s website, but there was no mention of primary sources just secondary ones. There are plenty of bios on Calvin. But they’re only as good as their primary source usage. Calvin bashing bugs me because each tradition has it’s dark side, and I have my own logs in my eye. Throwing mud just gets one’s hands dirty and causes one to lose ground :-).

    Calvin couldn’t have put anyone to death because [1] he didn’t have any political power in Geneva ever, and [2] he believed the death penalty was the work of the state (Rom. 13:4); it was not the work of the Church. Contrary to popular belief Calvin was ahead of his time politically, and moved in the direction of separation between church and state. But the Genevan city council wouldn’t allow it. That’s partly why he got kicked out of Geneva the first time in 1539. By the way, my reading of the 16th century Anabaptists is not that they were champions of separating church and state, but that they rejected the state. Again, I wonder if this links with Menno’s belief that Christ did not have human but “celestial” flesh.

    Fourthly, yes, of course there is another reading of Servetus. There is another reading of anything we want, because words lifted from their context can be made to say many different things. The issue is not whether there is another reading but how credible the other reading is. Having read Servetus’ own writings myself, he far from impresses me. He denied the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. The worship of Jesus was so integral to the early Church (John 9:38). The Jesus he believed in was closer to the Moslem Jesus than the Christian Jesus. Moreover, his reputation was terrible before he got anywhere near Geneva. Yes, Servetus was a genius, who discovered pulminary blood circulation. But genius doesn’t equal goodness, witness Hitler and Stalin.

    Have a great time in Indo dude.

    God bless brother,


  18. Dear Grendel,

    Well at least Hitler and Stalin were the last words of the post 🙂 Sorry bro, I may’ve been unclear in what I was saying. My point was that we can get captivated by people’s brains when in fact they may not be good (in the heart).

    Both Hitler and Stalin were obviously very intelligent, but they were hideously evil. History is strewn with smart people who did much damage. So I don’t want to judge simply by whether someone was a genius.

    Christianity is head, heart, and hands; if any one of these is missing, it’s no longer Christian.

    God bless you bro,


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  21. I think it a pity that the particular issue of Calvin and Servetus has muddied the waters of the general thrust of this topic to such an extent. I hadn’t considered Calvin particularly likeable, but didn’t realise he was probably actually infectious as well!

    The real issue is the unbalanced emphases of modern Protestant thinking.

    I agree with Marty that the 18th Century revivals and the growth of modern Pentecostalism have both reshaped Protestant styles, while post-modernism has loosened our links with the intellectual underpinnings of reformed Christianity (in the broader sense of the term.) However, I think that these, rather than remove the influence of the magisterial reformers, have merely papered over it. So we keep wondering what that lump on the wall is all about.

    There are two strong forces acting on us. One draws us away from the basic agreed tenets of Christian faith — such as the deity of Christ, judgment to come and so on. The other, in panic, seeks to bind us to a fixed point in history, viz the Reformation. Those who wish to develop a truly radical approach to practical Christianity will always battle both forces.

    We need to realise that the one acts out of ignorance and hubris while the other acts out of fear.

    The result is that modern Protestantism does contain a large contingent which very clearly looks back to a largely imagined Reformation era, when Christianity was, so the theory goes, brought back to a proper footing. Everything else is nothing but fine tuning.

    That strand needs to be reminded of the dark side of Calvin and Luther and of the compromises the Reformers countenanced in order to push some kind of change through.

    The radicals in the Anabaptist tradition in many ways took a more valid approach to basing their beliefs on scripture than the Magisterial reformers did. I hasten to point out that both the Münster group and the Zwickau Prophets/ Karlstadt were were about as much part of Swiss Anabaptism as the Levellers were part of the Quaker movement.

    Luther, Zwingli and Calvin declared the Bible their basis, but were content to make it a sourcebook for beliefs without letting it challenge social behaviour too far, as distinct from personal morality.

    The Reformers called for a church semper reformata, semper reformanda, but it was the radicals who took that to heart.

    It seems to me that there are two very basic issues which must be addressed.

    First, we have allowed a distorted view of the cross to dominate. We readily accept the idea of substitution, while almost completely rejecting the idea of identification.

    Balanced Christianity entails both. Without the idea of identification, we can look at the cross and not see that we are called to go down the same path.

    This makes it comparatively easy for us to persecute our enemies, as long as we don’t identify them as our enemies — as opposed to the State’s, for example.

    This leads to a second area where our vision is sadly limited, which is that we have a limited concept of faith.

    Jesus makes it clear that those who say, “Lord, Lord!” and do not do what he says are not true disciples. Yet evangelicalism from Anglican to Pentecostal and beyond (drawing on the traditions of the magisterial Reformers) has redefined faith in terms of assent rather than faithful discipleship.

    Where older style Protestantism tended to press for assent to a creed, the change brought about by the Evangelical Revivals has reduced this further, to assent to an implicit creed, that “Jesus is (my) Saviour.” We produce many believers this way, but few disciples, and Jesus told us to make disciples as we go.

    Because both lacks — identification and discipleship — are so prevalent, it is easy for people on the one hand to declare their Christian belief and, on the other hand, to countenance such abominations as the Iraq war.

    Pentecostalism, for its part, seems to have picked up on the emptiness of much modern main-stream evangelicalism and is providing experiences in order to fill that emptiness, in much the same way as Rebel Sports provides an experience for shoppers, with an almost party atmosphere in their stores.

    Christian conversion should be strongly experiential. The models provided in Acts are of people who experience emotional pain when they recognise their role in the crucifixion, who speak in tongues and prophesy when the Holy Spirit comes on them at conversion, who are filled with awe in the presence of Christ. Not much of that happens today, because conversions are not particularly comprehensive.

    I am not saying that we should aim to generate “manifestations”, but that we should aim to bring about conversions which recognise both aspects of the cross and call for obedient faith.

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