Doodle: Childlessness and the Sovereignty of God

I have now written a couple of posts arguing against the position of many Christians that says married couples must at least attempt to have children. Most recently I challenged what I believe are weak arguments against deliberate childlessness, developing another post I wrote on the topic last year. This shorter post is a personal note, appended to those linked above. And I am writing it because though I stand by my position, my wife and I recently had a child; in fact, we knew my wife was pregnant when my first post went up. So here, very briefly, I want to answer some of the pointed criticisms and more emotional reactions to my posts.

God is sovereign

Institutes volume 1One comment on my original post read, “You aren’t the one who decides if you have kids or not. You may do your best to prevent it, but if the Lord wants you to procreate you are going to have kids.” AJ, who posted the comment, could not have been more correct. We had decided that we did not want children, but God willed something else. I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes this year and it was certainly no coincidence that I read this the day before my son was born, “Augustine rightly complains that wrong is done to God when a higher cause of things than his will is demanded” (1.14.1). Calvin also writes that we must accept God’s secret purposes. Though that section addresses speculation, it applies well to sovereignty. Later, Calvin writes, “If we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan (1.17.1).

Children are a gift

Since God is sovereign it follows that children are the result of him giving them to us. They are not something everyone is entitled to, nor are they something every married couple should expect (or demand) from God. This is surely part of the reason children are called a blessing throughout the Old Testament. My wife and I are very grateful for our son. Our experience of him has been serendipitous, an unlooked for delight. But because children are a gift, a blessing from the Lord, all of us must remember what the Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “I write my blessing to that sweet child, whom you have borrowed from God; he is not heritage to you, but a loan, love him as folks do borrowed things.” We are not entitled to children, as Rutherford says they are not our heritage but borrowed from God. We are entrusted with children, to treasure and take care of them.

How to we respond to God’s sovereignty and gifts?

Theodore LewisThis is the question all of us must answer, and not only when God gives or withholds children. At another point in his Institutes (1.16.6), Calvin shows that the scope of God’s sovereignty is ubiquitous, “Nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination.” This, Calvin says, means that discontentment with our lot is nothing other than the attempt to rid ourselves of God’s purposes. AJ’s comment on my post touched on this, “Hopefully if your wife does get pregnant the child is not aborted. Surely a pastor would not do that.” I would want to add that no Christian would do that. But the point as I conclude is the question: how do we respond to God’s sovereignty, and the gifts he does or does not give us? One of the names we were considering for our son was Felix, which is Latin for lucky or fortuitous. The name we settled on was Theodore, ‘gift of God.’

Unpopular Christianity

Secular ChristianityJesus was not a popular man. In the 1st century, throughout history, and today people have struggled not just in coming to him but also in going with him. I have written elsewhere on the cost of discipleship, so in this post I want to remind us of just one of Jesus’ stinging statements about following him, and then pick up a few challenging points from John Calvin. If you avoid the slew of secularised ‘Christian’ teaching that promises you your best life now, through pearly white smiles atop expensively tailored suits, you meet an unpopular Jewish rabbi, despised and rejected. Though there are many reasons Jesus was insulted, spat on, and ultimately executed according to the wishes of his own people, we might say that his enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, while his followers were offended by what they did. As Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “‘Lord’ is a cumbersome word; and to obey him, and to work out our own salvation, and to perfect holiness, is the cumbersome and stormy northside of Christ; and that we eschew and shift.”

Duccion di Buoninsegna - Christ taking leaveOne of Jesus’ most disturbing statements comes in Luke 14, ‘If anyone comes to me does not hate his own life he cannot be my disciple.’ Our immediate reaction is to shrug off the remark and conclude that Jesus was having a frustrating day. But Jesus’ point is that our love of and allegiance to him should dwarf our affections for this life. It is when we grasp this meaning that Jesus’ words really sting, for we love this life and its splendid pleasures. Our sight is constantly drawn from the glory of God to his gifts. But Jesus thought following him was worth more than our entire life and the sum of its contents. It is because we are so enamoured with this life that Jesus’ forceful words insult us. We must be careful not to love our lives so much that we begin to hate Jesus and his call to discipleship.

Golden booklet of the true Christian life - Calvin

The danger in over applying Jesus’ words is that we recoil from God’s good gifts in a mood not dissimilar from ingratitude. Thus the Christian life is poised on a knife-edge. As Calvin says in the fourth chapter of his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, our love for this world must be broken, and our hope for the new cultivated. The struggle is to learn proper appreciation of all we enjoy now, without those things displacing our affections for Jesus. Everything we enjoy comes from God and is a divine blessing to be gratefully received. But Calvin thought we needed to be constantly reminded that this world is merely a signpost to God’s glorious restoration of all things. We must be weary of vainly clinging to our lives and what is passing, and grateful for the brief and generous hints of what is to come.

I will conclude by returning to something I said above: Jesus’ enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, but his disciples were offended by what they did. Those who do no know Jesus cannot comprehend this tension, loving our Lord so affectionately that we appear to hate this world. It is only when we comprehend what Jesus has done for us that our gratitude and love for him will dwarf this life. So Calvin writes, in the Institutes (3.7.1), “We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.”

Doodle: Was Calvin a Calvinist?

Institutes volume 1I can still remember it as if it were yesterday, though it was something like 7 years ago. I had been a Christian for around a year and my growth had been nourished by the ongoing conversations with my youth leaders, as well as sitting at their feet as they discussed the higher, hallowed ground of my newly discovered faith. As an inquisitive 18 year old, I loved to sit within earshot of my leaders thrashing out – what I would later know as – theology. And a name mentioned in those discussions more often than others was that of John Calvin, the 16th century Reformer. Though, to be fair, I probably only knew him as Calvin; his (first name,) historical context and immense influence in the development of Protestantism was unknown to me. Yet I knew this: Calvin was the root of another word, ‘Calvinism.’ And Calvinism, which could simply be summed up with the acronym TULIP, was his major contribution to theology.

And now we are approaching the point (I use this word loosely) of my doodle. The moment which I remember so plainly was the first time I got hold of John Calvin’s Institutes. But turning up the contents page, to my dismay and sheer horror, I found that the book wasn’t structured into five headings, beginning with (1) Total depravity, (2) Unconditional election, and so forth. There weren’t even five, but only four, chapters! And to further my astonishment, these chapters were called ‘Books.’ What was going on? “How could this be?” Had I not stumbled onto the writings of another John Calvin, who happened to also written an Institutes? Because I knew that John Calvin’s theological system turned on 5 major points, “It does. Doesn’t it?” No. It doesn’t. The Synod of Dort might have had 5 points, in answer to Jacobus Arminius’ theology. Calvinism might be put plainly, simply stated under those 5 points. But let’s stop pigeon-holing John Calvin into every Reformed Protestant’s favourite acronym.

Allow me to make two points in conclusion. The first is that Calvin’s theology is much richer, diverse and more glorious than those tired headings. The Institutes present a more cohesive and grand theological system than TULIP ever did, or could. I am not suggesting that he does not develop and draw on aspects of what we would call Calvinism, but to argue that they are the touchstones of his theology is going too far. The second point, which is more of a challenge to both reader and myself, is that we should be reading Calvin instead of trading in overly simplified phrases that are becomingly increasingly embattled, just think of (3) Limited atonement. You might disagree with everything I have said. But if you’re going to do that then you need to first suspend the idea that TULIP does the best job of explaining Calvin’s theology (my first point) and dust off the Institutes to find out for yourself if I’m wrong (my second point). But whatever you do, please stop reducing John Calvin to Calvinism, simply for namesake.