When It Comes to Calvinism, Logic Can Lead to Heresy
Most Calvinists I have ever read or heard or spoken to will insist that God is not the author of sin and evil. But can they, real Calvinists, say that with logic on their side? Or, when they say that, form within their own theological system, are they simply sacrificing logic entirely?
Yes, I know there are lots of Christians (to say nothing of others) who don’t especially care about logic. But one Calvinist who expressly does is well-known American Calvinist theologian and apologetics expert R. C. Sproul. In most of his books he refuses to retreat from logic while, of course, confessing mystery.
So what’s the difference? How can there be “mystery” within a theological system without logical contradiction? Easy. Mystery is simply 1) what we could not know (about God, for example) without special revelation, and 2) that within God’s special revelation that is not entirely comprehensible to the human mind.
Neither of those necessarily involves logical contradiction. Something can be mysterious—beyond comprehension—without being illogical. To use a homely (and close to home) illustration: I know that my wife loves me but her love for me is incomprehensible to me. I find no reason for it; I don’t deserve it. Furthermore, to become more specific, I knew as a young teenage boy that someday she and I would marry. I can only believe that was a revelation from God. She was older and we both had many boyfriends and girlfriends throughout our early years and yet, through it all I knew we were supposed to marry and someday would. Eventually, we did. And we have remained married (mysteriously—given my lack of deserving her patience) for forty-four years.
But there is nothing illogical in that true story. I could also talk about light and how many physicists regard it as something of a paradox but not a logical contradiction. (Look it up; I’m not going to chase that rabbit here and I ask you not to.)
So what is a logical contradiction? How does it differ from mystery and paradox? Well, those are deep questions that have puzzled philosophers, to say nothing of non-philosophers, for centuries.
I consider a mystery, a paradox, two or more propositions that don’t exactly contradict each other but together fall outside our human comprehension—how they can both/all be true.
I consider a logical contradiction two or more propositions that do exactly contradict each other and, when affirmed by one person, require explanation to make the combination intelligible to the mind. Without the explanation, qualifying either one or both of the propositions in some way, the combination amounts to sheer babble. It is unintelligible nonsense. This is the basic rule of all discourse. If you want me to understand and belief your words they must be intelligible.
If you come to me and ask me to believe that ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outrage I will ask you to explain or else admit you’re just quoting a poem and stop asking me to believe it. It’s a great poem, but it isn’t believable—as fact. So a logical contradiction—two or more propositions that logically contradict each other—is unbelievable. It might evoke a feeling or be a speech act of some kind, but if you ask me to believe it I will not be able to and I will think you are very strange for thinking I can. In fact, if you persist in asking me to believe it, without relieving the contradiction with explanation that really does relieve the contradiction, I will have to ask you to stop or go away.
What if someone does not ask me to believe their logical contradiction but only tosses it “out there” as something they do believe? Well, my response depends on the context, of course.
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To get straight (finally) to the point: I fear that many impressionable young Christians do not realize that what their Calvinist mentors or influencers are asking them to believe is not only something impossible but borders on heresy. Let me explain.
Most Calvinists I know would consider the statement “God is the author of sin and evil” heretical. Sure, Jonathan Edwards affirmed it briefly but then went on to explain why it isn’t really the case but only the case from a faulty perspective. I happen to think he didn’t succeed in explaining why it’s not logically required within his system of beliefs. I think it is. But I won’t go further here, now, with that.
To repeat, almost all Calvinists I know (and I’ve known many, had them speak in my classes, read their books, engaged in public debates with some, etc.) deny that God is the author of sin and evil.
Calvin, Edwards, Sproul and Piper, just to name a few leading Calvinist theologians, affirmed that God foreordained the fall of Adam and Eve and thereby all of its consequences. According to one of them, put very bluntly but helpfully, God “designed, ordained, and governs” everything that happens without exception—including sin and its consequences (evil decisions and actions by fallen people).
The question that should automatically arise, then, is how does this avoid making God the author of sin and evil? I don’t think it can—from within the common Calvinist system of God’s sovereignty, providence and predestination of all things.
When asked to explain, to relieve the apparent contradiction, most Calvinists appeal to “secondary causes.” God renders sin and evil certain only through secondary causes. Two come to mind: Satan and fallen human beings. But we cannot avoid going “back” in our thoughts to how Satan came to be evil and how Adam and Eve fell into sin when they had fellowship with God—given that God “designed, ordained, and governed” (and rendered certain) even their evil decisions and deeds.
If Satan (Lucifer) and Adam and Eve fell into sin and evil because God foreordained it and rendered it certain, how is it possible to “get God off the hook?” It isn’t. In every intelligible sense, this view of God and evil traces evil back to God’s intentions.
Ah! Some Calvinists will say: God is not guilty because his intentions in foreordaining and rendering sin and evil and all their consequences certain are good. Satan’s and Adam’s and Eve’s (and ours) are not good. But that’s not the point here. (I could argue that one into the ground also, but I’ll leave that for another time.) Back to the point: It is simply illogical to say that God is not the author of evil insofar as one also believes God “designed, ordained” and rendered it certain—even if through secondary causes and with good intentions.
Two points here. First, in my experience, most young, impressionable evangelical Calvinists have not thought this through. As soon as it is pointed out to them (viz., that logically Calvinism makes God the author of sin and evil no matter what their favorite Calvinist pastor or theologian says) they either say 1) Oh, I hadn’t thought that, or 2) Whatever God does is good just because God does it. The latter is what their Calvinist mentors should say, but usually don’t because it doesn’t answer how God is not the author of sin and evil and it makes God morally ambiguous.
Occasionally a Calvinist theologian, pastor, teacher, writer, will bite the bullet and admit that, from within the Calvinist system, as explicated by Calvin, Edwards, Sproul, and Piper, God is the author of sin and evil. Then, suddenly, he is harshly criticized for falling into heresy.
I can understand why, but what I cannot understand is why he is not congratulated for thinking logically. I congratulate him.
Logic matters—in every theological system and even in the pulpits. If Calvinists want to avoid logical contradiction they need to “back up” and re-think their whole explanation of God’s meticulous sovereignty in which God designs, ordains and renders certain everything that happens without exception or else admit that they do believe (whether consciously or hidden even from themselves) that God is the author of sin and evil.
(Footnote: I do not consider anyone a consistent, true Calvinist who does not believe God foreordained the fall of humanity and rendered it certain. Here, in this essay, I am addressing only those true, consistent Calvinists who, together with Calvin, believe God foreordained the fall of humanity and everything else and rendered everything certain according to a divine plan. There are all kinds of people who call themselves “Calvinists” who I do not consider “real Calvinists” and there are all kinds of people who call themselves “Arminians” who I do not consider “real Arminians.”)
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