Calvinism and the Arbitrary Camp Director Revisited: A Response to Andrew
Recently (as in within the last couple days) a student of philosophy named Andrew from the University of Auckland posted an article on Matt and Madeleine Flannagan’s website provocatively titled “Randal Rauser’s Mistake: A Defense of Calvin’s Doctrine of Election“. Okay, I consider that provocative anyway. The article focuses on identifying an alleged error in my article “Calvinism and the arbitrary camp director“. It is capped off with the following: “I am given to understand that Randal Rauser is a prolific blogger, and I sincerely hope for his response.” In this article I offer the response Andrew seeks, but perhaps not the one he was hoping for.
First off, a brief recap on what I was arguing in the offending article. In “Calvinism and the arbitrary camp director” I sought to illustrate the arbitrariness of election within Calvinism and to identify how this presents to us a counterintuitive picture of the God of superabundant love. Indeed, it presents a picture which appears false. The illustration consists of a scenario in which a camp director severely punishes some of the troubled children at his camp while choosing to nurture others. I wrote: “There is absolutely nothing that differentiates the two groups. The bottom line is that for some inexplicable reason the director arbitrarily selects some children to be beaten and others to be nurtured.” And I argued that the arbitrariness in which the director selects some kids to be beaten and others to be nurtured and rehabilitated is deeply troubling. Such a director could conceivably be just (though perhaps not if you reject retributive punishment), but he couldn’t be considered superabundantly loving to all his campers.
Here is Andrew’s response. Please read it all if you are able. If, however, you’re pressed for time (maybe you have to pick up the kids from soccer practice) then just read the first sentence because that is the crucial one.
What Rauser neglects to include in his analogy, and truthfully it’s essential, is that humans do not deserve salvation. The Calvinist maintains that (in virtue of our Total Depravity) morality and/or justice does not impose on God a duty to save us from death. As such, if God is to save us, it is totally unmerited in all senses of the word. It goes, as it were, beyond the call of duty, and is as such, “supererogatory”. That is to say, it might be a nice deed for God to perform, but there is no obligation/duty on Him to do so. If it’s the case that any salvific work that God does is “supererogatory” in this sense, then it cannot be said that there’s any injustice associated with picking some and leaving others. Suppose by way of illustration, that some person S has many brothers. Suppose furthermore, that S (out of the goodness of his heart) decides to gift some money to but one of his brothers. Since S was under no obligation to give ANY of his brothers (let alone the one he actually gave it to) any money at all, there’s no injustice or objective unfairness in S benefiting one brother and not benefiting others. None of S’s brothers had done anything that placed a duty on S to provide his brothers with money, and nor was there anything about S’ brothers which meant that they were intrinsically deserving of the money. In a similar way, the Calvinist holds that because of our sinful nature, there is nothing about us or the way we act which means that we deserve salvation. Hence God has no duty whatsoever to save us. That God has no such duty entails that there is no injustice associated with God saving some and not others.
It is the fact that we don’t deserve salvation that Rauser unfortunately fails to include in his analogy. I have no doubt that he attempted to include this in the analogy (the fact that the children are referred to as “troubled” is indication enough), nevertheless it strikes me that what does most of the work in producing the intuition that the camp director’s actions were unjust, is not so much the fact that his actions were “arbitrary”, so much as that the children were not deserving of such treatment. As much as Rauser attempts to include in his analogy the un-deservingness of the children, he does not succeed. Troubled children, we perceive, are never so troubled and don’t commit crimes so horrific as to deserve the treatment they receive at the hands of the camp director in Rauser’s illustration. To the contrary, we are inclined to think that the children deserve better treatment. In Rauser’s analogy then, there is a duty on the camp director to treat the children in a more appropriate manner. It’s this that the injustice of Rauser’s analogy consists in. Not, as he asserts, the mere arbitrariness of the camp directors choice.
By failing to incorporate this aspect into his analogy, Rauser assumes what the Calvinist about election already denies, namely that we are deserving of salvation, and that God has a corresponding duty to save us. So in an important sense, Rauser assumes the falsity of Calvinism in an attempt to show its falsity. To put a long story short, he begs the question against Calvinism.
Andrew concludes that I “beg the question against Calvinism.” Youch. Strong words. But is that true?
In order to answer that question we’ll have to go back to that all important first sentence. Here it is again for good measure: “What Rauser neglects to include in his analogy, and truthfully it’s essential, is that humans do not deserve salvation.”
Andrew assumes here that it is “essential” for my analogy to add that the campers do not deserve rehabilitation. I have two responses to this. First, this is a misunderstanding of the primary focus of the analogy. It is not intended to provide a summary of Christian soteriology. Rather, it is intended to illumine a problem with conceiving God as maximally loving to his creatures on Calvinism by comparing God to a camp director who is inexplicably limited in the mercy he extends to his campers. Consequently, Andrew’s objection to my analogy is akin to faulting a two seat sports car because it cannot carry the whole family. Given that it was never designed to do this, the objection is misplaced.
This brings me to the second point: my analogy is fully congruent with recognizing that all the children are deserving of beatings. (In other words, if we are talking cars, there is in fact room for the entire family.) Assuming that this is in fact the case then the camp director is perfectly just to beat some and rehabilitate others. But that’s beside the point: the issue is not whether he is just to beat some campers; rather, the point is that by choosing to beat some retributively rather than rehabilitate them he cannot be considered maximally loving toward all the campers. To simplify the picture consider:
Scenario 1: The director arbitrarily selects some children for beatings and others for loving rehabilitation.
Scenario 2: The director selects all children for loving rehabilitation.
Let’s agree that all children deserve beatings and that the director acts justly in both cases. That’s all irrelevant. The point is that the director is more loving toward all his campers in scenario 2 than in 1.
So the question centers on what we should expect from a maximally loving and merciful director. And that forces us back to a prior question: Does Andrew believe that God is maximally loving and merciful? Here he faces a dilemma. If he says no then he has boldly bitten a bullet big enough to take down a herd of charging elephants and I pity him and his brutal theology. I believe emphatically that any conception of God which denies that God is maximally loving and merciful ought to be tossed out with that Millennium Fruitcake that lies forgotten at the bottom of your freezer. On the other hand, if Andrew agrees that God is maximally loving and merciful then he must explain how it is possible that a maximally loving and merciful God can will arbitrarily to redeem some creatures and damn others to the utmost unimaginable tortures (even if those tortures are justly deserved).
If we really do believe that the camp director is loving and merciful then we can rest assured that he will always act wherever possible to actualize shalom for his campers. And that is inconsistent with the notion that he arbitrarily selects some for nurturing and others for vicious (even if deserved) beatings.
To sum up, the director does not act in a way that is maximally loving and merciful. Nor is God maximally loving and merciful on the theology to which Andrew is a blushing new convert.
A tale of two conversions
In his article Andrew shares his personal testimony in which he converted to Calvinism barely three months ago based on a new reading of a single parable of Jesus. I say one good conversion story deserves another, so let me explain why I left Calvinism behind a decade ago shortly after the birth of my daughter.
And how did that work? When I had a child I realized for the first time in my life and however falteringly, a love for another of God’s creatures that was so unconditional that it took my breath away. From that child’s first cry I wanted nothing more for this precious new life than that she achieve shalom. I spent hours listening to songs like “If I Could” by Ray Charles and “Lullaby” by Billy Joel, songs which expressed a father’s heart for his beloved child to flourish in this often cruel world. And I listened with a new pathos to the haunting agony of the theme from “On Golden Pond” which expresses all the agony of a father (Henry Fonda) unable to relate to the daughter he loves so much (Jane Fonda), a lament reminiscent of the lonely loons that settle on the pond every autumn. I knew as surely as I knew anything that with the birth of my child I had been given a narrow but piercing glimpse into the Fatherly love of God for his creatures. Although I was an emotionally limited, fallen individual I knew that in my love for this child I had grasped on to something truly transcendent, something which went to the very heart of the universe and beyond. This love was bedrock. It was the root of all things. It was that word which brought all into existence and which worked to bring all to redemption. My desire for my child to flourish, to find love and peace, to achieve shalom, was a glimpse of the heart of the God who desired nothing less for all creation
Needless to say, this did not work with my Calvinism, and it does not work with Calvinism generally (unless, of course, your Calvinism is one that embraces universal redemption as it does in all but name in the theology of Karl Barth). At the very moment where I concluded that my love for my child reflected an unconditional divine desire for the shalom of all creation, the Calvinist has to shout a resounding NO! God does not desire shalom for all his creatures. God’s unconditional love extends only to those creatures he elects inexplicably. Consequently, God does not desire the shalom of those creatures he has determined from eternity to be born into fallenness and to will their own destruction. Those creatures he hates. And when we see them as he does, we will hate them too.
This results in an appalling dilemma which I discussed in chapter 7 of my book Faith Lacking Understanding. On this view it is possible that the very child for which I desired shalom unconditionally is in fact in God’s eyes one of the reprobate for whom he has eternally willed the most horrendous suffering.
For Andrew to think this is a debate about whether the campers or my daughter “deserves” salvation or not, or even whether God is “just” to damn them (or her) is to miss the point completely. This has nothing to do with whether the campers or my daughter deserves salvation or whether God is just. But it has everything to do with what we should expect from a God who is maximally loving and merciful.
It is sadly ironic that Andrew seems to have once grasped this very point. He writes that “barely three months ago I was a staunch Arminian when it came to soteriology. I reacted against Calvin’s doctrine with the greatest of revulsion.” At this time he wondered “How could it possibly be, I thought, that God could be “good” and yet actively choose some for salvation while leaving others to die?! It made no sense to me!” At this time things seemed clear to him: “If I was going to write anything, it would have been about how Calvinism completely destroys any sensible understanding of God’s justice and love.”
How right Andrew once was. He once understood that the issue is not about human free will or even divine justice. Rather it is about divine love, mercy, compassion. It is about a God who would surely desire that all his creatures achieve shalom.
Andrew, it is not too late. You need not think of God determining to will some creatures to their own eternal destruction for his greater glory. You need not accept that his choice to damn some and save others is inexplicably arbitrary. You need not embrace moral incoherence at the very heart of all things. Come back Andrew. Legions of Arminians wait to embrace you with glowing smiles and the unconditional embrace of a God who loves all his creatures without condition.