Part 5 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Chapter 5 “Sin and the Fall”

Part 5 of Response to The Gospel as Center, Chapter 5: “Sin and the Fall” by Reddit Andrews III

Reddit Andrews is a Presbyterian pastor (PCA). This is a brief chapter—only ten pages—and covers the basics of a doctrine of sin from a Calvinist perspective. Andrews quotes Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, Herman Bavinck, John Murray and R. L. Dabney (among others). Also, of course, The Westminster Confession of Faith.

For me this chapter raises to an intense pitch the question I have been asking about The Gospel Coalition all along. To what extent is Calvinism part and parcel of “the gospel?” Put another way, to what extent can a non-Calvinist be considered (by them) authentically “evangelical?”

The reason this question becomes especially crucial, and unanswered except perhaps implicitly, in this chapter is its treatment of “Evil and the Will of God.” (pp. 80-81) Many non-Calvinists will agree with most of the rest of the chapter. With the exception of these two pages it is a fairly standard treatment of conservative evangelical theology of sin and evil.

Before I get into discussing “Evil and the Will of God,” I must mention, by way of background, the author’s treatment of “Sin is Universal.” (pp. 82-83) There Andrews mentions that “Christians disagree on the manner in which Adam’s guilt and corruption were transmitted to humans.” He mentions two options: an organic connection and a legal one (Adam as “federal representative”).

What’s interesting there is that, insofar as this chapter represents the thinking of The Gospel Coalition, the “gospel” does not require a particular view of the link between Adam and his posterity. Why not? Apparently the gospel requires very specific beliefs about so much else.

My point is that there seems to be intentionality in some of the chapters as they point out areas of freedom to disagree about the implications of the gospel. So, The Gospel Coalition IS intending to speak for a relatively diverse group. These chapters are not just their authors’ opinions. Andrews, for example, identifies his opinion that Adam’s sin was imputed to all his physical posterity. (p. 83) But he doesn’t think everyone must believe that to be gospel-centered.

Notice the phrase “Christians disagree.” (p. 83) That is NOT said about anything else in the chapter. And it does not say “Calvinists disagree” (about the means of transmission of Adam’s sin to his posterity). It says “Christians disagree.” This language indicates that The Gospel Coalition thinks “Christians” DO NOT DISAGREE about the rest. Otherwise such would be indicated. But, then, that means ONLY THOSE WHO AGREE are truly, authentically Christian. At least that is a reasonable inference.

Back to “Evil and the Will of God.” Andrews says “God sovereignly decreed that sin would enter the world, and Adam was responsible for freely sinning.” (p. 80) And “God, who is holy and not the author of evil, did not merely ‘permit’ evil. It is not as though God did not ordain evil but allowed it to occur.” (p. 81) Is this what “all Christians” believe? If not, why not say so—as Andrews says two pages later with regard to transmission of Adam’s sin? Surely Andrews knows this view, that God sovereignly decreed sin and evil, is not shared by all evangelical Christians (to say nothing of non-evangelical Christians such as Catholics). The clear implication is that, for him and The Gospel Coalition, Calvinism is part and parcel of the gospel so that anyone who denies this (viz., that God sovereignly decreed sin and did not merely permit it) is not authentically Christians. What else is a reader to think?

Also, of course, this view, that God sovereignly decreed sin and did not merely permit it cannot escape making God the author of sin and evil. God could not have “sovereignly decreed” sin without rendering it certain. Why does Andrews not address HOW God rendered sin (i.e., the fall) certain? Virtually every Calvinist theologian I have read explains that God withdrew or withheld the grace he knew Adam and Eve would have needed not to sin. How else could God have guaranteed what he decreed would come to pass without actually forcing them to sin? And yet, non-Calvinists ask, how is that not tantamount to causing them to sin? And if sinning is what they naturally would do apart from a supernatural gift of grace, how was their nature “good?”

Then, of course, the biggest problem with Andrews’ (and most Calvinists’ view) of God’s sovereign ordaining of sin and evil is that sin and evil are no longer really bad. Andrews quotes Bavinck that God “willed it [i.e., sin and evil] so that in it and against it He might bring to light His divine attributes.” (p. 81) Really. Please. If that’s the case, then there is no getting around it that sin and evil are good because without them God’s glory could not be fully revealed. It’s only a baby step from there to “Those suffering in the flames of hell for eternity can at least take comfort in the fact they are there for the greater glory of God.” But it’s not even a baby step to belief that sin and evil are really good.

Of course, one traditional Calvinist way of getting around that is to say that the evil of a sinful act lies in the intention with which it is done. But, within a Calvinist doctrine of meticulous providence, even the “evil” intention had to be ordained and rendered certain by God. Then it, too, is not really evil but good.

I truly do not see how Calvinists like Andrews can cope with this conundrum. If this is true, then why not celebrate sin and evil and hell? They are God’s will and bring him glory. Why don’t Calvinists smile over them as God does (referring to Cowper’s hymn “God Moves In A Mysterious Way”—“behind a frowning providence he [God] hides a smiling face”).

 

  • Luke Allison

    Argh. This drives me up the wall and back down again.

    It takes a great deal of chutzpah to boldly assert that a theological formulation representing a subset of Christianity is the “faith once for all delivered to the saints”.

    If this is so, then we can count out our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters too.

    In some sense, I guess these men are just carrying on the legacy of Calvinism. It seems to me that Calvin’s primary concern was with “false Christianity” whereas Luther’s was “works salvation” or legalism. Hence the boundaries, the borders, the strict penalty of excommunication (I’ll never quote your blog again!), the endless theological clarifications and re-clarifications and re-re-clarifications (this seems to be every other blog post on TGC or The Resurgence), and the concern for “heterorthodoxy”.

    I tend to think Sebastian Castellio and Erasmus understood the spirit of the Gospel more fully than any of the magisterial Reformers. But that’s just me.

    • rogereolson

      No, it’s not just you. I love Erasmus. The only thing is, I will stand with the magisterial reformers regarding justification without merits. Whether they would stand with me is another question. :)

      • Steve Dal

        Roger
        I understand the reformed idea of justification by faith (alone) but I have never understood scripturally how it can be without merits.

        • rogereolson

          I meant without merit on the part of the person being justified.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Roger,

    The question with which you close this piece is serious and troubling. Like many serious, troubling questions, human beings try to avoid thinking about them. Collectively, we agree not to see the elephant. If the beast stays quiet, this voluntary ignorance can continue for a long time. 

    The reason why this elephant is allowed to live among the people of God is, likely, the horrible reality that evil is actually a very powerful, effective rebellion against God. There is a spiritual war in progress. This war has probably been in progress since, at least, the beginning of creation. It is possible that creation, with its order, and dynamic possibility for good, was the major reason that resistance to God arose. God really is fighting something very powerful. He assures us in Scripture that he will win, but does not reveal much about mechanisms or timetables. He does reveal that we, like all of creation are caught up in this battle, and that we must rely on God to have any hope of victory. In fact, he assures us of victory. To see it this way is not dualism, but it does accept the, incomplete, Biblical evidence regarding evil.

    For many, this explanation won’t do. A God in total control is far more comforting. What right does evil have to disagree with and rebel against God? We Greeks seek wisdom, we crave mechanistic explanations, we must answer the question ‘How?’ Yet God, through Scripture, appears much more interested in revealing ‘Why?’ and ‘Who?’ He seems to have chosen to let us worry about the ‘How?’ on our own, and is content to only warn us that our answers to the question ‘How?’ will not ever be able to explain Him. 

    We usually use the following passage from Paul to castigate unbelievers and their attempts to find God through some version of natural theology. Would we believers not be wise to also turn it on ourselves, and our systematic theologies? When we insist that Scripture should give us substantial knowledge of how God does things (such as the method used to create humans, or exactly how Christ’s death atones for sins, or how God could be the author of evil) is it not possible that the “discernment of the discerning” is more than a bit off? 

    For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength 1 Cor 1:19-25.

    Blessings,
    Bev

    • Steve Dal

      Bev
      I think you are right. Many people would rather belive that they are ‘chosen’ and God is in total control and the rest of us are damned than to have to work through the many unexplainable outcomes of life on planet Earth. I have learnt to live with the fact that in some things we will never know but that God does. I think we have to trust. At the same time I like to hypothesise regarding a lot of these questions particularly in the light of scripture. But I could never say that God is a predeterminist despot as some paint the picture.

  • Steve

    Roger
    I know Calvinists that celebrate their sin. They give God the glory for it. Why? Because as they say, God not only created it He executes it in the believer andthe non-believer alike. That is where we get the idea that God was actually at the controls of the planes that hit the towers on 9/11 ( a statement by one of the Calvinists I saw one time). They also agreed that God executes rape, murder and any other thing you want to name. To me this is where any serious Calvinist will end up. There is no other place to go in the end. You must paint yourself into a theological corner if you follow through on their hypothesis. I am waiting to see where they go next. I mean I know it is full of holes in terms of the scriptures but they never cease to amaze me.

    • rogereolson

      That is why Calvinism was often referred to as antinomianism in the past–especially by Catholics but also by some non-Calvinist Protestants.

      • Hans

        Roge,

        “If that’s the case, then there is no getting around it that sin and evil are good because without them God’s glory could not be fully revealed.”

        This is so tiresome. You seem incapable of grasping, or making, conceptual distinctions. The above is just an example, one of many. Sin and evil are not good in themselves, but they can be used to bring about a greater good that couldn’t be realized without them.

        How would your argument go:

        1. Some goods could not be realized without sin and evil.

        C. Therefore, sin and evil are good in themselves.

        Derive C from 1, Roger.

        • rogereolson

          Some conceptual distinctions are scholastic masks for conceptual confusion and even justification of wrong. See Romans 5:8.

        • Bev Mitchell

          Hans,
          We humans are capable of thinking ourselves into a big, deep hole. We are capable of straining at gnats and swallowing camels. When it comes to understanding right and wrong, good and evil, we are especially vulnerable in this regard. That’s because our adversary, the devil, is so interested in our getting it wrong. Hence the big warning at the beginning of the Book about that old tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We don’t have to, in fact should not, use only our logical facilities to sort out this particular conundrum – that’s the scholasticism Roger is referring to. These things are discerned only with the great help of the Holy Spirit, and, even then, our understanding can only be as complete as God wills it to be.

          Whenever a Christian uses exclusively human arguments for some difficult to understand concepts, be very suspicious of the answer! Liberally apply the thinking of 1 Cor 1:19-25 (see my note above).
          Blessings,
          Bev

  • Hans

    Roger, even granting that, that wouldn’t show that the conceptual distinction *under discussion* is a species of that genre. Not only that, it at least *appears* to be an invalid argument you’re making, and I’m wondering how you’d actually demonstrate that your conclusion follows from your premise.

    Bev, so you can’t give an answer either but assert you must be right and punt to mystery? Okay, but then why can’t a Calvinist give the same kind of answer you gave? Imagine how Roger Olson would treat a Calvinist who gave that kind of a response to his charge that they were making an invalid inference. As far as intellectual haughtiness, I suggest you apply that to Dr. Olson, who claimed that if it turned out that the only God that existed, the one who inspired the Bible, is triune, and sent Jesus to earth to save his people, is the Calvinist God, Roger wouldn’t worship him. Now who’s bowing to human reason and inflating it to astronomic proportions?

    • Bev Mitchell

      Hans,

      In John 16, Jesus has some clear words about the problem of over reliance on our own thinking. He even repeats his main point verbatim, just to be sure we get it. 

      “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

      Yes, there is some mystery here. But there is also more than a strong hint that we are not to depend on our own wisdom to ‘figure it all out’. Scripture + Spirit are absolutely essential for us to even begin to understand. Of course, this applies to conviction of sin and the revelation of Christ to our hearts and minds. But, it applies equally to our ongoing attempts to understand Scripture. As the saying goes “don’t try this at home alone”. The whole process is a collective work of ourselves, the Spirit and the church (faithful Christian sisters and brothers who also depend on the Spirit, and for whom the Spirit is allowed to overrule their understanding, when necessary).

      Blessings,
      Bev

    • Bev Mitchell

      Hans,

      Thinking my response may not be clear enough (this is a huge and overwhelmingly important topic after all) I take the liberty to suggest several books written by authors ranging from Reform, Episcopalian to Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox. All of them do a good job of taking the ‘mystery’ out of our understanding of the Holy Spirit.

      Saint Saraphim of Sarov “On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (late 18th, early 19th centuries) Perhaps Seraphim’s most popular quotation amongst Orthodox believers is “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.” From Wikipedia
      Bloesch, Donald G.  “Theology of Word and Spirit” 1992.
      Fee, Gordon D. “Listening to the Spirit in the Text” 2000
      Rutledge, Fleming “Not Ashamed of the Gospel” 2007
      Sanders, Fred “The Deep Things of God” (esp. Chapter 1) 2010
      Yong, Amos “Who is the Holy Spirit?” 2011

    • Val

      Hans, consider for a moment, God being sovereign doesn’t equal God being a micromanager. Since God freely let Adam and Eve: work the garden, eat any tree in the garden, gave (only) Adam the rules, then showed up for a little bit (at the end of the day) to walk and talk with them God wasn’t controlling their moves – why were they chatting to a serpent about whether or not they could eat from the tree if God had been standing there directing their every move?

      What bugs me about Calvinists is they make God into such a silly micromanager they ignore the fact God repeatedly shows up to check on things (with Abraham when he goes to see if Sodom and Gomorrah are really that bad, with Cain when he “hears” Able’s blood calling from the ground , etc.). This is a God who gave humans dominion over animals – a radical idea in the Ancient Near East btw. What on earth does having dominion over the animals mean if they can’t do anything for themselves?

      Studying Genesis alone does not show us a controlling God, or a God that constantly interfears with human activities. Sure, he shows up in big ways from time to time to get things done, but usually people are off doing their own thing and then mess up.

      Further, Original Sin is just a Western Christian concept. Adam is only mentioned in a few genealogies after Gen. 2-3. The Jews have no concept of original sin, God has no concept that Cain is somehow under ‘original sin’. In fact, that Cain story must be pretty uncomfortable for Calvinists, as God warns Cain not to let sin “get” him – and sin sits outside him, not inside him – or are you saying the Genesis author got it all wrong?

      Re-read Genesis, ask yourself if God is there manipulating evil, then re-read Luke 19:41-44 (as it is Passion week) – Jesus uses that dreaded Calvin word: ‘IF’ see how he uses it.


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