pills

Allowing for Mystery in our Lives

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? Theological gurus call this “cataphatic” theology. Cataphatic theology emphasises 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.” When we have to understand everything, we attempt to trade our finitude for infinitude. 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 explaining the mysteries of the world, have societies discussing the nuances of our faith, or argue about too much. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to an 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. 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.

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 is Not a Closed Box Rational 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 often true. Sometimes Calvinists do attempt to fit things into a system and engage in questionable, logic-driven hermeneutics to do so.

However, I think we need 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. Calvinism centers on one primary doctrine: predestination. While 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 predestination in the same way as a Calvinist.

All Christians Believe in Predestination

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.

The Calvinist says that God’s predestination is 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, but that the reason is not found in us. It is his “secret” and “mysterious” will that elects some and passes over others.

The Arminian says that God’s predestination is conditional. It has its founding in the faith of the predestined. In other words, God looks ahead in time, discovers who will believe and who will not, and 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: Why I am NOT a Calvinist

The Consistency of Arminianism

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 people, then people don’t have responsibility in their choice, good or ill. Therefore, in order to make things fit, the Arminian defines divine election or predestination in such a way to make it fit with human freedom. The Arminian says that God’s choice is based on man’s choice. Therefore, we have consistency. The tension is solved. There is no tension. No mystery. Cataphatic theology trumps apophatic theology.

The Tension of Calvinism

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. 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?”  We have no answer. We get off our stool and 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, we will trust him without judgement.” We will redefine neither divine election nor human freedom to make them fit a more rational or logical system. 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 freedom and sovereign election, are not contradictory when put together, but they are a mystery.

The Mistake of Arminianism

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. 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 heresy (although I do not believe the Arminian view is heretical). 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: Why I am NOT Arminian

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.

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.

Let the assault begin . . .

Course Recommendation: The Theology Program Soteriology


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    502 replies to "The Irrationality of Calvinism"

    • @Bob: Well I hope I do also, seek i.e. “good Biblical exegesis”! Btw, I am really something of a neo-Calvinist, and here I hope more of a “Calvin” Calvinist! And to make this point, I believe the Atonement of Christ was for Calvin more of a general or sufficient Atonement, sufficient for all, but only efficient or efficacious for the Elect or Chosen!

    • Bob Anderson

      For those interested –

      http://www.amazon.com/Presuppositional-Creationism-Hypothetical-Question-ebook/dp/B008I99PPG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367525625&sr=8-1&keywords=Sonny+Craig

      Seems to be self-published. He really should have done a spell check in the review.

    • “brazen loquacity” … love it! I guess many of us Christian bloggers are talkative to excess, but never Calvin! 😉 His Institutes only grew with his age, wisdom and the desire for the Truth of God!

      And btw, since I have a few ears perhaps for Calvin, let me recommend Stephen Edmondson’s book: Calvin’s Christology, (2004). Edmondson is a professor of Church History, at Virginia Theological Seminary. This really shows Calvin’s love for biblical doctrine and theology, but taken alone through Holy Scripture. Calvin’s mind and all his tools are alone pressed here!

    • John

      Sonny: I took the time to go to your web site and read the very long treatise you have on both creationism and predestination. I’ve been tested to have a pretty high IQ, and I consider myself at least reasonably well informed (to say the least), on these issues, and I have to say, I have very little clue on what you are going on about. I don’t understand how you resolve the ageless free will argument. You’re not a Calvinist, I gathered that much. You seem to be saying that the evidence for old earth and evolution is VERY strong, and that any fool can see that what Moses wrote is really nonsense compared to what the physical evidence says, and yet you are a young earth creationist. You also say that the evidence for the resurrection is weak and circumstantial.

      OK, here’s the big flaw I see in your epistemology. Why bother being a Christian? Because God decided you to be (Calvinism)? Apparently not, you believe in free will, not unconditional election. Because the evidence for the resurrection is strong? No, you said it’s weak. Because the heavens proclaim God’s special creation? Nope, you say it proclaims evolution and supernovas, which is evidence for chaos, not God. Because Genesis says so? Nope, because Genesis appears to be a fairy tale which doesn’t accord with reality.

      I get it, that through clever mind games you have been able to reconcile in your mind the “duality” you see between the bible and physical reality. But it sure seems like you’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water, and not left us any reason to bother with exercise.

    • John

      Sonny, You are strongly presuppositional I see. Presuppositionalism says “believe what God says, over and above any other evidence”. You are pushing that to the max with your hermeneutic. But this approach assumes we can read what God says and understand it easily, and be simple believers in it over and against competing voices. Yet you are coming here basically saying, Christendom is stupid and doesn’t understand anything. What’s the point of being a presuppositionalist promoting that we believe God’s word in opposition to what you describe as strong evidence that it is actually wrong (doesn’t accord with reality), when all us simpleton Christians can’t interpret it anyway? Only you with your 20 years of study and vast intellect has been able to figure it out. Your attitude is more suitable for a hyper-Calvinist. Again, your vast intellect has led us to a point where I have to say…. Ok let’s say your philosophy is the best solution to the Christian theological dilemmas. Great. Now I don’t see any reason to be a Christian anymore. Christianity is now completely decoupled from observable reality. And you don’t even have a Calvinist unconditional mystical election to fall back on as a reason why one might be a Christian.

    • I have not said much here about this man’s so-called theology, but I have read some of this before. And its not worth the time and effort to my mind, and it certainly is a turning on its head the idea of any biblical presuppositionalism! Btw, he gave himself away, in his # 144 with this statement… “This is why I don’t even bother with Christians, no matter how polite and rational and empathetic you try to be, they find nothing but offense in anything that does not smack of their astoundingly redundant theology.”

      So this is simply not a true Christian theology at all, and I say this rather sadly! Our minds and intellect don’t mean much if they are not surrendered and grounded in the Holy Scripture and Revelation of God In Christ!

    • John

      “John says: Presuppositionalism says “believe what God says, over and above any other evidence”.
      I’m not sure which John you are, but no sir. This is not what presuppositionalism says. (I’m really liking that label less and less).

      presuppositionalism says that the very concept of evidence, indeed the very concept of there even being such a thing as concepts, OR ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE, is utterly, universally and comprehensively unintelligible and incoherent UNLESS the triune all governing God of the bible is self consciously made the foundational, epistemological bedrock upon which ALL human logic and thought is built.”

      I really don’t see any distinction between your explanation and mine.

    • John

      Greg: I said that presuppositionalism argues that what God says takes priority over other evidences. Other evidences may be dependant on God, but not every evidence is God’s word.

    • I would basically agree with Greg, noting his second paragraph especially. And the greatest “presupposition” is the complete authority of the Word of God, our Holy Scripture! Here is GOD’s best and really God’s only so-called “evidence”! (Though Creation itself does have a place, but it is now connected to the fallen, broken world.) It is here btw, that we should note too, that our Protestant Church & Fathers have drawn the line with the non-canonical Apocrypha! WE can surely read it for religious history, and perhaps note biblical genres, but it is NOT Holy Scripture! And this also draws some obvious lines with Protestants and Catholics, as too the EO. It is correct? Another P&P post perhaps?

      Btw, has P&P ever done a post on Biblical & Theological Presuppositionalism? If so I missed it!

    • TC Robinson

      Perhaps a Kuperian Calvinist makes more sense in today’s world.

    • Indeed seeking to do a whole presuppositional theological statement, would not be easy, but for me a more simple statement would be closer biblically, and that would be that God’s revelation has an absolute authority, and thus a certain priority over all human thought. And here we can see in Van Til his concept of the analogical knowledge that presses us to think God’s thoughts after Him. And thus God’s revelation must serve as our ultimate place of the criterion of truth. And we should note that the presupposition is in God, and not some idea of an argument. Indeed it is the preeminence of God’s word and revelation! Just my thoughts anyway.

    • @Greg: I most certainly agree with you as to so-called “Calvinist” theologians these days, hell even Tom Wright seeks to pass himself off as generally as Reformational and Reformed, which of course he is not! And this is not a personal attack on Wright either, but a most Biblical and Reformed point! Indeed, where are the Reformed Creeds among the so-called Reformed theolog’s these days? It is here that I have a great respect for that great American Reformed statesmen, R.C. Sproul! Though I don’t personally follow him in many places. Btw some have asked who was or is my favorite modern Reformed guy, and I have two who are near equal, the Scots born, John Murray, and the Dutch or Netherland born, Geerhardus Vos! And both came to America. (And Vos died the year I was born, 1949) And both were not just theologians, but pastor-teachers themselves! But today I also like John Frame.

    • […] The Irrationality of Calvinism […]

    • […] The irrationality of Calvinism. […]

    • maggie

      I realize this is an old post, but having recently returned to following Jesus Christ, I am in the most dire of straights.
      That is that I am absolutely tormented with fear … my soul cries all day long.

      If the God of Armenianism is my God, I will love him with all my heart, soul and mind, as He loves the world and all His creation with His whole being.
      The God of Calvinism is the most horrid, unloving, cruel, deity I can imagine, and I could never come to love Him.

      Today I read in the Bible: “Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they rejected him and stoned the prophets. He cried “How I would have gathered you but you would not” (Mathew 23:37).
      Why would Jesus cry over something He had decreed to happen?
      Thanks to whomever might read this old post and answer.

    • JB Chappell

      Maggie, I think you can make a biblical case for either Arminianism or Calvinism, depending on which verses you use. Both have their “hammer” verses, and both have verses that would create tension.

      The example you cite does neither, IMHO. It affects neither position. The reason is because what Jesus knew is not necessarily indicative of what God the Father knew. Or, as some would contend, what Jesus *consciously* knew is not necessarily the same as what He *unconsciously* knew. In other words, it is possible that Jesus wept over Jerusalem because even though He was omniscient, He did not remember pre-ordaining what was to happen. This would be similar to him asking “who touched me?” You can consider Jesus to be omnisicent, and yet not knowing (or at least not remembering or accessing that information) certain things.

      Now, how convincing that would be, is a different matter. But that is how many Christians would approach the matter.

    • JB Chappell

      Alternatively, you could try claiming that Jesus did, in fact, remember everything – including pre-ordaining His own rejection – but that this still caused Him grief. In other words, having omniscience does not necessarily exclude emotions such as regret. This would “solve” the problem of God regretting having made mankind in Genesis and then flooding the earth. Why would anyone be so angry/upset over something they knew all along would happen? It’s hard to fathom. So, I would find a response similar to the above one more convincing.

    • JB Chappell

      …although it’s MORE convincing that the emotion/pain/regret that is felt is spurred by the fact that it was unexpected.

    • Mark W. Gaither

      Excellent article as usual, Michael. I could quibble with a point or two here and there, but that’s not important. What you have articulated is a reasonably classic view of authentic Calvinism, one that holds high God’s sovereignty without removing human responsibility. It is paradoxical, and that drives some people crazy.

      Sadly, however, many self-identifying Calvinists are not as sophisticated. They know just enough about this school of thought to have barely more than a superficial understanding of it. Consequently, they bring upon Calvinism many of the criticisms you mention early on in your post.

      It is my observation that there are Calvinists, and there are “5-Pointers.” (Don’t get hung up on my terminology. We might also call them TULIP-huggers.)

      Calvinists accept that human theological constructions are never perfect and cannot explain everything. 5-Pointers, on the other hand, view all of life in binary terms, allow little or no room for ambiguities or paradoxes, cannot abide unexplained phenomena, and view all of life through TULIP-tinted lenses.

      Here’s a classic test to see if you’re dealing with a 5-Pointer: Begin a conversation on any theological topic. If you end up talking more about how the issue aligns with Calvinism than how it aligns with the Bible, or if all scriptural citations are footnoted with Calvinism, you’re probably talking to a 5-Pointer. Also, if you find yourself wearing a scarlet ‘A’ (Arminian) by the end of the conversation, despite your protests to the contrary, you were most assuredly talking with a 5-Pointer.

      “5-Pointers” display other indicators, but you get the point.

      At the end of the day, let us all agree that our ultimate goal is to be biblical in our worldview; theology is merely a means to that end. Let us further agree that some theological frameworks help us more than others, but ALL of them inevitably leave biblical loose ends that cannot be tied up and must not be trimmed off. (Let the 5-Pointer understand.)

      As one of our greatest prophets wrote, “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

    • Skaggers

      Hi everyone.

      CMP,

      I know there have been a lot of comments and maybe it has been answered but I have a question:

      Would an Armenian say the have “redefined” election and predestination definitions?

      I think the term “redifined” may be a bit loaded. I think this term is one that we as Calvinists can use to to elevate our own position. We are making the claim that our definitions are the right ones. Maybe we should explore these definitions as claims and look to see who is biblically correct.
      I do not know, but I would only guess that both sides would say we are “redifining.”

      As a five point Calvinist with a Pentecostal background,
      I am really interested to see the arguments for and against both sides of those definition.
      I don’t think it would change my mind, but would give a good understanding to how Armenians Biblically definite those terms. Of course, I am now just assuming that they would say they are not “redifining.” 🙂

      Thanks for the clarity!

    • Christopher Bowers

      Your claim that the Bible requires “Election” and “Predestination” is in error. Many people confuse “Predestination” with “Foreknowledge”. Predestination means that God controls everything. Foreknowledge merely is God’s pre-ordained knowledge of who will be saved.

      Calvinism’s assertion that people are not saved based on their deeds simply is a result of ignorance about Judaism, Jewish tradition, scripture, and the revelation of God in Judaism. It is incompatible with Jewish tradition to assert that our good deeds on earth have no bearing on anything.

      The claim that Christians aren’t saved by “works” is referring to “works of the law”, that is, Jewish ritual. Not good deeds, or a lack of evil deeds. That is a sad mistranslation that has fooled many people, but it’s inconsistent with Jewish tradition to such a great degree that it borders on Antisemitic. Paul was a Jew, as was Jesus, and they would never in a million years, (as a Jew) deny that free will exists, or deny that moral behavior plays a role in salvation.

      The idea that there is a “tension” in calvinism is an Equivocation fallacy. You are re-branding a blatant contradiction as a “tension”. On top of that, you are trying to get accolades for “not compromising on biblical truth” by promoting that contradiction.

      People that preach and teach open contradictions not only shouldn’t be teaching about Christianity, they shouldn’t be teaching about anything. God is the author of truth and all truth literally is God’s essence. That includes all logical and scientific truth, which is, in turn, also God’s essense (There is no truth that is not God, anymore than there is any love which is not God, for God is love, and God cannot lie).

      The assertion that there is “God’s logic” and “Man’s Logic” is also incompatible with Gods first revelation to the Jewish people. If God stated that he is TRUTH in the Bible, that he is love, that he is the essence of morality, one cannot go around teaching people that there is “God’s Justice” and “Mans Justice” and “God’s truth” and “Man’s Truth”.

      Since God is truth, if your conception of God violates the truth, then that means that you made an error in your theology.

      For example, if you said that God enjoys doing evil things and lies, we know that your theology is wrong, because it involves indisputable assertions about God.

      Here you say this: “Though we have no answers to why God did not choose people he truly loves, we will trust him without judgement.”

      This should be reformulated as “We have no answers to many theological questions because the false assertions they rest on create contradictions.”

    • br.d

      Concerning predestination – the issue doesn’t have to do with the basis of it.
      The issue is two-fold:
      1) The EXHAUSTIVENESS of predestination in Calvinism
      2) The fact that the Calvinist is forced into a state of DOUBLE-MINDEDNESS about the EXHAUSTIVENESS of predestination in Calvinism.

      That which is unique to Calvinism and separates it from its alternatives is the doctrine of decrees – which stipulates that 100% of WHATSOEVER comes to pass is 100% meticulously predestined.
      That is called EXHAUSTIVE DIVINE DETERMINISM.

      Accordingly – every impulse that comes to pass within the Calvinist’s brain is CAUSED by antecedent factors (i.e. infallible decrees) which are totally outside of his brain’s controls.

      John Calvin – in enunciating how that works describes how it works with Adam and Eve eating the fruit
      And he correctly declares “It did not happen by reason of nature – but rather by the will of god”.

      That is *THE* model of EXHAUSTIVE DIVINE DETERMINISM within Calvinism.
      ALL THINGS WITHOUT EXCEPTION – including every impulse that came to pass within the brains of Adam and Eve – are 100% meticulously predestined to come to pass infallibly – and as such *NOTHING* happens by reason of nature.

      The Calvinist will assert that fact without reservation – but then completely contradict it by attributing human actions to human nature *AS-IF* human impulses are not just as much 100% EXHAUSTIVELY predestined as Adam and Eve’s were.

      It is well understood in academia that a major weakness of DETERMINISM as a belief system is that it is utterly self-refuting and self-contradicting.

      Thus the poor Calvinist who unwittingly adopts it – is not cognizant of the fact that his mind is conditioned to live in a world of DOUBLE-SPEAK talking points.

      Blessings!

    • […] series responded to his second post on the same topic called “The Irrationality of Calvinism” which was just a re-worked and re-titled post of an earlier work called “Why Calvinism is The […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.