Narratival Calvinism and Storyless Readers

In his fourth section, Hart begins to interact with certain expressions of Calvinism. The Calvinists Hart was responding to are represented but not named, and since there are no footnotes to follow, I am puzzled over how to respond to this. Unvarnished Calvinism is hard for some people to take, and because they have trouble taking it, it is exceedingly easy to slip off the point and represent the Calvinist as saying things he is not saying at all. For example, I don’t know if the first Calvinist Hart dealt with really was “intoxicated” with the Jim Beam of divine sovereignty, or if that is just how it struck Hart. As I have been posting my way through this book, the comments section has been pretty revealing in this regard. For example, I might read a comment from some sturdy Calvinist friend in the comments section, and then, astonished, watch as it strikes someone more of Hart’s persuasion as blasphemy or demonism. So I don’t know if Hart is dealing with silly Calvinists, or if he is responding poorly to some standard issue Calvinists.

“A Calvinist pastor, positively intoxicated by the grandeur of divine sovereignty, proclaimed that the Indian Ocean disaster — like everything else — was a direct expression of the divine will, acting according to the hidden and eternal counsels it would be impious to attempt to attempt to penetrate, and producing consequences it would be sinful to presume to judge. He also insisted upon uncompromisingly literal interpretations of verses like Isaiah 45:7 (“I make weal and create woe” — or even, “create evil”) and fearlessly equivocal interpretations of verses like Ezekiel 18:32 (“it is not my pleasure that anyone should die, says the Lord God”) (p. 27).

Hart says this as though it were a bad thing to do. If we agreed with that, we might even say it is twice as bad as an uncompromisingly literal interpretation of Ez. 18:32 and a fearlessly equivocal interpretation of Is. 45:7. A fellow always has to watch his step.

“Another Calvinst . . . explained that . . . God may have no need of suffering and death for himself, but suffering and death nevertheless possess an ‘epistemic significance’ for us, insofar as they reveal divine attributes that ‘might not otherwise be displayed’ (one dreads to imagine what those might be). (pp. 27-28).

No need to imagine. St. Paul tells us what attributes those are.

“Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:20-24, emphasis mine).

In short, in a world without sin (and therefore without death), God would be unable to “shew” and “make known” certain attributes of His, which Paul identifies as “wrath” and the “riches of his glory.” And of course it is at this point that I will be accused of being intoxicated by the hooch of divine sovereignty — as though God produced the Asian tsunami in response to a request from me on a point of personal privilege. Look. On questions like this all Christians are drunk on something. All of us as Christians are dealing with a world in which the Asian tsunami actually happened, and we all worship the God who made the tectonic plates that brought it about. We differ over the reasons God had, but we all agree that God had His reasons. The only way out of this is to abandon the central doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. And every Christian who affirms creatio ex nihilo is a Calvinist, whether they want to admit it or not. Handwaving appeals to the “mystery of created freedom” (v. 29) won’t fix anything. You trying to tell me that free will would have been impossible in a world without volcanos and tectonic plates?

“That there is a transcendent providence that will bring God’s good ends out of the darkness of history — in spite of every evil — no Christian can fail to affirm. But providence . . . is not simply a ‘total sum’ or ‘infinite equation’ that leaves nothing behind” (p. 29).

The Calvinist is simply saying that “God’s good ends” include His good ends for every thread in the story line. Nothing is left stranded or high centered. This is what Hart is denying. We must not understand providence, he says, as something that brings good out of everything, but rather as something that salvages some good out of the general wreckage. But as we respond, remember to think of this as a story, and not as a delicate mechanism. There are no dead ends in the story, no remainders. That is narratival Calvinism, which storyless readers cannot or will not grasp. Hart is saying that there are remainders. He is saying it is false to say that providence “leaves nothing behind.” But Hart needs to take the next and very necessary step. If providence leaves things behind, does providence also leave any people behind? Remember, we are talking about natural evil and its impact on the lives of people. So does providence say to anyone, “Sorry, no fault of yours, but you’re just screwed”?

“But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death — considered in themselves — have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts” (p. 35).

But they do have narratival meaning to the extent that they affect the destiny of people. Remember, in the story, people are approaching Heaven or Hell, and every day brings them one day closer. I don’t give a rip about the ontology of evil. I don’t care what it looks like on a slide under a microscope. What does it look like in the story? What does it do in the story? Does it affect where characters in the story wind up?

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