Is This the Best of All Possible Worlds? What I Would Think If I Were a Calvinist
Most Calvinists I know believe in meticulous providence. Some have claimed here recently that a Calvinist does not have to believe in meticulous providence (that God plans, ordains and governs all that happens without exception). However, as I have shown in Against Calvinism with many quotes from and references to leading Calvinist theologians, traditional, “garden variety” Calvinism does include it. Here I am only talking about Calvinism that does include belief in meticulous providence—what I call divine determinism. (Again, I explain that concept in detail in Against Calvinism. It simply means belief that every event has an explanatory cause and that God is the ultimate cause of whatever happens even if he works through secondary causes in many cases.)
Recently I posted an essay here in which I talked about my penchant for seeing the logical outcome of everything. The moment I read or hear an idea I automatically, without even trying, think of where it leads logically. And I think that’s good. We should not believe in ideas whose good and necessary consequences are unbelievable or objectionable (to ourselves). In other words, if idea A leads inexorably, by dint of logic, to idea B and idea B is something I do not believe in, I ought not to believe in A either.
As I mentioned then, one of my seminary professors warned me about this penchant. He said “Roger, you shouldn’t push everything to its logical conclusion.” I was surprised at him then and I still disagree. It’s one sound way of testing ideas as to their validity. Of course, it’s not always easy to tell whether idea A leads to idea B as its good and necessary consequence. That’s something philosophers and theologians talk about all the time. And these arguments are much debated. Just because someone else thinks my idea A, a belief I hold, leads necessarily to idea B, a belief I don’t hold, doesn’t mean I agree. The “chain” of logic is not always as clear as people claim.
However, the point I want to make here is that I believe divine determinism and meticulous providence, idea “A” that God plans, ordains and governs everything without exception, leads inexorably by dint of logic to idea “B” which is that this is the best of all possible worlds. In other words, if I were a Calvinist of that type, one who believes (with Calvin and Jonathan Edwards) that God plans, ordains and governs everything without exception, I would have to believe this is the best of all possible worlds. I cannot see any escape from it escape illogic.
Now, just to turn aside red herrings in the inevitably ensuing discussion, let me say that I am not claiming that God must create the best of all possible worlds. I’m well aware of the philosophical debate about that among Christian philosophers. I side with those who say God is not obligated by anything, including his own nature and character, to create the best of all possible worlds. And I’m not claiming that a Calvinist must believe God does that. That’s a different question.
The one and only issue I’m raising here is whether a God who is perfectly good, omnipotent, and all-determining would plan, ordain and govern anything less or other than the best possible world. I cannot imagine that he would.
And yet, strangely to me, most Calvinists I have asked about this (and the few I’ve read who discuss it) have been reluctant to affirm that this is the best of all possible worlds. Let me give an example.
Some years ago I taught a course in Christian apologetics in which I used a textbook by an evangelical Calvinist theologian and philosopher. I’m not going to name the author or the book here because that’s not pertinent and I don’t want to send people to him pestering him about this. You’ll just have to take my word for what I am going to say he wrote. In the book’s chapter on God’s sovereignty and the problem of evil the evangelical apologist, who teaches at a leading evangelical university, raised the question of whether this is, as philosopher Leibniz claimed, the best of all possible worlds. His answer was (paraphrasing): No, but it’s the best world on the way to the best of all possible worlds. In other words, he explained, the future eschatological kingdom of God will be the best of all possible worlds, but the one we are living in now is the best world on the way to that best of all possible worlds. Even my undergraduate students raised questions about that—that I could not answer because I ageed with them: that that’s illogical.
If this world is the best world on the way to the best of all possible worlds, then it is, for now, in the interim, the best possible world. There is a better one coming, according to this view, but on the way to that better one this is the best one leading up to it, setting the stage for it. How is that different from saying this is now the best of all possible worlds? I simply don’t get it. Neither did my students.
I take it that even Leibniz thought there was a better world coming, so when he argued that this is the best of all possible worlds he meant “for now.” Saying this is the best world leading up to the best of all possible worlds is the same as saying this is the best of all possible worlds—right now.
Back to my main point: If I believed that God plans, ordains and governs everything without exception I would believe this is the best of all possible worlds—for now.
I simply don’t understand why people who believe God plans, ordains and governs everything don’t also believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. I think they should.
I can only attribute that they often don’t to either 1) lack of logic in their thinking, or 2) fear of having to explain how this is the best of all possible worlds in light of the Holocaust and events like it.
I agree with the theologian who said that no theology is worthy of belief that cannot be stated at the gates of Auschwitz.
It takes real guts to say that God planned, ordained and governed the Holocaust. I admire and respect those Calvinists (and other divine determinists) who do it—for their logical rigor and courage. And I’ve read a few who do say it. But most imply it with their doctrine of God’s providence. (Again, I refer doubters to my book Against Calvinism where I quote Calvin and later Calvinist theologians.)
So, my mind runs to the idea that this is the best of all possible ideas and I put it under the microscope of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The problem that immediately jumps up is that if this is the best of all possible worlds then nothing can really be irreducibly evil. If this is the best of all possible worlds then I must say even of the Holocaust “It is a necessary part of the greater good.” Then I cannot consider it truly evil. I would have to redefine “evil” far away from what I and most people mean by that term. I would do my best to stop feeling or expressing any outrage about anything and simply Stoically consider it “for the best.” (I’m not claiming that’s what the ancient Stoics said; I’m simply using the term in its popular meaning. I have to say these things to ward off comments that try to correct me over trivia—as is common and annoying.)
Again, finally, if I cannot accept that this is the best of all possible worlds, and with it the belief that even the Holocaust was “for the best,” then I cannot logically accept that God plans, ordains and governs everything in the sense that Calvin clearly meant it as did Edwards and as do most spokesmen for “the new Calvinism” today.