The Calvinist God on Trial

Jared Abbott, of the Appetite for Reality blog, responds to an Arminian post, "The Devious and Duplicitous Mind of the Calvinist God," entitling that response, "God on Trial," which I think is quite the misnomer. God is not on trial in the post: the Calvinist God is on trial. But by this, i.e., "the Calvinist God," I do not mean to suggest that all Calvinists worship a different God than does the Arminian or any other non-Calvinist even if some may. Though, we must admit, the statement regarding all Calvinists worshiping a different God is debatable when considering Calvinist R.C. Sproul's words: "Anytime we deny an attribute of the Lord revealed in Scripture, or allow our own preferences to determine His character, we are guilty of refined idolatry." (link) (emphasis added) Keep the italicized portion in mind as we engage the character of God as outlined, defined, and defended by the Calvinist. If the Calvinist is wrong about his biblically-determined preference of God's character then Calvinism leads its advocates into idolatry. No doubt Calvinists like Sproul, or John Piper, are quite confident that others are in danger of "refined idolatry" but not themselves.

Because Jared freely chose to copy and paste comments from that post, and then provide the reader with a response, I want to respond and expound upon his various responses without quoting the original comments that warrant his responses. Jared begins: "If God is exhaustively sovereign does that make Him responsible for sin?" But that questions assumes too much already: we do not all define "sovereignty" in exactly the same manner. Arminians quite firmly believe in the sovereignty of God. But we do not contextualize that sovereignty within the framework of determinism. Whatever occurs in the earth is not manifested because God decreed for the event to happen, as in Calvinism, though God remains in complete control of all such events; He can allow those events and prevent others of which we are unaware; and He can heal damages accrued due to consequences and various circumstances. In short, humans bring about sin and evil, not God.

If I exhaustively respond to every comment made by Jared this post would be burdensome. So I want to highlight our disagreements since, even as he confesses, we agree upon much theologically. Jared holds that God has decreed whatever happens in the earth, both good and bad, and uses Scripture as a defense. He offers Lamentations 3:37-38 as evidence: "Who can command and have it done, if the Lord has not ordained it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?" Contextually, this lament belonging to Jeremiah occurs during a time of grief, when Israel is reaping the consequences for her willful (not decreed) sinful actions. God promises good to Israel when she is following Him faithfully and promises bad consequences to Israel when she is disobeying Him and sinning. So, "good and bad" come from the LORD in that sense, and is to be properly appropriated for this context. Herein lies the problem for the Calvinist.

When a Calvinist reads verses in the Old Testament, and Calvin himself is equally guilty of this interpretive error, the passage is read as though it applies to all people in a general sense. So, in this case, Jeremiah intends to convey, according to the Calvinist, that God at all times and in all circumstances decrees good and evil. Yet, Jeremiah himself contextualizes our passage, by directly following the two quoted verses thusly: "Why should any who draw breath complain about the punishment of their sins?" (Lam. 3:39) In other words, when people receive bad consequences for the bad that they freely sewed, they should not be surprised or complain. God has, in this context, decreed good for obedience and bad for disobedience. To then use this passage as a proof-text denoting God's universal decree of all that comes to pass, good and evil, is to abuse the text.

The problem with abusing a text like this, and granting a faulty interpretation, is that this faulty interpretive method warrants consequences: suggesting, from this text, that God decrees both good and evil paints the character of God in a negative light. The Calvinist is then obliged to defend his portrait of God as not being evil for decreeing evil. You see, then, that the Calvinist has created his own problem: he now has to defend the character of God that his own confession has occasioned. In an effort to merit sovereignty to God, thus making Him glorious, the Calvinist has actually defamed the character of God and diminished His rightful glory. But Jared responds: "In either case, God knew everything that would happen before the creation. I think this is the reason why William's case against Calvinism ultimately fails." Yet here we discover a failure of the Calvinist to distinguish between "foreknowing everything that would happen" and "decreeing everything that would happen." What is the primary difference rendering Arminianism superior to Calvinism?

The answer is framed within cause and permission. From my perspective, Calvin and the Calvinist grants no higher concept to the notion of permission than mere lip service, given that God not only has decreed whatever comes to pass, but also brings such about, as Calvin in no uncertain terms argues.1 Let me be personal here: As a former Calvinist, what struck fear within me was conceiving of and defending a God who decreed and brings to pass some of the most heinous actions known among mortals and devils; and then, knowing and confessing in my heart to God that He is the one who conceived of these sinful evils, from eternity past nonetheless, and then holds people responsible for doing what He decreed and brought to pass was more than I could admit to God. At some point during my exit out of Calvinism, I feared God so much that I could no longer look at Him and confess that He could, as holy and righteous and just, decree sin and evil.

I became increasingly suspicious of the proof-texts offered by Calvinist scholars to the contrary -- that God decrees sin and evil -- and then, later, abandoned the system entirely. The primary issue between Arminians and Calvinists is not total depravity, not unconditional election, not limited atonement, irresistible grace nor even perseverance of the saints, but the character of our sovereign God. We hold that God could have unconditionally elected to save only some; we just find the theory contradictory to too many other passages throughout both testaments. Our chief concern is the manner in which the portrait of God as painted by the Calvinist morphs the God of the Bible in unethical and immoral -- to say nothing of unloving and unjust -- hues.

Jared contends that my interpretation of Jeremiah 7:31 and Jeremiah 19:5 is untenable, that the Arminian implies both a figurative and a literal interpretation within each verse, but that is a misunderstanding. God Himself insists that the child-sacrifice of the Israelites was not decreed by Him, thus undermining Calvinism entirely, and that such did not enter His mind. But here is the misunderstanding: the phrase "enter My mind" refers to the decreeing of the horrible sacrificing of their children. The decreeing of the Israelites to the sacrificing of their children to a false god never entered the mind of God: decreeing such never entered His mind. Now, this cannot be admitted by the Calvinist. God most certainly did decree that the Israelites sacrifice their children to a false god -- He even, according to Calvin, brought such about by His own will and proactive sovereignty.2

JOHN CALVIN REFUSES COMMUNION TO THE LIBERTINES (ANTINOMIANS)

But Jared does not attempt to wiggle out of this deplorable view of God's character. As a matter of fact, he does not deny but defends the Calvinistic notion that God decrees, brings about, and renders certain sin, wickedness and evil. What is worse, though, is that he attempts a tu quoque argument, insisting that, in Arminianism, God's foreknowing the child-sacrifice of the Israelites "makes Him responsible for evil in some sense." I sharply disagree. As a matter of fact, Jared broadens this assertion to "any orthodox view of Christianity." This concession is unnecessary, I think, and only grants strength to overt atheism. He presents the following analogy:
Imagine that a scientist succeeded in inventing an artificially intelligent line of androids. These androids turned out to be highly destructive and dangerous machines, and committed a series of violent acts against apparently innocent people. Eventually, the scientist responsible for inventing the androids was brought to trial, since society ultimately held him responsible for the actions of his creations. The scientist explained that he had the ability to control the androids at all times from a master computer. He also confessed that he had trained the androids to be useful servants of humanity, but that he had known before he even built the androids that they would commit these violent acts. He not only knew that they were capable of such actions, but knew the particulars of every act of violence before they occurred.

Given the fact that he was fully aware of what the androids would do before he built them, and that he had the ability to stop these actions by exercising control via the master computer, would it really make a difference to the court whether he exhaustively programmed every action of the androids or just built them in spite of the fact that he knew every detail of their future bloody deeds and allowed the androids to act? In either case the scientist would be ultimately responsible for the android reign of terror.
This analogy represents a convoluted notion of Calvinism. What is missing, of course, is the Calvinistic theory that God, or the scientist, had pre-programmed every thought, word, and action of the androids. Jared even assumes a quasi-Arminian notion of free will among the androids and simple foreknowledge of the scientist. But in Calvinism there is no free will and there is no simple foreknowledge. A core tenet of Calvinism is that God could not foreknow any conceivable notion of the future because, like in Open Theism, that future did not exist. So God decreed a future-history for the world, including all that would happen, and who would inhabit that world. Even our debate here was decreed from eternity past by the Calvinist God. So, the above analogy is not even consistent within a Calvinist paradigm. The scientist, in consistent Calvinism, created the androids, decreed every notion conceivable, including their thoughts, words, and actions, and is, without doubt, responsible for whatever the decreed-androids think and say and do.

Not so in Arminianism! How? Because, even though God foreknows what a person will do, that person commits the act freely -- unconstrained by the decree of God to the performance of the act. But could God not prevent the person from freely performing a sinful or wicked act? Certainly, He is capable of such prevention, and even may do so on occasion (cf. Gen. 20:6 -- though, in this case, God prevented the man from sinning because God knew the integrity of the man's heart). But if we demand that God prevent a free agent from sinning, in every instance universally, then those agents are no longer free. As long as we exist in a fallen condition, and as long as we are free to our sinful actions, God will allow free and sinful people to the performance of their sinful desires. He will hold all responsible, and He can hold all responsible, because He in no sense decreed, brought about, or rendered certain that the individual perform the sin that he or she manifested.3

Now, to suggest that the Arminian view of God in this respect is the same as that of the Calvinist is to insult both systems of thought, as many would agree on both sides. Jared errantly concludes: "As it turns out, the God of John Calvin and the God of Jacobus Arminius are one and the same. If Calvin's God is devious and duplicitous, then so is Arminius's." This is, simply, confused and errant. The difference between the two conceptions of God -- Calvin's notion that God decreed and rendered certain sin among mortals and Arminius that God allows people to act freely and unconstrained -- are polar opposites. Only by confusing or conflating the ideology of one man for the beliefs of the other can one render such a misguided and misunderstood conclusion.

Of course, Jared defends the theory that God decrees sin and evil by pointing to God's decreeing His Son to die for the sin of the world (Acts 2:22-24). This, too, was my stock answer to the challenge when I was a Calvinist. I think the answer fails miserably. Why? Because there should be a stark and devastating distinction between God decreeing the sacrifice of His Son, in order to redeem a people for His name, and decreeing the rape of a two-year-old girl. That Calvinists fail consistently to draw such distinctions is telling: they are willing to defend a hermeneutic that sanctifies the rape of a two-year-old in order to, allegedly, bring glory to God for His so-called sovereignty (as defined by Calvinists). Now, you may think that is a harsh statement, and that I have breached sanity in writing those words. No, my friends, this is the harsh reality of Calvinism and the Calvinist God. God is not on trial here: the Calvinist God is on trial. He is found wanting, unjust, and responsible for decreeing and bringing into reality the most abominable acts known among mortals and devils. The Calvinist God hates the sin He decrees that people commit.

Calvinists demur: "No evil act that we can think of in history -- whether the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, African chattel slavery in the early United States, or the Sandy Hook shooting -- can compare to the violent murder of the sinless Son of God." Allow me, then, to point out another obvious truth about the Cross event: Jesus willingly laid down His life for wretched sinners. Calvinists can emphasize to their advantage that God decreed this event; however, Jesus willingly laid down His life for wretched sinners, and was not compelled to that event by some secret decree of God.

By the secret decree of God in Calvinism, however, a two-year-old girl is raped; by the secret decree of God men are raped in prison by other men; by the secret decree of God thousands upon thousands of young girls are carried away into sex slavery; and Calvinists want us to adopt this kind of view of God? These sinful acts are not endured by the victims in a willing and redemptive sense. Yet Calvinists misuse the Cross event as a means of portraying God in such a light that He decrees whatever comes to pass -- rape, incest, sex slavery, drug addiction, abortion, adultery, and the like all, allegedly, "for His glory." Allow me to be painstakingly clear: this is a detestable theology.

__________

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1.

2 Ibid.

3 As to the atheistic claim against God mentioned by Jared: the Arminian does maintain a better answer than does the Calvinist. Dr. Bruce A. Little comments: "Another problem arises when one thinks through the logic of the question. If a horrific evil is horrific because of how it compares to another evil [which is subjective or relative to the opinion of each person], then logically this will mean that all evil should be prevented. Consider the following argument. Suppose we represent the evil in the world by X and the varying degrees of evil by X+1, X+2, X+3 and so forth, where the higher the number associated with X, the worse the evil. X+3 is a worse evil than X+1.

"For arguments sake, let's also assume that X+5 is the worse evil imaginable to man. Man requests that God prevent X+5. The request is for God to prevent the evil before it happens (this in itself poses a problem [not merely regarding the notion of free will, and God being ultra-deterministic, but also that we would then have no concept of X+5]). This means it will never have been a part of the human experience. Assuming God prevents X+5, the worst evil in the human experience will be X+4. However, when the same logical procedure is applied to X+4 as was to X+5, the worst evil in the human experience is now X+3. Taken to its logical conclusion, the request would not stop until God has prevented all evil." See A Creation-Order Theodicy: God and Gratuitous Evil (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2005), 163-64.

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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.