Some thoughts about my conversation with Michael Horton

Some thoughts about my conversation with Michael Horton February 4, 2012

Some Thoughts about My Conversation with Michael Horton

            I spoke about why I am “Against Calvinism” for about 15 minutes focusing on the goodness of God and how classical, “high Calvinism” is inconsistent with any meaning of “good” and “love” known to us. Then Mike spoke for about 15 minutes focusing on humanity’s depravity and God’s mercy in electing some to salvation. In other words, he also said that God is good even if not in terms of our “fairness” (because he doesn’t save everyone).

            Then we asked each other questions. I had tried to think of a question he may not have heard before. We’ve both had so many conversations with proponents of the “other side” that we have heard all the relevant questions. I started off our conversation by asking him why we can’t just agree to disagree about the secondary issues. We (evangelical Arminians and evangelical Calvinists) agree that salvation is a free gift and that there is nothing we can do to merit any part of it. Salvation is one hundred percent God’s doing and none of ours. And we agree that God is good and loving. Beyond that we get mired in disagreements about the details. Sure, they’re important details. So important that in our own churches we want agreement about them. But why can’t we just agree to disagree about them in the larger spaces of evangelical cooperation?

            To a very large degree that has been the case in the past and is still somewhat the case in the present. When the National Association of Evangelicals was put together in the early 1940s it included both Arminians and Calvinists on equal footing. To make a long story short, over the decades since then, some Calvinists have become dissatisfied with what they see as the dominance of Arminianism in evangelical folk religion and have moved out of their Reformed circles to publicly lobby for Calvinism as “the” evangelical theology. One example of that, among many, was David Wells’ article “The Stout and Persistent ‘Theology’ of Charles Hodge” in Christianity Today (August 30, 1974). Wells decried the lack of good theology among evangelicals since Hodge and clearly held Hodge and his theology up as the norm for good evangelical theology. Gradually, over the last two to three decades many Reformed evangelicals have spoken and acted to promote the idea that Calvinism is the norm of sound evangelical theology. In many cases they have openly denounced Arminianism as sub-evangelical if not sub-Christian theology, not only in their own Calvinist churches but in the wider trans-denominational evangelical community. In most cases, however, the tendency to promote Calvinism as the norm for evangelical theology has been more subtle. I personally think one evidence of that was Christianity Today’s celebration of John Calvin throughout 2009 with one article about him in eveyr issue. There was no mention of that year being the 400th anniversary of the death of Arminius (except in my letter to the editor signed by a couple other Arminians). I could go on enumerating and describing evidences of that trend, but I’ll mention just one more. My uncle was on the executive board of the NAE for many years. One year he heard a leading Calvinist evangelical author and conference speaker say that anyone who takes one iota away from God’s sovereignty is not an evangelical. That same Calvinist has been very active publicly portraying Calvinism as the only truly evangelical theology.

            So, my first question to Mike was really to all those Calvinists who are actively trying to promote Calvinism as the normative evangelical theology. Why can’t we get back to the original idea of the neo-evangelical movement of the 1940s that the gospel is so important that we evangelicals need to focus on that in our public gatherings and cooperative endeavors and among ourselves outside our confessional circles and not on our secondary distinctives? Why do Calvinists (and some Lutherans) feel the need to marginalize Arminianism outside their own confessional circles? The original idea of the NAE and neo-evangelical movement in general was to counter the drift away from the gospel in “mainline” Protestantism by coming together as believers in the gospel, setting aside our doctrinal differences of interpretation (except, of course, in our own denominations and churches). One reason for it was that two of the major national radio networks were limiting time for “religious programming” to people affiliated with the Federal Council of Churches (which later changed its name to the National Council of Churches). Evangelicals needed to band together to present a united front to the culture.

            That led into a lengthy discussion of those “details” of disagreement about the gospel. Mike asked me if Arminians really believe what I say we believe—that salvation is all God’s doing and we contribute nothing meritorious to it. Of course, his point was that in Arminian theology, from his perspective, the free decision to accept grace is meritorious (This is why his movement to bring about a new Reformation among American evangelicals does not include Arminians). But that just gave me opportunity to assert again that we do not believe it is.

            Now this is a perfect illustration of the whole problem. To what extent should we attribute what we see as the “good and necessary consequences” of a person’s belief to them when they honestly deny that they believe those? We both have this tendency. Arminians look at Calvinists and think “They must really, secretly, in their heart of hearts think that God is a moral monster.” Calvinists adamantly deny it. Calvinists look at Arminians and think “They must really, secretly, in their heart of hearts think that humans earn their salvation.” Arminians adamantly deny it.

            The ensuing conversation followed the usual pattern: areas of wonderful agreement followed by disagreement about the same subjects we were just agreeing about. Humans are totally depraved. We agree. They are capable by the grace of God of making a free choice to resist God’s offer of saving grace or accept it. We disagree. God is a wonderfully good, merciful God who loves people. We agree. God willfully passes over some people he could save, damning them to an eternity of hell. We disagree. And on it goes.

            Apparently it isn’t going to be possible to avoid talking about our areas of disagreement in public. By “talking about” I mean actively seeking to marginalize the other view as defective evangelical theology. (To be honest, however, from where I sit, it is only Calvinists and a few Lutherans who do that! I’ve never known Arminian evangelicals publicly to try to demean or marginalize Calvinism as defective evangelical theology.) Once it becomes clear we can’t just agree to disagree about what I am calling the secondary issues and promote them in our own denominations and churches–I try to get down to our bedrock disagreement AFTER making clear our areas of agreement. Why and how is it that Mike and other Calvinists can think as they do about those secondary issues? I can’t even wrap my mind around those secondary beliefs. I can’t imagine why anyone would believe those things about God. BUT, I do not consider those who believe them sub-Christian or sub-evangelical. I tend to think of them as just confused.

            Mike’s testimony of his change to Calvinism is that he read the Bible with fresh eyes and there it was; he couldn’t deny it. “It” being TULIP (not the scheme but the doctrines).

            My response is that I can understand how certain passages of Scripture can be interpreted that way taken out of the context of the whole of Scripture which simply cannot be interpreted that way. Romans 9 can be interpreted the Calvinist way. But the whole of Scripture cannot be interpreted that way. What I think is going on is that Calvinists interpret the whole of Scripture in light of Romans 9! I know they don’t think that’s what they’re doing but I can’t explain to myself how they come up with their “doctrines of grace” any other way.

                        One thing that bothered me and still does bother me about our conversation (and many I’ve had with Calvinists) is Mike’s insistence that Adam and Eve fell by their own free will. He insisted that  God did not cause them to fall. Why say that unless it’s to get God off the hook, so to speak? In other words, from where I sit the only reason for a Calvinist to speak so adamantly about the freedom of the fall is to make two points: 1) God is not responsible for it, and 2) Humans are (because in some mysterious way we were all either “there” in Adam or represented by him depending on which Calvinists you listen to). If those are not the points, why insist so strongly that Adam and Eve sinned freely?

            However, when pressed on the point, Mike admitted that God planned, foreordained and rendered certain the fall and that when he says Adam and Eve sinned freely he means they did what they wanted to do (compatibilism), not that they could have done otherwise. When pressed on whether they could have done otherwise he referred to the classical Calvinist distinction between natural ability and moral ability. They naturally could have done otherwise, but they couldn’t have done otherwise morally. But the only way that distinction works with Adam and Eve (who were not yet fallen) is to say that God withheld the grace they would have needed to exercise their natural ability so that morally they were unable not to fall. (The distinction between natural ability and moral ability is usually only brought up to explain why already fallen human persons both can and cannot refrain from sinning. We are responsible for our sinning even though we can’t not sin because we have the natural ability not to sin but not the moral ability not to sin. This distinction doesn’t work with unfallen Adam and Eve UNLESS it refers to God withholding or withdrawing their moral ability.) In the end, after all is said and done, a Calvinist does not really believe Adam and Eve fell “freely” except in that highly attenuated sense that most people would never guess at.

            Mike made a big point of how God did not “coerce” Adam and Eve to sin. Right. But exactly what difference is there between “coercing” and “rendering certain?” Okay, there is a difference, but it’s a very technical difference that doesn’t relate to the issue of Adam’s and Eve’s falling by their own free will. It’s possible to manipulate a person to do something “freely” without coercing them to do it if “free” means only doing what you want to do (compatibilism). But that meaning of “free” is not what is meant in any court of law. Nor is it what most people mean by “free.” Most people think “free” means “capable of doing otherwise.” It seems disingenous to me for a Calvinist to claim that Adam and Eve fell freely WITHOUT explaining what they mean by “free.”

            In the end, the claim that Adam and Eve fell “freely,” with the accompanying admission that God foreordained and rendered it certain, does nothing to get God off the hook or explain how Adam and Eve (to say nothing of their posterity) were solely responsible.

            But then, it would be disingenous of me not to mention that Mike turned the tables on me (at least twice!) and claimed that Arminians have the “same problem.” Allegedly, we also believe that God foreordained and rendered the fall certain—by foreknowing it and creating anyway. But, of course, he doesn’t understand the Arminian understanding of foreknowledge. God doesn’t “foreknow” as in “foresee what will happen  IF he creates.” He foreknows BECAUSE what he foreknows will happen. Our decisions and actions cause God to foreknow. 

            There’s another one of those areas where Calvinists and Arminians use the same word but mean something very different by it. When a Calvinist hears “foreknows” he hears “foreordains.” When an Arminian says “foreknow” she means “see what WILL happen.” When an open theist says “foreknow” (future free decisons and actions) he means “see what MIGHT happen.”

            Mike just gave me a funny look when I said that Arminians believe our deciding and acting causes God to foreknow. I don’t think he had heard that before.

            Back to my main point here. It seems to me that for Calvinists to say Adam fell by his own free will is very misleading and unhelpful. The only reasons to say that are to get God off the hook (for being responsible for Adam’s sin) and lay all the responsibility for the fall on Adam. But how does it accomplish those once “free will” is defined compatibilistically (as only doing what you want to do even if you couldn’t do otherwise)? If God actually wanted the fall to happen and planned it and rendered it certain, how is that functionally different from causing it to happen? How does that get God off the hook?

            Well, the next step for the Calvinist is to say that even though God rendered the fall certain he did it with good intent while Adam sinned with evil intent. But how does that get God off the hook? God is still the ultimate cause of Adam’s evil intent. And what was God’s good intent? The answer is: to overcome sin and evil to show his goodness and glorious power. Okay, but what about hell? Even that, Mike said, has a good purpose in God’s plan. What is it? He said “God’s glory.” So there. We finally get down to why Arminians say Calvinism’s God looks like a moral monster. In what setting in any human experience would rendering another person’s unending torture for one’s own glory be considered good? Oh, but they say, God’s goodness is different from ours. Then, the Arminian says, it (the word “good”) become meaningless. How does it differ from “gobbeldygook?” If it has no analogy to any meaning of “good” in our experience, how is it meaningful? Even Calvinist philosopher/theologian Paul Helm makes that point and insists that Calvinists should NOT say that God’s goodness is wholly different from ours.

            As a result of that conversation and many, many others I’ve had with Calvinists, I come away feeling two things. First, it was beneficial for us to hear each other and understand what we say we believe. Second, it was frustrating because once we went below the primary beliefs about which we agree to their deeper meanings we seemed to be like ships passing in the night or like people speaking different languages to each other.

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