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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Divine Decrees, Election and Hell: A Moderate Calvinist Viewpoint

In the last post, I referenced a then ongoing discussion I was having with Roger Olson. As this pleasant discussion continued, we turned to the topic of hell. The reality of eternal punishment tends to provoke deep thought. The text below is excerpted from my response to Dr. Olson, and represents my best attempt to briefly explain my Calvinistic view of the topic. This is one person's attempt to theorize about how the Biblical data can fit together within a Calvinist framework, and of course a lot of additional clarifications would be needed for this to be a fully satisfying effort. My proposal follows some other Calvinist thinkers and carefully distances from others. The primary aim here is to understand how it is possible for a Reformed approach to extol God's total goodness while affirming His total control over all things. Some of my high Calvinist friends (you know who you are!) will undoubtedly find this view too "soft." I have to admit that I still have a lot of questions about my own view and am still puzzled by much of this at the end of the day. These matters are lofty, and much too wonderful for me.

In my brand of Calvinism (which is admittedly not “high, federal Calvinism”, but historic/moderate), although we unabashedly affirm that God decrees whatsoever comes to pass, we do not view good and evil as decreed symmetrically. In other words, while God ultimately intends to allow evil to occur, and to use it for His good purposes, He is also strictly separated from evil in significant ways, as follows:
  • He does not commit evil Himself (actually, He can not); However, He is directly involved in good whenever it occurs (He can do good only)
  • He never acts as the direct or proximate cause of evil; However, He is always and only the direct or proximate cause of good
  • He only intends evil in a passive way; However, He actively intends good
  • note: these distinctions also serve as an explanation of why we do not rejoice in the evil that we view as divinely ordained
To illustrate, we say that election is solely a “positive” decree. It is God’s decision, from eternity, to do good (savingly) to certain hopeless sinners. God does not “positively” decide to condemn the others; He decides to allow many (or perhaps most) sinners to voluntarily condemn themselves. Thus reprobation is nothing more than the absence of election. 
Further, although God does not choose to ordain the salvation of all sinners, He positively decrees to give life, breath, food, water, possessions, and many other kindnesses to all people in spite of their rebellion against Him. This is Common Grace. Although God “hates” sinners for their wickedness (Ps. 11:5), He “loves” them as His creatures (Ps. 145:8-9, 13, 17). 
Similarly, our theology views hell as neither a mere concession to evil, nor as a mere utility for revealing God’s glory. It is viewed as a deeply tragic yet glorious conquest of evil by justice. Hell is unspeakably tragic in that a portion of those made in God’s image break fellowship with Him forever. Yet it is glorious in that all unrepented evil is justly and eternally condemned. 
Although God ultimately “decreed” the outcome, those condemned were condemned by their own will, and voluntarily. Having unregenerated hearts, they preferred their own condemnation to God’s holy presence; they preferred the caustic sting of justice to the mercy sincerely offered; they called out for the rocks to fall on them to escape from the presence of a Little Lamb. 
Thus, hell’s condemnation is viewed as passively ordained (one might even say as a “concession” to the creature’s will); however, hell as an enactment of divine justice is viewed as positively ordained, and as good triumphing over evil. This approach represents an extension of the same compatibilistic reasoning we apply to the story of Joseph, the appointment of wicked Cyrus as God’s servant, and the death of Christ on the Cross. In each case, God ordained evil and intended good simultaneously. The evil was done voluntarily by the creature; the good was done purposefully by God.


  1. I do not believe evil as an ends to good. Nor do i discount quirks in the natural order; nor man's game of chance.

    1. Mr. Mcgranor,

      Thank you for commenting. Although I guess we wouldn't agree on the fine points, I appreciate your thoughts and enjoy your style! You have a real flair for words.

      Grace & peace,

  2. He decides to allow many (or perhaps most) sinners to voluntarily condemn themselves. Thus reprobation is nothing more than the absence of election.

    Do you have anything to read on Calvin's theology on this and also the specific differences between that and the less moderate view? I'm finding more and more that I'm a moderate/historical Calvinist, but I need more Scripture and reason because I'm lapsing into logic and opinion. I need to go back to parts of the Institutes, though that may take some time and I think I do have a book on Sproul's view of this in The Truth of the Cross.

    I'm reading a book on suffering by Horton and he seems to be moderate. I like him a lot so far.

    1. Jeff,

      Although Calvin held essentially moderate views on most of the important topics, I think he would see God as more active in reprobation than I do. This is probably true of Sproul as well. I haven't read much of Mike Horton's work, so I am not sure where he stands on the relevant issues. Sproul and Horton are good theologians, but both would probably be classified as high Calvinists.

      We are all bound up with many unjustified or unscriptural opinions. I have found the best way to escape from my own philosophical snares is to practice the following:

      1. Always start and end with Scripture (God's inerrant Word) as THE authority.
      2. Affirm whatever Scripture affirms, even if at first it doesn't seem to jive with everything else (if you do this, you will likely end up with some conundrums to work through).
      3. Work carefully and prayerfully, with all of the mental power God has given you, to compose a logically coherent "solution" to the difficulties.
      4. Consult the best theologians and resources you can find, and use whatever is helpful in their approach (even if you vehemently disagree or are uncertain on some points).
      5. Accept the fact that you may fail to achieve the level of understanding you desire. Admit that some things will be left as mysteries or inexplicable to you.
      6. Respect those who disagree with your conclusions, and admit that they could be right (on points that are not clearly defined in Scripture).
      7. Make the pursuit of theological understanding a worship experience. Try to match increased knowledge with increased service to others, intercessory prayer and thanking God for little things.

      I know you already follow most of this advice, so I am partially preaching to myself in your hearing when I write this.

      My favorite resource for evidence of Calvin's moderate views (and the moderate views of many other Calvinists), including extended quotations from the original source materials, is my friend David's site: He has everything indexed nicely by author and by topic to help you find specific information.

      Of course, there are degrees of moderation. Most Calvinists, even moderate ones, would take a more "hard line" stance on some topics than I do. And I can live with that.

      God's blessings to you, and fruitful studies!


    2. Jeff,

      One other thought: on some topics, the difference between moderate and high Calvinists is not in the propositions they affirm, but in the emphasis they place on certain propositions. They might believe the same basic "facts" regarding a given doctrine, but the things that are downplayed or emphasized will make all the difference. It can be subtle.


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