Over the years as I have engaged in extended discussions with Calvinists over election and the divine nature I have often found the same two red herrings being pulled out just as things start to heat up.
And so it is in my recent discussion with a Calvinist named Kerry over my critique of another Calvinist (Andrew). Given that I think the discussion is illuminating I have reproduced it below with some commentary. Then I conclude by returning to the first red herring (justice). The drift of my argument shall be this: demonstrate why Calvinists should either be universalists or Arminians.
Red Herring One: Appeal to God’s Justice
The first red herring is God’s justice. Kerry, would you please speak clearly into the microphone:
Kerry: “It seems to me you are measuring God’s love on the basis of his actions towards people without any other consideration. What I mean is God does not just love people in isolation. He loves justice as well. Your maximally loving God must also consider justice.”
Randal enter from stage right. Turn the spotlight. And go:
Randal: “Kerry, I’m not sure what you’re claiming here. Are you saying that God was unable justly to elect all people to salvation from eternity in Christ? If you do believe that, what is your reason for believing it? If you don’t believe it (and thus believe that God could have justly elected all to salvation), then why didn’t God elect all people to salvation from eternity in Christ?”
Kerry: “What I am asking- is your definition and measure of maximal love accurate? If God is love then whatever he does proceeds on the basis of love. God loves justice so some are justly condemned that is also a measure of his love, it is just that in this case his love is expressed in justice while sometimes it is expressed in mercy. God is no less loving either way and the integrity of his love for both justice and mercy are met perfectly on the cross.”
Randal: “Kerry, are you suggesting that God wouldn’t have been just if he had elected all to salvation by imputing the righteousness of Christ to all? After all, whether God reprobate some or saves all, his wrath and justice are still satisfied on penal substitutionary theology by the death of Christ. So the only remaining question is how many people would God will to save by the infinitely effective death of his beloved Son. If God is omnibenevolent (meaning that he desires all creatures to achieve shalom) then it follows necessarily that he would desire that all achieve shalom and thus he would elect all in Christ such that none would be reprobate. Insofar as you deny that this is the case and continue to affirm that some are reprobate you thereby reject the divine omnibenevolence. The question is why?”
So the defense of the decree of reprobation by appealing to justice is shown to be the red herring that it is. Time to introduce the next red herring.
Red Herring Two: Eschew “Speculation”
This brings us to the second red herring a heady brew of “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Romans 9:20) spiced with a dash of “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) Kerry once again:
Kerry: “Ultimately I don’t have to suggest anything about a hypothetical world. This is the one I live in- and I seek to understand it in terms of experience and in the light of scripture. It is apparent that people reject the Gospel, some accept it. Choices have consequences. I seek to understand this world through the lens of scripture, if I were to be more convinced that libertarian free will reflected scripture better I would follow that. I think that what is damaging is the extremism of both sides. We have a will, it is meaningful- but not absolute.”
Okay, turn up the house lights. Now for some additional commentary on this second red herring in the exchange. This one is centered on Kerry’s reply to the dilemma I presented for his invocation of justice. As we saw, he replies: “I don’t have to suggest anything about a hypothetical world.”
This is an attempt to marginalize my critique of his position as being unduly speculative (perhaps irreverent) and altogether irrelevant.
But it isn’t irrelevant. If Kerry wants to defend his Calvinism he does have to respond to this problem that his position entails that God cannot elect all to salvation. Why can’t God do this? I already showed that appealing to justice is a canard. So what is Kerry’s reasoning for thinking God cannot redeem all?
Consider for a moment that Kerry staked his claim on the position of christological peccability meaning that while Jesus didn’t sin he nonetheless could have. I would respond as follows: “Are you saying that God can sin?” It would hardly do for Kerry to respond “I don’t have to suggest anything about a hypothetical world.” Of course you do. If your view entails that God can sin then you have to defend that implication. Similarly, if your position entails that God cannot elect all to salvation then you have to defend that implication as well.
Back to justice
Ultimately the defense of Kerry’s assumption that God cannot elect all will bring us back to justice, but not in the way Kerry initially thought. At this point I’m going to offer clarification on how a Calvinist might appeal to justice to explain reprobation and why I am not persuaded by that appeal.
First off, I already explained why explaining the divine decree of reprobation by appealing to justice simpliciter does not work. The reason, as I said, is that Christ’s death satisfies the divine justice (according to the penal substitutionary theory of atonement typically assumed by the good Calvinist). Consequently, to appeal to justice as the explanation of reprobation makes no sense. It is akin to a police officer attempting to explain his use of a lethal gun to detain a suspect when he could have used a non-lethal taser to the same effect.
The only way the Calvinist can appeal to justice is if there is something overall better or more fitting about the damnation of some. But what does that mean and what would it look like? What I suggest is that the Calvinist switch the focus from justice simpliciter to the demonstration of justice. To make the difference clear we can distinguish two different principles:
Justice reprobation (JR) principle: God’s justice precludes him from electing all to salvation.
Demonstration of justice reprobation (DJR) principle: God’s need to demonstrate his justice precludes him from electing all to salvation.
Keryr initially appealed to the JR Principle. I’m arguing that the Calvinist cannot appeal to the JR principle to explain reprobation since Christ’s death satisfies divine justice. However, they could appeal to the DJR principle. That is, they could argue that God’s need to demonstrate his justice in a maximal sense requires that some people be reprobated. One could argue that the DJR Principle is assumed in Romans 9:22-23:
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory
Thus the claim goes like this: Paul is arguing that the reprobation of some manifests more fully God’s glorious justice than it would have been manifested if none had been reprobated. Thus, God reprobates some not because justice requires it but rather because his need to demonstrate his justice as fully as possible requires it.
Now why am I not persuaded by the DJR Principle? Here’s why:
Fuller Justice (FJ) Assumption: The DJR Principle assumes that the death of Christ plus the reprobation of some more fully manifests God’s justice than the death of Christ alone.
But why think that? As best I can surmise, the assumption that drives the FJ Assumption is a Diversity of Justice Principle. We can state this as follows:
Diversity of Justice (DJ) Principle: Divine justice is more fully appreciable by finite agents if that justice is manifested in the election of some in Christ and the reprobation of others to their sin.
Finally, I’m going to complete this depth analysis by suggesting that the DJ Principle is driven by a contrasting justice principle:
Contrasting Justice (CJ) Principle: Divine justice is more fully appreciable by finite agents if that justice is manifested in contrasting outcomes which are all consistent with divine justice.
I know what you’re thinking: this is getting a bit ridiculous. Perhaps. But I’m in the mood for over-analysis and the positing of principles today. Anyway, it seems there is some accuracy in this analysis. So to summarize, the CJ Principle grounds the DJ Principle which in turn grounds the FJ Assumption that drives the DJR Principle.
All this leads me to ask the following three questions.
Question 1: Assuming the CJ Principle and DJ Principle are true, is the additional understanding of divine justice through the reprobation of some sufficient to override the divine love that would otherwise redeem all?
In other words, while God may desire to manifest his justice to finite creatures, he also desires to redeem creatures. Why think the desire to manifest his justice to some would outweigh his desire to save all?
Question 2: Assuming the CJ Principle and DJ Principle are true, is the additional understanding of divine justice through the reprobation of some sufficient to override the additional understanding of divine love that would come through the redemption of all?
It seems to me that if there is an argument that human beings have a heightened sense of divine justice through the reprobation of some, they would have at least a commensurately heightened grasp of divine love through the election of all. So if God has two possible conflicting outcomes (greater sense of divine justice; greater sense of divine love) why think the grasp of justice trumps love?
As important as these two questions are, I’m going to focus on Question 3:
Question 3: Why think that the CJ Principle and DJ Principle are true?
I see no reason to accept these, unless of course you believe that they are somehow entailed by your reading of Romans 9. But that is, to say the least, a leap. And if we have good reasons to reconsider a particular exegesis of a text then we ought to take those reasons seriously. So in conclusion I’m going to offer just such a reason.
Let’s imagine that only 1000 people have ever existed. (That’s okay. The numbers are irrelevant to the point being made. Sticking to a thousand just makes things simpler.) This means that only 1000 people are possible objects of election or reprobation. The Calvinist believes that things work out approximately like this:
Calvinist Scenario: God elects 500 (more or less) and reprobates 500 (more or less) because this more fully manifests his justice than does saving all 1000.
But hold on. There is a serious problem with this analysis and it is that the manifestation of justice that comes through election and reprobation is radically disproportionate. Here’s why:
An elect individual has the full righteousness of Christ imputed to him or her. Christ has fully satisfied the wrath and justice of God on the cross and since that elect individual is counted in Christ that individual is a complete token of that infinite justice.
A reprobate individual must suffer eternally to satisfy the demands of justice apart from the imputed righteousness of Christ. Since it is impossible to traverse an actual infinite series of temporal moments it is impossible for this reprobate individual ever to satisfy fully the demands of divine justice and thereby become a complete token of that infinite justice.
To sum up, the Calvinist is proposing that a possible world in which divine justice is perfectly satisfied in some and only potentially satisfied in others is more illustrative of divine justice than a world in which divine justice is perfectly satisfied in all. But this is clearly false. To provide an analogy, that is like claiming that 500 infinite deposits into a bank account coupled with 500 finite deposits is worth more than 1000 infinite deposits.
Consequently, the consistent Calvinist will either embrace universal salvation or reject Calvinist election.