my friend spencer

My friend Spencer commented on my previous post in Facebook. I quote it here because it is important to address this sort of objection to my dismissal of Calvinism.

Spencer Griffin: Isaac Watts Hymn, “How Sweet and awefull is this place, with Christ within the doors” in its entirety, as an expression of the best of evangelical Calvinism… enjoying the mystery of prayer, which is, after all, where God’s sovereignty and our participation in His Work somehow mix. “People should be converted though our prayers”……and the victorious word of the Gospel!!!! I have been praying to understand how God’s sovereignty infused Edwards and Whitfield to compel men to come to Christ…..The use of people to reach people, what a weak plan Lord! I do not understand God’s ways, its like asking why he let men fall— “there is none that seeks for God” Romans 3:11, and yet the Son of Man came… “in the fullness of time” to seek and to save the lost….through you and me??? how does that work….Good griief!!!! even St. Paul says what appear to be contradictory things on the same page!!!! A world in which contingency surrounds God leaves no room for the wonder of the Gospel any more than does a missapplied Calvinisim that does not pray. But why pray if ultimate contingency surrounds even Jesus…….we need an omnipotent Savior! And scripture says we have one!

I applaud the actions of our brothers and sisters who, inconsistent with TULIP make an effort to seek and save the lost. I have no argument with those who at first (theologically) refusing to do the master’s bidding at last go to do it. I have an argument with those who insincerely preach the love of God to those who they believe are lost by the determination of an almighty God. God to the TULIP is impassable, incapable of any movement in response to our prayers. Yet we know he does respond to prayer, and the best of us prays like they mean it.

I never suggested nor will I that God in Christ is surrounded with contingency. That is a straw man used to argue against any possibility of free will. It is a set of false alternatives: TULIP or absolute contingency. We know more today about the things of our lives that are materially out of our control, yet we are responsible for our behavior implying legitimate freedom. But that freedom is only partial. Jesus suggested we cannot change the color of our hair by willing it. So, being unable to choose in this fashion was never in our hands. TULIP denies that any expression of freedom will change the mind of God.

As I state here and elsewhere, I am not arguing with Calvin or any of his followers’ devotion, or obedience, but the theory he and his followers espoused is just a form of philosophical determinism. Sovereignty does not imply determinism. What a pitiful unqualified god that would have to make people be as he wanted them, and punish others to prove his power. That’s not what we understand as being human, or understand as the loving God.

The point of this exercise is to recognize that God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh’s heart had everything to do with proving his power to national Israel,(and yes to Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and nothing to do with Pharaoh’s eternal destiny, which, by the way, is never mentioned in scriptures anywhere, even Roman’s 9, though it is assumed he is on his way or already is in hell.

But it wouldn’t even matter if God were surrounded with contingency. Can you imagine him wringing his hands at the infinite possibilities that are out of his control? Nonsense. The God I choose who manages the entire creation, (which, by the way is unimaginably larger than any tiny cosmology our forbears imagined) is capable of managing a few puny humans whom he gave freedom to reject him with. He also gave them freedom to accept, worship, love, and fellowship with him, even though we can’t do the simple magic of changing the color of our hair by our will alone. (Some people really look good in shocking pink or green hair.)

I think the argument about Calvinism as opposed to Arminianism is so over and done with, that some of us hold on to it like some hold to a young earth cosmology. There is better theology, better science, better philosophy available than Calvin or any of his modern cronies have imagined. I would be happy to abandon the project of proving or disproving TULIP as a shibboleth of our allegiance to the living God. But some are so convinced that preserving the debate ensures conservatism, that they fail to challenge the ugly presuppositions that hold it together.

Spencer suggested that the mystery of God using men to bring the good news to a lost and dying world is equal to the mystery of God letting men fall. Look at the assumptions that back this remark. First, God could have prevented us from the “fall.” OK, then we would not be the humans we are today. We would be smart animals, guiltless, cunning, capable. But I answer that the mystery lies in why we are convinced that God had no idea what we would do when he set us on the earth this way. The answer to that is that TULIP wants a vengeful God, a God who made Adam sin so he could punish him. That would be consistent.

The only other answer is that God knew all along that his creation would stray, and that, as Hebrews tells us, provided the savior from the foundation of the world not as a contingency, but as the preparation for salvation that would be required. Why would it be required if God set us up so we would sin? We would be blameless on that account. However, the acts in the garden were freely chosen, (even as ours are) irrespective of the lack of foresight they reveal, so Adam and Eve become morally culpable, and responsible, cannot pay for their sin, and require a savior, which God provides.

Either, the God of the Calvinist could not stop men from falling, making him less than omnipotent. Or, God, as Augustine suggests, gives people freedom as a legitimate, active cause in the world, for which each is responsible.

One of the reasons I reject Calvinism, which I mentioned above, is that the theoretical underpinnings of Calvin’s theology are medieval, scholastic, universalizing, absolute, and mistaken. We have more to work with today, better theology, better philosophy, better science.

We can get more by obeying what Jesus commanded us, than what results from a theologically sophisticated Calvinism. In fact, I argue that we could get the participation of a devoted Edwards or Whitfield without the screwy theology which renders their actions futile attempts at saving people God had already determined were going to hell.

2 thoughts on “my friend spencer”

  1. Thank you for your friendship, I really do value it.
    Chester Robertson , “brother Rob”, said one day “nature determines choice- that’s why I am a Calvinist”…I realize that taken in context what he meant was that on this point he was “Calvinistic”, and not that he agreed with everything in Calvinism. But this is essentially why I do not think Shenks books are compelling.
    Lloyd Jones said somewhere in his Ephesians sermons (I read them all a long time ago) that Calvin “went too far in some of his statements, but I do not know which ones precisely he was referring to. Augustine was a “predestinarian” and also wrote on the will. I have been reading, slowllllly, “the City Of God”.
    I would highly recommend J.I. Packers short book, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”—-there are many “antinomies” in the Christian Faith. God is perfectly wise, so he must choose the best plan? But God is most free, so he was free to not create the world. God is fullness of Glory, and independent of the creature, and we “give glory to God”… etc.
    Jack Miller was used by God in the conversion of some “Truly Reformed” (10 point Calvinists) at Westminster Seminary, where he taught for a time. He used to ask “have you ever done, or stopped doing anything because you loved Jesus Christ”….now that is a searching spiritual inquiry! Pray for your weak brother.

  2. To my friend Spencer,

    I agree with Rob, that nature determines choice, but not all choice. If all choice is determined then we are not responsible for our decisions. This is the deterministic error, widely spread in the age of reason, through those, like Spinoza who wished to say that all choices are caused by some preceding event. This is too extensive and absolute, and eminently unprovable. It is a reductionistic assumption that cuts the wind out of any necessary punishment for bad actions. Shanks’ books have little to do with philosophic determinism, and much to say about the scriptures.

    There is much about our lives that is determined but even then, it is not deterministic in Calvin’s or Spinoza’s, or a scientific determinist’s sense. We, are genetically determined, but the expression of genes is not entirely mechanical, there are environmental factors that modify that. Copy Cat, one of the first cloned cats had a different color pattern than his donor, same colors, different pattern. Twins do not follow a mechanically identical development. But we are still largely determined by our genetic pattern, regardless of the expression in the real world, the phenotype.This is freely admitted by both scientists and theologians. The second area of determinism is in our training. We often but not absolutely take on the cloak of our culture, and replicate our parents’ behavior.This is not startling, but an ordinary form of determinism that is also part of the genetic inheritance. The third form of determinism is in our moral behavior. This is the sticking point in Tulip Calvinism. Our behavior, choices, practices, are essentially meaningless when it comes to Calvinism. We can neither assent to nor reject Christ, nor indeed assent to or reject Calvinism. If we assent, it is because of irresistible grace. Therefore there is no moral benefit to it. If we reject God’s call, that is the result of total depravity, an inherited condition. That is not a morally culpable action, since we are predestined to do it. Both actions contradict moral responsibility and so do not qualify as human behavior. To say that we are held responsible for what we can not prevent doing is absolutely absurd. Or to say that what we are held responsible for is merely the laws and regulations of government denies that we are more than machines.

    I have read some of Calvin’s institutes. I applaud his devotion to God. I deplore his determinism which is conditioned by a worldview current in his age, and perpetuated by a view of heredity sin that absolves people of blame because all things people do are caused by something which is prior to their choice. Hereditary sin is contrary to scriptures, by every logical account a bankrupt idea. Witness the problem with responsibility. I reject Calvinism but not the people who devote themselves to God in it because the obvious correlation between sin and punishment do not apply in a deterministic system. This is good human logic that is not contradicted by scriptures that hold people responsible for their sin, deny the inheritance of sin, and call the creation good. If I have to remind you that free people can still sin, then you haven’t bought Christianity at all, but a philosophic determinism that cannot tolerate the tension between freedom and God’s law. I am not interested in a God who will send somebody to hell for doing what they cannot prevent. Let me lowercase that god. It is not the Christian, nor the Jewish God.

    There are things we cannot change. That is good Greek wisdom. To say that there is nothing we can change is amoralism. Freedom implies responsibility. Lack of it implies no responsibility, or even requires fatalism. It is time to abandon Scholastic rationality for Christian morality.

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