In this article I have a conversation with Guillaume Bignon about Calvinism and the concept of God’s love. Bignon is a French analytical philosopher (yes, there are such things!) and an executive committee member of Association Axiome, a society of French-speaking Christian scholars. He also works in New York in the financial industry. Perhaps most importantly for this conversation, Bignon is theologically Reformed and is the author of the fine new book Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil (Pickwick, 2017).
You can learn more about Bignon from this fascinating Christianity Today article in which he shares his conversion story. And let us not forget the essential question of family: Bignon is married with three young children and a Labradoodle. Now that’s a full house!
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RR: Guillaume, thanks for agreeing to this conversation on Calvinism. I’d like to focus in particular on some common theological and pastoral objections to this theological perspective. As I’m sure you know, there are many people who treat “Calvinism” as a four-letter word. The concept of God in Calvinism has been derided as an idol, monstrous, a perversion of the Gospel.
With that fiery backdrop in our mind, in our conversation, I’d like to explore some of the reasons why this theological position elicits such strong feelings and to offer you the opportunity to provide a response.
But first, we should begin with definitions. Could you define Calvinism? And as you do, please give special attention to the Calvinistic doctrine of election.
GB: Randal, it’s my pleasure. I get the golden opportunity to come across as defending a monstrous idol and a perversion of the Gospel? What could go wrong? For good measure, I should point out that the concept of God in non-Calvinism too has been called all sorts of names, if not by Calvinists, at least by Richard Dawkins who puts you and me in the same bag, as defenders of the “capriciously malevolent bully”. See, if I’m going down, I’m taking you down with me.
Now, more seriously, what is (actually) meant by a “Calvinist concept of God”? Named after the French reformer John Calvin, this theological viewpoint is not concerned with everything Calvin believed, but it more specifically refers to his views on God’s sovereignty over human free will. It’s a longstanding puzzle in theology and in philosophy of religion: if God sovereignly controls human choices, how are those choices free? and if human choices are free, how could God be said to sovereignly control them?
The Calvinist, motivated by strong scriptural affirmations that God is in control of everything that happens (the good and the bad), places the premium on divine providence in that area.
More specifically, there are two things people typically have in mind when they speak of “Calvinism”: there is Calvinist soteriology, and Calvinist determinism. That helpful distinction is made by Daniel Johnson and David Alexander in their recent volume Calvinism and the problem of Evil (Pickwick, 2016).
Calvinist soteriology is a set of theses about how God sovereignly saves sinners. Sometimes gathered under the helpful acronym T.U.L.I.P., they are called the “five points of Calvinism”, and affirm:
- That all humans are born spiritually dead in sin and incapable of coming to faith unless the Holy Spirit opens their heart and draws them (that is Total depravity)
- That those humans who do come to saving faith in Jesus and are saved, only do so because God has elected to sovereignly and graciously save them, not because of anything he saw in them, not even foreseen faith. (that is Unconditional election)
- That Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for the sins of these elect, and not for others. (that is Limited atonement)
- That when God extends his saving grace to those whom he has elected, they necessarily and irresistibly come to saving faith. (that is Irresistible grace)
- And that God not only secures that his elect will come to saving faith, but also that they will remain in the faith until the end. Once a believer comes to genuine, saving faith, he will never depart, because God graciously keeps him in the faith. (that is Perseverance of the saints)
That’s for Calvinist soteriology. And we can quibble over some of the best words to say these things, but I as a Calvinist basically affirm all of that.
And then there is Calvinist determinism. It is a more philosophical affirmation about the metaphysics of human free will. It is taking a position in another long-standing philosophical debate: are human choices determined by antecedent factors, or are they free in such a way that their outcome remains undetermined? Calvinist determinists say that God indeed sovereignly determines the outcome of human choices…And that there is nothing wrong with that! (the defense of which is the burden of my book Excusing Sinners and Blaming God.)
Many Calvinists (though not all), believe as I do, that Calvinist soteriology—at least unconditional election and irresistible grace if not perseverance of the saints—requires Calvinist determinism. We don’t necessarily need to resolve that question here, as I personally affirm both: Calvinist soteriology and Calvinist determinism.
There. It’s probably much more than you asked for on mere definitions, but at least it’s all clear what we’re talking about.
RR: Awesome, that overview provides an excellent framework for our conversation. As for trading insults, Calvinists have returned the favor by accusing Arminians of “defending a monstrous idol and a perversion of the Gospel,” so there’s no need to go nuclear with Richard Dawkins!
As far as Arminians are concerned, I regularly hear two big concerns with Calvinism: one pertaining to the free will of the individual and the other to the nature of God’s love. In our exchange, I’d like to focus on the latter since it seems to me the more serious.
But first we must get an important distinction out of the way. I did not detect in your helpful summary any commitment to the relative ratio of elect (saved) to reprobate (lost). So do you believe it is possible in principle to be a Calvinist universalist, i.e. one who believes that all are ultimately elect and thus all will eventually be saved, in Christ? This is important because adding universalism would go a significant ways (perhaps all the way) in addressing the Arminian concern I want to raise.
GB: Ok, good. Make sure you count me in the camp of Calvinists who don’t reciprocate the charge of idol worship, then. Disagreeing with me on free will makes one mistaken (did I mention I believe I’m right?), but it doesn’t make one a heretic.
Yes, I suppose universalism is the easy way out of all your coming difficult questions (which I foresee without the gift of prophecy). And indeed, I see no explicit contradiction between Calvinist determinism and universalism. One could affirm that God determines all humans to be saved eventually—although it would probably also require post-mortem salvation, since it doesn’t appear that everyone who is already dead has come to saving faith! And strictly speaking, there’s no contradiction either between universalism and the 5 points of Calvinism: God could elect everyone, irresistibly draw everyone, preserve everyone, and so forth. But that’s almost never the way Calvinists see things. Typically, they will affirm (with the Bible!) that God unconditionally elects some and not all, that limited atonement is intended to save these and not others, that God irresistibly draws to and preserves in saving faith some (the elect) and not others. So, while the cowardly philosopher in me feels the genuine appeal of a retreat (I’m French after all) into universalism, I don’t think the Bible allows for it, and hence I have to deal with your hard questions that follow. So, fire away, and we’ll see how I do.
RR: To sum up, the universalist lifeboat is there, but you don’t plan to use it. Sounds good!
So let’s proceed on the assumption that some people are lost eternally. With that in mind, consider the following possibility that Billy Graham is saved but his daughter Anne is lost. Whether you’re Arminian or Calvinist, that’s a truly unthinkable prospect for a parent to consider. Nonetheless, it seems there is one important difference between these two theologies. On Arminianism, God wanted to save Anne but he was unable to do so in a way that respected her libertarian freedom. By contrast, on Calvinism God could have saved Anne without impinging on her free will but he chose not to. On the contrary, God has willed — either through an active election to reprobation or a passive withholding of a decree of salvation — that Anne be lost forever.
Countless Christians have recoiled in horror at this picture, a picture where God seems to be capricious in his choice to save some creatures whilst subjecting others to the unimaginable horrors of damnation.
What say you?
GB: Alright I see several concerns in there, so let me try to say something meaningful about each issue:
1. Recoiling at that picture of God
2. The charge of capriciousness
3. Whether God isn’t even “willing”
That countless Christians have recoiled at a picture of God isn’t a good reason to think that picture is false. Countless Christians have recoiled at the picture of a God who spends 48 verses enumerating all sorts of devastating curses he’ll bring down on his sinful people in Deuteronomy 28, only to add that he will “take delight in bringing ruin to you and destroying you” (v.63). The crude reality is that a holy and righteous God is bad news for the guilty. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31), and Jesus tells the crowds to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat. 10:28).
With respect to salvation and election, the Christian must start with the fact that all are fallen guilty sinners who rightly deserve condemnation. Leave aside for a moment the debate on the compatibility of determinism with moral responsibility, since it’s not the point under dispute here: we should all agree on the biblical starting point that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
So from that starting point where no one deserves eternal life, God decides to save some and not all. Is that capricious? No. In his sovereign choice of election, God isn’t given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior (hat tip to Wikipedia for a workable definition of ‘capricious’). God doesn’t make the choice on a whim or irrationally. What must be behind this language of capriciousness, is rather the common charge that God is arbitrary. But here again, inappropriate arbitrariness need not follow from unconditional election. To say that the choice is arbitrary is to say it is made without (good) reasons. The Calvinist claims that for salvation, there is no reason found in us (“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”, 1-Cor 4:7) But there are reasons in God. He just doesn’t tell us much about those reasons, beyond the big “what if” challenge in Romans 9: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?” (v.22-23)
This might be telling us some of God’s reasons behind reprobation. But even if we don’t have the full picture, as long as God has good reasons for what he does, he remains just. And simply because we don’t know (all) his reasons doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
If you think I’m starting to sound like Peter van Inwagen talking about the problem of evil, I sure do! The question of reprobation is really a subset of the problem of evil and suffering, and for more details on the intersection with skeptical theism, I wrote this piece that may be of interest.
That leads me to my comments on whether God is “not even willing” to save all.
I don’t necessarily read the objection as a claim that Calvinism must be false. “At least on Arminianism…” seems to claim that Arminianism just isn’t as bad, that it’s easier to swallow, or more palatable.
So I guess Calvinists can just claim the Bible isn’t easy to swallow or palatable, but let me also try to argue a bit more, pressing the claim that Arminians and Calvinists are after all not so far from each other on this issue of willing, and that whatever they (both) say actually makes good sense.
We are here raising the question of whether it’s coherent to say that God wills X, but does Y instead, knowing that Y entails not-X.
Both Calvinists and Arminians can (and do) say something like that.
In Still Sovereign (Baker, 2000) edited by Bruce Ware and Tom Schreiner, John Piper has a good essay on whether there are “two wills” in God.
Calvinists do say it is God’s will (in one important sense of ‘will’) that all repent and believe. It’s the so-called ‘prescriptive’ will of God, whereas God sovereignly brings about his ‘decretive’ will in all things. Sometimes (often!) the two differ. This is broadly what Arminians must say too: God wants X to some extent, but he wants Y more, so he brings about Y even though Y entails not-X. Indeed, the Arminian God wants to save everyone, but he wants to give us libertarian free will more, so he gives us libertarian free will despite the fact that libertarian free will (on this view) entails that not all are saved. Calvinists agree God has a reason not to save all, they just disagree that it’s libertarian free will.
In the second part of my book, I say more things on whether God is “willing” sin and whether that involves him inappropriately in evil (my answers: he is, and that doesn’t).
RR: Thanks Guillaume, that’s very helpful. I’d like to come back to your point that finding a picture of God repulsive or problematic (and so recoiling from it) isn’t a good reason to think that picture is false. To make the point, you then quote Deuteronomy 28:63 in which God declares he will “take delight in bringing ruin to you and destroying you.”
At this point, I may need to lodge a note of dissent. I think moral intuitions provide a legitimate (though hardly infallible) guide for theological reflection. I believe God is maximally good and loving and I must assume I have at least some basic and intuitive grasp of what it means to be good and loving. And the notion that God might take delight in the destruction of human creatures is inconsistent with that basic and intuitive grasp. I would submit that this, in turn, provides a good prima facie reason not to take that description in Deuteronomy 28:63 as literally true.
This leads me to ask: Do you grant moral intuitions any role in biblical interpretation and theological reflection? If so, do you think a person could find the Calvinistic view of God sufficiently problematic that they would be justified in rejecting it based on their intuitive moral objection to it?
GB: I see your concern. By “not a good reason”, I meant “not good enough”. That many Christians recoil at a view isn’t reason enough to reject it. It’s a somewhat modest point, as it’s made true by the mere existence of a single belief that ought not to be rejected and yet is such that many Christians have recoiled at it. I’m suspecting we can find something like that even if Deut.28 isn’t the one for you.
The initial point, too, was about “countless Christians” recoiling at a view, but we didn’t suppose I was among them. That might be a different story indeed, if I thought that unconditional election was abhorrent. But I don’t, and so I go with what I take to be the teaching of scripture on the matter. Do I grant a place for moral intuition in theological reasoning and interpretation? Surely I should. It seems clear (and biblical) that human conscience can provide reliable (though clearly not infallible) moral knowledge. In turn, we interpret the Bible partly in light of everything else we already know, so that includes our moral knowledge, of course. My concern is that it can get very thorny very quickly. I’m just not sure where to draw the line on that front: when should my intuitions push back on what I read in the Bible, to tell me “God probably doesn’t mean that”, and when should they not? I think you’ll want to agree with me that we shouldn’t systematically nullify the scriptures when they conflict with our moral intuitions that may or may not be correct. There must be a large space for the word of God to educate our moral intuitions. How do we do that well? God help us, I’m not sure I can give you the perfect recipe. I just think unconditional election is one such place, where the scriptures seem to me to be clear enough that even if one had intuitions going against it (which I personally don’t), one should likely revise them in light of the text.
Now, do I think that somewhere someone could be justified in rejecting Calvinism on the basis of their moral intuitions? I guess it depends on what we mean by justification, but if I take it in the deontological sense of fulfilling one’s epistemic duties, I suppose the answer is yes. One could. But in that sense, having read my Plantinga, I’d say justification comes rather cheap! One could be justified in believing something that’s quite false, as long as one didn’t flout any supposed epistemic duty to acquire (and hold on to) that false belief. I suppose that’s true of some (perhaps many?) who reject unconditional election, but of course it isn’t all that satisfying. What the Arminian should want besides justification, is knowledge that Calvinism is false, and that I’m afraid doesn’t obtain inasmuch as Calvinism is, well, true.
RR: You say, “I think you’ll want to agree with me that we shouldn’t systematically nullify the scriptures when they conflict with our moral intuitions…” Of course, I agree with that. The question is not about nullifying the scriptures, however. Rather, it is about nullifying a particular interpretation of the scriptures. For example, there are countless places in the Bible where God is described as undergoing emotional fluctuations and changes of mental state (i.e. growing in knowledge; changing his mind; having regrets). By interpreting these descriptions as anthropopathic (as most theologians have done) I nullify a literalistic reading of those scriptures. But I certainly don’t think I’m rejecting the scriptures, per se. Mutatis mutandis for the Arminian.
GB: Yes, we’re on the same page here: we agree there’s a place for intuitions to educate us on whether or not a passage should be interpreted literally, and we don’t want our intuitions to systematically rule the day whenever they conflict with the face-value teaching of scripture. Since they may well be incorrect, in that case they’d need to be educated by scripture, such that if they won instead, they would nullify the text. The Calvinist plea is: don’t do that with election.
RR: Thanks for fielding my questions, it’s been a great exchange! In closing, I’d like to turn to your new book, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God. You said above that your central burden in that book is to defend God’s sovereign determination of human action. That brings us from the love topic back to freedom. Arminians commonly insist that determinism is incompatible with free will. And some Calvinists seem to agree. What’s your view? Do you think it is possible to have freedom in a world determined by God?
GB: Yes, it’s been great, thank you for your challenging questions!
The free will topic is the one I tackle in most details in the book. The big debate is on whether free will is compatible with determinism. Arminians say no, and Calvinists say yes.
When Calvinists seem to agree that we don’t have “free will”–like Martin Luther forcefully claimed (ad nauseam) in The Bondage of the Will, calling it an “empty term whose reality is lost”–it’s normally because they work with a different definition of “free will” than I (and most contemporary philosophers) do.
What Luther meant by “free will” is what Erasmus meant by “free will”, i.e.: libertarian free will: that view of free will which is undetermined, and incompatible with determinism. If that’s what free will means, then sure enough I (and Calvinist determinists) reject that.
But what philosophers normally mean by “free will” is simply the control condition for moral responsibility. To say of someone that he has free will is just to say that he’s enough in control of his choices, that he’s a suitable target for praise or blame: he can be morally responsible. And that, all Calvinists worth their salt should affirm: humans are morally responsible for what they do. It’s just that “what they do” is also fully determined by God’s providential control of the world. That’s the point at which Arminians attack with a countless army of arguments each alleging that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility (the Consequence Argument, the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, the Manipulation Argument, the Direct Argument, etc…).
The modest goal of my book is to face that army, and defeat every single one of them.
Wish me luck, pick up my book, and tell me how I did.
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