Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 18 - C. Michael Patton

Michael Patton recently posted an article entitled, "The Irrationality of Calvinism." It contains excellent, THEOparadox-approved commentary on theology in general and "Calvinism vs. Arminianism" in particular. His words echo my own reasons for rejecting Arminianism and becoming a Calvinist. At least one Arminian has responded to Mr. Patton's article (see here and here), and has ironically proven the point by entirely missing the point (the unhidden angst may have clouded the ability to understand).

This photo is shamelessly "borrowed" from Mr. Patton's post.
Here are a few excerpts from Mr. Patton's insightful article:
I am a child of Western thought. Therefore, I like to figure things out. If possible, I like to figure it all out. This causes problems between me and God sometimes, and I need to deal with it better. Sometimes I only really follow or engage with God when I get it. When things make sense to me, my intellectual anxiety is eased and my will can engage. Who? What? Where? How? and especially Why? Theological gurus call this “cataphatic” theology. Cataphatic theology emphasises God’s revelation and our understanding of it. Taken to an extreme, we can find ourselves in the arrogantly awkward position of, as A. W. Tozer put it, “trying to look God eye to eye.” When we have to understand everything, we attempt to trade our finitude for infinitude. And this should scare us to death. We need a healthy dose of “apophatic” theology. This emphasizes mystery. Our Eastern brothers and sisters normally get this better than we do. They are content without publishing a new theology book every year. They don’t normally write papers explaining the mysteries of the world, have societies discussing the nuances of our faith, or argue about too much. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to an unexamined faith, where people know what they believe but they have no idea why. And God did go through a lot of trouble to explain quite a bit of himself to us. While there are secret things that belong to the Lord (apophatic), the things revealed belong to us (cataphatic). We need balance. We need a cool yet passionate head about us. We need to hold some theological ropes very tightly, but we need to loosen our grip on others. There is quite a bit that we can know about God, but there are so many things that we don’t get and we will never get.


I often hear people talk about Calvinism as a closed box system that forces everything to fall in line, even when we have to sacrifice biblical integrity to do so. I often hear the accusation that Calvinism is a system that makes rationality its primary goal. And this is often true. Sometimes Calvinists do attempt to fit things into a system and engage in questionable, logic-driven hermeneutics to do so. 
However, I think we need take a step back and see that while the shoe fits when it comes to some particular issues in Calvinism, these accusations are far from forming the bedrock of the primary issues in Calvinism.

... the Calvinist is not satisfied with a redefining of God’s election to make it fit. To the Calvinists, man is fully responsible for his choice, yet God’s election is unconditional. This creates a problem. It creates great tension. For the Calvinist, this tension cannot, and should not, be solved. So how does the Calvinist live with this? How does the Calvinist answer the Why? questions? “Why does God choose some and not others? Why does he still find fault?” What is the Calvinist answer to the How? question? ”How can there be true freedom when God is sovereignly in charge of election?” We have no answer. We get off our stool and punt to apophatic theology. The tension is left intact. We place our hand over our mouth here and say, “Though we have no answers to why God did not choose people he truly loves, we will trust him without judgement.” We will redefine neither divine election nor human freedom to make them fit a more rational or logical system. While there is nothing wrong with using one’s reason to understand truth, there are problems when reason takes priority over revelation. If the Bible teaches both human freedom and sovereign election, we leave the two intact. If the Bible teaches that God loves everyone more than we can imagine and that God desires all to be saved, yet he does not elect some, we trust God’s word and live with unanswered questions. These two issues, human freedom and sovereign election, are not contradictory when put together, but they are a mystery.
There is no need to solve all tensions, especially when the solution comes at the expense of one’s interpretive integrity. There are many tensions in Scripture. There are many things that, while not formally irrational, just don’t make sense. The doctrine of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and creation out of nothing all fit this category. All of these are beyond our ability to comprehend. ... The issue of human freedom and unconditional election is in the same apophatic domain. We can’t make sense out of them and once we do, we have entered into error. There are many things God reveals that confuse us and baffle our thinking. They seem irrational. Yet we find God saying, “Chill. Just trust me. I’ve got this under control. While I have revealed a lot and I know you have a lot of questions, this is a test of trust. I love everyone but I did not elect everyone. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Will you trust me or will you redefine things?”

God’s sovereign unconditional election can stand side-by-side with man’s responsibility without creating a formal contradiction. We may not know how to reconcile these two issues, but that does not mean God does not know how. Their co-existence does not take away from their collective truthfulness.

I believe that the Arminian system sacrifices biblical integrity for the sake of understanding and doctrinal harmony. The Calvinistic system allows tension and mysteries to abide for the sake of Biblical fidelity.

As I said before, I have had people say to me (often) that they are not Calvinists because the system attempts to be too systematic with all its points for the sake of the system itself. I think it is just the opposite. The Calvinistic system creates more tensions than it solves, but seeks to remain faithful to God’s word rather than human understanding. I think it is a good illustration of how West meets East. Revelation meets mystery. Cataphatic theology meets apophatic theology. While Calvinism is not formally irrational, it is emotionally irrational. I get that. But I think we need to take both pills.

In a later comment, Mr. Patton adds this:

Reason is always required. But reason does not cancel out mystery. We strive for the cataphatic until we sweat blood. Then, when no solution makes good sense of revelation, we allow mystery to come in and do it apophatic job. Again, think Trinity and you will see what I mean. Can you rationally understand the Trinity? If you can, you have just entered heresy. I think that there are five great mysteries in the Scripture that we cannot resolve:
1. Creation ex nihilo
2. Hypostatic Union
3. Dual nature of Scripture
4. Trinity
5. Human Freedom/Responsibility and Divine sovereignty (unconditional election included)


  1. Arminianism can be an unsettling reality. I do not reject the Calvinist, Lutheran, and even Zwinglian; for not wanting to come to terms with it; it can be distracting.

  2. Just yesterday I was teaching (in my A/G church) my high school class the Scriptural truths about God's sovereignty in salvation. I cleverly did not use the terms "unconditional election" or "Calvinism." I simply explained what the Bible clearly teaches in, i.e., Ephesians 1 and Romans 8. The kids came up with some good questions, and what I noticed was that we (humans) desperately want to be able to explain everything.

    A couple of the students hypothesized that, regarding foreknowledge, it was just that since God knows everything, he already knew who would choose him - that same ol' saw. I explained that first of all, that that is NOT what "foreknow" means, and then helped them to see that if it were true, then God is essentially bound by our decisions.

    We went on from there to talk very briefly about the mysteries of God. At any rate, it was a fun exercise, and what you've posted today is just exactly where we were yesterday. I love these bits especially:
    "The issue of human freedom and unconditional election is in the same apophatic domain. We can’t make sense out of them and once we do, we have entered into error.

    And later, Will you trust me or will you redefine things?”

    1. Patton: "...think Trinity and you will see what I mean. Can you rationally understand the Trinity? If you can, you have just entered heresy."

      Not necessarily.

      I am required to rationally believe that it is not how metaphysically it is. I can give rational reasons from Scripture of the fact that of the trinity,however,I cannot explain the metaphysical aspects of how it is so.

      Re: your inclusion of unconditional election, I am required to believe that it is and to give a rational explanation of the fact that it is from scripture. I am also required to give a rational explanation of divine sovereignty. I am also, I believe, required to give a rational explanation of the association between free will and divine sovereignty that does not, on the one hand, essentially render man as without responsibility and blameworthy or praiseworthy and, on the other hand, make God less than sovereign in his dealings/interaction with mankind.

      This explanation should be rational with the ability to answer as many objections as possible without the explanation being self-contradictory as, for example, the Westminter's confessional statement that (I paraphrase) God determines all things yet not in such a way as to be the author of sin. Such a statement is not just a paradox but nonsense as God's determination of all things necessarily makes him the the one who determined sins existence and, therefore, makes him the author of sin; and, the if he has determined all things - not one things in existence being excluded - and, consequently, the author of all things, how can it be logically stated that he is not the author of sin?

      This is the problem with Calvinism; it reverts to paradox on issues that need not fall into that category. It downplays rationale thinking and considers irrationale thought tokens of a humble mind. It calls on it's listener's to throw out common sense or, at least, not to depend on rational thinking on the basis of rational arguments and what they consider is, under the circumstances, common sense.

      This is not to say that I have all the answers re: God and life, however, it is to say that one can arrive to answer questions that pertain to salvation in a manner that need not fall into the heading of "paradox".

  3. Some comments (which I have left unpublished) have taken issue with the Blainemonster's personal account regarding a discussion of election in a Sunday School class. The Blainemonster is not required to justify his actions in this forum, and as moderator I have opted not to place him in that position on this blog. It is likely that the Blainemonster has the appropriate godly people in his life who can speak to him about any perceived issues; it is also likely that his theological leanings are well known to those with whom he associates. Either way, that is his concern and will not be made a matter of judgmental confrontation here.

    The Assemblies of God is not an officially Arminian denomination, as some have assumed. This can be seen from the official statements below. Speaking as one who attended A/G churches for approximately 10 years, is a graduate of one of their Bible colleges, and held a paid ministry position in one of their churches for several years, I can personally confirm the following:

    A. There are Calvinists scattered throughout the A/G, and they are generally tolerated (though sometimes misunderstood)
    B. The A/G's official positions reflect a deep misunderstanding of Calvinistic doctrines, such that it would be inaccurate to say they are officially opposed to Calvinism; they are more opposed to hyper-Calvinism and "Once saved, always saved" than genuine, mainstream Calvinism.

    An additional response addressing some of the A/G's official statements on Calvinism will follow.

    1. All quotations below are from this article:

      This is the A/G's description of the Arminian position on election:"God does not arbitrarily consign some people to eternal damnation; their willful rejection of God’s salvation makes them responsible."
      As a moderate Calvinist, I agree with this statement (and I think Blainemonter does, too). Unconditional election does not indicate arbitrary damnation or a rejection of human responsibility (a key theme on this blog, btw). What they are opposing here is hyper-Calvinism.

      Notice that the A/G actually embraces Calvinism in some measure:
      "The Assemblies of God leans toward Arminianism, though it accepts scriptural truth found in both positions. We agree with the Calvinist emphasis on God's sovereignty or supreme power and authority. But we also firmly believe the Arminian emphasis on mankind's free will and responsibility for his actions and choices. We believe the Bible teaches both truths."
      Calvinists generally agree that the Bible teaches the paradoxical twin truths of divine sovereignty and human choice/responsibility.

      "Unfortunately, both sides have spent more time arguing doctrinal terminology and interpretations of theology than reaching out to a lost world. The irony of the disagreement is that Calvinists, who believe in predestination, are sometimes more active in witnessing and evangelism than Arminians who believe that man has a free will and should be encouraged to accept Christ as Savior."
      Calvinists affirm predestination but also agree that the Gospel is freely offered to all, that all are commanded to repent and believe the Gospel, and that we as God's people are called to proclaim this good news to all.

      "Although the Assemblies of God adheres basically to the Arminian position on the spiritual security of the believer, there are extremes and potential abuses which must be avoided."
      Notice that the A/G is affirming an Arminian approach to the believer's security, but not rejecting Calvinism wholesale. Further, they define the Calvinist position as "Once saved, always saved." Based on Blaine's own writings, I happen to know he believes OSAS is an aberration of the Reformed doctrine of perseverance. Most Calvinists reject OSAS as it is commonly articulated. So a Calvinist stands with the A/G in affirming that OSAS is a dangerous doctrine, and that those who claim to be Christians can "fall away" from that profession.

      "We therefore reject any 'once saved, always saved' doctrine that excuses sinful lifestyles."
      The emphasis here is on OSAS as an excuse for a sinful lifestyle; the Reformed doctrine of perseverance has exactly the opposite effect. Thus, the A/G (at least in this official statement) has not even addressed the Calvinistic view held by people like Blainemonster and myself.

      Finally, some (not all) of the comments directed toward the Blainemonster by Arminian apologists seemed to me uncharitable. Comments will only be posted if they are gracious, on-topic and are not framed as personal "accountability checks" toward other commenters. Feel free to disagree with subject matter, but do so respectfully and with grace.

    2. The A/G requires their ministers to sign a statement each year with their credential renewal that clearly states that one cannot be an A/G pastor if they are teaching eternal security or are not in line with the A/G positions on doctrinal issues. If an A/G minister were to embrace Calvinism, the right thing to do for integrity sake is to resign and move on. It would be not be honest to continue to preach in an A/G church knowing that you are not in line with your A/G credentials since you now hold to eternal security or perseverance of the saints. This would be lying and ungodly.

    3. Roy,

      Thank you for your comment. I have to respectfully disagree, and I don't think the facts back up your position. For example, see this A/G ordination renewal form (the best publicly available example I know of, although it is a few years old) from the A/G:

      The form only asks whether the candidate takes a differing position on eternal security IF he does not agree with and proclaim the 16 Fundamental Truths. If he agrees with and proclaims the 16 fundamentals, the issue of eternal security does not need to be answered or addressed. There is nothing in the 16 Fundamental Truths that a Calvinist has to deny. Additionally, the form never suggests that one's credentials will not be renewed as a result of the differing position. In fact, one is allowed to explain the difference on a separate page -- would this be allowed if the differing position was an automatic out?

      Furthermore, if you knew how many A/G pastors disagree with the "fundamental truth" that one must speak in tongues in order to be Spirit-baptized, you would probably call the behavior of quite a large number of A/G pastors "lying and ungodly." This is a subject of huge dissent within the movement, and might be a more interesting topic for doctrinal and ethical purists to call attention to. One would find no end to the opportunities to point out the "lying" that goes on in this regard.

      Granted, it is probably uncomfortable to be a Calvinist in the A/G; but it is certainly not impossible or officially prohibited. There are many credentialed A/G Calvinists out there -- including, reportedly, some teachers in their colleges and leading pastors. As long as they subscribe to the 16 Fundamental Truths, they are generally tolerated.


  4. Derek, I think it is accurate to say that mainline A/G folks stand against hyper-Calvinism (as well they should), and at the same time mistakenly lump all Calvinists into that category. It is a misunderstanding. Now, certainly, there are significant differences between reasonable Arminians and reasonable Calvinists (I use the word "reasonable" to describe and encompass that set of people who aren't angry about their theology), but practically speaking I don't see enough of a gulf that it makes any difference when it comes to what are ultimately the most vital issues, which are preaching the Gospel, shepherding God's people, and growing in holiness.

    Don't get me wrong; I firmly believe and have become convinced that Reformed thinking is overall more Biblically accurate and faithful. This isn't as trivial as choosing the 49ers or the Ravens, but I also don't think the two sides are completely incompatible. Hope that makes sense.

  5. Blainemonster - I was one of the ones whose reply was not published by Derek. I did come across a tad bit strong so please accept my sincerest apologies (I don't know if Derek shared my reply with you or not).

    What I was concerned about in your first comment was this sentence, "I cleverly did not use the terms "unconditional election" or "Calvinism."" This, IMHO, appeared to be subterfuge. I would be equally concerned if an Arminian appeared to be clandestine in his transmission of theology. I could care less if you are a Calvinist or Arminian or Lutheran or... However, I do care if a Christian brother is acting responsibly/ethically.

    I would also like to speak a bit to this statement as well, "I was teaching (in my A/G church) my high school class the Scriptural truths about God's sovereignty in salvation." In context, that statement appears as if you don't believe that Arminians believe in God's sovereignty in salvation. If that is what you believe, then I would like to say, "Au contraire my Christian brother, Arminians vehemently believe in God's sovereignty in salvation."

    You have no responsibility to respond to me, I am not your Holy Spirit. God is our sole Judge. However, some direct interaction, I think, would be helpful :-)

    1. Hey drwayman, thanks for that reply and your candor. I freely admit that in hindsight,I regret using the word " cleverly" in my original comment. My intention was to simply not interject into our classes conversation any theological labels. does that make sense? And I guess THAT'S actually what I should have written in the first place :) And regarding the sovereignty of God in our salvation, I do indeed realize that Arminians believe in that sovereignty and unfortunately comments on a blog AND my limited ability to express myself completely in such comments don't give the kind of full picture that a good conversation might. Again, thanks for your reply.

    2. Blaine,

      Thank you for this word of clarification. And Dr. Wayman is to be commended for the gentleness with which he asked his questions. My hat is off to you both for your display of grace and humility.

      Blaine, I have taken a very similar approach with my own children. While focusing most of my attention on teaching them Biblical doctrine using Biblical terms, I have tried not to introduce systems of theology or "labels," which would only confuse them and force a broad ranging series of questions, answers and explanations, with additional questions, answers and explanations cascading down to even more questions, answers and explanations -- until we are all exhausted and confused by the overload. It's so much simpler (and wiser, I think) to just state what the Bible teaches, and how I believe it is best interpreted, and to allow the questions and discussion to follow as they naturally arise.

      My children are vaguely aware of Calvinism and Arminianism, but only from looking over my shoulder. They keep asking me what these labels mean, and I keep refusing to tell them because they are simply not ready. I've met people who have been faithful Christians for many years who aren't ready to deal with the realities of systematic theology. Some are just simple folk with real faith and no interest in such matters, or people whose minds just won't (can't?) wrap around the idea of God being totally sovereign and our choices still being significant and meaningful (or vice versa). Calvinism and Arminianism would just throw them into a tizzy. A good shepherd is sensitive to such things. I've also met people who are clearly Arminian-leaning but vehemently refuse that label, as well as Calvinistic people who won't embrace this label because they can't imagine any kind of Calvinism other than the hyper kind. In both cases, these are people who just believe the Bible.

      I guess Biblical truths are dangerous enough without theological labels added!

      Don't get me wrong. The labels can be helpful (and unavoidable) especially in the study of Church History, and for those who have the maturity to deal with the differences. Sometimes I wonder if I am mature enough to deal with these issues!

      To be honest, I don't identify with much of the belief or behavior of what is commonly characterized as "Calvinism" in some circles. People ask me about man having no choice, or God arbitrarily condemning people to hell, and I just wonder what they mean. Those kinds of beliefs are not in the mainstream of Calvinism. For me, Calvinism means God won my heart by His sheer mercy, when otherwise I would only have fought against Him and condemned myself. I wonder at the mystery of Him helping me to turn when I would never have turned -- not in a million years. Such astounding mercy to a hell-bent sinner!

      I suppose I have wandered way off the main topic now . . . but it's my blog so I'm allowed to go on a rant, right? :)

      My thanks to you both for setting a good example here.


  6. Derek - I know you wrote the above to Blaine but you did mention me in the communique to him so I believe that gives me room to speak to you briefly about it.

    Thanks for your kind words and I strive to be godly in my communications with others and that is why I appreciate that you allowed my second post to be published (again, I apologize for the tone of the first one that you did not publish).

    To me, Derek, your response to Blaine seems a little off base. You seem to say that you don't identify much with Calvinism. Yet, on this blog you have copious information that you have provided and some that you have written that is in clear support of Calvinism. You have also, since you wrote this present blog entry, come out against Arminianism in at least two separate blog entries. It seems to me that you do place yourself squarely in the Calvinist camp.

    One thing you wrote I would like to comment on, "For me, Calvinism means God won my heart by His sheer mercy, when otherwise I would only have fought against Him and condemned myself." Did you know that an Arminian can agree with much of that? "For me, Arminianism means God won my heart by His sheer mercy, when otherwise I would have only fought against Him and condemned myself."

    Arminians, too, agree that we are totally lost, that sin has infected every part of humanity and that we can do nothing to save ourselves and that we don't even know we need saved until God's Mercy moves on us.

  7. Dr. Wayman,

    Thank you for your thoughts. Please note the qualifiers on my statement:

    I don't identify with much of the belief or behavior of what is commonly characterized as "Calvinism" in some circles.

    A highly qualified statement.

    On the other hand, I very strongly identify with Historic/Moderate Calvinism. The examples I mentioned of "people having no choice" and "God arbitrarily condemning people to hell" are telling. Those are unfair caricatures of Calvinism. When my beliefs are described using these kinds of phrases, I think to myself, "Hmmm. I wasn't aware that I believed those things!"

    As you have noticed, my Historic/Moderate Calvinist theological convictions are woven deeply into the warp and woof of this blog. See my articles on Compatibilism, 10-Point Calvinism, the Extent of the Atonement, the Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart, etc. (not to mention my recent discussion with Dr. Olson) for key examples of this. Just yesterday I posted a ringing affirmation of both human freedom and exhaustive determinism. Paradoxes run extensively through our faith, from the Trinity and Incarnation to Predestination, Biblical Inspiration, the Atonement, Evangelism, Conversion, Sanctification, Perseverance, Glorification, etc.

    Bear in mind that my use of the term "paradox" does not imply that these doctrines are actually illogical, or that man cannot craft logical solutions to the apparent contradictions in them. I primarily mean that we can, with strong Biblical warrant, make at least two apparently contradictory statements regarding these doctrines, and the Bible itself does not explain how the two statements are reconciled. Thus, the "solutions" we offer cannot carry the same weight as the apparently contradictory statements themselves.

    What I am describing is nothing more than a sound Biblical epistemology that takes the Word of God as the highest authority, and avoids the rationalism which would lift mere human thought to the same level.

    It is surprising how strongly this simple belief is opposed by people who claim to believe in Sola Scriptura and Biblical inerrancy.

    I am aware of the Classical Arminian beliefs, and rejoice in all of the ways our theologies agree. Still, there are strong differences that cannot be swept aside. Some (not all) of these disagreements are largely a matter of emphasis.

    I hope this helps.



Feel free to respond to anything written in the posts, or to the comments left by others. All comments are reviewed before they are published.

Please be charitable. If you disagree, do so with grace. Keep your words positive, focused, and on-topic. We don't expect everyone to agree, but we do expect everyone to treat everyone else with respect and grace, speaking the truth in love.