Calvinism, Part II: Is God the Source of Evil?

April 4, 2009

The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism can best be summed up with the phrase: Monergism vs. Synergism.  In other words, in "monergism" God and God alone does all the work, makes all the initiatives and provides everything necessary to effect salvation to humans.  In "synergism," God provides all that is necessary for man to obtain salvation, but man must make the choice of whether he believes and is willing to accept the responsibilities God requires of the Christian life, or reject it.

Calvinists, since the early 17th century have been quick to accuse Arminians of adhering to a belief system similar to the Gnostics of Paul's day.  That salvation is effected on man's working his way toward salvation through a knowledge of God and His will and that by following His will (through man's free-will) will guarantee eternal life.

To clear things up a bit, I take you back to the time of Jacob Arminius, born Jacob Harmenszoon, a Dutch theologian who, by the way, had no ancestral lineage in the country of Armenia!  Arminius is simply the Latinized form of Harmenszoon.  He lived from 1560 until 1609 and was the author of numerous works filling three large volumes, defending the evangelical form of synergism.  To Arminius, divine-human cooperation in salvation was taught throughout Scripture.

Arminius was not the first synergist in Christian history; all of the Greek Church Fathers of the first two Christian centuries and many of the medieval Catholic theologians were synergists of some kind.  Furthermore, as Arminius and his earliest followers, known as "Remonstrants," loved to point out, many Protestants before him were synergists in some sense of the word.

Many Calvinists today, although not all, have come to regard Arminianism, and Arminian-Wesleyanism as authentically Protestant and not of the Reformed traditions.  A number of Calvinists, especially the so-called hyper-Calvinists, think of any form of Arminianism as a belief system of the mind, like "humanism" in the least and heresy at best.

I would like to point out, though, that real Arminianism is merely takes a different approach to the doctrine of salvation known as soteriology. Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.  Therefore, both are opposed to salvation by grace through faith and good works.  The difference though is that Calvinists believe that both grace and faith are both given to those who are elected to have faith, whereas Arminians believe grace is God's part in salvation and faith is man's part.

Both deny that any part of salvation can be based on human merit.  Both affirm the sole supreme authority of the Scripture and the priesthood of all believers.  The ways part when it comes to predestination.  Arminius and his followers, especially John Wesley many years later, opposed belief in unconditional reprobation - God's selection of some persons to spend eternity in hell.  Because they opposed that, they also opposed unconditional election.  To Arminius, it was logical that if some were elected to heaven, then the rest must to consigned to hell.  God could not just elect some to salvation and just forget the others or else they would be consigned to live forever on earth since there would be no election to hell.  The two are inextricably linked. 

Important to this understanding is Arminius' argument that if there was the unconditional selection of some to salvation and unconditional selection of the rest to reprobation would impugn the character of God.  Many of the Remonstrants and since the 17th century, those who became followers of John Wesley, have concluded that if God selected before the foundation of the earth who would be saved and who would be damned, then He is the author of evil.

In my last article, I noted that Calvin argued from and systematized the works of Augustine.  Augustine was a Neo-Platonist student of philosophy at the time of his conversion and as previously noted, Neo-Platonists, followers of many of the teachings of Plato were determinists.  Plato, one of the greatest minds in all of human history, expounded upon the rich ideas of ancient pagan Greece.  In Homer's Odyssey, we see the gods in the heavens manipulating the moves of men and women as they related to the gods and their enemies.  Each of man's moves were planned by the so-called divine minds and manipulated like pawns on a chessboard.

Plato took away the divine and mystically substituted the "elements," much like the Zoroastrians and astrologers of old. Augustine put the divine back into determinism by substituting the elements with Jehovah God.  Augustinianism is Greek in origin and, by extension, Calvinism is Platonic (Greek) as opposed to Judeo-Christian.

As promised in the last article, I stated that I would address the issue of whether God is the author of evil and, if so, would that make him a (or The) devil?  The problem of evil is an age-old quandary that has challenged Christian thinkers and other theists for centuries. Indeed, the problem of evil has been a favorite weapon in the atheists' arsenal as long as atheists have been doing battle with believers.

Critics of Christianity have often claimed that evil is simply incompatible with the existence of God.  A very dear friend of mine, John Loftus, with whom I attended seminary and who became a Christian apologist and theologian uses this as his argument for becoming an Atheist! 

Since the late 90's, John has argued that if God is the origin of evil then He is not God at all. In an e-mail sent to me last year, John told me that he believed that most of Christendom is heading toward Calvinism and the Calvinistic resurgence will prevail in most seminaries and theological circles in the very near future.  Then, he blamed Calvinism for one of the reasons he "deconverted."  Actually, he blames the prevailing understanding of the nature of God as his rationale for turning to Atheism.

Many Baptists (last point Calvinists) would argue that John was never saved in the first place, as would all other Calvinists. But John preached the gospel for a number of years, taught Christian doctrine in Bible Colleges and Christian Theology in a university setting.  He has lead many people to Jesus Christ through his life, teaching and preaching.  He was considered a Christian apologist - a defender of the Christian faith.

Calvinists point out that even the devil has his followers in the pulpits, but Jesus points out that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," i.e. that the devil preaching against himself is futile.

So John points to the Calvinist's unquestionable following of Platonic philosophy as proof that God does not exist.  If there was a God who had the attributes Christians say he has - omnipotence and perfect goodness - then there would be no evil.  For if He were omnipotent, then it seems He has the power to do anything possible including eliminate all evil.  If He is perfectly good, then He is opposed to evil and would want to remove it.  But, as John would argue, because there is obviously evil all around, there is no such God. 

This intellectual challenge requires a rational response that will show God's existence is indeed compatible with the existence of evil.  The attempt to do this is call theodicy, a term that derives from words meaning "God" and "justice."  Theodicy is the attempt to show the justice or goodness of God in the face of evil.

Evil, though, is far more than a puzzle to be solved by logic or reasoning.  It is made nearly impossible to solve with an adherence to Calvin's soteriology.  You see, one flaw in John's argument may just be that he doesn't see the implications of Calvinism not being the all-alone sufficient explanation for the nature of God.  Indeed, if the Calvinists are right, then God is at best a master manipulator, a puppet master and at least the author of evil.

So, what theological resources do we have to make some sense of evil and tragedy when we encounter them?  I should point out that because of their distinctive theological convictions, Calvinists sometime dismiss the whole project of theodicy as a pointless one.  Some argue that God no doubt has reasons for ordaining evil, but there is no way we could know those reasons.  Others emphasize that we are God's property, and since He can do whatever He wants to do with His property, we have no grounds for complaint, regardless of how we suffer.  Some, the so-called "hyper-Calvinists" go so far as to argue that since God is the source and standard for what is right, anything He does is right by definition, even if it does not seem right or virtuous to us.. Thus, the problem of evil simply cannot arise.

It would take me too far afield to discuss these matters in detail, but I do want to address one specific issue: whether our grasp of goodness is reliable enough for us even to make judgments about what is evil and what is not.  Some of the objections to theodicy assume that our understanding of goodness and evil may be so radically different from God's that we can't even begin to understand how His purposes are good.

I contend, by contrast, that our moral judgments are more trustworthy than this view holds.  This is not to say that our moral judgments are perfect or that we can call God to account by some standard that is higher than God Himself.  But I believe that our moral judgments, at best, are a reflection of God's own nature and as such are reliable.  Of course, since we are sinners, having fallen from God's intended path in the beginning, our moral judgments are distorted by sin, so we need the benefit of revelation to correct and refine our perceptions.  But we are still made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). and that is a deeper truth about us than our sin is. 

Calvinists, when addressing the concept of "the image of God" in man, point that the said image, at the fall, was shattered or destroyed/  That man is no longer in His image, unless it is remade in Christ.  By extension, if the image is shattered then it must follow that many is totally depraved.  Arguing that depravity is the direct corollary of having lost God's image, Calvinists must logically claim that there can be no moral judgment on man's part. Yet, Calvinists will argue that there is a thing called "common grace," meaning a reflection of a sense of right and wrong given to all men (regardless of their election) and a confidence in the best of moral judgments and institutions.  One manifestation of this so-called "common grace," they state, is our legal system.

But this begs the question of whether the image of God was shattered or destroyed at the fall of Adam in Genesis 3.  If the image of God is gone and man is therefore totally depraved then, why would God want to ever interact with man?  If He was so distraught with Adam and Eve, why didn't He just destroy them and start all over?  These questions become moot when placed alongside of the wider picture of whether God is the source or evil.  If He is, then He "predestined" Adam and Eve to sin, a view often called supralapsarianism, meaning that God unconditionally predestined men and, by extension, events such as the fall, before the fall.

I will continue to discuss this issue next time when I address the first of the five points of Calvinism "Total Depravity."

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