A Careful Critique of Calvinism

[1] Before I go into this article I want to comment on what a joy it has been to have this continuing series of articles with Camille. Much of what we discuss on the topic of salvation and predestination happens during long and fervent phone calls. Starting with an article discussing what it means to be a “good man,” we have traveled far in a discussion of God’s plan for man in salvation. 

That said I want to outline what we agree on so that we can focus – like a laser – on the points of contention. Both Camille and I agree (I add a fourth point not mentioned in Camille’s article) that:

  1. it is only through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ that one can be reunited with God.
  2. it is the “free and undeserved gift of grace which justifies and sanctifies us.”
  3. at some level, we must choose either to accept or to refuse the gift of salvation.
  4. any good, any movement towards God, must involve God actively causing this movement. 

To the disagreement! In our drowning man analogy, Camille finds an issue with the idea that the man, having just been saved from drowning, nevertheless desires his sunken treasure and still dives back into it. The question raised is a strong one; if we are truly transformed in Christ, born anew, how can we ever dream of turning back?

To further discuss Camille’s case systematically:

1. Assumption: A new heart cannot be corrupted

a. Assumption: God creates people with hearts that cannot be corrupted

b. Assumption: God applies this incorruptible aspect of creation to everyone

c. Conclusion: A new heart cannot be corrupted

2. Assumption: We are born again and given new hearts by God

3. Conclusion: When we are born again and given a new heart by God we cannot be corrupted (turn away from God)

While I agree with the second assumption and assumption 1a, I take issue with 1b. I believe God can give a person the grace in their Christian life of final perseverance but he does not necessarily do this. In order words, a Christian, who holds a real relationship with Christ today, may still reject Christ in his life.

In Scripture, God has demonstrated his ability to give grace that is not persevering to believe. In 1 Samuel we read how the “Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul” or in Judges 16:20 when the Lord left Samson. In his letter Peter writes on apostate Christians: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” Christ himself states in John 15:1-3:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit He prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” [2]

A dilemma begins to arise: how can Christ “lose nothing of all he [the Father] has given me” but also the Father remove “every branch in me that bears no fruit”? Are we, in some roundabout way, condemned to uncertainty in our faith if we fail to bear fruit? There is a real difficulty for many Christians in the reconciliation of John 6:37 and John 15:1-3 (among other passages). These troublesome (to quote Camille) passages I see as an invitation to be challenged and approach a very important doctrinal discussion. In the remainder of this article, I will explain Aquinas’s method of reconciling the passages and argue why Calvinist belief in preservation contains deeply problematic implications.

When speaking of predestination and salvation we can speak from God’s perspective (outside of time) or from our perspective (within time). From God’s perspective, imagine looking at this painting of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, a decision that led Rome to engage in a civil war for over 5 years. [3] Everything in the painting is already determined; past, present, and future.  God is the artist of our lives and this painting of existence is something he paints. From the perspective of those inside the painting, namely us, Caesar is making a consequential decision that will have lasting effects. From the perspective of the painter, everything that is represented in the paint originates from him.

The verses from scripture that address God’s eternal decree of the elect and their salvation can be thought of from this perspective of the painter. The passages concerning man’s choice and the work of salvation can be attributed to a perspective within the painting. With this in mind, we can read both John 6 and 15 together. Yes, God does grant preservation in salvation (efficacious grace) to some, and from His perspective, he knows who they are and they will not fall away. However, God may grant (sufficient) grace to be saved in one moment of the painting, but not the perseverance of that grace. From the divine perspective, all those given to Christ by the Father will not be lost. But from our perspective, God does permit some to fail in the grace they are given so that there are some “who believe for a while, and in time of temptation, they fall away” (Luke 8:13). [4]

Before I continue into a discussion of TULIP theology, it is important to explain the Thomist view on how people fall away from grace. For Thomists, God offers sufficient grace to all to be saved, but only those whom God moves and perseveres in are part of the elect. For Aquinas, a member of the reprobate is like a man who shutters himself in a dark place to be away from the sun. Aquinas also says that “God, of his own accord, withholds His grace from those in whom He finds an obstacle.” Just like with salvation, for those who aren’t saved, there is the view from the painter and the view from the painted; God allows man to sin and does not grant efficacious grace to all, but man also rejects the sufficient grace that makes salvation possible. Aquinas’s understanding of Predestination can maintain God’s sovereignty in having an elect while also affirming that Christ “died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Further passages throughout scripture affirm that God wills the salvation of all (Titus 2:9-10 1 Timothy 2:11-14 Ezekiel 2:2-24). 

God’s will for everyone’s salvation is the crucial difference that makes (strict) TULIP theology irreconcilable with what we learn from Scripture. Christ’s death was not only for the sins of the elect but the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Salvation does not function as a legal exchange of Christ’s blood for our salvation but a total and complete personal redemption for all. Therefore God does offer some level of grace to all, but he only moves in some efficaciously (Titus 2:11). The rest condemn themselves to eternity separate from God. Once we assume that when salvation is offered by God it is irresistibly accepted, we are incapable of theologically believing God offers salvation to all (unless we are universalist). [5] Hence we begin to seek to distort Scripture to match our view rather than dive in and seek a deeper understanding from the seeming contradiction of John 6 and 15.

While I am undecided on whether I agree with Aquinas in all he has to say on predestination, I think his approach is helpful in honestly addressing various “contradictory” biblical passages in a meaningful way. Regardless of our views on predestination, Christ did defeat sin. Yet casualties from evil still exist, and this topic is important. While there are many points in reformed theology that are quite good and true, once we accept a certain theological framework it necessitates a certain reading of scripture down the road. I believe subscribing to a belief in irresistible grace necessarily leads to a belief in limited atonement which is a view rejected by Scripture. That said, I am looking forward to more phone calls and articles as we continue this discussion!

[1] I am not sure how careful my critique can fairly claim to be. In all truth, I very much disagree with Calvinism and believe once one leg of TULIP is shown to be faulty the whole system falls apart. While I aspire to be careful in my review of theology, the alliteration of the title was too good to pass up on!

[2] Many Reformed Christians will complain and point to John 15:5 which states that “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.” They will then conclude this passage demonstrates the preservation of the saints. However, it does nothing of the sort! All the passage states is that you can know if you are currently in Christ; it does nothing to lessen John 15:1-3 (that the Father will remove branches in Christ).

[3] Pignotti R., Ravagli P., Donati G., “Rubico quondam finis Italiae”, Città del Rubicone, p. 3, October, 1991.

[4] I do think one can take Calvinist theology and apply it to Scripture and render a reading favorable to the Calvinist. One just has to make certain assumptions about the groups John (and other NT writers) are referring to, and this will make these passages more reconcilable. A better approach, rather than applying our theological priors, is to take each passage at face value and develop a theology that accounts for both. It is my view that Aquinas does a fairly decent job of it, which is why I am presenting his view on the topic.

[5] Did I just connect Calvinism to Universalism? Yes, yes I did.

[6] Here are some minor responses that could be clarified!

Camille: “If we read Romans 3:10 in light of the preceding two chapters, I’m sure we will come to agree that Paul is addressing all of humanity, without exception. Verse 9 says, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (see also Isaiah 53:6).”

When Camille responds to my quote by Hahn she points out correctly that these figures are righteous due to their faith in God. As presented in my article, Camille and I both agree nothing good can come from man without it coming from God first; however, the situation is both/and vs either/or, so we can correctly call my namesake, Daniel of Scripture, a good man just as we can be sure it was God that made him so. I do feel the loss of salvation is critical in this chain of articles!

Camille: “He offers us not merely a gift of forgiveness, or a room in heaven, or even the sudden new ability to live in obedience to Christ and do good” (from Camille’s fourth paragraph).

Also, I do not think Camille meant to say this, but to clarify I do not think there is anything “mere” about God’s forgiveness, eternal life with him, and an ability to conform ourselves to God’s will!


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