In a mysterious twist of providence, the tragic shooting at Las Vegas and the release of the new film Calvinism happened on the same day. That brought to my mind Richard Mouw’s fine little book Calvinism in a Las Vegas Airport.
The book opens with a re-telling of a scene from the movie Hardcore. A stodgy Christian elder named Jake Van Dorn and a hippy prostitute named Nikki are on a quest to find Van Dorn’s missing daughter. While sitting in an airport terminal they get into a discussion about religion. Nikki thinks Jake’s negative outlook on life must be related to his religion, so she asks what kind of church he belongs to. He mentions the Dutch Reformed church — a Calvinist group that believes in TULIP. Jake quickly describes the five points of Calvinism, in a brusk and cavalier tone. To which Nikki responds, “And I thought I was ****ed up.” The film-maker delivers his point with a wry smile.
Sadly, Jake gives Nikki a distorted image of the Christian church and the Reformed faith. By centering on five technical doctrines from the Canons of Dordt, rather than on the good news of the person and work of Jesus, he leaves the impression that his religion is merely ideological, impersonal, and thus, irrelevant to outsiders.
In contrast to the mechanical, non-relational, propositional Calvinism of Jake Van Dorn stands John Calvin. Caricatures to the contrary, Calvin was far more pastoral, relational, and evangelical in his doctrine and life than his critics acknowledge. He was not without his flaws, yet, says Merle d’Aubigné, “There was in Calvin a lofty intellect, a sublime genius, but also that love of kindred, those affections of the heart, which complete the great man.” (Schaff, fn 595) Take for example Calvin’s sermon on 2 Samuel 1. Moved by the story of the tragic deaths of King Saul and his son Jonathan, Calvin connects the tragedies affecting Israel with the troubles affecting the world in his day.
We can see how God is afflicting the world today. Even people who are strangers to us are related to us, because we are all made in the image of God, and have a common nature which should be a mutual bond of love and brotherhood. Then there is a far closer union between ourselves and the suffering of believers who are scattered here and there in all churches which God has chastened on every side.
Indeed, we see troubles everywhere; we see fires burning; we hear that the throats of poor innocent people have been cut; that they have been subjected to mockery and contempt, and that they are being led to the slaughter. We see the enemies of truth ready to annihilate everything, and we do not know what God is intending to do. Nevertheless, see how his sword is unsheathed. The fire, as I have said, is kindled and we do not know how far it will burn.
Calvin acknowledges that, although God has a secret purpose for all things including heart-breaking tragedies, we do not always know or understand what his purpose is.
If the sermon had ended there, Calvin might have left his hearers to grope around in a kind of bleary-eyed humanism shrouded in a fatalistic mist. Instead, he went on to proclaim the good news of hope in our Savior’s mercy, as every gospel preacher should do.
Let us thus allow ourselves to be genuinely touched by mourning, anxiety and grief so that we will not be careless, hardened, or unfeeling over what our poor brothers are going through. Instead, let us have the kind of compassion towards them which members of the same body owe to one another. On the other hand, let us not give way to despair, like those who have become so grieved and full of lamentation that they refuse the remedy of consolation in God. Rather, let us confess our sins, knowing that our savior has not ceased to pour out his blessings upon us, even though we have sinned. Then, in the midst of our sorrows, let us recognize all our offenses so that he may show himself merciful to us, as he always has done to those who clearly take refuge in him.
Mark well Calvin’s deeply pastoral and evangelical response to calamities and tragedies. First, he frames tragic world conditions within the mystery of the sovereignty of God. Next, he reminds everyone of their common responsibilities towards one another as image-bearers. Third, he paints a realistic picture of calamities and tragedies, even portraying them in graphic detail. Fourth, he urges his hearers to sympathize with others and share in their sorrows and pains. Finally, he points everyone to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Unlike Jake Van Dorn, Calvin simply echoes the gospel of God’s grace and sensibly applies it to the real life situation of his congregation. In this way, he is able to deal gently and graciously with the broken, crushed, and desperate people sitting right in front of him.
Jake shows us how Calvinists can be totally right theologically, yet totally wrong pastorally. By speaking the truth in love, Calvin shows how theological truth can shape pastoral counsel and actually help ordinary people in the real world.
God does not command everyone to tip-toe through the finer points of TULIP, but he does command everyone everywhere to turn away from sin and trust his Son, to take up their cross and follow Jesus Christ who came into the world to save sinners like us.
The good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the kind of message that can truly benefit someone like Nikki, the victims of Las Vegas, and the rest of us.