An Ex-Calvinist’s Tiptoe Through TULIP – Unconditional Election
I have many thoughts and explanations to put forth on this topic so I will get right to it.
THE DOCTRINE OF UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION
I cite John Calvin to articulate what Reformed Christians refer to as “Unconditional Election” today:
In conformity, therefore, to the clear doctrine of the Scripture, we assert, that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined, both whom he would admit to salvation, and whom he would condemn to destruction. We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on his gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom he devotes to condemnation, the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment.[i]
The Westminster Confession expounds,
Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace.[ii]
These are very definitive statements affirming that God alone decides altogether arbitrarily and randomly who will “get saved” and who will be damned, so that “no one can boast,” [Eph. 2:9].
The argument goes that salvation is primarily a matter of preserving God’s justice, and therefore Christ was punished in order for justice to be served substitutionally for the elect, but God is obliged to damn the vast majority of the human race for eternity in order to be a just God and display His wrath and hatred of wickedness. When questioned about why God does not cause everyone to be become Christian–using verses such as 1 Timothy 2:4 or 2 Peter 3:9 which evidence God’s deep desire for all people to be saved–the Calvinist reasoning is that Scripture gives abundant evidence of two distinct wills in the mind of God. One is His permissive will, which is what actually takes place, what He allows to occur. The other is His desirous will, that which He wishes would occur but which often cannot actually happen due to the constraint to preserve certain phenomena; namely justice.
I will begin my dissection of these assertions with a consideration of the way the Scriptures are being approached by the Calvinist believer. With the advent of Protestantism, the existence of a structured and consistent ecclesiology rapidly vanished among low church groups–which gave way to the Great Awakening movements with their emphasis on dramatic personal conversion events and altar calls. The historic understanding of the Church as a transcendent entity, indeed a sacramental reality greater than the mere sum of its members, was replaced with a private, and in recent times customizable Christianity. Thus it can be argued that passages which were intended to speak of the Church as an organic, covenantal community–a substance that existed as the cohesive climax of God’s plan for the world from the beginning (and these verses are always directed toward a plural subject, literally “you all” not just “you”)–came to be read individualistically, as speaking to God’s personal predetermining of each human being to either Heaven or Hell. From this lens, it might appear that Calvinism has sufficiently accumulated enough Scriptures to validate its belief of predestination as described above, especially with the language of Ephesians 1, Romans 9, John 6:44, Acts 13:48 and so on.
GOD THE AUTHOR OF ALL
Since this understanding eradicates the will of man in choosing or rejecting God, consistent Calvinism must teach the predetermining of more than just salvation and damnation, but the Divine prescribing of every event in history, good or bad. Calvin concluded that God designed the Fall of Adam to occur in the first place since the entirety of human history displays God’s direct orchestration:
. . . by the predestination of God, Adam fell, and dragged all his posterity headlong with him. Is not he, therefore, unjust in thus cruelly mocking his creatures? I admit that by the will of God all the sons of Adam fell into that state of wretchedness in which they are now involved . . . Thus, if there is any just or plausible complaint, it must be directed against predestination. Nor ought it to seem absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.[iii]
. . . man by the righteous impulsion of God does that which is unlawful.[iv]
I recently attended a service where Dr. John Piper was the guest speaker. He is one of if not the most prominent Calvinist Evangelicals of our time. At one point in his talk he put forth the argument that if Christians reject the idea that God makes evil happen without Himself being held responsible, then what do we do with the gospel? The Scriptures consistently articulate the death and resurrection of Christ as the foreordained plan of God from before the foundation of the world, and yet Christ’s death was the greatest human evil ever committed in history. Piper also questioned why we pray for God to save people if we do not believe that He can, in fact, make people choose Him.
My response to this last point has already been mentioned and it is central: why then is everyone not Christian? The answer always put forth to this is an abstract, legal compulsion of God to preserve a frankly strange form of justice, and that God has two wills which are often at odds with each other. I would submit at this point that not even Saint Augustine, on whom Calvin dearly depends for the historical validity of his views, would easily reach this conclusion of Divine determinism. He writes in On Free Choice of the Will:
If God foreknew a future will that turned out not to be a will at all, things would indeed happen otherwise than as God foreknew them . . . For if his [the human’s] willing is necessary, how does he will since there is no will? . . . Just as your memory does not force the past to have happened, God’s foreknowledge does not force the future to happen. And just as you remember some things that you have done but did not do everything that you remember, God foreknows everything that he causes but does not cause everything that he foreknows.[v]
As far as what to do with the gospel story if God does not make evil actions happen, Peter in Acts 2 actually states that Christ’s crucifixion was according to the foreknowledge of God; He simply made a purposed plan around it because He foreknew it. An important element to notice in Scripture is that God’s foreknowledge and His predestination are always together, inseparable. As Augustine explained above, things don’t happen because God knows them, God knows them because they will happen.
It is also important to note that God knows all things eternally, outside of time, and this is why prayer is not merely a means of self-help but a very important factor in the course of human events. Prayers are effective since He hears them before He even creates the world (including our prayers for the dead; see my other article). God also knows all possibilities as well as actualities in the course of history, and His plan is made and foreordained based on us; on what He knows we will do. Prayer itself thus becomes part of Divine Providence.
ARE YOU A MERCIFUL GOD, OR A JUST GOD?
With regard to the importance of God’s preservation of justice, it is a common debate among Western Christians as to how God can and does properly balance His attributes of justice and mercy. Saint Basil would say the following:
Everywhere Scripture joins justice with the mercy of God, teaching us that neither the mercy of God is without judgment nor his judgment without mercy.[vi]
God’s justice is completely merciful and His mercy is completely just. What this means is that, since God’s character is both completely merciful and completely just, what He is actually constrained to do is be consistent and impartial with everyone. If only justice were to be upheld, all humanity would be condemned for eternity. But God chose to instead have mercy on all. And His justice is upheld in that this mercy is exhaustively given to all without exception. If He decided to only give mercy to some and not others completely arbitrarily, then we would have reason to question the truly just and merciful nature of God because this is unjust. This is not to present a Universalist view of salvation, since not everyone wants His mercy; some are so selfish that they despise God to the point that they desire His wrath. But God never withholds His mercy like a precious commodity from anyone who sincerely desires it.
On this note, the Hebrew word for “judge” is shaphat, meaning simply “to set things right.” The fear of God’s judgment should not resemble a paranoid child who cannot predict the mood swings of an abusive father. Rather Scripture calls us to have a rightful respect for God’s fixing the situation, to not resist His setting each of us right as He repairs and shapes us back into His image. We are designed to be vessels of honor [2 Tim 2:21], and our salvation is not merely an aversion of wrathful punishment, nor merited by good works. We are rather saved for good works [2 Tim 2:21, Eph 2:10]; that is, to be “set right” by being intrinsically reoriented to a righteous reflection and likeness of the Lord. This is what we are praying for when we ask God to save people, including ourselves. I pray for my own salvation every day.
The Reformed believer would argue that God’s not having control over human free will reduces and restricts God to a pitiful figure whose creation has come unhinged, causing Him to become frantic and unable to manage our chaos. But ironically, Calvinism does the same thing to Him by giving Him multiple personality disorder and confining Him to an abstract, unyielding juridical system that makes no sense, by which He MUST abide (even though allegedly He can do whatever the heck He wants to do).
HOW DOES THAT WORK IN THE REAL WORLD?
While the Calvinist understanding of predestination and foreordination may look neatly packaged with Scriptural references in a systematic theology book, when it comes to application in daily life it rapidly loses its sensibility. The late Father Thomas Hopko used the example of watching television, where the nightly news depicts the rampant, brutal murders and persecutions of ISIS and Al Qaeda, the drug-induced rape, murder, thievery, sex trafficking, and endless horrors of even our own local regions, and after many more heart-wrenching stories of utmost perversion the news anchor gives his Walter-Cronkite-like sign off, “But relax, God is in control.” Really? God controlled these people and caused all of this to happen? Then the late night sitcoms air with their customary obscenity, and are we to say, “Well, God is in control of the TV stations and producers and writers, so since He’s sovereign He desired for this perpetual sexual degeneracy and degradation of all of life to be displayed to America tonight”? Father Tom also cited an Auschwitz survivor who he heard say that no one should ever make any statement about God that they cannot say to a group of women who are standing before a great burning mass of embers into which wicked men are throwing their infant children to burn to death.[vii] Can one tell these women, “Relax, God is in control” while they are watching their babies burn?
To be sure, Scripture is clear that even when calamities occur that are directly the result of human action, it is from the Lord. This is because God must be wholly Sovereign for us to trust Him and know with assurance that His promises will come to play out, because to Him all of history is one consistent present, and all is known, anticipated, and allowed by Him. But this does not override our free will; rather His Sovereignty is what allows us to have a free choice. In the garden of Eden the purpose of His placing the tree there was to produce a choice so that man was not forced into allegiance to God out of necessity. But God knew He was going to Fall and He placed it there anyway as the Enabler–the Instrument through which the whole story was able to play out. This is why I embrace the doctrine of “synergy,” that human history is one great duet of sincere Divine Sovereignty in harmony with sincere human free action that cooperate in all things. This “synergy” comes from the Greek sunergeo, and is used in the following Scriptures: Mark 16:20; Romans 8:28 (that is, when we screw up, God can work it out for good); 2 Corinthians 6:1; James 2:22 (faith in synergy with works, the latter being part of the former); and while the word is not used, the concept is seen in Philippians 2:12-13. We still find these concepts in roots of that word like “symphony,” where all those involved in the orchestra have to work together, and if they are not focused on the conductor, they will play too loud or soft, lose their place, etc. because they start doing their own thing and are not letting themselves be led in total unison.
In the words of Athanasius:
Wherefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker [sunergon], as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good” [Rom 8.28][viii]
WORK WITH ME HERE
Space does not permit me to go into detail on Romans 9, the favorite chapter of Reformed theology, but I highly recommend this podcast which does so. It simply does not stand to reason that God arbitrarily decides to make Bob good and righteous, or Jill evil and wicked, and control them as to whatever they are in life, due to a mysterious, unquestionable motive to make some objects of wrath and some of mercy so that He can sufficiently exude both impulses. Again Augustine attests:
God, who made you without you, will not save you without you.[ix]
One last illustration from Father Tom Hopko is that of a Ping Pong table in relation to human and Divine correspondence throughout the course of time. There is not a perpetual “ping, pong, ping, pong,” back and forth with God as we pray and He answers, we do things, and He reacts. Rather, God is outside of time and He therefore in His foreknowledge, predestination, predetermined will, and so forth, goes, “PING!” from all eternity, and we who are in time live out the course of history responding to this in our own lives with “pong, pong, pong, pong.”[x] God is not helpless in the wake of the mess we have made of things, but neither is He a dictator that is controlling our every move. He desires reciprocity and true relationship with His creatures, but these are inevitably on the condition that we will embrace Him. I would continue but it is time for a lunch I was predestined before the foundation of the world to consume.
[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Allen (trans.), 7th American edition. vol. II, Book III, Chapter 21, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education. 1936), p. 181.
[ii] Gerald Irvin Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith, (Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publication Co., 1964), Section 1, Chapter 2, p. 33.
[iii] Calvin, Institutes Book III, chapter 23, secs. 4, 7.
[iv] Calvin, Institutes Book IV, chapter18, sec. 2
[v] Saint Augustine of Hippo, On Free Choice of the Will, trans. By Thomas Williams Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc. 1993, p. 76
[vi] Saint Basil the Great. Commentary on Psalm 116:5-6. Quentin F. Wesselschmidt (ed.). Thomas C. Oden (Gen. ed.). Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VIII. “Psalms 51-150.” Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press. 2007. p. 287.
[vii] Fr. Thomas Hopko. “God is in Control – Revisited.” Speaking the Truth in Love. Podcast. Ancient Faith Radio. Oct. 23, 2014.
[viii] Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Anthony, 19.
[ix] Saint Augustine, Sermon 169, 13 (PL 38,923)
[x] Hopko, “God is in Control – Revisited.”