This is a talk I gave to a group of outstanding students at Samford University October 7 (2015)–part of the Holley-Hull Lecture series I delivered there that week. I will post other lectures of the series over the next week.
Why (High) Calvinism Is Impossible
In one of his sermons against Calvinism, Methodist founder John Wesley famously remarked about the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 that “Whatever it means, it cannot mean that.” I think many people, especially committed Calvinists, believers in so-called “double predestination,” misunderstand Wesley’s comment. I have heard from them that Wesley, and I, simply bring to the Bible philosophical and theological presuppositions that predetermine what it can mean. There’s a partial truth to that criticism, although I remind my (and Wesley’s) Calvinist critics that influential Reformed theologian Charles Hodge, in his influential three volume Systematic Theology, published in the 1870s, upon which many contemporary Calvinist systematic theologies are based, affirmed certain necessary a prioris, common sense principles, with which one must start in interpreting the Bible and theology. One of them is that God cannot do wrong. The context of his statement, which is found in the early chapters of Volume 1 of his Systematic Theology, makes clear that he means we must presuppose that God cannot do what is truly morally wrong. He did not mean, with some nominalists-voluntarists such as medieval theologian Duns Scotus, the “subtle doctor,” that whatever God would do would automatically be right just because God does it. Rather, he was basing his pre-conditioning claim on Thomas Reid’s “Scottish Common Sense Realism” for which there are certain universal ideas that only insane people would deny—such as the existence of other minds.
I take Wesley’s claim about Romans 9 farther and claim that it not only cannot mean “double predestination”—that God, from all eternity, foreordained certain individuals to be damned to hell for his glory and rendered it certain that they would be so damned—but that that Calvinist doctrine is logically impossible in the sense of being self-referentially defeating.
By “impossible” I don’t mean, of course, “doesn’t exist.” I mean “exists but doesn’t work.” By “doesn’t work” I mean “cannot be believed consistently and coherently.” Believing it undermines the very basis for believing it.
In brief, my argument is that belief in the Bible as God’s Word and motivation to engage in its exegesis presupposes belief that God is trustworthy, that God cannot deceive. But this assumes that God has a stable, enduring, eternal character that is “good” in a way analogous to our highest and best intuitions of “goodness”—whatever their source may be.
Put another way, negatively, if one believes that God’s goodness is nothing like our best intuitions of goodness, that God’s goodness is possibly compatible with anything capable of being put into words (i.e., ultimately and finally mysterious), then there is no good reason to trust him. Trust in a person, even God, necessarily requires belief that the person is good and belief that the person is good necessarily requires some content and not that “good” is merely a cipher for something totally beyond comprehension and unlike anything else we call “good.”
Put in technical language, if “good” applied to God is equivocal and not even analogical, then it is useless for describing God. If “God is good” is qualified with “but his goodness is completely different from ours” (meaning our highest and best ideas of goodness), then it is meaningless.Not all Calvinists say that God’s goodness is completely different from ours. Paul Helm, for example, in The Providence of God, argues that “goodness” attributed to God cannot be totally other than goodness attributed to human beings (even as an impossible ideal). Unfortunately for him, I believe, he does not follow that insight through consistently but undermines it by attempting to combine assertion of God’s essential goodness with belief in double predestination.
I argue that belief in double predestination is simply logically incompatible with the claim that God is good—unless “good” is emptied of all meaning so that it is a useless cipher for something we don’t know.
But if God is not good in some way analogous to our highest and best intuitions, insights, into “goodness,” then there is no reason to trust the Bible. And if there is no reason to trust the Bible (because God, being not good in any sense meaningful to us, might be deceiving us), then there is no clear motive for intense biblical exegesis.
Every devout, evangelical Christian believer I have ever met or heard of approaches Bible reading and study (including exegesis) with the assumption that the Bible is true (even if not strictly inerrant)—that it does not misidentify God and God’s will for us. But built into that assumption is that God, the Bible’s author (by inspiration of the human authors) is good (which is why he is trustworthy and cannot deceive). But belief that God “designs, foreordains, and governs” hell for the reprobate who are unconditionally chosen by God for hell for his glory without regard to any truly free choices they make undermines belief in God’s goodness. So does belief that God “passes over” some he could easily save (because election to salvation is unconditional and saving grace is irresistible), damning them to hell, for his glory.
There is no conceivable analogous human behavior that we would call “good.” The very concept of “good” rules out such behavior. (To say nothing of Jesus’ own goodness and the New Testament’s commands for us to love our enemies and do good to them.)
My point is, of course, that there exists a contradiction between two Calvinist beliefs: 1) that the Bible is inherently and unconditionally trustworthy, and 2) that God, its author, is not good in any sense meaningful to us. Belief “1” assumes that God is good in a sense meaningful to us—comparable with our highest and best intuitions of goodness. Belief “2” (necessarily implied by double predestination) empties belief “1” of foundation.
Therefore, any exegesis of the Bible that ends up portraying God as not good, which high Calvinism (belief in double predestination) inexorably does, cannot be believed because it self-referentially turns back against the very reason for believing the Bible. In order to be consistent one must choose between belief in the Bible as God’s Word and belief in double predestination.
This is why I say with John Wesley about the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 “Whatever it means it cannot mean that.”