Thursday, June 23, 2022

Fatal Friends: Dawkins and Calvin

Hey, look — John Calvin and Richard Dawkins are riding on the same bus!

To be fair, I think neither is likely to be very happy the other has come along for the ride. They’re probably sitting at opposite ends, looking away from each other, and maybe pretending to read an outdated copy of The Times. But they’re riding to the same station.

You see, both would have us believe the same thing: that human beings have no free will. Calvin would say, “God is the only effective will in the universe”, and Dawkins would say, “Matter and energy create your will.” But both of them would be very happy to put you in the same position. That is, to eliminate all belief in human will — and with it, of course, all related things, like freedom, genuine choice, personal responsibility and human identity. Bad doctrine makes odd bedfellows … or odd riding mates, anyway.

Certainty Hunger

In evangelical circles today, I regret to say, Calvinism is back with a vengeance. Suddenly quite a few people are starting to believe again that God’s will is like Fate — a sort of iron destiny by which every event is totally constrained, and in light of which all human will and individuality rendered fictional. Even the fact that this view makes God the author of evil does not slow the stampede toward Calvinist Fatalism.

The New Calvinism is really a distortion of one aspect of God to the exclusion of all others. Neo-Calvinists themselves call this doctrine “sovereignty”, but they really mean the same as the old Calvinists meant by their misuse of the biblical terms “election” or “predestination”. By all these, they understand, essentially, determinism — the view that God does everything, and human beings are mere pawns in the divine game. Choice is impossible. Faith is reinterpreted as a post-forced-salvation event, regeneration is placed before salvation itself, and other such unbiblical absurdities abound in their doctrine. But people today have little doctrine, and in their nervous perplexity, are much more drawn to facile certitudes than to complex investigations of truth.

Surely this fact needs some explanation. Why does an old heretical doctrine that utterly denies the possibility of all human freedom have any appeal to modern liberal people at all, let alone get embraced with such enthusiasm as Calvinism has received in recent days?

Wishy-Washiness and Relativism

I could take a guess. I think it has happened because we live in a society that has become unbelievably wishy-washy and relativistic about truth. Lots of people are confused, scared and unable to find answers — in fact, not even able to decide what method to use to start looking for those answers. In Christian circles, this relativism has permeated deeply, robbing many of their confidence and confusing many about the faith. Living this way has become increasingly difficult and disturbing to many, especially to those who are not really pressing on in the knowledge of God. We’ve got a huge nostalgia for certainty, definiteness, reassurance and confirmation. We’re dangerously susceptible to being drawn toward anyone whose voice rings with those qualities, if he also claims to be a Christian like us. If he is handsome, speaks well, and has a nice tie, then we’re sold.

The New Calvinists have the right package. They’ve got some spiffy spokespeople, who have all the sincerity, assurance, enthusiasm and certainty we’ve been longing to find. They’re nice folks, with great hair. They’ve got conferences, study books and downloads for everyone. That their doctrine is off-kilter goes unnoticed, since we’ve all long ago become lamentably theologically tone-deaf and have lost confidence in our personal discernment long ago. We’ll take certainties if someone is offering them: truth is optional. And these guys are nothing if not certain.

We won’t worry if they tell us that nothing we do is really done by us, but everything is a forced product of the ironclad divine will. We won’t flinch if this takes away all key Christian values like faith, freedom, authenticity, individuality and responsibility. Even if we lose the power to love God ourselves, some of us (the more unthinking souls) will take this as a fair trade for some restoration of certainty — however illusory that certainty might be.

Questions, Questions …

I hope by now it’s pretty clear I don’t think certainty itself is a virtue. Not without truth. Calvinism is a sort of distortion or bloating of one aspect of theology to the exclusion of every other. That God is sovereign no Christian denies. But that God’s sovereignty is such that we can simply mow down much of scripture to affirm it is clearly unbalanced. And a deep and context-based study of the word of God soon dispels the Calvinist errors.

For the good of the Lord’s people, I hope they’ll soon be gone. I’m not optimistic, but I hope their day will be short. It will depend on our willingness to go back to theology. Still, some small good has come out of the fact that the Neo-Calvinists have revived attention to the nature of God. In particular, they raise questions like this: If God is God, then what place has human freedom? How can mere mortals resist the will of one who is, by all accounts, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent? How could anyone or anything resist God’s least wish?

Refuting the Neo-Calvinists raises additional questions: If God predetermines everything, then why is not everyone saved? For the Word clearly says that God is “not willing that any should perish”, and that he takes no delight in the death of the wicked, and wants them to repent. But how can they repent, when whether they will be saved or not is, according to Calvinism, not in their hands, not their choice?

The questions continue. If God has instructed all men to be saved, and his will is irresistible, how come some are still not? How is that even possible? And if they are not saved, has the word of God failed? Moreover, if they are already saved, then why bother with the commandments that they should believe, to have faith, and to be saved? Where is God’s authority, if his word can be resisted, and where is man’s responsibility if it cannot?

How can man be respons-ible when he is said to be not response-able?

A New Idea Into the Mix

I was reading this week in a fascinating book by one of my favourite authors, Jacques Ellul. He’s not for everyone, I admit — he’s pretty technical at times, and at times I’m not always sure I agree with all of his theological niceties. At the same time, I find him unfailingly thought-provoking and profound; and if he occasionally misses the mark it’s never because he shoots too low in the attempt to hit it. He’s ambitious, eloquent and very challenging every time. In short, good reading.

I found myself both stirred and made curious by a section I just read from one of his books. In The Politics of God and The Politics of Man, Ellul wrote:

“When God himself appears and speaks, whether to Moses, Isaiah, or Paul, there can no longer be any question of autonomy, independence or liberty on man’s part. This is why this mode is rare. When God’s act is translated into human words, the hearer can always contest it. He can always declare: This is a myth, an error, an invention, a prophecy post eventum.”

This is really interesting. I understand Ellul to be saying essentially that when God speaks directly to human beings the thing he declares inevitably comes true immediately. No human will or choice can intervene between the declaration and the event itself, because God speaking directly is inexorable, irresistible, and incontrovertible. No one’s asking man what he thinks.

I think the threat of direct speech is precisely what the psalmist is speaking of when he alludes to divine judgment of the nations in Psalm 2. The people are “imagining a vain thing”, namely that they can cast off any obligation to God. And then David says, “He will speak to them in his anger.” He will speak directly to the nations, and will break their resistance with a rod of iron. And when he does this, there is no thought of their being able to resist.

Direct Divine Speech

I would say this squares nicely with much that is said biblically about the words of God. In the beginning, the entire cosmos came into being at his word. Ten times in Genesis 1 the scriptures say, “God said”, and every time it was instantaneously established. Peter says, “the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God”. Hebrews says that everything only holds together by the word of his power. Jesus said that in order to fulfill the word of God, the inanimate stones would cry out. It has been also said that when the Lord Jesus raised Lazarus, it was necessary for him to use Lazarus’s name first, or all the dead would have been raised by his word. The scriptures seem very clearly to tell us that the direct word of God cannot be resisted.

But there’s a serious problem. If his word cannot be resisted, then what of human choice? What of freedom, and what of personhood? How can people hear the word of God, and yet have latitude to decide whether or not they will obey it? If God desires human beings to have freedom, to place their faith in him, to choose whom they will serve, and to love him freely as friends not slaves, then how can God preserve human autonomy while still speaking plainly?

Indirect Divine Speech

Enter the prophets: ordinary men (and women) who stepped into the intermediate position. Having been given the word of God, they obeyed — as the direct word must be obeyed — but those to whom they spoke the word were not so constrained. They could, if they chose to do so, decide to disobey the word of God, since they heard it only indirectly — as passed to them by men, not from the very mouth of God.

Always they could turn around and say, “This isn’t true”, “You’re mistaken”, or “You’ve made it up.” And today we have the additional dodge so beloved of the skeptics of the Bible, of saying, “Prophecies are sayings formed after the events have already taken place (post eventum), so we do not need to regard them seriously as revelations of the future by God.”

Human Freedom, Faith and Choice

I think Ellul is suggesting that we stand in a very graciously given relation to God, in which he does not ordinarily speak to mankind directly. If he did, all possibility of our resistance would be shattered — that is, if we can believe the record of scripture. When the voice of God came to them, the people begged that Moses would make it stop, because they simply could not bear it any longer. Not that it was a bad voice, obviously; it was just too overwhelmingly authoritative.

Echoes of that voice came through in the voice of our Lord. “No one ever spoke like this man”, said the baffled officers who returned from failing to arrest him. He spoke with authority, and not like a human teacher. But in him, as in Moses’ face, the glory of God was veiled so that the people could endure it. So he too is called a “prophet”, though he is God incarnate. The veiling of the Word made it possible for mankind to choose to accept or reject him.

The use of indirect rather than direct speech by God opens up the possibility of human freedom. One can always deny that a man is being truthful, and the world doesn’t end in fire and blood when one does. But God’s direct word holds the universe together, so it cannot be gainsaid or dismissed. It always prevails, because upon it the very fabric of reality depends. But one is quite able to criticize a man. One can always deny the messenger and dismiss the message one receives merely from him. One has no such power to contradict God himself.

Because of the possibility of resisting the indirect word, humans have been given the freedom by God to choose to accept or reject his word, so that not all that he wills is inevitably forced upon us, but we can choose to honor him or not, and so enter freely into a genuine relationship with him, not simply have our wills broken by the much greater will of God. But to achieve this, the sovereign God has to buffer his irresistible word by giving it to us through intermediaries. Thus we will be persuaded by his word and his character as revealed through that word, but not broken by his vast power. We will be given the dignity of a choice.

Can O’ Worms

Well, what do you think of Ellul’s idea? Is it possible that God’s use of prophets is so as to permit human choice? Is there a valuable difference between God’s direct word and his indirect one, even though both ultimately may have the same content? Could God be more fully “sovereign” (to borrow the Neo-Calvinist word) that the Neo-Calvinists themselves have even imagined? Could he be so “sovereign” that he can include genuine human free choice in his universe, and not lose track of his will?

I’m really drawn to think so. And I really think the scriptures back that view. But I suspect others may have input here, so I’m just going to throw the provocative idea out there and let you kick it around for me, just in case there’s something I’m overlooking. At the very least, I hope you’ll find the idea stimulating to your own faith.

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