My article “Calvinism and the Contrast Effect” ( https://randalrauser.com/2011/11/calvinism-and-the-contrast-effect/ ) elicited some interesting comments. Among the most interesting was from my colleague at Taylor Seminary, Jerry Shepherd. Things started out well: “Hello Randal, my good friend and colleague…” But alas, things quickly took a turn for the worse: “Let me point out here some real problems with your article.” Jerry then identified four points of contention. Since his office is right next to mine I thought it advisable to address his points. I’m going to deal with the third and fourth points here and return to the first and second points later.
(Incidentally, the title of this article represents nothing more than my complete inability to turn down a good pun when it comes to mind.)
Let’s begin by quoting Jerry’s third point:
Third, I’m not all that concerned about interacting with your use of “maximally” and necessary.” I know many Calvinists use this language, ones that I respect, but for my part I think it’s unfortunate. I’m very comfortable, biblically, talking about what God did or does. Talking about what God has to do, or positing some “maximal” position to which all of God’s attributes have to measure up seems to me to be too much like Paul’s pot talking back to the potter.
With this passage Jerry seems to be rejecting modal analysis of the concept of God. We can say what God does according to scripture, but not what God might do, or could do, or cannot do or must do. What is more, the reason Jerry rejects modal analysis, or at least one reason he rejects modal analysis, is because it is idolatrous or potentially idolatrous, “too much like Paul’s pot talking back to the potter.”
Jerry’s modal skepticism places him very much in the minority in the history of theology. That, I suspect, may not be of much concern to him. But maybe it should be. James 1:13 describes God as “apeirastos” or “untemptable”. This is a modal claim. That is, it is a claim that says not only what God did, does or will do, but also what God could or could not do. Thus, if scripture itself makes modal claims about God why does Jerry think we shouldn’t?
Perhaps Jerry could concede that we can make modal claims about God but only insofar as we are echoing the modal claims scripture makes about God. Does scripture say somewhere that we are limited in our modal reflections on the nature of God to statements made by the writers of scripture? Of course not. So then why accept this curious middling position?
Jerrry ends this comment with his sober warning about idolatry. What bothers me about that warning is that it places the threat of idolatry solely on the shoulders of the individual who engages in modal reflection on God, as if the person who refuses to engage in any modal reflection is somehow free of the same tendencies. This is strikes me as a dangerous position to take. The minute we isolate idolatry on the other side of the conceptual fence we undermine our ability to identify the idolatry present in our own “philosophical” or “biblical” or “practical” theology. A theology that eschews modal reflection can be just as idolatrous as one that embraces it.
Now let’s turn to Jerry’s fourth comment:
Finally, though I appreciate your perspective on what is often trotted out as a debate stopper, the “unsatisfactory nature of the appeal to mystery,” at times this trotting out is necessary in order to keep a datum from either being denied or relegated to a corner of the theological room where it is never dealt with. In fact, I have found this appeal to be used far more by Arminians than Calvinists. But they end up using it, not to preserve the tension, but rather to ignore and not have to deal with one side of the tension. This is why I find Calvinism so much more intellectually rigorous and honest than Arminianism. The Arminian arbitrarily believes half the Bible and can’t be bothered to deal with the repercussions of contrary data. The Calvinist believes the whole Bible, and when the data seem to be contradictory, tries to make sense of it, admitting all the while that some contradictions cannot and will not ultimately be resolved in this existence. I agree with you that many times this appeal to mystery is trotted out way too conveniently. But I would also go further and say that sometimes this appeal is, in fact, sometimes where an obedient theologian has to land, confessing that God’s judgments are unsearchable, his paths beyond tracing out, and the only “responsible response” is doxology.
Jerry makes some very broad characterizations of Calvinism and Arminianism, two enormously diverse theological traditions. They are so enormously diverse that I don’t find much credibility in the claim that one of these traditions is “much more intellectually rigorous and honest” than the other. After all, speaking of a Calvinist or Arminian tradition is actually an abstraction that is used to characterize a certain set of theologians, institutions, ecclesiastical documents, et cetera. So sweeping talk about an entire tradition is really nothing more than rhetoric. All we can really do is compare individual theologians (or institutions or documents) that we’ve identified as “Calvinistic” with ones we’ve identified as “Arminian”. Maybe we like Edwards better than Arminius or we prefer Huntington University to Calvin College. Interesting comparisons perhaps, but of not much theological import.
Jerry says “The Arminian arbitrarily believes half the Bible and can’t be bothered to deal with the repercussions of contrary data. The Calvinist believes the whole Bible…” I disagree with Jerry. I think that both the Calvinist and Arminian are attempting to interpret all the data, and each has problem texts relative to his or her comprehensive theoretical interpretation. But this passage worries me for the same reason as Jerry’s earlier warning about modal reflection predisposing one to idolatry. Jerry consistently places all the warnings on the doorstep of others while not demonstrating an awareness of how the same dangers inhabit his own tradition.
Well perhaps that is not quite right. Jerry did already express a concern about the modal interests of the greater part of the Reformed tradition. But that doesn’t help matters much because it really amounts to saying that if you’re Arminian or you accept the propriety of modal analysis, or in some other way you disagree with Jerry’s position, that you are not intellectually serious and/or you have a penchant for idolatry.
Jerry ends by saying that we cannot understand everything. Fair enough. Only the most naive rationalist theologian would deny this. But where is that line to be drawn? Jerry surely believes in the appropriateness of some systematization of the biblical witness. After all, he is a trinitarian. So he has already made his own decisions regarding how far systematization is warranted, just as he has drawn his own decisions regarding how to read the biblical text comprehensively and how to engage (or not engage) in modal analysis.
Do not take me to be dismissive of Jerry’s concerns about modal analysis or the Arminian tradition. I am well aware of the weakenesses and tension. I just want him to concede the presence of those same tensions in the position he defends.