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.)
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.