A Fundamental Challenge to Calvinistic Theology
I am an Arminian, but much of my theological training has been received from the hands of Reformed theologians. Indeed, many of the thinkers I read/follow are Reformed in their theology. My exposure to Reformed thinkers has broadened my understanding of Calvinism, corrected many of my misconceptions about Calvinism, and produced in me a real sense of appreciation for its exegetical basis. Indeed, sometimes I jokingly refer to myself as a “Calminian.” And yet, for all its strengths, I think there are fatal flaws in Calvinistic theology (which is part of the reason I remain relatively Arminian—I also see some real strengths in the Molinist explanation, so perhaps I am an “Cal-mol-inian”). In this post I will present what I believe to be one of the most fundamental challenges to Calvinistic theology.
Paul tells us that God desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Theologians distinguish between two aspects of God’s will: His sovereign will, and His moral will. God’s moral will refers to that which He desires, but does not use His power to ensure that it comes to pass (e.g. God desires that all live holy, but allows people the choice to be unholy). God’s sovereign will refers to that which God desires and uses His power to ensure that it comes to pass (e.g. the death of Jesus or the destruction of Satan). Since all men are not saved, Paul must be referring to the moral will of God.
Typically, the reason God’s moral will is not fulfilled is because men refuse to fulfill it. In the case of salvation, however, Calvinists affirm that the fulfillment of God’s moral will is not contingent on human acts, but solely on God’s sovereign act of regeneration (monergism). The spiritual death from which humans suffer makes it impossible for them to respond positively to God apart from God acting sovereignly to regenerate their heart. Here is the problem: If God desires that all men are saved, and He alone possesses the power to save men, why doesn’t God save all men? If God has both the desire and ability to save all men, why would He only choose to save some? Why is God’s sovereign will out of step with His moral will? Why does He exercise His sovereign will only to save part of those whom He wills to be saved? The partiality by which God distributes His grace should be questioned if it is inconsistent with His moral will.
Calvinists typically respond by defending the justice of God’s partiality. They argue that God would be entirely just if He chose not to save anyone, so surely He cannot be considered unjust or unloving simply because He chose not to save all. While I agree that God’s choice to save some but not others does not call his justice into question, this misses the point. As Reformed theologian Sam Storms notes, “It’s one thing to say God was under no obligation or necessity to elect all unto life. It’s another thing entirely to account for why he chose not to elect all unto life. Or again, it’s one thing to say he didn’t need to choose all. It’s something else entirely to say he didn’t want to choose all.” The problem is in explaining why God would not save all when He has both the ability and desire to do so.
So why didn’t God act to save all those whom He desires to save? According to Calvinists it is because there is some higher good that is accomplished by only saving some—a purpose that could not be achieved if God had acted to save all. Sam Storms identifies the higher good as “the display of the glory of all his attributes for his delight and that of those whom he has chosen to share it,” citing Romans 9:22-23 in support of his conclusion. Other Calvinists such as John Piper echo Storms’ explanation. God chooses not to save all because it brings Him glory (although I’ve never heard a good explanation as to how it brings Him glory).
What do you make of this explanation? Personally, I think it’s a hard pill to swallow. So does Steve Hays. His assessment is rather blunt:
If Calvinism, especially in its supralapsarian form—which argues that God foreordained the eternal fates of humans not yet created in a world not yet created, never mind fallen—is true, then most of us are lost, and not just because, in the words of Dirty Harry, we don’t feel particularly lucky, but because we are asked to love a monster. A deity who out Hitler’s Hitler in a blood-thirsty self-preening is too repellant to contemplate, never mind adore. Especially one whose obsession with his own glory reduces every person to nothing more than an adornment. If this is true, let’s please stop talking about the sanctity of human life. In this horrific scheme, there is nothing more expendable than a human being. “I need more glory—throw another baby on the barby!”
While I do not agree with all of Hays’ rhetoric here, I think he does bring out the emotional horror conjured up by the thought of a God who is glorified by the eternal, conscious torment of those whom He loves; those who are made in His image. And yet, to be fair, all acknowledge that God received glory by exercising judgment on the Egyptians (Ex 14:4,17-18) when He could have chosen to spare them instead. Surely He did not elect the Israelites to “salvation” because of their righteousness! He elected them to salvation from the hands of the Egyptians because God elected Abraham and His descendents. I don’t know of too many Arminians who would characterize that event as Steve Hays characterized God’s decision to exercise judgment on sinners for eternity in hell. Can Arminians, then, object, in principle, to the Calvinist’s “for God’s glory” explanation?
Is the “glory” explanation, then, a good explanation for why God’s sovereign will does not match His moral will? If so, what do we make of 1 Timothy 2:4? If God chooses not to save all men because He desires to be glorified in the judgment of some men, then does God really desire to save all men? It doesn’t seem to me that we can take this verse at face value, unless we say God has conflicting desires. On the one hand He really does desire to save all men, but on the other hand He also desires to be glorified, but His desire for glory supersedes His desire to save all men, and thus He does not save all men even though part of Him would like to.
1. This is not a case in which God simply fails to do something He is capable of doing (such as not creating space aliens), but a case in which God desires some state of affairs that can only obtain if He acts to instantiate it, and yet He does not act to instantiate it.
2. Sam Storms, “Why Doesn’t God Save Everyone?”; available from http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/01/why-doesnt-god-save-everyone-sam-storms; Internet; accessed 25 January 2011.
3. Sam Storms, “Why Doesn’t God Save Everyone?”; available from http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/01/why-doesnt-god-save-everyone-sam-storms; Internet; accessed 25 January 2011.
4. See http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2010/04/either-youre-in-or-youre-out/.
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