Proud reason and systematic theology

Adrian Warnock, in a post about the doctrine of “double predestination”, quotes one of his heroes, the 19th century Cambridge preacher Charles Simeon, as follows:

But this is a perversion of the doctrine. It is a consequence which our proud reason is prone to draw from the decrees of God: but it is a consequence which the inspired volume totally disavows. There is not in the whole sacred writings one single word that fairly admits of such a construction.

Thus Simeon shows how wrong is the teaching of double predestination, that God predestines some people to be damned. Adrian agrees with him, and so do I.

But I want to take this a step further. It seems to me that any systematic theology or teaching derived from it needs to be judged according to this criterion, whether it actually consists of “the decrees of God”, or is “a consequence which our proud reason is prone to draw from [these] decrees”. This applies especially to the Reformed systematic theology based on the five points of Calvinism which Adrian is currently expounding in a mini-series. Among the tests which need to be applied here is whether the teaching is “a consequence which the inspired volume totally disavows”. And among the teachings which fail this test I find not only double predestination but indeed the whole system of election and predestination which is the basis of Calvinism. For these are based on the idea that God does not want all to be saved which “the inspired volume totally disavows”, in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9.

0 thoughts on “Proud reason and systematic theology

  1. Amen.

    As a poorly educated lay Christian, I’d go so far as to say that every systematic theology needs to be viewed as, at best, a provisional understanding.

    And some are much worse than that.

  2. Great post. I, too, and a non-seminary trained lay Christian, and in my reading of the Bible, I see that God indeed loves all and doesn’t want any to perish. I’ll take God’s word over man’s interpretation any day. Just because a doctrine was written down hundreds of years ago doesn’t make it infallable. Only God is perfect.

  3. Peter
    You may be surprised to know that I agree that God is not particularly eager that some any should perish. He does not take pleasure in damnation. He does not desire that anyone should go to hell. If you think that such statments are inconsistent with my belief (taken from such places as Eph 1) that God predestines believers and imparts faith to us well so be it. I think we must be cautious in distinguishing between clear things the bible teaches, our first order deductions from the teachings of the bible and any deductions we make from our deductions. It is that third set that are so fragile and so often wrong.

  4. Adrian, don’t assume that every time I quote you I am disagreeing with you. I agree that God predestines believers, I’m not quite sure about imparting faith. My point is that these terms must be understood in ways which are consistent with other clear biblical statements. Systematic theologies which fail to do this must be condemned as “proud reason”. If we can’t find a way to reconcile different statements in God’s word, that must be because of limitations in our reason, not because God has got some things wrong so we can ignore them.

  5. I would argue that the election language in the New Testament is intended to place the church in continuity with the family of Abraham, who were chosen by God to be a blessing to all nations. The choosing of Abraham’s family was not so that they could be saved and the rest of the world be damned; it was so that they could be a light to the nations, so that through them God’s light could reach out to the whole world (as we see in the second half of Isaiah).

    I think we read the NT language about election and predestination far too individualistically, myself.

  6. Even more than that, Peter – I would argue that to take the language any other way means that Romans 9-11 stands out like a sore thumb in the epistle, with no real connection with what has gone before, whereas if you take election as I have suggested, Romans 9-11 might even be the point of the whole epistle!

  7. I think you’re taking Simeon out of context. Given the fuller statement in Adrian’s post, it’s not double predestination that Simeon is calling a perversion. It’s the view that the damned aren’t responsible for their fate. That, of course, is indeed a perversion of the double-predestination view. Basically, Simeon is denouncing hyper-Calvinism’s view that being predetermined means you’re not morally responsible. Since Calvinism has always denied that, I see nothing in Simeon’s statement that’s contrary to double-predestination or anything else in standard Calvinism. Since Piper, who accepts double-predestination, considers Simeon a Calvinist, I’d be very surprised to find him denying it.

  8. Well, Jeremy, the point you are disagreeing with here is not mine but Adrian’s, which I simply accepted, perhaps without considering it carefully enough. So perhaps you should repeat your comment on his blog. My own point is the one in the following paragraph, and is independent of Adrian’s one.

    Piper considers Simeon a Calvinist. Simeon considers Wesley a Calvinist. Does Piper consider Wesley a Calvinist? What are the implications of the non-transitivity of this relation?

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  10. I don’t see Simeon calling Wesley a Calvinist, but the point I was making does apply to what you said. The doctrine of limited atonement is fully consistent with God’s desire for all to be saved, if you take it in the way Calvin, Piper, and most Calvinists have historically taken it, i.e. in a way that is philosophically compatibilist. I’ve argued for this here and here.

  11. Jeremy, I can more or less agree with you on limited atonement. God loves everyone and Christ’s death had potentiality to be for all. But this death is only fully effective for those who actually do repent and are saved. I would disagree with you on which of these statements is more fundamental. But if that is all limited atonement means, I have no problem with it. But somehow it looks like you have performed a conjuring trick to hide the real but unacceptable doctrine of limited atonement underneath the “God loves everyone” teaching you really believe.

    I’m glad that you feel able to retreat from some Reformed theology in this area. But you seem reluctant to retreat from limited atonement entirely although your thinking about potentiality undermines the concept. Is this because you are somehow philosophically or religiously committed to the five TULIP points? You seem to hold that they are true at some hidden “fundamental” level but not really at a more visible level. By Occam’s Razor, wouldn’t it be easier simply to reject the existence of this hidden fundamental level?

    You wrote in one of your linked papers, “it’s dangerous to speculate on what God hasn’t specifically revealed, especially when such speculations can easily lead to heresy”. Indeed. God hasn’t specifically revealed anything about limited atonement or anything at your fundamental level, and you accept that it is not helpful to preach them, so why promote such dangerous doctrines?

    Yes, Jeremy, I am trying to “out” you as an Arminian who is pretending to be a Calvinist!

  12. Hi,

    You may wish to introduce your readers to a fantastic new book called ‘Letters from Home, Our Father’s Message of Love.’

    In this book, Neil Goodman uses the fundamental topics of systematic theology to group together 1000 key bible verses into Letters written as if from God Himself.

    As an aide-memoir to serious Bible students or an introduction to what the Bible ACTUALLY SAYS on Christian Doctrine, Letters from Home will srely become a Christian Classic.

    For more information you could check out:

  13. I would insist that Calvin holds the same view, and I think the earlier Calvinists were all with him on this. I would say the same of Jonathan Edwards. If those guys aren’t Calvinists, then no one is. There are people who have held the more extreme view, but they’ve traditionally been called hyper-Calvinists.

    I’m committed to limited atonement because it logically follows from what I see the Bible teaching. I see the Bible teaching that God chooses some as elect to be saved, which means others will be damned if they’re not chosen. I see this as compatible with human choice and responsibility, and I see the Bible affirming both as true. But it follows from it that knew full well who the atonement would cover, and if he only intended it to cover those who did believe, then in one sense it was intended for those who actually would believe. In another sense it was intended for whoever would believe, with the potentiality for any to believe.

    I’m not sure I see either of these as more fundamental, though. They’re true on different levels of understanding it, but I don’t think one derives its truth from the other, so I don’t think one is more fundamental unless you had something else in mind by using that term.

  14. Thank you, Jeremy. I don’t want to put a wedge between you and Calvin or his earlier followers. But, while it would be perverse to call Calvin an Arminian (as much so as Simeon calling Wesley a Calvinist), Calvin does not seem to have held to all the five points of later Calvinism.

    I see the strength of your argument that election implies limited atonement, but I also see its weaknesses. The argument depends on a presupposition that God could not have done something which was in fact in vain. But there is actually nothing logically impossible in saying that Christ died for person but also that God did not elect that person. By analogy, if I pay someone’s fine the judge may refuse to accept that the payment I have made covers the fine, but that does not make the payment non-existent, or even imply that the judge doesn’t keep the money! I can see an argument that Christ dying for someone not elect would be immoral, but that same argument would also seem to imply that it is immoral of God not to elect that person in the first place. Of course the whole point is moot for me because I don’t accept that there is anyone whom God did not elect, nor that election is unconditional.

    And it was you who wrote, in 2004, “Christ died in one important sense (though not the most fundamental sense) for the whole world … On a fundamental level, Jesus died for those who would end up believing in him. He didn’t die for those whom he knew would not take advantage of the offer given to them.” So “fundamental” is your word, which you use at least five times more, always referring to one position in distinction from the other. Of course you may have changed your position since 2004, but in that case you should admit it.

  15. OK, I think I see what’s going on here. When I said that, I meant that the core level of reality is what happens rather than what could have happened. As you said it here, I was thinking in terms of one truth being dependent on the other truth. I deny that one is more fundamental in the latter sense. I accept that one is more fundamental in the former sense. I haven’t read those posts closely in a long time, so I forget sometimes exactly what I said and how I said it.

    My point is that the only sense in which Christ died for those who would not be saved is that the atonement is potentially available to them. There’s a stronger sense in which he died for those who would be saved. It covers them, and that’s part of its intent. It was never intended to cover those who would not repent and believe, even if there is a potential situation in which it does cover them. That’s not the actual situation. This is why I think we should affirm both as true.

  16. If TULIP is taken the way it was originally meant, then the position I have defined is not in one sense TULIP Calvinism and in another sense not. It simply is TULIP Calvinism, as opposed to those who have taken TULIP to be something else entirely.

    The kind of Calvinism that contemporary philosophers would call compatibilist, that recognizes potentiality and human freedom as true but on a different level of explanation from divine sovereignty, was denied by a number of people in the development of Calvinist thought. These people became known as hyper-Calvinists. See the Wikipedia entry on hyper-Calvinism. The view of TULIP required by you are calling limited atonement is the same view known historically as hyper-Calvinism.

  17. Jeremy, my comment on the other blog was not intended to be taken all that seriously.

    Now you may be right that your compatibilist view may be true Calvinism and the other version hyper-C. But what I see promoted on so many blogs etc, by people who deny being hyper, so often seems to deny compatibilism with statements like that people cannot decide for themselves whether to respond to the gospel, because it all depends on whether God has predestined them to have faith. Indeed doesn’t the “total depravity” teaching that people cannot decide for themselves to believe contradict compatibilism? But perhaps this subject needs deeper consideration than I can give it in these comments.

  18. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » A TULIP by any other name …

  19. I think it’s pretty clear from the Wikipedia entry that hyper-Calvinism is simply theological determinism without compatibilism. Several of the extended uses of the term in the section near the bottom involve denials of compatibilism, but I think the main view defined at the outset is simply a denial of compatibilism. So historically speaking, hyper-Calvinism is Calvinism without compatibilism. All these people denying being hyper-Calvinists want to avoid the implication that they hold to all the things associated with hyper-Calvinism in the extended sense (and it is a long list, all of which most of these people don’t hold to). But they do hold to the crucial defining point of hyper-Calvinism, which is the denial of compatibilism.

  20. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Why I am not a Calvinist

  21. Hi Frank,
    I’ve read that book you mention above. Letters from Home is a very good introduction to systematic theology fro someone who has never studied the topic before and who does not want to be misled by interpretation.

    Unlike other systematic theologies, this one by Neil Goodman is entirely made of Bible Quotes.

    I have been trying to work a few of the chapters on the Trinity into my local Bible Study.

    But there is something for everyone here as the Letters are written directly to the reader – directly from our Father to His children.

    Thanks for mentioning the book Frank! See more here:

    In Christ,

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