I am a child of Western thought. Therefore, I like to figure things out. If possible, I like to figure it all out. This causes problems between me and God sometimes, and I need to deal with it better. Sometimes I only really follow or engage with God when I get it. When things make sense to me, my intellectual anxiety is eased and my will can engage. Who? What? Where? How? and especially Why?
Attempting to Look God Eye to Eye
Theological gurus call this “cataphatic” theology. Cataphatic theology emphasizes God’s revelation and our understanding of it. Taken to an extreme, we can find ourselves in the arrogantly awkward position of, as A. W. Tozer put it, “trying to look God eye to eye” (reference needed). When we have to understand everything, we attempt to trade our finitude for infinitude.
Accepting Mystery as a Primary Epistemic Category
And this should scare us to death. We need a healthy dose of “apophatic” theology. This emphasizes mystery. Our Eastern brothers and sisters normally get this better than we do. They are content without publishing a new theology book every year. They don’t normally write papers to explain the mysteries of the world, form societies to discuss the nuances of our faith, or engage in excessive arguments. For these, accepting mystery is their primary epistemic category.
The Dangers of Both Apophadic and Cataphatic Theology
I don’t mean to characterize either people from the east or the west. Of course, so far, I’ve spoken in generalities. Each of these characteristics, taken to extremes, can lead to down a dark path. Apophadic theology can lead to unexamined faith, where people know what they believe but they have no idea why. And God did go through a lot of trouble to explain quite a bit of himself to us. Cataphatic theology can lead to arrogence and mischaracterization as we force pieces of our theological puzzle in places they don’t belong or we introduce foreign pieces to the puzzle to make it fit together.
Finding Balance in the Secret Things and the Things Revealed
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
While there are secret things that belong to the Lord (apophatic), the things revealed belong to us (cataphatic). We need balance. We need a cool yet passionate head about us. We need to hold some theological ropes very tightly, but we need to loosen our grip on others. There is quite a bit that we can know about God, but there are so many things that we don’t get and we will never get.
My Intent so Far
Why all of this? Because I am going to talk about something that is very divisive in the Christian life. And, for the most part, I am going to try to encourage some of my Western brothers and sisters to take a cue from my Eastern brothers and sisters, step down off the stool, and quit trying to look God eye to eye. I am going to encourage us to allow some tension in a very debated issue in Protestant Christianity.
Calvinism- Closed System?
Calvinism is not a closed, rationality-based system. I am a Calvinist. It is funny. I often hear people talk about Calvinism as a closed box system that forces everything to fall in line, even when we have to sacrifice biblical integrity to do so. I often hear the accusation that Calvinism is a system that makes rationality its primary goal. And this is sometimes true. Often, Calvinists do attempt to fit things into a system and engage in questionable, logic-driven hermeneutics to do so.
The Tension Allowed in Calvinism
However, I think we need to take a step back and see that while the shoe fits when it comes to some particular issues in Calvinism, these accusations are far from forming the bedrock of the primary issues in Calvinism. You see, one of the many reasons I am a Calvinist has to do with the tension that is allowed within the Calvinistic system that is not allowed in other systems.
The Central Issue
Calvinism centers on one primary doctrine: God’s sovereignty in predestination. While the general doctrine the sovereignty of God has its place, it does not ultimately determine where one lands. An Arminian can believe that God is sovereign to a similar degree as a Calvinist. But an Arminian cannot believe in unconditional election in the same way as a Calvinist.
Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in predestination. In other words, whether or not God predestines people is not the issue. All Bible-believing Christians believe this doctrine. The issue has to do with the basis of this predestining.
Calvinist’s View of Election
The Calvinist says that God’s predestination is individual and unconditional. God did not choose people based on any merit, intrinsic or foreseen. This is called unconditional predestination, because there are no conditions man needs to meet. It does not mean that God did not have any reason for choosing some and not others. Election is not arbitrary. It is not a flip of the coin. It is simply that His reason is not found in us. It is his “secret” and “mysterious” will that elects some and passes over others. Once one believe this, for all intents and purposes, whether he or she calls themselves such, they are in the Calvinist camp.
The Arminian View of Election
The Arminian says that God’s predestination is conditioned in us. God elects either the person who chooses Him, Christ Himself, the Gospel, or the best possible world. All of these are options. In the end, his election is actionable, ultimately, because the faith of the predestined. For the majority of Arminians, here is how it works: God looks ahead in time, discovers who will believe and who will not, and then chooses people based on their prior free-will choice of Him. Therefore, God’s predestination of people is “fair” and makes sense. After all, there are too many questions left unanswered when one says that God chooses who will be saved and who will not. Why did he choose some and not others? Did God make people to go to hell? Is God fair? “Why does he still find fault, for who resists his will?”
Book Recommendation: Against Calvinism
The Arminian Solution
The Arminian chooses this position because, for them, it is the only way to reconcile human freedom and God’s election. Both are clearly taught in Scripture. Therefore, in order to have a reasonable and consistent theology, one or the other must be altered. If God unconditionally chooses individuals, then people don’t have responsibility in their choice, good or ill. Therefore, in order to make things fit, the Arminian defines (re)divine election or predestination in such a way to make it fit with their understanding of human libertarian freedom. The Arminian says that God’s choice is based on man’s choice. Alternatively, as I said, they say God’s choice is for something else like Christ, the Gospel, the Church, the best possible world (it gets confusing, I know).
Therefore, we have achieved consistency. The tension is solved. There is no tension. No mystery. Cataphatic theology trumps what seems to be an apophatic mystery. The “secret things are exposed. We have looked behind the curtain of God.
The Calvinist Solution
However, the Calvinist is not satisfied with a redefining of God’s election to make it fit. To the Calvinists, man is fully responsible for his choice, yet God’s election is unconditional. This creates a problem. It creates great tension. For the Calvinist, this tension cannot, and should not, be solved (although, some, unfortunately, do).
So how does the Calvinist live with this? How does the Calvinist answer the Why? questions? “Why does God choose some and not others? Why does he still find fault?” What is the Calvinist answer to the How? question? “How can there be true freedom when God is sovereignly in charge of election of individuals?” We have no answer. We have an option that the Arminians don’t. We can get off our stool and stop trying to look God eye-to-eye. We can and should punt to apophatic theology. The tension is left intact. We place our hand over our mouth here and say, “Though we have no answers to why God did not choose people he truly loves and how people are truly responsible for their rejection of him, we will trust that His gavel is just.” We will redefine neither divine election nor human responsibility to make them fit a more rational or logical system.
Revelation Over Reason
While there is nothing wrong with using one’s reason to understand truth, there are problems when reason takes priority over revelation. If the Bible teaches both human freedom and sovereign election, we leave the two intact. If the Bible teaches that God loves everyone more than we can imagine and that God desires all to be saved, yet He does not elect some, we trust God’s word and live with unanswered questions. These two issues, human responsibility and sovereign election, are not contradictory when put together, but they are a mystery.
Tweet “Calvinists will redefine neither divine election nor human freedom to make them fit a more rational system. ”
This is one of the mistakes I believe the Arminian system of conditional election/predestination makes. There is no need to solve all tensions, especially when the solution comes at the expense of one’s interpretive integrity.
The Mystery of Divine Election
There are many tensions in Scripture. There are many things that, while not formally irrational, just don’t make sense. The doctrine of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and creation out of nothing all fit this category. All of these are beyond our ability to comprehend. Once we smush them into a rational box and tell ourselves we have figured them out, we have entered into hererodoxy (I do not believe the Arminian view is heretical in the proper sense).
The issue of human freedom and unconditional election is in the same apophatic domain. We can’t make sense out of them and once we do, we have entered into error. There are many things God reveals that confuse us and baffle our thinking. They seem irrational. Yet we find God saying, “Chill. Just trust me. I’ve got this under control. While I have revealed a lot and I know you have a lot of questions, this is a test of trust. I love everyone but I did not elect everyone. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Will you trust me or will you redefine things?”
Book Recommendation: For Calvinism
Putting it all Together
God’s sovereign unconditional election can stand side-by-side with man’s responsibility without creating a formal contradiction. We may not know how to reconcile these two issues, but that does not mean God does not know how. Their co-existence does not take away from their collective truthfulness.
Tweet “God’s sovereign unconditional election can stand side-by-side with man’s responsibility without creating a formal contradiction.”
I believe that the Arminian system sacrifices biblical integrity for the sake of understanding and doctrinal harmony. The Calvinistic system allows tension and mysteries to abide for the sake of Biblical fidelity.
As I said before, I have had people say to me (often) that they are not Calvinists because the system attempts to be too systematic with all its points for the sake of the system itself. I think it is just the opposite. The Calvinistic system creates more tensions than it solves, but seeks to remain faithful to God’s word rather than human understanding. I think it is a good illustration of how West meets East. Revelation meets mystery. Cataphatic theology meets apophatic theology. While Calvinism is not formally irrational, it is emotionally irrational. I get that. But I think we need to take both pills.
Now, I must admit. I am confused as to why most of the “progressive” Evangelicals I know are more attracted to the rationalistic approach of the Arminians than the mystery-filled approach of the Calvinists. While Calvinism is not irrational in the former sense, it does cause tension as it recognize God’s ineffibility in the doctrine of election.
Let the assault begin . . .
Course Recommendation: The Theology Program Soteriology