After years of discussing this topic with many Calvinistic brothers I have come to this firm conviction…
It is impossible to rightly represent a view with which you disagree to the satisfaction of every opponent.
This is not meant to suggest that we shouldn’t at least try to rightly represent those with whom we disagree. We should never intentionally misrepresent (or “strawman“) the views of our brethren. This is why I almost always play a clip of a notable Calvinist or read a direct quote when bringing a critique against the claims of Calvinists. In fact, I have begun all my teaching sessions on this subject by telling my students that it is only fair to learn Calvinism from a Calvinist.
On the other hand, I have yet to hear a notable Calvinistic scholar represent Traditionalism in a way that I or my other Traditionalist friends would appreciate.* After all, it is only fair to learn Traditionalism from a Traditionalist!
Why is this? Why is the most common rebuttal in this debate the “accusation of misrepresentation?” I’ve come up with 6 reasons why I believe the dreaded ACCUSATION OF MISREPRESENTATION will never cease as long as this discussion continues:
1) SOME ARE NOT EDUCATED ON THE ACTUAL CLAIMS OF THEIR OWN SCHOLARS
Many who bring the accusation of strawmanning either (1) do not rightly understand Calvinism and Calvinistic scholar’s ACTUAL CLAIMS or they (2) do not really affirm the ACTUAL CLAIMS of John Calvin and other notable Calvinistic scholars, but have adopted a much milder, more palatable, and arguably inconsistent form of the systematic. (If it is the second, however, I cannot help but wonder why would they not stand with me in opposition to the ACTUAL CLAIMS of Calvinism rather than accusing me of not understanding it rightly?)
For instance, let’s consider this quote from John Piper’s ministry website, Desiring God:
“God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child…” (Link)
John Calvin himself taught:
“…how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be, not by His will but by His permission…It is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing, but the author of them…Who does not tremble at these judgments with which God works in the hearts of even the wicked whatever He will, rewarding them nonetheless according to desert? Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as he will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake, or to evil according to their merits. ” (John Calvin, “The Eternal Predestination of God,” 10:11)
“We hold that God is the disposer and ruler of all things, –that from the remotest eternity, according to his own wisdom, He decreed what he was to do, and now by his power executes what he decreed. Hence we maintain, that by His providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined.” (John Calvin,Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 8)
“The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how muchsoever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay unless in so far as he commands, that they are not only bound by his fetters but are even forced to do him service” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 11) <more quotes below>**
Now, before moving on, I hope all those who proudly wear the label “Calvinist” can rightly understand what I am addressing here. I have not misrepresented or “strawmanned” Calvinism. John Piper is arguably the most influential modern day proponent of Calvinism and he is representing exactly what John Calvin himself taught on this subject in the quotes above (all of which are properly cited for contextual examination). Both of these Calvinistic scholars are abundantly clear about what they believe about God’s meticulous determination of every single thought, word or deed.
I am not suggesting a “Calvinist” must agree with John Piper or even John Calvin on every theological point in order to be considered a “Calvinist.” But if you are going to proudly promote this label shouldn’t you at least affirm the basic theological claims over the issues that make Calvinism so controversial in the church? The major reason we even know of John Calvin and “Calvinism” is because of his controversial views over predestination, election, free will, sovereignty, etc. If you cannot affirm his statements on at least those issues, then may I suggest you stop promoting the label “Calvinist?” Or, if nothing else, at least stop accusing people like myself of not really understanding Calvinism? <READ THIS for more>
2) 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, which of course we do not!
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 or blog article from someone who appears to be from the same “camp.”
3) DEFINING THE TERMS:
This issue is closely related to the first. Many people even in the same camp use different terms that often carry various 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? <listen to this discussion for more on this topic>
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.
4) 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 explaining the exact same situation and both 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 for His own glorification.”
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 classroom and applied in the real world. Some people cannot stomach it, while others revel in its disdain as a badge of honor, almost as if the more offensive their views are to others the more likely they are to be correct.
5) 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 Calvinistic friend, Dr. 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.
6) 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 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. <watch this presentation if you’re angry at a Calvinist>
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
*If you find a notable Calvinistic scholar who does do a fair job representing our views, please send it my way. I would welcome it! I have heard Dr. Sean Cole and a few other Calvinistic pastors do a fair job, but no notable mainstream scholars to my knowledge have even made an attempt at this.
** “Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 3)
“thieves and murderers, and other evildoers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute judgments which he has resolved to inflict.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 5)
“…it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are.”…”For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)
“Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an individual charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated. This they do ignorantly and childishly, since there could be no election without its opposite, reprobation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)
“…it is utterly inconsistent to transfer the preparation for destruction to anything but God’s secret plan… God’s secret plan is the cause of hardening.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)
“I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen by God’s will.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 4)
“With Augustine I say: the Lord has created those whom he unquestionably foreknew would go to destruction. This has happened because he has willed.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 5)
“…individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction.” (John Calvin,Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
“…it is vain to debate about prescience, which it is clear that all events take place by his sovereign appointment.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
“But since he foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place, they vainly raise a quarrel over foreknowledge, when it is clear that all things take place rather by his determination and bidding.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
“Again I ask: whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree. And it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 7)
“The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 8)
“Even though by God’s eternal providence man has been created to undergo that calamity to which he is subject, it still takes its occasion from man himself, not from God, since the only reason for his ruin is that he has degenerated from God’s pure creation into vicious and impure perversity.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 9)