Why My Conversations with Calvinists Are Rarely Productive
One of the reasons I started this blog—before it was picked up by Patheos—was to promote classical Arminianism. Another reason was to explain why I am not a Calvinist. This was at the height of the so-called “Young, Restless, Reformed Movement” in which many young evangelical Calvinists and their older spiritual mentors were misrepresenting Arminianism and promoting a version of Calvinism that even many classical Reformed theologians found troubling.
I have had many dialogues (sometime more debates than dialogues) with Calvinists—here and elsewhere. One thing that has always nagged at me is why we, who have the same Savior Jesus Christ and the same Scripture, the Bible, come to such radically different conclusions about some very important theological issues.
Usually when I teach about Calvinism I either invite a committed and knowledgeable Calvinist into my class to speak about Calvinism “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak, or I show my students video clips of some leading evangelical Calvinist such as John Piper explaining Calvinism. (Youtube is full of these and I prefer Piper’s because he is clear, precise, and concise.)
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I recently showed a class a Youtube video clip of Piper answering a question. The question was (paraphrasing) “How does it bring glory to God to predestine people to hell?” This is, of course, one of the most pointed areas of disagreement between classical, consistent Calvinist Christians such as Piper and non-Calvinist, mostly Arminian (even if they don’t use that label) Christians.
You can listen to Piper’s response to the question on Youtube. A few key words will get you there.
Interesting to me (and to at least some of my students) is how Piper begins by cautiously saying that the Bible hardly ever, if ever, uses that language—of predestining people to hell. But he does think it is a biblical idea—so long as one make some crucial qualifications.
Piper then explains that everyone God predestines to hell deserves hell and goes there and stays there in a state of rebellion against God. He states unequivocally that no one in hell can ever make a valid case that it is unjust for them to be there. Again, all who go to hell deserve it.
Then Piper goes on to explain how hell reveals God’s attribute of justice through his wrath and how God’s ultimate purpose in creating the world was to manifest all his attributes equally. Also, and finally (at least in that very brief video clip) Piper states that the existence of hell serves as a dark backdrop that makes the elect—those whom God chooses to save—more aware of the underserved mercy and grace of God toward them.
Now, of course, some Calvinists will object to some of Piper’s answer. I have met many people who call themselves Calvinists who simply will not talk about “double predestination” or God predestining anyone to hell or God getting glory out of hell. Granted and accepted. However, those Calvinists cannot explain, in my opinion, why God, who could save all people because election to salvation is unconditional and saving grace is irresistible, “permits” some people he could save to go to hell.
(And, as an aside, I must say that I think even Piper comes close to contradicting his own theology when he says in that video clip that God allows or permits people to go to hell. But he quickly catches himself and says “designs” it—that they who go to hell go there. My question is “Which is it? Does God merely ‘permit’ or ‘allow’ the reprobate to go to hell or do they go there because God ‘designs’ their hellish fate?” I suppose Piper would say “both,” but I think that can be misleading so this is one area where I think he could be clearer. In other words, he should drop the language of divine permission altogether because he says God “designs, ordains, and governs” everything without exception. And that has to include hell and its occupants.)
Whenever I listen to or read a Calvinist talk about predestination, especially double predestination (which I agree with R. C. Sproul is really the only predestination Calvinists believe in), I keep in mind their doctrine of God’s sovereignty over all things and especially their doctrine of God’s providence which is all-encompassing, meticulous and exhaustive. When I have asked Calvinists I respect because they are bold and consistent “Was the fall of Adam and Eve and all its consequences foreordained and rendered certain by God according to an infallible plan that he designed?” they eventually (sometimes with a little prodding) say “yes.”
But a problem I notice among many Young, Restless, Reformed Calvinists and even some of their highly intelligent mentors is that they do not keep their Calvinist doctrine of providence in mind when talking about predestination. Unless stopped, and forced to bring them together, they often disconnect the two. Here’s how that goes: “Adam and Eve fell by their own free will and all of their descendants deserve hell because of their inherited iniquity and their sinfulness and God out of love and for his glory mercifully and graciously chooses some of the fallen who deserve hell to save.” But that immediately raises this question: “Did God foreordain and render certain Adam’s and Eve’s fall and all of its consequences including the iniquity and rebellion of their descendants?”
Rarely do I get that far in a conversation with a Calvinist. However, when I do, and they choose to answer, they divide and go in two directions. First, some will say “That all lies in the realm of mystery; we do not know exactly why or how the fall happened. All we know is that God permitted it for good reasons beyond our comprehension and used it to demonstrate his love and justice.” Then, with those Calvinists, the conversation must change and go to why God elects some of the fallen descendants of Adam and Eve to save and leaves the others to suffer in hell eternally when, since election is unconditional and grace is irresistible, God could save all people. At that point, if the conversation has gotten that far, most of those Calvinists say something like “Whatever God does is good just because God does it.” Ah! Nominalism/voluntarism as the “escape hatch” from having to explain how “good God” is compatible with such a horrible decree.
Second, some will say “God did design, foreordain and render certain Adam’s and Eve’s fall and all of its consequences but did not coerce them or anyone to sin but allowed them and us to sin by our own nature.” The question that naturally follows that answer is, of course, “Could they have done otherwise?” These (more consistent) Calvinists usually say “no.” The explanation that follows is something like this: “God allowed Adam and Eve and their descendants to sin and rendered it certain by withholding the special grace they would have needed not to sin.” (This answer can be found in the later writings of Augustine, and in Calvin’s Institutes and in Jonathan Edwards’ writings.)
Many Calvinists decline to go there, however, but then they cannot answer why Adam and Eve sinned and the whole of humanity with them since God could have prevented it and they did not have libertarian free will because God’s providence (as explained in all Calvinist writings and teachings) is all-encompassing, exhaustive, meticulous and renders everything that happens certain. In other words, the typical, classical Calvinist doctrine of providence blocks any escape from making God not responsible for the fall.
Back to my main point which some readers may have forgotten: Calvinists need to remember their doctrine of divine providence when they talk about predestination. Too often, very often, in my experience, they divide the two when asked to explain the fall. Suddenly the fall becomes contingent—which is incompatible with the Calvinist doctrine of providence.
When Calvinists talk about Adam’s and Eve’s rebellion and fall, they too often appeal to two things they are not really allowed to appeal to because of their doctrine of providence: libertarian free will and God’s permission. Or, by “God’s permission,” they mean “willing permission”—that God designed and foreordained and rendered the fall and all its consequences certain by withdrawing the grace Adam and Eve needed not to fall. Most of us would consider that not really “permission” but “causation”—even if only indirect causation.
The ultimate question Calvinists must answer is “Who is the ultimate author of sin, evil and hell?” They commonly want to say “humanity” or “Satan and humanity.” However, what I am arguing is that their doctrine of God’s sovereignty and especially providence excludes that as the correct answer when you pay attention to the word “ultimate.” In that system of theology, combining and keeping together providence and predestination there is no escape from saying that God is the ultimate author of sin and evil and hell. Jonathan Edwards came very close to admitting it (as I show in Against Calvinism) and only escaped by saying that God did not cause Adam and Eve to fall but only rendered their fall certain. Still and nevertheless, that makes God the author of sin and evil in any common sense meaning of those words.
What I suspect is this: Many Young, Restless, Reformed Christians simply have not thought about Calvinism deeply enough to discover and have to wrestle with its problems. They are taught to focus solely on God’s grace and mercy toward the elect and ignore the issue of God’s role in sin and evil. Or they are taught to escape from the problem by appealing to mystery or to “Whatever God does is good just because God does it” (nominalism/voluntarism). What’s the problem with that? It makes God untrustworthy; we cannot then know that God will keep his promises because a God without an eternal, unchangeable, governing-his-will character could change his mind at any point and decide, for example, that salvation is by works rather than by faith. There is no escaping such a possibility once you fall into nominalism/voluntarism. How many Young, Restless, Reformed Christians have ever faced these questions and had to wrestle with them—let alone have to face the alternative of true, classical Arminianism that is not semi-Pelagianism and regard it as a live option for their doctrine of salvation? In my experience, very few, almost none.
Here is my experience in teaching theology to young Calvinists (over more than thirty-five years now). Almost without exception, as soon as I point out the problems with classical, consistent Calvinism and explain classical Arminianism to them, they toss their Calvinism aside and adopt something like Arminianism—whether they want to call it that or not (and I certainly don’t insist that they call it that). I do not coerce them in any way; I simply explain what I have explained above, read some portions of Calvin’s Institutes to them, show them some video clips of John Piper answering questions (such as the one mentioned above) and ask some questions to which Calvinism has no answers except that (for example) “Whatever God does is good just because God does it.” Then I explain the problems with that nominalism/voluntarism view of God. It’s amazing how quickly most of them throw off their Calvinism. Sometimes, of course, they search for a “middle ground” and I show them there really is no middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism and that Arminianism is the middle ground (not my favorite term for this) between Calvinism and semi-Pelagianism. By no means to I treat them any differently if they do hold onto their Calvinism; I continue to value them and treat them equally with other students and just encourage them to read and consider.
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