Why I am not a Calvinist

I’m sorry if I lost some of you my readers in my previous posts about five-point or TULIP Calvinism, including the one about the spoof that wasn’t. I know that for some of you these are burning issues which you know all about. But I’m sure that there are others among you who have little knowledge or interest about these matters.

I will here state openly that I am not a Calvinist, neither five-point nor anything else. A post today by Ben Witherington has reminded me of why not. If God has predestined everything, the fundamental basis of the Calvinist picture of reality, this implies that he has predetermined all the kinds of disasters which are so common in this world, and indeed every bad thing which happens. This makes him the author of evil. But this picture of God is in absolute contradiction to the biblical picture of the character of God who is both just and loving.

Witherington argues that

To attribute the work of the Devil to the work of God is also blasphemy.

Somewhat startlingly, he suggests that the Calvinist John Piper may be guilty of this blasphemy for claiming that a disaster like the Minneapolis bridge collapse was the work of God, whereas Witherington shows that disasters of this kind are, or at least can be, the devil’s work. So Witherington concludes that Piper is

guilty of having an unBiblical view of God, that ironically is closer to the fatalistic one found in the Koran, than the Biblical one found in the New Testament.

The view of God which I have, or aim to have, is the one found in the Old and New Testaments, which is not of a God who arbitrarily punishes some people, but a God who, while punishing the guilty and unrepentant, reaches out in love for all to turn to him in repentance and faith.

This can only be made consistent with what we see actually happening if we accept that there are forces at work in our world other than God: forces of evil, and human wills in rebellion against their Creator. Disasters, or at least very many of them, are the consequence of this work. These things don’t take God by surprise, for he can see them in advance, and indeed they are ultimately under his control.

Thus I hold to a variety of Jeremy Pierce’s compatibilism. For me God has not predetermined the free decisions of his creatures, but he does have foreknowledge of them. This is essentially the majority Arminian position:

God’s foreknowledge of the future is exhaustive and complete, and therefore the future is certain and not contingent on human action. God does not determine the future, but He does know it. God’s certainty and human contingency are compatible.

So God allows evil things to happen, but only because he knows that in the long term greater good will come from them. But I don’t pretend to understand how this all works, for that would be the proud reason I warned against. Instead I look for and aim to keep within the gentle wisdom which comes from God, which teaches us all we need to know about such matters.

20 thoughts on “Why I am not a Calvinist

  1. How can Wikipedia state that the future is not contingent on human action; and that this (not existing) contingency is compatible with foreknowledge?

    Or is my understanding of contingency too little…

  2. The God in the Old and New Testaments is also a God that changes his mind. He is a God that decides he needs to do things in new ways. He is a God who is still working with us.

    In Jesus, he is a God who weeps, laughs, gets angry, comes to the edge of despair, and dies.

    Calvinism speaks to some need in the human heart, but I have never found it to reflect God’s full majesty.

  3. I have held closer to a non-Calvinist compatibalism myself but I’ve been trying to logically figure out how it can work (purely for presentation purposes) for I’ve pretty much thought that Arminianism (as currently defined) holds to belief of loss of salvation which would require an immense (and I think impossible) amount of human freedom to be able to pull that one off.

  4. It’s the eternal-aspect that gets me. Say someone holds that they can choose to abandon their salvation right now and walk away from God and God allows that sort of thing then what’s to say they can’t do that after they day, up in Eternity?

    Of course, that’s a stupid oversimplification on my part since (I guess) it can be restated that the Arminian believes those who believe and persevere until the end (death-day) is forever eternally saved (and in that respect I’d say that is exactly like a Calvinist) then that would mean that salvation is in part truly in response to a work: holding on (which is very different from how Paul speaks of justification as a singular event).

    Of course, I guess it can be restated again that the primary seemingly singular event if not confirmed by a later authenticating event (how James would describe it) then it was really never a true salvific faith anyway (which I think the Calvinists would also say).

    Whereas my thinking is that a person’s will isn’t buck-wild free but is smeared. That, to me, doesn’t seem to mean that a person can’t work against that will (i know, all philosophers and theologians will say I’m wrong there–thus my logical conundrum) but it does mean that a person can give that will over either completely to Sin or over to God. And yet, in both cases it is possible for a person to be continuously ungrateful and God does the giving over of the person to Sin–which they partially chose, yes, but in another form they had no choice in the matter: it was a judicial decision.

    It is also possible, I think, for a person to give their will over to God, be justified and then (i think) lose control over the judicial decision of justification. God will personally take control of conforming that person to the image of his Son. And yet, we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

    Yeah, I’ve rambled enough but maybe you see my need to lock it down in my head.

  5. Ruud, I see your point, it looks as if there is some confusion in the Wikipedia wording. I suppose the point here, as with the more Calvinist compatibilism which I described in a previous post, is that there are two distinct but compatible views of reality, one contingent on human choices and the other not.

    Rey, I don’t see your problem. At least according to some Arminians loss of salvation is not a consequence of gradual drift into sin but only of a deliberate conscious decision to turn away from God and reject salvation. I don’t see why God cannot allow that choice to be made. But I can also conceive a modified Arminianism without the possibility of loss of salvation. Indeed I know a church which has this position, coupled with a strong belief in appealing for people to choose salvation. This led to them getting people to pray a prayer for salvation based on rather inadequate understanding and then holding that these people were saved eternally. I admire this church’s zeal but do not share its position.

  6. And at the end of the day, we all evangelise, we all appeal to others as if they had a free choice in the matter, and we all pray for people to be converted as if God can do something about it too.

    That’s good enough for me!

    I think it’s important to note that a lot of the elction language in Paul’s letters is not about the election of individuals to go to heaven or hell but the election of the church as the successor to Israel in God’s plan to call a people to be a light to the nations. And in the context, this is about being chosen for a mission, not salvation or damnation.

  7. Rey, no problem with long comments, just don’t expect a point by point response.

    For Arminians, persevering in faith is not a work, because it is the default. It is only those who make a conscious effort to reject their salvation who are not saved. Possibly damnation by works, but not salvation by works.

  8. Indeed, Tim. Except that hyper-Calvinists don’t evangelise, and some other Calvinists see evangelism as a command to obey without any real intention to get a response, which means they make no attempt to use attractive methods. On the other hand, some Arminians (perhaps those with Open Theism leanings) don’t pray for people to be converted, but only for God to bring them to the point where they decide for themselves. I believe we should pray for individuals’ conversion and present them with the gospel in an attractive way (which does not imply using worldly techniques of persuasion). Theological systems which imply that either of these is wrong undermine biblical commands, which suggests that they come from proud reason rather than gentle wisdom.

  9. Yeah, I don’t really see individual election to salvation in the Bible. Most of the election language seems to be a) corporate and b) for a specific role.

  10. Ben’s post was excellent. Particularly in the light of Piper’s remarks after the Minnesota bridge collapse.

    In addition to the fact that I disagree with Calvinist theology, I often wonder about the supremely unpastoral (anti-pastoral?) approach of rushing out with these sorts of comments.

    I think Ben was right on target with his remark about being told to ‘just suck it up’. As Ben said, it doesn’t look like an attempt to mourn with the mourning. Every time I see Christians effectively saying ‘Neener, neener, neener, God hurt you because you’re a sinner’ I want to cringe.

  11. I can’t say that I think much of Witherington’s post. I was pretty upset at his extremely uncharitable reading of Piper (as identified eventually in the comments), and I didn’t actually read much further. The idea that Piper has no clue about primary and secondary causation when he authored a paper arguing for exactly that view struck me as childish and immature. The real problem with Witherington’s post is that he assumed Piper had no such notion and then read him as a hard determinist, when in reality Piper is a compatibilist with a very clear notion of primary and secondary causation, God’s permissive will, and so on. If you read what Piper says in terms of primary and secondary causation, as Witherington refused to do, most of what he said about Piper is pretty inapppropriate.

    It’s Witherington’s position that seems to me to have trouble making sense of the notion of secondary causation. If there’s no sense in which God stands behind everything that happens, then I’m not sure what the primary and secondary cause distinction is supposed to do. The whole point is to be able to talk about God standing behind every event in some sense but not behind evil in the same sense as behind other things.

    What’s even worse is that Arminians and Wesleyans have to accept some form of God being responsible for everything that happens, including evil, unless they go the open theist route. Even if God doesn’t cause any evil whatsoever, but God knows exactly what will happen and can prevent it, then God is responsible for allowing it rather than preventing it. Open theism, which says that God is not to be able to predict the future, can allow for events that God is not responsible for in any way. Any view that considers God to know the future exhaustively requires some sense in which God wanted that terrible thing to happen rather than not. Otherwise God would have prevented it. So the accusation that Calvinists alone have the problem of God being the author of evil is just wrongheaded. Anyone who isn’t an open theist or an atheist is going to have to deal with that problem in some way.

    I should reiterate what I said in a comment on another post. You are calling compatibilism the view that God exhaustively knows the future, even with respect to free human actions. That is not what I’m calling compatibilism. Compatibilism as I am thinking of it is indeed predetermination and human freedom. But you are right that you can get a strong view of God’s sovereignty just with the foreknowledge view. I’m just not sure you can say all the things Witherington says once you concede that God is responsible for allowing evil, unless you’re willing to say with Piper that God in some sense wanted that to happen and decided not to prevent it for some reason. I’m under the impression that Witherington wants to deny that.

    As for contingency, this is using the term in a carefully-defined philosophical way. Contingency means something is not necessary. It’s possible that it could have been otherwise. Thomas Aquinas points out that an event can be necessary in the sense that given some past or some purpose of God it had to happen, all the while being contingent in the sense that it wouldn’t happen without that purpose of God or past event. Something can be possible for me given the facts that are relevant to my decision-making capacity. I can consider options, choose the one that seems best to me or the one I want most, and then do it. It’s a real choice. I’m not forced. At the same time, God might have arranged events so that certain forms or reasoning or certain desires might have guaranteed my doing it. In that sense it’s possible from my perspective that I could do another thing, but it’s necessary given the events God has arranged to guarantee that I do it. This is one way compatibilism works to allow for contingency on the human level.

    One final thing: Witherington is accusing the author of Chronicles of blasphemy for attributing the work of Satan to God in the case of the census. Kings and Chronicles, taken together, imply that God inspired Satan to do that. They surely had different reasons. I think the same is true of Satan’s work in killing Christ, which was God’s plan and God’s inspiration. The work of Satan is indeed the work of God, and it backfired on Satan as it always does. I personally can’t see how you can reconcile this sort of thing to a view that involves less than complete sovereignty on God’s part and less than complete freedom on the part of human beings. Some who call themselves Calvinists deny the latter, and some Arminians or Wesleyans seem to me to want to deny the former. I think Witherington is flirting very closely with doing so, and it strikes me as dangerously close to contradicting scripture outright. (His response to the census issue strikes me as pretty much doing so.)

  12. Well, Jeremy, you did a fine job of reducing Witherington’s neat little system to smithereens.

    My point would be this: neat little systems of whatever brand, Calvinist or Arminian, are all subject to that fate in light of the witness of Scripture, which resists the systemization of this or that kind; in the light of tradition, which knows of syntheses which make the Calvinist/Arminian debate look arcane (Thomas comes to mind); in light of reason, which, as you show, offers a possible way out of some dilemmas; and in light of experience, which, like scripture, is too varied to be fully embraced by any of the systems heretofore put forward.

    I’m not impressed by Peter’s teardown of Calvinism; in particular, Peter’s theory of evil, insofar as it really offers an alternative to that of the Bible – Calvin and company, after all, did not invent the view that God causes all sorts of evil things to happen – seems to veer in the Manichean direction.

  13. Jeremy, I have to admit that I did not read Piper’s paper. So maybe Witherington is misrepresenting him. But then it seems that Witherington read Piper in the same way as most others will read Piper, that is, without a complete understanding of his other works and his overall philosophical position. If Piper managed to make himself misunderstood so thoroughly, even by such a thoughtful man as Witherington, then surely he deserves what is coming to him.

    I accept, because I am not an Open Theist, that God knows about evil in advance, and is able in principle to intervene to prevent it. Actually even Open Theists must believe this, at least of many types of evil: if weather forecasters can predict the course of a hurricane, so can the Open Theist God! But the commonly expressed response to this moral dilemma is that God voluntarily submits himself to human free will and its consequences (which in the hurricane case includes the human folly of building inadequate structures in hurricane prone areas). Indeed this view is implicit in Psalm 32:9: God could control us humans with “bit and bridle” but chooses not to because he wants us to obey him voluntarily.

    As for whether God is morally responsible in such a case, I leave that for moral philosophers to argue about. But I suppose the question is similar to whether a parent is morally responsible for the crimes committed by their child because they didn’t keep the child locked up at home. Maybe some lawyers would argue that there is a moral responsibility (especially if they can sue the parents for punitive damages), but it is clearly not the right thing to keep children locked up, at least beyond a certain (and of course debatable) age. Actually on this point there was a recent interesting case in Britain where a woman was found not guilty of causing a child’s death by failing to keep a dangerous dog locked up; what is true of a dog is perhaps a fortiori true of a child.

    Meanwhile, Jeremy, I am confused by what you might mean by the sovereignty of God. Do you mean his omnipotence? I see no one denying this, although some including myself would say that he voluntarily chooses not to use it to do some things which humans might think he ought to do. Or do you mean that all events are determined by him? Of course Arminians are denying that, we hold that he has foreknowledge of them but does not predetermine them.

    John, I think Jeremy has imagined a neat little system for Witherington which he could neatly dispose of. Whether this is what Witherington really believes is rather less certain. But you also seem to imagine that I have a neat little system of evil, which you think you can demolish by calling it Manichean. Does that make it wrong by definition? Isn’t Jeremy’s system also Manichean in allowing Satan to have a different plan from God? More to the point, isn’t Jesus’ system Manichean for allowing that Satan as well as God may be able to cast out evil spirits, Matthew 11:27-28?

    Now I completely agree with your main point, John, that every neat little system, real or imagined, Calvinist or Arminian, can be reduced to smithereens by the sledgehammer of philosophical logic, as so ably wielded by Jeremy – and perhaps less ably by myself. This is my whole point in discussing these matters – and perhaps a desire to smash Jeremy’s system, because I never like people who are right all the time. The trouble is that the Calvinists who are so good at smashing others’ systems refuse to accept or acknowledge when people like me and Witherington smash their system, or attempt to. Maybe sometimes this is because we are incompetent with the sledgehammer. But at least you acknowledge that systematic Calvinism is in principle subject to the same fate as systematic Arminianism.

  14. Peter, on rereading your post, I notice that you are careful to place all forces of wickedness, human and demonic, under God’s ultimate control. That is not something a Manichean would affirm. I use the term Manichean in the street sense it often has, that is, of someone who believes the forces of evil operate independently of God’s purposes, as if they had power outside of divine permission.

    But I still find your theory of evil wanting. It is unwise for a believer to refrain from attributing the bad that happens to him to God himself. Biblical people make that attribution all the time. Even if the bad that happens to the psalmist is a result of his own disobedience, by no means the default situation in the Psalms or in real life, the punishment the psalmist endures is attributed to God, and to God the psalmist prays for relief.

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to me that unlike Job, you would excuse God from responsibility for the bad things that happened to him. You would say, as I hear Arminians say, don’t blame God for those things. He is a God who limits himself – a supremely unbiblical phrase, by the way – and should not be held accountable. If so, I think that’s unhealthy. Very unhealthy.

    The Bible makes God directly responsible for lots of bad things that happen. Punishment for evil in which evil is repaid with evil is universally attributed to God. Random good and random evil, the kind that affects the righteous and unrighteous alike, are both ascribed to God. Really the only kind of evil not usually attributed to God is human disobedience. Even here, plenty of texts to the contrary might be cited.

    Biblical people make these attributions because they are radical monotheists. So long as you refrain from making similar attributions, out of allegiance, apparently, to a form of Arminianism, I think you distort the witness of Scripture and are in effect engaging in false apologetics like the friends of Job.

    Insofar as the things I just said seem to be things only TULIPs are willing to say, I reluctantly self-identify as a TULIP. Reluctantly, because I do not subscribe to a Calvinist system. Truth be told, I don’t think Calvin did either.

    In any case, I feel I owe you one. I hopped over to Jeremy’s site and was appalled at his acceptance of the standard Calvinist tripe in explanation of God changing his mind in scripture.
    This is a plain case of Calvinism distorting scripture out of allegiance to a system that needs to be subject to the witness of scripture, not the other way around. I hope to find the time soon to smash the exegesis of which I speak (whether it is Calvinian or merely Calvinistic, I don’t know, nor does it ultimately matter) to smithereens.

    So many neat little systems. So little time to put them through the shredder.

  15. If you want the biblical phrase, God the Son empties himself. Job went through agonies of blaming God for his predicament but had to end up in the position of not knowing and simply confessing that only God knows what was really going on.

    I’m glad you have realised that Jeremy is “distorting scripture out of allegiance to a system that needs to be subject to the witness of scripture”. But I can’t help feeling that you are doing the same.

  16. I probably do distort scripture in some way. But I don’t know in what way, specifically. You will help me if you point out in what ways.

    The New Testament does not say, “God the Son empties himself.” It says “God the Son emptied himself,” and is now exalted at the right hand of the Father. But maybe I’m making too much of this detail. My point: the kenosis of Christ is central to the work of salvation, and its consequences are eternal, but it is also a temporary thing. It is in the middle of God’s actions. Acts of power of a non-paradoxical kind precede it and follow it.

    You are right that Job is never made privy to what we the readers know from the book’s prologue. In any case, we know that God was in complete control of the situation. The Satan can do nothing without his permission. Interestingly, God loses the bet – Job does crack under the pressure and curses him, as Satan predicted. But God imputes righteousness to Job anyway, and the cool thing is, this makes narrative sense somehow. Satan is right but oh so wrong.

    The book of Job is a masterpiece. It makes a lot of points, including the one about the limits of human knowledge. But one point it does not make is that what happened to Job is not God’s responsibility,. Au contraire.

    I think you know me well enough, Peter. I wouldn’t harp on this if I didn’t think it mattered.

  17. John, I won’t try to argue with you about Job. After all you probably know the book a lot better than I do. But I cannot go with you towards a system in which God makes all the decisions, God causes evil to happen, and then God punishes for that evil the instruments that he uses who have no power or will to resist his evil purposes. That makes God into an unjust tyrant, and Biblical statements such as that God loves into a pack of lies.

    Now maybe there is some intermediate position to be found between that and what you call Manichean. In fact I think both Jeremy and I have found such positions, which is not to say that those positions are correct. But the hopefully caricature position I just outlined also cannot be correct, at least if the Bible is anything other than a hoax perpetrated by an evil god.

  18. You don’t need to be a Calvinist to take the Exodus passage in the traditional way. Libertarians, Arminians, and Wesleyans all have always taken it that way. The only people who don’t are open theists or those who don’t think scripture reports what actually happened.

    My main reason for thinking this is Witherington’s problem and not Piper’s is that Witherington regularly gets certain views wrong. It’s almost as if he’s willfully ignorant of what certain views hold. The two views he does this with the most are Calvinism and complementarianism. Past discussions on his blog have made this clear to me. There are plenty of Wesleyans, say, who understand Calvinism and don’t portray it falsely in order to shoot it down. the same is true of plenty of egalitarians with complementarianism. But Witherington doesn’t seem to be in that category. I’ve seen a number of instances when he’s just plain misrepresented the view in an extremely unfair way.

    By sovereignty, I mean that God at least has an anticipation of what will happen and chooses to allow it deliberately after considering whether to allow it. If that doesn’t happen with any event, and God is surprised or simply doesn’t care about certain things, then God is not completely sovereign. Witherington’s view suggests that he’s moving toward that direction if not adopting it. I don’t attribute such a view to all Wesleyans or Arminians, though, particularly not to you, Peter.

    I don’t consider myself to have a neat little system, by the way. I don’t think it’s systemization that makes many Calvinists go wrong, though. I think it’s faulty use of logic to draw false conclusions from true principles when such conclusions don’t follow.

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