Sunday, August 9, 2015

Calvinism, God's Goodness, and Alternate Interpretations

A couple days ago, I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine. The topic, as often is with this friend, was Calvinism. This same friend was the topic of an earlier post of mine, right here.

It started off as an observation on Dr. Who, explained in more detail here. I knew that this friend of mine was a fellow Dr. Who fan, and I asked them if they had ever drawn a connection between the state of The Master of Dr. Who (again, see the link) and the reprobate in the Calvinist system. They rewatched the episode, exclaiming how sad it was and that they completely agreed with me. Surprised, I asked "I can't imagine that you're agreeing with my comparison...just with the sadness of the episode?"

"The entirety of it," was the reply.

Then I asked if that mean that they were moving away from Calvinism...or if they still held to it but were just incredibly saddened by it.

"The latter", was the reply.

That broke my heart. To hold to a theological system that makes you sad the more you think about it, that distresses you when you dwell on the nature of God...that seems awful. I told them that, and their response was simple: Even though they personally couldn't make sense of it, other people seemed to be able to. Other people seemed to be able to hold to unconditional election and reprobation and still see God as loving and gracious, so the fault must not be with the system, but with them.

This theme continued throughout our discussion. This friend was thrown into distress and conflict because they were trying to reconcile the Calvinist reading of certain passages with the overall tone of the Gospel and New Testament. They were trying to reconcile the loving and graceful God that Jesus revealed to people with the picture of God that Calvinism presents, who creates billions of people just so he can showcase his own glory by damning them to an eternity of torment. They were worried about witnessing to people, and not knowing if they could actually say "God loves you" without fearing they were lying. They worried about having children, because this person knew they would constantly be worrying about their kids: "Are they chosen, are they going to be saved?"

And then came the worst bit: After thinking these thoughts, after feeling the distress and conflict and trying to figure it out, this person would feel guilty, because they felt like they were questioning God's goodness.

Again, that was heartbreaking to me. And segueing into CS Lewis' discussion on God's Goodness and how it relates to our conception of goodness, we discussed whether we could even mean anything by saying "God is good" if "goodness" could be reinterpreted so radically. This, they said, was "depressing", and if not depressing, then it's feeling guilty for feeling angry about it, or questioning it.

So I told them that they weren't questioning God's goodness. And that in my opinion, their distress came from a very simple thing: They were trying to hold to two completely contradictory opinions:

1: God is good and loving towards humanity, and he desires to save all people from their sins (see John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:4, for starters).

2: God is good and loving towards a very small portion of humanity, and desires to damn the vast majority of the human race to showcase his own glory.

So I gave them a bunch of resources to explore on their own, in the hopes that it would give them a better understanding of "the other side", in their words. I wanted to show them how smart, faithful, orthodox Christians had interpreted the typical Calvinist verses in a distinctly non-Calvinist way, without sacrificing the integrity of Scripture.

And then they said something very interesting: They said that they had tried learning other viewpoints before, but their former youth pastor, who had introduced them to Calvinism, had always had an answer and been able to re-show the Calvinist side of the passages. And that's when I made what I think to be a very crucial distinction:

"I'm not trying to make you believe that Arminianism is the ONLY option," I said. "I'm just trying to show you that it IS an actual option, and not some second-rate option that you can only get to by sacrificing Scripture."

I'm not trying to "disprove" Calvinism by saying that certain verses, taken in isolation, CANNOT be read in a Calvinist interpretation. Obviously, there are verses that can be read that way. However, those verses can also be read in a way that is not Calvinist, and it can be done in a way that doesn't sacrifice scriptural integrity or good interpretive principles.

And when you have two options - two REAL options - in interpreting certain verses when taken in isolation, the rest is a little more intuitive. You just take those two interpretations and you see which one better fits into the larger overall narrative of Scripture.

Is Scripture about a God who, from the very beginning of the world, irresistibly decrees that his creation will fall? Is Scripture about a God who rages at his creation, when that creation is only ever doing the thing that God himself made the creation to do? Finally, is Scripture about a God who so loved the elect that, after irresistibly casting them into sin, he irresistibly caused them to believe in his son, while leaving the others to perish in their divinely-ordained sin?

Or is Scripture telling a different story altogether, about a God who created free creatures who sinned, but who loved those creatures so much that he gave grace to them anyway? Is Scripture about a God who means what he says when he claims to hate evil? Is Scripture about the God who weeps over his creation when they are not willing to come back to him? Is Scripture about a God who really did so love the world that, despite their sin, he sent his Son to save them and offer them salvation?

That's the choice. What is the overall trajectory of Scripture, and which interpretation of particular verses fit better into that trajectory? I don't know which one my friend will choose. But I know this: I know they have a choice. And now, I know that they're legitimately invested in exploring alternate interpretations, and I have great hope that they will be set free by the truth that God loves them, and will love their children, and loves their neighbors and anyone they witness to, and that they have a choice to follow God...and that if they take that choice, God will not reject them.


  1. Two contributions to this one:

    First, my pastor (who holds the Molinist view), told a joke about the big Predestination Conference. This guy attends, but hasn't really decided whether he should be a Calvinist or an Arminian. So, he wanders over to the Calvinist table, and says, "I'm not really sure which one I should choose." The Calvinist responds, "If you don't know, you haven't been chosen to be part of our group. Try the Arminian table over there." So, he goes over to the Arminian table, and says, "I was told to come over here." The Arminian responds, "I think you belong over at the Calvinist table."

    On a more serious note, this discomfort with the theoretical *and* practical implications of Calvinism has had me thinking a bit about the nature of our relationship to the Divine.

    Depending on the nature of God, our response would naturally be different. If God is like the old gods, as flawed and capricious as Zeus and the rest, then I think one would be justified in responding in one of these ways: One could fear them for their power. One might "love" them in a sense, like we love the drunk uncle in our family. We might respect their position, but not them personally. (And we would probably make jokes behind their backs.) But I cannot see respecting such a god personally, nor offering worship, which is reverence and adoration. That is an acknowledgement that the Divine transcends.

    As to the Calvinist version of God, it is easy to come to the conclusion that he is a monster, deliberately creating beings so he can torture them. The fact that he has the "right" to do that doesn't change that fact. So, a logical response would be fear, perhaps. But worship? Could one honestly and in good faith experience reverence and adoration for such a god? And, more to the point, could one *love* such a god? (And that is what we are commanded to do, right?)

    And, as I could not help but conclude: If I were to feel love for a monstrous god, wouldn't that make me a monster myself?

    (One wonders if this is one reason Calvin himself was fond of burning people at the stake...)

    If you haven't read it, Isaac Asimov's short story, "The Last Answer." It is an interesting contemplation of one's response to a selfish and egotistical deity.

    1. Very similar to the Predestination and Free Will lines in heaven. A Calvinist dies and, seeing the two lines, chooses Predestination. You can guess the rest!

      As for the nature of God...exactly. Calvinism often retreats to voluntarism, which itself fades into a mere worship of power (much like Job's friends).