Calvinism is certainly not the only issue I plan to discuss on this blog, but since many of my posts will be dealing with Reformed theology, I want to offer a defense for why I believe the discussion is important.
There are many, many reasons we could use to argue this point, but I want to focus on five in this post:
- Calvinism is revealed in Scripture
- Calvinism grounds the doctrine of biblical inerrancy
- Calvinism grounds the orthodox character and nature of God
- Calvinism best honors God by properly recognizing His intentions in creation
- Calvinism grounds biblical evangelism
CALVINISM IS REVEALED IN SCRIPTURE
Why this is a reason for debate should be obvious. If Calvinism is indeed clearly revealed in Scripture, then a neglect of the discussion would be a neglect of the duty to submit ourselves to the entirety of God’s Word. If we avoid this discussion because we simply don’t like controversy, then we fail to adhere to the Bible as our authority. We have no right to pick and choose which biblical themes we would rather study and which ones we would rather ignore or suppress.
Further, the mere fact that so much of Scripture is relevant to the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism proves that no matter which position is the biblical position, this is an issue that greatly concerns God. So if anyone should suggest, as I have sometimes heard, that “the Spirit told them” to not bother themselves with a discussion of these issues, we can be sure that this “spirit” they are hearing from is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not contradict the Word He inspired, and the Word He inspired is filled with passages concerning election, the nature of salvation, God’s sovereignty, God’s purposes in this world, etc., indicating clearly that this is an issue that He greatly cares about us studying. To suggest that these issues do not really matter is to suggest that there are portions of God’s Word that really aren’t that important. That suggestion submits the authority of Scripture below the reasoning and emotions of man.
I am not going to take the time or space to provide a comprehensive case for Calvinism from Scripture in this post. I will post plenty of discussions of that nature in the future. I only wish to say for now that this debate is a biblical issue. Words such as “elect,” “predestine,” and “chosen” occur numerous times in Scripture, and even more texts appear to give the same sense of meaning even without using these specific words. These passages cannot simply be ignored. They must be taken into consideration in our belief and practice, just as all of Scripture should be. If people disagree as to what these terms mean, then that is why we must discuss these things, because people must be able to justify their definitions on the basis of Scripture. In particular, this is especially important for the non-Calvinist to do since non-Calvinistic interpretations of texts relevant to election actually end up redefining “predestination” as ratification (i.e. God foresaw and affirmed those who choose themselves), which just raises the question, Why did the biblical authors use the language of predestination in the first place if that terminology is not what best describes the actual idea they supposedly had in mind? When your interpretation of the text doesn’t make much sense of the author’s terminology and/or application, that’s when you need to stop and ask if you’re really reading the author or if you’re reading yourself into his words. This is also why fruitful and courteous debate of these issues is important. Often it is not until we are challenged by the other side that we really start to critically think through our own traditions. (cf. Prov. 18:17)
CALVINISM GROUNDS THE DOCTRINE OF BIBLICAL INERRANCY
I list this reason because I don’t often hear the argument brought up, and I certainly don’t often hear many try to respond to it. Yet, it is a crucial issue. I contend that Calvinism is important because only Calvinism is able to describe the human will in such a way that can actually account for an inerrant Bible.
Biblical inerrancy is an essential doctrine. But the doctrine does not maintain much consistency on a non-Calvinistic framework. The reason is very simple: Libertarian free-will. If we affirm the doctrine that man is always capable of choosing between any two options, then why should we trust that the men who penned the Bible always wrote what God had inspired? If God is concerned about honoring and protecting their free-will, then isn’t it possible that these writers could have exercised that will to change things, use different words, or import their own doctrines? Or, what about those who have copied the original documents down through the ages? What assurance can we have that they did not make doctrinal changes to these documents, if God is concerned about honoring and protecting their free-will? And what about the selection of the Canon itself? What assurance do we have that men with free-wills made the right decisions in determining which books were to be included in the Canon? Sure one may argue that God persuades or inclines men toward one particular direction, but the Arminian says all the time that God does this and yet it doesn’t necessitate that men will choose as He pleases! So it’s really a moot point.
When the non-Calvinist rightly affirms the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, in order to do so consistently he must affirm that God has violated the free-will of some men in history. But if God has done this in history, then why is it so unacceptable to believe that He does it all the time? This debate matters because we must have a consistent grounds to account for our belief in biblical inerrancy, or people will start to question the doctrine (as some synergists already have).
CALVINISM GROUNDS THE ORTHODOX CHARACTER AND NATURE OF GOD
On this point my main concern is with the doctrine of omniscience, which I’ve already devoted a whole post to, so I will only spend a moment on it here. My concern is that Calvinism is the only consistent basis upon which one can legitimately affirm that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future. Therefore, the truly consistent non-Calvinist will wind up an Open Theist.
If we can agree that God has knowledge of all things, then we must agree that God already knows the state of every future event and human choice. But this poses a serious dilemma for the non-Calvinist. How can God be said to have knowledge of a future human decision that is, supposedly, not yet determined? If God knows with certainty what I will do tomorrow (that is, if He knows of the fact of it, and not just of the possibility), that presupposes that what I will do tomorrow is, at least in some sense, already determined. God cannot know that I will do one thing if it is actually possible that I might choose not to do that thing. He can only predict the possibility — kind of like predicting the weather — but He can’t positively know of the exact outcome with certainty. Thus, the only way to consistently affirm the belief that God has perfect foreknowledge concerning who will choose to believe in Christ is to affirm that the reason God knows this is because He has determined who will choose to believe in Christ.
There is simply no way around this dilemma for the non-Calvinist. People are beginning to recognize this, but unfortunately some of them are going over into Open Theism as a result, rather than Reformed theology. When people are presented with the irreconcilable dilemma of recognizing a contradiction between their theology and what Scripture says, some will actually compromise on Scripture in order to maintain their tradition. They would rather find a way to work their way around the teaching of the text than to acknowledge the necessary conclusion that the idea of perfect foreknowledge logically entails a closed, determined future. If you affirm, as Scripture does, that God already knows who is going to be saved, then you cannot deny that it is determined that those, and those only, will be saved. If you try to deny it, then you must answer how God can know the certain outcome of a future choice if that choice is free and undetermined prior to it actually being made. Pointing out that God exists outside time is not an answer, because that does nothing to change the fact that if a future is yet unwritten, then it is unknowable by definition. Many Christians seem to operate on this mindset that divine foreknowledge is some kind of magical ability God has to just look down the corridors of time and see what will happen. Not many take the time to realize anymore that if God has perfect knowledge of the future, what you are actually saying is that He has ordained the future and all that happens in it, because there is no other way of making sense of that statement. By definition, an unwritten future is an unknowable future. God can always know of every possible course of action, but you can never say that He factually knows of the actual choices you will make, unless you concede that He Himself has preordained those choices. Yet, affirming this extent of God’s knowledge (and sovereignty) is necessary to maintain the doctrine of aseity (simply, God’s being God) in your theology.
Therefore, only Calvinism provides a consistent grounds upon which the doctrine of omniscience can be accounted for (or even properly defined). So this debate matters because it has serious implications concerning our understanding of who God is, and that has further implications concerning the development of our doctrine, and the manner of our worship. “But if God has already determined the future,” some say, “then you’re implying that we’re all just a bunch of programmed robots with no will of our own.” I’m actually implying no such thing. Contrary to the unfounded accusations of many critics, a determined future does not contradict the fact that humans willingly make choices, as the Calvinistic doctrine of compatibilism explains. I touch on this briefly toward the end of my post dedicated to this issue. I recommend referring to it for a further treatment of this topic.
CALVINISM BEST HONORS GOD BY PROPERLY RECOGNIZING HIS INTENTIONS IN CREATION
A rather controversial way in which I like to draw the distinction in this debate (I like to use this distinction not because of its controversy, but because I think it best reveals the problem) is to distinguish between theocentrism and anthropocentrism. That is, God-centered theology and man-centered theology. I believe that Reformed theology is God-centered, and thus more focused on godly worship, but a rejection of Reformed theology is usually based on a man-centered outlook on reality. This is not a derogatory remark; allow me to explain what I mean.
Reformed theology is God-centered because its first and primary concern is with the glorification of God in all things. The Calvinist looks at sin and says it is bad, not first and foremost because it hurts people or will send them to hell (though this is true), but because it is an affront to God. Likewise, the Calvinist looks at salvation and says it is wonderful, not first and foremost because of the escape and other benefits it provides for us (though this too is true), but because of the glory it brings to God. And, the Calvinist looks at Christ and His incarnation and sees first an intention to glorify God before seeing an intention to help man. In other words, while the Calvinist does not disagree that Christ came to save men, that salvation is a wonderful blessing, and that sin is a terrible curse, the point is that the Calvinist sees all these things as secondary means which are purposed and used toward the greater end God has to glorify Himself.
Thus, salvation is not an end in itself, because God’s primary concern is not with salvation per se, but with what the accomplishment of salvation does to glorify His attributes of love and mercy. Similarly, judgment is not an end in itself, and, God also has a purpose for sin and judgment, because His primary concern is with what the accomplishment of judgment does to glorify His attributes of righteousness and justice. Hence, the Calvinist says that God is doing something in creation; He created with a goal in mind — an intention to glorify the full range of His attributes, and thus He has a purpose in both saving men and in judging sinners. It is all about God, not us. God does indeed love us, but that love for us does not supersede His greater concern to demonstrate His name and power throughout all the earth.
This is a very high view of God. The non-Calvinist disagrees with this view, upholding the protection of the free-will of man as the central point of concern in what God is doing in creation. The non-Calvinist ends up arguing (whether by directly affirming, or by implication) that God’s purposes in creation are conditioned by, or at least surround a concern for, a respect for man to determine his own destiny. Thus, God’s purposes in glorifying Himself through both salvation and through judgment, while still acknowledged by the non-Calvinist, are nevertheless marginalized in order to make room for the idea that at no cost would God ever violate human freedom. This is properly called a man-centered perspective because the focus in this way of thinking is on man and what God has done for man, and not first and foremost on what God is doing to glorify Himself by whatever means He chooses.
Calvinism argues its position on this issue on the basis of an abundance of Scripture (lengthy books can, and indeed have been written on this point alone). On the contrary, I would argue that the common non-Calvinist starting point, which differs from this two-fold mercy-and-justice revealing purpose in creation (typically a purpose is seen in mercy for all, and justice is viewed as an unfortunate by-product which God is reluctant, though compelled to exercise), is merely assumed, and often, I think, without conscious awareness of the fact, because this counter view is not as well known for its self-conscious examination of presuppositions. This disagreement matters because it has obvious and serious implications as far as our worship is concerned. While I would not go as far as some do in asserting that Calvinists and non do not worship the same God, I am nevertheless forced to acknowledge that we worship God in very different ways. The Calvinist’s assumptions force him to view God as a very high God who has created with a determined purpose, and who is accomplishing that purpose perfectly in creation. This naturally leads to a very reverent type of worship. The non-Calvinist’s assumptions, on the other hand, force him to view God as a much more meek and dare I even suggest it, almost weak being, who has set the world in motion and now hopes and pleads for men to do what He wishes, but cannot, or at least will not, do what is necessary to ensure that His purposes and desires be fulfilled. This debate matters because how we worship God matters. If the Calvinist is right, then the non-Calvinist is not worshiping God with the kind of reverence and honor that God deserves.
CALVINISM GROUNDS BIBLICAL EVANGELISM
Calvinists are often falsely accused of not caring for the lost. After all, why evangelize if God has already determined who is going to be saved? This sounds like a good question upon a first glance, but the ironic truth is that Calvinism is what actually grounds biblical evangelism. Most of history’s greatest evangelists and missionaries were all Calvinists, and there was a reason for that.
First, to briefly respond to the question, there are several reasons why we are to preach the gospel to every creature regardless of the fact that God has already determined who is going to be saved. The first and most simple reason is that God simply told us to. It does not matter whether anyone would find it reasonable to evangelize on the basis of Calvinist doctrine. God’s ways are higher than our understanding, and we are to do what He commands without questioning it. But there is another reason as well. Namely, we don’t know who the elect are. So we are to preach the gospel to every creature because it is not our privilege to know whether this person or that person will be saved.
Further, Calvinism maintains the belief that God ordains both the ends as well as the means used to accomplish those ends. So, when the Calvinist goes out to proclaim the gospel to the lost, his proclamation can actually have a number of effects. If the recipient is one of God’s elect, the Spirit may open that person’s heart to receiving the gospel and he will be saved. Or, the Spirit may use that proclamation to at least plant a seed in the heart of that individual for someone else to come along and harvest. Alternatively, if the hearer of this gospel proclamation is not of the elect, then he will naturally continue to reject that message, and, in doing so, that rejection will become part of his indictment. But the point is, no matter what the result, God has a purpose that He is accomplishing in every single instance of that gospel message being proclaimed.
So is it true that Calvinism hinders evangelism? Or is it rather the case (as history would suggest) that Calvinism gives us a greater confidence and assurance in evangelism than what other perspectives do? The non-Calvinist goes out to preach to the lost with no assurance that his efforts will return with any success at all. He may be wasting his time. The people he speaks to may never believe, and all he can do is hope for he best, without any real assurance that anything positive will come of his time. He may even believe that his success largely depends on his ability to adequately persuade people to see his view (he has no consistent reason to reject this belief, anyway). But the Calvinist can go out to preach to the lost with the full confidence and assurance that God has already determined to make all his efforts a success. This is the case because the Calvinist is comforted by the belief that God will always take the message the Calvinist delivers and either use it to call one of His own to Himself (or at least prepare his heart for another day), or use it as an act of judgment when the non-elect person takes offense and further hardens his heart against God’s truth. God has determined not only who will be saved, but also the means by which they will come to accept His gospel. This is why we are to spread the gospel, and why Calvinism actually gives us great assurance that our time spent doing this will not have been in vain.
Another problem that a non-Calvinistic mode of evangelism poses is that it naturally runs the risk of placing too much emphasis on the evangelist to cater his message in such a way as to best influence the listener to positively respond. If you believe that the salvation of men is not dependent upon God’s sovereign will, then you are going to be tempted to water down that gospel message when people take offense to it. I believe that the seeker-sensitive movement enjoys its success solely because of a rejection of the biblical evangelism that Calvinism safeguards. The apostles in Scripture commanded men to repent and believe. That was their gospel proclamation. But what many churches preach today is only that “this is what God has done for you, now repeat this prayer and you can enjoy a wonderful life with Him,” afraid that if they say much more they may offend people and turn them away.
The seeker-sensitive church has forgotten that the gospel is an offense. Without the discussion of sin, God’s law, God’s holiness, the necessity of the cross, a discussion of what grace really means, and why it is necessary to repent to be saved, people are being misled in their understanding of the gospel, and consequently confused into believing that they are saved when they actually may not be. This creates a false assurance that will actually prevent them from being able to recognize their sin and the need to repent for it. Can you imagine a church that protects people from the knowledge they need to learn how to truly be saved? I honestly think it happens all the time, because many today seem more concerned about the appearance of converts than they are about whether a person’s heart has truly changed.
So this debate is important because Calvinism safeguards an unaltered presentation of the gospel and trusts that God will use His own message to do exactly as He intends, while non-Calvinism, which does not enjoy the same assurance in evangelism, provides the way for a risk of compromise in that message, and consequently runs the risk of misleading people and presenting only the false impression of generating converts.
These are all critical issues, and yet we could provide more. To neglect this debate is to neglect a number of the most important problems that the church has faced all throughout history. We must be faithful in submitting to the entirety of Scripture for all our doctrine and practice. We must be able to defend the doctrine of inerrancy and to do that we must have a solid foundation upon which we can consistently account for it in the first place. We must also be able to have such a foundation for defending the omniscience of God, as well as the rest of God’s attributes, in order to fight the growing trend of Open Theism and help keep our brothers and sisters from being persuaded by such false notions of God. We must be able to properly recognize and understand what God’s intentions in creation are so that He can be honored and worshiped the way He should be. And we must make sure that we have a solid foundation for doing biblical evangelism, so that we can not only have confidence and assurance in the act, but also guard against the tendency for the gospel message to be watered down or changed. Indeed, I can hardly think of many issues of greater importance to discuss within the church today than that of Calvinism and its implications.