“#Some Lives Matter” and Calvinism: My Response to the T-shirt
Recently several people have sent me photos of a T-shirt that displays on its back the slogan “#Some Lives Matter” and below that the word “Calvinism.” Obviously, it’s someone’s idea of a cutesy critique of Calvinism piggy-backing on the war of slogans I alluded to in my immediately preceding post here. So here are my thoughts about it.
First, I take “Black Lives Matter”—both as a slogan and a movement—so seriously that I would not personally piggy-back on it for any purpose—even to poke fun at Calvinism and Calvinists. Maybe someday, when the current furor dies down, I will be able to grin at such, but the time is not now.
Now don’t get me wrong; I can enjoy a good joke. We need more theological humor—when it is meant in good fun and not to ridicule. A few years ago someone gave me a T-shirt that says “Arminius Is My Homeboy” below a picture of Arminius. Okay, that was fun—because of the T-shirt that already existed and is shown on the cover of Colin Hansen’s fine book Young, Restless, and Reformed. I shows a young man wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Jonathan Edwards with the slogan “Jonathan Edwards Is My Homeboy.” I’ve received other T-shirts with slogans such as “This T-shirt Chose Me” and “Calvinism” below that on the front and “I Chose This T-Shirt” and “Arminianism” on the back. Fun. No problem.
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Now let me explain why “#Some Lives Matter” with “Calvinism” is problematic—besides the reason I gave above.
I strongly suspect that my Calvinist friends would object to that slogan associated with their theology—as based on a serious misunderstanding or even misrepresentation of Calvinism.
I have said here before that what I want is fairness in theological debates. Both sides in the monergism-synergism debate ought to represent the other side fairly. Now I have to imagine a T-shirt with the slogan “#God Doesn’t Matter” followed by “Arminianism.” I would strongly object even though I know that many Calvinists think Arminianism makes God redundant in a Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian way. This is what they mean when they mistakenly call Arminianism “man-centered.” I have called them out on that because it is a serious misrepresentation of classical Arminianism.
So, if I would call out a Calvinist wearing a T-shirt that misrepresents Arminianism, I have to be careful not to wear or endorse or even enjoy a T-shirt that misrepresents Calvinism.
So why would a Calvinist object to “#Some Lives Matter” associated with the name of their theology? Isn’t it just simply true? Well, not from their perspective. Let me explain.
I have read a library of books and articles by Calvinists about Calvinism. One of my mottos is “Before you say ‘I disagree’ be sure you can say ‘I understand’.” Okay, so before writing Against Calvinism I read the best and brightest Calvinists past and present and did my best as a non-Calvinist to understand all their points and arguments.
I think no informed Calvinist would agree that for Calvinism only some lives matter.
Let me pick out one very influential Calvinist theologian to use as a case study in this. His (yes, “his”) name was Lorraine Boettner (d. 1990). He was a giant among American Calvinist theologians in his heyday (mid-20th century). His book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination was widely considered one of the classical statements of Calvinism—as it bears on soteriology—for many years.
Boettner himself, in that book, stated unequivocally that he believed perhaps most human beings who have ever lived or will ever live are among God’s elect and will be in heaven. He was more optimistic about that, perhaps, than many Calvinists. Most would decline to offer such a prediction, but I am not aware of any influential Calvinists (other than hyper-Calvinists) who criticized Boettner for such optimism.
Also, Boettner argued in that book that God saves as many people as his own nature will allow. In other words, to quote a Catholic hymn that’s in many Protestant hymnals, “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.”
So, according to Boettner and other Calvinist theologians, past and present, why does not God save everyone? After all, election is unconditional and grace is irresistible. So, in theory, anyway, God could save everyone. However, Boettner, following a long line of classical Calvinist theologians, argued that even the reprobate, those God “passes over,” leaving them to their hellish destiny, matter to God and should matter to us. (I’m not quoting him; I’m paraphrasing here. I have copious notes on his book but my memory is good about this so I don’t feel the need to dig out my notes and offer direct quotations.)
Why do they matter to God? The simple answer Boettner and other classical Calvinists offer is that they play a needed role in God’s great plan to glorify himself by manifesting all his attributes without prejudice to any. Justice is one of God’s attributes. Hell is necessary for the full and unprejudiced manifestation of God’s attribute of justice. If God saved everyone, God’s justice would not be adequately manifested; it would be subordinated to his love—in terms of God’s “project,” as it were, to glorify himself in and through creation and redemption.
Many have attributed the following saying to Calvin’s successor in Geneva Theodore Beza: “Those who find themselves suffering in the flames of hell for eternity can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God.” Few Calvinists say it quite that blatantly, but that is the underlying reason for hell according to most classical Calvinists.
Now, of course…yes…there are many Calvinists who refuse to bite that bullet, so to speak, and who simply appeal to mystery when asked why God declines to save everyone when, obviously, he could (in that he’s powerful enough and election is unconditional and grace is irresistible). I think they need to explain more; I don’t think the appeal to mystery is respectable at that point. But I respect their right to do it.
According to most intellectually-inclined, educated Calvinist theologians and preachers throughout history, however, Boettner’s answer is the right one. God saves all that he can, meaning all that his nature and purpose allow. And even those predestinated to hell (whether in a supralapsarian or infralapsarian way) matter to God. And because they matter to God they should matter to us. They serve God in their own way.
John Piper goes so far as to claim that God loves the reprobate, the non-elect, but with a different quality of love than that he has for the elect. And, he argues, it deeply grieves God that he cannot save everyone created in his own image and likeness and loved by him. But he cannot because his glory is better served, he is made more manifest, with the eternal punishment of the wicked than without it. That God selects some to save out of the mass of damnation that constitutes humanity also glorifies God; it demonstrates, manifests, his love and mercy. But if there were no hell, God’s justice, also an equal aspect of God’s nature, would not be adequately revealed, manifested.
So, “#Some Lives Matter: Calvinism” misrepresents true, historical, classical Calvinism.
My critical response to this aspect of true, historical, classical Calvinism is laid out in detail in Against Calvinism. Read it there. But it is not that only some lives matter to God. (Hint: It is the way in which some lives matter to God and what that Calvinist belief says about God’s character.)
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