Calvinism and Divine Schizophrenia

Former Calvinist Austin Fischer, Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church and author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, describes his journey out of Calvinism in this brief, edited piece from his chapter, "The Crucified God." Maintaining a consistently Christocentric hermeneutic for properly understanding our triune God, he challenges Calvinists like Bruce Ware, who insists that Jesus is not enough for properly comprehending God; exposes the failure of Martin Luther and the Calvinist's proffering of a hidden God, and a God of hidden agendas; and demonstrates what, for him, is the Achilles's heel of Calvinism -- Jesus. Fischer writes the following.



When starting something, it's good to begin at the beginning. And so what is the theological beginning for Christian faith? Folks smarter than [me] have offered extensive answers to this question, but I would suggest that the best answer, while profound, is rather simple: Jesus is God.

When Jesus of Nazareth stepped on the scene, God himself had taken on flesh. This is of course the great scandal of Christian faith and the subject of the prologue in the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God ... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father ... No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1, 14, 18 NRSV)
In both implicit and explicit ways, this is the relentless affirmation of scripture. The creator God, the liberating God, the God of Israel and the universe, and the God who will return to judge the living and the dead, is the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. As Paul says, "Jesus is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). As Jesus says, "If you've seen me you've seen God" (John 14:9). It's not negotiable, it's not up for debate, and if you don't like it you have to take your ball and go home. God looks like Jesus. Not some of the time, not part of the time, not most of the time, but God has always, does always, and will always look just like Jesus because Jesus is God.


This means Christian theology moves from Jesus to God [emphasis original], and not from what you think you know about God to Jesus [emphasis added]. You find God on Jesus' terms or you find something that isn't God. As Brennan Manning says, " ... all our prevailing images and understandings of God must crumble in the earthquake of Jesus' self-disclosure ... If we do not allow Jesus to change our image of God ... then we cannot profess him as [Lord]." Everything we think we know about God must submit to that which is revealed in Jesus, and when we fail to let God define himself in Jesus because we think we know better, we commit idolatry.

This then is the beginning of Christian faith and theology: a willingness to let Jesus do his work of deconstruction and reconstruction on our hearts and minds so we can know what it means to call him Messiah and God. All of this to say, it would appear scripture not only suggests but demands that we be ruthlessly Christocentric [i.e., Christ-centered] in our theology. [This, in my opinion, is where Arminianism shines and Calvinism fails utterly.]


But can we be too Christocentric? Can we focus on Jesus too much? [Shockingly, for some Calvinists, the answer must be a resounding yes.] This is the question pursued by leading Calvinist theologian Bruce Ware and his answer is, in a word, yes: "There is no question, then, of the centrality, supremacy, and finality of the revelation of Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, Jesus Christ should not be viewed as the exclusive revelation of who God is."

Ware's point is that Jesus is not the only place God reveals himself. In particular, Ware wants to preserve the witness of the Hebrew scriptures as a place where God is revealed and a place for us to continually revisit if we are to understand what Jesus is showing and telling us. He uses Hebrews 1:1-2 as an example, wherein the writer asserts the supremacy of God's revelation in Jesus but also acknowledges "the rich history or revelation already given when Jesus comes." And his point is well taken.

Theology that locates revelation exclusively in Jesus and implicitly throws away the Old Testament is not only irresponsible but hopelessly thin and in the end fails to take seriously the Jesus it supposedly venerates, because the Jesus of scripture certainly treated the Hebrew scriptures as revelatory. Jesus never taught he was the exclusive revelation of God. But interestingly enough, the crux of the issue comes to a head where Ware's citation of Hebrews 1 drops off.


Hebrews 1:3, though often overlooked, is one of the most stunning statements in the biblical canon: "And He [Jesus] is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his nature ..." The impenetrable mystery of the divine glory blazes like a billion burning stars in the face of Jesus of Nazareth: "We see the glory of God in Jesus [writes Leon Morris], and we see it as it really is." And even more importantly, Jesus is the exact representation of God's nature. Or in the Greek, Jesus is the character (exact imprint [NRSV]) of God's hypostaseos (being/nature/essence).

This is a loaded phrase, dripping with both moral and ontological [i.e., that of being or existing] implications, with perhaps its most important being the simplest: the character of Jesus is the character of God. God would never do something Jesus would find morally reprehensible, so if you can't find it in Jesus, then you really ought to think twice before you claim you've found it in God. While it is true that Jesus is not the exclusive revelation of God, it is also true that Jesus is the exhaustive revelation of God's character, God's heart.


One of the least known features of Martin Luther's theology was his doctrine of the Deus absconditus, or the hidden God. Going far beyond the obvious truism that not everything about God is comprehensible for humans, Luther believed that standing behind the God revealed in Jesus Christ is a hidden God we know nothing of. In summarizing Luther's doctrine of the hidden God, B.A. Gerrish says, "The image of God does not, after all, fully coincide with the picture of Jesus." [Calvinists, thus, tragically and erroneously introduce a bifurcation into the very nature of the Godhead.]

Of course from here it's a mere hop, skip, and jump to the doctrine of double predestination, in which the God revealed in Jesus appears to want the whole world to be saved, while the hidden God ordains that many [the majority] will perish. Although few are as honest as Luther, consistent Calvinism seems to force you into believing in a hidden God.

And while the doctrine of the hidden God denies the teachings of Jesus and Paul mentioned above, one can appreciate the impetus that fueled Luther's thought. In Luther's mind, most of the theology around him domesticated God by cramming him into airtight logical boxes. Understandably, then, Luther wanted to remove the shackles and give God room to be God, and the sola scriptura (scripture alone) principle of the Reformation and subsequent Protestant thought have followed suit. We Protestants (supposedly) refuse to put God in any logical or experiential box for fear it will qualify his absolute freedom and thus belittle his glory. We only put him in the Bible box. But what if the Bible teaches us that God has indeed put himself in yet another box?


And this is precisely what the Bible teaches us about Jesus. We can't put God in a box, but we do not get to decide whether or not God chooses to put himself in one, and in Jesus this is exactly what God has done.

Jesus is the exact representation [imprint] of God's nature, and there is no hidden God lurking in Jesus' shadow, and we know this because the Bible tells us so. As Dallas Willard says, "Could the character of God really be that of Jesus? The stunning answer is, 'Yes indeed.'" For me, this was an indisputable starting point and the place where deconstruction clocked out and reconstruction clocked in. So what about Jesus and Calvinism?


What was Jesus like? What does scripture reveal to us of his character and heart? It must be said at the outset that the question is not as simple as it seems. The so-called "quest for the historical Jesus" is an interesting case in point. Biblical scholars poured over the Gospels and often came to wildly different opinions in regards to the identity of the "real" Jesus. Jesus was an egalitarian cynic; Jesus was a Gnostic elitist; Jesus was a good man who liked others and never claimed to be God. Eventually, many were led to the conclusion that searching for the real Jesus was like staring down into a well and mistaking Jesus for your own reflection. When we go to Jesus with an agenda, we tend to find what we're looking for.''

On one side, Jesus is often caricatured as a pot-smoking hippie who wouldn't reprimand Hitler for pulling the lever on the gas chamber ... This Jesus could never send anyone to hell because it would violate his fundamental attribute: niceness. . . .

On the other side, Jesus is often caricatured as a bloodthirsty MMA fighter, doubtlessly engaged in an eternal match with the Holy Spirit ... Something in between "limp-wrist hippie" Jesus and "Rambo" Jesus must be in order. And so what do we see of Jesus' heart and character when we read the Gospels without an agenda (as best we can), and how should that shape our beliefs for or against Calvinism? The only way to form a good opinion is to read the Gospels.


I've never been able to read the Gospels without cringing a bit. Jesus' words and actions are often a bit prickly. He is terse to his mother, ignores his brothers, won't let prospective disciples bury their dead fathers, tells parables about people being cut to pieces, and makes no bones about the fact that rejecting him will leave you off the guest list at his eschatological block party.

An honest look at the Gospels made it clear to me that Jesus is, well, rough. He has a robust sense of human depravity. He speaks often and clearly about the wrath we are under as a result of it. He lets poor Lazarus spend a couple of days in Sheol for the glory of God. And one day he will come with a sword to judge "the dead, the great and the small." There's no two ways about it, no ifs, ands, or buts: Jesus is rough.

However, the question for Jesus and Calvinism is not "Is Jesus rough?" but "Are the character and teachings of Jesus compatible with the core claims of Calvinism?" Namely, God's creating the reprobate so he could damn them forever. [Though this statement appears to be a complaint against supralapsarian Calvinism, which was condemned by the early Church at the Council of Orange, 529 CE, let us not forget that infralapsarian Calvinism also renders certain the fate of the reprobate merely by God's seemingly arbitrary decree not to unconditionally elect them unto faith and salvation.] When we look at Jesus, are we attracted to Calvinism or repelled away from it? Or perhaps most to the point, does the God of Calvinism accurately depict the God revealed in Jesus?

[ ... ]


Where do you see God as Jesus is being crucified? Do you see him hovering above the cross, turning away from Jesus, and pouring out his wrath? Do you see him in the Roman soldiers crucifying Jesus? Or do you see God precisely in the crucified Jesus, in the God-man nailed to the cross? While it is certainly correct to see God punishing sin as Jesus is being crucified (see Isa. 53:10), the Gospels are relentless in their emphasis that we are to see God first and foremost in the Jesus who hangs on the cross. As Moltmann says, "When the crucified Jesus is called the 'image of the invisible God,' the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this ... The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about 'God' is to be found in this Christ event."

That bears saying again -- the nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in the crucified Jesus. And in the crucified Jesus, we learn that the God who pours out wrath is the God whose hands are nailed to the cross. The God who judges is the God who looks upon those crucifying him and says, "Forgive them." I found the crucified God very difficult to square with the God of Calvinism.

Just chew on it a bit. God could have dealt with sin in any way he pleased. God could have done whatever he wanted with us. God could have annihilated us or thrown us into the eternal trash heap. But God chose the cross. The Creator dies at the hands of his creation so it (we) doesn't have to get what it deserves. And yet this same crucified God also meticulously planned and carried out the eternal damnation of the creatures he had died for? The God who would stoop so low as to be crucified and buried is the same God doing the eternal crucifying of countless souls for things he made sure they would do [by decree]? The one who pierces the night air with the cry of godforsakenness on behalf of sinners ordains the godforsakenness of the reprobate?

There had been a time when I stood before the cross stunned by the love, justice, and goodness of God, but towards the end of my journey out of Calvinism, my wonder was replaced with grief. The cross was no longer a place of radiant love and justice, but brutal partiality on the part of the God who supposedly shows no partiality (see Deut. 10:17; 2 Chr. 19:7; Job 34:19; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9).

It was a place where the ultimate absurdity and meaninglessness of the universe came to a head: the God who loves so much so as to suffer crucifixion loves so little so as to glorify himself in the damnation of humans he created to damn. But I was supposed to stand before the cross and worship this ultimately unknowable God of ambiguous morality as if I knew what it meant for him to love me. And if you no longer know how to worship the crucified God, no longer know how to kneel before the cross and say, "Thank you," what do you know?


We must further note that the crucified Christ is the same Christ we encounter on every page of the Gospels. What we see at Golgotha is breath-taking and stunning, but for those who have been paying attention, it is not surprising. For from the outset, Jesus has shown himself to be a person who, without exception, enters into the sufferings of others so as to heal and transform them (in Matthew alone see 4:23-24; 8:1-4, 5-13, 14-17, 28-32; 9:1-8, 19-35; 12:9-14, 22-29; 15:21-28, 29-31; 17:14-18; 20:29-34).

Never once do we have any indication that Jesus is the source behind the suffering of others [by decree or otherwise]. Rather, Jesus ceaselessly reveals that God is the healer of suffering and sickness, not the causer: "Without exception [rightly insists Dr. Gregory Boyd], when Jesus confronted the crippled, deaf, blind, mute, diseased, or demon possessed, he uniformly diagnosed their affliction as something that God did not will ... Jesus consistently revealed God's will for people by healing them of their infirmities."

This sets up a rather awkward dilemma in Calvinism wherein God the Father is making people suffer [by decree] and God the Son (Jesus) is healing people of the suffering the Father [by decree] is inflicting [another example of the bifurcation Calvinists introduce into the nature of the Godhead, created by their erroneous theology]. How was I supposed to believe God would inflict eternal suffering on people for sins he ordained they commit, when Jesus (the exact representation of God) always healed people of their sufferings? For me this was neither mystery nor paradox, but sheer divine schizophrenia. It opened up a fissure in the very heart of God by splintering the Trinity, setting up the Father and Son in opposition to one another -- the Father crucifies sinners while the Son is crucified for sinners.


Austin Fischer, Young Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), 39-47.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.