The Two Pillars of Calvinism Examined | Part One

Dr. Malcolm Hester | Pastor and Adjunct Professor
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville, KY

Calvinism is a diverse and complex theological system. When one attempts a study of the system, it doesn’t take long to discover that there are many side roads and many twists and turns in the path to understanding. The problem is complicated by those who hold to the system because there is no single view that all Calvinists accept. However, there are foundational concepts (which I am calling pillars) upon which the system stands. Baptist Calvinist theologian Millard Erickson identifies those for us as the concept of divine sovereignty and the concept of human inability. He says, “This concept of divine sovereignty, together with human inability, is basic to the Calvinist doctrine of election. Without these two concepts the remainder of the doctrine makes little sense.”[1] It is the intention of this paper to critically examine those two concepts in light of the scriptural evidence. It is the view of this writer that the Calvinist interpretation of those two pillars is inadequate and must be rejected.

Divine Sovereignty
Those who attempt to critically examine Calvinism seem to skip a careful examination of this pillar. Conservative interpreters of scripture would find it very hard to raise any questions about sovereignty out of a fear of appearing to deny the plain truth of the Bible. I admit to approaching the topic with fear because charges of heresy are easily made and hard to refute. So, at the beginning I state that I hold to the complete sovereignty of God. God is all powerful and all knowing. I reject any doctrine that would limit God’s sovereignty by any force outside himself. That said, I do feel the Calvinist understanding on the matter is in error.

The definition. The issue then starts with the question of what the Calvinist position is. Erickson says, “He is the Creator and Lord of all things, and consequently he is free to do whatever he wills. He is not subject to or answerable to anyone.”[2] What could possibly be wrong with that? My answer is, “Nothing.” I agree with Erickson completely on his definition of God’s sovereignty. Numerous scriptures can be quoted to support that position including those that Erickson uses: the parable of the laborers (Matt. 20) and the teaching about the pots found in Romans 9.[3] The creator has absolute and total power over the creation. If I agree with the Calvinist definition of sovereignty, what is the problem?

The application. The problem is in the application of the doctrine of sovereignty. By application I mean the question “How does God choose to use his sovereignty?” It is in answering this question that the differences arise and they are drastic. The Calvinist allows for no decisions to be made outside the will of God. It is inconceivable to a person seeped in Calvinism to think that any event, whether involving human action or not, can take place outside the will of God. This problem drives the Calvinist writers to spend a great deal of time dealing with issues like the presence of evil in the world, why some people are not saved, and all issues related to free will. Some Calvinists take their position to its logical conclusion and just say that God is responsible for evil[4], decided who would be lost[5], and that there is no free will.[6] Many Calvinists call those positions “Hyper-Calvinism” and struggle to define their position in ways so as to not be identified with those extreme views.

Limited free will. My response is that the answer is not in attempting to redefine Calvinism to make it more attractive. The answer is in rejecting the premise that says God’s sovereignty means he has to make all the decisions. Can that premise be rejected? It is my position that the premise is not supported by the Bible and therefore must be rejected. The biblical position is that God is sovereign and allows his creatures to make some decisions that are contrary to God’s will. This means that man has a “limited free will.” Man has as much freedom to make moral choices, including the decision to accept salvation, as the sovereign God grants. Limited free will is limited by the will of God, but it is a basic defining attribute of man. It is this limited free will that makes man responsible for his sin and affirms the justice of God.[7] It is this limited free will that takes away any excuse for guilt on the part of the creature and makes it clear that sin is always the result of rebellion on the part of the creature and never the result of any decision on the part of God.

Let me make my position clear. I am arguing that God is sovereign and I mean by that the position that God has all authority and power. He is not limited by any force outside himself in his decision-making. However, He has decided to grant limited freedom in matters of morality and salvation to mankind. He did that for his own pleasure and without regard to any other force or consideration. I intend to prove this position by appealing to two incidences in scripture which show that God has allowed mankind to make decisions that were directly opposite of what God clearly stated was his will. A little Bible study could supply many more supports for this position.

Old Testament example. In 1 Samuel 8 we find the history of a major turning point in the life of the nation Israel. Until that time, Israel was a theocracy where God ruled by speaking through his prophets. The people of Israel decided they wanted a king. Their argument was that all the other nations had kings and that a king would go out to fight for them. When the prophet Samuel came to God in anger over the situation, God carefully explained the true problem. God recognized that the people had rejected his kingship (1 Samuel 8:7). Samuel’s arguments and prophecy concerning the future actions of a human king fell on deaf ears. God commanded Samuel to give the people what they wanted (1 Samuel 8:22). It is easy to see what happened in the event. The will of the people was allowed while the will of God was not carried out.

New Testament example. Matthew 23:37 is one of the most moving passages in the New Testament as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. “…I would have gathered you under my wings…how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” The stated will of God is to protect the people of the city (who represent the entire nation), but the will that is allowed to prevail is that of the people. This example is especially significant since the people of Jerusalem were Jewish and therefore members of the elect.

The stark truth is shown that God’s will is not always accomplished. Why? God has granted limited freedom to mankind. Another important passage makes the same point. 2 Peter 3:9 is a troublesome passage for the Calvinist because it says God wishes everyone would repent and avoid punishment. If that is what God wants, why doesn’t it happen? The Calvinist must provide a doctrine that says God really doesn’t want everyone to repent. They do this because they think they have to defend God’s sovereignty. It is far better to simply allow the Bible to speak and accept the clear teaching of God’s Word. God does want everyone to repent and be saved but mankind has a free will and can say “No” to God. An example from everyday life may help us understand. Most parents have had the experience of allowing a child to make a mistake as a part of their training process. In my extended family, my uncle allowed his son to make a decision about accepting some expensive wheels for a car provided to the son by my uncle for his use. The father advised against accepting the gift but allowed the teenager the freedom to make the final decision. Fortunately, my cousin made the wise choice and followed my uncle’s advice. Israel was not as wise in rejecting the words of God in the matter of a king. My point is that neither my uncle nor God lost sovereignty in the situation because they allowed the decision to be made. That is the only way for the weaker party to have freedom.

 

Part Two coming soon!

 

[1] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 929.
[2] Ibid., 928
[3] While I agree about the teaching of God’s sovereignty in Romans 9, I differ with the interpretation of the Calvinists that says Romans 9 is talking about salvation. Romans 9 is all about service in God’s kingdom and how those who are elect (Israel) are not being saved.
[4] R.C. Sproul, Almighty in Authority: Understanding the Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 54-55.
[5] James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006), 356.
[6] Merely stating the question this way shows my prejudice. Calvinism spends a lot of effort in trying to maintain that man is free while denying that the sinner can choose salvation without a special grace given by God. In a very real way, this issue is the heart of the controversy. The classic expression of the Calvinist position is often considered to be the writing of Jonathan Edwards in Freedom of the Will. Edwards does not deny the ability to will but the desire to will. Freedom of the Will ed. Paul Ramsey (London: Yale University Press, 1957), 162.
[7] I have come to believe that the distortion of the biblical teaching about God is the most serious problem with Calvinism. If a human judge decided to arbitrarily pardon criminals according to his good pleasure, the citizens would be writing petitions to have him removed. Yet, that is the teaching of Calvinism about God.