Sunday, 20 April 2008

Recovering a Sense of Incredulity over Calvinism

I have a couple friends of mine who are preparing for ministry and working on advanced theological degrees. However, in their prior studies they had been quite insulated from the Calvinist-Arminian debate, and have only recently encountered real live Calvinists. It is refreshing to hear their sense of incredulity and even shock at what Calvinists say.

I remember one of my first conversations with one of them. As it came up that I was not a Calvinist, he replied, "But there aren't any Calvinists around any more, are there?" I looked around at the various other theologians in the room and said, "We're surrounded by them." This came as a shock, since he simply could not conceive how anyone could hold to Calvinism.

In another conversation, my other friend said, after talking to a Calvinists, "You know, they actually believe that Jesus only died for the elect." I replied, "But of course." To which he responded that he knew this was a part of their theology, but couldn't conceive of anyone actually believing that God would withhold the atonement from the greatest part of mankind.

Another time, one of them said to me, "Do you realize that they think that we Arminians believe in a works salvation?"

All this is refreshingly assuring. These young men, well educated in theology as they are, nonetheless have a theological innocence about them untainted by the intricacies of a Calvinism which obfuscates the obvious and creates theosophical labyrinths from one's nose to one's elbow.
Oh to be shocked once more at hearing someone claim that God predestines some few people to believe, and leaves all others with no means of salvation! Oh to be astonished to hear someone claim that babies who die in infancy have no assurance of being ushered into the delights of heaven! Oh to be flabbergasted to hear someone claim that people have no choice in whether they put their faith in Christ or not.

We hear Calvinists repeat their disturbing theology so much that we gradually lose our proper sense of astonishment over people actually believing things so contrary to the nature of God and to the obvious meaning of Scripture. This is unfortunate. We need to recover a sense of theological innocence so that we do not dignify what is otherwise prima facie absurd.

On one hand, we want people to recognize our theological maturity, and so we make sure we never seem surprised at Calvinistic claims; and rightly so, because we've probably heard most of them more than a few times. But maybe this is a flawed response, for it tends to dignify that which should be not be dignified. Perhaps instead we should respond with an appropriate sense of incredulity at notions which could only be deduced from scripture by those who are twice too clever for the simplicity of the Gospel.


Pizza Man said...

What irritates me about the "lost innocence" is becoming distracted when I hear certain scriptural terms that Calvinists abuse. Words like "grace", "sovereignty" etc...

Five years ago if someone said "Isn't it great that God sovereign?" I could heartily agree. Now my first thought is "What does this person mean by sovereignty?". I hate that sort of distraction. It takes away from enjoying God.

Anonymous said...

Pizza man,

excellent point. I feel the same way.

God Bless,

TrueHope said...

1) I think some Internet Calvinists get an emotional high from shocking other Christians with their views and hearing these Christians complain "it's not fair" or "we're not robots" etc. So while other people use their recreation time playing basketball or computer games, Internet Calvinists would visit the forums and formulate the most blasphemous remarks they can think of while staying in the confines of "orthodoxy", as though they get extra brownie points for doing so.

Of course, many Calvinists aren't like that, but a few rotten apples make the entire orchard look bad.

2) Pizza Man, I agree. It seems that Calvinists have messed up and abused a whole lot of terms, including elect, election, predestination, regeneration, foreknowledge, sovereignty, choice, calling, drawing, ordain, determine, preseverence, faith, works, grace, etc.

3) But then, whenever we get disgusted by these doctrines of man, all we need to do is to read the Bible and remind ourselves that it's not true. After all, there are many logically consistent theological systems, but not many biblically consistent ones.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Yep, the latest in Calvinisms' rhetorical terminology is the phrase "the Doctrines of Grace"! Thus, their favourite line has become, "I used to be Arminian, before I learned the Doctrines of Grace."

I suppose it would be at least a little inflammatory if, in describing Calvinism, we were to say "the Doctrines of Disgrace."

Boms said...

Sovereignty means absolute LORDship, Pizza man. Is God's absolute LORDship the distraction you hate? Is it because an absolutely sovereign God who does not need us to make Him LORD since He was is and always will be LORD regardless of what people think, is not as user-friendly and thus "enjoyable?"

Like it or not, enjoy it or not, God will have mercy on whom HE will have mercy. God's grace is not dependent on its beneficiaries, but on the bestower of the grace: God Himself.

No one and nothing else can be surer than God Himself. Praise God for the grace that depends on God rather than the grace that is dependent on the capricious choices of mortal men.

To God alone be the glory!

Stephen Garrett said...

"Oh to be shocked once more at hearing someone claim that God predestines some few people to believe, and leaves all others with no means of salvation!"

Don't Arminians have the same problem? Is the gospel not the only means of salvation? Is it not true that one cannot be saved apart from the gospel? If so, then most of the race of men have died never having heard the gospel, never had the means! So, you have the same problem.

Besides, do you believe Christ died on the cross for those he knew would die without the gospel and means of salvation? How does that make sense?

God bless


TrueHope said...

No, Arminians don't have the same problem.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks all for the comments.

Stephen Garrett asks if it makes sense for God to have sent his Son to die for those whom he knew would never accept him.

I suppose such a superluous act of grace is shocking: Jesus died even for those who would reject him. But isn't this in keeping with the character of God? Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you! How often would I gather your children under my wings...but you would not!

Yes, God is shockingly gracious, even to the point of providing the means of salvation for sinners who will persist in their enmity with him.

Compare this great mercy against the shocking theology of Calvinism where God does not love the world so much as to send his Son for everyone. Is such thinking consistent with the biblical depiction of the character of God?

Yes, God will have mercy on those whom he will have mercy. But God in his sovereignty chooses to have mercy on those who will believe in him.

Ultimately, the extent of the atonement is a question of the character of God. Whatever faults or weaknesses might be found in Arminian thinking (not that I concede any), it is consistent with the character of God at every point.

gatekeeper said...

Would love for you to check it out....thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've definately recovered the sense of "are they nuts?" over Calvinism.

But the problem is that Arminians soft-soap Calvinism.

Calvinism says “God is the author of sin. He programmed you to sin. He decreed you to sin before he created the world. And now he’s going to send you to hell for doing what he made you do. He’s going to send you to hell for doing what you had no choice in. But, good news, if you won the lottery before the world began, if your dice roll was favorable, then he’ll give you faith and save you. Otherwise, go burn in hell you stinking reprobate scum.”

The Gospel says "You chose to sin and you are on your way to hell for your own choice. God sent his Son to die for all men, to save them from their sins. Believe in Jesus Christ and be saved. Repent of your sins, confess your belief in Christ, and be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of sins."

But unfortunately, a lot of Arminians like to play John McCain "My opponent is a wonderful guy, way better than me--he's almost as good as God Himself, but please vote for me anyway. Thanks."

Arminians need to get some righteous indignation in dealing with Calvinists. If you are truly a Christian and not just saying it, then this is your LORD they are blaspheming. This is Jesus Christ "Who did no sin neither was guile found in his mouth" that they are accusing of being the author of their sins. This is God who "is Love" that they accuse of being Hate.

This is not the place for diplomacy or political correctness, nor for wishy-washiness, for flattery, or for deference to the number of degrees someone has after their name. They claim that God is evil, pure and simple, and anyone who can't put it in those exact words might as well go join them or become and atheist. Those are, after all, the two things that the Calvinists want you to do. Their goal is to destroy the church and make every Christian either join in their blasphemy or become an atheist, and if you can't say that about them, then you've already joined them.

Onesimus said...

Boms said:
"Like it or not, enjoy it or not, God will have mercy on whom HE will have mercy. God's grace is not dependent on its beneficiaries, but on the bestower of the grace: God Himself."

Yes God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy - a great quote from Romans 9. But how about taking that truth to its conclusion as stated in Romans 11:32?
"For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy ON THEM ALL"

Stephen Garret said:
"Is it not true that one cannot be saved apart from the gospel? If so, then most of the race of men have died never having heard the gospel, never had the means! So, you have the same problem."

God is very capable of sovereignly working in the lives of anyone - even to the extent of getting His gospel to those he knows will respond to it in faith. There are the scriptural examples of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Cornelius. There are also many modern day examples. I received details of one today:

Another example appears in a recent newsletter from Open Doors.

YnottonY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YnottonY said...

There are at least 4 things problematic about this post, and one need not be a Calvinist to see them as problems:

1) First, your post represents Calvinists as monolithic in their atonement views, such that they say Christ only died for the elect. Not only was their significant diversity at the Synod of Dort, but there were differences and debates even at the Westminster Assembly. Consequently, both of these allowed for a Calvinistic form of universal redemption (as found in what scholars today are calling an "English variety of Hypothetical Universalism"). Properly speaking, it is only *some* Calvinists who say that Christ only died for the sins of the elect, and none of these were even original Reformers. It's the second or third generation Protestant Scholastics who taught the strict view described in your post.

2) Secondly, you represent Calvinists as saying, "Arminians believe in a works salvation." If this is what Calvinists actually believed about Arminians, then they would necessarily have to view them as unregenerate, i.e. not as Evangelicals. Actually, what some Calvinists maintain (albeit wrongly, I think) is that the Arminian position *logically entails* a works salvation, not that you all actually advocate for a works salvation. They're arguing that A (Arminianism) entails B (works salvation), not A is B. That's a significant difference. You've caricatured their attempt at a reductio ad absurdum (A entails B) as if it is an identification with a works salvation (A is B).

3) Thirdly, you misrepresent Calvinists as saying "God predestines some few people to believe." A group that no man can number (Rev. 7:9) is not a "few people." While it is not the majority of mankind, it is certainly not a "few." Not only that, but here are, again, differences among Calvinists. There is a minority view that says more of mankind will be saved than lost (by God's predestination), which comes from certain eschatological positions. Neither of these positions (minority of men saved vs. majority of men finally saved) are rightly represented by the description "few people."

4) Fourthly, though perhaps not lastly, your article seems to represent Calvinists as saying "people have no choice in whether they put their faith in Christ or not." That's not what they claim. "Ability" or "choice" is ambiguous, so the debate concerns whether or not the choices humans do in fact make are determined (in any sense) or not. The debate does not concern whether or not all people (who hear the gospel) have a "choice" as to whether to trust Christ or not. They certainly do, in some sense, otherwise they would have no responsibility. Calvinists acknowledge this fact, even if you think they don't do so consistently. The debate is not between choice and non-choice, but between determined choice or undetermined (or libertarian) choice. Calvinists still believe that all men have a God-given faculty to will and thus to make choices. It's just the case that they believe unsaved or unregenerate men always make choices in accord with their sin nature. Consequently, some Calvinists put it this way: the reason why some are lost is not so much a problem of will-power but of won't-power.

As I said above, I would not even have to be a Calvinist to detect these problems in your article, even though I am of the moderate/classical variety. Both sides in the debate engage in misrepresentations. I could go on and on about how Calvinists do this toward their opponents, but I'm also seeing it among people on your side of the theological aisle. If each party cannot properly *describe* what their opponents believe, then they are not yet ready to pose defeaters and challenge the rival system.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

YnottonY, I'm going to leave your comments largely unanswered on the basis that they lack sufficient merit.

I appreciate the effort to make Calvinism respectable, but the point of the argument is that Arminians need to go back to their initial response when they first heard about Calvinism.