Marilynne Robinson and Popular Misconceptions of Calvinism

No matter what we think of Calvinism, that short-hand name given to the predominant theology of the Protestant Reformation, we should want to make sure any ‘-ism’ is accurately understood, which this one ordinarily is not.

Wonderfully, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson liberates Calvinism from the misconception that the system teaches that people are awful. This from an interview with Christianity Today.

Q. Over against the popular science writers, you write, “I believe it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses.” How do you reconcile this belief with what Calvin’s followers have called total depravity (“No one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God,” Ps. 14)?

A. I am happy to welcome the psalmist to the ranks of Calvinism. “Total depravity” means that the effects of the Fall are felt through the whole person and that this is always true. It is a rejection of the pre-Reformation teaching that after baptism, sin is localized in the lower functions of the body, in “concupiscence.” The effects of Calvin’s teaching are to remove the special opprobrium that attached to the flesh and to draw attention to the complexities and fallibilities of consciousness.

Calvin celebrates the brilliance of mind and body, as any reader of The Institutes is aware. Over against this is his insistence on our tendency toward error, toward sin. So human life is full of the potential manifest in the gifts God has given us, and full of our inevitable falling short. This is a very dynamic understanding of the self. I find no difficulty in accepting both of its terms as true. Pressed for evidence, I would point to the history of civilization and the present state of the world. Calvin offered human brilliance as proof of divinity in humankind. If we accepted this, there would be a great enhancement of respect for ourselves, and, crucially, respect for others, that could only make us better citizens of earth.

A wonderful response, especially the witty ‘welcoming’ of the psalmist. I continue to be amazed by this woman.

She says many other worthwhile things in the interview. I commend to you.

2 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson and Popular Misconceptions of Calvinism

  1. llondy

    A good response to clear up some ideas about how a regenerated person and a non-regenerate person can both do positive things for mankind. I think that it is only the grace of God that allows this through his love for the world in general. God indeed does work everything for his good including the acts of evil men even if their desires and goals are different. As reformed people we focus on total depravity and how spiritually dead people are, but focus little on how God brings so much good out of such a failed state. Only by his grace

  2. Adri

    Not only does she defend Calvinism, her writing is magnificent. Personally, I liked her later novel, Home, even better than Gilead. Home was written later but some reviewers describe it as “not a sequel but a sibling” to Gilead; it deals with the same families.
    In a September 2008 New Yorker article James Wood writes: “…But Robinson is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; …she loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, its great proponent, into an obscure, moralizing bigot….She tartly reminds us, ‘Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.’ …The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness…and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain.'”
    A.O.Scott of the New York Times (September 2008) said of Home: “It is a book unsparing in its acknowledgment of sin and unstinting in its belief in the possibility of grace.”
    Gilead is on my “to re-read” list.

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