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After reading countless articles on soteriology for my doctoral studies and listening to every online debate over Calvinism that I can get my hands on in preparation for my upcoming debate, I have come to this very firm conviction:
It is impossible to rightly represent a view with which you disagree to the satisfaction of every opponent.
Now, to be fair, this happens both ways. I have witnessed well intending Calvinists attempt to fairly restate their opponents view only to be met with ridicule as well (though it does seem to be more rare from my biased vantage point). Being a former Calvinist (I know, I know, IMPOSSIBLE!) and having many close friends and family members who affirm the doctrines of TULIP, this issue has really bothered me. I want to be fair to my Calvinistic friends and I know many of them want to be fair to me and my views. So, why does that seem to be so difficult?
I’ve come up with 5 reasons why I believe the dreaded ACCUSATION OF MISREPRESENTATION will never cease as long as this discussion continues:
1) NOT EVERYONE IS CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH:
There are some Calvinists who simply disagree with Edwin Palmer’s quote above, as they should. There are moderate Calvinists, high Calvinists, ultra Calvinists and hyper Calvinists (the last of which most Calvinists would disavow completely). There are some who affirm God’s provisional atonement for all people and God’s sincere desire for every individual to repent and believe; but others who do not. There are some who affirm God’s genuine love for every individual, while others only describe his feelings toward the non-elect as wrath-filled hatred.
Those familiar with the lapsarian controversy, which has to do with the logical order of God’s eternal decrees of salvation, realize the complexities of rightly defining the various perspectives of Calvinism. This disagreement is ultimately centered around the “achilles heel” of the Calvinistic worldview: DIVINE CULPABILITY. How does God escape being held responsible for the origin and ultimate cause of all moral evil? Some Calvinists attempt to explain the logical order of the divine decree in such a way as to minimize His guilt for the fall and the origin of evil, while “higher” forms of Calvinism (typically called “Supralapsarianism”) simply embrace the troubling concept of double predestination and refer to “lesser” views of Calvinism as being “inconsistent.”
One scholar accurately observed:
Calvinists are seriously divided among themselves and always have been. There is Supralapsarianism vs. Sublapsarianism vs. Infralapsarianism. ‘The Supralapsarians hold that God decreed the fall of Adam; the Sublapsarians, that he permitted it’ (McClintock & Strong). The Calvinists at the Synod of Dort were divided on many issues, including lapsarianism. The Swiss Calvinists who wrote the Helvetic Consensus Formula in 1675 were in conflict with the French Calvinists of the School of Saumur. There are Strict Calvinists and Moderate Calvinists, Hyper and non-Hyper (differing especially on reprobation and the extent of the atonement and whether God loves all men), 5 pointers, 4 pointers, 3 pointers, 2 pointers. In America Calvinists were divided into Old School and the New School. As we have seen, the Calvinists of England were divided in the 19th century.
Whenever, therefore, one tries to state TULIP theology and then refute it, there are Calvinists who will argue with you that you are misrepresenting Calvinism. It is not so much that you are misrepresenting Calvinism, though. You might be quoting directly from various Calvinists or even from Calvin himself. The problem is that you are misrepresenting THEIR Calvinism! There are Calvin Calvinists and Thomas Fuller Calvinists and Arthur W. Pink Calvinists and Presbyterian Calvinists and Baptist Calvinists and many other sorts of Calvinists. Many Calvinists have never read Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion for themselves. They are merely following someone who follows someone who allegedly follows Calvin (who, by his own admission, followed Augustine). (LINK)
Again, to be fair, not all non-Calvinists agree on every point of doctrine either. One of my greatest frustrations in these discussions is overcoming the common belief that every non-Calvinist is a classical foresight faith Arminian, or that we just deny the doctrines of election and predestination all together.
I had a pastor on social media write me a message the other day which in part read, “You just don’t like the doctrine of predestination because you would rather worship your idol of free will.” He has no idea that I dislike the term “free will” and absolutely LOVE the doctrine of predestination. And I really cannot blame him given that the last non-Calvinist he engaged may have loved the term free will, denied any concept of predestination, and quoted John 3:16 over and over in anger (BTW, immaturity like that only served to galvanize me in my Calvinism when I was younger).
The point is that we are not all cut from the same cloth. Everyone does not have both feet firmly planted in one monolithic camp with a single statement of faith and spokesperson. If we desire to have profitable dialogue we must seek to understand the individual we are engaging rightly. We must avoid labeling them and dismissing them while assuming we fully understand their views simply because we have read a book from someone who appears to be from the same camp.
2) DEFINING THE TERMS:
This issue is closely related to the first. Many people even in the same camp use different terms that often carry different connotations and implications. For instance, when I say “responsible” I actually think it means that someone is “able to respond” (silly me). Yet, when some use the word “responsible” they simply hear “justly punishable even if one is unable to respond.”
This issue especially comes to light when the discussion of God’s eternal decree surfaces. Does God author sin? Did He create the desire to do evil? Does He ordain it or decree it, or both? Does He permissively decree it or actively decree it? Does God passively allow moral evil by “bare permission” and “simple foreknowledge” or does He actively plan it by “meticulous determinism?” Which verb is appropriate when talking about our perfectly Holy and Righteous Creator and the origin of moral evil?
It is easy to see how such conversations can become confounding very quickly. One brother says, “God has decreed sin,” while meaning “God permissively allows contra-causally free moral creatures to choose to sin autonomously from God’s divine Holy will.” All the while, another brother, using the exact phrase, may mean, “God intended the morally evil choices by planning and meticulously determining the very desires and circumstances of mankind so that they would certainly choose as He ordained for His Holy purposes.” Neither brother desires to impugn God’s Holiness or His Sovereignty yet no doubt neither will escape the accusation of failing in their attempt.
This is one reason we need to be patient with each other and seek to understand the meaning of our opponent’s terms in a discussion. Also, we have to realize that our terms may carry an unintended connotation in the mind of our audience. We need to define our terms clearly and openly ask questions in order to really understand each other before engaging further in dialogue.
3) CORRECT BUT NOT PALATABLE:
Imagine the reaction if a sitting President made one of the two following comments:
- “Authorities subdued the suspect, and through interrogation, thwarted the plot of the terrorist organization.”
- “Jack ran down the black 18 year old teenager as he left the high school parking lot, slammed him to the ground, broke his knee caps with a bat, put a gun in his mouth and threatened to pull the trigger until he gave up information leading to a line of three other suspects who had similar painful experiences. Finally, Jack extracted the plot of the terrorists, which could have been found out a number of other ways.”
Both statements may be completely true but the latter contains the kind of details that many of us rather not hear about. Now consider these two theological statements:
- “To display His abundant providential power, God has sovereignly brought all things to pass in accordance with His Holy plan.”
- “To show off how powerful He is, God meticulously determined all the heinous desires and subsequent evil actions of every creature who has ever lived in such a way that they could not have done otherwise, including the rapes of children, the holocaust, slavery, torture, and every single evil thought, deed or inclination because that was what He planned and ultimately desired to come to pass.”
One of the statements may be much more palatable and easier to affirm, but both are stating the same basic meaning. Applied theology means just that. It is when our theological rhetoric is taken out of the class room and applied in the real world. Some people cannot stomach it, while others revel in its destain as a badge of honor, almost as if the more offensive their views are to others the more likely they are to be correct.
Recently, in one of my interactions with Dr. James White, we were discussing the implication of compatibilism with regard to the claims of homosexuals who believe they are born with same sex desire and cannot choose to do otherwise (see HERE).
In my attempt to make a case for why compatibilistic theories only validate the homosexual’s belief, I copied and pasted the views of a compatibilistic scholar who described how God providentially brings to pass the “voluntary” choices of man through “meticulous determinism.” I simply plugged the choices of those with same sex desires in where the compatibilistic scholar spoke generically of all human choices. I copied the description virtually verbatim with the intentional effort of avoiding the all too common “accusation of misrepresentation.” Dr. White, apparently not recognizing the article’s reference, spent an entire hour critiquing me for misrepresenting compatibilism, even titling his broadcast, “Leighton Flowers Reduces Compatibilism to a Shadow of Itself.”
What I believe Dr. White was reacting to was the true implications of his systematic as it related practically to a real world moral evil. I challenge anyone to offer a specific rebuttal of any statement made in my original article that is not consistent within the compatiblistic framework as presented by their own scholar. Dr. White was not reacting to the accuracy of what was written as much as he was to the reality of the implications when applied specifically to homosexual desires and choices. In short, he rejected what was written not because it was inaccurate (after all it was his own scholar’s description), he rejected it because it wasn’t said in a palatable manner. It wasn’t “politically correct” enough.
Face it, it is easier to say and swallow the phrase, “God providentially brings all things to pass to manifest His glory,” than, “God meticulously determines the homosexuals desires and acts of sodomy to show off His power.”
By the way, I’m very much aware of the difficulty of some teachings we all may affirm, such as the concept of hell. As long as the scriptures afford the critique we must be willing to live within that tension. If someone restates our belief in an less desirable way (i.e. “So you believe God is going to burn people for eternity because some dude thousands of years ago ate a piece of fruit?”) we should unpack their concern and answer it biblically, not deny the truth in order to avoid the tension.
4) RATIONALIZATIONS AND LOGICAL IMPLICATIONS:
“The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.” –CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pg. 29
Was CS Lewis attempting to directly accuse all Calvinists of worshipping the devil? I seriously doubt it. It is more likely that he was attempting to draw out the logical implications of the Calvinistic claims regarding their teachings on total inability. John Wesley makes a similar claim in a sermon about double predestination in which he teaches Calvinism makes God out to be worse than the devil, because the devil would not deceptively pretend to want all to be saved (link). Yet, we know that Wesley was close friends with Calvinistic brothers (like Whitfield) and won the respect of many great Calvinistic believers (see note at the end of this article). How can Calvinists get along with someone who implies their doctrine leads to devil worship? I think those who have studied these issues at length better understand how this is possible.
Dr. Roger Olson is someone I’ve very much grown to admire over the years. He has adopted the best approach I have heard in dealing with the tension of this particular issue. In a recorded discussion with his friend Michael Horton over these difficult issues (HERE), he carefully explains how he realizes Calvinists do not view God as “monstrous,” but that he would have to if he were to adopt the claims of Calvinism. In other words, Olson acknowledges that Calvinists do not believe God is morally evil or “devil-like” in any way shape or form, but explains why he would have to draw that awful conclusion if he were to adopt Calvinism and remain consistent with its claims.
This issue has also come up with regard to the need for evangelism if Calvinism is true. I am not aware of any mainstream Calvinistic pastors or scholars who downplay the biblical call to actively participate in evangelism and missions. Even when I was a Calvinist I served as an evangelist and do not recall ever feeling that such work was unnecessary due to my doctrinal views. However, the logical implication that God will certainly save all his elect regardless of our level of involvement could be taken to seed and lead some to believe that adopting such a view would harm evangelistic fervor (maybe for some it would as it has historically at times). The fact is that good mainstream Calvinists actively stand against this logical implication and continually remind those who affirm their doctrines not to take these views to that unbiblical conclusion.
This likewise goes both ways. For instance, some may feel our affirmation of omniscience would lead to similar fatalistic views as that held to by deterministic believers. We deny that divine omniscience undermines man’s responsibility (contra-causal choice) in any way, but the logical implications of a set future based on God’s foreknowledge of all things prior to creation lead some to rationalize that our view has no real distinction from that affirmed by compatibilistic determinists. Some have adopted Open Theism in order to deal with this logical implication, while the rest of us are fine living with the tension of the infinite mystery afforded by the scriptures on this issue. Every system has its mysteries, whether some are willing to acknowledge it or not:
“How it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author or approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance…. I daily so meditate on these mysteries of his judgments that curiosity to know anything more does not attract me.” – John Calvin
I’m aware of how the “you too fallacy” is often employed in these discussions in order to avoid the system’s tension, which I address the the last part of THIS ARTICLE.
5) NEFARIOUS MOTIVATIONS:
When you disagree with someone about something so intimate and personal as the biblical teaching of grace and salvation it is easy to allow yourself to start believing there must be something seriously wrong with them.
How can they not understand this teaching!?
What is wrong with them?
Don’t they believe what the Bible says?!
Are they just stupid or do they like ignoring the scripture!?
They must be evil!
Is it possible that two well meaning, God fearing, bible believing, followers of Christ honestly disagree about the meaning of a passage? I’d challenge anyone to find me two scholars who agree on every single text or point of doctrine in the scriptures. I seriously doubt it can be done, yet can the two not find enough common ground on which to unite?
We are different. We each have unique perspectives, emotions, personalities and experiences that affect how we understand a passage. Does that mean we should adopt full blown ecumenicalism and just pretend everyone is right who is sincere? I do not believe that is a good balance either. Iron is made to sharpen iron and that happens through clashing of ideas, thoughts and opinions in healthy, edifying ways. We do not have to assume our opponent is a devil in order to confront their perspective effectively. In fact, it is typically much more effective when you engage one as a friend, not a foe, in matters such as biblical doctrine.
Let us learn a lesson from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, as we close this article:
You know, brethren, that there is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer, I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But, my dear friends, far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none within her walls but Calvinistic Christians, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him, that while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself, I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitfield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one of whom the world was not worthy. I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ into their hearts, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist out of heaven.
– C. H. Spurgeon, The Man With the Measuring Line
For more on the need for UNITY please read THIS ARTICLE.