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.

"You made me wrong"

"You did this to me! All my made me WRONG!"
-The Master, screaming at Rassilon in Dr. Who's "The End of Time" Pt 2

Some context (and spoilers): In Dr. Who, one of the main villains of the series, The Master, is a constant thorn in the Doctor's side. In the two-part episode "The End of Time", it's revealed that rather than choosing to be evil, The Master was actually deliberately driven mad by his superior, who used a pivotal point in The Master's life to imprint a maddening drum-beat inside his head...a drum-beat designed to make him insane, violent, and power-hungry. (And did I mention this happened when he was about 8 years old?)

The Master had no choice in the matter. And while he did technically "choose" all the evil actions that he committed as The Master, he chose them under an influence that he had no control influence that was specifically designed to cause him to "choose" those evil actions.

And to me, that sounds exactly like the reprobate in Calvinism.

The reprobate in Calvinism are born into depravity...depravity that God specifically ordained and caused to happen, according to Calvin himself. God created Adam to need grace to resist temptation, and deliberately withheld that grace just when Adam needed it. To the Calvinist, nothing happens outside the direct will of God (even though they'll often downplay this in conversations with non-calvinists).

And as a result of Adam's divinely-decreed, irresistible fall, all humans are born into depravity. God willed for humans to be born into depravity, without any outside circumstance or necessity, and he so ordered the universe to accomplish it. And for the vast majority of humanity (the reprobate), it is God's will that they should remain in that depravity. He makes them the way they are...that is to say, in the words of the Master, he makes them "wrong."

In fact, the only difference between The Master and the reprobate is this: The Master wasn't corrupted until he was 8, and he retained enough goodness to recognize that he was, in fact, "wrong." But in Calvinism, people are corrupted from birth (technically before birth), and their corruption is so complete that they never even realize that they're wrong.

In the Calvinist system, God creates people so wrong and corrupted that they never even realize it...making them an even sadder case than the Master.

Of course, as a purely logical exercise, this is no argument against Calvinism. As the omnipotent creator of the universe, God has a right to do with his creation as he wills. The question, of course, is whether this depiction of God is in harmony with the image of God we see in Jesus Christ. And if you know me at all, you know that my answer to that question is "Not even a little bit."

Anyway, quick post, mostly just as a precursor to the post after this. See you then!