Why the Calvinist’s need to exclude some people from God’s love does not bode well
David Houston argues that the Calvinist has a richer view of God’s love than the Arminian. This is initially a surprising claim. We knew that Calvinists had cornered the sovereignty market. But love? Wasn’t that the Arminian’s specialty? Not according to Houston. His argument proceeds as follows:
Arminians are able to claim that God loves everyone only by watering down the meaning of love to the point where you can’t really enjoy its flavour. If my wife tells me that she loves me then I feel great! But that quickly changes when she tells me that she has an equal love for all men. Likewise, should I feel all warm and fuzzy inside if God loves me but he also loves the people in Hell, unbelievers, the demons, and Satan himself?
Now what should we think of this bold argument? Well there is quite a bit going on in this packed paragraph. Let’s take some time to unpack it.
David begins with a soupy culinary metaphor in which God decreeing to love some creatures and hate others adds up to a spicier meal than God decreeing to love all. (Reading from the theological foodie’s notes: “The Arminian’s omnibenevolent borscht is bland and lacks contrast. But this Calvinist’s particularist pozole is to-die-for!”)
He then comes perilously close to mixing metaphors by abruptly shifting course to talk about marriage and a rather shocking radically polyandrous counterfactual in which one’s wife informs the husband that she loves all men (romantically I assume).
David then ends with a reflection on warm, fuzzy feelings, though it is not clear whether those are soup-induced (the warmth possibly so, but the fuzziness?) or relationally induced.
In other words, this is a rather dizzying montage of metaphor/analogy. But here’s the critical question: does it illumine David’s case? Does it show that Calvinists really do have a more satisfactory conception of the divine love?
Let’s begin by setting aside the culinary metaphor(s) to focus our attention on the central marriage analogy.
Next, let’s articulate clearly the problem with David’s position that his marriage analogy needs to address. He writes: “Likewise, should I feel all warm and fuzzy inside if God loves me but he also loves the people in Hell, unbelievers, the demons, and Satan himself?” In other words, should David feel warm and fuzzy inside if God loves not only extends to David and a select number of creatures but to all God’s creatures?
At first blush: yes of course you should. Why the need to exclude some creatures from God’s love?
When you think about it, on the face of it David’s incredulous question looks surprisingly ugly. Think about it like this:
Willy Wonka, the head of a wonderful chocolate factory, has come to Davey’s grade 3 classroom with an announcement. “Class!” Mr. Wonka says, “I have hidden some tickets in the desks of some very lucky children. If you find a ticket you will be able to visit my factory!” Immediately Davey reaches into his desk and feels a strange piece of paper on top of his dictionary. He pulls it out and yelps for joy. A golden ticket! To say Davey feels warm and fuzzy inside is an understatement. Then as he looks around the room he sees more and more children also pulling out tickets. Suddenly Davey realizes that all the children have their hands raised in the air clutching a golden ticket. Mr. Wonka actually put a ticket in the desk of every child.
Davey has gone from thinking that he was the special winner of a golden ticket to realizing that Mr. Wonka has treated all the children equally, offering a ticket to each. How should Davey respond? If we apply David Houston’s logic, he should be disappointed at the discovery that Wonka chose to give each child a ticket. On this view it would be sweeter for Davey if only some children received a ticket while others were excluded. I must say, that strikes me as a very ugly reaction. As I’ve observed elsewhere, this is like saying that children will enjoy their toys from Santa more if they know that other children received lumps of coal in their stocking.
Needless to say, David’s suggestion that we should find it unpalatable to think that God loves “unbelievers” (that is, sinners) stumbles on the fact that we are all sinners by God’s primary decree. So we are back to the fact that David thinks it sweeter if God loves only some sinners — presumably including himself — rather than all sinners.
That’s the problem. How can David redeem the ugliness of the position he’s staked out for himself, a position that seems to tie one’s joy commensurately to the extent where others are excluded from that joy?
It is at this point that the success of the marriage analogy becomes essential, for it is an analogy that purports to demonstrate how joy and satisfaction is tied essentially to exclusivity. Does it succeed?
Initially there seems some hope. After all, the relationship of Israel to Yahweh and the church to Christ are both described in terms of a marriage relationship which includes covenant faithfulness and exclusivity.
But there are a couple significant problems with any attempt to use these two images to support David’s position. The first problem is that the biblical images are strikingly disanalogous to David’s marital analogy at a key point. I agree that spousal love is properly exclusive. But in the biblical metaphors in question, the bride is not one particular human individual but a single class of multiple individuals which, in the church as bride metaphor at least, includes potentially billions of individuals. Now we face a question: does it dilute the metaphor of the church as Christ’s bride to discover that there are more members of that class than we thought previously? For instance, yesterday I learned that Harry Connick Jr. is a practicing Catholic. Should that discovery dilute the metaphor of the church as Christ’s bride? If not, then what is the threshold? How many people can be included ultimately within that class before it is diluted? In the past I have defended the position of “hopeful universalism” where one hopes universalism is true even if one does not believe it is true. See for example: http://randalrauser.com/2011/02/hopeful-universalism-and-the-lottery-illustration/ But the issue here is not primarily universalism or hopeful universalism. Rather, it is this question: if potentially billions and billions can be members of the elect class that constitute the bride, then how many need to be excluded from that relationship metaphor to work no longer?
This leads us to the second, and even deeper problem for David. Scripture provides other metaphors to describe election, including the metaphor of adoption into God’s family. Imagine an orphan named Gabby who discovers that she has just been adopted by loving parents. She would be joy-filled! Would her joy be diminished if she discovered that the same parents, with their unlimited financial resources and great love, had adopted the other 9 children in the orphanage as well? If she were to be disappointed at that discovery it wouldn’t say much for Gabby, would it? Indeed, such a reaction would look positively ugly, just like Davey clutching his golden ticket with growing disappointment at the realization that Wonka offered the entire class a ticket.
So unfortunately for David, not only does his marriage analogy not support the exclusivity he wants, but other metaphors like familial adoption utterly decimate it. There thus is no defense for his disappointing claim that for God’s love to be really wonderful it must exclude somebody.
Let’s close with a brief reflection that borrows from John Rawls’ theory of justice. Rawls famously argued that we can begin to identify what a just society would look like by thinking of ourselves in an original position which he describes as follows:
no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.
Rawls’ theory has faced much criticism (as all important theories do). But it can still be helpful in conceiving a just society. If you were in that original position which kind of society would you prefer to be born into? Well for starters, you wouldn’t choose one in which one race or gender or class faced social or economic discrimination precisely because you could end up as being a member of that race or gender or class within that society. Thus, the thought experiment supports the conclusion that a just society is one which eschews discrimination of specific races, genders and classes. In this way, we can use this experiment to begin to identify what a just society would look like. It would be one which we would choose to be born into even from the original position.
David thinks that God’s love is sweeter because God loves him and not others. But what if David puts himself in the original position by stripping away his assumptions about his own special election? Would he still think it is sweeter for God to love some and hate others?