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Friday, June 19, 2015

Dear Preacher: On Calvinism and Pride

Dear Preacher Bob:

[Originally presented March 26, 2014]
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.]

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