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.
[Tweet “One of the many reasons I am a Calvinist has to do with the tension that is allowed that is not allowed in other systems”]
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.
[Tweet “Calvinists will redefine neither divine election nor human freedom to make them fit a more rational system. “]
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.
[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.
Let the assault begin . . .
Course Recommendation: The Theology Program Soteriology
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. He can be contacted at [email protected]