Three Problems in Calvinism


Three Problems in Calvinism

W. H. Marshner

Suppose God pulls me up by my armpits to make me stand. If my legs stay jelly, does He succeed in making me stand? No. My muscles and sinews must become such that, in real terms, I am standing on them. The same is true when we take ‘stand’ more broadly to refer to our being alive and upright before God spiritually. God lifts me up by His grace to make me alive and upright. If my inner faculties remain dead as doornails, does He succeed in making me alive? If they remain utterly prostrate in sin, does He succeed in making me stand? No. My mind and will must be-come such that, in real terms, I am living-for-God in them. This point Calvinism recognizes (against Luther) and rightly so: in those whom He is saving, God accomplishes a real work of sanctification.

There is, however, a serious difference between Calvin’s understanding of this real work and the understanding that one finds in the doctors of the ancient and medieval Church, such as Augustine and Aquinas. Those doctors held that we have no power in our nature to stand before God in a saved condition (alive and upright); if we do so stand, it is only by the working of His grace.[1] But they also held that God’s grace, in bringing our faculties back to life, restores freedom to our will in those crucial moral and spiritual areas where we had lost it through slavery to sin.[2] With freedom restored in these areas, we can cooperate freely with God’s further graces.[3] God’s initial grace makes us free, and His further graces leave us free, so that if we fail to cooperate with them and so fall into sin, it was our own free choice to do so, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Calvin denied that there is any free cooperation between divine grace and a human will, because he denied that freedom is restored to the will. For him, sanctification is a work of irresistible grace. He who is sinning has no choice but to sin, and he who is not sinning has no choice but not to, so that ultimately it is God’s will alone that makes the difference between them. This brings up the problem of what God causes to occur by His will. Ultimately, it is the problem of what He creates.

1. The problem of what God creates.

Let us approach this problem by going back to the talk of standing, continuing to use ‘stand’ in the broad, spiritual sense. Notice this interesting fact:

(A) God succeeds in making me stand if, and only if, I stand.

This statement has the logical form of an equivalence (p ≡ q), which means that each clause implies the other,

(p → q) and (q → p), and also means that by transposition the negation of each implies the negation of the other, (~q → ~p) and (~p → ~q). And so with (A) itself we have by simple logic four propositions:

(A1) If God makes me stand, I stand

and its transposition

(A2) If I do not stand, God does not make me stand


(A3) If I stand, God makes me stand

as well as its transposition

(A4) If God does not make me stand, I do not stand.

With these four propositions, taught by Augustine and confirmed by the Council of Orange against the Pelagians, Catholics, Calvinists, and all genuine Christians agree. We have no power in our nature to stand before God in a saved condition; if we stand, it is only by the working of His grace. But we do not all agree to Calvin’s distinctive premise

(B) If I do not stand, God makes me not stand.

This (B) is an independent notion, underivable logically from anything said so far.

Why is (B) underivable? Because the ideas of abstention (not making X happen) and suppression (making X not happen) are very different and very distinct. In the case of created agents, the distinction is obvious to us all. For in-stance, I do not make it rain; it hardly follows that I make it not rain. In the case of God, upon whose causality all things depend, the distinction is not so obvious, but it still stands. God has not given me a third son; it hardly follows that He has suppressed or squelched anyone. More deeply, the distinction stands because God does not create negative states of affairs. God is Perfect Being, and everything He makes is. He doesn’t make not-beings. Hence He doesn’t create states of affairs which consist wholly and precisely in something’s not being there, not being in order, not being right, etc.

It often happens that positive states of affairs preclude each other. Thus my being white all over (right now) precludes my being brown all over (right now). It might seem, therefore, that if God makes me white now, He also makes me not brown and thus brings about a negative state of affairs. But in fact there is no such divine action. God doesn’t have to do anything to make me non-brown, other than what He does to make me white. He is the author of my whiteness, and my non-brownness is a mere logical consequence of that, requiring no further divine authorship.

This conclusion that, when God makes me white, He is not creating any negative state of affairs, depends upon a very important fact about being white. It is that whiteness is something positive in its own right. The fact that a white thing is non-brown is incidental to its being white, not constitutive. Thus no proper definition of white would define it as not-being-brown. And vice-versa. No proper definition of brown would say that it is “not being white,” or not being green, or whatever. Hence not-being-brown is no part of what God produces when He makes me white.

And this is where the difference comes between being white and being wicked. White is a positive quality, while being wicked is not a positive quality. By proper definition, being wicked is not being in order, not being in conformity to eternal norm, not being in line with divine precept. Thus all moral evil involves negativity essentially, and as a result: the state of affairs that anyone is morally evil is a negative state of affairs, consisting wholly and precisely in his or her not-being a certain way. But God does not create negative states of affairs. Therefore He does not make anyone wicked; He does not make anyone not stand.

This the reason why the Christian tradition has always been able to say, against God’s detractors, that God does not cause our sins. He does not create any state of affairs which is our not being in order. We alone are the choosers and makers of disorder. It was for these reasons exactly that Augustine and Aquinas did not concede

(B) If I do not stand, God makes me not stand,

the distinctive premise of Calvin’s system.

But then, what about Romans 9:18? God has mercy on whom He pleases, and He hardens whom He pleases. Could it not be the case that Calvin’s distinctive premise is revealed in its own right, in this passage, so that it doesn’t need to be derived by logic from other truths? Yes, this could be the case, if Romans 9:18 stood in isolation, or if the Scriptures never spoke of this “hardening” in another way. But they do. Hebrews 3:8 and 15 speak of people as hardening their own hearts, warning them not to do it. When Mark 6:52 is compared with Mark 8:17, it becomes clear that the hardening of the heart is the disciples’ own doing. When all the Scriptures on hardening are looked at together, they can be read consistently not as God making people not believe but as God abandoning them in their unbelief.

2. The problem of Romans 8:29-30

(29) “Because whom He foreknew He also predestined as conformed to the image of His Son
(that the Son might be the firstborn of many brethren);
(30) but whom He predestined, these also He called;
and whom He called, these also He justified;
but whom He justified, these also He glorified.”

Set aside the question of how these two verses fit into the whole of Romans 8 and into the unit that runs from v. 28 to v. 32 (or perhaps runs all the way to the end of the chapter). Let us look only at the content of the two verses themselves, and let us notice that the word ‘all’ is not there anywhere. Calvinism puts it in. Calvinism reads these verses as saying

all the foreknown are predestined; all the predestined are called;
all the called are justified; all the justified are glorified.

The result is that exactly one set of persons, {the elect}, are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified, and no one else is foreknown, predestined, called, justified, or glorified. And this is exactly the result which Calvinism, with its peculiar theory of the elect, requires, if that theory is to be supported by this crucial Scripture. But this is impossible for one precise reason.

St. Paul distinguished ‘foreknew’ from ‘predestined’ and started his list with ‘foreknew’ without adding any further qualifier to that verb. Now when we take God’s foreknowing without further qualifier, God’s foreknowledge extends to all who exist at any time. God foreknew from all eternity all the things, persons, events, etc., which were to appear at any point in time (including, of course, points future-in-time to us; this is why God knows the future). Hence, as soon as you add the word ‘all’, it follows that everyone who will ever exist is predestined, called, justified, and glorified. In short, the Calvinist exegesis leads straight to the heresy of universalism. So either universalism is true, or the Calvinist exegesis here is wrong.

But perhaps there is way to break this dilemma?

• Can we say that God has foreknowledge of the elect alone, and not of the reprobate? No. That would posit massive ignorance in God.

• Can we say that ‘foreknew’ is used in a special sense here, so that foreknowledge is God’s knowing whom He would call? No. For there is nothing for God to know about this prior (logically) to His predestining. In standard theological usage, God’s act of predestining is at least His decision whom to glorify. If (as Calvinism says) He glorifies all whom He justifies, then His act of predestining is also His decision whom to justify. And if (as Calvinism further says) He justifies all whom He calls in the special sense (inwardly calls), then His act of predestining is also His decision whom to call in the sense meant here. And since, in the sense of ‘before’ that means prior in logic, not in time, there is nothing for God to know about what He has decided “before” He has decided it, there is nothing for God to know about whom He would call before He has predestined. But the Scripture puts ‘foreknew’ first, before ‘predestined.’ Therefore, ‘foreknew’ here cannot mean “foreknew whom He would call” without making the Scripture vacuous. Moreover, in plain logic, God cannot decide whom He will call without knowing who is call-able, that is, without knowing whom He has decided to create, who will be included in Adam, who will be around to receive His underserved mercy, etc. Therefore, predestination most certainly presupposes prior knowledge in God. This is the foreknowledge with which St. Paul quite rightly begins here. Therefore it cannot be reduced to foreknowlege of whom God would call.

• Can we say that ‘foreknew’ is meant to have an implicit qualifier here, limiting its object –– e.g., whom He foreknew would be well disposed, them He predestined, and all of them He called, etc. No, because any move like that smuggles in a trace, at least, of the Pelagian heresy. It makes the natural good qualities of some people (which God foresaw) the ultimate determinant of whom God would save. We could admit that we are saved by grace and yet boast that the reason we received the grace was because we were going to be such nice people anyway (as God foresaw). Augustine, Aquinas, and the whole Catholic tradition is horrified at such nonsense.

Is there another way to break the dilemma? No. For since God is not in time, He does not “fore”know Himself or His own acts; He simply knows them. Foreknowledge is of creatures. Since foreknowledge is of creatures, it is either of creatures in their natural being or of creatures in their supernatural being. If the foreknowledge spoken of here in Romans 8:29 is of creatures in the natural being, then the Calvinist addition of ‘all’ to the text makes either universalism true or a trace of Pelagianism true. If the foreknowlege spoken of here is of creatures in their supernatural being, it is knowledge of what predestination alone determines, hence coincides with what God knows in predestining, and hence is put into the text pointlessly, making the Scripture vacuous by redundancy. Therefore the dilemma stands: either universalism is true, or the Calvinist exegesis is wrong.

Since universalism is utterly contrary to the Scriptures, it follows, then, that the Calvinist exegesis of this pas-sage is wrong. But what should we replace it with? Well, there are many possibilities.

For instance, we can keep looking at these two verses in isolation, but instead of adding ‘all’ as we go along, we can add ‘some’. Then the result is:

whom He foreknew, some He predestined; whom He predestined, He called;
whom He called, some He justified; whom He justified, some He glorified.

The result is that the glorified are the ultimate remnant, a subset of the justified (for some have believed and then fallen away, as we are told in II Peter 2:20-22); the justified in turn are a subset of the called (since many hear the call to faith but not all receive it fruitfully, as we are told in Matthew 13:3-23); the justified are also a subset of the predestined (for many are called but few are chosen, as we are told in Matthew 20:16, and indeed God “chose” and thus in one sense “predestined” Israel, the entire nation, within which only a remnant was faithful); and the predestined are but a subset of the foreknown. So read, the text is consistent with other Scriptures but not with either universalism or Calvinism.

Second (and perhaps preferably), we can put these two verses back into their immediate context. Paul has been talking about the tremendous blessing of having within our hearts the Holy Spirit, who helps our infirmities and teaches us what to pray for. Then Paul says (v. 28) that all things work out to the good for those who love God, for those who are called according to His purpose. Then Paul goes through the list we have been discussing and concludes with a wonderful rhetorical question (v. 31): “If God is for us, who can be against us,” and he adds (v. 32): “Since God spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not, along with Christ, also freely give us all things?” This last is certainly a return to the point that all things are working out to the good for us. So vv. 29-31 are best taken as Paul’s argument to make us see that what he said in v. 28 is true: all things are working together to come out right for us. In that case, v. 28 is setting the antecedent for every pronoun between it and v. 32; every ‘whom and ‘these’ refers back to the same people he has been addressing throughout the chapter: we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit; we who love God. Then the result is:

all things work out right for those of us who love God, because after all
we are ones He foreknew and predestined (to be conformed to the image of His Son . . .)
these whom He predestined, He called; these whom He called, He justified;
these whom He justified, He glorified [with the Holy Spirit];
so God is all for us; nothing is against us;
having given up His Son for us all, God is freely giving us everything else as well
[the call we heard; the faith by which we are justified, the Spirit with which we are glorified –– these gifts are all working together on our behalf].

So read, the text says nothing about whether it is all the foreknown who are predestined, or only some; nothing about whether it is all the justified who are glorified in the end, or only some, etc. It is not settling any speculative points of that kind but is simply giving consoling reassurances to the Christian audience addressed by enumerating the many gifts which the audience has already received. So read, of course, the text offers no support to Calvinism or to its rivals.

3. The problem of 1 Corinthians 10:13

“God will not allow you to be tempted above your strength but will make, along with the temptation, a way of escape, so that you can endure it.” This is a great and precious promise, to which “God is faithful.” Ah, but is this promise for everyone who reads the Bible with a touch of credence (all those responding to God’s general call), or is it only for the elect? There are only two possibilities.

(1) Suppose it is for all of us. Then no sincere reader of the Bible is deceived. All of us can count on this promise, even those who will fall away and end up reprobates. In that case, the reprobates will have no one but them-selves to blame for their yielding to temptations and falling away. Literally no one will be able to say, “God gave me no way out.” More to the point, God Himself will say of every person in every case of temptation, “I gave you a way out.” And thus it will not be true of any person that God unilaterally hardened his or her heart.

(2) Suppose the promise is only for the elect. In that case, there are two sub-possibilities: either the elect never sin by yielding to temptation, or else they sometimes do.

So (a) suppose the elect never sin by yielding to temptation. Then even one example of a time of weakness in your Christian life, when you did not succeed in escaping a temptation, is proof positive that you are not one of the elect. Even one fall is proof that you have nothing to hope for from God. You are a reprobate, and any attempt at repentance will be useless motion. Your first post-conversion sin will be a God-given license to despair. But of course, the beloved disciple, who leaned on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, teaches just the opposite. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” I Jn 2:1. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all un-righteousness,” I Jn 1:8-9. So sub-possibility (a) is unacceptable; it puts the Scriptures into contradiction with one another.

Suppose (b) the elect sometimes do sin by yielding to temptation. Yet in every such case, by I Cor, 10:13, they had a way of escape. That means they had the grace to overcome it, endure it, or flee it. Therefore, in yielding, they resisted the grace rather than the temptation. Therefore (against Calvin) some grace, at least, is resistible (at least by the elect). To avoid this conclusion, a Calvinist will have to argue that the grace was only to escape for a time. It was an irresistable grace to be temporarily resistant to the temptation (to which God all along had intended in the secret council of His will that you would succumb). But then St. Paul is a liar when he says that the grace given in every case is a grace to escape the temptation. In truth, if Calvinism is right, the grace cannot even be called a grace to escape committing the sin itself. It can only be called a grace not to commit it prematurely. Indeed, God’s promised help turns out to be a grace to sin in God’s good time! 1 Cor. 10:13 turns out to be deceptive. It only means to “promise” that the elect will sin exactly when God wants them to, and not a moment sooner! Thus, if grace is indeed irresistible, sub-possibility (b) is unacceptable. It turns the promise of God into a deceit.

Thus both of the sub-possibilities under (2), when combined with the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, yield unacceptable results. They turn the Scripture into a contradictory message or into a deceitful message. Thus (2) must be abandoned, and we are back to (1). The promise of I Corinthians 10:13 is not just for the elect but for all who respond to God’s general call; and in that case that Calvinist doctrine that God unilaterally hardens some hearts, so as to give them no way of escape, cannot apply to any such person. It cannot apply to any person who has responded to God’s general call, even if that person in fact ends up as a reprobate. Why, then, should it apply to any reprobate? Why not confess staightforwardly with Prov. 11:5, “the wicked fall by their own wickedness”?

  1. A document called the Indiculus was prepared at Rome around 430 A.D. against the Pelagians. It consists of ten short chapters, in the first of which we read this: “In Adam’s sin, all men lost natural capacity and innocence, and no one by his own free will can rise up from the depth of that ruin, unless the grace of our merciful God lifts him up.” Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, 26th ed. (Freiburg: Herder, 1976), n. 239.
  2. In chapter 9 of the same Indiculus, we read: “By this help and gift of God, free will is not removed but liberated, so that from being in darkness it comes into the light, from being prostrate it becomes upright, from being sickly it becomes well, from being heedless it becomes prudent.” Ibid. n. 248.
  3. “God so operates in us that we may will and accomplish what He wills, and He does not permit His gifts to lie idle in us; He has given them for us to exercise, not neglect, so that we may be cooperators with His grace.” Loc. cit.

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