Contend Earnestly: A Calvinist Faces Death

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Calvinist Faces Death

I first learned about this story from Irish Calvinist and got this from TIME Magazine. Enjoy!

After roughly 200 years of decline, Calvinism, the faith of the Puritans, has made a modest comeback among younger Evangelical Christians. One of the movement's potent mentors is Albert Mohler, the influential, telegenic head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who made waves last June when he critiqued the religious claims of presidential contender Barack Obama in an essay called Secularism With A Smile.

Mohler, a Calvinist, went into the hospital in December for a fairly routine stomach operation and suddenly developed pulmonary embolisms, a frequently fatal form of clotting, in both lungs. After emergency surgery and four days in the Intensive Care unit, he made a complete recovery. David Van Biema asked him whether his crisis could illuminate his brand of faith.

I'm happy to be talking to you!

And I'm happy to be talking to you! And thankful.

A few years ago you claimed that "everyone is a Calvinist in praying before surgery." Can you explain that?

Yeah. Absolutely. In this sort of crisis we all want God to be sovereign, all powerful — to be able to intervene decisively, to rule over every atom and molecule of the universe. My point was that lots of believers are more dependent on a Calvinist-style sovereign God than they realize when they make their theological claims.

Like who, for example?

The God of liberal theology — He's a linguistic symbol, or a vague kind of spirituality. I've heard liberal theologians who have said that in situations like mine God is basically active in helping you find our own inner resources. It was very apparent to me in the ICU that I had no inner resources. My trust was in the unlimited sovereignty of the God of the Bible. I shudder to think of going through that experience believing that there is no one in control.

Can you explain the nature of your prayer at that point?

I prayed to survive — but I think like most Christians, I prayed, "if it be Your will."

This may be rude, but what response would you expect from Calvinist friends in the event that you had died?

I'm human enough to hope they would grieve my loss, but praise God's mercy in allowing me to live as long as I had and to know that God's plan for me — and them — includes what we wouldn't have chosen, but that we know to be perfect and best.

At the most extreme moments, did you experience any unusual recognitions that reflected your theology?

Yes. In the ICU I couldn't make my brain work in the way I was accustomed to. I couldn't get the words and thoughts to work. But [somehow] I remembered Chapter eight, Verse 26, from the Book of Romans, that says that when we can't pray for ourselves the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with "groaning too deep for words."

Are you saying that that idea was meaningful, or that this was an example — that God placed that verse in your mind when you would not have been able to?

Maybe both. I had memorized it, but God provided it.

A keystone of Calvinism is predestination, and what most non-Calvinists may find odd is how you could be so sure that you were predestined for heaven if you didn't pull through. Or were you?

Yes. I do not see predestination as either a blind force. We have the assurance that "God chose us before we chose Him."

But what gives you that assurance? Isn't it possible for people to think that they believed, and be mistaken and not be saved?

It's not some kind of game. I believe it is possible for a person to wrongly believe they are saved, but it's because they don't really believe in Christ or otherwise confused the Gospel.

How do you know you're not one of them?

We are supposed to look for the signs in our lives, of regeneration and authentic faith, but we should not live in continual fear that we are somehow not assured of our salvation, because that too is a form of doubting God.

One misconception people may have about Calvinism is that it holds that Christians act as though they had free will — when God has orchestrated everything. Can you address that?

Calvinists believe that the human will is instrumental in the experience of salvation. We would take issue with the idea of absolute free will, where people are talking about the priority of the human will in salvation. The big question is whether it is possible for the divine and human wills to operate in absolute harmony. I believe it is.

How would a Calvinist have viewed your successful recovery versus a non-Calvinist?

Some non-Calvinists might say, I'm glad he survived, but I'm so sorry this accident happened to him. A Calvinist would say "God had something for him to learn through this that will be important for his formation for eternity."

And you've learned...

A lot of things. I've blogged about it. One of the things I was really struck by was an empathy, recognizing that even as I was in the ICU, I may have been the healthiest person there.

Anything else?

I want people to know this is not the experience of Al the Calvinist, but Al the Christian. I wasn't reciting Calvinist principles to myself in the hospital bed, but I was very much trusting in the sovereign God any Christian can know and trust.


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