Tim Keller, a well-known Calvinistic author and pastor, wrote an article at The Gospel Coalition titled, “3 Objections to the Doctrine of Election” that I wish to unpack further today. For the sake of brevity, I will only deal with the first of Keller’s three objections in this article.
It first should be noted that the title technically should be “3 Objections to the Calvinistic Doctrine of Election,” given that non-Calvinistic scholars are not objecting to the “doctrine of election” itself but specifically to how Calvinists have interpreted this otherwise glorious biblical doctrine.
With all due respect to our Calvinistic brethren, and I mean that when I say it, the Calvinistic worldview does not own a monopoly on the concepts of election, predestination, sovereignty and Divine glory. These are all wonderful biblical doctrines that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists affirm, though we do understand and explain them very differently. Keller presumes the Calvinistic worldview from the beginning without actually establishing it biblically (though to be fair, he does do that elsewhere in his teachings). Keller begins his argument (in blue),
The [Calvinistic] doctrine of election—that those who freely come to God are those whom God has freely chosen—is easy to understand, and clearly taught in God’s Word, but it is not easy to accept. It has given thoughtful believers problems for centuries, and continues to do so today.
Here are 3 key points about this opening paragraph that the reader must understand in order to deal objectively and intelligently with the rest of this article:
FREELY? – When a Calvinist says “those who freely come to God” they do not mean it the way you think they do. By “freely” a Compatibilistic Calvinist means that a person is “acting according to their greatest desire” which is determined by their nature in their given circumstances, all of which are meticulously determined by God. So, when Keller says “those who freely come” he means “those who God has supernaturally given a new nature to make them desire to come irresistibly.” He does not mean that each individual had an actual “free” choice in the way you and I typically think about a “choice” (“the act of picking or deciding between two or more possibilities.” –Websters).
According to Calvinism all people are born morally incapable of coming when God makes His appeal’s through the gospel, so that really is not a “possibility” that can be chosen unless and until God irresistibly changes the lost man’s nature/desires.
EASY TO UNDERSTAND? – Compatibilism, as defined above, is not that easy to understand, as reflected in the volumes of work that has been produced to explain and defend it. Not to mention that the common accusation of “you just don’t understand Calvinism” is typically referencing misunderstandings on this very point. As Dr. David Allen points out, “Calvinists often use the same vocabulary but they have a different dictionary.” So, Keller says “freely” but as a Calvinist he means something very different than what the average person understands that word to mean.
God making a genuine appeal for all to accept or reject His offer of reconciliation through Christ is easy to understand, but that is not Compatibilistic Calvinism.
EASY TO ACCEPT? – Compatibilistic Calvinism is what is difficult to accept, not the biblical doctrine of election when rightly interpreted and understood. The idea that all people are born guilty and unable to willingly come to God for reconciliation, (even though He is pleading for all to come) unless He effectually changes their nature/desires, is VERY DIFFICULT to accept. Calvinists give testimony as to how much they struggled and wept over how “difficult this pill was to swallow.” John Calvin himself called it a “dreadful decree.” Those who rightly understand our interpretation of election accept it gladly and with great delight as genuinely good news for the entire world!
Now, let’s continue to consider Keller’s perceived objection to Calvinistic election:
- If you believe in [Calvinistic] election, doesn’t that leave you with the problem of why God doesn’t choose to save everyone?
Yes, but the same is true for Christians who don’t believe in [Calvinistic] election. [Calvinistic] Election doesn’t create the problem, it only leads us to think about it. To deny the [Calvinistic] doctrine of election does not help you escape the issue.
As you can see, I have been adding in the qualifier [Calvinistic] in order to reveal the underlying problem in Keller’s reasoning. Christians who understand election from the corporate (provisionist/traditionalist) perspective do not have the same problem as our Calvinistic friends. Only the Calvinist has God “longing to gather” and “making an appeal” and “holding out his hands” to people born morally incapable of willingly coming (by His own decree), while only effectually causing some of them to willingly come. On Keller’s view of Calvinistic election, God could effectually regenerate all people to make them “freely come” (just like he did for the “elect”), but for unknown reasons God presents Himself as loving and wanting all to come while only providing the means for a relative few to actually do so. This is what is so difficult to understand and accept about Keller’s Calvinism, yet he never deals with those troubling matters in this article. Keller continues,
All Christians have this problem, and so we cannot object to [Calvinistic] election by appealing to it.
All Keller has said here is, “All Christians have the problem created by Calvinistic election so you cannot object to Calvinistic election by appealing to Calvinistic election,” which of course sounds like non-sense because it is based on circular reasoning and a fallacy called “question begging.” By presuming Calvinistic election is true Christian doctrine (the very point up for debate) he reasons that all Christians have the problem created by Calvinism’s view of election. Non-Calvinists, like myself, can and will object to Calvinistic election by appealing to our interpretation of election not to the very dilemma Calvinism itself creates. This issue will become more clear when we look at Keller’s argument below,
A person who doesn’t believe in [Calvinistic] election faces this dilemma:
(a) God wants everybody saved.
(b) God could save everyone.
(c) God does not.
The question, though, still remains: Why not? That is the ultimate mystery, but abandoning the doctrine of [Calvinistic] election does not answer it.
We would take issue with the first point of Keller’s syllogism. We do not believe God desires everybody to be saved by whatever means can be imagined (i.e. God effectually controlling what free creature desire to do). The scripture tells us plainly the means by which God wishes to save morally accountable beings who were create in His own image. He desires all to FREELY repent so as to be saved. If you understand “freely” as simply to mean that one has the moral capacity to make a choice (“the act of picking or deciding between two or more possibilities.”- Websters), then there is no dilemma here. Keller’s syllogism, if consistent, should read:
- God wants everybody saved regardless of the means it takes to save them.
- God could save everyone if He chose to use means not revealed in the scriptures (ie compatibilistic control over free creature’s desires and choices)
- God does not use such means.
Why not? Because God has not chosen Calvinism as the system by which he elects and saves people. Keller then anticipates an objection of one who reject’s his version of Calvinism:
Someone says: “But I believe that though God doesn’t want us to be lost, some are lost because they choose wrongly and God will not violate their freedom of choice.” But why is freedom of choice sacrosanct? I try to honor my child’s freedom of will, but not if I see he is about to be killed by it! Why can’t God “insult” our freedom of will for a moment and save us for eternity?
Why is “freedom of choice” sacrosanct? Sacrosanct just means “regarded as too important or valuable to be interfered with.” So why is man’s responsibility (freedom to make real and meaningful choices) “too important to be interfered with?” Because God’s inspired word is sacrosanct and if God teaches that mankind has the kind of responsibility we believe he does then that would be “sacrosanct.” Just as Keller believe’s his understanding of election from scripture cannot be interfered with because its believed to be from God, so too we believe our understanding of human responsibility is from God.
Regardless of whether you think we are saved by our choice or by God’s, you still face the same question: Why wouldn’t God save us all if he has the power and desire to do so? Again, it is a hard question, but it cannot be used as an argument against the [Calvinistic] doctrine of election.
First, we all believe that we are saved by God’s choice. This goes back to the same old Calvinistic conflation that we have had to correct a number of times.
Only when a Calvinist, like Keller in the quote above, conflates man’s choice to humbly repent in faith with God’s choice to save whosoever does so are these types of dilemmas created. In other words, Calvinists have created a problem by conflating two choices as if they were one and calling them both “salvation.”
For instance, the prodigal son’s choice to return home is distinct from the father’s choice to redeem (save) him once he arrives. To treat those two distinct choices as if they were one in the same [i.e. under the meticulous control of the father] creates an unnecessary dilemma.
Second, Keller asks, “Why wouldn’t God save us all if he has the power and desire to do so?” This technically should say, “Why wouldn’t our all powerful God use irresistible means to make us all want to repent so as to be saved if God has the desire to do so?”
The answer is obvious. God does not desire to do so, which is why we reject Calvinism’s underlying premise (i.e. to be saved God has to make you want to believe and trust in Him, otherwise you could not desire to do so by His own sovereign decree). As AW Tozer so eloquently put it,
“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.” – A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God
Keller then goes on to make a purely philosophical argument:
We can go further. Suppose [Calvinistic] election is not true. Suppose that eons ago God set up salvation on this system: Every person will have an equal ability to accept or reject Christ, who will die and be raised and be presented through the gospel message. The moment God determined to set up salvation on that system, he would’ve immediately known exactly which persons would be saved and which would be condemned on that basis. So the minute he “set it up,” he would be de facto electing some and passing over others. We come out to the same place. God could save all, but he doesn’t.
I agree with CS Lewis who wrote, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Compatibilistic determinism is just bad philosophy that the scripture never implicitly or explicitly teaches. Keller’s dilemma above is created from a purely philosophical speculation based on the inscrutable nature of Divine omniscience in relation to a temporal and finite world. None of us can fully fathom how God’s knowledge works in relation to His creation. We must appeal to mystery where the Bible is silent while speaking out against any manmade philosophy that undermines His attributes of love and holiness, or the clear biblical instruction of mankind’s responsibility in light of God’s appeals.
Any philosophy that teaches Divine omniscience demands Divine determinism is a bad philosophy. I believe Molinism held by William Lane Craig, or the Eternal Now view held by Boethius (and popularized by CS Lewis) provide sound philosophical answers to some of the dilemmas our finite minds vainly attempt to grasp with regard to God’s infinite attributes.