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Marilynne Robinson: Distinctive Calvinist

By January 1, 2011 No Comments
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Calvinists come in many stripes and colors. There are five-point Calvinists, who may believe they originated with Calvin, but actually owe more to the Canons of Dort; Westminster Calvinists who adhere more to the Westminster standards than Calvin; neo- Calvinists who find their inspiration in the theologies of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck; and neo-Orthodox Calvinists who are closer to Karl Barth than Calvin. And then there is Marilynne Robinson, a self-confessed Calvinist, whose Calvinism is not simply distinctive; it is sui generis.

This essay will discuss Marilynne Robinson as a Calvinist. In a second essay, I intend to explore Marilynne Robinson as a Calvinian. The distinction, though not common, is important. Calvinists may know little or nothing about Calvin. Their Calvinism, sometimes unknowingly, may stem more from their Reformed confessional background or from their attraction to Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards or Abraham Kuyper. Then there are also Calvinians. These are Calvin scholars and specialists. Calvinians may be Protestant liberals, Roman Catholics, even secular non-believers. The terms, however, are not necessarily exclusive. Marilynne Robinson is both–Calvinist and Calvinian.

At first glance, Robinson is a surprisingly traditional Calvinist. She defends the hallmarks of traditional Calvinism: the majesty of God (though not in those terms), original sin, the providence of God, and predestination. She also has a high view of scripture. Moreover, in addition to defending Calvin against all comers, she also defends the Puritans and occasionally cites Jonathan Edwards with approval. In each case, however, she gives a special Robinsonian spin to their doctrines.


A prime example of Robinson’s Calvinism is her fascination with the doctrine of predestination. While for many people predestination is an offensive doctrine, Robinson not only defends Calvin and Calvinism in regard to it but goes out of her way to discuss it. She generally avoids the negative side of the doctrine, reprobation, and its exposition in the Canons of Dort. However in a lecture she gave at a Calvin conference in Toronto in June, 2009 she discussed the “problem” of hell briefly and related it to Calvin’s notion of double predestination. This is the only place I know where Calvin is not portrayed in a particularly positive light by Robinson. Yet even here, where Robinson has problems with the doctrines of damnation and hell, she is honest enough to acknowledge they are taught in scripture.

I have never heard of even one persuasive case made for the compatibility of eternal damnation with the justice and mercy of God. But there it is, a conspicuous presence in Scripture and in tradition, and Calvin could hardly be expected to set it aside. It is to be noted that he considers hell from the point of view of “the pious mind,” which sees God to be “a righteous judge, armed with severity to punish wickedness” and “ever holds his judgment seat before its gaze, and through fear of him restrains itself from provoking his anger” [Institutes I.2.2]. What he does do is to make the categories “redeemed” and “unredeemed” profoundly mysterious to mortal eyes, to remove every basis for our making any such radical judgments about our fellows…Every doctrine that assumes or rationalizes hell is terrible in it own way, and in light of this fact Calvin’s double predestination cannot be said to stand out among available options as particularly offensive.1

In another essay Robinson alludes to the same “offensive” doctrine and puts it in a historical context, thereby absolving Calvin from responsibility for it. “Terms and concepts associated with Calvinism also shock and horrify, for example the idea of an elect, of sin and fallenness, of judgment and condemnation, as if these were the products of one Frenchman’s fevered brain rather than basic issues in Christianity from its beginnings.”2 Her main line of defense that predestination is not determinism; that it is both scriptural and has a long doctrinal history preceding Calvin. “The elect” and “election,” she points out, “are terms used twenty-three times in the New Testament, seven times by Jesus, and are therefore significant in all classical theology, though folklore attributes the notion to Calvin and blames him for it.”3 She repeats the latter point in various contexts, and is quick to point out that “Predestination was accepted by every significant theologian (Chrysostom seems to have been the exception) before Calvin or contemporary with him, including Augustine and Aquinas.” After making this claim (which I believe is too sweeping), she adds this interesting observation, “Whether predestination is ‘double’ or ‘single’ is a quibble with which Calvin was too honest to have patience.”4 Only a “quibble”? I doubt it.

What is especially fascinating is the role predestination and reprobation play in Robinson’s two prize-winning novels: Gilead (2004) and Home (2008).5 The latter involves the same figures as the former but is more of a diptych than a sequel. In both novels the Congregational and Presbyterian ministers who are close friends, often are involved in discussions of predestination. This becomes an existential question for Jack, the troubled son of the Presbyterian minister (Boughton) and the namesake and nemesis of Rev. Ames, the key figure in the novel Gilead. Jack believes, given his past, that he is reprobate and he keeps pressing the two ministers to explain satisfactorily the doctrine of predestination. The two ministers waffle, say it is simply a mystery, and Ames in desperation recommends that Jack read Karl Barth on the subject! To which Jack replies angrily, “Is that what you do when some tormented soul arrives on your doorstep at midnight? Recommend Karl Barth?” Jack sees the doctrine as deterministic but the matter is resolved to some extent when Ames’ young wife breaks into the conversation and says, “A person can change. Everything can change.” To which Jack replies, “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know.”6

The remarkable thing is that in a slightly different context essentially the same conversation occurs in the novel Home, written four years later.7 It seems Robinson cannot leave this doctrine alone. It crops up again and again in her various lectures and publications. Her motivations in doing so are several. On the one hand, “predestination as providence becomes liberating, as determinism cannot do.”8 On the other hand, it preserves the sovereignty and freedom of God. In her collection of essays, The Death of Adam, Robinson suggests that Calvin’s doctrine of election or predestination “is a consequence of his refusal to allow any limit to the power or knowledge of God or to the efficacy of his grace.”9 Another benefit of this doctrine is that it has “the virtue, from a Reformation perspective, of putting the ‘works’ by which salvation was hoped to be accomplished completely out of consideration. This is another sense in which, paradoxically, it sets us free.”10

In her “Credo” Robinson explains the doctrine of predestination is “attractive” to her “because it makes everything mysterious.”

We do not know how God acts or what he intends toward ourselves or toward others. We know only that his will precedes us, anticipates us, can never look away from us. I think a sense of mystery, therefore reverence, is appropriate to all the questions at hand.11

Depravity is the other doctrine which has given Calvinism a bad name. Much maligned and misunderstood, Robinson comes to its defense. Unfortunately, she does not point out that the term “total depravity” is not found in Calvin or in the Canons of Dort. It comes into vogue only in the English version of the so-called five points of Calvinism (TULIP). Instead Robinson’s approach is to balance depravity with what to her is its proper counterpart, the nobility of humanity. She begins by dismissing a popular myth. “We speak as though John Calvin invented the Fall of Man, when that was an article of faith universal in Christian culture.”12 More specifically, “the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity [sic]–depravity means ‘warping or distortion’–was directed against casuistical enumerations of sins, against the attempt to assign them different degrees of seriousness.” In addition,

for Calvinism, we are all absolutely, that is, equally unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace. . . . 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.13

Robinson’s approach here is similar to Calvin’s first use of the law–to make us aware of our sinfulness so that we will seek forgiveness. (Here the reformer is simply following Augustine who said that the law was given to accuse us so that we might “flee to grace.”)14 However, Robinson goes beyond this and points to Calvin’s “exaltation of human nature, on the one hand, and his sense of its utter fallenness on the other,” as well as “Calvin’s rapturous humanism, which is as remote from us as the notion of total depravity is unwelcome to us.”15

It is quite appropriate for Robinson to emphasize Calvin’s exalted view of humanity, including the marvel of the human body, but it must be set in context. Robinson quotes a passage from the Institutes (I.5.4) where Calvin speaks eloquently about human beings having “within themselves a workshop graced with God’s unnumbered works, and at the same time a storehouse overflowing with inestimable riches.” She then continues with lines that speak about the “great variety of gifts” we possess which are “the signs of divinity.” But she skips one sentence between these two passages, “They ought, then, to break forth into praise of [God] but are actually puffed up and swollen with all the more pride.” Such qualifications temper all the good things Calvin has to say about the “nobility of man.” In fairness to Robinson, however, it must be noted that a few lines later she states, “Neither aspect of Calvin’s thought–human sublimity nor abject failure–can be understood in the absence of the other.”16

Robinson often refers to Psalm 8 in this connection. However one translates verse 5–“You have made them [human beings] a little lower than God” (NRSV) or “lower than the heavenly beings” (ESV and TNIV)–the psalmist obviously has a high view of humanity. Here Robinson rightly finds biblical support for Calvin’s (and her) “very exalted notion of human beings and human brilliance, fallibility notwithstanding.”17 This fallibility is described in the Hebrew scriptures, she suggests, in terms of humans being foolish, guilty, weak, sad, bewildered, and rebellious. If so, how can the psalmist speak of our dignity? The answer, says Robinson, is that “God is mindful of man, in that he ‘visits’ him.”18 In short, the scriptures “characterize evil as both prevalent and anomalous, and humanity as both holy and flawed.”19

In passages like this Robinson is balanced and biblical. Nonetheless, I must admit to some uneasiness when Robinson is given to speaking of the divinity in humanity–or, in reference to Psalm 8, “near divinity.” In a sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 and Luke 5:1-11 she says that Peter’s “humanity concealed his divinity,”20 also, that “If we could only see the sacred in the human, the children of God in the children of Adam, the history and prospects of the world would be very different.”21 Robinson follows this with a statement that is one of her themes, “To learn to love our splendid, astonishing humanity would be to rediscover a more wonderful sense of God.” She follows this statement with some of Calvin’s comments on Psalm 22.22 The difference between Calvin and Robinson may only be one of emphasis. Overall Calvin emphasizes the sinfulness of humanity, Robinson its nobility. Both truths are found in Calvin, although Robinson can be quite selective in her choice of Calvin quotes to support her thesis.


Marilynne Robinson is obviously a Calvinist, but not a typical one. For one thing, she is not a confessional Calvinist. One will look in vain for any references to standard confessions, whether the Westminster standards or the various Swiss confessions. A few years ago I gave her a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism before she was about to take off on a long flight. Later I asked her whether she had liked it and her answer was something like, “I don’t really resonate with that sort of thing.” As she explains elsewhere, she doesn’t like “doctrines that constrict the sense of God with definitions and conditions.”23 Remarkably, she never refers to Calvin’s catechisms. I believe this reflects her independent Congregational spirit. She doesn’t want to be hemmed in by precise doctrinal formulae even though she herself can be very dogmatic about what she believes.

In her sermons one finds expressions like “We High-Reformation Protestants”24 and more significantly, “We liberal Christians” (vis à vis fundamentalists).25 I find it significant that Robinson prides herself on being a liberal. The question is–what kind of liberal? In one way, she is politically liberal. At the same time she is orthodox, affirming the Apostles’ Creed. However, I am flummoxed (to use one of her favorite words) by her essay in The American Scholar titled “Onward, Christian Liberals.”26 This is a curious piece. The text for the article is Leviticus 7:2: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Apparently, Robinson was asked to write on the subject of personal holiness, but she quickly moves on to other subjects: on one hand, a critique of neo-fundamentalists, and on the other, a defense of Calvinism, in particular predestination and total depravity.27 Both of these poles are encapsulated in two sentences: “Liberal that I am, I would not presume to doubt the authenticity of the religious experience of anyone at all. Calvinism encourages a robust sense of human fallibility, in particular forbidding the idea that human beings can set any limits to God’s grace.”28

Given Robinson’s admiration for Karl Barth as well as Calvin (although she rarely quotes Barth), I asked her once how she could flaunt her liberalism in view of the fact that Barth’s whole theology was a polemic against liberalism. Her answer: “The meaning of liberal changes when it crosses the Atlantic.” This may leave some readers confused. I must admit I am not always sure myself what to make of all of Marilynne Robinson’s views, despite having known her personally for more than ten years29 and having read all her books, countless essays and interviews. Her brand of Calvinism is indeed sui generis, one-of-a-kind. I am sure we haven’t heard the last word. It’s worth waiting for.

End Notes

1 “Calvinism as Metaphysics,” in Toronto Journal of Theology 25/2 (Fall 2009), 183.
2 “Heresies and Real Presences,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 135-6 (Summer-Fall, 2002), 52.
3 John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant, edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. Preface by Marilynne Robinson (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), xxvi.
4 “The Polemic Against Calvin: The Origins and Consequences of Historical Reputation,” in Calvin and the Church, Calvin Studies Society Papers, 2001 (published by the Calvin Studies Society), 97.
5 Both published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in New York.
6 Gilead, 153. An English writer was so moved by the novel and this interchange in particular that he published an article about it in the Evangelical Quarterly, LXXX, 1 (January 2008): Gordon Leah. “‘A person can change’: grace, forgiveness and sonship in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.”
7 See Home, 225-228.
8 “Calvinism as Metaphysics,” 183.
9 Death of Adam, 187.
10 “Calvinism as Metaphysics,” 184.
11 “Credo,” in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 22 (Spring 2008), 24.
12 Death of Adam, 151.
13 Death of Adam, 155-6. Elsewhere Robinson says that when Calvin wrote about “total depravity” he “was rejecting the teaching of Catholic theology that baptism erased the consequences of the Fall from the higher functions, leaving only the lower functions, particularly sexuality, affected by it,” from an article “Onward, Christian Liberals” in The American Scholar 75, 12 (Spring, 2006), 7.
14 See Calvin’s Institutes II.7, 8-9.
15 John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant, xvii.
16 John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant, xviii.
17 John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant, XXV.
18 The Death of Adam, 240.
19 Incarnation: Contemporary Writers and the New Testament, edited by Alfred Corn (New York: Viking, 1990), 309. Robinson’s exposition is of the First and Second Epistles of Peter.
20 From one of Robinson’s unpublished sermons, “Vision,” preached at the Congregational Church in Iowa City, February 4, 2001, 6.
21 unpublished sermon, “Vision,” 13.
22 unpublished sermon, “Vision,” 14.
23 “Onward, Christian Liberals,” in The American Scholar, Spring, 2006, 51.
24 Sermon of November 13, 2005, untitled, 5.
25 Sermon “Biblical Economics,” preached in Iowa City, June 29, 2003, 4.
26 Vol. 25, 12 (Spring, 2006).
27 She also criticizes her fellow liberals “because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism,” “Onward, Christian Liberals,” 47.
28 “Onward, Christian Liberals,” 47.
29 For an account of how our relationship began, see “Hesselink and Robinson: An Exchange of Letters,” in Perspectives 16/3 (March 2001).
I. John Hesselink is the Albertus C. van Raalte professor of systematic theology emeritus at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. M