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 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 seems to me, to align most closely with scriptures.
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.
2 thoughts on “Five Points on Calvinism”
Thanks for this post, brother. I think we’re a lot alike in the way we approach theological issues, and I love the times when we differ slightly in our conclusions, because it makes me reexamine my own position.
Having said that… I’m definitely an open theist (of a kind), and I’ll happily stress-test my solutions to the problems of free will and theodicy against yours. I totally agree with the opening and closing of your post, so I’m really going to address the middle, specifically:
1. Providence or Randomness (ice cream analogy).
2. Theodicy: story or love (ball at sister’s head analogy)
I’m going to tackle the second topic first, since the first builds off the second.
So why did God make the world?
Speaking as a pastor, I feel that ‘Theodicy’ would be much better off as a four letter word. It’s just so… inconvenient. If we say that God is partially or fully responsible for the evil in the world, then he is partially evil. If we say that evil came about apart from him, then he is free to not be responsible, but at the expense of his sovereignty. Ugh.
There are many solutions, with varying degree of plausibility. At their root, each solution is not really trying to explain evil as much as it is explaining why God made the world. You’ve mentioned one solution – the existence of evil is necessary to fully appreciate good – and added a nice connection to God as storyteller.
Tell me if this is fair: you believe that God created the world as an outlet for his infinite creativity, much like an author creating a book. As any first year literary student will tell you, conflict is a very necessary ingredient in a compelling story. I mean, without conflict, a story literally becomes tedious. Assuming that this dynamic transcends humanity, we are forced to conclude that every story – even one authored by the almighty — must have evil in order to make the good satisfying. Put another way, “Indistinguishable light may be comforting, but does not fully and truly reveal the light source, [and/or] show the beauty of colors against the backdrop.”
So then God necessarily created the garden of Eden with the intention that man should forfeit it, to make a more compelling narrative. This conclusion makes me extremely uncomfortable. Does evil have to exist in order to fully appreciate good? I see no reason why this must be the case.
At another point, you say that, “An author isn’t evil because he has crafted a story with evil characters…”, and I agree, but only because the characters are fictional. It would be one thing for Stephen King to write about a family trapped with a serial killer father at a lonely hotel, it would be entirely another if he were actually keeping a family hostage as inspiration for his work. By the same reasoning, if God has brought evil characters into his story, then he is responsible for evil being introduced into the world.
You do well to remind us that evil is not a thing in and of itself, but is rather the absence of a thing—but this hardly moves the goalposts. If the absence of God is undesirable and painful and God has created a world with pockets of Godlessness, then he is still responsible for the pain that exists. I struggle to reconcile this with God as portrayed in the Bible.
So what do I believe? God’s purpose in creating the earth was not primarily to display his creativity, but to be loved and worshiped. Love by its nature requires the opportunity to not love. If love only exists under coercion it is something else entirely.
If God’s purpose was to create a world with love, then by necessity there had to have at least been the possibility of not love—coercion is not an option. Therefore, the world he crated was once where his creation had every opportunity to love, yet chose not to. This choice carried consequences, mainly corruption of creation and the spread of evil. In this view, God is indeed absolved of responsibility for evil, because he created a world where it could have been entirely avoided if not for humanity’s actions.
You tackle this view with the very reasonable argument that no one makes decisions in a vacuum. If a kid throws a ball in an arc, it is hardly gravity’s fault when the ball bloodies his sister. This would be compelling if our decisions were solely biological in nature. If our thoughts are merely the result of molecules banging about in our physical brains, then yes, the God who designed and crafted or physical forms is indeed like the child who threw the ball.
Biblically, I’m not sure we can make the argument that our decisions are solely based on our hardware. Theologians have wrestled for centuries of whether we are made up of three parts (body, soul, and spirit) or merely two, yet they are all in agreement that the corporeal form is separate and distinct from the part containing what the Bible calls our will. Our brains drive our cognitive functions, to be sure, but those functions are merely a means of expressing something that transcends physicality. The will is something inherent to us that is both metaphysical, and opinionated. It has desires, and those can either be aligned with God or not, and most importantly, the will theoretically operates (at least partially) independently of God’s control.
God is not the boy in the metaphor, we are. God has given us a ball, because he prefers a world where he can watch us play to a one without balls. Recognizing the inherent danger posed by boys with balls to those around us, he has warned us to not use the ball in such a way as to put others in danger. There is a danger to disobedience, God has made it clear that any misuse of balls will result in a spanking.
In this analogy, we through the ball at our sister, and received a spanking. Who is responsible for our resulting tears? I mean, one could argue that none of this would have happened if God hadn’t given us the ball, but that’s pretty weak. The boy is clearly responsible for his own actions.
But the analogy is flawed! The father was ignorant of the future! Not so with God. Ok, so say the father knew that the boy would hit the sister. He knew it with 100% certainty. Would he not then be responsible for setting into motion a course of events resulting in weeping siblings?
No. At least not if we assume that the boy had the option to not hit the sister. Being a finite creature, my cognition is limited. I struggle to understand what it is like to have certain knowledge of the future. Nevertheless, if the order of events is 1. God gives the ball, 2. A decision will be made by the boy independent of coercion to hit or not hit 3. God knows what the boy will decide, then it is possible for God to be freed from the responsibility of the proceeding evil. His crime, (if anything) would be not intervening to stop the future evil from occurring.
This is an important distinction. Directly or indirectly causing evil is different from allowing it to occur insofar as the evil is part of lawfully decreed consequences. God is often reduced to one or two of his attributes—God is love, and he is good—yet he is far more a complex figure than we often portray. God is love, yes, yes and amen!—but he is also justice. In a situation where man sins and through his sin comes evil, a good God ought to intervene, unless doing so would make him act contrary to his justice. In such a world, God may want to intervene, yet may be restrained by the cosmic laws of the universe—this does not mean he is culpable for the pain that follows.
Providence or Randomness – where does the buck stop?
So either God allows evil and owns a piece of it because he is telling a compelling story, or God allows evil but owns none of it out of his justice and desire for love. Neither answer is satisfying.
Here’s where Calvinism and I butt heads. You say that there is a difference between saying God forces us to eat chocolate ice cream simply because made our taste buds in such a way that they have an affinity for rocky road. No, he made us to like chocolate ice cream and then offers us some—we choose it freely. Both/and. I mean that’s fine when talking about iced confectioneries, but there’s something lacking, y’know?
Here’s a better analogy. God makes you to prefer chocolate ice cream. He also gives you a vanilla allergy that causes you to experience violent anaphylaxis and a swift death if you eat white ice cream. He brings you in to an ice cream parlor, walks you up to the counter and tells you to choose a flavor (his treat). As you look in the display glass, you see two options—chocolate and vanilla. Knowing you are deathly allergic to vanilla, and since you prefer chocolate anyway, you ask for a chocolate cone. *Click*. You turn to see a colt .45 revolver pointed at you. It’s God.
“I’m sorry, the penalty for choosing chocolate is death.” he says, “Please choose vanilla.”
You venture a weak chuckle, though you’re more than a little weirded out. “uh, good one, heheh. I can’t choose vanilla. I’m allergic.”
“I know that,” God responds cooly, “I made you that way. But you’re not the only one I’ve brought here. See the girl over in the booth?”
The girl waves from across the room and you gulp, hard.
“Your impossible choice is going to make her vanilla taste *so good*.”
In this analogy, do you have a choice? Technically, yes, but only in the semantic sense. Either way you’re dead. You are given no opportunity to not be dead. The method of death is perhaps in your control, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that you are in any meaningful way responsible for your predicament. You didn’t form your allergy, you’re not the one holding the gun. That you chose vanilla or chocolate is incidental—you are not in any meaningful way responsible for your death.
Here lies my objection to Calvinism. I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t see things any other way—If God has formed some as ‘vessels of wrath’ who were formed with the express purpose of suffering so that the ones he formed for not wrath would appreciate him more, then he is not good. Not to everyone. Further, if my sense of justice is based on the image of God’s perfect justice, then there is a deep incongruity at work, because I simply cannot see how any of this setup can be called ‘just’ in any meaningful way.
So what is my solution?
Ok, imagine an ice cream parlor, you love chocolate ice cream and are again deathly allergic to vanilla. God takes you up to the counter (his treat), and you again see two options available (guess which ones?) This time he tells you that the chocolate is poisoned—if you eat it, you’ll die. You explain your anaphylaxis and explain that you’d rather skip eating ice cream altogether since you hadn’t really counted on this being such a perilous dietary choice. God explains that you have to choose one, otherwise it would ruin the analogy. He further explains that he has brought an Epi-pen, which will allow you to eat vanilla. Also, one taste of vanilla ice cream allows you to live forever. Also, the girl across the room is allergic to vanilla too, and God has brought a second Epi-pen.
Ok, enough ice cream analogies, I’m getting too hungry. Shifting gears a bit, I realize I still have to address the ‘dice’ argument.
So where do our wills come from? Are they just random rolls of the dice? Um… yes? Maybe I’m not seeing why this would be such a bad thing. In a world with the possibility of love, there must be the possibility to not love, and there cannot be coercion, otherwise love is impossible. This leaves a world where Adam and Eve could either love or not love. They chose to not love. Why? We’re not told. In fact, we are told very little about how the will decides anything, just that it does. If that means it’s functionally random, then so be it. Better that than a God who says he has no evil in him while he makes an evil world. That God is a hypocrite.
Sorry to vomit all this out. Good post, I look forward to discussing more.
Hey Derek, thank you for the great comments and discussion (very well written, BTW!). Let me try to continue the discussion with a few comments:
Regarding our nature as soul (and spirit maybe), not just brain, I certainly agree. And I will certainly acknowledge that the soul is a realm that is far more opaque and mysterious than our biological nervous system (although that is still pretty crazy complicated and mysterious). However, I would say that my fundamental argument is really not based on the mechanics of neural operations in our brain, but rather the nature of how decisions are formed out of our character, and it seems like this applies regardless of whether we are talking about cells or spirit. My basic assertion is that we make decisions based out the rich combination of values and priorities within our spirit, soul, and mind, regardless of how a spirit actually operates, or how this in transmitted through our neurons. Just because soul is involved does not mean our decisions spring forth out of nothing, with no connection to our existing desires and values within us.
Going to your epi-pen and ice cream, if I understand correctly, I think there are a couple additional factors you are pointing to. One is that our decisions are actually far more complicated than simple taste-bud gratification. And of course, this is absolutely true, we are often considering many near and far desires, ethics, and standards in our decisions. However, it seems that the complicating nature of decision making is still composed of the same basic factors. It may not be just a single, simple cause-and-effect, but many our decisions our combination of many cause-and-effects that yield a complicated cause-and-effect. And just because our decision making process may be too complicated for us to understand, does not change the nature of it. We certainly lack the understanding and insight to be able to tell how another person will behave in any given situation, but that doesn’t mean that God does not possess the necessary knowledge and insight to know that.
Second, I think you were relating the external influences on our will (guns, allergies, etc.). Again, I think our *perception* of what is free will (or freedom generally) is really about is the experience of making decisions based on internal drivers, free from external constraints, or coercion from others. And so when we thinking about God acting sovereignly ordaining things, we quickly jump to our experience of forces and coercion outside of our will. But that’s not the nature of His sovereignty, he can act within our will, so that we can freely and willing choose whatever we wish, *at the same time* God exercises His sovereignty and control.
Also, you mentioned having suffering for the sake of a story seems unnecessary. Stories are imaginary, so suffering at the “real” level for the sake of something imaginary and meaninglessly is not very reasonable, or even cruel, right? Or is it? We certainly are willing to pay some costs for the sake of story. We willing pay, collectively millions (or billions) of dollars for our theatrical stories. They do seem to have real value to us.
Let’s try another analogy. Imagine for a minute, that you were given the opportunity to (go back in time and) play Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars series. But, you would really lose your hand in the battle with Darth Vader. Real pain and suffering. Now, I don’t what you would choose, but I bet there are plenty that would be willing to make some real sacrifices (and even inflict same pain on lost time with others that is involuntary for them), for a chance to be the hero of one the greatest stories in our time, a hero for generations. In other words, we are willing to make to some pretty big sacrifices if the story is big enough.
Now, let’s make a story for the entire world, to be rerun, discussed, and adored for all eternity, multiplying the story by, basically, infinity. Maybe our intuition that suffering merely for the sake of story, becomes outweighed by the magnitude of the story.
And, it sure sounds like that is awfully similar to what Paul is saying in 2 Corinth 4:17, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Anyway, I know there is plenty more here to address, discuss, and think about. Thank you for the thoughtful comments, analogies, and perspective.