Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Calvinists are better than their theology

Two people in the last couple days wanted to hear more about this idea, making it tied for the most requested post of all time on this blog. So...this one's for you.

There's been a bit of a brouhaha (which is surprisingly recognized by spellcheck!) over this post in the last couple of days. People who have heard me talk about Calvinism know that I support most of these ideas 100%. But here's the thing:

Most Calvinists are better than their theology.

Now, I have several Calvinist friends, and I know that any Calvinist who reads this is going to want to say that I'm thinking about it all wrong, or that I'm attacking a straw man, or what have you. I don't think that's the case. We're not going to agree, but I don't think it's because I just don't really get Calvinism.

Alright: Here we go.

Most Calvinists are better than their theology. Their actions towards the world (and the individual inhabitants thereof) are often more loving, more charitable, and just plain better than their theology entails.

Calvinists, by necessity, believe that God doesn't love the majority of the people on the planet. There's no getting around that. Not only does he not save them, but according to Calvin, he actively condemns them, "for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1). To love is to actively desire the good of the beloved, and the "inaccurate description of God’s character that Calvinism puts forth" (as Dr. Fred Sanders puts it) doesn't allow for that kind of attitude in God. And yet we find that many Calvinists, through missions work and charity, do in fact love people, many of whom are not merely not elect, but actively and purposefully condemned by God.

Let's get a little more specific, since the generalities can get muddy. Let's say that a good Calvinist has a beloved friend, or parent, or child, who dies an atheist. That good Calvinist, in loving that person and genuinely desiring their good, in praying for them and therefore actively working towards the good of that person, has loved that person more and better than their description of God is able to. Again, there is no way around that. Where God, far from desiring their good, actively condemned them to an eternity in Hell, these Calvinists have loved them, have worked towards their good and striven for their salvation.(And it is worth noting here that according to my Calvinist friends, God’s election/reprobation does not interfere with free will: Therefore, God is perfectly capable of saving these people without overriding their free will, and he chooses not to).  That is, of course, God's right...but it is not loving.

Calvinists are better than their theology. They describe God as someone who has eternally, irrevocably, irresistibly decreed not only the eternal destinies of everyone on earth, but every single action of everyone on earth as well...and yet many attack the mission field with the gusto of someone who might accomplish something meaningful. Many of them go through their day-to-day lives believing that a chance may come their way to bring glory to God, and believing (implicitly if not explicitly) that it is within their power to succeed or fail at that chance.

They're better than their theology. Many of them have a love for the lost that, according to their doctrine, just isn't shared by God. When someone falls away from the Church, they act as though it wasn't just God giving that person a temporary taste of goodness, just to snatch it away and render them even more worthy of damnation (3.2.11). That is why I would be happy to share communion with a Calvinist, and why this podcast missed the point. Because while it would be difficult to call brother someone who acted like their theology would entail, Calvinists are often better than that.


  1. A few things I might say about Calvinism. First Calvinism in no way denies that God uses means to accomplish his goals and usually the means he uses to accomplish his goals are people. Second Calvinism usually affirms that we cannot know the mind of God. So God's will of election is unknown to the mind of the believer. Third Calvinism in its more interesting forms holds predestination/sovereignty and human freedom as compatible. Human freedom is usually defined as the ability to do what is right where an essential component is love for God. Basically Calvinism often has a more paradoxical nature than most critiques wish to make out. Which is why it is hard to understand because most analysis do not allow Calvinism to have a paradoxical element.

    1. Thanks for commenting and the pushback! Allow to push back on your pushback:

      The problem is that Calvinism appeals to paradox way too late in the process.

      Other denominations say "Yes, God's predestination and human free will exist in paradox. We don't know how it works out, but we trust God." That's Chesterton's idea that "the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight... His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also." ("Orthodoxy"). That's Lewis, with his view that Predestination is true, but when given priority, it obscures the "deeper truth" of free will ("The Great Divorce"). That's the paradoxical view.

      Calvinism, on the other hand, says "We know that God irrevocably and irresistibly decrees from before time who will be saved and who will be damned. Also, he somehow does this irresistible decreeing without violating free will. Paradox!"

      Oversimplification aside, do you see the difference? And that IS the difference, because otherwise Calvinism loses everything that makes it Calvinism. If you still disagree, then I would encourage you to read my post on why CS Lewis isn't a Calvinist: I go into more detail there. (http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2014/02/was-cs-lewis-calvinist.html)

      "If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’."

      CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

  2. By leaning toward paradox, isn't the Calvinist at least traveling in the direction of Molinism?

    1. I've never liked Molinism. At least Calvinism is (mostly) honest in its denial of true free will...Molinism just ends up poisoning free will by giving it the same sense of fatalism.

      In any case, I don't think that Calvinism (neither those that follow all of Calvin, nor those of the 5-point variety) have any room for free will at all, and no room for paradox. When you've acknowledged that depravity is total, and grace is irresistible, it makes no sense to say that succumbing to the depravity or acquiescing to the grace is in any sense "free."

      It's just "Sure, we have something that could approximately be called 'will,' and in poor lighting it could roughly be described as being something approximating 'free' (for a given value of freedom)."