TULIPS are not the only flower – Calvinism, predestination and all that

Last time I said that, while not the out-and-out baddy I’d always thought, John Calvin would probably never be my favourite theologian.

In particular I take issue with Calvin’s slightly scary brand of inerrancy-based logical theology with its doctrines of total depravity and dual predestination. I’d like now to look a bit more closely at these and some of the other beliefs which underpin what we now know as Calvinism or Reformed Theology.

The inhuman logic of predestination

A friend and I were once sad enough to spend an afternoon with Scrabble pieces finding anagrams for ‘predestination’. My favourites were ‘sent to dire pain’ and ‘ripened to saint’ – nicely encapsulating the doctrine’s dual outcomes. Or how about ‘Repent not, I said!’ (Predestination also always sounds to me like a bowel complaint: ‘Suffering from painful predestination? Why not try new ArminiaSeltzer!’)

Of course, Calvin didn’t invent predestination (any more than Darwin invented evolution), but it was Calvin who put the doctrine on the map, developing Augustine’s ideas with his own precise logic. Here he is in Book 3 of the Institutes, chapter 23, emphasis added:

“Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children… We have already been told that hardening is not less under the immediate hand of God than mercy

The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased. But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found.”

I’ve said that there seems to me something slightly unhealthy in some of Calvin’s thinking. I’d add that there also seems something inhuman, as exemplified in the passages above.

According to Calvin, God rejects or reprobates some people, excluding them from salvation and thus consigning them to eternal torment (and to ensure their fate, hardening their hearts so that they cannot seek or receive grace). God does this simply on the basis that it ‘pleases’ him to do so; in Calvin’s view there can be no higher reason. (Of course, in Calvin’s view, these reprobated ones are only getting the fate that we all richly deserve, but from which God’s unfathomable mercy spares a favoured few.)

This strikes me as a more Islamic than Christian view of God. As I understand it, because Allah‘s will is the highest law, whatever he chooses becomes right by definition. But in the Christian understanding, God’s utter goodness and love are fundamental to his nature, and his will is the outworking of those, the decisive putting into action of his good and loving nature. His will is not the primary thing; his perfect nature comes first, and his will springs from that. We can find something greater and more sublime than the will of God. God is love; he is not will.

To me, Calvin’s doctrine makes God into a controlling, callous, even capricious deity, bringing countless miserable beings into existence with the sole end of tormenting them forever to display his own righteousness and justice (‘God loves you and has a perfect plan for your life: eternal suffering for his glory!’). I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could worship such a being, except perhaps out of abject terror.

Calvin’s version of predestination is a doctrine of insanity in my view; it is founded on an insane logic, and it can drive one insane worrying about whether or not one is destined for eternal bliss or damnation. There are many other possible versions of the doctrine: that predestination is to priesthood not salvation; that all are (potentially) predestined to salvation; or Barth’s view that dual predestination is for/in Christ, who was predestined to be both the reprobate and the elect. I tend towards Barth, but any of these seem better and more likely to me than Calvin’s version.

Love trumps logic

On predestination as elsewhere Calvin’s argumentation is relentlessly precise; it’s hard to refute on purely logical terms. But logic forms a closed circle; what you infer from it depends on your starting assumptions. If you begin from a materialist view of the universe, you can argue logically for atheism. Scriptural inerrantists like Calvin can use unimpeachable logic to ‘prove’ all sorts of unthinkable theological positions – if you first accept their grounds, which I don’t.

It seems to me that Calvin and his followers treat theology almost as a science, expecting God and the Bible to obey mathematical principles. Yet the Bible itself makes comparatively little use of logic (Paul uses the most, and for me those parts are his least satisfying). As a hermeneutic principle, love trumps logic, because love is closer to God’s heart and to how relational beings actually work. And love is inherently not logical or mathematical.

Sola Dei Gloria?

The idea that God’s will is supreme appears to make God freer, able to will anything. But there has to be a basis on which God wills that is not itself his will, or we are left with mere meaningless tautology, or will for will’s sake. For Calvinists this basis seems to be God’s glory – thus taking God’s freedom away again with the other hand, because he must will whatever is to his greatest glory. (It sometimes seems to me that in Calvinism God is utterly sovereign, just so long as he exercises his sovereignty in the ways Calvinists deem appropriate. 😉 )

But even the notion of glory is largely meaningless until given content by God’s nature and character. One way of understanding God’s glory is that it is the manifestation of his being, the radiance of his divine attributes – above all (I would argue) his goodness and love. In this case, what brings God most glory is acting according to his nature of holy love – which would appear to preclude creating people who have no chance of redemption.

While researching my Calvin post I stumbled upon a good Calvinist blog, and was amused to see everyone signing off their comments ‘SDG’ (‘Sola Dei Gloria’ – God’s Glory Alone). Again, it reminded me of Islam, and the Muslim habit of appending ‘SWT’ (meaning ‘glory to Him’) to mentions of Allah. It also gave the impression of claiming a divine seal of approval to whatever was written. But SDG is only meaningful if we truly understand God’s glory and live accordingly. (I’m not saying I do – but I don’t use the acronym.)

Blooming TULIPs

Speaking of acronyms, let’s come to TULIP – which to be fair Calvin didn’t formulate, though it’s based on his thinking.

Total depravity – I can say amen to this if it means that we’re all flawed, broken people in need of healing in our inmost beings and in our relationships, including our foundational relationship with God. If however it means that we’re all worthless, hopeless sinners without any good or health in us, I say no. To affirm that would, I believe, be both anti-human and anti-Christian; an insult to the one in whose image we’re made, even if that image is currently marred and blurred in us.

Calvinists argue that we bring nothing at all to our redemption. I can’t go this far. Our contribution may be minimal, but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent. This is in no way to denigrate Christ’s sacrifice or God’s mercy. Salvation is incarnational, relational and participatory, not merely impositional.

(Calvin also argues that we lost our free will at Adam’s fall; I’d need another post to discuss this, but I largely disagree.)

Unconditional election – Amen, if by this we mean that God (potentially or actually) chooses us all in Christ on the basis of his grace and love. But if it means that God pre-selects a few for salvation and leaves the rest to damnation on the basis of divine whim dressed up as ‘sovereignty’ or ‘glory’ – as it seems to in Calvinism – then again, no. That is not the God who wills all to be saved, to proof-text 1 Tim 2:4-6.

Limited atonement – I can’t accept this, whatever meaning you attach to it. Again, it flies in the face of God’s clear will to save all, and almost everything we know of Christ. Yes, there are those odd passages in John’s gospel like ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them’ (Jn 6:44), but there are better interpretations of these than the Calvinist reading (I’ll need another post for that).

It might be neatly logical for Christ’s sacrifice to be efficacious precisely and only for the select group chosen for salvation. But Christ’s sacrifice is far bigger and better than that, a vast act of messy mercy and limitless love not a small piece of tidy arithmetic.

Irresistible grace – If this meant that ultimately none will be able to resist God’s love and grace, I’d say a tentative but hopeful amen. But of course what Calvinists mean by it is that the limited few whom God has unfathomably and unalterably chosen will have no choice but to accept; and in my view this is both dishonouring to God and to humanity.

Perseverance of the saints – those whom God has chosen to save won’t be able to fall away any more than they were able to resist salvation in the first place. You can put a more positive gloss on it as ‘once saved, always saved’. But as I don’t accept the Calvinist view of salvation, I don’t find even this formulation particularly meaningful. Again it’s too neat, too prescriptive, too calculated; salvation drawn up by an accountant. What I would say is that God perseveres to redeem us; he is faithful even if we aren’t.

My own TULIP would be: Total goodness (of God); Unlimited grace; Love victorious; Incarnation as the essence of salvation; and Perseverance of God. Or Poppadoms.

Of course, there’s far more to Calvin and even to Calvinism than predestination, SDG and TULIP; but not less. There’s much of Calvinist theology I can agree with, but these points I cannot.

The fallout of Calvinism

When I was studying Moby Dick for my English degree, I came across an interesting thesis that the whole book was a veiled attack on the Calvinist religion in which Melville had been strictly and fearfully brought up by his mother. The great white whale is God, but also at times the devil. Captain Ahab is haunted and tormented, driven mad even, by this mighty and inhuman whale-deity who he wants to destroy and who ends up destroying him; tormented also by the thought that he has no real freedom; that this whale-God is leading him inexorably to his dreadful self-destroying fate.

Melville, like Ahab, was tormented by the spectre of the Calvinism he’d rejected but could never be free from. And he is far from alone in having been driven to atheism, despair or even madness by the Calvinist vision of God.

It’s possible of course that the Calvinists are right. If so, God help us all – though of course, if Calvinists are right, God wouldn’t help us all. All I can say is that (thank God) the God I know a little and love a lot seems to bear very little relation to the Calvinist vision. I don’t say we worship different Gods, merely that we have very different understandings of God, and I’m sticking with the one I love.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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18 Responses to TULIPS are not the only flower – Calvinism, predestination and all that

  1. Eric says:

    “If however it means that we’re all worthless, hopeless sinners without any good or health in us, I say no.”
    I’m actually not sure that Calvin would agree with that either. Calvin was arguing at a time when it was common to assert that sin lived in one portion of the human so that, for instance, the desires might be evil but reason was uncorrupted (thus paving the way for corrupted reasoning to be held up as uncorruptible). Calvin argues for a total breadth of depravity – all our functions are affected. Some of his later followers have argued for the only-barely logically-tenable total depth of depravity where only the strange grace of God prevents us all from chewing on each other’s skulls day in and day out.


    • Thanks Eric – that’s interesting. I realise that Calvin didn’t mean we were utterly without any good, though some Calvinists do seem to mean that! Nonetheless, even Calvin does in places emphasise how full of wickedness we are – which of course is true in a sense, but it’s only one side of the story.

      It’s an interesting point about whether our reasoning faculties are corrupted. I’m not sure about this. For me, it relates to the point about logic – we can reason brilliantly and precisely, but if we start with flawed assumptions and/or reason without love, then our reason has come unstuck. Reason is good, but it’s never enough on its own.

      Right, off to chew on someone’s skull …. 😉


  2. Terry says:

    While I certainly don’t agree that God predestines people to eternal damnation, I still think you’re being hard on Calvin in many respects.

    First, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Calvin was an inerrantist, as you suggest. The term is surely anachronistic, for a start, and his teaching about Scripture is that it makes no sense unless the Spirit opens our eyes to it. That sounds like good theology, at least to me.

    Secondly, I’m not sure you’re taking seriously the fact that, rightly or wrongly (and I do think wrongly), Calvin truly believed that he was lifting his ideas about predestination from the pages of Scripture itself. If there’s a cold, inhuman logic at work here, Calvin was certainly intending to reveal it through the lenses of Scripture!

    And, thirdly, the whole thing about God’s will and predestination to life or death being an expression of God’s will, God’s secret decree, etc., etc. – well, what we have to remember is that for Calvin, predestination is not about God being arbitrary or capricious. God has the very best reasons for determining what God determines – it’s just that we don’t know what they are.

    Finally, regarding TULIP: total depravity is about how every part of humanity, including the image of God, is tainted or corrupted by sin; unconditional election is simply that God’s predestination to life has nothing to do with us – it’s by God’s mercy and love (and, yes, will) alone; limited atonement – well, I agree with you that this is a distortion of Scripture – but there are arguments (e.g. R.T. Kendall) that say Calvin himself never taught this; irresistible grace – the idea here is simply that once God calls you, you can’t back away – but this is hardly the sole preserve of Calvin and/or his followers; and perseverance of the saints is simply the idea that God grants staying power to people to continue through to the end (which appears substantially similar to what you say when you write, ‘What I would say is that God perseveres to redeem us; he is faithful even if we aren’t’).

    And now here’s my challenge to you: You say that ‘there’s much of Calvinist theology I can agree with’ – so why don’t you write a blog post saying what it is you agree with? 🙂


    • Wow Terry – I’m probably as surprised by your wholehearted support of Calvin/ism as you are by my utter antipathy towards them!

      I’d like to do full justice to your objections, so I’ll need to give them some more thought before replying properly. I still think you’re wrong, of course 😉 – but as always, you raise good and fair points.

      Re your challenge – I was just making a poor attempt to be nice when I said that. 😉 The only Calvinist theology I think I agree with is the theology I’d agree with any Christian about. The trouble for me is that, even where I do agree with Calvinists in theory, I find it so hard to agree with the manner/style/tone of their belief that I might as well be disagreeing. And I do genuinely see a strong correlation between Calvinism and Islam.


    • Okey-diddley.

      1. Inerrancy. I accept that this doctrine didn’t exist in Calvin’s day. Nonetheless, I’d argue that Calvin’s approach to Scripture stands in a fairly direct family line with today’s inerrantists, and that most of the churches that have grown out of his thinking (e.g. the Free Presbyterians) do now take a strongly inerrantist view. So I’d perhaps describe Calvin as a proto-inerrantist or pre-inerrantist. Take this quotation:

      “our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author. Hence, the highest proof of Scripture is uniformly taken from the character of him whose Word it is. The prophets and apostles… appeal to the sacred name of God, in order that the whole world may be compelled to submission”. (Bk 1, ch 7, sect 4)

      This is not strictly inerrancy, but it’s not a million miles away. And it stands in contrast to other approaches to interpreting Scripture around at the time, e.g. an allegorical/figurative reading of OT stories.

      I also hear you that Calvin felt Scripture had to be interpreted to us by the Holy Spirit. But I’m not fully convinced either by his reasoning – that the Spirit authored Scripture – or his motives, which seem to be mainly to knock Catholics and bolster his own authorised interpretations of the Bible.

      2. I understand that Calvin was just trying to do justice to scripture. But again, that just underlines to me that his way of approaching Scripture is flawed and inadequate. Though perhaps not quite depraved 😉

      3. I take your point about God’s will being inherently good even if beyond our comprehension – but that doesn’t seem to be what Calvin is arguing here. He just seems to be saying that God’s will is primary, full stop. I’m disagreeing, and saying that God’s loving goodness is ontologically prior to his will (even if coterminous).

      4. Total depravity – I accept that for Calvin (if not all his followers) this just means that every part of us is tainted by sin, which I can tentatively agree with. I’m still not sure I’d develop the doctrine in the same way though; it still seems to place undue emphasis on sin, and to take a particular view of sin which I’m not sure I wholly accept. (I’d maybe see sin as an imperfection/incompleteness rather than a vile disease; or perhaps a head cold rather than leprosy.)

      – Unconditional election – fair enough, but I still don’t fully agree. I see salvation as more two-sided and two-way than this allows.
      – Perseverance of saints – the difference is just that I’d emphasise God’s faithfulness rather than our perseverance, which I think is more honouring to God 😉

      I’m not an academic theologian; I’m interested in what theologies look like and feel like when they get out into the world, and what effect they have on people’s lives. And by my reckoning, the impact of Calvinism (whether as originally developed by Calvin or not) has been mixed at best, pretty bad at worst.

      But perhaps the bottom line is really that I don’t find Calvinism helpful in my own understanding of and relationship with God. I’ll take your word that there’s much good in Calvinism, but I’d rather find it elsewhere.

      I have a feeling we’re just not going to agree on this one… 🙂


      • Terry says:

        Yes, we’ll agree to disagree. But I do find it ironic that you’re a member of the Church of England, which is strongly influenced by Calvin’s theology. 😉


        • Well, I wouldn’t define my Christianity by my membership of the C of E; that’s just the context in which I currently worship/fellowship etc. Overall the C of E is a broad church and the congregation I belong to is only very minimally influenced by Calvin/ism, if at all. I’m not sure Rowan Williams is particularly Calvinist?


  3. Terry says:

    Well, there are similarities, and this is probably due to a strong concept of divine transcendence. But part of the art of theology is working out what you can accept and what you can reject without resorting to a general slagging off of everything. Of course, this is easier in theory than in practice: I’m more happy to defend Calvin on divine sovereignty (despite disagreeing with him in many respects) than I am John Piper. But even with Piper, I appreciate his integrity in so far as he accepted that God had willed his prostate cancer (or whatever cancer it was).


    • ‘Part of the art of theology is working out what you can accept and what you can reject without resorting to a general slagging off of everything’ – I’m not sure Calvin had quite honed that art then, given his fairly general slagging off of Catholicism and other religious opponents in the Institutes! But yes, you’re right, slagging off isn’t particularly helpful, though it’s whole a lot of fun and I highly recommend you try it sometime. 🙂 I’m not sure why I feel so strongly about Calvinism – again, I think it’s probably for personal/psychological reasons. There’s something in the overall tone and tenor of Calvinism that just sticks in my craw, and I suspect that’s partly to do with how I feel at a very deep level about certain kinds of authority and certain ways of viewing the world.


  4. Terry says:

    Just on a minor aside, Paul Helm has recently blogged this about Calvin and predestination: http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/calvin-and-bolsec.html


  5. Eric says:

    It seems to me that your comments about reasoning are really about formal logic. In our actual reasoning we are biased and ignore information we don’t like all the time – corruption.

    I’m going to strongly agree with Terry about inerrancy. Calvin is actually the inventor of the term “divine accommodation” which he uses to explain why parts of the Bible don’t mean what they appear to say on plain reading (specifically, because God must talk down to us on our level). Inerrancy depends on a number of other philosophical preconceptions that haven’t been thought up until after Calvin dies.

    The point I would come after Calvin on is his idea of what it means for God to be sovereign. Once you accept his notion of sovereignty the rest falls into place nicely, but his idea of sovereignty hinges on on his answer to a rather famous philosophical question: “Are things good because God says so (in which case God is an arbitrary dictator) or does God call things good because he recognizes goodness in them (in which case there is some sort of moral law that binds God, making him less than the highest power)?” The ancient Christian answer had been that God recognizes the goodness of things but that the law of goodness is not above God but simply that goodness is a reflection of God’s nature. So God is bound but by His own nature, an acceptable statement. However, this requires that goodness be a thing, a shared property of good things. Nominalists (and most of the reformers were philosophical nominalists) claimed that goodness was not a thing. Instead, it was just a label. When we say that two things are good (or red, or broad, or pointy) the only real things are the things we refer to, the goodness (redness, broadness, pointiness) are just labels. This rules out the ancient Christian answer and so Calvin (and Luther) both land on “Things are good because God decrees them so and that alone.” This is the premise I would disagree with Calvin on.

    As to why Calvinism provokes such reaction, well, Calvin has a lot of modern followers who are responsible for some of that. I recently left a church that was strongly influenced by Piper, Grudem, and Driscoll, all staunch Calvinists who have simplified the whole theological system down into a set of overly-neat answers that had harsh edges. The neatness of the system also made a lot of their devotees complete jerkwads to debate. I didn’t soften up on Calvinism until I met someone who was brilliant and had actually read Calvin. I realized that I didn’t dislike Calvin or his ism nearly as much as I disliked a modern brand of Calvinist.


    • Hi Eric, sorry I haven’t replied sooner!

      You’re probably right about formal logic vs human reasoning in general. In principle I’d like to say that it’s possible to reason without sin creeping in, but in practice it does tend to.

      Re inerrancy, here’s what I replied to Terry. In short, I agree that the doctrine wasn’t around in its full form in Calvin’s day, but I’d still see him as standing in a broad line with today’s inerrantists.

      Yes, what you’re saying about God’s sovereignty was broadly what I was trying to get at, and I’d disagree with Calvin on the same premise that you would.

      I think you’re right about Calvin’s modern followers – I find the teaching of current Calvinists like Piper, Grudem, Driscoll and John MacArthur very unpalatable. Maybe I need to give Calvin and his ism another chance! 🙂


  6. Terry says:

    I think that’s another big difference, then, as it looks like ecclesial identity or affiliation is more important to me than to you. I’m a card-carrying member of the Church of England, because one’s faith has to be expressed somehow. It looks like you’re ‘freer’ (in an ecclesial sense) than I wish to be. But with the C of E, it’s the foundational documents (e.g. the 39 Articles) and the liturgies that are based on Calvin’s teaching, at least through the mediation of various Protestant exiles who ended up in Geneva during Mary’s reign. So asking if Archbishop Rowan is Calvinist doesn’t really make much sense to me, because he’s Anglican and so presupposes certain things about God (for example) that resonate with the Calvinist/Reformed tradition in all its breadth.

    But there is hope: the 39 Articles speak about predestination to life, but not predestination to eternal damnation…


    • I care very much about belonging to a Christian community, but I’m not too fussed about particular ecclesial affiliation. In the past I’ve been part of Roman Catholic and High Anglican congregations, and was a fairly regular attender at a Baptist church for a while. To be honest, I haven’t felt fully theologically at home in any of them, but you’ve got to be part of something. So I particularly value being part of a congregation now where I’m allowed and even encouraged to explore different views. The fact that the church is part of the Anglican communion is not completely unimportant to me, but it’s not of primary importance.

      I take your point about the 39 articles, but in practice I’m not sure how much heed is paid to most of them within the life or worship of most Anglican congregations. I imagine Rowan may have had to assent to them at some point, but I see little evidence of their Calvinist influence in his preaching or his overseeing of the church. There are both Catholic and Evangelical wings within historical Anglicanism, and he seems to belong more to the Catholic side; I’m starting to think that perhaps I do too.


  7. Jason says:

    Wow. I just stumbled into this post and related comments. Fantastic stuff. Thank you!


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