In the early 1980s I encountered a Christian who left the Dutch Reformed Church because it was insufficiently Calvinist. He and a few others formed a new church where they would be free to adhere more exactly to the Calvinist principles of which they were so fond. This sticks in my mind mainly because he was the first person I had encountered that believed some babies are predestined to hell and if they die as babies, that’s where they’ll end up – for God’s greater glory. He took his Calvinism seriously. I was taken by surprise at the enormity of the consequences this belief and I don’t think I gave a very coherent response to what seemed to me to be an abominable idea. I knew Calvin and I would have problems.
Subsequently I read some of Clark Pinnock’s books including essays of his where made the case for Arminianism and others for Calvinism; I found Clark’s to be the more convincing case although I was not swayed entirely to his point of view. I later became acquainted with Clark because he occasionally attended my church and I remember questioning him on a point he made that seemed extreme; he gave me a worried look and said “do you think I’ve gone too far?” I wanted to say “how the hell should I know, you’re the theologian” – but didn’t. I think it was something to do with the final destruction – rather than torment – of the lost.
Leaving aside damned babies, David Bentley Hart succinctly sums up the problem:
I quite explicitly admit in my writing that I think the traditional Calvinist understanding of divine sovereignty to be deeply defective, and destructively so. One cannot, as with Luther, trace out a direct genealogy from late medieval voluntarism to the Calvinist understanding of divine freedom; nevertheless, the way in which Calvin himself describes divine sovereignty is profoundly modern: it frequently seems to require an element of pure arbitrariness, of pure spontaneity, and this alone separates it from more traditional (and I would say more coherent) understandings of freedom, whether divine or human.
This idea of a God who can be called omnipotent only if his will is the direct efficient cause of every aspect of created reality immediately makes all the inept cavils of the village atheist seem profound: one still should not ask if God could create a stone he could not lift, perhaps, but one might legitimately ask if a God of infinite voluntaristic sovereignty and power could create a creature free to resist the divine will. The question is no cruder than the conception of God it is meant to mock, and the paradox thus produced merely reflects the deficiencies of that conception.
Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.