Sunday, October 25, 2015

Is All Well?

"And a bell, sir?"
"A bell?"
"For ringing and shouting 'All's well!' with, Sarge."
"No bell for me, Snouty," said Vimes. "Do you think things are well?"
Snouty swallowed. "Could go either way, Sarge," he managed.
     -"Night Watch", by Terry Pratchett

I was thinking about Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" universe today, and the cavalier approach to policing that his early watchmen take: After all, ringing a bell and shouting "All's well!", even when things aren't well, is a heck of a let easier (and safer) than fixing them!

And it reminded me of something that's always upset me about Calvinism: That when you get right down to it, there is only one acceptable answer to the question Vimes asks: Yes, things are well.

By that, I mean all things, everywhere, at all times, are well according to the Calvinist system. I don't mean the "big picture"...I don't mean how things will "turn out in the end"...I mean that every single event in the history of the world is going fact, it's going exactly according to plan, ordained by God himself.

Of course, many Calvinists would be reluctant to admit this. After all, getting a Calvinist to admit that God ordains evil and renders it certain from before all creation is sometimes difficult. Nevertheless, even Calvin himself, though waffling at times, states that "as all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will" (Institutes, 1.17.1). Note that God does not merely "permit" these evils to requires an active interposition (or interference) on God's part to cause those things to happen.

This is because, to Calvin and Calvinists, God rules the world through "meticulous Providence": God governing every aspect of the universe, down to the movement of individual atoms and molecules. In fact, RC Sproul has stated that "There is no maverick molecule if God is sovereign.” No molecule in the universe moves except in the course that God himself ordained for it.

This is a pretty enough picture of providence and sovereignty on its face, I'll grant you. And after all, surely there could be no greater compliment to God's great power and might than to say that he directs every single atom in its planned trajectory! Of course, there is one small issue: When you actually apply this to life, it becomes absolutely horrifying.

It means that everything that has ever happened, (including, say, the Holocaust) was divinely ordained, planned and executed by God from the foundation of the universe. It means that when a small child is kidnapped, raped, and murdered, that God himself was there, actively planning it and making it happen (admittedly through secondary, tertiary, and however many other causes that he himself ultimately caused). It means that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were planned by God from the beginning of creation, and that his divine hand ensured the death of every person who died.

But it's easy enough to find the horror in our own history. It is, perhaps, more satisfying and more meaningful to go to the Bible. Let's look at a few key passages...I'll highlight the necessary Calvinist commentary in red:

Genesis 3:17
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife (Which I planned and caused to happen) and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,’ (Which, again, I caused by creating you flawed and then withholding the grace you needed to persevere)cursed is the ground because of you; (Well, technically because of me...) in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life"

Surely you can see the mockery this makes of the text, and how the doctrine of meticulous providence renders God's actions and words nonsensical?

Let's skip ahead a bit, to the days of Noah:

Genesis 6:5-7

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Of course, this was because God had eternally determined that this would be so and caused it to happen).   And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth (Not really, though, because he was the one who had caused it), and it grieved him to his heart. (Which was weird, because it was something he himself had eternally planned and deliberately caused to happen).  So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (But he wasn't really sorry, because he had intended all along for this to happen, and had in fact created the universe in such a way as to make it impossible for it to have happened any other way). 
Do you see it? Do you see how meticulous providence actually makes this verse literally meaningless? Calvinists can talk of "anthropomorphisms" and metaphors all they like: The fact remains that if meticulous providence is true, then this verse doesn't just mean something different then what it appears to mean...this verse means the literal opposite of what it says. It means, in fact, that this verse tells us something false about God, and that this verse gives us a picture of God that couldn't be further from the truth. This verse tells us that God was saddened by man's actions, whereas Calvinism tells us that God actively caused those things to happen.

Here's my point: There are many, many points in the Bible where God himself seems to say that all is not well. The Bible is FULL of instances of God lamenting the state of mankind, all the way to Jesus himself lamenting over Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"

God himself says that all is not well. God himself says that things are not as they should be. And we who are not Calvinists do God the honor of taking him at his word. It is, rather, the Calvinists who dishonor God by attributing to him the things that he abhors. God says, "I am grieved by what mankind is doing," and Calvinists wink at him and say "We get that you have to say that, big guy, but you can be honest with us. We know what you mean. *wink*." God says in Jeremiah 7, "And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind", and the Calvinists smile and say, "Look, God, you don't have to play that game with us. We get it. You caused it to happen. You thought it up and planned it all out. Great job!"

All is not well. The Fall was a real evil. Evil really is evil, and not good in disguise (as is necessitated by the Calvinist system). The sin of man "has not escaped the knowledge and control of God. But it is not a work of His creation and not a disposition of His providence." (Karl Barth) God is in control, and he will set all wrongs right...but in the meantime, they are real wrongs, not merely the illusions of wrongs.


  1. Ironically, Barth is considered to be a Calvinist theologian. (Although obviously, his positions were hardly hard-line Calivinist.)

    In the circles I grew up in, Barth was considered nothing less than a heretic, which is kind of funny in retrospect. The other theological bogeyman was Aquinas. It was a bit startling to grow up and then read stuff from both and realize how misrepresented their teachings were.

    1. From my (admittedly shallow) research, I think he's only considered a Calvinist by people who see "elect" and "reprobate" and equate those terms with Calvinist. I believe that Barth used those terms pretty exclusively about Christ: Christ is both elect AND reprobate, fulfilling both in himself.

    2. See here:

  2. Also, I love the Pratchett quote. My kids and I have been discovering him this year (mostly on audiobook during our vacations). He's been a great introduction to philosophy, and the start of a number of great conversations with the kids about serious life issues.