December 27, 2010

Calvinism Myths

I was recently pointed to this post by Calvinist Michael C. Patton, who I respect a great deal. Here he lists 12 myths that he believes are levied against Calvinism. I wanted to review a couple of these and add my own thoughts on them. Some I think are legitimate myths, some I really do not.

**UPDATE** Since I made this post, I made some editions. Typos I just corrected, but anything added is in italics

1. Calvinism is not system of theology that denies God’s universal love.While there are some Calvinists who do deny God’s universal love for all man, this is certainly not a necessary or a central tenet of Calvinism. Calvinists do, however, believe that God has a particular type of love for the elect (an “electing love”), but most also believe that God loves all people (John 3:16). It is a mystery to Calvinist as to why he does not elect everyone. (More on this here.)
I have to agree with Patton that this is to some degree a myth. To some degree. Every respectable Calvinist that I have met agrees that God universally loves all, and that God not electing some is a mystery.

In the end, this statement is really an argument against Calvinism, rather than a myth. It is an ethical argument which states that God couldn't possibly love all men if He refuses to save them. I think this argument is valid. While I concede that it is a myth that non-hyper-Calvinists believe this, I think it takes either impressive mental gymnastics or intention ignorance to pull it off.

I would like to add that this is something that the Bible is a bit clear about: those that are not saved are not saved because they reject God. This is clear. One of the reasons that I don't believe in Calvinism is that they take things like responsiblity, love, and divine goodness and make them mysterious. These are things that the Bible is clear about. Meanwhile, they take things like omniscience, and omnipotence and seem to think that these ideas should be understood perfectly. It's like they have the mystery in the wrong places.

2. Calvinism is not a belief that God creates people in order to send them to hell.Again, this is not representative of normative Calvinists. While supralapsarians do believe that God creates people to send them to hell, the majority of Calvinists are not supralapsarians. (More on this here.)

Again it is true that most Calvinists don't believe this. But some do, and that is a bit scary. In fact, supralapsarianism (which is not the same thing as hyper Calvinism BTW) was the theological position that Arminius was opposing at the time of his life.

3. Calvinism is not belief that God is the author of evil.Because of Calvinism’s high view of God’s sovereignty, many mistakenly believe that Calvinists hold God responsible for sin and evil. This is not true. There are very few Calvinists who believe that God is the author of evil. Most Calvinists believe that to ascribe responsibility for evil to God is heretical.
This is the primary area where I am happy that Calvinists are inconsistent with their beliefs. I've never met a Calvinist that would say that God is the author of evil, but, at the same time, they believe that everything that happens God decreed to have happened and made it so. In other words, God may have caused it, but He isn't responsible for it. Why He is not responsible may depend on the Calvinist, and is often overly complex. But even though I know that Calvinists don't believe that, I would have to if I actually accepted predeterminism. It is just the logical consequent.

Again, this is an example of something that isn't a myth, but an argument. I don't know any Arminian who thinks that Calvinists believe that God is the author of evil. However most, if not all, Arminians that I know (including myself) believe that if Calvinism where true, than God created evil.

4. Calvinism is not a belief in fatalism.A fatalistic worldview is one in which all things are left to fate, chance, and a series of causes and effects that has no intelligent guide or ultimate cause. Calvinism believes that God (not fate) is in control, though Calvinists differ about how meticulous this control is.

I find Patton's definition of fatalism interesting, especially since that isn't really what it means. Fatalism is the belief that everything which happens is inevitable: it is your fate. Why that is your fate can vary among fatalists, and many believe that your fate is set by personal omnipotent beings (such as the three Fates in Greek mythology). So saying that Calvinists don't believe in fatalism because God is an intelligent guide, to me, is based more on a very unique definition of fatalism.

Fatalism is to some degree a contested term, but usually within such debates fatalism is about the futility of human actions in terms of what their ultimate destiny will be. In this sense, one could say that Calvinism is fatalist, in the sense that humanity really can't affect its destiny.

On the other hand, one could say that Calvinism isn't fatalist, because that isn't part of the emphasis of Calvinism, like calling someone at a recycling depot a garbageman. Within Calvinism, no one is really trapped by their destiny. Instead, they are privileged to it. For this reason, I don't tend to call Calvinists "Fatalists". Another way to say it is that Fatalism is pessimistic about determinism, Calvinism is rather optimistic about it.

Mind you, I don't think that this is much better. Calvinism is rather self-absorbed in its theology in my opinion. "God chose me to be saved for all eternity, unlike the vast majority of humanity! Isn't God wonderful?" You can kind of see why those who aren't Calvinist see this as fatalism. A reprobate may say, "Sure you aren't trapped by your fate, but the rest of us are!" Therefore, Calvinism is only sorta fatalist. It is fatalist in its worldview, but not in its attitude about it. However that is hardly a glowing recommendation.

5. Calvinism is not a denial of freedom.Calvinists to do not believe that people are robots or puppets on strings. Calvinists believe in freedom and, properly defined, free will. While Calvinists believe that God is ultimately in control of everything, most are compatibalists, believing that he works in and with human freedom (limited though it may be). Calvinists believe in human responsibility at the same time as holding to a high view of God’s providential sovereignty. (More on this here.)

By "properly defined free will" he means "free will as defined completely differently from all of history before Calvin and from every other belief system than Calvinism." I personally think that compatibablist free will is philosophical incoherent (More on this here.) It's like calling a blueberry a grape, and then only listing the similarities. So, yes, Calvinism is a denial of freedom, while compatibalism is simply being in denial.

6. Calvinism is not a belief that God forces people to become Christians against their will.Calvinists believe in what is called “irresistible grace.” This might not be the best name for it since it does not really communicate what is involved. Calvinists believe that people are dead in the sin (Eph 2:1), haters of God, with no ability to seek him in their natural state (Rom 3:11; John 6:44; 1 Cor 2:14). Since this is the case, God must first regenerate them so that they can have faith. Once regenerate, people do not need to be forced to accept God, but this is a natural reaction—a willing reaction—of one who has been born again and, for the first time, recognizes the beauty of God.

So once they are forced to be regenerate, they are not forced to become Christians?.... Right. Thank you for the clarification.

To be frank, Augustine, who Calvin based his thoughts on, was insistent that he was forced to become a Christian. The percentage of Calvinists that describe their salvation experience as being dragged kicking and screaming is also quite high. I'm sorry Michael, but if you were being honest with yourself, you would simply learn to claim this one.

7. Calvinism is not a belief that you should only evangelize the elect.No one knows who the elect are. I suppose that if there was a way to find out, both Calvinist and Arminians (the other primary option to Calvinism) would only evangelize the elect (since Arminians also believe only the elect will be saved even though they understand election differently). Since we don’t know, it is our duty to evangelize all people and nations. Some of the greatest evangelists in the history of Christianity, such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards, have held to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Have to agree with Michael on this one being a myth. Calvinism does not teach you should only evangelize the elect, but that evangelism is the process through which the elect are revealed. Mind you, many Calvinists have rejected evangelism in history. Indeed, I think evangelism is something that Calvinists have had to "make work" with their theology, rather than something which flows naturally from it.

8. Calvinism is not a belief that God arbitrarily chooses people to be saved.Calvinists believe that God elects some people to salvation and not others and that this election is not based on anything present or foreseen, righteous or unrighteous, in the individual, but upon his sovereign choice. But this does not mean that the choice is arbitrary, as if God is flipping a coin to see who is saved and who is not. Calvinists believe that God has his reasons, but they are in his mysterious secret will.

This isn't a myth. It is not "Election by Unknown Conditions", but "Unconditional Election". In Calvinism, God has reasons for electing, as a general concept. The elect may also have a very specific demographic that God has planned. But according to true Calvinism there is no condition, or attribute that belongs to the person which causes them to be elect instead of someone else. There is another word for that: arbitrary (actually two. You could also say random).

9. Calvinism is not a system of thought that follows a man, John Calvin.While Calvinists obviously respect John Calvin, they simply believe that he correctly understood and systematized some very important Apostolic teachings concerning election, man’s condition, and God’s sovereignty. However, much of this understanding did not originate with John Calvin, but can be seen in many throughout church history such as Aquinas, Anselm, and Augustine. Ultimately, Calvinists will argue, they follow rightly interpreted Scripture.

I agree that it is a myth to say that Calvinism is just based off of John Calvin, but Calvin is still who defines Calvinism. Many Calvinists disagree with Calvin on things. So fine, this is a myth.

Oh, if you want to list people who believed in Arminian theology: Justin Martyr, Iraneus, Ignatius, Athanatius, Basil, both Gregories, Tertullian, and pretty much everyone else who predates Augustine, not to mention Francis of Assisi, the Council of Orange and probably a few more that predate Calvin.

10. Calvinism is not a system that has to ignore or reinterpret passages of Scripture concerning human responsibility.Calvinists believe that all people are responsible to do what is right, even though, as fallen children of Adam, they lack ability to do what is right (in a transcendent sense; see below) without God’s regenerating grace. Therefore, God’s call and commands apply to all people and all people are responsible for their rejection and rebellion.

It does have to reinterpret them. Sorry. This is just what it means to have Christians that disagree with you. Naturally you think that I am reinterpreting verses, and conversely I think that you are doing likewise.

11. Calvinists do not believe that no one can do any good thing at all.Calvinists believe in what is called “total depravity” (so do Arminians). However, total depravity does not mean that people cannot ever do anything good. Calvinists believe that unregenerate people can do many good things and sometimes even act better than Christians. But when it comes to people’s disposition toward God and their acknowledgment of him for their abilities, gifts, and future, they deny him and therefore taint all that they are and do. An unbeliever, for example, can love and care for their children just as a believer can. In and of itself this is a very good thing. However, in relation to God this finds no eternal or transcendent favor since they are at enmity with him, the Giver of all things. Therefore, it might be said, while all people can do good, only the regenerate can do transcendent good.

This is kind of awkward. OK, yes, Calvinists do believe that unbelievers can do good, but classic Calvinism believes this for completely different reasons than Michael states. Classic Calvinism believes in "common grace", or grace that God extends to everyone which prevents sin from completely running amuck.

12. Calvinists do not necessarily believe that God predestines (wills) everything, including the color of socks I chose this morning.There is a spectrum to belief about God’s sovereignty in Calvinism. The one thing that unites all Calvinists is their belief in God’s sovereign choice to elect some people to salvation and not others. However, Calvinists differ concerning God’s involvement in other areas (for more on this, see here). Some Calvinists believe in what might be called “meticulous sovereignty”, where God has not only predestined people to salvation, but also he has predestined everything that occurs. As the old saying goes: “There is not a maverick molecule in the universe.” However, most Calvinists believe in what might be called “providential sovereignty.” Here, Calvinists would distinguish between God’s permissive will and his sovereign will. In his permissive will, many things happen that he permits, but is not necessarily bringing about as the first cause. In his sovereign will, many things happen because of his direct intervention (for more on this, see here).

I have no problem with the notion of "providential sovereignty." Indeed, as an Arminian, I believe in providential sovereignty. Patton is the only Calvinist I have ever met though to believe in it as well. If he wants to call that "not necessarily believing", than fine. But his personal beliefs does not qualify something as being a myth. Standard Calvinist theology states that God meticulously controls everything, and always has.

6 comments:

The Seeking Disciple said...

Great post. I agree with you brother.

bethyada said...

So, yes, Calvinism is a denial of freedom, while compatibalism is simply being in denial.

Well written.

One of the problems that I had with the post was that although some of the myths were myths, some of the complaints were what Arminians claim are logically the result of Calvinism. Thus it is true that Calvinists deny the myths, but it is also true that non-Calvinists think that the myths are required by other aspects of Calvinism.

When someone argues that Calvinism believes A which implies B, it is no good to say I don't believe B. That well may be true, but what is required is an explanation of how A does not imply B.

bethyada said...

And I am happy to abandon "fatalism" for "determinism" if the former is viewed too negatively.

Rey said...

I had some of the same (unstated) thoughts on Patton's post though I think you're a bit more generous than I am. The Calvinist doesn't believe that God creates people to send them to Hell, says the Calvinist, but isn't that exactly what the Sovereign God does before the foundation of the world? Barring molinism, they essentially have God being the logical cause of all things and that includes the people who go to hell of their own "free" will.

Frankly, the post read mostly like "It's a myth because I say so."

Rey said...

I essentially agree with most of your comments that you made here although I would probably nuance the logical necessity of some of their conclusions. For instance, you were pretty generous in the idea of Calvinists not believing that God created people to send them to hell, but if God is sovereign in the deterministic sense, and if there isn't something like Molinism in play, then you necessarily have a God creating individuals who "freely" go to hell without ever being able not-to-go-to-hell.

Frankly the post read like "It is a myth because I say it is."

Kevin Jackson said...

Good post. Most of these "myths" come down to how terms are redefined by Calvinists.

For example on "forcing people to become Christians against their will", Calvinists would say that the elect freely choose to become believers. But what they mean by this is that God works on the heart of the elect in such a way that they desire to believe.

So Calvinists argue that forcing a person to do something against his will is coercive. But they also argue that changing a person's desires is not coercive (at least if God does it).

This reminds me of the movie "When in Rome" (a chick flick that I don't necessarily recommend that I watched with my wife).

The story revolves around a woman who throws a coin into a fountain in Italy. The fountain is magical, and any man who also threw in a coin is now attracted to the girl. The men really think they do love her. If you asked them they would say that they freely chose to love her. But she of course realizes that they are not freely choosing her, their desires have been changed by magic.