Anglican Samizdat

July 12, 2009

Why I am not a Calvinist

Filed under: Christianity — David Jenkins @ 12:09 am

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.



  1. The doctrine that “God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed” is a teaching of supralapsarianism, which was developed by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva. By contrast, Calvin taught that God permitted the fall, not that He foreordained it—i.e., infralapsarianism. At the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), which rejected Arminianism, infralapsarians were in the majority, but the Arminians tried to depict all the Calvinists as proponents of the “repulsive” supralapsarian doctrine. David Bentley Hart would appear to be offering a similar misrepresentation.

    (Much of above info from Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1985, Walter A. Elwell, editor.)

    Certainly, some aspects of Calvinist theology have implications for human freedom vis-a-vis divine sovereignty that many find disturbing or repulsive but, as always, the primary question must be: “What does Scripture teach?”, not: “What do I consider arbitrary, inept, or Incoherent?”

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — July 12, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  2. Thanks Scott,

    If one’s understanding of what Scripture teaches leads to conclusions that are repulsive, it might behove one to at least re-examine the understanding.

    I have ended up thinking that Scripture’s view of pre-destination and free-will are held as equally true resulting in an antinomy that isn’t going to be sorted out this side of heaven. I remain uneasy with a Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and an Arminian view of the lack of it.

    Pinnock is convinced that the only way that we can retain our free will is if God freely limits his knowledge of the future. I asked him once if our limited understanding of the nature of time was the reason we could not reconcile God’s foreknowledge with free-will. And pointed out that there is at least a theoretical possibility that some sub-atomic particles exist that travel backwards in time, reinforcing that we really don’t understand it – he wouldn’t budge, though.

    Comment by David — July 12, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  3. Well, this might be too simplistic a solution, but here goes:

    God created time, he therefore must be outside of time. Being outside of time, he can see our whole lives, all at once, and knows what we will freely choose to do. So, “predestination” isn’t God controlling our actions, but a knowledge of our freely made choices.

    Comment by Kate — July 12, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  4. Kate,

    IIRC, C.S. Lewis used much the same argument, so you are in good company.

    Comment by David — July 12, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

  5. That is probably where I got it from. I’ve read most of his books.

    Comment by Kate — July 12, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

  6. David, As you probably remember, many Anglicans recently made a flap over the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, claiming it makes the Father a child abuser. So, I would agree that, while that re-examination might be an option, it cannot be determinative of biblical truth.

    I share your unease with Calvinism’s view of God’s sovereignty and Arminianism’s view of the lack of it but, to be honest, I find the latter far more troubling than the former.

    if Pinnock believes that God’s foreknowledge is limited in some way, it appears that his theology has moved outside the bounds of historic orthodoxy.

    Kate, The third sentence in your second paragraph is the view of Arminianism; Calvinism takes a different view on that. (Most Calvinists would, I think, have no major problem with your first two sentences.)

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — July 13, 2009 @ 6:32 am

  7. Scott,

    Yes, I do remember the Anglican substitutionary atonement fuss; that was a case of ignoring or changing scripture to avoid what was thought of as an unpleasant conclusion – something I would not advocate.

    I wonder whether the infra/sublapsarianism of the Synod of Dort was itself an example of avoiding a repulsive conclusion. Supralapsarianism does seem to flow rather easily from Calvin’s own writings – eg:

    whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? . . . The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree… God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision.
    (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, 23, 7)

    Comment by David — July 13, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  8. Calvin also teaches that Adam had free will in his originally created condition and is therefore morally responsible for his fall into sin:

    In this upright state, man possessed freedom of will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life. It were here unseasonable to introduce the question concerning the secret predestination of God, because we are not considering what might or might not happen, but what the nature of man truly was. Adam, therefore, might have stood if he chose, since it was only by his own will that he fell; but it was because his will was pliable in either directions and he had not received constancy to persevere, that he so easily fell. Still he had a free choice of good and evil; and not only so, but in the mind and will there was the highest rectitude, and all the organic parts were duly framed to obedience, until man corrupted its good properties, and destroyed himself. (Institutes, I.15.7)

    Human free will and responsibility are indeed recurrent themes in Calvin’s writing and preaching.

    Is there any evidence that the Synod of Dort was motivated by a desire to avoid a repulsive conclusion, as opposed to a desire rightly to interpret Scriptural teachings?

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — July 13, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  9. Ahhh my dear Starbucks & McDonalds coffee drinking bud. What is this news I’ve heard within the last couple of weeks about His Beatitude, Jonah, Metropolitan of All America & Canada (Orthodox Church in America) saying that if there is to be meaningful conversation about a true ecumenical reconciliation with e.g. ACNA, the heresy of Calvinism must be given a proper burial. Hummm, it seems to me that when the Orthodox (& Rome) speak/have spoken on such an issue, then Calvinism ought to retreat to the back benches of novelty… 😉

    Comment by Alan — July 13, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  10. FWIW, I have done a few posts trying to explain my own position on Calvinism Here
    In my opinion, the open decree of predestination simplifies everything. This open decree states that God predestined, not a number of specific induviduals for salvation, but the Body of Christ. Therefore, all who come to faith are automatically included in this elect body. I believe all passages on predestination can be read in this context. One must also realize that Divine foreknowledge does not equate to Divine ordination. Just because God knows something does not mean He caused it.
    In my opinion the traditional Calvinist position on predestination actually takes away from God sovereignty, because it holds that just because God can do something (arbitrarily decide who and who will not be saved), He must do it that way.

    Comment by John K — July 13, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

  11. Scott,
    Is there any evidence that the Synod of Dort was motivated by a desire to avoid a repulsive conclusion, as opposed to a desire rightly to interpret Scriptural teachings?

    No, there isn’t; nor is there evidence that their desire was to understand scripture correctly; evidence of a desire is an elusive commodity.

    I don’t think any of these versions of Calvinism are scriptural because they all place an undue emphasis on God’s sovereignty at the expense of man’s freedom. Scripture holds both in balance – an apparent contradiction, a mystery, something that reformed theology doesn’t seem to be particularly comfortable with.

    Comment by David — July 14, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

  12. David, What’s your view of Article XVII (if you don’t mind my asking)?

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — July 15, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  13. Scott,

    I don’t mind your asking at all. While I don’t think it is entirely unscriptural, it is subject to the same problem that I mentioned in #11: it loses the balance that scripture maintains between predestination and freedom.

    Specifically, paragraph 1 is more or less OK, although unbalanced, while paragraph 2 is a transparently contrived attempt to forestall disagreement through circular reasoning – it reminds me of the witch’s ducking stool. Additionally, the appeal to “feelings” is particularly odd in this context, since of the feelings that predestination inspires, comfort would surely be the least prevalent. Paragraph 3 is innocuous, although I am less than convinced that it says anything useful.

    All this might mean I am not a real Anglican 😉

    Comment by David — July 15, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

  14. I don’t know if it disqualifies you from being a “real Anglican”, but I must say I never thought I’d see an Anglican speaking so dismissively about words written by Cranmer and the leaders of the English Reformation and endorsed by countless clergy and lay Anglicans to this day, including leaders of Gafcon, ACNA, etc.

    of the feelings that predestination inspires, comfort would surely be the least prevalent. Based on my admittedly unscientific sample of speaking with and reading Calvinist Anglicans, the great majority find predestination (as described in Article XVII) a great comfort. In my experience, those who do not believe in predestination are more likely to find it uncomfortable.

    For myself, if predestination is not true, I am lost. Without God’s prior gracious election, I wouldn’t have a hope.

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — July 15, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

  15. but I must say I never thought I’d see an Anglican speaking so dismissively about words written by Cranmer

    I admit I am something of an accidental Anglican in that, when I became a Christian, the Anglican church I started attending happened to be the church within walking distance. Although I have come to appreciate and enjoy the Anglican liturgy and Eucharist, I don’t have a particular reverence for Cranmer’s words, although obviously he was not stupid, so dismissing them out of hand would be – and I don’t think I am. As I’m sure you know, although they were based on Cranmer’s work, he didn’t actually write the 39 articles.

    if predestination is not true, I am lost

    I would not disagree with that since it is clearly biblical; my disagreement stems from what I think is an undue emphasis on predestination at the expense of free will, much of which comes from a reformed compulsion to explain something that is best left a mystery.

    Based on my admittedly unscientific sample of speaking with…

    I have not conducted a poll scientific or otherwise either. I am awaiting with anticipation, though, the addition to the Alpha course that explains how those who were not predestined to salvation are out of luck, but those who are should feel comforted.

    Comment by David — July 15, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

  16. “If predestination is not true, I am lost” makes no sense to me at all. Isn’t it better rather to say “Without God’s grace I am lost?” Election to me implies a certain capricioiusness in the character of Our Lord that isn’t there.

    Comment by Kate — July 15, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  17. Wow – a real, live debate about predestination. I’ve come over all nostalgic.

    Comment by Ian — July 16, 2009 @ 5:34 am

  18. Thanks, David. I knew that the Thirty-Nine Articles, while based on Cranmer’s work, were not actually written by him. As I assume you know, the Forty-Two Articles, written under Cranmer’s direction in 1552, were more strongly Calvinist than the Thirty-Nine Articles, approved in 1563, after his death. So, Cranmer was even more of a Calvinist than is reflected in the 39 Articles. Likewise, other early leaders of the English Reformation.

    I’m confused. As an example of the comfort provided by the doctrine of predestination (as described in Article XVII), I said, “if predestination is not true, I am lost”, and you said you don’t disagree with that. But you still want the Alpha course to explain it. On the one hand, you seem to understand why those who believe in predestination find it comforting; but, on the other hand, you want an explanation.

    In my own conversion, the Lord completely overruled any scope for exercise of free will. I had no choice in becoming a Christian. I guess my testimony is unbalanced.

    Kate, Predestination is an example of God’s grace in action. To say “If predestination is not true, I am lost” is to say “Without God’s grace I am lost”. Also, it’s impossible to avoid election because it’s a biblical doctrine. Both the Old and New Testaments speak frequently of God’s election. There’s no getting around the fact that God chooses his people. Even Arminians have a doctrine of election (although, obviously, its teaching differs from that of Calvinists).

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — July 16, 2009 @ 7:28 am

  19. Scott,

    That is a remarkable testimony, although I don’t quite see in it the overruling of your free-will that you do.

    Being saved is comforting but I don’t think a preoccupation with predestination is. The Alpha comment was sarcasm.

    Comment by David — July 16, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  20. David,

    Few Calvinists (in my experience) are preoccupied with predestination, but they do want the doctrine to be rightly understood.

    I should have guessed your Alpha comment was sarcasm. It did cross my mind that I didn’t think Nicky Gumbel was a Calvinist.

    Comment by Scott Gilbreath — July 16, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  21. John K (#10), your précis comes very close to Barth’s understanding of election as wondrously explicated in his Church Dogmatics.

    Comment by confessingreader — July 21, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

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