When Calvinism Goes Awry: David Bazan’s Falling Out

Zac HicksCulture, Worship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought7 Comments

I’m a little behind in my indie-rock listening.  In the late 90s and early 2000s, I was a big fan of indie band, Pedro the Lion.  My indie/emo-dude roommate in college took me to a show in a little club in LA (called Chain Reaction at the time) where I witnessed the mesmerizing performance that cut against the grain of any other rock show I’d ever been to.  David Bazan, the front man, was (and is) a prophet.  His lazy, half-drunk vocals are refreshing against American Idol-style pop singing.  (People ask me why I love hymns artist Christopher Miner’s recordings, and I just tell them, “Pedro the Lion.”) RELEVANT Magazine, along with a few online indie periodicals, have chronicled Bazan’s trip through married life, having a child, and the alcoholism that has plagued him in recent years.  Bazan has moved from some kind of faith in Jesus to a general agnosticism about God.  This has bewildered many young Christians who hailed Bazan as their generation’s voice.  I would probably count myself as part of that bewildered generation.

I remember hearing a live bootlegged recording of Bazan singing Wesley’s hymn “And Can it Be,” believing it to be one of the best, most authentic renditions of any hymn or worship song I had ever heard.  In fact, hearing that recording still moves me.

As some reporters have noted, and based on my admittedly limited view of Bazan’s life and circumstances, it appears that what drove Bazan over the edge into agnosticism was a Calvinism gone wrong.  This seems confirmed for me in Bazan’s bitter song, “When We Fell.”  The song breaks my heart, because it lays out what opponents of Calvinism often consider to be the logical conclusion of a robust view of God’s sovereignty.  I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves:

with the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo
i was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths
that eventually had the effect of completely unraveling
the powerful curse put on me by you
when you set the table
and when you chose the scale
did you write a riddle
that you knew they would fail
did you make them tremble
so they would tell the tale
did you push us when when we fell
if my mother cries when i tell her what i have discovered
then i hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart
and if you bully her like you’ve done me with fear of damnation
then i hope she can see you for what you are
what am i afraid of
whom did i betray
in what medieval kingdom does justice work this way
if you knew what would happen and made us just the same
then you , my lord, can take the blame

This makes me shudder.  The opening chapter of John Sanders’ The God Who Risks (Sanders, along with Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd, is one of the chief proponents of a radical view of divine sovereignty known as “open theism”) lays out a similar reaction to a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty.  Philosophically, opponents of Calvinism would say that determinism collapses into fatalism.  This is what Bazan is saying in his song, with its blasphemous closing line. 

I don’t have space to lay out why determinism does not collapse into fatalism.  Philosopher-theologians like John Feinberg, John Frame, and Douglas Groothuis* have done a far better job than I ever could.  I’d only like to point out  that there are views of determinism which hold in tension (not contradiction) God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, which help put Calvinism at philosophical rest…without letting go of the affirmations of Scripture, and without affirming a contradiction.  The view I hold to is most often called “compatibilism” or “soft determinism.”  Another view I highly respect, but do not personally hold to, is often called “Calvinistic Molinism.”  I’m not throwing out terms to name-drop but to provide tools for further research if this is an area that interests you.  Googling goes a long way these days. 

What concerns me about Bazan’s take is that it begins existentially rather than Scripturally (the same criticism is often given to Sanders’ work, the opening chapter of which is a testimonial of a tragic event which drove him to question a high view of God’s sovereignty).  Bazan observes his life and circumstances and concludes that what Scripture says about God must not be true.  However, if God exists and has revealed Himself in the Scriptures, then the proper modus operandi is to let Scripture inform and define our reality, not the other way around.  I don’t think that such an observation would be at all persuasive to Bazan, and my goal is not to “re-convert” him.  Only the Spirit can do that work.  I simply want to re-affirm some solid truths of Christian faith in the face of some real and challenging problems. 

The hard reality for Bazan is that he’s lost the type of influence he once had.  Pedro the Lion’s album Control remains one of the most prophetic albums I have ever heard (next to their other album Winners Never Quit).  By moving to agnosticism, Bazan has lost the foundation that makes his prophetic voice valid—external revelation from a higher source.  When you listen to Control, you are arrested by the penetrating cultural analysis Bazan makes, set against the backdrop of the ethics of God.  He cannot make those analyses anymore.  And it’s obvious that he doesn’t want to.  So, while Bazan continues to exert influence, it is one of a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.  Yahweh is not supplying the foundation for his words. 

The only thing I’m holding out for is that perhaps Bazan, with his songwriting in the last few years, is taking the concept of persona to new depths.  Could he be putting on a different self, so real, that even he is convinced he is who he says he is?  I think I may be scraping for that one…


*The works that have influenced me most:
John Frame, The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002.
John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004.
Douglas Groothuis (see his forthcoming apologetics text from IVP)
R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism.  Downers Grove: IVP, 1996.

7 Comments on “When Calvinism Goes Awry: David Bazan’s Falling Out”

  1. I abandoned the idea of Limited Atonement because if I tell a stranger that "Christ died for them" and they need to receive his forgiveness by faith in order to be saved, I just might be lying to them. God forbids lying. He does not forbid telling anyone that Christ died for them.

    Double predestination does lead to fatalism. If God is giving man what he wants, and what reprobate men want is to hate God and be a god unto themselves, then the real injustice is for God to arbitrarily choose to save any single person. (according to double predestination)

    If God loves all, and the Spirit works on all hearts to woo them to repentance, we only have our selves to blame. God provides salvation and freedom for everyone and man rejects or accepts it. It is not a work of the law to receive grace. Just like it is not a work of the law to receive a glass of water when you are dying of thirst. We die without the offer, and we die without the act of faith which is drinking. The woman had to find Jesus, struggle through the crowd, and touch His garment. Was that works? No, it was faith, and Jesus said so. Her faith saved her because it led her to act.

  2. That’s a little tangential. But, to respond,

    Re: Paragraph 1: I think that’s a poor reason to abandon limited atonement. You might have other reasons, but this one isn’t a good one. I have heard thoughtful 5-pointers stay true to the doctrine and not lie by saying, "Christ died for people/sinners like you and people/sinners like me." That works for me. Not everyone (and it sounds like you would be included in this) finds this satisfactory. Understood.

    Re: Paragraph 2: You’ll need to prove that double predestination collapses into fatalism. It may appear that way at first, but I don’t think it’s as logically thorough as it seems. I understand what you’re saying, but your "real injustice" = God’s free grace. And, yes, why should He choose anyone? It’s not fair. But we have a mangled sense of fairness, and God’s wisdom confounds our knowledge and sensibilities. "Whate’er my God ordains is right." There’s some sense in which we just need to humble ourselves under that truth.

    Re: Paragraph 3: Good thoughts. These are some of the deepest mysteries of God.

  3. Good thoughts Zac, and I agree with the existential analysis of David Bazan’s faith. But the issue was also theology. Of Judas, Christ said, (Mat 26:24) The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born."

    He created Judas and yet he says it would have been better to have no being at all, than to be punished with everlasting destruction. How do you reconcile that with a God who creates the wicked for such an intended purpose in the end?

    It makes more sense to me, that God in His absolute sovereignty, will reluctantly use evil for good, if we in our free will insist upon walking the road that leads to destruction.

    Joh 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

    The Father draws all men. The Spirit works toward conviction and repentance. But man must let go of himself, and receive like a little child that grace freely offered.

    If God chooses the elect, and they cannot fall away, there is no apostasy. You cannot fall away from a standing you never possessed in the first place. John 15, Hebrews 6 & 10 makes no sense under Calvinism.

    Jesus loves David Bazan. I pray he is a prodigal and not an apostate. Jesus loved and chose (elected) Judas. Yet he was a devil. He called Peter Satan once. Just because Jesus knew what Judas would do did not mean he ordained Him to do it. If so, there is no way to escape fatalism.

    Christ died for every human ever born under the curse of Adam, and overcame the power of the devil by His death on the cross. That is the gospel.

    1Co 15:22 For as in Adam ALL die, so also in Christ shall ALL be made alive.

    1Ti 4:10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

    1Jo 4:14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

    How can I believe that God deeply loves me, and wills His glory to be revealed in me, if that same God just as easily might have fashioned me specifically in my mother’s womb for and eternally dark and bottomless perdition?

    An honest question for every Calvinist.

  4. (for those reading, Mark and I are good friends, and we’ve gone back and forth about this before)

    "He created Judas and yet he says it would have been better to have no being at all, than to be punished with everlasting destruction. How do you reconcile that with a God who creates the wicked for such an intended purpose in the end?"

    Check out how authors like Feinberg lay out what’s called "The Greater Good Defense." This, to me, has been the most philosophically and biblically responsible "answer" to that issue. I put answer in quotes because it obviously does not solve all problems and tensions. It merely places the tensions and leaves the mystery where Scripture does. That’s why I adopt the positions I do on these issues…not because it satisfies every qualm I have (some of which you are raising above), but because it leaves the mystery where Scripture does.

    Scripture affirms God’s full, robust, sovereignty.
    Scripture affirms humanity’s full, robust, responsibility ("freedom" is too loaded to use here).

    What understanding best affirms these realities as Scripture affirms them? That’s where I try to land. Not all agree, I understand.

    "All" (even if you put it in emphatic all caps) still needs to be understood in its context. It is much too simplistic from a linguistic standpoint to merely say "all means all." I’ve found John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied helpful here.

    "If God chooses the elect, and they cannot fall away, there is no apostasy. You cannot fall away from a standing you never possessed in the first place. John 15, Hebrews 6 & 10 makes no sense under Calvinism."

    Your idea of "apostasy" needs to be understood properly. Can apostasy be an experiential one without being an absolute one? If it’s absolute, then yes, I agree with you it does not hold. But does it need to be absolute? Can it not be experiential from the human perspective? I think it can. John 15, Hebrews 6 & 10 make very good sense, if one understands them similarly, in that they are speaking with phenomenological language / experiential language. Again, those passages must be counter-balanced with the whole counsel of God. And once I do that, I cannot hold to what you’re saying, and as uncomfortable as it may be, must stay where I am.

    "How can I believe that God deeply loves me, and wills His glory to be revealed in me, if that same God just as easily might have fashioned me specifically in my mother’s womb for and eternally dark and bottomless perdition?"

    I have no answer to this. I can’t go there. I don’t think Scripture goes there either (though Romans 9 comes close). That’s my point.

  5. I think I have a high view of God’s sovereignty. He can do all that His holy nature allows. He cannot lie though. This absolutely sovereign God says," It would be better for that sad stubborn unrepentant one if they had never been born."

    I believe a vessel for destruction, an Esau if you will, He will use for His own purposes. But the key word in my thinking is "reluctantly". Both good and evil vessels will ultimately bring him glory. But the glory of the cross is not man’s evil on display in nailing a brutally scourged and naked man to a tree. It is God’s condescension and love. That God, fully revealed in Christ Jesus. His love has no bounds.

    He loves his creation and wants to redeem it. If the groaning of trees and birds and beasts will ultimately be redeemed, why would his zeal be selective among the sons of men who bear his image. He is jealous for that image. Do we teach our kids to sing "Jesus loves me this I know"? How many of them are lying to themselves? Do they sing "Jesus loves the little children, ALL the children of the world"? Is it when we become adults that God then choses who is reprobate?

    No rational and emotional being can hold the tension of my final question in their mind against the proposition of double predestination. Because I believe it is Satanic thinking. To make humanity doubt God’s love. To believe God is not good, but malicious. Here it is again.

    "How can I believe that God deeply loves me, and wills His glory to be revealed in me, if that same God just as easily might have fashioned me specifically in my mother’s womb for and eternally dark and bottomless perdition?"

    If we diminish the power of the gospel to make it only effectual for a chosen few, we have no confidence before the throne that we may possess it. None. Our assurance is always subjectivally contrived based on doctrine or works. If it is broad and effectual for every soul under the sun, we can all by faith rejoice. We know that the declaration of God’s love on the cross is for everyone without distinction or exception. Those that chose to reject His saving hand, his blood, will live with the responsibility of their choice forever. This is why every tribe and nation will mourn because of Him. Not because they had no choice in the matter and were chosen for perdition before the foundation of the world.

    Every person needs to realize the beauty of that truth and sing.

    I have a strong, a perfect plea,
    A great High Priest whose name is Love,
    Who ever lives and pleads for me.

    My name is graven on His hands,
    My name is written on His heart.

    I know that while in heaven He stands,
    No tongue can bid me thence depart,
    No tongue can bid me thence depart.

    When Satan tempts me to despair,
    And tells me of the guilt within,
    Upward I look and see Him there,
    Who made an end of all my sin.

    This is also a far more pastoral approach. I cannot tell a mother whose 2 year old baby has died, or a woman who has been raped, that they can find comfort in the abstract propositional idea that God caused (ordained) those tragedies for a greater good. Instead I can say God hates that evil you suffered, and you are sharing in the sufferings of Jesus our savior. God hurts with you, and He will reconcile all things and reward you for your faith and perseverance. Justice will be delivered someday on your account, but pray for your enemy, and know that God loves more deeply than we ever can or will.

  6. Thanks, Mark, for your thoughts. I’ll give your arguments here the final word. I think readers will benefit from the dialogue (not that it hasn’t been laid out elsewhere on the web).

    I will note that I was always operating on the level of philosophy, not pastoral engagement. For this issue, it calls for a very different approach, which you and I have talked about before:
    "Weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn."

    Soli Deo Gloria

  7. John Frame has been a huge influence and help to me. He is probably the most balanced Calvinists I have ever read. I find great comfort in the Christus Victor concept of the Atonement as well. Humanity has a few common enemies, and God is not one of them. Sin, death, and the devil are the foes that threaten and enslave us. Christ conquered all three. We are therefore more than conquerors in Christ.

    Jesus taught more on Hell than any other person in history. Why send warnings about such a final consequence if 1. The elect were immune from it under all circumstances? and 2. The reprobate could not avoid it no matter how much they believed.?

    Grace and Peace to you Zac.

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