Chosen But Free: Was Calvin a Calvinist?

The second half of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free, totaling some 137 pages, is the section called Appendices. Having proof-texted his way through the early Church fathers on the subject of free will (189-98), assuming that their statements support his semi-Pelagianism, he then questions whether Calvin was a Calvinist and then informs the reader as to the origins of "extreme Calvinism," i.e., the historic, orthodox, classical Calvinism that the majority of Calvinists have argued and defended for the last five centuries with which Geisler disagrees.

Prior to the Appendices, Geisler addresses his (Calvinist) critics, of special note are his answers to two charges: 1) the charge of "denying sovereignty by affirming free will"; and 2) the charge of "Arminianism" (184-86), both of which are addressed in the previous post: "Geisler Rejects the Arminianism He Misrepresents." Incidentally, one of his critics, James White, charges Geisler with "putting philosophy over exegesis" (186-88), a charge with which I actually agree. However, I am not impressed with White's proffered "exegesis" in The Potter's Freedom, either, and conclude that, if White's example of exegesis is the standard, then Geisler is only slightly worse for defending his views using philosophy mixed with scriptural proof-texting.

Patience may find an inevitable tethering while reading Norman Geisler's Appendix Two, "Was Calvin a Calvinist?" He begins: "At first blush, it may seem absurd to ask whether John Calvin was a Calvinist. But he was not the first in the history of thought to have his views distorted by his disciples." (199) (emphasis added) In principle, he is right, in that Calvin is not the first one in the history of thought to have his views distorted -- distorted even by his disciples. But Geisler's next comment is, from an historical perspective, unforgivable: "Our thesis here is that Calvin himself is the norm for Calvinism. Five-Point Calvinism (T-U-L-I-P) ... is extreme Calvinism, on at least one crucial point: limited atonement." (199) One feels a massive sympathy for Calvinists while reading Geisler's book, watching him deconstruct historic Calvinism, redefine key theological terms and then declare himself the orthodox Calvinist. Here we clearly see historical revisionism.

As mentioned elsewhere, the idea that Calvin accepts or rejects the doctrine of limited atonement is one of perspective. (link) So, the issue is not so cut-and-dried, as Geisler wants his readers to think. The subject of the atonement, as we discover the same within the various writings of Calvin, leads Moïse Amyraut (1596-1664) to adopt a "four-point" Calvinist position. He also believes himself to be accurately interpreting Calvin. He pulls a "Geisler" four centuries prior to the advent of Geisler. Or Geisler is pulling an "Amyraut." Still, Amyraut agrees with Calvin on the doctrines of Total Depravity (and Total Inability), Unconditional Election, and Irresistible Grace, so he would disagree sharply with Geisler's summations on Calvin not being a proper Calvinist.

Our author quotes reference after reference of Calvin suggesting that the atonement is expiated on behalf of "the world." (200-03) Is Geisler reading or interpreting Calvin accurately? In his commentary on St John, Calvin writes, "As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us," here he is referring to Jesus coming to us from heaven, cf. John 3:13, "and why He was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish." (link) (emphases added) There, I will use that comment to support the notion that Calvin agrees with the future-theologian Jacob Arminius, and that Arminius is merely being faithful to Calvin, who is actually an anachronistic Arminian. Am I permitted to such a conclusion?

Were I to cherry-pick some quotations from Arminius, I can morph him into a staunch Reformed Calvinist, and not even overwork myself in the process. For example, Arminius argues, "Predestination therefore, as it regards the thing itself, is the Decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which He resolved within Himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt, and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of His own glorious grace, believers on whom He had decreed to bestow faith."1 (emphasis added) So, God grants faith with salvation only to some whom He had decreed to be recipients of the eternal blessing of salvation. Am I interpreting Arminius correctly? Elsewhere he writes: "We attribute Eternity to this Decree [of Predestination], because God does nothing in time, which He has not decreed to do from all eternity."2 So God has predestined some to faith and salvation and not others. Arminius is a Calvinist.

Still elsewhere Arminius insists: "The primary Efficient Cause of Repentance is God, and Christ as He is, through the Spirit, Mediator between God and man."3 So God grants to some people, His elect, the repentance needed for salvation. Must God actually cause some people to repent and to trust in Christ? "Faith is a gracious and gratuitous gift of God, bestowed according to the administration of the means necessary to conduce to the end; that is, according to such an administration as the justice of God requires either towards the side of mercy [i.e., salvation] or towards that of severity [i.e., reprobation]."4 So, those with faith in Christ are granted that faith by means of a particular gift from God, their Elector. Must the elect actively receive this gift of faith by use of free will or passively receive this gift of faith directly from God? "Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word 'Grace,' I mean by it that which is the Grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration."5 (emphasis added) Arminius is, therefore, a Calvinist in the Reformed tradition. The historical proceedings of Dordt, then, are a mystery.



I think I have sufficiently demonstrated that, by carefully selecting certain writings and taking them out of their proper contexts, I can transform Arminius into an orthodox Calvinist. From my perspective that is exactly what Dr. Geisler accomplishes with Calvin: transforming Calvin into a non-Calvinist. But when Calvin is allowed to communicate contextually, we discover that Calvin is not the non-Calvinist, but Geisler is the non-Calvinist. For example, regarding "the world" of John 3:16, Calvin restricts that group to those whom God unconditionally elected unto salvation. Commenting on John 3:16, in conjunction with 1 John 4:10, Calvin insists that the nature of God's love and hatred, meaning His love for wicked sinners and hatred toward wicked sinners, is a mystery: "The nature of this mystery is to be learned from the first chapter to the Ephesians, where Paul, teaching that we were chosen in Christ, at the same time adds that we obtained grace in him."6 Again, referring to John 3:16, Calvin contextualizes the referent "the world" to the elect:
Nay, rather He faithfully discloses it [God's will] to us [the elect] as it was from the beginning, and always will be. The practical influence of this doctrine ought also to be exhibited in our prayers. For though a belief of our election animates us to invoke God, yet when we frame our prayers, it were preposterous to obtrude it upon God, or to stipulate in this way, 'O Lord, if I am elected, hear me.' . . . We shall thus be disentangled from many snares if we know how to make a right use of what is rightly written; but let us not inconsiderately wrest it to purposes different from that to which it ought to be confined."7 (emphases added)
In his commentary on St John, Calvin further restricts God's love of "the world" at John 3:16 to the unconditionally elect, "And the words of Christ mean nothing else, when He declares the cause to be in the love of God. For if we wish to ascend higher, the Spirit shuts the door by the mouth of Paul, when he informs us that this love was founded on the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:5)." (link) (emphasis added) Calvin's quoting of Ephesians 1:5 properly frames the purpose of God's will in His love for "the world," i.e., the world of the unconditionally elect. While Calvin admits that God employs the universal term "whosoever," He does so "both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers"; yet Calvin qualifies that statement and contextualizes it thusly: "Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith." (link) (emphasis added) This teaching Geisler rejects.

Calvinist scholar R.C. Sproul underscores the fact that Calvin insists: "... Christ declares that the doctrine of the Gospel, though it is preached to all without exception, cannot be embraced by all, but that a new understanding and a new perception are requisite; and, therefore, that faith does not depend on the will of men, but that it is God who gives it."8 (emphasis added) This language is particular, not universal, not a proactive demonstration of the love and salvific provision of God for all people of "the John 3:16 world." Explicitly, however, Dr. Sproul quotes Calvin to the effect:
To "come to Christ" being here [at John 6:44] used metaphorically for "believing," the Evangelist, in order to carry out the metaphor in the appropriate clause, says that those [not universal but particular] persons are "drawn" whose understandings God enlightens, and whose hearts he bends and forms to the obedience of Christ. . . . [W]e ought not to wonder if many refuse to embrace the Gospel; because no man will ever of himself be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by His Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not "drawn," but that God bestows this grace on those whom He has elected.9 (emphasis added)
Calvin is the quintessential Calvinist! Calvin properly outlines, formulates, and defends Calvinism proper. Even if the possibility remains that Calvin did not promote the doctrine of Limited Atonement, Calvin is still a Calvinist, in the most proper sense of the term. Dr. Geisler's attempts at "softening" Calvin's perceived "rough" theologically-deterministic language is futile.

When Calvin himself properly qualifies his own theology, regarding God's love for the world and His desire to save His unconditionally elect, how, then, can Dr. Geisler suggest that Calvin's followers are misinterpreting him? All Calvinists, including John Calvin himself, are theologically conveying the same core message: 1) God is absolutely sovereign in deterministic conception; 2) Humanity is totally depraved, totally incapable of believing in Christ apart from God's gracious regenerative work; 3) Therefore God has unconditionally elected to save some, and to reprobate others, in order to demonstrate His grace and His wrath; 4) God elected Jesus to die for the sins of His unconditionally elect; and 5) God will, by necessity, render certain the ultimate salvation of His unconditionally elect through the inner ministry of the Holy Spirit. I think that Calvinists should not be the only ones refuting Dr. Geisler's attempts at hijacking Calvinism.

I conclude this series with this post. The rest of his Appendices repeats what was already expressed in the first half of the book. Were I to continue, I would merely be repeating the same notions over and over again, how Dr. Geisler continually misrepresents Calvinism, as well as Arminianism, as he promotes his semi-Pelagianism and names it "moderate Calvinism." The harshest criticism I can state, without being overtly polemical, is that I am astonished that someone with a Ph.D. wrote this book. Chosen But Free is poorly reasoned, poorly argued, and is no more than a work of historical revisionism that bears little semblance to truth.

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XV. On Divine Predestination," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:226.

2 Ibid., 2:227.

3 Ibid., 2:238.

4 Ibid., 2:723.

5 Ibid., 2:700.

6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.7.2.

7 Ibid., II.24.5.

8 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 115.

9 Ibid.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.