Calvinistic Tales -- By: Anne Mcilhaney
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INTRODUCTION by Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Seldom does one come across a student paper (or scholarly article, for that matter) which combines both theological acumen and literary legerdemain. Imagine my delight when I happened across the following text while grading papers for ST 612, Sin and Salvation. The assignment: to write an imaginary dialogue between an Arminian and a Calvinist on the three central petals of TULIP — Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace —a Socratic exercise that forces persons of both persuasions to represent the other side fairly.
Anne borrows the 14th century style of Chaucer in her dialogue between two pilgrims on their way to Canterbury: the lawyer’s tale concerns a young virgin, Constance, who is taken from her home by an Arab trader who later converts to Christianity to win her. On their way home, all the company but Constance are killed by her Muslim mother-in-law. Constance undergoes many trials, but always attributes her salvation, spiritual and physical, to God’s power and sovereignty. The lawyer thus represents the Calvinist perspective. Chaucer says of the Parson, whom for Anne plays the part of the Arminian, that
To lead folk into heav’n but by stress
Of good example was his business.
Why should theologians write creatively? What has theology to do with poetry, Jerusalem with Xanadu? Just this: the creative use of language can bring ancient doctrine to modern life. The preacher searches for appropriate language that conveys to our time what the biblical authors communicated to theirs. Coleridge said that while prose puts words in their best order, poetry puts the best words in the best order. But this is always the task of the theologian — to search for the best words in order to bring the Word to bear on the world in ways that are at once fresh yet faithful.
And so to “Calvinistic Tales.” As you journey to Calvinbury, be prepared to pass by familiar landmarks (Dante portrays doomed souls in purgatory forever debating the question of God’s foreknowl-
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edge and election) that may look a little different. Whether or not some readers can tell on what side of the fence Anne is sitting, all will, I think, appreciate anew the message of God’s grace to sinners. As for Anne, she wrote an equally poetic paper for another of my courses, “God, Man and Christ,” where she compared, this time in the 18th century style of Alexander Pope, the views of Pannenberg, Carl F. H. Hen...
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