The following, the first in a three-article series, was penned by a friend of the ministry, Dale. W. Decker. You can find him at the Theogineer. Thank you, Dale.
At The Dock, But Not On-board The Ship
While Reformed Theology and Calvinism may not be strictly equivalent terms, I think they are essentially equivalent in common usage. I use the terms interchangeably in this article.
I was raised in a Pentecostal church that focused more on one’s immediate experience of God than on interacting with the historical doctrines of orthodox Christianity. The preaching and teaching centered around biblical texts dealing with speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, prophesying, the rapture, etc. This left me with a rather truncated view of scripture and of biblical doctrine in general.
Then one day I picked up a copy of the book The Mystery Of The Holy Spirit by Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul. My rather parochial view of the Holy Spirit was broadened significantly. This set me off on a voracious reading frenzy of the rest of Sproul’s books as well as other Reformed writers. Soon I had entire shelves of books by R.C. Sproul, John Piper, John MacArther, Sinclair Ferguson, Timothy Keller and others. I read or listened to their sermons. I perused their websites. I saw them at conferences. I was immersed in biblical and doctrinal study from the Reformed Theology perspective.
Therefore, as a simple matter of consequence, I was exposed to the TULIP doctrines of Reformed Theology and Calvinism. However, while I agreed with the Five Solas of the Reformation, I could never get fully on board with Reformed Theology in the form of Calvinism. Yet, if someone looked at the streams of thought influencing my own, it would be natural to think of me as in the New Reformed movement.
My reservations, in main, came from that the more I studied the scriptures using the hermeneutical skills I learned from Reformed theologians, the less I was able to accept Calvinism as a biblically coherent system. I used the “fish and bones” strategy… when eating a fish, you consume the meat and spit out the bones. I continued to learn from Reformed sources I was unable see how the teaching harmonized with the plain thrust of the Gospel message without requiring mental gymnastics to do so.
I was also not rabidly anti-Calvinistic. After attending and working on staff at a Provisionist church for 20 years, my wife and I moved from Kentucky to Colorado. Being eager to find a new church, we selected one that was clearly Reformed in its statement of faith. It was a good church with many good qualities, but after several months I realized I had misunderstood their doctrinal position completely. For conscience sake, we left and found another church more in keeping with our own convictions. I have become much more thoughtful about distancing myself from Calvinism because of that experience.
This has become necessary because Calvinism has gained a lot of traction in the last 20-30 years and is, I think, perceived as the “theological system of choice” among serious students of the Bible. Moreover, at the level of popular consumption, Calvinism becomes a self-reinforcing system with Reformed authors blurbing the books of other Reformed authors, Reformed pastors hosting conferences with other Reformed pastors, etc. In many ways, Calvinism is as insular and parochial as was my Pentecostal upbringing and fosters the same two-tier view of believers, those who have it right and those who are lacking.
(For example, consider this video clip of Calvinist pastors answering the question “Why are so many against reformed theology?” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=yorGsechzrI)
My overall rejection of Calvinism as a tenable system can be illustrated with three points – one philosophical, one theological and one biblical. Philosophically, Calvinism’s decretal understanding of reality inexorably collapses into an unlivable determinism. Theologically, the idea of total inability, as defined in Calvinism, has crippling implications for the doctrine of the Incarnation. Biblically, unconditional election renders much (if not all) of Jesus’s ministry a misinformation campaign. I’ll elaborate each point in more detail.
Determinism: A Few More Dominoes In The Chain
First, we have to acknowledge the incredible power of determinism to render life meaningless. Determinism, whether theistic or naturalistic in origin, effectively negates rationality, individuality, emotions, everything that makes us human. But before we go any further, lets define theistic determinism for the sake of this discussion.
The Westminster Confession, in its chapter on God’s Eternal Decree (Ch 3.1), says this:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…
Reformed theologians further elaborate this to mean that God determines or causes everything that happens; nothing happens without God being the decisive factor. This includes not only physical events, but also the thoughts, feelings and decisions of human beings. As Reformed theologian Edwin H. Palmer states:
Nothing in this world happens by chance. God is in back of everything. He decides and causes all things to happen that do happen. He is not sitting on the sidelines wondering and perhaps fearing what is going to happen next. No, he has foreordained everything “after the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11): the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist – even sin.E.H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009, p. 30
The Westminster Confession goes on to state that, though God ordains everything that comes to pass, he does so without causing one’s sin, violating one’s will, or otherwise infringing upon one’s liberty. Holding to theistic determinism (God causes everything to happen) and human liberty (we are responsible for our actions) inevitably requires one to engage in a vigorous form of cognitive dissonance. Holding to two opposing propositions simultaneously requires compartmentalization of the mind. This exercise in cognitive dissonance is generally dumped in the box of “mystery” by Reformed theologians.
My contention is that no one can act in accordance with theistic determinism because to do so is really and truly impossible for human beings. Let me demonstrate the erosive power of determinism on any rational discourse. If I state the following – “I believe in determinism” – and determinism is true, then my statement becomes nonsense because I cannot know it is true. I’m not “believing” in any rational sense of that word because I am not weighing options and evidence and making decisions. Whatever I say, think, feel, or do is being said, thought, felt, or done because God has determined me to produce it. In fact, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to maintain that there’s even an individual “me” involved since determinism makes human beings mere transmitters of states of being and not originators of thought, emotion, and behavior. One is merely a sophisticated mechanism and any concept of inner deliberation or selection between perceived available options is illusory.
If you disagree with what I’ve just said, and determinism is true, you haven’t really disagreed with me, you’ve only expressed the state of being that has been determined for you. In fact, my statement and your response are not logically connected at all. Determinism is so foundationally erosive to rationality that it is difficult to even entertain its truth because it renders any discussion vacuous. It is like having a discussion on the statement “words have no meaning”. Whoever accepts this statement as true immediately contradicts himself as soon as he begins using words to defend the truthfulness of the statement.
Determinism renders life meaningless. Not only meaningless, but incomprehensible and, ultimately, unlivable. No one who believes in determinism actually lives consistently with its implications. Since no one can truly live in accordance with theistic determinism, the result is cognitive dissonance.
Perhaps a more particular example will help illustrate the cognitive dissonance required to accept both theistic determinism and human liberty. Sometimes a critique of Calvinism’s second petal of TULIP, Unconditional Election, comes in the form of “If God has already decided who will be saved, then why witness to anyone?” The Calvinist response generally comes in one of two forms, either “God has commanded us to be witnesses, so we must obey” or “In salvation God has ordained the means as well as the ends.” I want to take a closer look at this second response.
The critique suggests that if someone has been decreed by God to be saved, then it will happen regardless of anyone else’s action or inaction. The questioner is wondering what significance, if any, does one’s behavior, such as prayer, witnessing or other evangelization efforts, have with regards to the lost. If something is fated to happen, then how does any action, one way or the other, have any significance?
With regards to the salvation of any individual the Calvinist seeks to assuage this perceived meaninglessness of action by referencing the antecedent chain that seemingly leads to salvation. God ordains the means as well as the ends. God has predetermined both the event and all the things prior to the event. The Calvinist is saying, “Yes, the fate of the one unconditionally elected by God for salvation has been pre-determined from all eternity. But take heart, all the actions leading to that salvation, of which you may be a part, have also been predetermined.”
So, God has arranged a chain of events that precedes an individual’s salvation event and if one is a part of that chain, then… what? Saying that God ordains the means as well as the ends does not add meaning to the meaninglessness of determinism. One cannot add meaning to the last domino in a chain by inserting more dominoes ahead of it. However, the most important thing about this discussion is missed by the Calvinist; the entire episode – question, response, and everything in between – is only occurring because it has been determined to occur. Determinism is a very sharp knife that cuts the meaning out of everything it touches.