Accepting/Rejecting Calvinism (Pt. 2: Defending Calvinism)

Recap and Intro

In the previous post I recounted how I originally became a Calvinist. But how one comes to hold a belief often differs (at least a little) from why one continues to hold that belief. I freely admitted that the quality of Calvinist preaching was one of the main initial reasons I became a Calvinist. But that is a far too subjective ground for anyone to base their thinking on. I eventually came to build more objective arguments in my mind for why I was a Calvinist. In this post, I’ll explain what my defenses of Calvinism looked like, both in the early and later stages.

Early Debates with Jordan S.

Jordan S. — long-time best friend (other than my wife), best man in my recent wedding, ENTP, Ultimate Frisbee beast, the “other Jordan” who has commented a few times on this blog, theological Socrates, and the first person I extensively argued with about Calvinism. He never has been a Calvinist, and I doubt he ever will be.

We emailed back and forth long emails, and would semi-regularly stay up until 3 AM at each other’s houses, trying to discover the truth. These debates covered a lot of ground, but I ultimately remember three things from them.

Three Lessons

First: Jordan always helped me to remember how radical Calvinism is. It entails the truth of certain propositions, like “God doesn’t ultimately want everyone to be saved,” and “God loves people unequally.” If I asserted X, he would remind me about the implication Y. And in doing so, he reminded me that theology isn’t just for fun and games. Now, just because a claim is extreme doesn’t mean it is false (such as, for instance, God becoming man and dying and rising from the dead for the sake of sinners). But he helped me remember how serious these issues were.

Second: Related to the last point, he wouldn’t back down from the theological position that God’s love and justice were on the line. Many Calvinists act as if the objection “But God is love” has no weight. Jordan showed me early on that it does. In on email he made a comment that stuck with me for years. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like this: “I hope you never become so calloused by your theological system that it no longer shakes you to think that God would want people in hell more than he wants them in heaven.”

Third: He wouldn’t let me be lazy. My earliest ploy was to pull the classic popular-level Calvinist argument: “The Bible clearly affirms that God causes all things and that man is free, that God predestines but man must have faith; therefore, even if I can’t understand it, I believe it.” I would mention Spurgeon’s classic response to the question of how to reconcile God’s providence and man’s freedom: “I wouldn’t try to reconcile friends.” I even developed an exegetical argument for affirming things we can’t understand:

“But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” (Romans 3:5-6.)

What I tried to pick up on was Paul’s reasoning process. His mind seemed to follow these steps:

  • Truth #1: Our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God.
  • Objection: That would make God unjust.
  • Response/Truth #2: God is just. (The propositional content of “For then how could God judge the world?” is clearly the idea that God is just.)

So how did Paul resolve the mystery? He didn’t. He just said “Of course Truth #1 isn’t unjust! Otherwise God wouldn’t be just!” Or to put it very briefly, I thought Paul was saying “I know that wouldn’t make God unjust because I know God is just!” I saw in Paul a very hamfisted approach to truth: we simply affirm all the things we think are true with no regard for how they fit together. And that’s simply bad reasoning. And, I hate to say it, but a lot of Calvinists have done this as well. To say “I know that these two truths fit together somehow” makes a crucial assumption: that both of these truths are in fact truths and not falsehoods. A Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and the truth of God’s justice certainly would “fit together,” even if nobody on earth knows how, IF they are both true. But if someone is able to show that they don’t fit together, then it is fruitless to appeal to mystery, for he has just shown that they are not both true. (And by the way, demonstrating that two ideas are incompatible isn’t as easy to do as you might think. But if it can be done, seriously: don’t appeal to mystery.)

Jordan was patient with me and my suspect exegesis and my strange arguments. I was insisting that God is sovereign and man is free, and I made the claim that “Everything that happens is both exactly what man wanted to do (and he was really free to do it!) and what God wanted to have happen.” His response stuck with me: “So do you think God just got lucky, and it just so happened that every free choice that every person ever made also happened to line up with what God wanted them to do? I think the odds of that are pretty unlikely.” I realized at that point:

Allowing room for mystery is fine. Saying “Both these things seem to be true, and even though I don’t know how they fit together, I’m going to keep believing both of them” is also okay. But if you keep trying to think of how they could fit together, and it slowly becomes clearer and clearer that the ideas aren’t just mysterious but are actually incompatible, then it is perfectly appropriate (and necessary) to step back and re-examine your position at that point. Otherwise, we’ll just live in cognitive dissonance (the psychological state of holding beliefs that are incompatible) our whole lives. And this isn’t to say that anyone needs to know how every single piece of the puzzle fits together in order to know they they are all true; but if you find what appears to be a corner piece, and it turns out you already have four corner pieces that fit perfectly, then you probably don’t actually have a real puzzle piece.

Bethlehem College and Seminary

I then moved to Minneapolis, MN to attend the undergraduate program that the-church-where-John-Piper-used-to-preach had started. I went there partly because I liked the Calvinism,  partly because they were affordable, and partly because I loved their philosophy of education. And I remember writing to someone back in California, overjoyed about two things: I had never been around so many people who were so like-minded, and I felt as if the possibilities for where God could take me from that point were endless. The second is still true, but the first one would be a bit of an exaggeration (even though, despite the issues I’m writing about, my classmates and professors and I really do share a lot in common; I think we’ll all see that a few years after we graduate).

My Roadtrip Appeal

I’m jumping forward a bit, but it’s necessary in order to show you where I was at theologically, to show you how I defended Calvinism. My roommate (Tony M.) had his cousin (Alex) over for a week during our Freshmen year, and then he drove out with us across the country during Thanksgiving break (or maybe Christmas break). Eventually, Tony started debating Calvinism with him. Naturally, I joined in. And I got to showcase the argument I had been refining over the last two or three years, which was based partly off some of John Piper’s arguments, and which I had recently been discussing with Tony. The conversation was very natural, but here is its skeleton:

  • Observation of Two Truths: (1) 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God “desires all people to be saved.” (2) Not all are saved.
  • Question 1: Why is it that what God desires does not happen?
  • Bad Answer: Because God is unable to obtain what he desires. (Neither position would want to hold to something like this.)
  • Good Answer: Because God desires something else more than universal salvation. God is willing to give up one of his desires for a greater desire.
  • Question 2: What does God desire that is both (1) a greater desire than his desire for universal salvation and (2) incompatible with his desire for universal salvation?
  • Arminian Answer: That people freely choose to be saved.
  • Calvinist Answer: That his Son be glorified.

I tried to show my Arminian friends that there was a difficulty in the Arminian position that ran just as deep as the Calvinist’s difficulty. And it is this: in either system, God knowingly guarantees that people will end up in hell by mere virtue of creating them. Whether God “causes” or “permits” or “foreknows” is irrelevant. God knew that by creating Judas, Judas would be damned forever in hell. And both positions say that there is something that God wouldn’t let go of in order to save Judas. Calvinists say it was God’s glory, and Arminians say it’s God’s commitment to free will. So which is it? Does Judas end up damned because God is pursuing his glory, or because he is pursuing free relationships?

Biblically, isn’t the answer clear? The thing God is after is his glory. God says of every person: “I have made them for my glory” (Isaiah 43:7). He saved us “so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:12). And when Paul tries to grasp at language to explain election, he explains it by appealing to a desire on God’s part to show his wrath and make his power known:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory. (Romans 9:20-23.)

Paul’s answer: some people go to hell because God desires to show his wrath; God desires to show his wrath in order to make his glory known.

And I pointed out to Alex how carefully Paul words this: “What if God, desiring…” I told him that he and I and Paul were all in the same boat: trying to grasp the greatest questions of the universe, and doing our best to come up with a hypothesis that would explain all the strange realities we see, the chief of which is the fact that not all people will be eternally happy in God’s presence. And we had been able to come up with two hypotheses, both of which appealed to God’s highest desire. And the question was a simple one: which hypothesis did Paul share? Can you honestly tell me that Paul even considered that free will was a part of the equation for the ultimate explanation for why evil exists? (Just as Calvinists shouldn’t dismiss the “God is love” argument, likewise Arminians shouldn’t dismiss the “Appealing to free will seems arbitrary” argument.)

 

You may not find it very impressive, but this was the best defense for Calvinism I could muster. And I still, though I reject it now, find portions of it compelling. Anyway, in my next post, just for fun, we’ll turn to the question of Limited Atonement (which included hours of conversations with Chase N.), and how I never understood why Reformed folk are so committed to it.

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