When the Familiar Becomes Strange: Part 1 – “Wait, Am I Reformed Now?”

When I left OBU in the Fall of 2008 to head up to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to study New Testament, I was a confident (but naïve) Arminian. I grew up in a Baptist church that picked occasionally from both the Calvinist and Arminian traditions, but the debate itself was rarely (if ever) rehearsed. At OBU, the professors I respected most taught (roughly) from the Arminian camp – although, once again, the issue itself was rarely broached. My personal study of the issues surrounding this debate (e.g. sovereignty/freedom, foreknowledge, election) first emerged, like many young college students beginning to think critically about their faith, through the door of theodicy. In this process I drank deeply from the likes of Greg Boyd, John Sanders, and Clark Pinnock, as well as other more traditional Arminian scholars in the Wesleyan tradition, like Ben Witherington. This fragmented search came together during the last few years of college as I thought through the words of a brilliant, Danish NT professor of mine, “Election is for service, not status.” So I wrote my senior theology paper unfolding this idea – effectively vanquishing all Calvinist foes (so I thought) – and bulldozing several of my peers along the way.

As a result of this process I walked away with the impression that any self-respecting scholar in biblical studies was Arminian. My arrogance was palpable as I rode high on the wave of intellectual assurance. The main danger was that this assurance was a key piece of my identity: I was the guy who could confidently articulate what I thought about the intersection God’s sovereignty and humanity’s freedom. I drew meaning for myself from that function, and comfort from rallying others to my side.

Less than two weeks after pulling into Deerfield, IL with Caralisa, well before classes had even begun, my theologically-familiar rug was yanked out from underneath me. I don’t remember what the first clue was. I don’t know why I was so ignorant. It was a slow, and then very quick, realization. Like when Indiana Jones is finally able to light his torch to discover that he fell into a pit of snakes. When the light finally came on for me, and I was able to survey the extent of the mess I was in, I saw that I was an Arminian stranger in a mostly Calvinist land. Even my advisor, the man who was supposed to be integral to my academic growth and success, was not just one of them, but was the one to whom they looked for inspiration [During one of our first meetings, he looked me square in the eye and asked, “So…how Reformed are you?” It was a trick question, I think].

But this story is not so much about my theological journey as it is about my spiritual formation. This was just one of many events to come. It is a symbol of the slow-but-steady deconstruction of the identity I built for myself – the first rupture in the walls of my tightly packaged scheming. This story is one that I will try to recount for you in its different shapes and colors in the installments to come. It is about how the familiar became strange for me, how the strangeness opened up places of deep confusion and disappointment, how I learned to listen to God in the midst of deconstruction, how that strangeness became familiar and good, and finally how what was once quite familiar is now very strange (sort of).

The first year of grad school was nothing short of a crisis for me. [I’m sure things weren’t objectively as bad as they seemed to be.] But I found a small group of Arminian dissenters, I read and read and read, I took a course called “Calvinism/Arminianism,” I discussed, and I listened – a lot. I settled down and, eventually, stopped freaking out. I learned that I was misinformed, careless, and just plain wrong in so many ways. I also found new clarity and confirmation in many ways, all while learning to respect and love them, my brothers and sisters.

Most importantly, the church came around me and encouraged me to see this crisis as God’s gift – an opportunity to get a good look myself and see what was really there – a magnifying glass on the content of my heart. In the midst of rubble was the place where renovation could really begin. This renovation, however, took root in my mind long before it was played out in my body. I understood the kind of work that needed to be done in my life before I actually stepped into it – stubborn and scared as I am. The prospect of forfeiting control over idolatrous scripts that direct our lives is frightening. In fact, where I am now, emotionally and geographically, is one of the material ways of doing my best to live into this work in my life, which is certainly ongoing.

This autobiographical-ness is not normal for me. I hope that you can tolerate it for the time being as I work on vocalizing my introspection. Others have pointed out that I am far more emotionally guarded than I realize, so this series partly functions to create a venue for vulnerability. I also hope this series is less the result of narcissism and more the result of a desire to communicate from the space I actually inhabit rather than those places I wish I existed. Or better, I’m not sure how else to use my true voice, devoid of the crap it’s usually wrapped in, without first narrating my failure.

So I invite you to come and listen with me. God is near. Repent. Believe.

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3 thoughts on “When the Familiar Becomes Strange: Part 1 – “Wait, Am I Reformed Now?”

  1. Pingback: Calvinism and Arminianism: One Person’s Take » Doug Hankins : Into The World

  2. Thanks, Seth, for the post. I’m glad that you noticed both Arminian and Calvinist teachings as you grew up in the church. I’ve wrestled with this matter for years, and feel comfortable with what church historian Philip Schaff had to say on the subject: “The Bible gives us a theology which is more human than Calvinism, and more divine than Arminianism, and more Christian than either of them.”

    I think we all need to learn to live with the tension and the ambiguities of divine sovereignty and human freedom and quit trying to force all Scripture into one camp or another. Perhaps we should take the Scripture on its own terms.

    You’re a good writer, Seth. Keep posting.

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