Calvinism’s Inconsistency Revealed

June 3, 2015

Leighton Flowers | Professor of Theology
Dallas Baptist University

**This article was previously posted by Leighton Flowers on his website www.soteriology101.com and is used by permission.
Leighton is: teaching pastor in his local church, an adjunct Professor of Theology at Dallas Baptist University, and the Youth Evangelism Director for Texas Baptists.

Learn more about Leighton, HERE.
Follow @soteriology101 on Twitter HERE.
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John Calvin wrote:

…how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be, not by His will but by His permission…It is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing, but the author of them…Who does not tremble at these judgments with which God works in the hearts of even the wicked whatever He will, rewarding them nonetheless according to desert? Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as he will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake, or to evil according to their merits.  (John Calvin, “The Eternal Predestination of God,” 10:11)

Yet, as Albert Mohler testifies, John Calvin does not avoid using the word “permit” in his pastoral ministry to those who suffer great loss. Is this an inconsistency of Calvinism? I believe it is.

John MacArthur, a notable Calvinistic pastor, wrote:

But God’s role with regard to evil is never as its author. He simply permits evil agents to work, then overrules evil for His own wise and holy ends. Ultimately He is able to make all things-including all the fruits of all the evil of all time-work together for a greater good (Romans 8:28).

John Piper, another notable Calvinistic pastor, has written:

God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his “positive agency.” God is, Edwards says, “the permitter . . . of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted . . . will most certainly and infallibly follow.

Contrast the statements of Edwards, Piper and MacArthur with the one from Calvin above and the inconsistency becomes quite clear.

Calvinistic theologian, RC Sproul, addresses the heresy of “equal ultimacy” by giving this warning:

[Equal ultimacy is the belief that] God works in the same way and same manner with respect to the elect and to the reprobate. That is to say, from all eternity God decreed some to election and by divine initiative works faith in their hearts and brings them actively to salvation. By the same token, from all eternity God decrees some to sin and damnation and actively intervenes to work sin in their lives, bringing them to damnation by divine initiative. In the case of the elect, regeneration is the monergistic work of God. In the case of the reprobate, sin and degeneration are the monergistic work of God. This distortion of positive-positive predestination clearly makes God the author of sin who punishes a person for doing what God monergistically and irresistibly coerces man to do. Such a view is indeed a monstrous assault on the integrity of God. This is not the Reformed view of predestination, but a gross and inexcusable caricature of the doctrine. Such a view may be identified with what is often loosely described as hyper-Calvinism and involves a radical form of supralapsarianism. Such a view of predestination has been virtually universally and monolithically rejected by Reformed thinkers.

Is Calvin’s first quote in support of “equal ultimacy” or not? If not, how are they different in any meaningful way? And what practical difference is there with the Calvinistic claims and that described above as “equal ultimacy?” Can anyone clearly define a distinction with a difference between a world where God is said to hate one brother and love another before the creation and the world described by Dr. Sproul under the label of “equal ultimacy?” Is God merely permitting or allowing anything according to Calvinism’s teaching?

For a Calvinist to affirm divine permission in any sense of the word is for them to affirm contra-causal (or autonomous) creaturely free will, for what is there to permit in a deterministic worldview except God’s own determinations? Likewise, for Calvinists to speak of God restraining evil is also an affirmation of autonomous freedom, for what is there to restrain outside of God’s own determinations? Is God restraining that which He determined? If not, then there must exist something that He did not determine, which is itself an affirmation of creaturely autonomy.

As most theologians regularly acknowledge, the doctrine of the fall of man is quite complicated and mysterious. The root question boils down to this: If mankind was created good and not inclined to evil, then how could he choose to do other than what is good?

The Calvinist has to appeal to mystery on this question, as evidenced here in the words of John Piper:

I have not removed a mystery, I have stated a mystery. God hardens unconditionally and those who are hardened are truly guilty and truly at fault in their hard and rebellious hearts. Their own consciences will justly condemn them. If they perish, they will perish for real sin and real guilt. How God freely hardens and yet preserves human accountability we are not explicitly told. It is the same mystery as how the first sin entered the universe. How does a sinful disposition arise in a good heart? The Bible does not tell us. (http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/the-hardening-of-pharaoh-and-the-hope-of-the-world)

The answer for those of us who do not affirm meticulous divine determinism is relatively simple: Free will: The albeit mysterious function of the moral creatures will to refrain or not refrain from any given moral action (CLICK HERE for more on free will). So, do not be fooled, both camps appeal to mystery on this point. “Our side” just does so while affirming contra-causal freedom and determinists leave God “holding the bag” (so to speak.) (CLICK HERE for more on the weakness of compatibilism)

The inconsistency of  the theist determinist is evident in the quotes above and in examining of writings from their scholars, such as Jonathan Edwards.

On the one hand, Edwards argues that mankind always chooses according to their greatest inclination which is ultimately determined by their God given nature, yet on the other hand Edwards preached that Adam “was perfectly free from any corruptions or sinful inclinations,” and that he “had no sinful inclinations to hurry him on to sin; he did it of his own free and mere choice.” (Edwards, ‘All God’s Methods Are Most Reasonable’, in Sermons and Discourses: 1723-1729, ed. by Kenneth P. Minkema, Works 14 (1997): 168.)

How does this not violate Edwards own definition of human will and choice? For Adam to choose to sin he must violate the law of his own nature, as defined by Edwards. Thus, the determinist rejects the mystery of contra-causal freedom only to adopt another even more difficult mystery. One that arguably brings into question the holiness, righteousness and trustworthiness of our God….i.e. the theory that God is actively involved in the determination of moral evil (see Calvin’s original quote).

For more on this topic listen to Dr. Albert Molher illustrate the inconsistency of Calvin himself: HERE.

 

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Jon Estes

I do believe it is biblical to see God hardening the heart of someone and leave this person to act on the sin nature he already chose to willfully allow to be his lord.

Is this unfair of God? Is such action by God unholy? Can God do this on the basis of more than one person?

I think these are fair questions to ask.

    Don Johnson

    Jon,

    If God didn’t harden someone’s heart, does that mean they would be free to repent and believe the Gospel?

      Jon Estes

      That we do not know but we do know that God wholly and in a holy manner hardened the heart. I cannot speak for what it does not say but am comfortable following the evidence as far as the scripture takes us. No need to speculate.

Nelson Banuchi

I think the problem with your argument is that it was in the first place that God determined (a) to reject one for salvation; (b) the one rejected is, therefore, created for the purpose of damnation; (c) consequently, he is created with a nature that ensures the “justice” in his damnation.

doug sayers

Nelson, you seem to be defending a “damnation” over nothing. Damnation would have to be the result of a judgment of wrongdoing and even God could not pronounce and exercise a judgment over “nothing” anymore than He could lie or break a promise.

Indeed, one man’s mystery is another man’s contradiction but we can’t ascribe injustice to God and then run and hide behind His sovereignty.

Q: What would/could Esau have done wrong (before he was born) to deserve being born sentenced to eternal damnation?

    Nelson Banuchi

    Actually, I’m arguing against damnation over nothing. I’m arguing against the idea that God had predestined certain ones to salvation and the rest he left alone to go to damnation; that is “damnation over nothing.” If God is to harden a heart, I would think he does so on the basis of the person’s heart already inclined to being hardened and resisting the positive influences (grace) of the Spirit.

    I’m saying that if God had already predestined someone to damnation, it cannot be that he hardens someone because the person has already hardened himself. That person was already set for hardening by God from the get-go, before he was born. Any further hardening is sort of irrelevant since the person is predestined for eternal damnation anyway.

    I’m actually against such notions.

Michael Buice

Do you think true believers in Christ will ever stop fighting among themselves? Calvinists are not the enemy, satan is and don’t you think there is enough evil in our culture that we could just address our teaching and discipleship in those areas? What do you hope to accomplish by calling out a few inconsistencies? The true Calvinists I’ve met, not the hyper ones, love Jesus and want to see the Gospel spread all over the world and Christians discipled and grow in their knowledge of God’s Word. It seems we maybe on the same team, so why attack?

    Rick Patrick

    Michael,

    I like your question. It reveals your desire for peace among brothers and sisters in Christ. But this is not a cage match. I get the sense that all the participants are diligently seeking after truth. Thus, I’m not so sure this is really “fighting” as much as it is verbal “iron sharpening iron.”

    You are right when you say that Calvinists are not the enemy. However, for both sides, it is worthy to seek after truth, and to avoid all error. This error is really the tool of the enemy that is being attacked. Calling out inconsistencies is simply a part of the process of engaging in theological discourse.

    And yes, we are on the same team. So let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Among these good deeds is (a) the search for truth, and (b) the sharing of this truth with everyone in the world.

      Michael Buice

      Yes and amen brother, let us spur one another on toward God’s abundant love and grace that motivates us to good deeds. Just as a group of men and I meet on a regular basis to sharpen one another and look deeply into God’s Word, which some are Calvinists and some are more like a 4 pointer. But again the blog sphere gets a message like this and what picture of us as Christians does it portray? Unity or petty bickering? This topic continues to be a hot button and probably will be until our Lord and Savior comes back.

        Lydia

        “But again the blog sphere gets a message like this and what picture of us as Christians does it portray? Unity or petty bickering?”

        Many are thrilled people are discussing things in depth instead of just indoctrinating. They like looking deep into beliefs instead of having one guy tell them what to believe. The wrong idea is that this is petty bickering. Conversely, That would suggest any unity is contrived and fake. A way to sweep deep and serious differences under the rug that only fester over time. How we view Jesus Christ is very important.

        A great way to try and shut it down is to call it petty bickering. That is YOUR opinion and you have a right to it.

Andrew Barker

Leighton: I hope you don’t mind a direct question regarding equal ultimacy. I note that some Reformed writers eg Sproul like to paint this as error, heresy even, but I am at a loss to see why they find equal ultimacy so different from God’s choice in election of some and not others. As mere mortals, I think most of us would say that God’s choice of those to be ‘elect’ would be seen as a good thing. I’m certain that those who are the so called ‘elect’ would certainly agree with this. But if God simply passes over those whom he has not chosen to elect, is he not committing a violation of his own principles? Are we not told in scripture, James 4:17, that if we know to do good and then don’t do it, for us that is sin! Would God not be guilty of ‘not doing good’ simply by passing over those who for no fault of their own are not being ‘chosen’? Or is it that God is asking us to live up to a standard to which he himself does not wish to conform?

From my point of view, equal ultimacy may be distasteful, but at least it’s intellectually honest. The question then remains how could God act. My feeling is that there are two options available. He could either save all, in which case we would have universalism, or he could make salvation open to all on the basis of choice. Universalism may sound attractive on the face of it, but it doesn’t achieve that relationship with God which I believe is at the heart of God’s plan for us. In some ways, it is just as forceful a violation of the human will as is God’s election of some and not others. God would still be forcing his will on us. The fact that God has made us able to choose or not to choose him, is to my way of thinking, the only consistent explanation for the way God works to bring salvation. The exercising of faith on a free will basis is the Biblical pattern.

So my question is does James 4:17 speak clearly enough in addressing the problem not only of equal ultimacy, but also any sense that God would be justified in choosing good for some and not for others?

rhutchin

Pastor Flowers writes, “Is Calvin’s first quote in support of “equal ultimacy” or not? If not, how are they different in any meaningful way? And what practical difference is there with the Calvinistic claims and that described above as “equal ultimacy?” Can anyone clearly define a distinction with a difference between a world where God is said to hate one brother and love another before the creation and the world described by Dr. Sproul under the label of “equal ultimacy?” Is God merely permitting or allowing anything according to Calvinism’s teaching?”

The quote from Calvin reflects God’s sovereignty. God is sovereign; necessarily, He wills all things. Thus, Ephesians 1 – “God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” When God created the world, He had a purpose for doing so, and everything that happens from Genesis 1 forward is consistent with, and working toward, God’s purpose.

Calvin objects to that permission with suggests that man is free to pursue his will independent of God’s will; or that man’s will can trump God’s will. As sovereign, God has the final say in anything people do such that all things people choose to do must work toward His purpose. When Sproul and others use the word, “permit,” they use it as reflecting God’s will – but not as something that God must cause directly. Even Calvin allowed that God worked through secondary agents – e.g., Satan was God’s agent to tempt Adam/Eve and bring about the fall and Satan was God’s agent to tempt David to number Israel.

B. Jacob Fowler

Professor Flowers,
Great article! I have no idea about the context of Calvin’s statement, but at face value it seems to be what you’re saying. Very interesting. I think the nomenclature “Calvinist” makes someone think a Calvinist believes everything Calvin ever wrote, but that might not necessarily be the case. For instance, a Baptist could be Calvinist in their soteriology and not Calvinist in their church polity (especially being, you know, Baptist). Regardless, one thing I’d like to critique is the seeming equivocation of determinism and compatibilism. Most elementary philosophical texts will separate compatibilism from the two incompatibilistic positions: hard determinism and libertarianism. Compatibilism is not a subcategory of determinism. Thank you for your post! I hope it and this comment will further fuel the conversation within the SBC in a positive manner.
sDog,
Jake

Mark Sorenson

The Flowers/White debate was a bloodbath. The link to the debate is below. Of the hundred or so debates I have watched of James White, Flowers is the first and only debater that White has referred to as not even attempting to exegete the subject (Romans 9). I agree. The ‘noble cause’ argument of Israel being the instrument to which the clay refers to was absolutely idiotic. If you watch White’s opening 22 minute statement, you will have a crystal clear idea of what true exegesis is.

Another thing that was embarrassingly obvious is that Flowers literally ‘read’ all his remarks. This only added to the perception that he was so nervous and unsure of his own eisigesis , that he was not interacting with the rest of the world around him.

    volfan007

    Only a James White disciple would call this a victory for White….much less have the nerve to call it a bloodbath. lol

    David

Lydia

Mark, Seriously. You are worse than the pundits on post debate spin in politics. Do you honestly think you are influencing anyone with this sort of tactic? We get it. White is your homeboy.

Andrew Barker

Mark Sorenson: Having listened to the complete version of the debate between Leighton and James White, I find your comments particularly naïve. So, James White was lost for words because he didn’t know how to respond to Leighton’s presentation! And that’s Leighton’s fault!! I ask you. White’s so called exegesis

Andrew Barker

cont: tries to stay within the boundaries of Rom 9? Since when has the process of exegesis stipulated that other scriptures should not be brought to bear on the passage for discussion? I would suggest that any serious explanation for Rom 9 which does not refer to surrounding verses and chapters, plus other epistles etc is the one which is flawed. White’s real criticism of Leighton boils down to; he didn’t say the things I expected him to say, so my normal plan of attack rather failed! This, also bearing in mind that Leighton had strenuously attempted to make White exactly sure of his stance on Rom 9 well before the debate so White should have been fully aware of how Leighton was likely to approach the event.

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