Learning from Calvin and Tolstoy

One of my favorite things about working in campus ministry is that our little community here on PSU Berks brings together students from diverse backgrounds, all who desire to know Jesus and make him known.  We have Christians from numerous backgrounds gathering together each year: Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and so on.

What holds us together?  The fundamentals of faith, what CS Lewis called “mere Christianity” or what we might call historic Christian orthodoxy.  The things that have been believed by everyone at all times and everywhere.  Perhaps we could go to the early creeds of the church.  Or we could make a list: God as Trinity, dual nature of Jesus Christ, salvation in Christ, faith in Christ, Bible as inspired by God, resurrection and maybe a few more.  This is not a post meant to list the “essentials” of faith.

In January I used some money gifted to me for my birthday to purchase a Kindle.  One of my favorite things about the Kindle is the hundreds of free books available.  These are books that are mostly classics, older books which I may never have thought of reading but that I probably should.  Recently I have been reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and prior to that I read his Notes from the Underground.  But it is another Russian author I want to write about here.

Leo Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You is in your face challenging.  For Tolstoy, Jesus said to love your enemies and not fight back against those who harm you, and Jesus actually meant it.  Tolstoy presents Christianity as pacifism in obedience to Jesus.  The basic argument: Jesus said not to use violence.  Tolstoy makes some good arguments.  For example, many Christians explain away Jesus’ commands in the sermon on the mount about violence, saying he did not really mean to never strike back.  But no Christians uses the same argument to explain away Jesus’ other commands in regards to  lust or adultery.  Another point I found Tolstoy challenging on is his critique of the Russian nation’s reliance on military power, at times he could have been addressing America today as we too rely on military power and violence for our safety.

Before you pick this book up (or download it) thinking to get an argument for Christian pacifism only, it is important to note what Tolstoy rejects.  He basically says salvation by grace is irrelevant.  He has no time for the apostle Paul or for anything about Jesus dying for our sins.  To Tolstoy, Christianity is to live like Jesus, plain and simple.  Now, I think he runs into some problems here which have been noted against those who make similar arguments.  Why follow Jesus’ ethical teachings and ignore the things he said that no sane human could say, unless he was correct?  If you say Jesus is a great ethical teacher and nothing more, you have to face the fact that your ethical teacher said incredibly offensive things.  As CS Lewis would say, your great teacher often sounds like a lunatic.

To be blunt, Tolstoy falls far short in orthodoxy – right belief about Jesus.  Those things I mentioned above, that have been believed by all Christians everywhere, are not believed by Tolstoy.

The question I ask is: does this mean we should ignore the challenging message he may have for us?  He may fall short in terms of belief, but what if he is right in terms of practice?

That brings me to my second book.  Since January I have been slowly working my way through John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion.  Now here is somebody who is the definition of orthodox.  Calvin is very concerned with right belief and five hundred years after his death, this is one thing he, and those who take the name “Calvinist” are known for.

I have enjoyed the Institutes.  As someone who identifies more “Wesleyan” and “Anabaptist”, this may be surprising.  I like that Calvin’s writing is actually quite easy to read which is no small thing if you have tried to read any Christian who has been dead a few hundred years.  Also, Calvin has depth to the point where even if you disagree with his conclusions, you have to respect his serious study.  If much of what you find at Christian bookstores today is junk food, Calvin is a meaty steak.  Finally, Calvin is not just about right belief, despite the stereotype that he is.  I just finished the chapters on prayer in book three and was moved by the practicality and simply the love of God exhibited by Calvin.

Speaking of the love of God, earlier in the Institutes (2.5.57), Calvin speaks of loving your enemies, saying it is an obligatory command for the Christian.  I read that with a hearty amen.  Then I turned the page and read about the “devilish” Michael Servetus.   Servetus was a philosopher who taught that the Trinity was a false doctrine and that God was simply one.  Calvin, and pretty much everyone else, Protestant or Catholic, opposed Servetus.  To make a long story short, Servetus ended up in Geneva, where Calvin lived, and was arrested.  Calvin and the other leaders agreed he should be executed.  He ended up being burned at the stake, though Calvin argued for a more humane execution.  Nevertheless, Calvin agreed Servetus had to die.

Which leads me to ask, what happened to all that love your enemies stuff?

Calvin is known for his orthodoxy, the doctrines that Christians through the ages have agreed on (even if you don’t agree with his theology at all points, which I do not).  But at least in the Servetus saga, he fell short in orthopraxy – living like Jesus.

Today, Christians who would (hopefully) not be in favor of executing heretics are still able to read from, learn from and appreciate John Calvin.  This is no different than reading and learning from the many imperfect people in church history.  We have little problem learning from those who had imperfect lives.

What if we turn this on its head: can we read from, learn from and appreciate those who we may have serious disagreements with in orthodoxy, such as Tolstoy, but who give us a challenging lesson in living like Jesus.  I am no expert in whether Tolstoy was able to live even close to his own ethic (though I am pretty sure he wasn’t).  But can we learn from someone whose teaching on orthopraxy, right living, is good but whose other doctrine is false.

I am all about the right beliefs especially on central issues, like the Trinity, dual-nature of Christ, literal resurrection and grace.  But I can’t help but wonder why it seems like so many Christians appear more concerned with right belief than right living.  Now, I doubt many would say that.  And ultimately, you can’t really separate the two.  But are we quicker to forgive the sins of those who have the right theology than we are to forgive the bad beliefs of those who have the right actions?

To go one (risky) step further, what happens when people who would not say they are Christians appear to live more “Christian” than those of us who are Christian?  I do not mean any sort of salvation by works; I do not mean they pray more or give more or whatever other things we use to judge “good” Christians.  I  mean, What if they appear to recognize their own brokenness and need for help from outside themselves?  What if they, to be theological, rely on grace, perhaps without calling it that, more than most Christians?

I think this is why there needs to be a good dose of humility.  Along with reading the Institutes I am listening to a podcast from a seminary class on Calvin.  The professor said that Calvin never wanted to say for sure that someone was not “elect” because we simply do not know who God may call.  I don’t think you need to be a “Calvinist” to affirm this, after all, the Bible says (John 3:1-8) that the Spirit moves where it will and no one knows how it works.  When we see Christians who believe the right thing but fail to live it, or we see other Christians with quasi-heretical beliefs who live in reliance on Jesus, let’s be humble.  Even when we see people who are not Christians living as if they are, well maybe it is our job to shed light on the belief that gives root to the way they already live?

Ultimately, may we trust in the Holy Spirit to bring unity to a messed up group of people called the Church, the one unified church that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, gave his life for.

That brings me full circle.  My goal on campus is not simply to dump information into the heads of Christian students so that they believe the right things about God (though I would hope as they mature in faith, they do develop orthodox belief).  My goal is to help them, as they learn about God, to know God personally (stop right now and go read JI Packer’s Knowing God) so they can live in relationship with him.  My prayer for all these students, and myself, is that we become more Christ like, loving our neighbor, doing good to those who hurt us, walking justly, loving mercy and so on.

Perhaps the best way to end this post is that I want to be as vigorous in pursuing right belief as Calvin and as serious about the commands of Jesus as Tolstoy.

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