I wanted to share some thoughts on Calvinism and defense of it. This is topic that is often mentioned, but I wanted to put down a little more detailed description of my beliefs, and maybe something that can be discussed on top of these points. But first, let me clearly say that this is indeed a challenging topic that many have debated, and I hope to express some humility: I certainly don’t have the answers. However, I believe it is still worthwhile to think about and discuss with an attitude of humility. So here it is, my Five Points on Calvinism (sorry for the pun 🙂 ):
1. I consider myself a Calvinist. But I would also warn against Calvinism if it leads you towards fatalism or against the belief in free will and responsibility for your decisions. If you believe that predestination means that you have no agency or opportunity to shape the future, then reject predestination. The reality and truth that our will decides the future is a hundred times more important than any truth found in Calvinism. And any errors of Armianism or open theism is a hundred times less significant than the errors of fatalism.
And furthermore, if you have any tendency to believe that just because God sovereignly ordained past events, that they prove and demonstrate God’s pleasing will, what he desires, then run from Calvinism. There are countless evil situations, evil leaders appointed, and tragedies that have occurred that God has sovereignly allowed. Let us not think for a second that this even suggests that this means God is pleased by these tragedies and evil. If you are prone to look at events in the world or your life and accept them as good simply because “God is in control”, I would suggest reconsidering what God’s sovereignty means. If these two dimensions of God’s will are confusing, Calvinism is not worth the confusion.
I would also warn against middle ground fallacy here, and seeking a compromise in semi-Calvinist views. I think the most reasonable alternative to Calvinism really is open theism. From my perspective, “middle grounds” seem more like mix and matching different views of God in whatever way is convenient. It is equally pernicious when we freely define some things as unavoidably according to God’s will and others as outside of His will based on whatever we like and dislike.
2. It is my conviction to avoid using the term “reformed” to describe my beliefs in predestination and free will and instead use the term “Calvinism”. I believe it is disingenuous and historically inaccurate to use “reformed” to describe a specific understanding of predestination. The reformation was not primarily a movement for or against a position on free will, but is best summarized by the five “solas” of the reformation, a dissent against other elements that were being added to the notions of grace, faith, and salvation. The primary debates about predestination actually consisted of reformed theologians on both sides (Arminius was definitely reformed). Declaring one side as true “reformed” is an example of “no true scotsman” rhetoric, not only a logical fallacy, but a underhanded means of attributing falsehood to dissenters by exclusion.
This is shady rhetoric, but it also blurs the focus of what being reformed should really be about. It is not a commitment to a specific understanding of sovereignty. What being reformed means to me, and what I prize is a commitment to the five solas: salvation defined by scripture alone, received by faith alone, through grace alone, by Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. These are the fundamental ideas that shape my theology and life, apart from any debates on the nature of sovereignty.
I also recognize that “Calvinism” is also not a historically accurate term either. John Calvin certainly taught on many subjects, and distilling it down to beliefs on predestination is simplistic. But, at least this term is also widely known, and I would rather misrepresent one person than the entire reformed tradition.
So, back to Calvinism…
3. The question of the nature of God’s sovereignty is not only a theologic question, but deeply intersects with the philosophy of determinism, and how we define the meaning of free will. Free will is the process of how we come to make decisions in our life. According to libertarian free-will philosophy, free will is only free if it is not predetermined. However, I believe this is confusing our feelings and perception of free-will, the feeling or experience of free-will as being from external constraints in our decision-making. However, as a Calvinist, I believe that our decisions are actually the direct result of our (mostly) internal thoughts, feeling, and goals. Every action, decision in the world is either the result of existing causes, or it is not, and when something is not meaningful related to some cause, it is by definition, randomness. Every decision is primarily either the result of our meaningful decision-making deterministically driven by our characters, values, and desires, or it is primarily randomness, unmeaningful rolls of the dice, coming out of nothingness.
Philosophically, Calvinism is known as compatibilitism. If God gives us the desire for chocolate ice cream, is our free will violated when then go to an ice cream shop, and gladly choose chocolate ice cream? No! If God gives us a passion for dance, and knows we will use it, have we then lost our free will if we then joyously choose to dance? No, absolutely not! God’s sovereignty over a deterministic universe and our free-will are not incompatible concepts, rather they point to the fact that our free-will is our experience of who we are, determining our decisions.
I believe that Calvinism, properly understood, should in no way diminish the consequences of our actions, or the responsibility that we bear in our actions. If we point a gun at someone, the decision to pull the trigger will leave the victim every bit as alive or dead, and leaves with every bit as much responsibility for the action, regardless of whether God knew or ordained it ahead of time. If our free-will is compatible with God’s sovereignty, so are the consequences and responsibilities that go along with it.
Therefore, I believe that our free will is primarily meaningful and deterministic, not caprice and randomness. And my belief in Calvinist determinism is a belief that God is directing a meaningful world, not a random world of people making decisions out of nothing, without cause or meaning.
4. Of course, the nature of God’s sovereignty is indeed very much a theological question, and receives such attention because it is crucial to theodicy: how does suffering and evil exist, if God is good?
It is worth actually considering two aspects of this question. First, does evil originate from God? And second, why does he allow suffering to persist in this world?
The Arminian answer is to appeal to human’s free will as the source of evil, in order to vindicate God. To these questions, the suggested answer is that our free will is the origination of evil, and suffering persists because of our sinful actions.
I simply don’t find this to be a very compelling. This vindication of God sounds like a child declaring that it is not “his fault, it is the thrown ball that decided to arc downwards into her sisters head that is to blame”. If you set something in motion, knowing how it will (or likely will) result, I believe there is (at least, to some degree) a responsibility for the outcome.
And while defining evil’s as originating from our wills may provide some semantic separation from God in origination of evil, it is does very little to answer the second question. The reality is that the majority of suffering and pain we experience is not due to direct evil actions on the part of others, but rather natural forces like disease, natural disasters, etc. Excusing a small part of our suffering to free will is like providing a 25% discount on God’s evilness. He may not be terribly bad, He is just really bad. And arguing that these diseases and disasters are somehow the actions that God had to inflict as a result of our sin is like the child who argues that he had to hit his sister in the face, because she was saying bad things. This is constructing an arbitrary and unnecessary cause and effect. It strikes me as a pretty weak answer to these questions. Do we really want to strip God of sovereignty to the point that he is relatively impotent demi-god, losing most of his battles, for the sake of excusing himself? Does this realistically offer much assurance of future victory?
Rather than making excuses for and lessen God’s control of the world, I believe it is far more compelling to look towards transcendent purpose and meaning in the meta-narrative of this world. I find a compelling analogy in God as an author. An author isn’t evil because he has crafted a story with evil characters, these are part of what provide the contrast, the challenges, the twists for good to be displayed most vividly, for good to be victorious in a meaningful way.
The Biblical analogy of light and dark points to the value of contrast to bringing meaningful illumination. Indistinguishable light may be comforting, but does not fully and truly reveal the light source, and our show the beauty of colors against the backdrop. And this is meaningful in time as well, God’s progressive and gradual revelation brings greater significance and clarity to His righteousness. In answering the question of why suffering persists, it is because of the beauty of contrasts, and gradual unfolding of His story.
Scriptures make no effort to obscure God’s role in ordaining and creating those that who are perpetrators of evil, and clearly indicates the purpose of showing the contrast of good and evil, to fully show His goodness. Paul (Rom 9:22-23) plainly says that He is made “vessels of wrath” to contrast against those that act merciful, which He “prepared beforehand” in order to make “known the riches of His glory.”
But how do we answer the first question, of the origination of evil? Does this mean we are claiming that God created evil? This would indeed be the case, and would be an unacceptable claim (Psalms 92:15, 1 John 1:5), except that this conclusion is actually based on a false assumption: that evil needed to be created to exist. But again, the scriptural analogy of light and dark is revelatory: darkness is not an actual entity that is created, it is the absence of light. And likewise, evil is really the absence of righteousness. In other words, God created a world, in which His righteousness is not fully and instantly revealed and applied. And because His righteousness has not entered every part of the world, the absence of righteousness, evil, is plainly visible and common. God didn’t create evil, he create a world that was not fully imbued with His righteousness, and the manifestation of this world lacking righteousness, is man acting evil. This doesn’t mean that evil isn’t an active and powerful force, it certainly is, but it is a force that consists of suppressing light, oppressing good, a force defined in the negative.
In short, rather than trying to vindicate God by trying to remove or lessen His role in precisely and exactly ordaining a world that has tragedy in it, I think we should see creation, in its current form, as a point in a path, the necessary and meaningful way for God to destroy evil with the progressive unfolding of His goodness and righteousness. While acknowledging this may feel uncomfortable, this is what scripture seems to teach.
5. As hotly debated as this topic is, from my observations, the behavioral implications seem pretty small (whereas beliefs like cessationism, dispensationalism, prosperity theology, and Zionism seem to have more substantial and observable negative implications). This is a key reason why I try to refrain from being dogmatic about this issue (and as mentioned earlier, would even push people away from my belief if it would cause fatalistic or other negative implications). However, that being said, I think there are a couple implications that I believe should result from Calvinism (although they certainly don’t always).
First, I believe that acknowledging others’ lives and decisions as inevitably affected and shaped by the numerous forces and experiences they have lived through, helps us to empathize with them. Ignoring this often results in looking at others, judging them by an isolated view of the “bad decisions they have made”. But this implicitly involves superimposing the expectations derived from the benefits of our own life experiences, education, and upbringings, than expecting the same outcome in others. A deeper view of how our decision making actually works brings us greater sympathy towards others.
Furthermore, a naive idea of others decision making as an equal isolated islands of free-will, allows us to free ourselves from any responsibility in our lives. But a fuller perspective of a deterministic world, with every life developing from many complex inputs, in a complex web of interactions, where we are all deeply intertwined, should cause us to recognize the ways that our interactions with others is significant and meaningful.
Again, it is easy to look at someone’s broken life, and blame them for their “bad decisions”. But along the way, did they grow up in a disadvantaged home, that we ignored? Was their education neglected in ways, that we could have helped out with? Did they go hungry, when we could have fed them or advocated for them? Those living with their poor decisions, certainly bear responsibility for their own decisions, but in a Calvinistic worldview, so do we, if we have neglected them.
Second, Calvinism brings focus on the glory of God as the highest and central goal of God and us, as followers. This stems from the fact that in a universe sovereignly and deterministically ordered by God, defining any smaller goal, any of the battles we try to win, as the ultimate goal is nonsensical, as God could simply end or win such battles instantly. Calvinism forces us to see that the only truly coherent overarching goal of God is one in which the struggles of humanity persist because the process of, and the way they are overcome, can be manifested, showing God’s glory.
An analogy might be to consider how a shift in goals affects our own behavior. First, imagine the goal of driving across the country to get to New York. This goal, wholeheartedly pursued, simply involves getting across the country as quickly as possible, with as little interruption as possible. Now imagine changing the goal to driving across for the purpose of writing a book about it. This second goal, while on the surface may look similar, is actually very different. Taking the time to make the trip significant and memorable, and doing the trip well, become the primary objectives, so that the journey can be fully appreciated. In other words, the “glory” of the trip, and how it can be shared, takes precedent over simply getting to the other shore. Having a higher, transcendent purpose overarching the goal of getting across America completely transforms our approach.
Likewise, pursuing God’s glory properly shapes our view of goals like evangelism, discipleship, church growth, social justice, and other pursuits as subordinate to the ultimate goal. And consequently how we do them, in a way that reflects God’s ways, is as important as the results of the subordinate goals.
To be clear, these implications of Calvinism are perspectives that I believe Calvinism should hopefully point people towards. However, in reality these perspectives can be shared by non-Calvinists as well, I simply think it is more of direct implication of Calvinism.
Regardless of how we attempt to understand and make sense of mysterious concepts of determinism and free-will, I do hope we can grow in our understanding of how deeply our lives are intertwined, and that we can more fully appreciate and enter in to God’s beautiful story of revealing His goodness, and make that our ultimate vision.