Prelude to a Venerable and Superannuated Discussion

There is a hesitancy in my fingers. An extra pause between each word. Now, if only I could know if it’s from God or myself? :)

Admittedly, I’m playing with fire. Unfortunately, I’m not fully trained in this art. There are many other and more qualified candidates to deal with the problem. They have their stations, hoses, masks, teams, and big red trucks. There are some who are ready at a moments notice. The doors are left open, and when the alarm sounds, the team is prepared for the worst.

Not so the case with me. I’m a newbie, with almost no experience to speak of. I’ve got no credentials, and have never even ran through a burning house. I’ve only seen the smoke from afar. But, I’m still gonna give it a go-at-it. What is this burning house I speak of? What battle rages on? I speak of the classic controversy, the theological conundrum, the carnivorous crash. Its… (insert drumroll in the background)… Calvinism vs. Arminianism! Or, to put it shortly, Johnny (et.all) Vs. Jacob (et.all). I’m gonna blog about why (at this time) I’m not a Calvinist. Let me tell you my top 12 reasons why I’ve (chosen, hehe) to embark on such an old, worn-out, exciting adventure:

  1. At least in the circle I run around at the moment, my Arminian leanings are not status-quo. I am probably in the minority. Therefore, I feel I may have the burden of proof, not “them.”
  2. When I came to seminary, this was one of the issues I wanted to delve into. Among other issues (The value of “Church,” Sexual Ethics, Women’s role in the church, God and the Problem of Evil, Which Denomination to choose and why), was my desire to understand Calvinism vs. Arminianism. And not only to understand it, but to be confident and able to explain where I stand, and why.
  3. I’ve been doing a little reading on the subject. Thus, it is only natural for me to respond. I’ve realized there are many Calvinists who are much more Calvin than Calvin. But I’ve also learned Calvin was pretty Calvin. I want to be a breath of fresh fairness for both sides.
  4. It is super controversial in the sense that many Christians feel strongly one way or the other. And to suggest the other side causes a tornado of fear, sorrow, anger and frustration for those same people. You know what I’m talking about, we’ve all met one or two “oversaved” Christians. That kind of Christian who uses the words “propitiation,” “justification,” or “grace” when describing what they ate for breakfast. Those people who would enjoy nothing more on a sunny saturday afternoon then to shut the shades, hunch over in their office and read heavy books. Those people who, it seems, have never met a different soul in their life, and turn one more shade yellow than the sun when a thought is uttered which they haven’t yet met in the office. On these issues, these people are the best to conversate with. If only to watch with wonder which color of the rainbow will show up and what words will fly off the tongue of a person so glued tightly to their own colorless beliefs. I’m making it a point to understand both sides, so I can fight for the “other” when I need a good laugh.
  5. There are a lot of Christians who are into Calvinism (and much more into it than I realized). This isn’t extremely interesting on its own, but I’ve found that these same Calvinists oftentimes estrange themselves with those who are non-theists or are Christians of another conviction – Especially since the character of God, and our relationship with God and the world is viewed very differently. I find this to be an intriguing mystery. I want to know if these Calvinist Christians have it wrong. If so, they need to stop freaking everyone out. If not, then we need to relearn how to describe a more palatable version of Calvinism. Should it be easy to accept? No, after all, if it is the more Biblical version, it is then a “hard reality” we must accept. But in my experience, the way it is usually described, its not surprising Non-Calvinistic Christians and Non-Theists alike find it impossible to embrace.
  6. Calvinism is very scary. I wish more Calvinists recognized this reality. I am grappling with it because IF it IS a good lens through which to see reality, then I better understand it well and likewise know how to communicate it without scaring (and/or scarring) non-Christians into oblivion or helplessness. It’s a scary thought for those of us that (seem to) make hundreds of decisions a day – That the main eternal and penultimate decision a person can make has already been decided by God (not to mention the assumption that it can be summed up in one specific moment of time). And somehow God is still cool? Not only does this buck against many people’s experiences of conversion, it is also very debilitatingly frustrating.  How is this fair or true to humanity? Is God really that much of a control-freak?
  7. It’s an extremely important topic. How you answer certain questions illuminates how you think, and how you think determines how you act. The questions of this debate are great, in that the way we answer them really and actually affects our everyday life.
  8. Its an enjoyable topic because I know I’ll always be refining my position, and am open to completely changing it. Thus, this is the type of conversation worth verbalizing and writing, because then others who are more or less knowledgeable or experienced in the subject can help me in my own knowledge experiments.
  9. I’ve noticed many Calvinists are so dedicated to Calvinism that they are willing to sacrifice all else. Whether it be logical consistency, Godly gentleness, a willingness to listen, or placing the Bible into a system (thus leaving the Bible to contradict itself) instead of letting the Bible create a system. They put Calvinism on the altar, and let everything else burn, for the sake of the offering. So, I view myself as the defender of the weak, so to speak. Those people who see rational thought as an important construction of God, made FOR life’s big questions, let us come together and see what can burn and what must stay! Am I opposed to mystery and paradox? No, but I am opposed to intellectual laziness and fallacious thought patterns.
  10. I understand the issues differently than anyone else I’ve met. This probably means I’m way off, but maybe it means I have something to offer to the conversation. I think I’m a little different because I don’t ever divorce the knowledge I have with a subject I am trying to understand. So, my background in philosophy remains. My loyalty to logical consistency and dislike for fallacies continues. My passion for just law, and desire for cultural musings of the conscious and honest type, linger. Therefore, when I think about Calvinism, I think about it through my other thoughts. I don’t attempt a blank slate. I don’t think I should. I believe all good knowledge comes from God, and is intrinsically interconnected. Therefore, we must commit to a holistic understanding of life in trying to understand the questions.
  11. I have yet to meet a Calvinist who can speak about life in Calvinistic terms. They can speak about Calvinism, but they do so through the Arminian framework. The actual framework can never be described apart from non-Calvinistic understandings. This is always amusing, to say the least, and speaks to its own lack of experiential relevance.
  12. I do my best to take it as far as it can go. I’ve initially become fascinated by the debate THROUGH my intrigue of the more philosophical and yet very practically existential Problem of Evil. Ironically, this debate inevitably must lead to this question. Most importantly, and possibly the MAIN reason I reject Calvinism, is for the lack of its answer to this question, which I find to be one of the most important questions of life. This is usually the place most Calvinists stop, throw up their hands, and say “God is good, somehow.” No, this doesn’t work. I don’t even think God likes the answer. So in failure to answer the main question, it ultimately fails.

So, in closing, I will share what I believe to be good questions to ask in attempts to verify truth in any subject. So, in my next blog, as you read, ask yourself whether my argument has these three elements?

  • Logical Consistency – Do I make any fallacious or unfair connections? Am I consistent with my premises and conclusions?
  • Empirical Adequacy – Can what I’m saying be verified through commonly known or scientifically warranted knowledge, real-life experiences or other appropriate means?
  • Experiential Relevance – Is what I’m saying Plausible and Palatable? Can it be verified? In essence, do you “remember” what I am saying? Does it strike you as true?

The Calvinism that I know and understand does NOT fulfill this criteria and so at this time, I am not convinced it is true. Now for the argument… and I’ll look forward to hearing any comments!

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8 thoughts on “Prelude to a Venerable and Superannuated Discussion

  1. Penza,

    As a fellow theologian and philosopher, I am thrilled that you are embracing this discussion. It sounds to me like you are asking the right preliminary questions in order to deal with the problems of Calvinism/Arminianism in a godly way. You’re right; intellectual dishonesty is not an option for a God-fearing person who understands that God is the source of all truth and goodness. You’re also right that pride is the FIRST sin that God hates (see Prov. 6) and that no matter what side of the issue a Christian lands on, we are first called to love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, etc.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts and dialoguing with you. I have thought about this issue for a long time, and I need to be challenged so that I don’t fall into intellectual ruts. I freely admit that I am one of those scary Calvinist theologians, although I didn’t start off that way. I am also a depression addict (yes, it is possible to be addicted to depression), and I say with conviction that my sanity depends on the absolute sovereignty of God. I can explain myself later on this point, if necessary.

    I wanted to posit to you a few questions for thought as you discuss this issue here on your blog. These questions are relatively new to me as I’ve continued to revisit this issue, and I would love to hear your thoughts on them.

    1) Does the fact that God is triune influence this discussion in any way? Why or why not? And if so, how does God tri-personal nature influence one’s conclusion?

    2) How is this discussion influenced by a particular conception of time, and God’s (ours, too!) relationship to it? The Bible does not tell us precisely how God relates to time. Yes, God is eternal, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that God is outside time looking in (the way that I might stand above a sandbox and survey it all at once). Neither does the Bible tell us exactly how we relate to time … all we know is that we are bound to passing through time in one direction only, existing one moment to the next. We cannot go back in time, nor can we see into the future. One philosopher (Hugh Ross) suggests that time is an aspect of God’s character, like love, and that time flows from Him just like His grace and mercy. The phenomenon of time is inextricably bound to issues of God’s foreknowledge, predestination, etc. In order to maintain intellectual honesty on these issues, we must take into account our conception of time (whatever it is) and explain ourselves, even if we are limited to very feeble answers.

    3) Finally, there are very, very difficult Scripture passages to contend with in order to come to an intellectually honest conclusion. In my mind, the most difficult of these passages is Romans 9 (and one of the most difficult for me to accept in all of Scripture — probably 2nd most difficult after Jesus’ claim to be God). How do you understand Paul’s argument in this chapter?

    Like I said, these are the questions pressing my mind right now in regard to the issue of Calvinist/Arminianist theology. Granted, these questions are very philosophical in nature, but I welcome your thoughts and dialogue about them. In regard to these issues, in some cases I have come to reasonably solid conclusions, and in other I haven’t. I would love to hear your thoughts.

    The Lord be with you,
    Joel

  2. Joel,

    Thanks for the comment. Those are awesome questions. I was hoping to have my “thoughts” blogged by tonight but its taking a bit longer than expected… how do I boil it down to one post, haha? Maybe I’ll do it in parts, but hopefully will have something of substance posted in the next few days. I’m glad you asked those questions before I finished, I’ll have to think about them more. Before responding to the questions, I will say that I too, believe that God cannot be anything but fully sovereign. So, I’m curious to hear if, and how, my definition of sovereignty is different then yours (Almost undoubtedly it is). I also look forward to hearing your thoughts and reactions to all of this. I know you are the type of person who takes these questions seriously and I’m sure there is a lot I could learn from you.

    1) I think God’s triune essence is absolutely vital to this conversation, especially when we think about God’s personality even before we were created. Without this triune truth, we could not say “God is love,” which is an essential part of God, and a vital truth that ultimately remains central and, in many ways, drives this discussion. I am not only concerned with God’s sovereignty, or my free will, but if, in the end, God has always been and remains a God of love.

    2) Great point. I’ve been grappling with this reality of God. Especially since I understand God to be the creator of time as we know it, above it, and yet bound by it and involved within it, all at the same time. But certainly the vantage point of God and viewpoint of humans are necessarily different. I’ll be wrestling with this mystery in my post. Its especially important concerning predestination, and how God’s eternal knowledge affects/doesn’t affect our own “free choices.”

    3) I will definitely spend extra time in Romans 9. In my mind, it isn’t the toughest Scripture to “contend” with, or understand, via the Arminian perspective, but nonetheless, it is usually a major part of any good Calvinistic defense I have read. I’m unsure if I’ll go indepth on it in my first post, but if not, I definitely will in posts following. There is no way I can avoid it if I want to be both fair and comprehensive to this debate.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Keep me posted, as I will do the same!

    Blessings,

    M.P.

  3. Stickin with light topics eh? Anyway, it seems to me that you are really talking about predestination vs. free will because Calvinism and Arminianism can spread out to a host of other subjects, especially Calvinism, no?

    In any case, why not be both? Free will and predestination both work! It’s a paradox!

  4. Great responses here. I’ll definitely look forward to reading your arguments! I’m glad that you asked about our respective definitions of “sovereignty.” Let me chew on that one before I simply offer a glib definition. It’s an important term, and many Christians have varied understanding of God’s “will” or “knowledge.” This discussion also touches on issues related to open theism, of course. I don’t think a true open theist could hold to an unconditional view of election, for example. Finally, I hope to learn from you as well.

    1) Yes, I agree with you that the Trinity of the Godhead absolutely factors into this discussion. As you pointed out, the fact that God is love necessitates a multi-personal reality. Love is not some ethereal cosmic concept. Love must involve a person(s). God loves all people, both fallen and redeemed humanity. Furthermore, the fact of God’s triune nature demands an understanding of knowledge and truth that is two-tiered: truth as God knows it, and truth as mankind knows it. The truth remains the same, but our knowledge of truth is not the same as God’s knowledge of truth. Yet the Bible reveals some of God’s knowledge of of truth to us, knowledge that we do not, and cannot, fullly grasp. We cannot fully understand God’s triune personhood. Yet we are bound to accept the reality of the Trinity, despite the fact that it is logically inconsistent. This is a complex problem.

    2) At the end of the day, I have no idea what to make of the reality of time. And in some respects, I don’t think it really matters. The main point is that the Bible speaks about time in more or less linear terms, specifically saying that God was around and did certain things BEFORE (the choice of preposition is important) time began. It makes sense to me to think of time as a 4th (or perhaps 5th?) dimension of space, as Einstein suggests in his theory of relativity. Regardless, the preposition “before” remains in the text, and we must deal with it. Paul uses a fascinating phrase in 2 Timothy 1:9, “…before times eternal” (pro chronon aionion). I’ve always wondered why Paul uses the plural here – “times” ?!? What does he mean? But again, the difficult aspect of this construction is the preposition, which clearly means “before” or “preceding.” I don’t have my study tools out right off hand, but I believe this preposition is used both temporally and spatially. Either way, it indicates a prior position. This is a telling detail which we cannot ignore; and while this leaves open the standard Calvinist/Arminianist debate, I believe that these grammatical constructions rule out any kind of open theist view as being Scripturally untenable.

    3. Ah yes, Romans 9. I will look forward to hearing your perspective and will dialogue with you further when the time comes.

    Looking forward to more,
    Joel

  5. (p.s. – I mention open theism because it applies to the discussion at hand. If God doesn’t know the future, then there is no such thing as “election,” conditional or unconditional. In an open theist view, God genuinely responds/reacts to human choices, therefore the business of “choosing” is man’s, not God’s. I believe that we are biblically bound to some view of real election by God, either conditional or unconditional.)

  6. Larry, I totally agree. This convo does lead to so much other stuff, and thus my response is a response to everything I could think of in relation to each side. As you’ll see, I do believe in both predestination and free will, but how I define each concept makes it possible for me to say so. I am afraid of chalking it all up to paradox unless thats what it actually is, therefore I make the argument. And yeah, stinkin topic. I didn’t realize how long it would take me to put it all together, I’m stickin to lighter topics from here on out, lol…

  7. Joel, I think I’ve touched on all the above issues. You’ll have to let me know if I’ve left anything important out of my discussion. I really enjoyed the way you described the issues however, so if I have forgotten, feel free to add, because you are on a roll!

    And I also agree with your post script. I don’t think the Bible leads us to an open theism and I do believe we have to properly understand election (since election is clearly all over scripture). As you will read, I believe election is undoubtedly conditional.

  8. Penza,

    It sounds like maybe you thought I was asking more from you in my numbered responses above. I wasn’t. You answered my questions. In my response above, I am answering my own questions for the purpose of discussion. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    I haven’t had time to read through your entire argument yet, but I am looking forward to it!
    Joel

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