The Profound Irrelevance of Calvinism

This is it. What I've been waiting for eagerly for the past year or so. I anticipated devoting much labor to obtaining it in my upcoming years in seminary, but it turns out that God dropped it in my lap ahead of time. In somewhat of an epiphany this morning, while reading the first chapter of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy, I finally came to grips with my utter inability to reconcile Calvinistic theology with real life in Christ. But first, a preface regarding some underlying assumptions.

N.T. Wright, in his thought-provoking (and convicting) paper, How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?, offers this critique of those who claim to have a high regard for the Scriptures. Speaking of those who use terms like "inerrancy" and "infallibility", he warns:

The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else. Basically they imply—and this is what I mean when I say that they offer too low a view of scripture—that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever. They imply that the real place where God has revealed himself—the real locus of authority and revelation—is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere which is not really hooked into our world at all out touches it tangentially, or somewhere in the present in ‘my own experience’, or somewhere in the future in some great act which is yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away from scripture into something else.

As an evangelical, I can say that his perception is pretty accurate. While I would not admit to elevating anything other than God Himself higher than Scripture, I confess that we do uphold something as high as the Biblical text: Philosophy.

Why philosophy? Because philosophy is, humanly speaking, inescapable. Just as humans and other earth-bound life forms cannot escape their need for--and thus submersion in--oxygen, the essence of human epistemology is philosophy. You see, Bishop Wright's assumptions about the Bible also stem from his own personal philosophy. Whatever philosophy (or worldview, or ideology) we personally adhere to will and does inevitably shape our treatment of all truth, not least the Bible. There is no woman or man who may approach the Bible objectively. It is simply not possible. It would not be possible even for one to approach Jesus Christ objectively were he standing in front of us. Oh, we could certainly objectively conclude that he was standing there. But we could not objectively assume anything about what he was teaching us, or the reasoning behind certain actions. No, for this, we would have to go to some other source to help us decide what he meant or why he did what he did.

Where could we go? Well, to find out why he performed a certain deed, we might ask him why, or induce from teachings we had previously received from him; or perhaps the effect of the deed would shed some light as to its purpose. But this is all subjective, i.e. dependent upon some other previously experienced (or yet to be experienced) reality (whether word or happening) to make sense of it. Rather than seeking to be objective--which, as I mentioned, is ultimately impossible--our goal in determining truth is to be less subjective, i.e. closer to the "source" of that truth. And after all, all that matters to us as humans is that which we can, at some level, make sense of, even if that takes the form of coming to grips with the fact that some things (such as God's ways) do not make sense to us.

So there you have it. For me, philosophy is as important to us humans as Scripture, because without it, it would literally be impossible for me to interact at any level whatsoever with Scripture or even with God Himself. Philosophy, or reason, is at the very essence of what makes us human. The Enlightenment did not cause this to be true, nor were its pioneers the first to recognize it. They may have carried it too far (In my assessment, they did.), but that is no condemnation of the inextricable link between philosophy and humanity.

Now why is this assumption so important with regard to my forthcoming critique of Calvinism? It is a well agreed upon fact that Calvinists and Arminians appeal to the Bible as the source of their certain theology. Each thoroughly utilizes the Old and New Testaments, and each depends upon a "theology of God" and a "theology of man" drawn from Genesis through Revelation. They are both competent points of view, and both can be consistently pointed to through Scripture. But they cannot coexist, as they are soteriological opposites. Either one is true or the other, right? Possibly. However, I am going to propose that elements of each are true with neither being accurate 100% of the time throughout history. Therefore, what we need is a tie-breaker of sorts. The inescapable reality is that philosophy is to blame for the disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians. Therefore, it is philosophy which must break the tie.

Before delving into my arguments against primarily Calvinism, let me do justice to both points of view by defining them for those who may be unfamiliar, vaguely familiar, or misinformed about the fundamental tenets and assumptions of each. The September 2006 issue of Christianity Today, entitled "Young, Restless, Reformed" gave an excellent synopsis of the Calvinist, or Reformed, position, so I will simply quote the sidebar from p. 35:

Calvinism as an identifiable theological school began with John Calvin (1509-1564). Also referred to as Reformed theology, Calvinism draws on pre-Reformation theologians like Augustine. It has taken a variety of forms over the centuries, but the acronym TULIP is still a handy summary of its distinguishing marks.

Total Depravity: We cannot respond to God's offer of salvation, since our will--indeed, our whole being--has been rendered incapable by sin (Rom. 3:9-10; Rom. 8:7-8; 2 Cor. 4:4). Regeneration by the Holy Spirit must precede our response of faith. This contrasts traditions that say we have sufficient free will to respond to God's offer of salvation or that we can "cooperate" with grace.

Unconditional Election: God chooses to save some people, not because of anything they have done, but according to his sovereign will (Acts 13:48; Rom. 9; Eph. 1:3-6). Some Calvinists have also taught that God elects certain people to damnation, but few advance this view aggressively. This contrasts with other Christian traditions that teach that God desires to save everyone, but only elects those whom he foreknows will respond to his grace.

Limited Atonement: Christ died for the sins of the Church, not for the whole world (John 10:15; Mark 10:45; Rev. 5:9). This contrasts with traditions that teach that Christ died for all, even though all may not appropriate the benefits of his sacrifice.

Irresistable Grace: Those God elects cannot resist the Holy Spirit's draw to salvation (John 6:44; 1 Cor. 1:23-24; Acts 16:14). Again, this contrasts with Christian traditions that teach that we are able to reject God's forgiveness--thus, while God may choose to save everyone, not everyone chooses to believe.

Perseverance of the Saints: By God's power, believers will endure in faith to the end (John 10:28; Rom. 8:30; Phil. 1:6). Other Christian traditions teach that people can forsake faith and lose salvation.

For a description of Arminianism, I will refer to Wikipedia:

Arminianism is a school of soteriological thought in Protestant Christian theology founded by the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. Its acceptance stretches through much of mainstream Protestantism. Due to the influence of John Wesley, Arminianism is perhaps most prominent in the Methodist movement.

Arminianism holds to the following tenets, some of which it shares with Calvinism:

1. Total Depravity: Humans are naturally unable to make any effort towards salvation.
2. Sola Gratia: Salvation is possible by grace alone.
3. Sola Fide: Faith alone, apart from any works whatsoever of human effort, leads to salvation.
4. Conditional Election: God's election is conditional on faith in Jesus as God's only Son and atoning sacrifice.
5. Unlimited Atonement: Jesus' atonement was potentially for all people
6. Unforced Grace: God allows his grace to be resisted by those unwilling to believe.
7. Insecurity of the Believer: Salvation can be lost, as continued salvation is conditional upon continued faith.

*This list has been slightly modified by me. Please refer to the article for exact wording, if you deem it necessary.

A more thorough explanation of these tenets can be found here.

Now that we have a common point of reference, let us reason together first, whether Calvinism presents us with a theology compatible with all of Scripture, and second, whether Arminianism is an adequate alternative. You already know by bias, so I'm not going to try to be any more diplomatic than is necessary.

First, total depravity. Here I am in accord with both Calvin and Arminius. The Scripture is clear at several points that the totality of our being was infected and duly corrupted by sin at the Fall. However, in my view, the Calvinistic application of this reality is farther than reason (and Scripture) permits it to go. It is obvious, by the simple fact of our continued existence, that human beings were not automatically, immediately obliterated from the face of the earth. They did not cease being "made in God's image", the reality which gave them the complete essence, not merely of righteousness, but of humanity. A depraved humanity is nonetheless a humanity. And because we are human, we have certain innate characteristics which, in my view, render the Calvinistic conclusions impossible. More on that to come.

Second, unconditional election. I agree with Calvin where he observes that election, or salvation, is not dependent upon anything we humans do. That is the primary, classic Lutheran position. As Ephesians 2:8-9 state: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this (salvation) is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (ESV, emphasis and parenthetical mine). It is obvious that nothing we do, in terms of righteous works, can earn us salvation. However, God repeatedly gives this one caveat: having faith. The Calvinist would argue that "having faith" falls under the banner of our own "doing", i.e. of works. But this is a merely speculatory, unnecessary (and, I believe, inaccurate) conclusion. God repeatedly commends men and women "for their faith". He is not simply commending Himself for giving them faith. He is applauding them for trusting Him, for believing Him, indeed, for being most fully human!

Third, limited atonement. I have no beef with this. It is merely semantic and "practical" in terms of evangelistic witness to say that Christ died "for" someone who ends up rejecting His gift and therefore ends up in eternal hell. Some just cannot stomach the thought of telling a non-believer to whom they are witnessing, "Christ died for you--IF you choose to accept that." However, I have no serious quibble with someone who wants to express Christ's atonement as "universal, but only applicable to those who receive Him by faith." It's not a threat to orthodox doctrine, as least insofar as I can comprehend.

Fourth, irresistable grace. Now, Calvin makes his case here not directly, but by induction, playing off of a couple of key truths. John 6:44: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." True. "God only draws those whom he has elected." False. Or, put another way, "Everyone God draws comes". False. To say that John 6:44 implies these things is a definitive logical fallacy. 1 Cor. 1:23-24 and Acts 16:14 speak of God calling, or drawing people to Himself, which I would agree is how all come to faith in Him. However, again, this does not preclude the possibility that God draws all men and women to Himself.

Fifth, and finally, perseverance of the saints. On this point, I am also in agreement with Calvin. However, we must note that it is not necessary to believe that God arbitrarily predetermined the salvation of select individuals (which is the primary tenet I am refuting in this article) in order to believe that salvation is once and for all. When asked, "What about those who profess Christ, are baptized, and bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and later denounce (or 'fall away from') faith in Christ, never to return?" The traditional Calvinistic answer would be, "Why, because they were never saved in the first place!" And this certainly has to be true. If only linguistically, "salvation" must be understood in the past tense. To say that one is "saved" is to say that something has happened. But that is not where the argument stops. Evangelicals, by and large, take the term "saved" (a verb) and turn it into a noun ("salvation"). They then proceed to put them in chronological order: After one is "saved", they then possess "salvation". At face value, this is too simplistic. But indeed, it is not, for the Bible speaks of salvation in a threefold way: first, in terms of justification: being born again/adopted into the "household" of God/grafted into the Body of Christ; second, in terms of sanctification: "being saved"/made more like Christ; and third, in terms of glorification: reaching our final destination in heaven.

Now we must ask, Does being justified, or "born again" automatically guarantee that we will be sanctified and/or glorified? This is an important question indeed, depending on your view of the requirements for justification. However, I believe Jesus helps us dispel any myths that we might lean on in order to find exceptions to this truth. It is of paramount importance that Jesus taught that total surrender to Him was a prerequisite of justification. According to Jesus, He will not be your Savior if He is not first your Lord. And He certainly is not your Lord if you "accept" Him but do not accept His call to "come and die". So there is a perfectly viable explanation for why so many nominal Christians "fall away" due to the word being "snatched up" by Satan, not having a "root", or being "choked by the worries, riches and pleasures of life". It is that many (perhaps most?) self-professed Christians have not received Jesus Christ as Lord, and thus have not be born again, or justified. Whatever the fruit that we have seen, whatever confession they have made, Jesus warns that there will be many who call Him "Lord" but have not submitted to Him as Lord, and thus were never "known by Him". Satan's greatest achievement would be to convince you that you have been born again into Christ if this would keep you from coming to terms with the fact that you are on wide, crooked road to hell.

Thus, I have made a departure with both the Calvinistic doctrine of predetermined, salvific election and the Arminian doctrines of "unlimited atonement" and "eternal insecurity of the believer". What am I to do if I cannot subscribe to either?! I suppose I shall just cling to the Bible and say, "I believe the Bible!" Or will there be a Stephensian soteriology? Probably not. There undoubtedly is some theologian out there who has posited this thesis long before I was born, and there is probably a name for it. I regret to admit that I have not happened to come across it. If such a theological "camp" exists, I should be delighted to be informed by one of you who is aware of it.

Now back to the issue of total depravity and what it means to be human, which I promised earlier to come back to. As I mentioned, I am reading The Divine Conspiracy, and in the first chapter, Dr. Willard explains what it means to be human in terms I have never before been able to articulate so persuasively. Here is what he says, and this to me is the issue that Calvinistic, predeterminative theology has failed to recognize. Considering the Biblical account of creation, Willard observes: is nevertheless true that we are made to "have dominion" within an appropriate domain of reality. This is the core of the likeness or image of God in us and is the basis of the destiny for which we were formed. We are, all of us, never-ceasing spiritual beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God's great universe...In creating human beings God made them to rule, to reign, to have dominion over a limited sphere. Only so can they be persons. Any being that has say over nothing at all is no person...They would be reduced to completely passive observers who count for nothing, who make no difference (p. 21-22). (emphasis mine)

Regarding the effect of the Fall on our nature, he writes:

However we may picture the original event, "the fall," one cannot deny that such mistrust pervasively characterizes human life today and that things do not go well on earth...But at the same time our fundamental makeup is unchanged. The deepest longings of our heart confirm our original calling (p. 23). (emphasis mine)

Again, our original calling, according to Genesis, is to be creative beings, or "rulers", who live in order to "count for good" in the world. Now follow me closely for a minute, because the waters get a little turbulent here. This calling, which has not been defected by the Fall, would be impossible for us to fulfill if God has already predetermine who will and will not be saved/glorified in the last day. Without a doubt, "all things are possible with God". However, "with God" is not the same as "by God", an important distinction. Willard explains that,
"When we receive God's gift of life by relying on Christ, we find that God comes to act with us as we rely on him in our actions (p. 20)." He proceeds that, "[God] intended to be our constant companion or coworker in the creative enterprise of life on earth (p. 22)." Perhaps this is why we call Jesus' last command to us the Great Commission (read, co-mission). We are on mission together. There is an interplay between our works and His (post-rebirth) in the redemption of mankind. Indeed this is an infinitely profound mystery, one that I cannot fathom to explain. But it is true. It must be. (Do not, however, mistake me to believe that the "hope of glory" is not "Christ in me" but "Christ and me." It is both, because of the former.)

What is the alternative to viewing God as our "coworker" in fulfilling His redemptive mission on earth? It doesn't take a very vivid imagination to picture it. While many analogies can be offered, the best I can think of is that of God playing a chess game with himself. The universe as we know it is the chess board, and we are the chess pieces. He simply moves us around wherever He pleases to achieve whatever outcome fancies Him. He is in utter and complete control, without one ounce of our initiative. And we could not have initiative because we would be mere pieces of marble or plastic, or flesh and bones, if you will. You see, if God predetermines who specifically will be saved, and does not merely foreknow it, then nothing at all--not one thought, decision, or action--matters in this world. Not that it wouldn't "matter" to God. But as individuals, we would be incapable of making any difference whatsoever in the world. We could not attribute one single deed--either moral or immoral--to ourselves in any degree. I could not thank my wife for a loving gesture she made toward me, only God. Likewise, it would be impossible to be motivated to do anything at all. For what is motive, except an act of the will, a reason for doing something.

There would therefore be no sense either attempting to motivate someone else or being motivated oneself to do anything, much less die to ourselves and evangelize the world. It would be of no use to say we are compelled by love for our brother to care for him or share the Good News with him. For we would not then be compelled by love for our brother, but by God. Thus, our "intentions" would be of no consequence whatsoever. They simply would not exist. Only God's intentions would exist. This is the profound irrelevance of Calvinism. It renders humanity utterly irrelevant, and thus renders life irrelevant.

So I am asked if this theology of God renders awe and admiration as it apparently does for those who adhere to it. And I answer: NO! The more I consider it (and I have been seriously, fairly considering it for quite some time), the more such a possibility rings of despair. It is the raw material for suicide indeed to believe that one "does not matter" in the scheme of life. And I am not alone in feeling this way. Willard supports that this is the inevitable effect of such theology on one's psyche, pointing out that:

The sense of having some degree of control over things is now recognized as a vital factor in both mental and physical health and can make the difference between life and death in those who are seriously ill...Obviously, having a place of rule goes to the very heart of who we are, of our integrity, strength, and competence.

By contrast, attacks on our personhood always take the form of diminishing what we can do or have say over, sometimes up to the point of forcing us to submit to what we abhor. In the familiar human order, slaves are at the other end of the spectrum from kings. Their bodies and lives are at the disposal of another. Prisoners are, in most cases, several degrees above slaves. And, as the twentieth century has taught us, thought control is worst of all. It is the most heinous form of soul destruction, in which even our own thoughts are not really ours. It reaches most deeply into our substance.

And so I conclude that if God truly and utterly does control our every thought and action (which is, as I have argued, the unavoidable implication of Calvinism if one carries such line of thought to its fullest extent), then He is the most heinous type of God imaginable, and most certainly one that I do not care to worship--as if I had a choice. Thankfully--praise be to God!--I do not have to worship this kind of God, because this is not the kind of God the Bible teaches us exists, nor is it the kind of God that sound reasoning and experience reveals to us. I say it again, Praise be to God! We have been fearfully and wonderfully made.

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