A painting of John Calvin holding a book

The Confusion of Calvinism

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I’m subscribed to the Desiring God mailing list and I often read John Piper answering questions about Christian doctrine from curious believers. While I don’t think that peddling the term ‘Christian Hedonism’ is necessarily helpful, I appreciate Piper’s lengthy ministry, his biblical knowledge, and the insights he gives on theological subjects.

This week I read an interesting post on Piper’s website entitled Does God Control All Things All The Time? Aha! I thought. This is right up my street. I was genuinely interested to read what Piper had to say about this question which cuts into the heart of Christian theology.

As I read through the article I found myself in almost total agreement. I do agree with a lot of what Calvinists like Piper have to say about God’s sovereignty. But just as Piper was concluding, he made a statement that I think highlights why I could not ultimately describe myself as a Calvinist:

God’s sovereignty does not diminish our accountability.

Alarm bells immediately started ringing in my mind and my heart sank as I read these words, which represent a confusion that is at the heart of Calvinist thinking. Earlier in the article, Piper had made another statement along the same lines:

Even in situations where God is permitting, He is permitting by design.

Are you able to see the contradiction that exists in both of these quoted statements? You see, Calvinists want to strongly state God’s sovereignty and insist that salvation is solely a work of God. But the trouble is, we only need to be ‘saved’ because of rebellion against God, and this rebellion implies freedom of the human will.

Without God’s sovereignty, Calvinism doesn’t make sense, but with God’s sovereignty, Christianity doesn’t make sense.

It’s simple. If we are free to sin, then God is not in control of our lives, and so we cannot call Him sovereign. If we are not free to sin, and our lives are under God’s control, then the need for salvation, and therefore the whole Christian gospel, evaporates.

Calvinists would have to deny what I affirm, which is that we are merely puppets in the hands of God. I believe all of creation is part of God – He is omnipresent – and this is what true sovereignty means. We have to be able to affirm this truth about God and then deal with the implications for our theology, which are far-reaching, and which I have discussed at length in my essay entitled An Almighty Predicament: A Discourse on the Arguments For and Against Christianity.

What’s your understanding of the divine sovereignty / free will predicament? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

32 comments

  1. I think Tozer explained it best : “God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest thou?” Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so. “

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    1. Thank you Liza! I believe that anything existing outside of the will of God is impossible. It comes down to how we understand the nature of God. Is God omnipresent? Is He in all the details, like the beating of our hearts? If so, we are not free. Totally respect your views though and grateful for your comment 🙂 Will check out your blog! Best wishes, Steven

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  2. Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

    I must state my feeling that I’m uncomfortable with the expression, “We are all born as sinners.” Did God create us in “Our Image,” or not? I must maintain that we were configured to be good and that our human nature remains intact, despite our bad deeds.

    Since most readers on this site are Protestants of one kind or another, please consider this quote from Martin Luther.

    Martin Luther (1483 – 1546 AD) said, “God must be present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through, below and above, before and behind, so that nothing can be truly present and within all creatures than God Himself with His power.”

    Also, Martin Luther spoke of the omnipresence of the resurrected Body of Christ! Below is a link:

    http://justandsinner.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/defense-of-omnipresence-of-christs.html

    Steven, I would be most interested in your thoughts but I would welcome some constructive thoughts from other readers who may want to comment after serious consideration of Martin Luther’s work.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

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    1. Hi Dinos,
      You refer to Luther whereas Steven is speaking of Calvin. Their differences were not philosophical but were expressed lethally, without condemnation from either. Memorials in Switzerland to Calvin highlight their poor attitude towards Luther.
      And differences are manifested in many spheres. The 500 year-old judicial-substitution soteriological model lends itself to Augustine’s “original sin” concept whereas the Orthodox Church’s non-judicial soteriological model does not require that concept.
      Numbers of soteriological models have been created since the time of the Church Fathers. Compare and contrast the models produced by Augustine, Tertullian, Anselm, and Abelard as examples. Do the same with the range of soteriological models that are held today. This variety of models exists because of Paul’s failure to provide one.
      Up to the time of Jesus Christ, the Jewish notion of “salvation” centred on their national expectations, looking to the restoration of the nation that God’s chosen people should rightfully hold in the world. Even Paul spoke of salvation in these terms, in which Gentiles would be grafted onto Israel, and in this way “all Israel would be saved”.
      Does a soteriological model really matter? Does God say: “You are saved because you had the correct explanation”? Does God operate a graded examination which requires a 51% pass mark?
      Do any two people have the same soteriology? Does it matter if I do not have a model? Does it matter if I have the wrong model? I say that sin was created in order to rationalise Death. In other words, Death created Sin, and not the other way around.
      Doug

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  3. Hi Doug

    You gave a good and comprehensive reply.

    My main point is that it has a negative effect to consider man as being in a fallen state and that the concept of sin has us chasing our tails trying and failing to improve and ever repentant. What matters is that we should be good to one another not so that we might be saved but out of genuine love for humanity.

    I agree with your explanation that sin was created to rationalise death. I would add that as we strive to improve our personal lives we should avoid doing so for personal gain when it causes a loss to others. A typical example is when agents are rewarded with bonuses for selling insurance services so they are more likely to sell people insurance they don’t need.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

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  4. Dear readers,

    You may be interested in a short passage from Romans 14 and the commentary from St John Chrysostom:

    Romans 14:22-23 King James Version (KJV)

    22 Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.
    23 And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
    Those who have strong faith can follow their conscience before God and avoid sin.

    According to St John Chrysostom, those who are weak in faith may sin, not because their action is wrong but because in their hearts they think they are betraying God and proceed anyway. This action is sin because it does not come from that person’s faith.

    This may be an allusion to the Nomic will versus God’s will which is thought by the Church Fathers to indwell in us all.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

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  5. Hi! Thanks for visiting my blog Stephen! It’s nice to meet you. I so appreciate your authenticity and willingness to explore your faith. I’m sure Abba loves your thoughtful approach to your relationship with Him. Thank you for reminding me of my own journey in coming to understand this whole seeming contradiction.

    I actually came to understand and find peace with this whole debate through the study of literature. I had a wonderful professor who loved C.S. Lewis and read to our World Literature class from Lewis every time the class met. He created an entire course of World Literature that examined literary works that thematically embraced either the idea of free-will or fate (or for our discussion here, God’s Sovereignty). If you examine the ramifications of free-will versus a more fatalistic perspective in literature, you see the difficulty in trying to systematize theology for either camp.

    The fact of the matter is that Scripture teaches that both God’s Sovereignty and Man’s free will are 100% in play. Like a Venn diagram, the truth of how this works out is found in the overlay of the two circles. As humans we struggle to understand it because we try to systematize everything… to make ideas fit our linear thinking. While this kind of thinking has gotten humanity quite far, it nevertheless fall short. This is where our inability to escape our finite existence limits our understanding and perspective. In reality, God has allowed for the existence of a perfect tension between humanity’s free-will and God’s sovereignty.

    I do not pretend to be able to intellectually work it out or to break it down into systematic parts. But my study of world literature (as well as my own observations) has enabled me to see the pragmatic problems that occur in the world if one pursues or attempts to live out the idea of free-will or of fate (or God’s sovereignty for those of us who believe) to the exclusion of the other idea. Each view, to the exclusion of the other, presents horrific ramifications by way of human behavior. So, that is my take.

    In light of this, while a philosophical debate of this nature is interesting and somewhat profitable, I do believe that you and I are considerably out of our depth when we try to definitively draw absolute conclusions or create a closed philosophical system or explanation for God and the world. All our philosophy and human reasoning can only take us so far in our understanding. Ultimately, faith must embrace what God has said about it.

    Again, thank you for visiting my blog. I’ve enjoyed my visit here! You are a magnificent thinker and an honest seeker. I truly admire that! God bless you big time as you continue to seek Him!

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    1. Hi Lynn!

      I’m so grateful for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. Great that we’re now connected – I’ll subscribe to your blog and will look forward to finding out more about you and your spiritual journey. Your artwork is amazing, by the way!

      I haven’t read a lot of CS Lewis yet, but I have The Screwtape Letters sitting on my bookshelf and I’ve read Mere Christianity. His books are often recommended so I will try to explore some more.

      I appreciate and understand your take on the free will versus God’s sovereignty debate. You seem to be happier with not fully understanding the predicament than I am. Actually, I do feel I understand the predicament very well (we don’t have free will), but the problem is that my understanding doesn’t square with Christianity. This is HARD because Christianity has been and is a big part of my life, and I fear God very much.

      I’m not sure whether or not you read my essay ‘An Almighty Predicament’ on the Essays page, but that explores the predicament in greater depth. I realise it’s quite a big ask to suggest you read a whole essay; you may not have time or may be certain enough of your own views that you wouldn’t want to bother. But it’s there if you’re interested, and I’d value your feedback (though I think you’ve made your position clear in your comment).

      I would never profess to understand everything about God and His relationship with the world. But I believe when we read things and think about things we naturally exercise reason. We try to understand things. So, for instance, if I said to you “Every three monster eats red with effort” you’d say I was talking nonsense. You can’t rationalise the sentence. Well, for whatever reason, the sentence “God is in control of everything that happens” makes perfect sense to me, perhaps because I have deeply considered the nature of God and His attributes. It’s not easy to suppress or ignore what I believe to be true (what I understand and what makes sense to me).

      How can I commit to a Christian worldview if it doesn’t make sense to me? That would be a strange thing to do. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, but isn’t it a little like living a lie? I have tried to fully immerse myself in the Christian life, but the problems and contradictions seem to keep coming back up to the surface.

      Anyhow, please keep in touch, and if you ever feel like commenting on any posts or emailing me that would be great.

      Thanks for your kind words, and God bless you big time as well!!

      Steven

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  6. Hi, Stephen! My computer is having issues today… sorry, I must comment via my phone. Forgive me… I don’t believe I explained myself very well in my previous comment. Sigh. I just wish to explain again what I am fully convinced of—I believe that both God’s sovereignty and man’s free-will are 100% true. I see both in action… Thus, I don’t see this as an either/or proposition which can often lead to the logical fallacy known as a bifurcation. I only wished to note that the western world tends to see things linearally.

    In other words, what I’m suggesting is that this issue cannot be viewed in linearal terms. Thus, it isn’t a matter of being comfortable with something I don’t understand but rather of accepting that my culture’s linearal paradigm is inherently flawed when it comes to examining or reasoning about God and theology. I believe that although linearally the two ideas seem to contradict that they in fact are not in contradiction. If one looks at the full extent of either belief system unchecked by the other and if one were to try to follow first the one and then the other to its full ramifications without acknowledging the other idea, it would be easy to see how both must be 100% true as either idea/world view without the other results in a skewed and unlivable reality. Perhaps, you have been reading the works of modern atheists? It sounds as though you may have.

    I obviously don’t know you and so I don’t know exactly what your full thinking is (when I have a moment, I will read more as you suggest) but it may be that you are only looking at one theological system and concluding that if you can’t accept everything in that system that you have difficulty with Christianity. However, systematic theology is man’s way of organizing his understanding of God. Systematic theology is helpful but should not be placed on equal footing with Scripture or God. And quite honestly, each of the various systems, including Calvinism, has it’s own problems. Please do not judge the Word, God and Christ-Following on the basis of questions you have with humanity’s feeble attempts to systematize the teachings in God’s Word. Such systems by their very nature must over-simplify. That’s what systems do. But I believe God is supernatural and thus He cannot be placed in a systematic box that has been created by natural man in his attempts to quantify and qualify the supernatural. That was what I was trying to suggest in my previous comment. I hope that makes more sense now. 🙁

    Yes, I do think you would thoroughly enjoy CS Lewis as well as Josh McDowell… you are probably already familiar with Ravi Zaccharias, I suspect. All are brilliant defenders of Scripture. I thoroughly enjoy each. Like you, I have a background in Bible and theology…In fact, I have a degree in both Bible and Theology as well as in Mass Communications/journalism (thus, I tend to ask a lot of questions). I also have a masters degree in Literature and education; I am a former teacher, former journalist, wife of a former pastor now tent-maker, and daughter of a prominent (although dead now) scientist. I am now an artist. In addition, I am a stage 3 cancer survivor who cared for her mother who died of cancer. And so, you better believe that I have asked a lot of questions along the way. All this to say, I have tremendous empathy for your journey and for your questioning heart.

    Unfortunately, I don’t write blog posts about Christian Apologetics. My calling, instead, is to encourage people in their walk with Abba and in their practical understanding and application of scripture. Thus, I hope my blog will not disappoint you. I do believe, however, that many of life’s difficult questions about God are answered in the Word of God. I know that’s hard to fully grasp when you are in the middle of your very serious search. And I understand what it means to have that search complicated by grief and tremendous heartbreak. My heart breaks when I think of what you must suffer and have suffered. I wish to say that I am terribly sorry for your loss and that I am praying that God will comfort you and then, reveal His truth to you regarding your questions in a way that makes sense to you. I pray with all my heart that God will be especially near you during your journey.

    Thank you for following my blog, and for your kind words regarding my art. It means a great deal to me. By the way, my husband and I lived in Surrey for two years as he studied under a tutor at Cambridge and I taught in Cobham. I have a great love for your country. ☺️ God bless you greatly! It is wonderful to meet a fellow pilgrim of such authenticity! I am honored that you visited and followed my blog! All the very best to you! Cheers! ☺️

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    1. Hi Lynn!

      Don’t tell me you wrote all that on you phone?! You must have sore fingers! 😉

      That’s wonderful that you have lived in England for a couple of years. I was actually born in Cambridge but my family moved to Oxfordshire when I was 4, and then I’ve been living in London since uni. Sounds like quite a journey God has taken you on (and I say ‘God has taken you on’ because I believe God has been in control of your life since conception, which is something I guess you would deny?).

      I don’t read any atheist works really, because I have no doubt at all that God exists. I’m more drawn to theology, and comparative religion. I also love to read about the history of Christianity and other religions, though I’m no historian.

      I don’t attribute my understanding of God to any particular school of thought or teaching, it’s just a result of my spiritual journey and many years of thinking, reading, pondering, and experiencing. I would love for you to read some more of my writing so you can understand my perspective, because from your comment it seems that you don’t yet understand what I believe (I wouldn’t expect you to after our brief conversation!).

      Let’s keep in touch, and you are always welcome to challenge me concerning anything you read here, should you feel the urge.

      God bless and thanks again!

      Steven

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  7. One last thought that might be of encouragement to you, Stephen…A kind of analogy… most people don’t understand fully all the workings of a jet. We are neither the designers of planes or mechanics or even the pilots. Yet, we understand enough to put our lives in the hands of the pilot, to trust in the safety of the plane. My thought is this… faith is a journey. You don’t have to have every last detail figured out before you climb on the “plane”… when I climb on a plane, i have some doubts about whether it is safe, but I know enough to place my faith and life in the hands of the pilot and his craft. I can continue to ask questions and grow in understanding even though I’m on the plane, so to speak… and that would not be “living a lie?” as you so honestly asked in your thoughtful response to my previous comment. Hope that buoys your spirits some as you grapple with your questions! Looking forward to following your musical and philisophical journeys here! God bless you beyond all that you can imagine!

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  8. It is well understood in Christian philosophical circles that Calvinism is predicated on Theological Determinism. Calvinist Dr. James Anderson states it as “For every event [E] god decided that [E] should happen – and that decision alone is the ultimate cause of [E]”. In this scheme humans, like robots, have the functional ability to make choices. But those choices were already determined before that human/robot existed. Persons have the functional ability to experience desires. But again, according to the scheme, those desires were not determined by the person – but rather determined before the person was born – and were fated to occur inevitably and unavoidably. In determinism there is no such thing as a forked path, but only one predestined single unique future for every event. In this scheme, “Alternate Possibilities” and “Do Otherwise” from what is predestined exists only an illusions.

    The confusion arises where the preponderance of human perception is that we do have “Alternate Possibilities” set before us, and we do have the ability to “Do otherwise” than what we do. The narrative of scripture follows this perception. God tells his people he has set before them “Alternate Possibilities” and commands them to choose – making it their responsibility to “Do Otherwise” – which in the Determinism scheme is an illusion. Were the authors of scripture deceived by such illusions? There are a minute number of verses that can be interpreted to support Universal Divine Causal Determinism. Calvinist Francis Turretin wrote about this very Calvinist predicament and summed it up to mystery.

    Calvin himself understood that a psychology of double-think was necessary for his disciples to retain a sense of cognitive stability. So he wrote instructions – the believer is to – quote “go about his office AS-IF nothing is determined in any part. While another compartment in his mind holds that everything is determined in every part. There is no such thing as rebellion against god in this scheme because every creature is simply following predestined neurological algorithms.

    Calvinist Robert R. McLaughlin, in his work: The Doctrine of The Divine Decree states it as:
    “The Omniscience of God merely programmed into the divine decrees all our thoughts, motives, decisions and actions, which include our sins and failures as well as our successes”.

    So all of the Biblical injunctions to not sin and obey god – in this scheme appear to be contradictions in terms – when one realized that within the scheme everyone’s choices and desires are prescribed in advance at the foundation of the world.

    A modified version of Peter Van Inwagen’s “Consequence argument” sums it up.
    -quote
    If Theological Determinism is true, then our every thought, choice and action are the direct consequences of supernatural decrees that occurred in the remote past. And those decrees are inevitably and unavoidably culminated and actualized at a specified time in our life, and occur within the boundaries of the laws of nature. But it is NOT UP TO US what decrees were set in motion at the foundation of the world. And it is NOT UP TO US what the laws of nature are. Therefore, it logically follows, the consequences of those things are likewise NOT UP TO US.

    Blessings! :-]

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    1. Hi there,

      Many thanks for your comment, which sheds further light on the confusion of Calvinism.

      I don’t actually believe events were set in motion in the distant past, as determinists of all stripes argue. I believe in a living God who is acting in the present moment to bring about all activity in existence. So this is where I would disagree with theological determinists and other determinists.

      I do believe everything is determined by God, but I don’t believe in a kind of mechanical universe that God set in motion, only to watch it unfold and intervene at certain times. No, God is omnipresent and is thus controlling and unfolding all events in accordance with His will in the single eternal moment.

      I realise that this perspective creates serious problems for the Christian worldview, and it’s the reason why I find it so difficult to embrace Christianity. The Bible does present ideas that depend on free will, such as sin, the fall, salvation, and divine judgment, and yet these ideas are illogical if God is in control of all events – which I believe He is.

      As I have discussed extensively on this blog and in my books, the only way the Bible and the Christian worldview make sense is with the illusion of free will being part of God’s plan (I describe this as God’s Grand Game). But it’s important to be clear – this is NOT what Christians profess to believe; in general they insist that we possess free will.

      For a more in depth look at this problem, as well as arguments in favour of the Christian worldview, check out my essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament’ on the Essays page.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

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      1. Great post Steven!
        Yes – the same exact conflict exists between atheists who are determinists and atheists who are indeterminists.

        Check out this PDF document is you’re interested.

        https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&ved=0ahUKEwix2ressMHZAhXrc98KHVyDCyMQFghFMAQ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fiweb.langara.bc.ca%2Frjohns%2Ffiles%2F2014%2F11%2F15_Soft_Determinism.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2_YISoyZksx1pbmld2bxux

        It provides an excellent review of the fact that determinists often win debates by using rhetorical tricks. The example of the bear, and the example of the railroad track-switch are excellent examples!
        :-]

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        1. Hi there,

          Many thanks for the link. I read through it, however the formatting isn’t great (am I right in thinking it was a PowerPoint presentation?) so it wasn’t easy to follow in places.

          May I ask what your particular perspective is on free will and determinism?

          Thank you for the discussion 🙂

          Steven

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          1. Thanks – yes it is a power point.
            I’m leaning towards the disposition that Peter Van Inwagen and Alvin Plantinga have.
            Determinism has its logical inconsistencies – as we can see – it moves its believers into double-think.
            However, Libertarian free will is not without its difficulties also.
            I think – especially from a Christian perspective – one has to chose which one is more probable.
            Did God create us with the functionality of robots?
            Alvin Plantinga would say that such a design eradicates from humans, the ability to have what he calls “morally significant” actions.

            In Luke 17, Jesus asks the question: Does the servant deserve praise for doing exactly what he commanded to do?
            The answer is no. In this case, the servant did not perform a “morally significant” act.

            Plantinga would say, the only way humans can perform “morally significant” actions – actions in which they deserve praise or blame – is where it is the case that they have the power to DO OTHERWISE than what they in fact do.
            So for me, Platninga and Van Inwagen appear to have the disposition that aligns itself best with Biblical Christianity. :-]

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            1. Hi analyzecalvinism!

              I understand that having servants was an acceptable practice during the Iron Age but I would not like to judge a servant who follows the commands of his master as unworthy of praise. She or he might try to escape from their master if an opportunity presented itself but out of love for their master ‘choose’ not to. Also, the fact that their master has given them an order does not preclude that they can act out of love.

              Conversely, if a servant’s master took advantage of his servant and ordered her to take off her clothes etc., would she be morally wrong to obey him begrudgingly?

              If we have free will what happens to it when we have no choice as in the example of the servant in the predicament outlined above?

              I’m more inclined to agree with Steven that free will is an illusion and I don’t think robots have illusions.

              Peace and love to all,

              Dinos

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