What I Mean by Rhetorical Piety
It is important to note that I am not suggesting that Calvinists are doing anything deceptive here. So when I mean piety, I don’t mean false piety. More simply, what I mean is presenting one’s beliefs as the properly pious belief.
It is unfortunate that the word ‘pious’ has lost its true meaning. Often we take it to mean someone with a sense of spiritual superiority. As C. S. Lewis once said using the character of Screwtape, if you destroy the word you destroy the idea. However, piety is simply the attitude of giving God His due respect, and every Christian should strive to be pious.
Let me remind you than in this series, I am not necessarily accusing Calvinists of doing anything wrong, and this is especially true here. There is nothing wrong with striving to be pious in one’s theology, or how one expresses it. My intention is to point out what they are doing and its effect.
That being said, it is important that we distinguish pious rhetoric with actual piety. Actual piety is an attitude, and isn’t determined by the actual words we use. Rather it has to do with the heart behind those words. We can have the words of a pious person but lack actual piety. Likewise one can sound completely impious, yet, because their devotion to God is resolute, they are full of true piety (think Psalm 88 or Psalm 13).
This is why we need to be careful when we attach piety to ideas. It doesn’t belong there. Certainly, we should seek to express devotion to God when we express our ideas, and our devotion to God necessarily implies a pursuit of truth. But believing the right thing isn’t what piety is. Piety is a personal quality describing your relationship with God.
Orthopathy vs Orthodoxy
One of the things I’ve talked about often is the three orthos. First is Orthopraxy, or “correct practice”. It includes both moral activity as well as ritual. The second is Orthodoxy, or “correct doctrine”. It refers to the beliefs that we have about God, humanity, and the world. The third is Orthopathy, or “correct attitudes or passions”.
In general, the most important aspects of the Christian life have to do with orthopathy, and the greatest errors are when people try to make orthopraxy or orthodoxy (things we humans can actually measure and control in others) more important. Emphasis on orthopraxy leads to legalism and oppression, while an emphasis on orthodoxy leads to fideism and schism. Even faith is often confused as an intellectual concept (putting it in the realm of orthodoxy) instead of a personal interactive concept (putting it in the realm of orthopathy).
I bring this up because piety is also an orthopathic concept. It has to do with our attitude toward God.
Rhetorical Piety In Action
When we read the book of Job, we read of Job’s three friends. At the end of the book, we know that God rejects their teaching so it is good to look at their teaching to avoid error, and one of the fascinating things to note about their teaching is their pious language. It is everywhere in their speeches. They ground their teaching in the wisdom of those who came before them, and in God’s absolute and indisputable sovereignty.
Now I’m not claiming that they were Calvinists. Their teaching had to do with the reward/punishment system connected to our actions in this life, rather than the nature of grace, atonement, and salvation. However the similarity of their rhetoric is striking, especially since none of this pious talk is technically wrong, but rather the conclusions they draw from it. Indeed, they end up accusing Job of various actions and beliefs to try and get him to fit into their theological categories rather than actually hearing what he had to say.
We see a lot of this in the language of Calvinists. The idea that determinism is intimately implied by the notion of sovereignty, and that anything less than Calvinism is a rejection of the sovereignty of God is a clear example of precisely this kind of rhetoric. “If you believe in A, then you must believe in B. If you reject A, then you despise God and exalt man.” But such assertions are based not off of the interconnections of Arminian beliefs, but a firm internal belief by Calvinists that they must be Calvinist to be truly pious.
The End Result
The basic end result of pious rhetoric when it isn’t held in check by humility is a combination of vilification and straw man. And I say held in check because, again, there is nothing wrong with seeking to bring God glory by your theology, nor praising how it does so. Rather it needs to be held in check by the desire to seek God’s sense of glory, and not project our own sense of glory on Him. I have often been told, “Who are you, O man, to speak back to God”, yet they fail to realize that I am not speaking back to God, but speaking back to them.
A rejection of your conclusions doesn’t mean a rejection of all of your premises. I certainly have trouble seeing how God could be all loving and good on Calvinism, but I would never claim that Calvinists reject His goodness or love. And when Arminians do this, they are committing the same kind of rhetoric. What Calvinists need to realize is that when we are rejecting Calvinism, we are not rejecting sovereignty or other such things. There are other premises that they hold that shape their conclusion other than “God is soveriegn” or the efficacy of the atonement. This can only start by separating out the laudable goal of declaring God’s glory from our theology, from tying God’s glory to our theology.
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