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, June 29, 2013

Adding Some Important Clarifications to the SBC Statement on Calvinism

The recent SBC statement rightly affirms God's love for all people and His desire for all to be saved. Roger Olson has suggested that Calvinists should be required to explain these statements further, and that it might be disingenuous for them to sign the statement without elaborating (See here, here and here). 

To demonstrate the point, he proposed that a coalition of Calvinists, Classical Arminians and Open Theists ought to be challenged to sign the following, without qualification, and wondered if any would be willing to do so:
“We affirm that God loves everyone and desires everyone to be saved and that God elects some to salvation and that people do not have free will to decide whether or not to be saved and that God knows the future exhaustively and infallibly.”
I could never sign that in good conscience because it denies human freedom/responsibility.

However, I agree that more should be said by Calvinists and Arminians about God's love for all people and His desire for the salvation of all. I chose (of my own free will) to add the following comment to Dr. Olson's third post on this subject, including some proposed clarifications to be made from both sides. This will really prove a point:
Dr. Olson, 
I am glad you are discussing the SBC statement.  
I doubt ANYONE would sign your proposed statement (of course, you already knew that). I, as a Calvinist, would object to the denial of freedom, but not to the affirmation of God's general love and desire for the salvation of the lost. 
With regard the actual SBC statement, I agree that more could (and probably should) be said about God's love for everyone and His desire for everyone to be saved. 
If I had my way, Calvinists would have to explain further by stating: "We affirm that God loves all people in the sense that He freely gives them life and breath, reveals Himself to them, provides every good thing they experience, withholds patiently for a time their just and well-deserved punishment for sin, extends His open hand of salvation to them, and calls them to Gospel repentance; and that He desires the salvation of all people in the sense that He would delight in saving all, and will never turn away anyone who turns to Him; and that this sincere love and desire on God's part do not result in the salvation of all people because many freely choose to reject Him in spite of such kindness."  
And Arminians would have to state, "We affirm that God loves all people in the sense that He freely gives them life and breath, reveals Himself to them, provides every good thing they experience, withholds patiently for a time their just and well-deserved punishment for sin, extends His open hand of salvation to them, and calls them to Gospel repentance; and that He desires the salvation of all people in the sense that He would delight in saving all, and will never turn away anyone who turns to Him; and that this sincere love and desire on God's part do not result in the salvation of all people because many freely choose to reject Him in spite of such kindness."  
This could be followed up with, "Both Calvinists and Arminians agree on these points." 

The End of a Long and Interesting Debate

For several weeks now, I have been engaged in discussion with a non-Calvinist brother named Matt. Matt has taken a position of incompatibilism, stating that God cannot both sovereignly foreordain all things and simultaneously permit evil to occur through the exercise of genuine freedom on the part of the creature. He believes Calvinism makes God the "author of evil" and leaves man without moral freedom or responsibility. As one might expect, I argue that this understanding is incorrect.

Thus far, there have been 26 separate volleys in this informal debate, which originally took place in the comments at this post:

Matt has also taken the time to post each comment as a separate blog post on his site.

Below is my final summary response. I would imagine Matt will reply to this, and that his response will be the end of our discussion (for now, at least). Here is my closing argument:
Thank you for taking time to reply and for all of the work you have undertaken in reorganizing our comments into individual posts. 
I will make a few final comments here, and then leave off. This has been a most interesting exchange, and I am grateful for the time and thoughtful attention you have given to it. 
You can imagine my disappointment in finding your last two posts fraught with the same mischaracterizations of Calvinism that prompted me to write to you in the first place. Here on posts numbers 24 and 25, you demonstrate a total misunderstanding of key Calvinist convictions, proving to me that I have utterly failed to dislodge these misapprehensions from your mind. Throughout our discussion, and especially in these latest posts, you present Calvinism in an utterly inaccurate way, and as a theological position which would actually be blasphemous, heretical, destructive, and entirely inconsistent with Scripture, if the position was actually held by anyone. I cannot think of any mainstream Calvinist who has ever held to the kind of belief you define as Calvinism. Even many hyper Calvinists would cringe at some of the propositions you tell us Calvinists must affirm. 
As such, I find your sudden shift to a demand for “argumentation,” rather than “assertion,” to be curious. Your persistently repeated misstatements about the beliefs of Calvinists have prompted me to attempt to clarify what Calvinists actually believe versus what you claim they believe. This is, of course, not a matter of mere logical proof, but of historical analysis. I chose not to inundate you with endless quotations proving that real Calvinists don’t actually believe what you say they believe. A visit to will provide veritable mountains of proof. Therefore, beyond the following quotation, I will simply suggest you study the actual beliefs of dozens of historic Calvinist leaders, from the Reformation onward, which have been carefully documented at that site. Best of all, everything there is surrounded by extensive context in order to lessen the possibility of misinterpretation. 
Here is what the Westminster Confession explicitly states concerning God’s sovereign foreordination and the origin of evil: 
“The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.” (WCF 5.4) 
This is what Calvinists actually believe. The Calvin and Calvinism site referenced above will show you various ways Reformed thinkers have logically reasoned through the implications. You may say that this is self-contradictory and impossible. To you, perhaps it is. To them, and to me, it is not. 
Note that the WCF does not deny permission of sin, but affirms it, insisting that the permission is not without God’s bounding, ordering and governing of the sins that are permitted. You have stated that the language of permission is an Arminian approach. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I don’t think the WCF is an Arminian creed. Can you now see, from the WCF, that the language of permission is actually, historically speaking, a stock Calvinist answer to the question, and that this is exactly opposite to the beliefs you presented as “Calvinism”? Frankly, if Calvinism was what you claim it is, I would join you in staunchly opposing it. I would actually go further and condemn its adherents as anti-Christian heretics. Fortunately, Calvinism takes a position exactly opposite to the one you say it affirms regarding the goodness of God and the origin of evil. 
Throughout our discussion, I have argued from numerous Biblical texts that the Calvinist’s position is both reasonable and logical. You do not accept my arguments, and that is okay with me. But it would be dishonest for you to claim I haven’t presented arguments for my position. 
You have asserted that Scripture itself is not sufficient to decide the question under consideration, and have demanded logical proof and argumentation, insisting that these are sufficient to determine the question. In my view, you have elevated human reason above Scripture by discounting the possibility that direct Biblical propositions can settle the question, and implying instead that the reasonings of your own mind can settle it. My position on this is reciprocal to yours. I hold that clear Biblical propositions DO undeniably settle the matter, whether or not the reasonings of my mind (or yours) can attain to the divine logic undergirding the divinely revealed answer. In other words, my core epistemological presupposition is that Scripture itself is more reliable and trustworthy than fallible human logic. I am honestly surprised that you disagree on this point (although it is possible that I have misunderstood your position on this). 
Matt, it is unfortunate that you misrepresent my views on logic and paradox in a way strikingly similar to the way you misrepresent Calvinism. The reason may be that I have not explained well enough, or that you have honestly misunderstood, and hope it boils down to one these (or a combination of both). Here again, I can only seek to clarify my position and argue from Scripture. 
I can certainly appreciate the logic of your arguments and illustrations regarding things like “married bachelors,” etc. My answer to all of this is simple: matters of divine ordination and human freedom cannot be oversimplified in this way. Sure, there are plenty of either/or dichotomies in our world. Married or not married. Pregnant or not pregnant. Speeding or not speeding. Everyone understand this. However, the existence of either/or dichotomies does not invalidate the possibility of both/and synergies (which are sometimes presented as false dichotomies). What about this one: square or circle? In two dimensions, this really is an either/or dichotomy. But in three dimensions, we have the cylinder, a “square circle.” We also have square triangles (pyramids) and circular triangles (cones). So . . . what if we human beings could only conceive of two dimensions, and an all-knowing God who sees three dimensions told us something is both square and circle? Would we argue with Him, and say that His claim is illogical? Or would we trust that on His level of understanding it is possible for a cylinder to exist? Stated simply, I view divine ordination and human freedom not as a married vs. bachelor issue, but as a square vs. circle issue. We see squares and circles where God sees cylinders. And again I ask, what prevents God from being able to do things like this? Is He not on a higher level than we are? Is He not wiser? Smarter? More knowledgeable? More capable? 
You may think all of this is illogical. You are free to think so. However, I just laid out a sound logical reason for you to affirm and trust God’s harmonious use of both foreordination and genuine human freedom. This is not all as simple as 2+2=4. We are dealing with infinities here. In human experience, we don’t have anything exactly like eternal, divine “ordination” to compare with or argue from. To fully understand exactly how all of this works, we would have to be eternal, divine, all-wise, all-good and all-powerful. I’m just guessing that those shoes don’t fit either one of us, Matt. 
Finally, I want to thank you once again for a challenging and enjoyable conversation. I pray you will be mightily used by God in the work He has given you to do, that you will continue to grow in your love for Christ and your knowledge of Him, and that your entire life will be blessed and prospered in Him. I also hope that a large cylinder shape is ordained to be set up somewhere in the New Creation, and that we may freely decide to meet under its shadow for a continuation of this discussion, with a fresh insight and understanding that magnificently humbles us both through a recognition of how little we actually apprehended when we engaged in this discussion. And there we shall worship the Lamb together! 
Until then, many blessings, brother. 
In Christ,
Derek Ashton