I wrote this in 2007 explaining why I abandoned Calvinism. Unfortunately, the comments were not saved since much of my old blog was not salvageable.
This is a post I have been thinking about and working on for quite some time. It is not meant to be an exhaustive critique of Calvinism or an argument for the purity of non-Calvinist theology. It is a response to the genuine inquiries of those who ask why I no longer hold to the Calvinistic “doctrines of grace” and “sovereignty of God.” Confessional intellectual autobiography and polemical discourse are the genres in which I write, and hopefully it will be apparent at which places I vacillate between the two. I have made a concerted effort to downplay the use of technical jargon, though some will be necessary. When words idiosyncratic to the issues emerge I will do my best to explain them, but I plead for grace in advance for any presumed vocabulary that may be foreign to the gentle reader.
I shall begin by giving the argument that persuaded me to embrace Calvinism followed by a critique of that argument. Then I will survey the major intellectual and personal problem I endured as a Calvinist and show how it served to undermine my faith. Finally I will conclude by highlighting the benefits I received from being a Calvinist and identify my own position. Surely, there will be disagreement and I am not naïve to the possibility of inviting scorn. My only request is that this be read with the same hermeneutic of charity that I have tried to extend to the writings and teachings of Calvinists themselves.
Calvinism’s Strongest Argument
Historical theology’s teaching on the freedom and bondage of the human will almost always begins with the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius. Without diving into all of the historical details of the debate, the disagreement was simple yet profound in answering the following question: Do we do righteous works by our own power or by the grace of God? Pelagius argued the former, Augustine argued the latter. History sided with Augustine and “Pelagianism” was deemed a heresy.
And history got it right. The human will is so in bondage to sin that it is incapable of pleasing God in any meaningful way. So much so that it is necessary for God to graciously intervene and “regenerate” our hearts so that we can move towards him. The analogy often given to help us understand this parallels that of resurrecting from the dead: we are dead in sin and God makes us alive in righteousness so that we might have faith in him. Calvinists are wholly and biblically correct to insist that we need divine assistance to draw near God.
From this, Calvinism makes its strongest argument: the argument from grace. Simply put, the argument states that since we are so incapable of pleasing God by our good works he must intervene to save us according to his own power and will. We contribute nothing to our salvation. He is the author and perfector of our faith from beginning to end and any claim we make for the explanation as to why we are saved, be it good works, wise decision-making, or persistent perseverance under trial, in effect “takes credit” for our salvation and renders grace meaningless. God’s glory is compromised and we are able to boast before God. This understanding of salvation is broadly described as “mongergism,” which means that God is solely responsible for our salvation.
When I first encountered this argument I found it persuasive and still find it persuasive in several ways. There is not a Calvinist in print today who does not appeal to this as the first order of arguments against Arminianism or any free will theology that would claim “synergism”—the idea that God and humanity cooperate in bringing about salvation. However, over time certain flaws became evident to me as I persisted in my Calvinistic faith. The way these flaws emerged will be described below, but I will begin with the result of those flaws in formal argument.
Calvinism’s Biggest Weakness
The problem with mongerism, or the argument from grace, is that it ends up taking so much away from the human will that it takes on things it would rather distance itself from. If God is solely responsible for our salvation, then it seems that he is also solely responsible for our damnation. God’s eternal choice to save some and not others is unconditional. Yet if we hold to unconditional election unto salvation, then it seems we must hold to its logical corollary: unconditional reprobation unto damnation. Therefore, in same manner, we are apparently saved by God’s grace apart from works and we are damned by God’s condemnation apart from works (Rom 9:11-13 is often used as a proof text to show the unconditional nature of election, but if it is interpreted that way then it clearly supports the idea of unconditional reprobation or judgment–which, is of course, nonsense.). To be sure, I know of no Calvinist that would accept this, and there are a number of reasons why we shall examine below.
The first reason why Calvinists reject this argument is by distinguishing the natures of election and reprobation. Reformed Baptist theologian Wayne Grudem says “the cause of election lies in God, and the cause of reprobation lies in the sinner.” Another distinguishing feature between the two categories is “that the ground of election is God’s grace, whereas the ground of reprobation is God’s justice” (Bible Doctrine, 292). This reasoning, however, is problematic, for it seems to say that election is unconditional and reprobation is conditional. If election is not conditional, meaning it is not in response to foreseen faith or received grace, then on what basis is God’s decision to condemn made conditional? It seems that it is has to be in response to foreseen sins. God responding to his creatures is unacceptable in the former, but acceptable in the latter.
Calvinists might try to wriggle out of this dilemma by speculating about the logical order of God’s degrees. God’s decree to permit the Fall could be logically prior to his decree to save some and leave others to judgment. But this is to no avail, because in both cases the decree to bring sin into the created order and the decree to save some and damn the others is found in God. To assert an asymmetry between election and reprobation (as Frame does. See The Doctrine of God, 334) is virtually meaningless, because we act in accordance with God’s “secret will” (or “will of decree”) which, according to Grudem, is made up of those “hidden decrees by which he governs the universe and determines everything that will happen” (Bible Doctrine, 97). Therefore, the idea of God responding to events obtained by divine foresight is nonsense in this system. In Calvinism God cannot be conditioned by his creatures in any way, for humanity’s will to sin is rendered certain by divine decree. God may be conditioned by his own decree, but it is not clear how the following proposition, “A loving God desires to save all and at the same time desires the damnation of many for his glory” avoids logical contradiction.
The second reason this argument is rejected is because Calvinists believe humans are to be held responsible for their actions. In Calvinism, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is reconciled by appealing to a form of “compatibilism”—the belief that our freedom is compatible (or not rendered void) by causal determinism: God is absolutely sovereign over the outcome of human decisions in such a way that we are still responsible for them. In this view God cooperates with human beings in every action, directing their distinctive characters and natures to cause them to act as they do. Thus every event is said to be 100% caused by God and 100% caused by the creature (See Grudem: Bible Doctrine, 145). By this understanding of divine providence Grudem states, “God has made us responsible for our actions.” He says “If we do right and obey God, he will reward us” and if we do not do right we will be punished (Bible Doctrine, 152). However, this seems to create a problem for the argument from grace in that God is no longer “solely” responsible for our salvation. Since the decision of faith was caused 100% by God and 100% by the creature, we must conclude that we are responsible for our salvation in the same way we are responsible for our sin. The argument from grace would have us believe God is 100% responsible for our salvation and that we are 0% responsible for it, for grace alone is causally sufficient for our faith in Christ (See Paul Helm in Divine Foreknowledge: 4 Views, 170). If this is true, however, compatibilism is false and we are left with hard determinism. Human freedom, thus, is nothing more than an illusion. Ironically enough, the argument from grace appeals to incompatibilism in the end. If we are so determined we are not in any sense free. Of course, the more careful Calvinists theologians deny this and hold that human beings are responsible for their salvation (as we will see below), but in my view this softens the idea that God is “solely responsible” for our salvation and leaves the argument from grace significantly qualified, rendering its rhetorical value greatly diminished.
Therefore, while it is in the view of this author that Calvinism puts forward many interesting and even believable arguments from Scriptural proof texts, it nevertheless leaves us with an illogical and unintelligible construct that is inconsistent and confusing, and in my case, damaging.
My Journey to this Conclusion
My journey away from Calvinism began not unlike other journeys with intense reflection on the last letter of the so called “TULIP”: the letter “P”—perseverance of the saints. The first four points of the TULIP all focus on the order of salvation before the moment of saving faith, the last point deals with the state of the believer afterwards. Many who have not studied “5 point” Calvinism in depth are attracted to the teaching of the fifth point, because it ensures a “once saved always saved” theology of eternal security. This certainly was the case with me. The possibility of falling away is a dreadful prospect, and the idea of God’s sustaining grace guaranteeing my safety was most assuring. How the letter “P” in the TULIP could be said to be the weakest link was not apparent to me.
An Excurse on the TULIP
A common misconception of the TULIP is that it is thought that one can affirm one, two, three, or even four of the points and still be a Calvinist. Hence, the phenomenon of “4 point” Calvinists who commonly affirm all but the “L”—limited atonement (who would want to limit the atonement?). But the fact of the matter is they were designed to be an interlocking logical unit where if you deny one, you deny them all. J.I. Packer argues that if you are a one-point Calvinist, then you are a 5 point Calvinist. If “L” is compromised as “unlimited” then, following from the belief that Christ’s death objectively accomplishes forgiveness on behalf of sinners, universalism—or the doctrine that everyone is saved—is implicated. If “T” (total depravity) is denied then humanity may be able to move towards God without divine assistance. If “I” (irresistible grace) is denied then it is possible for humanity to thwart God’s will to save sinners. If “U” is denied (unconditional election) then God’s choice to save us is conditioned by a foreseen response to him rooting the decision for salvation in ourselves and not in God. And of course, if “P” is denied, then our fallen will is able to overcome God’s saving purposes. All this I learned from good Calvinist teachers before I started to seriously reflect on how “P” could be a faulty premise in the argument.
An Excurse on Relevance
At this point, if the reader is still with me, I would enjoin him or her to remember that all theology is pastoral theology. I do not engage in this logical exercise for the sake of intellectual escapism or cerebral entertainment. Many of the questions that engage these issues are questions of the heart that muse late in the night, or when prayer is not answered, or when a loved one is resistant to efforts of evangelism. I share these logical parameters and arguments to better explain how I encountered and overcame deep psychological dissonance within my faith that was often filled with doubt and despair. I came to the conclusion long ago that we often opt for our theological positions out of pastoral needs rather than by rational argumentation. To be sure, our faith seeks understanding, but the head seems to follow the heart in its quest to make sense of deep and enduring questions that perplex and befuddle. This is not to say this is a proper way to do theology (for that would be to work towards ascertaining the true teachings of Scripture), but it is typical and incredibly influential. All of us must be in tune with our pastoral needs before we make any big decisions about these matters.
How Can I Know I Am Saved?
My problems with “P” began late one night after awaking from a dream wherein I vividly stood before God as a condemned man. After confidently thinking I would enter the Kingdom for having trusted Christ for salvation I heard the dreadful words, “Depart from me, for I never knew you.” I awoke in an absolute terror and cold sweat as I contemplated the echoing words in my mind. It was perhaps the only moment in my life I could say I felt what it is like to have absolutely no hope. No amount of effort, prayer, faith or repentance could change God’s immutable verdict. It had been decided. Of course, it was only a dream and I recovered after a few hours of meditation. Yet the experience elicited a profound theological question: Had my eternal fate already been decided?
As a student of theology who has wrestled with these issues for a good seven years I now can see how there were many other questions that were contained in this question, but as a terrified believer with seemingly no hope such matters were painfully insignificant. Unfortunately, these moments of dread would continue for six months and I developed an incredible fear of death. It seemed to me that the only way I could know I was saved was by knowing the status of my eternal election. Was I chosen by God for salvation or was I eternally damned before I had done anything good or bad? To be sure, the Calvinist theologian in me had responses to this question, yet none of them sufficed. For example, John Frame states God’s eternal decree to damn “does not prejudice our assurance of salvation.” This is because our “assurance is not based on our reading of the eternal decrees of God, which are secret unless God reveals them, but on the promises of God” (The Doctrine of God, 334). Yet as we shall see, one’s ability to believe the promises of God in a saving manner is conditioned upon God’s eternal decree. Therefore, my Calvinistic theology presented my needs for assurance with an epistemological problem: in order to have assurance I needed to know the status of my election, something that by definition is secret and cannot be known.
A Crisis of Faith and Common Sense
After intense study of all these matters I came to doubt many of the core beliefs of the faith. I did not express my doubts to many people, though I often confessed to others that I was struggling with a terrifying fear of death and did not know I was saved. One evening, I had dinner with a friend and confided my struggles with Calvinism and how it had undermined my assurance. In a wry tone he asked, “So why do you keep believing in Calvinism?” I said that I thought it was a correct interpretation of the Bible. He said, “Well, if you are having doubts about your salvation you are missing out on something very basic to your faith.” Suddenly it dawned on me like a ray of light: I had constructed a complex and unassailable system of doctrine that was denying me my birthright. Shortly after this I reassessed my belief in Calvinism and let it corrode under the sweet promises of Scripture: that eternal life is given to all those who believe in the Son of God—Jesus Christ. Studying Luke’s Gospel, an introductory commentary on the text, standard apologetic arguments for the resurrection, and Dallas Willard’s reflections on the teachings of Jesus revived my faith in a personal God who came in universal love to offer abundant life to all who believe in him. It is the most precious news on the face of the planet. Yet I did not simply let my belief in Calvinism die without a serious attempt at preserving it. What follows are my thoughts and conclusions from a engaged study of a book co-authored by a professor from my college on the subject of assurance.
The Problem of Assurance
The problem of assurance has a long and checkered history in Calvinistic theology. Perhaps the most devout practitioners of Calvinism, the Puritans of the 17th and 18th centuries, wrestled deeply with the problem and devised many innovative and ingenious solutions to it. Covenant theology was one idea where God’s immutable nature is said to be bound by a contractual agreement with humankind to never revoke his promise of salvation by faith in Christ through grace alone. Another idea was constructing a theology of discernment that worked to distinguish between “reliable” and “unreliable signs” of regeneration and authentic faith. Many of the Puritan Paperbacks you can still purchase today deal with discerning between true and false expressions of such weighty matters as love, repentance, holiness, and faith. The most famous, and arguably the best treatise in this genre is Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. It is a very good book, one of the greatest in American theology.
Yet each of these “solutions” is riddled with the same epistemological problem. Covenant theology more or less states the terms and conditions of the promises that we must believe in order to be saved. This does not in any way give us assurance that we will be able to meet these conditions, for the ability to meet them, according to the argument from grace, is contingent upon God’s unconditional choice to save. Edwards’ Religious Affections, though powerful and stirring in many ways, often leaves one introspective like every other argument in this genre. Does one truly have the “reliable signs” at work in one’s heart or not? Answering these questions almost always is a subjective exercise. John Owen’s treatment of assurance, particularly the warning passage in Hebrews 6:4-6, makes a number of claims that are terrifying to consider. For example he asserts that an insincere believer (one that is not truly saved) can be “enlightened” yet not changed, renewed, or transformed. He or she may “taste of the heavenly gift,” meaning the Holy Spirit, yet still not experience the regenerating work of the Spirit. We may even experience gifting of the Spirit (like Simon Magus did [Acts 8:15-21]), yet fail to taste “the goodness of God, and the powers to come” (Quoted in Schreiner & Caneday: The Race Set Before Us, 195-96). Thus one can have the experiences of a genuine Christian, yet not be a genuine Christian. Therefore, whatever “evidence” we muster in favor of making our election sure could very well be spurious. As many of us know, we have shared deep fellowship with those who are no longer walking with the Lord. For Owen and company, this means that they did not “fall away;” rather, they never were truly saved. We thought they were saved for the same reasons we think we are saved, yet we are led to conclude they never were saved. Therefore, we have no reason to be assured of our own salvation since our faith, which is seemingly genuine, could in fact be a sham.
A Possible solution?
Perhaps the best book I’ve read on Calvinism in conjunction with a serious study in biblical theology is Tom Schreiner and A.B. Caneday’s The Race Set Before Us. This is a carefully reasoned and trenchantly argued book that is perhaps the best in print on the subject of perseverance and assurance from the Calvinist perspective. The meticulous attention paid to different viewpoints, the thorough exegesis, and the pastoral sensitivity make it a “must read” for anyone in search of real and weighty answers to the vexing problems listed above. The authors do not make the error in the argument from grace that so many Calvinists do in that they treat the sanctification and the perseverance of the chosen believer true to compatibilist terms that dignify his or her responsibility in salvation.
In summary, the book’s argument seeks to make sense of the biblical warnings against falling away (see Rom 8:13; 11:17-24; I Cor 9:27; Gal 5:4; Col 1:23; I Thess 3:5; I Tim 1:19-20; II Tim 2:17-18; Heb 6:4-6; 10:26-31; Jas 5:19-20; II Pet 2:20-22), and criticizes three popular views of perseverance and assurance common among Christians as well as a fourth that is idiosyncratic to certain thinkers in the scholarly world (see here for more my initial interaction with this book). The first of which they repudiate is the simple “loss of salvation” view, which means what it says: genuine believers are able to lose their salvation by failing to persevere. Second is the “loss of rewards” view, which simply entails the loss of certain benefits in heaven, though not salvation, if one walks away from the faith. Third is the “test of genuineness” view which is the view of Owen (above) where a believer devises a system of biblical “tests” that looks for true signs of faithfulness. Falling away proves one never was genuinely regenerated in the first place. The fourth view is the so-called “hypothetical view” that only imagines the idea of a believer falling away, yet maintains the reality of which an impossibility.
Schreiner and Caneday give serious arguments demonstrating flaws in each of these views, if not dismantling them entirely, and present their own view of the warnings: the “means of salvation view” (pp. 38-40). In this view the warnings are the means of eliciting faith in God’s promises, and do not imply the possibility of having salvation and falling away from it. No true believer will fail to heed the warnings, thus rendering them compatible with God’s sovereign election and human responsibility. The warnings, then, function as a means of God’s grace to the elect that only the elect are able to heed via the sovereign grace of God. The solution is ingenious because it directs the believer and unbeliever to the promises of God through the warning passages and honors the responsibility of the believer to persevere in believing them. Yet it is not unlike the other views in that it is not without its own problems.
The Molinist Objection
At this point I must tread carefully since I am waging disagreement with a professor from my school. Though I have not taken one of his classes, I am told Professor Caneday does not suffer fools lightly and is very able in defending his view (his blog is here). Yet I will persist with an objection that he has anticipated and formulated a rebuttal to in the appendix to his book. This objection was articulated in an article by William Lane Craig entitled “Lest Anyone Should Fall”: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Perseverance and Apostolic Warnings where he essentially argues that the “means of salvation view” is actually more coherent in a “middle knowledge” perspective. Middle knowledge is the view of God’s knowledge that contains what his creatures would freely do in any given circumstances (or “possible world”) before he creates the world. This contrasts with the Calvinist perspective in that it allows for libertarian free will, which is a view of freedom that is incompatible with causal determinism. Without diving into the details of this highly technical view and how it relates to the issue at hand, Craig’s view of middle knowledge boils down to the following proposition:
- 1. If the warnings had not been given, the believers would have fallen away.
- Does the [Calvinist] regard (1) as true or not? If he holds that (1) is true, then it seems clear that the believers are in fact capable of falling away, for in the closest possible worlds in which the antecedent of (1) is true, they do fall away.
How do Schreiner and Caneday respond to the question “Are believers capable of falling away?” The answer is not so clear. Since Schreiner and Caneday are Calvinists the short answer is that they cannot. Textually, they argue that the warnings do not imply falling away anymore than road signs warning of slippery bridges imply we will slide off the road; they point to conceivable outcomes, not probable consequences (See pp. 208). However, this seems to miss the point by confusing probability with possibility. A conceivable outcome is not that much different from a possible outcome, especially when we consider the warnings against backsliding and shipwrecking the faith. The supposition, “If you swallow arsenic you will die” doesn’t prove one will or that it is likely one will swallow arsenic. Yet it treats swallowing arsenic as a real possibility. One is capable of swallowing arsenic in the same way someone is capable of falling away (see Rom 8:13). This creates a problem for the Calvinist view since this possibility is exactly what it denies. Schreiner and Caneday’s rebuttal of Craig does not seem to deal with the substance of his proposition and instead gets bogged down in calling attention to fallacies of argumentation and misrepresentation concerning tangent details that lead up to it. While I grant they may be technically correct in naming these, they are not fatal to Craig’s concluding proposition which is the first premise in an otherwise sound argument. As far as I can tell Craig is able to make sense of the real possibility of falling away and the means necessary for guarding against it via God’s middle knowledge, which Calvinism cannot.
The Irrelevance of the Solution
However, even if the Molinist objection is shown to fail, I am not sure that Schreiner and Caneday’s view can transcend the problems of the “test of genuineness” view. When reflecting on “fallen runners” Schreiner and Caneday contrast the lives of Peter and Judas. Both Peter and Judas “failed to persevere” in their own ways. Yet Jesus intercedes for Peter so that his faith will not fail (Luke 22:31-32), and in the end he is restored. The fate of Judas, however, is one of judgment as he goes to his bitter death with much remorse, but no repentance. Schreiner and Caneday conclude that for those whom Christ intercedes (Heb 7:25) they will persevere. Those that have not been “given by the Father to the Son” will eternally perish (pp. 248-49; 251-53). Peter represents the former and Judas the latter. Therefore, we are back to the same epistemological problem: how can we know the Father has given us to the Son and that Christ is interceding on our behalf? Without having the knowledge of our eternal election we can have no assurance that we will persevere, for we have no assurance we will be given the grace to exercise the faith necessary for our salvation. Thus the warnings are meaningless to the unregenerate and the “means of salvation” solution to the problem of assurance is irrelevant.
There are many, many other issues that I could write about, but this post has gone on long enough. However, I want to be clear with my Calvinist brothers and sisters that I do not look back on my time in Calvinism with disdain or regret. While in the end the drawbacks far outweighed the benefits, the benefits were duly enriching. Through Calvinism I came to respect both reason and biblical authority and that neither are properly honored without the other. I came to learn the great truths of the gospel in a deeper way that helped solidify my faith in the grace of God over and against my own works. It taught me that God answers to no one and may do whatever he pleases. I see no reason to hold Calvinism or those who teach it in contempt, nor do I claim to have believed it in the way it has been traditionally understood. This post is simply my intellectual autobiography and concluding reasons from my encounter with Calvinism. As an Arminian Molinist I am not naïve to the problems in my view. However, I think there are less problems in it that serve my faith better. In my view I can rest on the universal love of God expressed through Christ; this is the anchor or my soul. No longer must I speculate about the secret discriminations of a “God behind the God”—for I can fix my eyes on Christ and run the race with joy, scorning the same shame of the world, the same shame it heaped on the crucified God.