A Calvinist learns from Catholics how to be a better Calvinist–part 2 in a series

A Calvinist learns from Catholics how to be a better Calvinist–part 2 in a series August 8, 2013

Today’s post is the second of 2 by Dr. Chuck DeGroat in his series Reformed and Contemplative: Discovering Both 16th Century Reformations. The first post is here.

DeGroat is the author of Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Placesand co-founder and senior fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies, a partnership between City Church San Francisco (where he has served as a teaching pastor) and Western Theological Seminary (where he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling) He has also served as a professor and Director of Spiritual Formation at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando). His forthcoming book is The Toughest People to Love (EerdmansSpring 2014).


In the previous post, I shared my experience studying with Prof. Alistair McGrath in Oxford, England during the summer of 1997. McGrath was in a particularly self-reflective mood that summer, confessing that his own commitment to Reformed theology was enriched by his reading of contemplatives like Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

As a 27-year old young Calvinist who’d understood one and only narrative about Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, the revelation of McGrath’s love for the mystics jolted me, igniting my own love for these often ignored contemplatives.

I returned to Reformed Theological Seminary after that summer having passed muster, but sensing something much more profound at work within me. I’d exhausted myself to get the academic blessing of my professors, but something within whispered, “But you don’t know grace. Do you really know me?”

I knew much about God. I’d taught classes in high school on the Five Points of Calvinism and the Trinity. I had a degree in Philosophy from a Reformed College. But I’d missed Calvin’s own first words in his Institutes–“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

I’d missed that last part – “of ourselves.”  But McGrath reminded me as he reflected on his own marriage, his own story, his own anxious striving and his personal battle to know God, not just things about God.What I came to see was that there was not as much in my tradition about knowing God. My tradition is a heady tradition. And I’d discovered my own tendency to climb to God on the merits of my brain.

I was intrigued by concepts like “unknowing,” “mystical union,” and “the dark (obscure) night.”  In fact, contemplative spirituality was initially attractive not as another thing to know about, but as a way of unknowing, unlearning, and finding rest. Yes, I needed to experience grace.  And, I’ve found this idea resonating with the many Reformed seminary students I’ve taught over the past 15+ years.

My own journey took me to contemplative literature not only in the Catholic tradition, but allowed me to see it in Calvin’s doctrine of union, in the pastoral writings of Samuel Rutherford, or in Dutch Reformed writers I’d never heard of – Willem Teellinck, Theodorus à Brakel, Guiljelmus Saldenus, Wilhelmus à Brakel, and Herman Witsius.

More so, I experienced a profound invitation to grace, if you can believe it, from Catholics like Henri NouwenThomas Merton, and Richard Rohr–an invitation that has never once seemed to be contrary to my Reformed convictions, but always deepening and refining.

This has been a profoundly humbling journey. Calvin’s invitation to self-knowledge, in fact, is an invitation to humility.  Contemplative spirituality, as I’ve understood it and practiced it, is not reading about rest but experiencing it, it’s not about preaching love but receiving it.

Though it can have the perception of being individualistic, inward, and anti-ecclesial, the contemplative life, in fact, is the Eucharistic life. It is living into that deep identity of being one who is Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given – a reality experienced each Sunday (as Calvin intended it!) at table with God’s family.

It is a continual return from exile, a return Home, to one’s deepest center in God, made possible because God became one of us. It is a constant realization that our deepest life is “hidden in Christ,” as we die to ego, to pride, to our false selves, and put on that “new self” which is God’s very self in us.

The beauty not just of this realization, but of the experience of God as our deepest love, is what all of the Reformers longed for. Though their “protests” came in different voices, the invitation was voiced in unison – God longs for re-union with his beloved so that he can re-direct us into a life in which we proclaim his desire to renew us and renew all things.

And so, I am Reformed and Contemplative, grateful for these two movements of grace which continue to invite me to find myself in Him.

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  • ctrace

    As a Calvinist I approve of these two posts by Dr. DeGroat. And my approval is, you know, definitive proof of the OK-ness of what is being said.

    Let me add… Didn’t Calvin quote St. Bernhard more than any other writer other than perhaps Augustine?

    DeGroat mentioned the Dutch Puritans. They were perhaps even more practical level than the English Puritans. Their movement was the ‘Further’ Reformation, as in, to the more practical level. They were more likely than moderns to write chapters in the systematic theologies on subjects such as watchfulness…

    • mark

      Don’t get me started on Bernard …

  • Thank you both for this – a very timely posting, given I’m journalling and blogging on mystical Christianity at the moment…

  • Don Bryant

    The mystics of all monotheistic religious traditions are held suspect – Sufism in Islam, Kabbalah in Judaism, and in mainstream RC and Protestantism those you mentioned above, and many others. While they might hold to the usual doctrinal formulations of their home religion, they speak the language of inclusion. They see God everywhere, in all, nothing alien to him. Drives the formalists nuts. When I read the mystics, I can feel the boundary lines becoming thinner. It scares me and is destabilizing. Adoniram Judson at his deepest point of suffering began to read Madame Guyon, much to the disapproval of his wife. It got him through. And then on the other side of his great trial, he ceased to read her. Gordon MacDonald once commented that when he was at his darkest time after having given up his ministry, perhaps never to be restored in the eyes of others, Evangelicalism had nothing to say to him about the process of suffering and restoration. It was the RC mystics that got him through. I see this and myself have taken the tour and benefitted greatly from it as a stream of the faith, though not the whole of it or the essence of it.

  • Don Bryant

    By the way one of my papers at Westminster Seminary was on Teresa of Avila. There aren’t enough indulgences to buy that could make up for what I wrote in that paper!!! The prof was very pleased with my conclusion that this is not Christianity. Almost forty years later I seek guidance from such as Teresa. Time opens up the door that as a young man filled with the drives and aggressions of youth I did not even know and could have has suspected were there. Many a “too young” seminary prof doesn’t see that door either.

  • Rick

    “….there was not as much in my tradition about knowing God.”
    Considering that J.I. Packer is a leading voice in the reformed camp, it is interesting that his classic book Knowing God, and his stressing of union with God/Christ, was not mentioned.

  • mark

    “Know thyself!”


  • mark

    Don Bryant wrote:

    The prof was very pleased with my conclusion that this is not Christianity.

    So who was/is the better Calvinist–you or the prof? DeGroat says he’s a better Calvinist for reading and accepting Catholic mystics; do you see yourself now as a better Calvinist? What does all this have to do with being a Christian?

    My views on how Calvinism fits into the overall scheme of Western history can be gleaned from the comments on the first of these two posts by DeGroat.

  • mark


    The beauty not just of this realization, but of the experience of God as our deepest love, is what all of the Reformers longed for.

    Here’s a book by a well known Catholic (formerly Reformed) theologian who does his best to give full credit to the Reformed religious spirit. He also assigns blame for disunion very heavily where I do: the misunderstanding of the faith that arose from toleration of the decadent Augustinian scholasticism of the Middle Ages (nominalism). Note, however, that while I may characterize nominalism as “decadent” Augustinianism, these thinkers are universally known (among philosophers) for their acute intellects: Scotus, for example, is known as the Doctor Subtilis. And Luther, reputed to be anti-scholastic, was actually well educated in nominalist philosophy and always maintained that it was the only philosophy that made any sense to him.

    The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism

    From an acute Amazon reviewer who expresses it far better than I:

    “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism” is a critically engaged yet remarkably sympathetic analysis of the Protestant Reformation by a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism. In the first half he praises the key positive principles of the Reformation, showing how they are good, true, and fundamentally Catholic. In part two he shows how those same great principles have been continuously and inevitably undermined by and among the Reformers (and their heirs) as a result of Protestantism’s failure to properly critique and throw off the nominalistic philosophical framework of the late medieval period. He clearly explains how the positive principles of the Reformation and Protestantism can only be sustained and flourish within the Catholic Church.

    So, in the first half he validates what DeGroat and Don Bryant are saying–or something like it–while in the second half he turns to what I’ve been hammering at: the “Reformers” tragically failed to reform precisely what was dragging the Church down. Instead, they doubled down on precisely those malign currents of Augustinian thought at the same time that they struggled to free themselves from the effects of those currents of thought. I think that meets the classic definition of tragedy.

  • mark

    Two more links that may be of interest. Both focus on Luther rather than Calvin, and both are sympathetic.

    The first is by an Augustinian priest. My main takeaway is that the author contends–in a vein not dissimilar to that of Bouyer–that Luther reacted against the ideas of God induced by his nominalist education. His resulting views are not necessarily irreconcilable with those, for example, of Aquinas–although the approaches are different–but Luther was ironically prevented from recognizing this by the remaining nominalist influence on his thought. Ironic, too, was his embrace of Augustine, given that nominalism derives from central philosophical ideas in Augustinian thought. Again, I think this qualifies as tragedy.

    Martin Luther: the Separated “Son” of Augustine

    The second link is from a non-Catholic. Here the takeaway is the complexity of the relations of the Reformers with a broad spectrum of preceding “scholastic” thought. A long passage quoted from “Luther and His Times” makes this clear. Once again we see Bouyer’s thesis: the Reformers’ understanding of Medieval Catholic thought was colored by their experience of the dominant nominalism of their time (nominalism was dominant in all the university faculties).

    The author is critical of Catholic readings of Luther, but this brief passage caught my eye:

    The things in medieval philosophy to which Luther objected were the egocentric features. His objection to the ladder of merit is really an objection to egocentricity. Man is seeking to project himself upward to the level of God by his efforts and works. The ladder of merit aggravates egocentricity rather than eliminates it.

    Now, who, reading DeGroat’s posts and Bryant’s comments, would think that this does justice to the best in the mainstream of Catholic thought? None, I think. Does this reflect the spirit or letter of Aquinas? Hardly. Now, relevant to this post, recall that John of the Cross was highly learned in Thomist thought and used it as the basis for his mystical theology.

    More tragedy? I think so.


  • mark

    Heh. I just followed the link in the post to Richard Rohr at Amazon. He’s got 61 (sixty one) books listed. Well, maybe some are different editions of the same book, but I don’t have all day to check that stuff out (it just seems that way, eh?). Henri Nouwen has 1,000,000 (one million) listings. Well, maybe I exaggerate. A bit. Maybe there are tapes and CDs and DVDs included. Like I say, I don’t have all the live long day to devote to sorting it all out. Merton had “over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.” Another dude with a lot to say.

    By way of comparison, John of the Cross had less than ten books and, really, only 4 that most people would be familiar with. You can get his collected works in one volume (poems, letters, books, counsels, etc.) for $17.41–a bargain, compared to these modern guys. But that was before literary agents and such like. Teresa of Avila’s collected works come out to 6 books in two volumes, but still only about $33. Not bad.

    Either that or mysticism is big or biggish business.

    • ctrace

      Mystics are a gateway into biblical doctrine. Then, ideally, you will see on-the-mark, unwatered-down, (un-negotiated down to the demands of our fallen nature) hard truth biblical doctrine as being mystical in itself. Christianity at its heart is mystical. As in union with Christ via the Holy Spirit. The Doctrines of Grace (TULIP) so associated with Calvinism are mystical in the sense I am using the word. They get you out of yourself and reorientate you internally from being man-centered to being God centered.