Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Calvinism’s Scriptural and Philosophical Problems - Part 4

In Search of a Coherent Narrative


After spending some time on Arminianism, which tends to represent the power that mankind has through Freewill, we will now look at a belief that rather contrasts it. Calvinism is basically where God is so sovereign over everything that He even predestines whether we are saved and whether we are not. As Calvin and Hobbes illustrates, predestination can be a scary thought; and as we explore Calvinism, we find likewise that there is much in its narrative that can make us feel uneasy. Modern Calvinism, like Arminianism, is a popular belief in Christianity and has many variants, which range from low Calvinism to Hyper Calvinism (http://www.puritanboard.com/f15/where-you-calvinism-chart-20840/). I will seek to address Calvinism as a collective rather than focusing on its variants due to it having much in common. The five points of Calvinism will provide us with the basic overview of Calvinistic beliefs (http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/reformed-theology/arminianism/calvinism-vs-arminianism-comparison-chart/). The five points that contrast the five Arminian points are:

-    Total Inability or Total Depravity - This concept emphasises mankind’s subjection to evil and their inability to redeem themselves from it. Even the desire to be delivered from evil is not necessarily within mankind. Many verses suggest this concept such as Jeremiah 17:9 which states that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

-   Unconditional Election - In opposition to Arminism’s point where mankind is FREE to choose God and contribute towards the salvation process, the Calvinist side states that mankind cannot come to salvation without God’s initiation. The emphasis is on God’s CHOICE on who to save and has nothing to do with man’s generation of faith toward God. God is the one who gifts faith, and therefore mankind is not the one who originally provides it. Due to Total Depravity, mankind has no merit that would cause God to choose one person over another - there are no conditions. God chooses whom He chooses according to His plan. It is solely by God’s sovereign grace that He chooses certain individuals to be saved.

-    Particular Redemption or Limited Atonement - Christ’s death, and therefore salvation, only has an EFFECT on those who are chosen by God to receive it. Although many Calvinists believe that Christ’s death is sufficient for all, they believe there is no general atonement effective for all mankind. People cannot access Christ’s atonement of their own accord but a limited number are chosen by God. God gives the faith necessary to accept the atonement of the cross.

-      The Efficacious Call of the Spirit or Irresistible Grace - This is concerning the call of the Spirit. There are two types of calling to salvation. The first calls people generally, such as the preaching of the gospel, which can be resisted. The other calling is where the Holy Spirit calls inwardly to those who are chosen by God. The latter call is irresistible and therefore results in the salvation of those whom God choses to call inwardly.

-    Perseverance of the Saints - On this point, Calvinists agree with some Arminianists that salvation is permanent. There is no chance of falling away. Thus, those who are chosen by God, persevere without the possibility of falling away.

It is worth mentioning that some people only adhere to some of the five points of Calvinism, but I will leave that to one side for the purpose of this post.

General Framework

Calvinists still have the same general Biblical framework as Arminianism but differ on the process (which we shall see further along). For example, they believe in the fall of man and the Biblical narrative of moving towards and completing God’s master plan. This plan was to send His Son Jesus Christ to pay the price for mankind’s sin and draw them to Himself. So Calvinism falls very much into a Christian theology like Arminianism.

Calvinist ideas can vary according to the different nuances they hold, but they have the same underlying current in their thought. Some Calvinists believe in the “kind” gesture offering where God calls literally ALL mankind to salvation and desires all mankind to be saved, but God values some other (unknown?) higher priority or reason other than effectually saving all people. Arminianists are similar in that they do not believe that God will save everyone, because He considers His adherence to Freewill greater than His desire to save all people (1 Timothy 2:4). I am not actually certain what the Calvinist big picture is that could warrant not saving everyone, but one suggestion I have heard is that evil must continue to exist as an example of sin and justice – if one cannot comprehend or experience evil, then how will one know what good is? Calvinism emphasises that grace and therefore salvation from this evil is given to a few rather than to the many. Even Matthew seems to claim it – “Many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). In both paradigms of Arminianism and Calvinism, God actively chooses not to save some people. Ultimately, the Calvinist paradigm says that God is on the throne and He is sovereign to do as He wishes, and Arminianism suggests that God’s hands are tied behind His back and so He has handed mankind’s destiny over to themselves.

A denial of Freewill and an emphasis on Free Agency
Some Calvinists tend to deny Freewill and rather see people as being Free Agents. Free Agency means that people are who they are; people are not free to decide what their will is to be, but they are free to act out what their will is. Their will is subject to and intimately connected with their nature (how they were originally made to be). It is to be noted that Calvinists can claim Freewill in some aspects, but deny that this Freewill has any ultimate ability to choose God without God’s assistance. For the purpose of this post, I will address Calvinist thought from a Free Agency perspective because I believe this best addresses the issues at hand.

Scriptural Attraction

The attraction to Calvinism has a scriptural basis. Calvinism adheres to verses such as the ones I have already mentioned earlier in Part Two which point out God’s sovereignty over our lives. Here are some verses Calvinists hinge their beliefs on: In Calvinism, God gifts to each a measure of faith, therefore mankind doesn’t generate their own faith (Romans 12:3). This is important because Hebrews tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. Romans 9 also is a chapter that seems to support Calvinism where God is situated as the potter and we are the clay. The potter shapes and we respond. He makes some vessels for wrath and destruction, and some into beautiful vases. Calvinism also emphasises the predestination of God’s choice regarding who will be the elect (Romans 8, Ephesians 1). To a Calvinist, God is the initiator of salvation, not man. He opens mankind’s eyes, they do not open their own - John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” The logical conclusion of Calvinism is that of recognising that God is sovereign in all aspects of reality. Many years ago I remember hearing R.C. Sproul Jr saying that if we truly understood the very first of the Bible “In the beginning God…” then we would all be happy Calvinists. Why? Because this verse states that everything that exists comes from God. God is the Creator and He does not give up His sovereignty.

Consequential Comfort

Calvinists tend to enjoy the idea that God is Sovereign over everything and this ultimately gives comfort. God being sovereign leads to believers having surety that He will keep them as His. The changes that He requires in them, He will do. They do not need to stress about their ability to become like Christ, because He will do the work in them. I am not saying that Calvinists do not believe in wanting to or trying to become like Christ, but that they do not need to worry about falling away. The attractiveness of Calvinism is that it gives God more power in everything that happens. To the Calvinist, God can be relied upon, instead of worrying about the outcome of our lives.

River Analogy

A helpful way of looking at Calvinism would be to use the drowning man in the river analogy mentioned in an earlier post. Joshua Griffiths, a good friend of mine, came up with the idea that a Calvinist would tend to see salvation like a man drowning in a river who is powerless to save himself. He is even unable to grab hold of a rope that is thrown to him. He is so delirious that he does not even want to. God would need to jump into the river, give him a shot of adrenaline, wake him up and swim with him to shore. The Calvinist would say that he did not choose to be saved but God placed a desire within him to be saved, thus persevering to shore with God’s strength. Arminianism contrasts this scenario by suggesting that the drowning man of his own accord saw the merit in grabbing the rope and in the end allowed God to pull him to shore.

Criticisms of Calvinism

The Elite and the Excluded

The criticisms of Calvinism that I have are from a scriptural and a philosophical angle. As the Arminians point out, the scriptures talk of God holding mankind as responsible for their own actions, and His anger is lit against them to the point of eternal separation (some say even “eternal conscious torment”) or even annihilation. Yet in Calvinism, mankind has no option to choose salvation, only the few elite that God has chosen. The “many” who are left behind may be able to consider being saved, but ultimately due to Free Agency and Total Depravity they will always be separated from God. This thinking leads me to a moral criticism. If God expects people to act a certain way and gets upset that they do not (when they are unable to), His expectations are obviously far above people’s abilities. Not only this, but He gets so upset that He ultimately punishes them with eternal separation from Himself. To me, this does not fit the character of God that the Bible reveals to us. Any father who banishes his child forever from His sight because his child made a wrong choice, even though he had no real choice, would be a horrendous father. In Calvinism, the separation of a group of people from Himself is sometimes seen to serve as an example of evil for the benefit of the few chosen. To me this turns God into an arbitrary monster, loving some and not others for some reason that no one can truly clarify why. If someone could come up with a good reason for God rejecting and sacrificing the majority for the sake of a few as part of a big “glorious” narrative, then I am all ears. However, as of yet, there is no cognitive reason that I see in the narrative that the Bible provides that would allow God to act in a Calvinist paradigm, especially according to the Biblical value placed on human responsibility and the expectation to act a certain way.

A Call to Love

As hard as it may be to accept the idea that we are expected to obey God and yet cannot, it gets worse. Under the Calvinistic paradigm, God expects us to love and value Him. However, Calvinism’s narrative also makes it very difficult to love or value God. At this moment, I cannot see how I could truly love and value a God who picks and chooses between people based on no apparent conditions, i.e. arbitrarily. To put it mildly, it would be like a child trying to love a father who permanently picks and chooses between His favoured and disfavoured children in the family for eternity. The child who is chosen by the father may for a moment be able to reciprocate the love the father shares with him. However, the child may look at his sister and ask why the father chose to love him instead of her. It seems unjust. Rather, throughout His Word, God often (if not always) appeals to past good works He has done for people in order to evidence why they should follow Him. He is appealing to them to understand that He is good to them, and that He is not just the God who whimsically or arbitrarily does as He pleases.

Death’s Persistent Sting

Another philosophical problem I have with Calvinism is that God detests evil and yet allows it to exist in the majority of his creation for all of eternity! Not only this, but God claims to have created man in His own image. I realise there is much ambiguity as to what this means but by principle if God created man in His own image, then how can man be forever estranged from their Creator, living under an entirely different image? Even if man was annihilated (as in Annihilationism), there would have been in existence an “image” of God in the creation of man where a man had no potential good in him worth saving. This brings me to a further thought; If God created this universe to be “good” and even called it “good”, how on earth (literally) did it go “bad”? Since He called it “good”, one would expect it to be “good” with no existing or potential evil. However, He planned for evil or at least knew that it would become evil. According to Calvinism, the evil that came after God had called creation good became a large part of creation. Paul’s question of “death where is your sting?” might be a boast about his own salvation from death, but the majority of humanity are subjected by God to receive for eternity this sting, or at least until annihilation. The evil in a Calvinist narrative is not merely temporary in the lives of the human populace, but exists permanently in the majority of mankind.

Calvinist Sovereignty is not Comforting

One of the values that many Calvinists seem to find comforting is the idea that God is in control of where their lives are going. For me this is not comforting. Why? Because under a Calvinist paradigm only a few are saved – thus my chances of salvation are rather slim. My chances and my neighbour’s chances of being rescued from our sins is more or less a lottery to us, and the chances are actually against us. I have no confidence that God will work out my life for good.
From my perspective on scripture, I also question the very concept of “once saved, always saved”. Many strong scriptures point towards the ability for mankind to come to and also fall away from God. The scenario of the olive tree in Romans 11 seems to be rather clear about that. Some people who were a part of the Olive tree were actually cut off and a warning given to us who had been grafted in! In John 15 where Jesus prunes off the branches which do not bear fruit seems to be an indication of the very real ability to lose our place within Christ. I realise the scenarios given include “if’s”, but the warning is real I believe, especially because some natural branches were actually cut off. The “comforting” idea behind God’s sovereignty over our decisions in a Calvinistic paradigm is not comforting, but rather troublesome and promotes worry. God has given no revealed reason to choose or not to choose me or my neighbour for salvation.    

Denied Pleasure

If God is the most desirable, fulfilling Being that provides “real” happiness in the universe, then Calvinism does not allow for this mind-set. If people in total depravation do not desire God or desire to be saved then technically they desire something else. From their perspective they are “happier” than if they were submitted to God. This means they have found pleasure that is greater than God. What if they technically would be happier and more fulfilled in a relationship with God, but do not realise that God could provide that happiness? Then God would be withholding that pleasure at the same time as blaming the majority for failing to grab hold of it. In Calvinism, I feel that the joy about us having found the greatest joy is taken away, because with thought we realise that it is not that simple. I would feel uncomfortable celebrating my joy in finding Christ my Saviour once realising that the majority people out there will be left without finding that joy in God. Not only this but the joy is not merely something that they reject, but joy that God actively prevents them from finding. They forever look over the treasure that the man “lucky” enough to have found it buried in the field (Matthew 13:44)                    

Calvinism is not all Unfavourable

Some who hold the Calvinistic viewpoint have good intentions that aim to put God back on the throne in a big way. They try to emphasise the “surety” they have in Christ’s work within themselves. Some try to sugar coat the Calvinistic paradigm by talking about the “kind gesture” of Christ’s offering of salvation to all (John 3:16). Yet these nuances are emphasised to make the appeal of Calvinism palatable, and I hope this write up would have assisted us to look at Calvinism’s core issues in a fuller light.


A key motivation of Calvinism is that it seeks to put God on the throne and places the power of man’s choice in subjection to God’s will. This appeals to those who hold Calvinistic beliefs for many reasons. The scriptures speak of God’s absolute power and sovereignty over mankind. The same scriptures are not only clear about this but also tend to make logical sense. Calvinism also claims to provide some personal comfort for those wanting to follow Christ. These reasons open up many criticisms, some of which I covered in this post. Calvinism creates a compulsory elite class and forces the elected non-elite to be excluded from the perks of being elite. Not only this, but we are expected to love the God who implements this. Contrasting Paul’s boast, under Calvinism, Death’s Sting is easily found in the masses of people subjected to it for eternity, and therefore God’s image in mankind is permanently marred with evil for eternity. Many Calvinists may seek to comfort people with certain salvation, but if we act a little less selfishly and look further than ourselves we will see that there are many who are not in comfort. Not to mention our own security within salvation is questionable due to scriptural challenges on this security. Finally yet importantly, under Calvinism, the Ultimate Pleasure is denied to the majority of mankind and what naturally follows is an alternate pleasure that is subjectively “greater” than God. For me, Calvinism like Arminianism does not provide a coherent enough narrative to satisfy my queries about the goodness of God, logical coherence and scriptural revelation. 

My next post will be the beginning of a different narrative that I believe provides a solution to the disparities in the Arminian and Calvinistic narratives. It will come from a scriptural basis, as well as from what I believe, a more logical basis than either Calvinism or Arminianism.