Calvinism, Part V: "God So Loved A Few That He Gave His Only Son..."

April 25, 2009

Many critics of Arminianism (or Wesleyan-Arminianism) accuse it of departing from the strong substitutionary atonement doctrine of Martin Luther and John Calvin as well as those who followed them.  Calvinists especially have several issues with Arminianism's doctrine of the atonement.  First, they accuse non-Calvinists of universalism, that Christ's death results in the salvation of everybody regardless a commitment to God.  Others actually think Arminianism results in the belief that Christ's death on the cross actually saved no one.

The first of these criticisms arise from high Calvinism's doctrine of limited atonement.  This is the idea which was spelled out by the Synod of Dort (1618-19) which said that Christ's death, though sufficient for salvation of all of humanity, was actually intended by God only for the elect.  Arminians call this "Limited Atonement" because this limits the scope of Christ's substitutionary sacrifice only to a chosen few.  Calvinist's prefer the term "definite" or "particular" atonement because they say Christ died only for those God intended to save - definite group of particular people.

As I have stated in the previous articles, the Calvinist understanding of divine sovereignty necessarily generates a set of doctrinal conclusions denying human free will (in the sense of the power of contrary choice), asserting God's grace as perfectly triumphant and restricting God saving intentions to a subset of humanity.  The problem of accepting this neo-Platonic worldview creates turmoil and disorder among series Bible believing people. 

One stream of turbulence results from restricting God's saving intention to a subset of humanity which they call "the elect."  Just how wide are God's saving intentions?  If God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son (John 3:16), then it would seem that the loving heart of the Father embraced the whole world as He set in motion the saving mission of the Son.  We read that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for outs but also for the sins of the whole world (I John 2:2).  The same writer elaborates on this ministry of expiation by connecting it to the love of God: God is love.  This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world . . . as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (I John 4:8-10).  It appears that God's universal love energizes God's worldwide mission of redemption.

Paul also wheels the argument of Romans 1-11 to a climactic conclusion: For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that He may have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32).  Here the scope of God's intention to have mercy matches the scope of human sinfulness, as indicated by the repeated word all.  In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul establishes that all human beings without exception have been consigned to disobedience, then the symmetry of Paul's expression in Romans 11:32 strong implies that God intends to have mercy in a similar scope: on all human beings without exception.  Even if we allow that Paul may here be referring to Jews and Gentiles as people groups, we must not imagine that God's desire to show mercy fails to apply to every individual within each group. 

After all, Paul establishes that all humans are under sin by arguing that both Gentiles (Romans 1:18-32) and Jews (Romans 2:1-3:20) as people groups are under sin.  If we accept Paul's strategy of indicting every individual through indictment of the group, then consistency requires that we allow the same extension to hold with regard to God's mercy, as Romans 11:32 says.

Of course Calvinists have offered their own accountings of these and other passages.  Some argue, for example, that the "world" loved by God in John 3:16 must refer only to "the elect in the world."  Similarly, they read the unqualified all in restricted senses (e.g. "all types of people" or "all the elect").  Accordingly, the scriptural claim that Jesus died not only for our sins but also the sins of the whole world means that Jesus died not only for the sins of (some) Jews but also for the sins of (some) Gentiles.  These restrictive interpretations of all require such textual gymnastics that they condemn themselves as invalid!

It is noteworthy that recently a number of Calvinists have expressed reservations about the doctrine of limited atonement. In some cases there has been outright disagreement with its traditional notion.  Other Calvinists dispute the substance of the notion and argue that it is incompatible with clear scriptural teaching that Christ died for all persons.  Those Calvinists who acknowledge this but still want to retain the essence of the traditional Reformed position argue that Christ died for the elect in a different sense than He died for the non-elect..

As noted in my first article, logically and theologically it is impossible to not adhere to the full Reformed traditional understanding of Limited Atonement and be a consistent Calvinist.  In other words, Calvinism demands adherence to all five points in order to be consistent and viable.  By its very nature "determinism" locks the universe into its manipulative power and all the other implications behind it fall in line.  If God predetermines the plight of humanity, then it follows:  1) He does so because it is totally depraved; 2) must have a way to provide salvation which is has no preconditions; 3) since some are singles out of salvation (the elect) then only they can receive an atonement and Christ's death is only for them; 4) total depravity means no free will therefore God's grace on the elect is irresistible (it can't be rejected); and 5) once your are singled out as part of the elect you can't ever lose it.  It's a consistent argument.

From the atonement to the irresistible nature of God's grace is not a hard step to take.  When God imputes his selection of an individual to salvation, the one who receives it cannot reject it.  Calvinists say he wouldn't want to reject it.  This begs the question as to who would want to reject eternal life?  The Calvinist's assumption that there is nothing one can do to change God's mind about one's salvation is indeed biblical.  But, the argument comes as to whether man can chose what God has predestined since the foundation of the earth.  As we saw in the last article, it is not who but what is predestined.  We have seen that what was predestined was a plan.  The plan is that through the sacrificial death of Christ there would be eternal life offered.  The Calvinists would say eternal life is not offered it is irresistibly  given.  It cannot be rejected and has to be accepted if God affords it to you.

Calvinists do not deny that the Bible contains many reports of people successfully rejecting divine commands and invitations. Nor do Calvinists object when Arminians flood the record with a host of passages, from Genesis to Revelation, mirroring the lament of Hosea 11:1-2 When Israel was a child, I love him, and our of Egypt, I called my son.  But the more I called Israel, the further they went from meThey sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.  in others words, Calvinists believe in irresistible grace without ignoring the biblical data of successful human rebellion against God's invitation.

Their explanation runs as follows: When one resists God's call, it is simply because God has chosen not to move the human will to respond appropriately.  Furthermore, no human being can respond appropriately to any divine invitation or command unless God's unilateral, transforming action accompanies it.  In other words, when one successfully rejects God's commands, one has not successfully resisted God's power, since God's power was never exerted in this case.  Similarly, if a toddler successfully pinned her father to the carpet in a wrestling hold, we would all instinctively judge that the father was withholding his real strength and was only simulating a genuine struggle.

We face yet again the troubling prospect of a God whose action (or inaction) contradicts His words.  While His words may seem like a warm invitation or command to repent and seem to indicate that God desires an appropriate human response, God's choice to withhold His transforming power reveals His deeper desire not to create in humans the appropriate response. It would be like God tenderly entreating us to eat healing fruit but withholding the one essential ingredient that would make it possible for us to do just that!

Pressing this understanding through the whole of Scripture seems to us a prohibitively costly project, since at every turn, the words of Scripture must then be read in ways most readers would never imagine.  Take, for example, the word of God through Jeremiah to Judah:

Hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the Lord has spoken.  Give glory to the Lord your God before He brings the darkness. . . .But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride,; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the Lord's flock will be taken captive. (Jeremiah 13:15-17)

Knowing that Judah did not turn and listen, the Calvinist concludes that God had already chosen to withhold His transforming grace from them, though he could easily have granted it.  So while the text appears to identify Judah's pride as the root cause of punishment, the Calvinist instead concludes that Judah's ability to repent depends of God's eternally fixed plan. Again, although the text seems to identify salvation as God's deepest desire, the Calvinist must conclude that at a deeper level God never intended to bestow transforming grace on Jeremiah's hearers.  In other words, the true intentions of God cannot be discerned from His words.

Somewhere along the way, the burden of reading myriad passages throughout the Bible in such a counterintuitive fashion should anxiously bring us to this sort of question since the Calvinist view of divine sovereignty routinely requires such an awkward "decoding" of biblical texts, shouldn't we reexamine the Calvinist view of divine sovereignty itself?

Some Calvinists appear to ground their view of God's sovereignty on their understanding of God's perfection, and their views of perfection in turn eliminate the possibility of human freedom.  For if human beings actually possessed a will undetermined by God, then human history would become a very messy, unruly stream of events hardly corresponding to God's plan and only partly responsive to his power.  Under such conditions, Calvinists reason, it would seem impossible to describe God as perfect, since God's will and God's power over the world would fail to qualify as perfectly enacted or effective.

Such theological reasoning reminds us of what Thomas Morris calls "perfect-being theology," an approach seeking to build theology put of the initial description of God as perfect.  From that secure starting point, it is believed that many other features of God's character and activity can be logically deduced with certainty.  I suspect that Calvinists move across the steppingstones from "God is perfect" to "God must be in perfect control" to "perfect control requires determining every detail of reality."  In similar fashion, we might step from "God's will is perfect" to "God's will can never change" to "God will never adjust His actions in light of human behaviors."  Every step feels right, since each lies but a short logical step from the next.  In other words, a perfect-being approach to creating Christian theology can easily generate a view of sovereignty that eliminates at the outset any possibility of human free agents.

While perfect-theology is attractive, we must not ignore its dangers.  Even Plato unwittingly demonstrated just how easily the notion of divine perfection can lead to a portrayal of God utterly alien to biblical revelation.  Since Plato reasoned that any change in a perfect God would make God imperfect, he concluded that divine incarnation and earthly visitation would be impossible.  Since perfection should also entail perfect self-sufficiency, Plato concluded that God does not love, since love implies a lack of perfect self-satisfaction.  God's inner perfection, furthermore, can experience neither joy nor sorrow, since these involve change and imperfection.  Given only the abstract principle of perfection, we can reasonably deliver a God quite unlike the loving redeeming Father revealed by the incarnate Son.  In other words, building a theology deductively from an abstract principle is ludicrous.

The Bible warns us against building a theology primarily by logical deduction.  If we were to set an abstractly defined perfection as the cornerstone and grant it those characteristics commonly associated with it (e.g., uniformity, symmetry, completeness, efficiency, unimprovability), we should puzzle over God's dealings with Israel.  God chose an insignificant clan to achieve a worldwide mission, He labored with it through all of its torturous turnings.  He revealed Himself at various times and places in different ways, he committed his truth to the limitations of human language.  He allowed the presence of false prophets and evil leaders to ravage the chosen people, and He let this chosen nation suffer the ignominy of military defeat and captivity - choices that hardly reflect an abstractly defined perfection.  The Christmas story shatters human expectations of what the perfect incarnation of a perfect God would look like.  But the ultimate challenge to a deductive theology is the cross, where something utterly unthinkable took place.

Here God is seen to be God in His radical self-giving, descending to the most abject human condition, and in that human obedience, humiliation, suffering and death, being no less truly God than He is in His cosmic rule and glory on the heavenly throne.  It is not that God is manifest in heavenly glory and hidden in the human degradation of the cross.  The divine identity is known in the radical contrast and conjunction of exaltation and humiliation - as the God who is Creator of all things, and no less truly God in the human life of Jesus.

In other words, when we confess the perfection and sovereignty of God, we must radically surrender ourselves to the whole story of God's self-revelation in order to discern just what God's perfection might actually involve.  We must guard against fencing God into a paddock defined by our own notions of divine perfection.

Finally, there is the question of divine foreknowledge and determinism.  Many Calvinists have reasoned that God's knowledge of the future, since it is absolutely complete and infallible, looks every detail of the future into place and eliminates the possibility of human free will (as power to choose otherwise).  If God knows that I will fly to Chicago next Monday afternoon, then I have no power to do otherwise, since in no case can God's knowledge of the future be proven wrong.

But from our vantage point, it is not entirely clear that God's knowledge of the future must determine the future.  Do we know that it isn't possible for God to know something without causing it?  Do we know that God can't know what free agents will decide without causing or fixing those decisions?  Why isn't it possible for God's knowledge of the future to be flawless and yet no more determine the future than our knowledge of the past determines the past?

There is the problem in the matter of explaining just how God can know future choices of truly free creatures.  If God can perfectly predict their actions, aren't they functioning according to some discernible principle?  Three facts ought to lesson the problem.  First, our inability to explain just how God created the world from nothing, or how He made Mr. Sinai tremble and smoke, or how he raised Jesus from the dead, doesn't prevent us from believing with good reason that God acted in these ways.  Similarly, our inability to explain how God might know the future choices of free agents shouldn't immediately render such a belief illegitimate if the Bible attributes such knowledge to God.

Second, it is possible that God knows the future not by peering forward but by knowing the future directly as already present.  If God's presence dwells in all places (omnipresence), then perhaps we can speak of God as dwelling in all times, past, present and future.

Third, the collapse of the traditional Newtonian view of space and time should make us all slow to declare what can or cannot happen regarding time and space, especially for God.  In other words, we must avoid restricting God's abilities with conceptual limitations of our own making.

God's sovereignty is not denied by Arminians or Wesleyan-Arminians.  In fact, it is bolstered by the view that God's power is even manifest in His self-control.  Not having to manipulate the affairs of man in no way negates His sovereignty. 

In the next article, I will address the philosophical assumptions and ramifications of determinism and why Calvinists have a hard time understanding that God allows people to make choices.  This will be the final one in this series on Calvinism as I see a need to address other items of interest.

A NOTE HERE:  I will be saving the final article on eternal security for a later date.  I plan on introducing this in a different series entitled: "Do We Loose Our Free-Will at Conversion?" 

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