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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dear Preacher: On Calvinism and Pride

Dear Preacher Bob:

This isn’t a complaint, just a reflection. My point is not to object, but rather to expand the range of possible answers to a question you raised a couple of weeks back. Would you bear with me while I do that?

You gave a message on the subject “The Sovereignty of God”. I agree that this is an essential topic and for the most part, I found myself rejoicing in your take on it.

Yet I must confess that there was a moment or two in which I found myself hesitant — moments when the language you chose seemed to take the teaching about God’s sovereignty in the direction of what is called in theology “Neo-Calvinism”, and which philosophers call “Hard Determinism” — namely, the view that human freedom is an illusion, and all events are preset by God before they happen. And thus having merged “sovereignty” more-or-less with the interpretation of Neo-Calvinism, you then concluded with the following …

You said, “As far as I can see, the only reason for not believing in it is pride”.

The purpose of this letter is simply to suggest some different ways of seeing things.

Firstly …

As you know, by inclination I’m certainly no Calvinist; but I want to say right away that I was not wounded by your remarks, just made pensive. Consequently, I thought carefully and gave them due consideration. Although they didn’t ring true to me at the time, I felt I ought to take the possibility very seriously, for a time of personal reflection is always appropriate before one thinks of responding to an exhortation to humility. That much is certain. But now that I’ve thought, and have searched my own motives as best I can, may I offer some alternate possibilities?

The first thing that occurs to me is that I really think that pretty much every Christian believes in “sovereignty”. By this I mean that all believe that Christ is the ultimate “King” and is in charge of things; I don’t mean that they all have precisely the same conception of the implications of that, but that everyone who comes to Christ does so understanding that they are surrendering their lives to the true King of the universe, and conceding the right of this King to rule in their lives completely.

That’s pretty much a sine qua non of salvation, I think: if one does not accept Christ as Lord and God as Sovereign, then what has one really accepted? Has one really understood the gospel, then?

It seems to me, though, that where the various parties who take issue over Neo-Calvinist “sovereignty” disagree is on how to understand that word — not on its accuracy. They all know that Christ is King; what they disagree about is how prescriptive His management of the universe has to be in order for that to be true. Does He have to mandate the movement of every molecule that twitches? Or is it possible that God allows human beings some measure of freedom of choice and action? How “tight” does sovereignty have to be in order to remain sovereignty?

And if this is all they are really disagreeing about, then they are not so far apart as the rhetoric on the subject from either side sometimes suggests. Both sides accept “sovereignty” as an attribute of God; they just don’t necessarily agree over what that requires.

If all this is true, it might be quite unfair to suggest that Christians who doubt the peculiar twist on “sovereignty” offered by Neo-Calvinists are failing to believe in the concept at all.

And Secondly …

The second thing I would offer is this: there are good motivations rather than mere “pride” that can be offered for resisting the particular twist on the doctrine of sovereignty preferred by the Neo-Calvinists.

Here are some:

1.   Scripture:  Neo-Calvinism denies that God “loves the world”. It denies that Christ was sincere when he wept over Jerusalem and said “I would … but you were not willing”. It denies that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”.

It is quite possible, then, for a Christian to reject Neo-Calvinist sovereignty out of a desire to believe Christ, rather than out of any pride motive.

2.   Responsibility for Evil:  Neo-Calvinism, since it holds that God is the only genuinely effective will in the universe, makes God responsible for evil. The true answer to what was done by Nero, Antiochus Epiphanes, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, to say nothing of the millions of wicked actions taken by lesser-known persons every day, would have to be God Himself!

If that’s the implication, then a Christian could reject Calvinism not out of pride but out of a sincere desire to believe God when He says He is not the author of evil.

3.   Regard for Israel:  Neo-Calvinism has an unhappy romance with a thing called “Replacement Theology”. Since it cannot make its case for its particular brand of “sovereignty” without stealing verses that clearly refer to Israel, allegorizing them, and making them apply to the Church (example: Romans chapters 9-11), it has to deny that God keeps his promise to national Israel, and to suppose that Israel is out of the plans of God. Yet we are explicitly instructed in Scripture to regard Israel — even in its state of rejection of Messiah, opposition to the gospel and antagonism toward Christians — as “beloved for the sake of their forefathers”. If we are to “love our enemies”, then how much more are we to love those to whom belongs the first right of adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the temple service and the promises, to say nothing of their biological link to the fathers of the faith and to the Christ Himself? And if Paul could “wish myself accursed” for their sake, how can any obedient Christian ever consent to disregard Israel?

Thus a Christian could reject Calvinism out of respect for the promises of God to Israel. In fact, an Inerrantist would definitely have to reject Neo-Calvinism for that reason. Again, I do not see a pride motive there, but rather a theological one.

4.   God’s Sovereign Right of Judgment:  A Christian could be serious about his personal responsibility to answer to God for his/her actions. But Neo-Calvinism insists that no person has free will, and that free will itself is an illusion (a feature it shares with Materialist Determinism, actually) and this would make the responsibility of man an illusion and judgment arbitrary. No one can be justly blamed for doing a thing they couldn’t help doing because they were programmed from before the foundation of the world to do it.

If that’s the way one sees the issue, then not pride but a humble and obedient sense of accountability would be a good reason to reject Neo-Calvinist “sovereignty”.

5.   Election to Damnation:  Calvinism, with its beliefs in “Irresistible Grace” and “Deterministic Electionism” and “Effective Call” inevitably is implicated in the doctrine of Double Damnation — namely, that God arbitrarily selects some to salvation, and others to damnation. This would turn the gospel call into a sham performance, since it would be an offer that the lost person would lack the power to accept. Thus it would be no fairer than inviting a cripple to dance — an act of cruel mockery, rather than an invitation to freedom.

If so, a Christian who believed in the sincerity and authenticity of the gospel call would naturally be inclined to refuse Calvinism — and no element of pride would need to be involved.

In short, then, I would suggest we would be doing a disservice to the Lord’s people to accuse any objector to Neo-Calvinism of mere “pride”. I trust I’ve adequately shown above that there can be other motives. Indeed, I think all five of the motives I’ve listed are free from being implicated in “pride”. One affirms Scripture, another asserts the innocence of God, a third honours God’s covenant with Israel, a fourth affirms the righteousness of the judgment of God, and the last one preserves the integrity of the gospel.

In Summary

Since all these motives are possible, would we be right to say that pride is the only reason for rejecting Neo-Calvinist “sovereignty”? True, there could be people for whom pride is the motive, but I can see many ways it’s clearly not necessarily the motive at all. Indeed, I would suggest that I know far more people who reject Calvinism for one of the above reasons than I know who reject it because they “don’t like being controlled”, or “have a pride problem” or something like that.

Again, I’m not complaining about what you said. I don’t feel slandered, ill-used or hurt personally. I’m just going to suggest that we can probably catch more listeners with a charitable reading of their objections. They might not be “prideful” after all, and if so, they could feel misunderstood if we call them that. There are better reasons than personal pride for doubting the particular Neo-Calvinist take on “sovereignty”.

I’m just sharing ideas here because I appreciate your ministry and want to see it continue and increase.

If you ever have any hesitation about something I suggest, please feel free to question me likewise. We’re in this together, and it’s all about Him.

Your brother,

Immanuel Can

[Names changed to protect the … well, to protect someone, anyway.]


  1. The Calvinism debate is not one I have gotten into in years. However, I really appreciate, in ANY debate, an approach like yours. "Nuance", in the political arena, has gotten a bad name, and rightly so; but any attempt (such as the one made in this article) to see the best in people and their motives (when there is no obvious evidence of bent thinking or ill will) is most welcome. As is the clarity of thought!

  2. Thank you for your kind comments. My point is simply to point out that charity works well on both sides. I think Calvinism is attractive to people for different reasons, depending on the person in question; I also think disinclination to Calvinism is possible and attractive for different reasons. The main thing is to listen to each other and assume no evil until we are certain of the motivations of the person to whom we are talking.

    Beyond that, the logical difficulties are a secondary question. But we'll never get to the logical issues until we accept each other, assuming each other to be persons of goodwill first. Communication and mutual learning always require goodwill.

  3. I loved the post itself, but the comment to anon, not so much and I'll tell you why.

    "I think Calvinism is attractive to people for different reasons.......each other to be persons of goodwill first"

    I don't buy this type of consideration to a Calvinist because it's clearly ungodly teaching. Jesus emphatically states "you're either with me or against me" and "the battle isn't against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers of darkness. Either Jesus is correct and he wished that "NONE should perish but for ALL to come to repentance" or He didn't.

    Where does Jesus teach that some are "doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify Him by their destruction?" Am I supposed to share goodwill with that, Immanuel?

    What kind of grace is the type you can't reject? Did Jesus have to die so that only the preordained could be saved? What kind of glory is that, surely not the shekinah glory my Savior has?

    I also love the argument about being a three-point Calvinist so they don't have to answer for all of this foolishness. Well, I believe either John Calvin taught from Godly revelation and inspiration or he didn't. Remember the for me or against me reference?
    Compromising the Gospel is not taught in my bible and I don't believe it's taught in yours either.

    2 John 7-11 teaches us how we should teach compromisers of the Gospel.

    Lastly, if any part of Calvinism is true then what type of punishment awaits those who preach the possibility of salvation to the unelected?

    Again, I loved the post. God bless you

    1. Micah:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Micah.

      I share some of your reservations on the theological position in question, and could perhaps add some as well. However, I'm going to stand by my earlier statement about assuming goodwill on the part of interlocutors from the other side.

      Why, you ask? Because it is quite possible for a person to believe Neo-Calvinist things without any particular malice in mind. He could, for example, believe wrongly because he had been taught wrongly, and had never heard another side or reflected deeply enough to detect a problem. Or there could be something in his past which, through no fault of his own, predisposed him to think Neo-Calvinism was desirable, but did not equip him to see alternatives. (For example, I have a dear friend who is sadly afflicted with misapprehensions of doctrine, and I think it's largely a reaction to an abusive father: and i do believe he can grow past that.) Or he could be a person who started out in the wrong place, but was migrating in his views in the right direction and would be willing to learn.

      In the present case of "the Preacher," I know he went to a seminary where they taught a particular slant. There he met men of reputation who impressed him with their oratorical flair and thunderous pronouncements. I can see that he imbibed some of their phrases and assumptions without testing them properly. I'm not sure, in fact, he knew how to test them. But by my best assessment, I don't think his personal understanding or commitment to Neo-Calvinism is very deep. He's a nice man, though he is not a particularly astute philosopher. In straightforward matters, he teaches truth and teaches quite well. Moreover, he's not mean-spirited or hard. He simply doesn't know better yet.

      I'm not saying I've never met Neo-Calvinists who are irrational, mean-spirited and obdurate; but that is not a feature unique to Calvinism as an error. Even real Christians can sometimes, through fear or fleshliness, fail to be gracious and circumspect. We all need to with personal humility, even when we speak the truth with confidence: "...with gentleness and reverence," the Scriptures say.

      So I stand by my comment. Let's be gracious if we can. If we need to be confrontational and blunt, it should not be to people who merely make mistakes, but only to those who knowingly insist on error.

      Still, I appreciate your encouragement very much, and take you in the best spirit in offering your thoughts.

  4. Enjoy the fervency of your response, Micah. I've never been one to write on this subject because to me, it's evident that if you deny the possibility of a genuine reaction (pro OR con) to a sincere instruction or command from God in his word, you make nonsense of the entire exercise. Surely we must be able to accept or reject such things, respecting of course the occasional situations in the word in which God "hardened his heart", etc., for particular reasons and under unusual circumstances.

    That said, there are clearly those who struggle with this issue, genuinely trying to find an answer.

    I suspect in the particular situation that prompted this post, there was room for interpretation as to what the preacher intended. It was, perhaps, not entirely clear whether the speaker was stark staring nuts or simply misspeaking, in which case there is probable some latitude to graciously allow him the opportunity to clarify his position. Of course, that's my thought. I wasn't there. So I'm curious to see what Immanuel has to say ...