Calvinism and Pantheism and the Good (Wesley Walker)

The Calvinism and Pantheism Connection: Upending the Good

Wesley Walker is a seminarian at the Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University and active member in the Anglican Church in North America.

“To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?” asked philosopher John Stuart Mill. Unfortunately, this redefinition of God’s nature occurs as the logical consequence of Calvinistic theology. The case can be made quite clear from comparing Calvinism with pantheism.

Before detailing these points of connection, it is important to define the terms. Calvinism refers to Christian theological movements which seeks to emphasize the concept of “sovereignty,” thereby reducing God to what Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart calls, “a pure exertion of will.” Pantheism is the belief that the entire universe is an expression of God.

I am not the first to associate Calvinism and pantheism. Jonathan Edwards, preacher of the deterministic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was accused of being a pantheist. Many critics, Christian and non-Christian, have launched attacks on Calvinistic modes of theology using similar lines of thought, including one of the foundational theologians of the Unitarian Universalist movement, William Ellery Channing. What I want to focus on is how both Calvinism and pantheism redefine “good” and “evil.”

In a Calvinistic worldview, everything is as God wills it to be. For the sake of consistency, those with Reformed positions have to believe the world exists the way it does because God wills it to bring himself as much glory as possible. Therefore, in this system, the definition of “good” is relegated to whatever is because whatever is somehow brings glory to God. This is something Calvin argues in the Institutes. A pantheist has similar struggles to derive a definition of good.

A concrete example illustrates this principal. To a pantheist, things like a disease outbreak or a natural disaster which leads to mass causalities cannot be objectively bad. It can be painful from a subjective perspective but there is no basis for it to be characterized as unequivocally evil. This is because the bacteria which carry the disease or the physical elements involved in the natural disaster are just as much an expression of God as a person, a tree, or a “beautiful” sunset. In a similar manner, the Calvinist cannot say disease or natural disasters are objectively bad because they are an expression of God’s will, designed to bring him the most glory possible.

This problem is exemplified in Calvin’s own writing. While he attempts to shield God from any moral culpability for sin and evil, he also admits, “What Satan does, Scripture affirms to be from another point of view the work of God.” Works and events which seem antithetical to God’s commands and nature are automatically grafted into his will.

In fact, Calvinism’s framework bears a striking semblance to the yin and yang. This Chinese symbol is meant to show that everything is interdependent and complimentary. This concept is “Christianized” by Edwards when he argued, “There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from.” Both extremes are necessary for God to receive his due glory.

In this respect, Calvinism and pantheism each create a similar impact: they upend any stable, objective definition of good and make the reality of evil illusory. Through this disruption of the definition of evil, the definition of good becomes arbitrary and fluid.

The alternative to this problem created by these worldviews is to recognize evil as the logical consequence of sin. It is entirely separate from God on an ontological level. The opportunity to sin is a necessary condition for a meaningful relationship grounded in mutual love. The responsibility for sin lies with one who committed it and the consequences of sin are separation from God.

Calvinists and pantheists are stuck describing “good,” resigning to define what  merely “is.” In reality, the meaning of good needs to be anchored in the very nature of God.

In response to this, the Calvinist stresses an epistemic break between humanity and God, stating that we, as humans, cannot begin to understand his nature. However, this is not an accurate distinction. Out of his immense love for creation and his desire for reconciliation and intimacy he revealed himself to the world through nature, Holy Scripture, and ultimately his Son.

In order to truly and accurately begin to understand and define what is good, one must begin with the nature of God as the ultimate standard. To make moral determinations about the world, one must meticulously compare situations and events with the character of God.

If “good” is determined by something other than God’s nature, it fails what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. This conundrum states that either morality is entirely arbitrary (i.e. God could just as easily create a world where lying is virtuous and monogamy a perversion) or the standard for good exists independently of God which would lead to serious doubts about his aseity and justice.

In Calvinism, the definition of “moral” and “good” become arbitrary. They are those things which bring God the most glory. The reprobate are in a sense “good” because their condemnation is a prerequisite to the demonstration of God’s grace. The elect are also “good” because they highlight the mercy of God.

Only with a framework which uses God’s very nature as the ultimate measure is it possible to categorize good and evil in a stable way. This rejection of Calvinistic understandings of the world avoids the pitfalls of pantheism and the Euthyphro Dilemma.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.