Are You Ready For This? Part 1

Are You Ready For This? Part 1

Introduction

This is an appeal to those attracted to a movement going by several titles, predominantly The Resurgence and Neo-Calvinism. The more traditional title is Reformed Theology. Its popular contemporary proponents are voices like RC Sproul, John Piper and James White. These and others have inspired a growing number of popular bloggers and podcasters spreading the Reformed brand. The movement’s well-known advocates are intelligent and well-spoken advocates whose influence is persuasive. The following appeal is a cautious attempt to ask those being drawn into The Resurgence to make sure they realize what they are buying into when they embrace Reformed Theology. Are you ready to intellectually embrace what Calvinism really says about God?

A word of caution is needed in regard to what follows. While attempting to avoid inflammatory words and contentious phrases, there is going to be some strong challenges to the basic tenets of Calvinism. They are strong only because what they challenge requires it, not out of a desire to be contentious or provocative. On the contrary, it is the Reformed doctrine itself that is provocative and requires a clear response of like measure. Because written text is a flat-form of communication, void of such helpful additions as voice and body language, it is often misconstrued as being harsh when that was not the author’s intent. Proverbs 15:1 shapes the tone of what follows, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The “attitude” with which I write this is meant to be friendly and engaging, not harsh or provocative.

In addition, those just entering a study of Reformed theology are usually unaware of the wide spectrum of theological perspective there is among Calvinists. While some dislike the terms, they are popular for a reason; there are 3-, 4- and 5-Point Calvinists. Even among 5-pointers, there is different distinctives and emphases.  In the long-running debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, Calvinists tend to label all non-Calvinists as Arminians and assume they all believe the same thing. Yet the theological spread among non-Calvinists is at least as wide as that among Calvinists, including those who dislike the label “Arminian” in favor of other descriptors such as “Traditionalist.” My point is that a Resurgent may read what follows and say, “I’m a Calvinist but I don’t believe that! That misrepresents Calvinism and Reformed theology.” Be careful, because what follows are in fact the positions held by Calvinists, maybe not your brand or stripe, but of other advocates of Reformed theology. If you find yourself in fundamental disagreement with the Reformed tenets that follow, you ought to ask if you are really a Calvinist.

Meticulous Determinism: AKA “Hard” Determinism

The first problematic doctrine of Calvinism we will address is that which flows from the central theological hallmark Calvinists claim as their chief distinctive, a high view of God’s sovereignty. At the risk of being simplistic, 5-Point Calvinists believe everything that happens is the result of God’s direct and directing will. This is called Meticulous or “Hard” Determinism. They do not believe God merely permits certain things, but that He directs and ordains them. As their Author, He causes them, including those things usually understood as evil.

One of today’s popular pastors (now retired) and Christian speakers is John Piper, an ardent Calvinist. In his book Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, co-authored with Justin Taylor, is a chapter contributed by Mark Talbot containing the following. This chapter is also found on the Desiring God website, the ministry of John Piper.

God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory and his people’s good. This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child… Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed. God’s foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events. And so it is not inappropriate to take God to be the creator, the sender, the permitter, and sometimes even the instigator of evil… Nothing — no evil thing or person or event or deed — falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will. So when even the worst of evils befall us, they do not ultimately come from anywhere other than God’s hand.”[1]

Note that the author is careful to identify his view of God’s sovereignty does not mean God merely permits evil; He causes it. God willed and brought about the Holocaust. He causes the sexual abuse of a young child.

Lest the reader assume this must be a grotesque aberration in some fringe element of Calvinism, let us look at what John Calvin himself said concerning God’s sovereignty. All of the following quotes are taken from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, nothing less than the definitive standard for Reformed Theology.  [Underlining draws attention to key phrases]

  • Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed. (Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 3)
  • . . . thieves and murderers, and other evildoers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute judgments which he has resolved to inflict. (Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 5)
  • We hold that God is the disposer and ruler of all things, that from the remotest eternity, according to his own wisdom, He decreed what he was to do, and now by his power executes what he decreed.  Hence we maintain, that by His providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined. (Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 8)
  • The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how muchsoever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay unless in so far as he commands, that they are not only bound by his fetters but are even forced to do him service” (Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 11)
  • I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen by God’s will. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 4)
  • . . it is vain to debate about prescience, which it is clear that all events take place by his sovereign appointment. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
  • But since he foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place, they vainly raise a quarrel over foreknowledge, when it is clear that all things take place rather by his determination and bidding. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
  • Again I ask: whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree. And it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 7)
  • The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 8)

Hard / Meticulous Determinism, the idea that God doesn’t just permit evil but that He ordains and decrees it isn’t some fringe belief held by a few. It was the position of John Calvin himself and many of his modern adherents, such as John Piper, a major leader of The Resurgence and Neo-Calvinism.

When challenged with the charge that hard determinism makes God the author of evil, hard determinists typically respond by saying while God in fact decrees what we label as evil, God is not Himself culpable of evil. When pressed on reconciling this apparent contradiction, the Calvinist appeals to “mystery.” It is supposedly a “mystery” how God can decree evil, but not Himself by guilty of it. Here is how John Calvin sought to duck this moral quandary his theology created . . .

. . . it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are. . . . For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)

Let us parse Calvin’s reasoning here. When God decrees something we consider evil, it is not really evil simply because God decrees it. It only appears to us as evil. If a human being did that thing, it would be evil by the very definition of what we mean by the word “evil” and the nature of the act committed. However, when God does the same thing, it is not evil, because He did it. That means God judges human beings based on a morality that is utterly different from the morality He Himself operates by. “Do as I say, not as I do,” apparently is the moral rule God operates by.

How can God be a righteous judge yet use a different standard of morality for Himself and His creatures? An appeal to mystery does not solve this conundrum. No “mystery” provides a refuge from this dilemma. The Calvinist cannot wave the banner of mystery over everything that threatens to bring down his/her theological house.

The Reformed advocate must avail him/herself of intellectual integrity here and admit that Hard Determinism turns God into a monster because it makes Him, not just a permitter of evil; but also its direct cause. The Meticulous Determinism of Calvin and his theological descendants claims God is the Author of evil.

Compatibilism

In an attempt to by-pass the dilemma posed by Meticulous Determinism, another position has been suggested known as Compatibilism. Under Compatibilism, the origin of evil is shifted to human beings. Compatibilism says people choose to do that which aligns and is compatible, with their greatest desire. So when they chose to do evil, they are culpable, not God.

However, when the Compatibilist-Calvinist is asked where people get their desires; who or what determines their nature, the answer is, God. Remember, He has decreed all that is. He has decreed that their nature is corrupt and their desires and choices are wicked. Therefore, yes, what people do they do because it is compatible with their nature, but God is the One Who has sovereignly decreed what that nature is.

Compatibilism tries to detach the origin of evil from God but fails by its lingering insistence that God’s sovereignty means He directs and decrees ALL things; all that happens is not just permitted by God, but ordained and commanded by Him.

John Calvin scorned the attempt to divorce God as the origin of evil.

 . . . how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be, not by His will but by His permission. . . . It is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing, but the author of them. . . . Who does not tremble at these judgments with which God works in the hearts of even the wicked whatever He will, rewarding them nonetheless according to desert? Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as he will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake, or to evil according to their merits.[2]

Calvin says it is frivolous to say God permits evil. He does not just permit it, He decrees it. Then, He is perfectly just in condemning to hell for all eternity those who commit the very evil He has commanded them to do.

Conclusion

We will consider a more Biblically consistent understanding of God’s sovereignty in Part 2, as well as some additional problematic positions of Calvinism.


[1] Article on the Desiring God website (ministry of John Piper) “All the Good That Is Ours in Christ: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us” by Mark Talbot – https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/all-the-good-that-is-ours-in-christ-seeing-gods-gracious-hand-in-the-hurts-others-do-to-us //  Also appears in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, by John Piper & Justin Taylor, which contains this article as a chapter.

[2] John Calvin, “The Eternal Predestination of God,” 10:11