Monday, June 18, 2012

Who’s in Charge Here, Anyway?

I recently shocked a friend of mine by declaring I wasn’t a Calvinist. Nothing against Calvin personally, but those who tried to step into his shoes did quite a job distorting some of the most basic Christian doctrines – election, atonement, grace, original sin, just to name a few. Calvinism seems to have gotten the eternal security piece right, but the other 4 points disfigure the essence of God and with that, since we were created in His image, contort the nature of man.

Needless to say, whole books could result from such a discussion so I’ll take this one tiny piece at a time. Lately, I’ve been asked by several different people to address issues relating to the sovereignty of God, so I’ll start there.

But first, a caveat – the Bible is the source of specific information regarding the nature of God and man, and the Bible is not just a list of disconnected quotes; it is an infinitely complex, multilayered arrangement of divine concepts and history (both past and future) and must always be understood in the light of its entirety. No doctrine can contradict another.
God is rational; He made us to be a shadow of Himself, knew we would fall, and still left us the Bible with the intent that we learn from it and think about it rationally. So let us go as far as we can:

1.     Sovereignty refers to God’s supreme majesty, His divine right to control what He has made. I don’t know anyone who doubts that the buck stops with God. Even atheists seem to agree with this idea; that’s why they’re so angry – it’s all His fault, therefore He can’t exist. (!?)
2.     Godness involves more than just sovereignty. Deity (I’m including all 3 members of the Trinity) is also perfect righteousness, absolute justice, love, veracity, immutability, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, and eternal life. Add to that the epitome of creativity and an amazing sense of humor.
3.     If God made us “in His image,” we are fallen, lesser versions of those attributes. Are we not concerned with goodness? Do we not strive for fairness? Do we not love? Do we not value truth, stability, and strength? Do we not have intelligence? Life? Presence? We create, not ex nihilo, true, but is not creativity one of our most driving forces? Do we not laugh? And do we not have some limited sovereignty over our lives? Do we not have free will? (Aye, there’s the rub – more about that later.)
4.     God is also the archetype of balance. All of His attributes are in perfect equilibrium. His omnipotence, for instance, is limited by his righteousness – He can’t do evil. His immutability controls His justice – He can’t just up and change the rules. His omniscience informs His veracity – He can tell the truth because He knows the truth. All of His perfections are inter-related and interdependent.
5.     God’s free will, His sovereignty, is limited by His perfection. We aren’t so constrained; we have very little problem choosing to do something that goes against our morals or our intelligence. We eat too much, drink too much, worry too much, lie often, steal occasionally. We suffer a midge of guilt, but otherwise we dive right in, law and common sense be damned. But God can’t do that; God is perfect. His omniscience, His righteousness, His justice, His love, His veracity, His immutability are perfect. Therefore, His sovereignty is both limited and perfected by His other attributes; He cannot choose to do something wicked. He can’t choose to do something unjust. He can’t lie. He can’t just up and change His nature.
6.     If God can just choose, willy-nilly whom He will elect, whom He will save, and whom He will not, then:
a.     The issue of salvation (John 3:16) is false because then our salvation would be not a matter of faith, but a matter of God’s capricious choice.
b.     The Great Commission is a joke – see #1.
c.     Satan would be correct in his accusation of God’s unfairness.
7.     If God is sovereign, can He not decide to share that sovereignty just as He has chosen to share His omniscience?
8.     Isn’t He omniscient enough, omnipotent enough (strange phrases) to control things even though He has shared that free will?  Are we not imposing limitations on God by claiming He couldn’t pull it off?
9.     Calvinism goes off the cliff with its emphasis on sovereignty as if it outranked God’s other perfections. Such an arrangement would make it possible for God to be a petty tyrant, would it not? If He is more sovereign than He is good, or fair, truthful, are we safe? Can we trust Him? I think not.

God has not presented Himself as a vacillating, unpredictable player of eenie-meenie-miney-moe. He has demonstrated His fairness, above and beyond, by climbing onto the cross as the Last Adam to make right what went wrong in the Garden. He has said clearly that our salvation depends on faith in Jesus Christ, not on the vagaries of His untrammeled will.  

The church today suffers mightily from this error. How can a dying world take Christ seriously if His people proclaim a gospel we don’t believe in? If we really buy the idea that God chooses, irrationally and capriciously, who gets to trust in Christ’s work, then what is the point of evangelism? If grace is irresistible then those who are chosen to believe will and those who won’t, won’t, so why bother?  

But most importantly, where is the grace in such an arrangement? Where is the grace in providing salvation only for some? If God can make us believe, then why doesn’t He make everyone believe? (2ndPeter 3:9) Why create a person just to condemn him?

Calvinism’s fixation on sovereignty at the expense of God’s other perfections is forcing the church to attempt, like a broken chair, to stand on only one leg. Liberal Christianity tried that, recognizing only the attribute of love, crippling the power of the gospel, painting a picture of a god who would love his creatures unconditionally, but would kill his own son. Evangelical Christianity is in the same precarious pickle – wobbling around on a one-legged chair.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.


  1. Deana wrote: "Calvinism seems to have gotten the eternal security piece right…"

    Actually, I think even this is a bit optimistic. "Perseverance of the Saints" (the 'P' in TULIP) may well have been a way of expressing eternal security in the past, but it's been distorted badly into the idea that if a Christian doesn't "persevere" in good works and faith, then rather than say (as the Arminian would) that salvation is lost, the Calvinist says that the person was never actually saved in the first place.

    Either way, you notice, a person's works become the deciding factor.

    1. Yes -- you're right. Isn't it interesting that works -- whatever that means -- take precedence even when the theologians are busy swearing that it's all up to God.

  2. Goodness! It would take an entire book to address all the issues brought up in this post. Suffice it to say that I don't know a single Calvinist (and I know many and have studied many) who believes the way you have stated above.
    After taking theology at PBC I came to the conclusion that there are great men and women of God on both sides of the issue.
    I also came to the conclusion that God is greater than any of our conclusions regarding Him! I'm thinking we could probably agree on this last statement?

    1. Sandy -- thanks for reading. I figured I'd ruffle a few feathers, but I like things discussed out in the open and since a friend of mine asked.... well, I was honest. I do agree with you that the Truth is probably not something anyone has a complete handle on, but I think we have to keep refining -- "rightly dividing the word of truth." Where, specifically, do you disagree with what I said? I'm really curious -- not being argumentative. Thanks --dc

    2. I'm not sure what part of the above doesn't fairly represent Calvinist doctrine, Sandy. I have been listening intently to Calvinists over the past several years as I've been trying to wrap my mind around what it is they teach. I've personally wanted to get my understanding from Calvinists and not just from critics of Calvinism. My observation is that, while it's true you'll find some disagreement between Calvinists on certain aspects of TULIP, this notion that we can't think of man as having any genuine choice in the matter because of God's sovereignty is, as far as I can tell, universal among Calvinists.

      I will grant you, however, that they generally try to avoid describing their view quite as succinctly as my mom has done here.

      By the way, I totally agree that we will always end up with some "mystery" when we try to understand an infinite God. It almost goes without saying.