Calvinist Attempts to Rescue God’s Character Considered and Refuted
As anyone who has read me or listened to me (on the subject of Calvinism) knows, my main complaint about Calvinism is that it undermines the character of God. Of course, I do not mean that God’s real character can be undermined; I mean the reputation of God’s character is undermined by Calvinism. And when I write or speak that way I am referring primarily, of course, to “high federal Calvinism” or “classical five point Calvinism”—in particular belief in the divine decree of double predestination: that God has decreed that he will save some particular sinners unconditionally (viz., without regard to anything he sees in them) and that he will not save other particular sinners and that this is based on God’s design and foreordination including the fall of humanity into sin.
My argument has been and remains that this scheme makes the claim that “God is good” meaningless. There is no sense of “good” compatible with such a decree. This belief leads to a distorted view of God as unlike Jesus and as morally monstrous. That most Calvinists who embrace that “double decree” disagree and do not draw the right conclusion from it does not change the fact that it leads inexorably there. In my experience, the vast majority of Calvinists simply choose to embrace a paradox that really amounts to a contradiction. They say that God is truly good and also decrees and renders certain the salvation of some particular sinners unconditionally while leaving other particular sinners in their condemned condition.
Here I will present all of the common Calvinist defenses of the meaningfulness of “God is good” as compatible with the double decree (as I have described it above). And I will attempt to show why they do not work.
First, many Calvinists respond that God does not unconditionally predestine anyone to hell; he only unconditionally predestines some to heaven. He merely “passes over” the reprobate and permits them to go to their deserved destination in hell. He is good and just in doing this, they say, because everyone deserves hell. So his predestining of some to heaven is an act of gratuitous mercy that shows his goodness. My first response is that this “single predestination” is mere verbalism and really amounts to double predestination. (R. C. Sproul never tires of making this point!) My second response is that the claim (which Sproul and many other Calvinists make) that there is an incommensurability between the two decrees—one being positive and the other being negative—does nothing to rescue God’s character because, within the Calvinist scheme, God is able to save anyone (predestination to salvation being unconditional and saving grace being irresistible). God’s decision not to save all but to “permit” some to go to their “deserved” place of damnation is a decision to damn them. The distinction between “single predestination” and “double predestination” is one without a difference.
Second, and closely related to the first above, many Calvinists argue that since all deserve damnation God’s goodness is displayed in his mercy toward some. My response is to point them back to the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty. I know of no Calvinist theologian who believes that God merely passively permitted the fall of humanity or the sinfulness of any particular persons. Yes, many say that God “permitted” the fall of humanity and sin but then go on to explain “divine permission” as willing and effectual. In other words, all they mean by God “permitting” the fall and sin is that God did not coerce Adam or anyone to sin against their will. But they mean that God designed, ordained and rendered the fall certain—for example by withdrawing the supernatural grace and ability necessary to keep humanity from falling. There is no sense of the word “good” that is compatible with damning forever to eternal torment sentient creatures who were created for that destiny and who were determined to it. Also, this defense ignores the fact that God could save all since his selection of some to save is unconditional and the grace he gives them is irresistible. And the common Calvinist argument that God saves “as many as he can get the consent of his nature to save” (Hodge and Boettner) is so patently problematic as hardly to deserve any response. It implies a distinction between God’s will and God’s nature that cannot avoid splitting God in two.
Third, many Calvinists argue that “whatever God does is automatically good just because God does it.” This is, of course, an expression of voluntarism which points to nominalism (whether held consistently or not). The problem here, of course, is that “God is good” is merely a tautology with the word “good” adding nothing to “God.” In other words, the statement is not informative. This response does nothing to rescue God’s character’s reputation as genuinely good in some sense commensurable with (not identical with) our basic Christian intuitions of “good” drawn from Jesus and the New Testament as well as from universal human experience. A result of this defense is that one can still say “God is good and morally monstrous.” Finally, this response must imply a “hidden God” (deus absconditus) behind and different from the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Fourth, and closely related to the third above, many Calvinists will claim that “God has a right to dispose of his creatures in any way he chooses.” But that is not in debate. Non-Calvinists are not questioning God’s “right” but arguing that, even if he has the right to do something (e.g., break his promises) he will not because of his good character (as revealed in Jesus Christ). This defense really depends on the third one above; it is always an expression of voluntarism in the doctrine of God when used to defend God in relation to belief in double predestination.
Fifth, many Calvinists respond that we creatures have absolutely no right to accuse God of anything. This is, of course, not what critics of Calvinism are doing. We are not accusing God; we are accusing a certain belief about God—with being either incoherent or making God morally monstrous. A person who says “If the president of the United States were to shred the U.S. Constitution and behave as a dictator he would be wrong” is not accusing the president of the United States of anything.
Sixth and finally, many Calvinists will simply respond by claiming that double predestination (as described in the first paragraph above) is what the New Testament teaches and therefore we have to live with the consequences whatever they may be. But this is, of course, an appeal to a particular interpretation of the New Testament, not the New Testament itself. Christians have always disagreed about the meaning of the classical passages (e.g., Romans 9) used by some to justify belief in unconditional particular election. Calvinists should at least find it instructive that one cannot find that interpretation of the New Testament in church history before Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in the early fifth century. It is obviously not obvious that the New Testament means that and, as John Wesley said, whatever it means it cannot mean that (viz., the double decree including reprobation) because then God would be morally monstrous. And, of course, it goes no distance toward explaining God’s goodness as consistent with double predestination.
Note: If you decide to respond please observe the following guidelines: Stick to the subject at hand and do not go off on irrelevant tangents (e.g., about the president); observe basic rules of civil dialogue such as no ad hominem or tu quoque arguments; keep your response brief (I do not have time to read lengthy essays or many responses by the same person on the same day!). Do not expect me to post your comment if it contains even one insult or demeaning characterization.