… would it smell just as unattractive? (Apologies to Shakespeare – some of us Essex people have heard of him, even if we don’t win Big Brother.)
I couldn’t resist this title, so I decided to use it as an excuse to comment on the discussions on five-point or TULIP Calvinism which are going on at Ancient Hebrew Poetry (completely off topic for that blog, so don’t be scared to read this if you don’t know any Hebrew), at Metacatholic, and in a long comment thread on this very blog.
I must say I find five-point Calvinism, the kind summarised in the acronym TULIP, to have an extremely unattractive “scent” reminding me of death, at least in the way it is usually presented. This smell seems to attach to both the doctrine and to many of its supporters. John Hobbins seems to agree, for he finds among the supporters
rabidness of expression, lack of charity … a loss of focus … theological cranks who have never absorbed the teaching of 1 Corinthians 13.
No doubt some of these TULIPs would quote Paul in response to my Shakespeare allusion:
For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
2 Corinthians 2:15-16 (TNIV)
That is, they would hint that if I find their TULIP teaching, which to them is the heart of the gospel, to have the smell of death, that is evidence that I am perishing. But then on their theology I can’t do anything about that, so I might as well ignore it. For these are the people who teach that God decided, irrevocably and before the foundation of the world, that certain people would be saved, and that others have no chance of salvation because they are so completely depraved that they cannot even take the smallest step towards God. This, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the standard Calvinist teaching which is promoted by many of my blogging friends, especially those in the Reformed camp.
So it comes as a surprise to me that both John Hobbins and Jeremy Pierce can take separate very different positions and yet still claim to be TULIP Calvinists.
John’s position is the simpler one to understand. He qualifies “limited atonement” as
a reality faced today. The consequences of sin are still born in part by sin’s perpetrators and victims. The time is coming, and is almost here, when the Lamb’s victory over sin will be universal.
Having said this is easy to understand, I realise that he can mean one of two things. One is that in our generation almost everyone is elect and so will be saved, and soon, i.e. among future generations, this will become everyone. But more likely what he means is that everyone in all generations is elect and so will be saved; so far not all have been, but very soon they will be. (How soon do you mean by “The time … is almost here”, John? A lady in my church is expecting the rapture before the end of this month. Are you with her, or is your understanding based on “a thousand years are like a day”?)
If John’s position is the latter, this makes him a universalist, a believer that all people will be saved. Well, at least he has found the only logical way to believe in election but not double predestination. But he then has to face questions like, will Judas, Nero, Hitler and Stalin really be saved? Any teaching that they will be smells only a little more pleasant, especially to their victims, than the variety of TULIP I described above.
Jeremy’s position, as befits his philosophical training, is philosophically deeper. He holds to “compatibilism”, which, if I have understood it correctly, is in simple terms (perhaps over-simplified, I’m sure Jeremy will correct me if they are) that there are two complementary but compatible ways of looking at spiritual reality: in one of these, God decides who will be saved, and in the other, each person decides for themselves. Jeremy has explicitly denied that one of these views is more fundamental than the other. So he does not take the position that people cannot decide for themselves to turn to God and be saved; rather, he holds that while this is in one sense their real and free decision, in another sense it is predetermined by God. That is correct, isn’t it, Jeremy?
Now I accept that, when properly described and qualified, this is a coherent position, and indeed it is probably the best way to understand and reconcile the various strands of biblical teaching on these issues. I stop short of a full endorsement of compatibilism because this seems a little bit too close to the proud reason I have condemned.
In a comment at Metacatholic I suggested, slightly tongue in cheek, that “in one sense [Jeremy] is a TULIP Calvinist, and in another sense he is not.” But he denied this, claiming that his position is historical five-point Calvinism, and that the TULIP position as I described it earlier in this post is a distortion, hyper-Calvinism. Well, it doesn’t seem to be hyper-Calvinism as described by Wikipedia to hold that most people are not elect and so completely depraved that they have no chance of salvation. Indeed, this is the classic Calvinist understanding of total depravity, as also described by Wikipedia. What is hyper-Calvinism is to use this teaching as an excuse not to call to repentance and faith people who are not thought to be elect – an error because no human knows who the elect are.
It still seems to me that Jeremy holds that it is possible to be both a TULIP Calvinist and an Arminian (in the simplistic sense of believing that people decide for themselves whether to be saved) because these teachings are in some philosophical sense compatible, and so he takes this position. This TULIP has another name as well, and to me it has a sweet fragrance.