Fred Phelps, Calvinistic soteriology and its implications

Does adopting a five point Calvinist soteriology logically implicate the type of views advocated by Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church? The opinion of Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, is that there is a positive continuity between these views and those advocated by Fred Phelps. The Calvinist God is an angry God whose wrath is provoked by the seriousness of sin and that punishment must follow the fall; all fall under the curse of sin and are deserving of damnation. Christ’s death was thus necessary to take on the guilt of those deserving of this damnation. The point is that an angry God is mindful of human wickedness; in the words of Jonathan Edwards (who adopted a Calvinistic soteriology):

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

This way Frank Schaeffer states that what are ‘mainstream’ Evangelical views are in fact, in essence, no different to what Fred Phelps preached and the activism the Westboro Church put to practice. There may be a difference in the style or rhetoric adopted but the message is essentially the same. In other words, Fred Phelps preached what they hold to be the Gospel and if Fred Phelps brought discomfort in how he preached and the type of activism that followed, he just had the courage to state the implications of their opinions as they are. The logical implications of this system of thought leads to Fred Phelps and this is more pronounced in the case of the Calvinistic soteriology he adopted and many ‘mainstream’ Evangelicals adopt this too.

I do not wish to discuss if indeed the logical implications of a Calvinistic Soteriology specifically and ‘mainstream’ Evangelicalism, in general, is the message preached by Fred Phelps but to move beyond ideation systems to what Margaret Archer classifies as socio-cultural interaction. It is this level that there is mediation of cultural systems such as the theological systems identified with certain forms of Protestant Christianity. After all, the types of ideas that are now salient among certain Evangelicals was not always the case and likewise the manner a belief in a soteriology can lead to different forms of practice in different contexts. For example, the very resurrection of Dutch neo-Calvinism by the likes of Francis Schaeffer and the adoption of its underpinning mission to redeem a sinful culture by Jerry Falwell, an Arminian in doctrine, demonstrates the way at the level of people interaction there is adaption and elaboration of cultural systems. If we return to the doctrinal then a neo-Calvinist like Abraham Kuyper’s goal to claim European culture for Christianity is very much rooted in a (strong) sovereign view of God and it this high theocentric position that he juxtaposed against the autonomous liberal subject. In other words, we have a theological system, distinctively Reformed, that addresses culture from that position. Falwell viewed this system as a form of heresy but yet still influenced by Francis Schaeffer, believed it a Christian mandate to redeem American culture and government but the approach and vision taken was something very different to the Dutch neo-Calvinists (Kuyper identified as a Christian Socialist).

The point here is that sharedness is variable and not definitional or that cultural integration is something mediated and that there is no linear movement or logical implications to be drawn from cultural systems to socio-cultural interaction and so a quasi-teleological movement to certain conclusions or forms of political activism. Fred Phelps’s understanding of a Calvinistic soteriology may have affected his activism in specific ways but there is hardly anything in this theological model that, as Frank Schaeffer identifies, necessitates a movement in certain directions. In future posts, I wish to draw out how this reification at the level of cultural system (often from ideological representations of cultural systems) affects policy formulation and initiatives then taken.

Basem Adi is interested in critical realism and its application for sociological questions of personhood and its implications for a critical social policy

Categories: Rethinking The World

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