The Incoherency of the Christian Faith or Why Calvinism is Confusing, Yet True

I had a gentleman come by the Credo House the other day. I think he just came to argue. He was one of “them.” You know what I am talking about. You would think that we would get more of these types, but this was actually the first one in the eight month existence of the Credo House. Here was his basic argument: “If it does not make rational sense, we should not believe it.” In his view, we are obligated to understand something before we commit our belief to it. Therefore, this guy rejected some important doctrines of classical Christianity.

Christianity is often confusing. Reality is often confusing. There are certain things that we believe that simply must be, but they don’t “add up.” A good theologian needs to have worked through this. While we should be extremely diligent and committed to a task of understanding truth, a lack of understanding does not necessarily mean that it cannot be true. In other words, coherence is not the final and infallible test of truth.

It is interesting to me to see the charges of “incoherency” that we can often bring against those who oppose our perspective. Calvinist do so with Arminians and Arminians do so with Calvinists. Egalitarians to so with Complementarians and Complementarians do so with Egalitarians. “Your view simply does not account for __________ and my view does. Therefore, my view is right.” Or, “If what you say is true, here is the crazy situation you find yourself in . . .” Formally, these type of arguments are called reductio ad absurdum and they are more often than not very effective in giving logical and emotional credit to your case.

Don’t get me wrong, much of the time this can be a legitimate charge that should give pause to the proponent. So I am not saying that incoherency is a position of value by any means.

However, I think that Christians must realize that there are some things in our world view that are going to be beyond our coherence tolerance.

Let me talk about this word “incoherency” for a moment. Here are some synonyms for what I am talking about: unintelligibility; inconsistency; incomprehensibility; discontinuity.

What I am talking about are those things that we believe which lack some degree of viability due to their confused nature. This confusion may be emotional or intellectual. It may be based on how we feel things should be or how we think things should be. In some sense, these things lack a degree of credibility due to our inability to coherently understand them and relate them to other things we know.

Here are some examples:

1. Calvinistic understanding of predestination: A belief that while God loves everyone, he only chose a few.

2. Arminian belief in libertarian freedom: A belief that an act of our will can be birthed from neutrality.

3. Christian belief in creation ex-nihilo: A belief that God created all that there is from that which does not exist.

4. Christian doctrine of the Trinity: God is one in substance, three in person.

5. Christian belief in the hypostatic union: Christ is fully God and fully man; one person, two complete natures which are neither confused or divided.

6. Christian belief in human freedom and divine foreknowledge: God exhaustively knows the future, yet the future is a result of free choices, including God’s.

7. Christian belief that God is transcendent and imminent: God, in his essence, transcends time and does not experience a succession of moments yet he truly interacts in time.

8. Jesus Christ’s incarnation and fellowship in the Trinity: The Second member of the Trinity, while in eternal transcendent immutable unity in the Godhead, becomes forever incarnate in a time-bound universe in Christ.

9. The atheistic view that there is no ultimate beginning (some atheists): An infinite number of moments cannot be traversed, yet we have somehow traversed an infinite number of moments to get here.

10. Christian belief in God’s universal foreknowledge and love and in the doctrine of hell: Although God is good and loving, he chose to create people who he knew were going to reject him and go to an eternal hell.

Now this is a large and varied list. Many of these I agree with and some I don’t. Some of these represent outright contradictions and analytical absurdities, and some are legitimate mysteries that possess no formal absurdity, but are incoherent from the standpoint of a limited observer. Some are a standard part of Christian orthodoxy and some are positions about which there is legitimate disagreement and alternatives. Obviously, not all are in agreement about which fits into what category. Christians would all agree that #9 presents a logical absurdity. I will leave it to you to decide on the rest for now!

Some people distinguish between a contradiction and a paradox. A paradox is something that may be true but beyond our understanding while a contradiction cannot be true by definition.

Let me focus on #10 for a moment. All branches of historic orthodox Christianity believe that 10 is correct. Whether you Roman Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian, Baptist or Presbyterian, all believe that God created people knowing that they would end up in hell. All orthodox Christians believe that it is biblical to teach these four things:

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Of course, there are solutions, but all of them require changing what seems to be a clear teaching of Scripture as well as sacrificing one’s standing in orthodox Christianity for the sake of coherence, emotional or logical.

Here is what the options look like:

Open Theism:

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God


1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

Pantheism (though I don’t know of any “Christian” pantheism)

1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God


1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future

2. God created all people

3. God loves all people

4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

In the end, I think it is best that we leave all four in place and recognize the paradoxical difficulty with this issue.

If absolute coherence, emotional or logical, is your goal, then you will never find a system that is completely satisfying. Never. Even in science, room must be left for anomalies (things that don’t make sense under the current paradigm of data). More importantly, I think it is vital to recognize that while coherence is indeed something we should diligently strive for, it is not the highest priority in the Christian faith. The highest priority for the Christian is to let rightly interpreted Scripture be our ultimate source for truth. Emotion and reason are not unimportant, it is just that they must be submitted to Scripture. Anyone can twist and manipulate Scripture to make it fit their idea of coherency. I see this done every day. Anyone can come up with a more palatable solution and force the puzzle to create a new picture, but palatability is not the final test of truth. Scripture is.

However, I don’t want it to sound as if incoherency is the highest ideal. I have also seen this “I-believe-because-it-is-absurd” mentality. We should never adopt such an irresponsible stance. While a modernistic ideal of perfect harmony in understanding is not our guide, harmony is more often than not a characteristic of truth. Disharmony and true incoherency are, more often than not, a hallmark of error.

As well, it is important to realize that just because something does not seem to have coherence, this does not make it truly incoherent. Often we are too limited to find coherence, even though it is actually present. In other words, just because something may seem incoherent to us, this does not mean that it is incoherent to God. While the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to God. Some things in Christianity do not seem to have coherence, but this does not mean that they are truly incoherent. (And yes, this does make the title of this article misleading.)

In this, we must realize that there are some things that God has withheld information about for his own reasons. Could God have made everything perfectly understandable and emotionally satisfying? Most certainly. The fact that he has not does not make his truth any less true, it just mean that he, for some reason, from time to time, wants us to believe something even though he does not want us to understand it.

A very particular Scripture comes to mind here:

Deut. 29:29
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

The “secret things” are those things that God has, for whatever reason, intentionally withheld. But, thankfully, the emphasis in this passage is on “the things revealed,” and they belong to us forever.

God may never clear everything up. And he might make it all clear someday. I don’t know. As a Calvinist, one of the seemingly incoherent things that I believe is that God could have elected everyone, but he did not. Why? I will ask him one day. Will he tell me? I don’t know. Either way, I know that he is righteous and he is good. These missing pieces of the puzzle gives me no right to doubt him when he has already proven himself in so many ways. I know that if I dare to judge him by manipulating the truth to make it more palatable, he will prevail (Rom. 3:7).

While there are so many things we can understand, we must recognize that there is true mystery to which we must submit. When we get the temptation to judge God by manipulating the truth, let’s pause and learn to find stability even when things are not as palatable or coherent as we would like them to be.

61 Responses to “The Incoherency of the Christian Faith or Why Calvinism is Confusing, Yet True”

  1. Going to repost this question and expound on it here because it fits with this thread.

    Just a base question. At what point is a “mystery” really a contradiction?

    I could say that I’m typing on a computer in Hastings, MN right now well at the same time I’m riding a roller coaster at Disneyland. When you ask me how this is possible I could just say “it’s a mystery” when really it’s of course a contradiction. A physical object (me) cannot be in two places at the same time. Where is the line between mystery and contradiction and how do we know when we’ve crossed it?

    Hear me out just a second here. When we read the Bible and we put meaning to the words and then we put meaning to the sentences and then we form these eventually into larger and larger blocks to eventually get systematic theology. When we do this we are using our logic and reasoning faculties. When we come to conclusions on a systematic level about something the Bible teaches which creates a logical contradiction should we not look for ways to resolve this contradiction?? It seems to me that if we shouldn’t the whole enterprise of systematic theology and apologetics for that matter is doomed to failure. There really is no need to “reclaim the mind” rather we should check it at the door of the Church.

    Right now I am of the opinion that Calvinism creates logical contradictions which can’t be resolved and nothing in these past articles has presented me with evidence to believe otherwise (other than simply to answer “mystery” to every objection). Now you have stated that Arminianism also has contradictions. While I certainly don’t grant this as being true (I believe it requires explanation, but is not a contradiction) if this were true I think it would only be prudent and proper to search for other solutions to the contradiction.

  2. “Right now I am of the opinion that Calvinism creates logical contradictions which can’t be resolved and nothing in these past articles has presented me with evidence to believe otherwise”

    Michael, what is your opinion on the doctrine of the Trinity? Does it not also create logical contradictions?

  3. Truth Unites... and Divides March 5, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Superb post, Michael!!!

    As a fellow Calvinist, Complementarian, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy Affirmer, I applaud what you’ve written and I thank you for it.

  4. Michael,

    You are very right in that there is a fine line between a formal contradiction and a paradox (mystery) and that this is a subject that people need to think through very carefully. Even in science, the two can be mistaken and create much trouble and faulty assumptions.

    It is always best to attempt to work these things through in syllogisms. First, a sound syllogism needs to be constructed. Then each proposition needs to be evaluated.

    For example, you and I might agree with this:
    1. An infinite number of moments cannot be traversed.
    2. Atheism requires an infinite number of moments to be traversed since it cannot sustain a true beginning.
    Conclusion: Atheism is wrong.

    If only things were that simple. Atheists could dispute both one and two. I don’t think that they would be legitimate disputes, but they would be there nonetheless. Therefore, we could make this sound by adding a preposition of contingency:

    1. If an infinite number of moments cannot be traversed.
    2. If atheism requires an infinite number of moments to be traversed since it cannot sustain a true beginning.
    Conclusion: Then atheism is wrong.

    See the difference. We could both construct different syllogisms with regard to Arminianism and Calvinism. I don’t think that either would contain true paradoxes as most Calvinists and Arminians simply present seeming incoherences that the syllogism does not make absolute.

    However, even in those cases where the option of a true contradiction is possible, such as that presented above for atheism, there would not be a situation that is indisputable because of the simple fact people will dispute it!

    That is why it is important not to throw around ideas of contradiction without having thought it through.

    I, personally, believe I could put together a coherent case for Arminianism that does not have any contradictions, only mysteries. Same for Calvinism. However, as I said above, mystery is not a aspired ideal, but often a necessary conclusion. The question then become not “Which mystery is the least mysterious,” but “Which represents the Biblical witness with more fidelity.”

    Hope that helps.

  5. Joel,

    The doctrine of the Trinity would be a contradiction if it expressed things this way:

    We believe in one God who eternally exists as three Gods


    We believe that God is one person and three persons.

    To violate the law of non-contradiction, we would have to say something equivalent to A does not equal not-A at the same time and the same relationship.

    When we talk about the doctrine of the Trinity, we are talking about nature vs. person not nature vs. nature or person vs. person. Unless one could prove that nature = person then it does not qualify for a contradiction. However, this would not be easy since adherence to the doctrine of the Trinity have been very very careful throughout all of history to distinguish between the two precisely to avoid any charge of contradiction. Most people who think that the doctrine of the Trinity presents a contradiction simply have not studied the issue.

    Sadly, I have heard many Christians say that even though the doctrine of the Trinity presents a contradiction, they are willing to accept it since the Bible teaches it. In other word, God can contradict himself and it still be true. This is a truly frightening proposition as if would introduce us to the reality that God can go back on his promises and not go back on his promises at the same time and the same relationship. Ouch!

    Thankfully, we don’t entertain such.

  6. Along these lines: At the very least, when we see an apparent difficulty, it should make us reexamine things very carefully. Think twice.

    We can’t expect to resolve every “tension” that we find. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be too quick to swallow “tension”. Some “tension” is blatant contradiction, like “square circle”. Other times the apparent contradiction comes from hidden assumption, flawed definitions, or limited perspectives. The hard part is figuring out which is which—keeping ourselves humbly open to the possibility, even if we can’t see it.

    Interestingly enough, ol’ Frankie Turk was just discussing something similar, with a comparison to conservation of energy in quantum physics.

  7. When is someone going to exegete Ephesians 1:5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will?

    Is there mystery here from our perspective?

    If you say that is no mystery from our perspective, how do we understand what “according to the purpose of his will” means?

  8. While I appreciate your thoughts on this matter, nothing has made a strong enough case to change my mind.

    Calvinist’s have to redefine free will, then explain away scriptures like John 3:16 or 1 Timothy 2:4. Because if you don’t then you attribute God a double mind: I want to save everyone, but even though I *can* I simply choose not too.

    That’s a contradiction, there’s simply no way around it. It’s the core logical fallacy of Calvinism, and the logical conclusion if you follow it out thoughtfully.

    This is where the issue of Romans 9:14 comes into play, Calvinists will say that Pharaoh was reprobate in that God created him for hell. But that disregards the entire story of Moses and Pharaoh, which in the story God give him chance after chance to submit, and finally *allows* Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened.

    I walked away from the reformed church for a couple of reasons:

    1. No could tell if I was one of the elect or not.
    2. Election becomes a club of sorts, we are special because we are chosen.
    3. Calvinists are constantly having to remind themselves to evangelize (I know this personally because I listened to the sermons).

    If Calvinism is true, then why in the world do they have to go to such great lengths to prove it?, I can tell you God loves everyone. That he desires all men to be saved, that we can decide to reject the gift of salvation. I don’t have to do a tortured reading of the text to figure that out, this doesn’t make me an Arminian either. I’m not sure what I am, but I looked at Calvinism and it just didn’t work, and the scriptures given don’t make an open and shut case.

    I’m not Theologically mature enough to follow all the points given here (yet), and I agree there are mystery’s, the scripture you quote is a great one and my reading is that the things he gave us (scripture) are for us to use, so why would God over complicate it?? (I know I’m in a bad spot on this point, but I had to say it :)


  9. Calvinist’s have to redefine free will, then explain away scriptures like John 3:16 or 1 Timothy 2:4. Because if you don’t then you attribute God a double mind: I want to save everyone, but even though I *can* I simply choose not too.

    That’s a contradiction, there’s simply no way around it.

    How is it contradictory to say, “I have a desire to do X, but I choose not to for another reason that overrides that desire”?

    You used the word “simply”, which isn’t what Calvinists say.

  10. I am of the opinion that there are no paradox mysteries and no real contradictions in the Bible or with God. Humans are the ones that make up such mysteries and contradictions. Like that of God creating ex nihilo and a three in one God. Such a God can only exist in one’s mind and not in reality.

    Regarding creation, atheist–at least smart ones like Hawkins, do not believe in infinite regress.

  11. Doesn’t your point play into Justice as well?, if Pharaoh’s fate was already decided. Then why even offer him a chance?. Either it was truly Pharaoh’s choice that decided his fate, or this is all just a cosmic puppet show.

    You can’t have it both ways, and say on the one hand that he *really* wants everyone to be saved and then on the other offers chances which are not really chances.

    That’s my issue with Sproul, he wants it both ways, I (at least at this point in my walk) can’t abide that. Because if that’s true then it makes God capricious, and I just don’t find that in scripture.

    I’m open to changing my opinion, but I’ve not found any argument yet that has swayed me. When I first heard this preached in the reformed church it really made me stumble, and I could never get a good answer to it. Up until that point I had never heard it discussed as a baptist, imagine my shock!! :)

    And again I have to thank Michael for being one of the few willing to at least discuss these issues peacefully and not just toss a bomb at the other side (which ever side that happens to be). I’m learning from this so much, it’s better than Sunday morning bible study (gotta go run and hide now!!!)


  12. Paul,

    Re: Justice & Pharaoh

    So, your objection is something like, “If God hardened Pharaoh the way you Calvinists suggest, then why does God still find fault? If Pharaoh couldn’t resist his will?”


  13. Hahahaha, yeah that’s the ticket!!!

    I think that sums it up better than I put it (writing that one down for use later)..


    Like I said, I’m open to idea that I’m totally wrong on this point (it wouldn’t be the first time!), but so far I can’t make the Calvinists position fit. And outside of the reformed church probably %85 of the people I talk to have no idea what it is and don’t care, so it’s a minor issue. But an interesting one nonetheless :)


  14. Jugulum,

    That is precisely why so many of us are trying to find ways that these Scriptures can be reconciled so that they make some kind of sense because the “plain meaning” of that verse makes utter nonsense out of so many other verses and the “plain meaning” of the other verses make utter nonsense out of this verse!

    And we that aren’t Calvinists think that you folks that are have taken the “plain meaning” of this verse and similar ones to be the standard that all other verses have to be bent and for lack of a better word, manipulated badly to make them fit this verse. That is honestly the way it appears to us. And I suspect you think the exact same thing about us!!

    Now, please don’t think that I mean by that I think any of you are guilty of deliberately manipulating Scripture. That is not what I am trying to say at all. I know you all are trying to make sense out of all of this too just as much as we are. It is just that we are looking at in two different ways–from the flip side of a coin as it were.

  15. cheryl,

    I sympathize with your response. I think I get where you’re coming from–I don’t remotely think it’s a worthless, dismissible line of thought.

    We’re talking about basic method here, not arguing the meaning of particular verses. So I’m going to say something general.

    I think there are some graspable, not-difficult answers for some of the difficulties people see in Calvinism. Put another way: If we actually go to some of the verses that you think Calvinists twist badly, it turns out that some of that doesn’t really come from the verses themselves. Or, there might be some remaining difficulty, but not impossible to swallow. That’s what I see when we go to those passages, and that’s why I remain a Calvinist.

    But I agree with the line of thinking you’re using–the standard about twisting passages.

    I also want to draw something out about the Romans 9 verse. There’s something extra about this passage, beyond the general kind of “compare the plain sense of different passages” that you had in mind when you said:

    And we that aren’t Calvinists think that you folks that are have taken the “plain meaning” of this verse and similar ones to be the standard that all other verses have to be bent and for lack of a better word, manipulated badly to make them fit this verse.

    In Rom 9:19-22, there’s something more than “We think the plain meaning teaches Calvinism.” We see such power in this passage precisely because Paul seems to be anticipating the objections that you raise against Calvinistic theology. He seems to realize that you’re going to think, “This idea contradicts what the Bible teaches us about the way God works! It’s inconsistent!”

    If Paul does that, then we should be more likely than usual to accept a difficult-to-understand idea!

  16. Jugulum,

    I understand what you are saying even about the power you spoke of in the Romans 9 verses.

    Then I read other Scriptures like the one where Jesus was weeping over Jerusalem because they refused Him, the one where Paul pleads with people to be reconciled to God like God was pleading through Him, and the Old Testament ones where God says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and tells them to turn to Him and live rather then die and I see a completely different picture of God and what He wants for people and His heart for them. One that seems to totally contradict the one in Romans 9. And those pleadings and calls seem so general that I can in no way see that He is only speaking to the elect there.

    And I am left in a quandry thinking there must be some way to reconcile this and it doesn’t seem to me that the Calvinist way, or at least the way most Calvinists come across, has found a way that successfully does it at all in my mind.

  17. To clarify something: I wasn’t saying, “You should believe Calvinism because of this passage.” I do think it’s a powerful passage, but that wasn’t the point.

    The point was that the question isn’t simply, “How plain is each passage?”, or “How plainly does this passage seem to teach X?” It’s not just comparing plainness of teaching, or asking “Which position lets me take more passages in a straightforward way?”

    Depending on what the passage says, it might demand letting it “override” the seemingly-straightforward interpretation of other passages.

    If a seemingly-Calvinist passage actually said, “I know you’ll have a hard time understanding how this fits together with human responsibility, real choices, and God’s love,” then you wouldn’t want to dismiss Calvinism based on your inability to understand how it fits together with human responsibility, real choices, and God’s love!

  18. Cheryl,

    Then I read other Scriptures like the one where Jesus was weeping over Jerusalem because they refused Him

    Not to take the thread down the path of hashing out these verses… But I just want to check–do you mean Matt 23:37?

    If so, there’s something I’d like to point out to you about that passage… Maybe in email?

  19. To be honest CMP, at the end of the day your writings make Open Theism or Hyper Calvinism look more and more likely all the time…..I know this isn’t your intent, but they certainly provide more coherent explanations for the reason why things are the way they are then Calvinism or (as you argue) Arminianism. I see no reason to not resolve conflicting ideas when they are resolvable. Why not just say how God can be omniscient and still not know the future is a “mystery” resulting from our inability to completely understand time and the nature of the future?

    I guess at the end of the day I’m really weary of the word “mystery”. It’s almost as bad a fideism to me. To say that man freely chooses the actions that God has determined and ordained for Him to do is just a outright contradiction. The choice is illusory and not real.

  20. Cheryl,

    Don’t all people who believe in God’s forknowledge have a hard time understanding how God can truly relate, act surprised, weep, rejoice, and even greive his own decisions when he has always been eternally aware of what would happen? Doesn’t this produce one of the above stated mysteries of two truths that much exist together as fully true yet beyond our ability to understand.

    I could let the tension remain and offer many POSSIBLE explanations or I could attempt to reconcile them and become an open theist or something else.

    In this case, I would say that to do justice to both propositions (God knew yet he still reacts) we must let the tension remain.

    I imagine you do the same thing here?

  21. Michael T,

    For it to be an outright contradiction, you have to describe what it means for a choice to be “free”. You have to know that “free choice” doesn’t mean “a choice made according to what I desire”.

    And your confidence that it’s a contradiction will be exactly as strong as your confidence in your assumptions or philosophical arguments about your definition of “free”.

    That’s why I consider the “that makes us robots”-style arguments to be the least important factor in figuring these things out. It’s one thing to object to something because it seems to require twisting other Scriptures, like Cheryl was doing. It’s another to insist on holding to the understanding of freedom that you bring to the table with you when you approach Scripture.

    We have to be careful that we don’t refuse to let Scripture teach us.

  22. Michael,

    I suppose that you could become an open theist. I think that there is a lot of modernism in all of us that pushes us in the direction to reconcile things at the expence of the integrity of the individual propositions.

    I am curious about a few of things:

    1. Do you believe that God created everything out of nothing? How do you explain this to someone if you do?
    2. What do you think when God says the “secret things belong to him.” Do you know what these secret things are?
    3. When Paul says in Rom 11:33 that God’s ways are “unfathomable” (the Greek here means, “beyond searching or finding out”). What does that mean? Do you allow for any of this to be within that area?

    I am certianly not saying that if you accept that there is mystery in the Christian faith that you will become a Calvinist…there is certianly mystery in both Calvinism and Arminianism. (And Open Theism and Hyper-Calvinism causes many more problems than it solves…hense, there are not many of them).

    I am just saying that I sense with you a more fundamental issue. Ultimately, do you believe that we must submit to the testimony of Scripture (rightly interpreted) even if it causes some “unsearchable” necessities?

  23. CMP,

    It is one thing to know what will happen and to grieve it, it is another thing to somehow cause it to happen and then grieve it. Romans 9 speaks of God causing something to happen as I understand it. To cause something to happen and then to plead with people to do the opposite of what you have caused seems to me to be the height of contradiction. Seems to me that goes way beyond tension!

    And maybe you don’t read Romans 9 that way, but it is certainly the way it comes across to me. And the fact remains that folks like John Piper and several of the Calvinists we have been interacting with here understand the Scriptures to teach that God definitely actively causes these things to happen.


    That is the verse I was speaking of and the parallel verse in Luke.

    I’m sorry, but I usually don’t give my e-mail address out. It is a personal “safety” decision that I have held to for years. I assure you that it is nothing personal at all.

  24. Cheryl,

    I can’t argue or defend a Calvinism that you have set in your mind. I wrote a post that attempts to correct misunderstandings a couple of days ago. Not sure if you read it.

    You said:

    “it is another thing to somehow cause it to happen and then grieve it.”

    In that post I distinguished between God’s meticulous sovereignty and providential sovereignty. What you are assuming is meticulous sovereignty which most Calvinists do not hold to.

    God does not cause anyone to sin. God does not cause anyone to reject him. Any form of Calvinism which suggest such is heretical (but I bet you cannot find one Evangelical or mainstream Calvinist—or historic save two that I know of who would say that God causes sin or rejection of him).

    I believe that God, even though he knows what is going to happen greives its occurance. I believe that even though Christ was sent to be rejected and die, Christ grieved it. I believe that even though God knows exactly who reject him, when they do, he is saddened.

    And I believe that God desires people to be saved even though he, for some reason did not elect them. There is really not anything different here. Certianly nothing to say that the latter is a formal contradiction what the former is not. People reject him precisely because he allows them to. But it is not his fault in any theological system that is orthodox, especially Calvinism and Arminianism.

    I hope that helps. You should read my previous post about misconceptions about Calvinism.

  25. “You have to know that “free choice” doesn’t mean “a choice made according to what I desire”.”

    This is irrelevant as the desires you have were ordained by God as well. So even if it were true that we only choose according to our greatest desire at the moment (which I don’t concede) the choice would still be determined in the sense that the nature of our desires was determined. Divine determinism (to be nice and not use a 8 letter “f word” here) just replaces Newtonian immaterial cause and effect with a Divine Cause. It is still just cause and effect and thus your desires, nature, etc. have all been predetermined by God as well. Speaking of desires just moves up the causal chain a step.

    On another note can anyone point me to a work by a reputable Christian philosopher in the last 50 years which defends the compatabilist view of free will well?? It seems that the brilliant minds of Christian philosophy (William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, etc.) currently are rather dismissive of the idea and it is mostly theologians who argue for this understanding of free will. Most those who are modern compatabilists in the philosophical arena it seems are atheistic in nature.

    By the way the question above isn’t intended as a trick question. I’m just interested in seeing a good analytic presentation of why it isn’t a contradiction.

  26. CMP:

    “People reject him precisely because he allows them to.”

    Hmm. Isn’t that admission in itself a contradiction of five point Calvinism?

    In other words, how can our election, if it is based upon the unconditional election of five point Calvinism, can then be conditional upon our human acceptance or rejection? It seems to me, given God’s sovereignty, that would be impossible, at least under the Calvinist point of view.

  27. mbaker,

    No, because, according to Calvinism, if anyone reject God, it is completely them, not God at all. If anyone accepts God, it is because God intervened.

    I don’t think you understand Calvinism or you are drawing conclusions that would be completely foreign to a proper understanding of Calvinism. This does not mean, again, that a proper understanding of Calvinism will alleviate all difficulties (as I have been saying so much), but at least the criticism will be properly aimed.

  28. “No, because, according to Calvinism, if anyone reject God, it is completely them, not God at all. If anyone accepts God, it is because God intervened.”

    Why is there will and nature such that they will not choose God unless God intervenes? I don’t see how the answer to this questions is not “God” by ordaining the fall which makes the whole thing circular.

    Or to frame it differently. Did Adam and Eve have libertarian free will when they chose to eat the apple?

  29. CMP;

    Just so you know, it is not meant as criticism, but rather a legitimate question, which I think like others here, deserves a more detailed answer. Where do you realistically draw the line? Surely you must have one, as a Calvinist, other than a ‘mystery’.

  30. Michael, I did not understand that last post.

    However, I would like you to take a look at 22 if you have time.

  31. Answering your questions

    1. Do you believe that God created everything out of nothing? How do you explain this to someone if you do?

    William Lane Craig actually gets asked this in debates all the time. He argues, being an analytic philosopher, does exactly what I would do – lay out numerous philosophical arguments and proofs which show the necessity of a uncreated creator.

    2. What do you think when God says the “secret things belong to him.” Do you know what these secret things are?

    We aren’t talking about secret things. We are talking about revealed things and how they fit together in a logically coherent manner. There are certainly things about God which are unknown and as stated in question 3 unfathomable. Yet these are not what is at issue. What is at issue ultimately is whether or not humans can be justly held responsible for their actions. I think both most moderate Calvinists (though not John Piper) and Arminians would agree that there has to be free choice in order for God to justly hold humans responsible. We are disagreeing about what constitutes free choice and if free choice is compatible with divine determinism. This is ultimately not a theological or biblical question. It is a philosophical question with theological implications. This is why I asked for any good philosophical treatments of the issue you are aware of.

    3. When Paul says in Rom 11:33 that God’s ways are “unfathomable” (the Greek here means, “beyond searching or finding out”). What does that mean? Do you allow for any of this to be within that area?

    See #2. I will give an example of something I think to be in this area though. God reveals who He is in the Bible, never tells us why He is that way. God says He is love. I could never begin to tell you why He is love. Is there some rule that says He couldn’t be a sadist – I don’t know.

  32. Michael, stuck on number one:

    Do you think that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is something that is revealed and comprehendable or revealed and beyond our comprehension?

    If it is comprehendable, can you take a quick stab at explaining it?

  33. “Do you think that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is something that is revealed and comprehendable or revealed and beyond our comprehension?”

    I’m kinda confused by the question. Do you mean like the exact process or something? To me the concept of creatio ex nihilo is fully comprehendable in the sense that it is philosophically necessary. Combine the fact that the universe had a beginning with the philosophical fact that a infinitely long chain of causal events is impossible and one must arrive at the conclusion that all that is is the result of an uncaused being. An unmoved mover as Aristotle so elegantly put it.

    Also I think that creatio ex nihilo is a bit of a misnomer because it (if understood literally) implies a lack of causation which isn’t the case. God preexisted the universe as the cause and created it out of his own power. Thus to say something came from nothing is incorrect. The universe came from God.

    Here’s just a random thought. In our universe matter and energy are interchangeable. It’s one of the implication of relativistic physics and the equation E=MC^2. So a being of infinite power (by which I mean resources) and intelligence would be able to create the universe out of that power.

  34. Michael T: If you should happen to run across any reputable Christian compatibilists, do pass the info along. I am considering doing something along these lines for a dissertation one day. I, too, find it regrettable that all the ‘greats’ seem to be committed incompatibilists.

  35. Michael,

    What I mean is can you explain the process of “how” God created everything from nothing or is it unintelligable from the standpoint of finite beings. I am not at all speaking of its necessity.

    In other words Mormons reject creation ex nihilo believing that it is a contradiction to say that God created everything from nothing.

    Therefore, can you explain the process or is the process something of a mystery to us?

  36. The process is a mystery in the sense that it is unrevealed. Like I said I can theorize which is what I did above (perhaps you relativistic physics is even rustier then mine), but I can’t know with certainty because God didn’t reveal it. I don’t see how this relates though. We are talking about things He has revealed and whether or not one possible way of interpreting those things revealed causes a philosophical contradiction. There’s a difference between saying something that is unrevealed is a mystery (i.e. the 23 flavors that make up the Dr. Pepper I am drinking) and saying that two things which philosophically contradict are a mystery.

  37. CMP:

    I think what a lot of us are saying is how can God, in the unconditional election view which you present, present humans with a test He knew they would fail in the first place. and still be a loving God? Were Adam and Eve, His first personal creation, doomed from the beginning as being some freak Frankenstein creation example?

  38. >1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future
    >2. God created all people
    >3. God loves all people
    >4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

    This, together with the list of four positions that each reject one of these, was 99% of an excellent argument against Christianity. I would be proud to put together an argument so good. The second last line of this argument is “therefore Christianity doesn’t make sense.” All you left off was the final line, “therefore we shouldn’t accept Christianity.”

    This is a perfect example of how atheists aren’t necessarily smarter or better at using reason than Christians are. The real difference is that we allow our reason to influence our beliefs. We take the knowledge that we both have, and we do something with it.

    Obviously, I disagree with your 9, but at least atheists will play by the rules of logic in evaluating it. If atheism makes no sense of some fact, and if theism had a coherent explanation for it, this is a strong reason to accept theism. How could we conclude otherwise and still be considered in any sense sane?

  39. Michael,

    My point is rather humble. God has revealed some truths that are unintelligible from a human standpoint, but are true nonetheless. That is all Calvinists are saying with regard to unconditional election. We don’t understand how it all works (although, I would argue that is is much more intelligible than creation ex nihilo or the incarnation—which, in my estimation are the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith), but this does not necessarily take away from their truthfulness. If we believe the Scriptures to be true and we believe that this is what they teach, then this doctrine is in good company. A revealed truth that we don’t really understand the mechanics.

    I am not saying that you have to agree with this doctrine, but, at the very least, you people don’t need to assume that Calvinists are in left field for believing it.

    In the end, I think the Scriptures are true that God has unconditionally elected only some to salvation. The others, he allows to follow their own path without intervention. The incoherency only comes when we say that God loves those whom he has not chosen. It is not a contradiction at all for there is simply no formal absurdity. We just don’t have all the information. If God has chosen to withhold this information from us, then it is one of those mysteries that God says he says he has preserved for his own counsel.

    I don’t think we can hold God’s feet to the fire and say, “Unless I understand it or unless it makes sense, I will not believe.”

    That is the point of this post (among other things!)

  40. “I don’t think we can hold God’s feet to the fire and say, “Unless I understand it or unless it makes sense, I will not believe.”

    I’m not holding God’s feet to the fire here – I’m holding your’s lol. Just kidding. It would appear we are at an impasse. Like I said earlier there appear to be a significant number of Christian philosopher’s including the greatest minds alive who do consider this issue to create a formal philosophical contradiction. Now maybe their reasoning and my reasoning is wrong, but the reasons for being wrong so far seems to me to equate to saying “the Bible says it, I believe it….it’s a mystery”.

  41. Michael,

    Maybe we are seriously misunderstanding each other here. Not that I think that you will be persuaded of my position, but you seem to suggest in your last post that I am saying that contradictions are somehow ok. That is the furthest thing from my thoughts. I certianly don’t think creation ex nihilo is a formal contradiction. I don’t hold to anything I believe is a contradiction. But there is a world of difference between an established contradiction and a mystery.

    The mechanics of creation ex nihilo is a truth that is also a mystery NOT a contradiction.

    My point here is that there are sometimes mysteries in the Christian faith that are true and are seemingly incoherent from our perspective. Creation ex nihilo is one of them. There is not a philosopher in the world that can explain how it is possible, but it is.

    I am paralleling this with the seeming difficulties with God’s election and human responsibility. There is no contradiction, but, if true, it is a mystery.

    Therefore, those who argue against it by saying crying foul due to the “punting” to mystery when Calvinist attempt to explain it must understand that they do the same thing in other areas. That is why I listed those in the original post.

    Again, my intentions here are rather humble. Not really a trap as I sense you feel I am leading you into. In other words, I am not trying to win an arguement, but to help you understand what Calvinists are saying accurately, even if, in the end, you do not agree.


  42. CMP,
    Perhaps you misunderstand me. I was not referring to election with my last statement because we never get to that point. I was referring to divine determinism being compatible with free will.

    On the issue of election though, just to clear something up. Do you believe that a being which has it’s action totally and completely determined for it (in the robot sense of determined) can be held responsible for it’s actions? (now I know you may not believe we are determined in this manner – I’m speaking hypothetically here to try to understand your view on responsibility)

    And I don’t think you are saying contradictions are OK. I feel though that you are dodging a formal contradiction by calling it a mystery. Now I know full well that you don’t believe this to be the case and if you were convinced it was a formal contradiction you would not believe it. I’m just giving my perspective on what you are saying. I am also not saying that there aren’t mysteries and things we don’t know. Even the greatest physicist can’t explain how gravity works in the physical world, much less something of a spiritual nature. However, I am saying that this isn’t a mystery because we have enough information to go off of and we must interpret that information in a way which doesn’t create a contradiction which I believe Calvinism creates.

  43. I do not think that Arminianism has significant mystery in the basics. It seems coherent and understandable. Sure, there may be deeper things that we are yet to grasp. I guess the most difficult thing for us to grasp is how does God know our choices beforehand given that they are ours and not determined. This is probably what pushes some toward Open Theism.

    Your mystery 2. “Arminian belief in libertarian freedom: A belief that an act of our will can be birthed from neutrality” is not a mystery. We have freedom the way God does, and our choices are not neutral. This comment and your recent post about choosing contrary to our nature comes about because you assume the truth of Calvinism in considering Arminianism. We have freedom of choice. We can make a range of decisions, and those choices are ours. To assume we can’t because Calvinism is true, then state it is incoherent is adding a Calvinist premise that we do not think is valid.

    Solving your paradox

    1. God has exhaustive knowledge of the future
    2. God created all people
    3. God loves all people
    4. Many people are going to end up in an eternal place of torment for rejecting God

    While Arminianism agrees that God creates people knowing they will go to hell, based on their own decision to reject God, and thus the implied “why does God not create only people he knows will follow him.” Though this is a legitimate query for Calvinism because God unconditionally elects, it is not so clear cut with Arminianism because it is conditional. And it is by no means obvious (assuming Arminianism) that God can logically create only people who will follow him in a fallen world. It may be the case that choice means that some will choose not whomever God creates. If this is the case then why should God not create at all, just because some choose evil. We are not to say God cannot create agents to bring him pleasure just because some don’t want part of it.

  44. CMP,

    While I certainly struggle with the free will/determinism aspects of all of this, for me there is an even deeper issue at stake here where it seems to me that even the mildest forms of Calvinism cause a series contradiction.

    I explained this somewhat to somebody on one of the other recent threads, but here goes again.

    My earliest memories of being taught about God were wrapped up in the phrase, “God IS love” and “God so loved the world.” The very most basic attribute of God’s being IS love–that was taught as the very essence, if you will of His being. He was, of course holy, righteous, etc, etc, too. But because at the center of His being He is love, that is the overwhelming motivating force of all that He does. That didn’t mean that sin, which is a direct affront to His holiness and righteousness, wasn’t punished–people went to hell but they went there as the result of refusing His love as offered to them in salvation in Jesus.

    Therefore, the idea that God deliberately passes over any without giving them any opportunity for salvation is indeed a contradiction right from the start and the idea that Jesus didn’t even die for the sins of the non elect is a huge contradiction. If in the most crucial of all things in life–eternal salvation–He doesn’t show love to people by offering them salvation when there is indeed a way for people to be saved from sin is a huge contradiction to the most basic understanding of who God is.

    Does that help you to understand why this is such a huge struggle/problem for me and for many others that have this same understanding of God? It contradicts and indeed changes the very nature of God as we have known it. And that is the way I have known it since I was probably 3-4 years old and I am now a senior.

  45. Michael,

    I appreciate that you are interacting with the comments and posting thoughtful blog posts to respond to issues that some of us are raising. Thanks for taking the time to engage these responses.

    I think that when you look at any explanatory framework, be it Calvinism/Arminianism, Trinitarianism, Geo/heliocentrism, etc, the central question is not “does it require mysteries to prop it up?”, and to that extent we agree. But your position seems to be that mysteries are infinitely tolerable, which also can’t be right (and probably not what you actually think). An appropriate “figure of merit” is the ratio of the number things that a framework explains to the ratio of mysteries it invokes. (I am thinking of this ratio conceptually, not advocating a rigorous mathematical formula here!) In the case of the trinity, this ratio is high — the trinity makes sense of the presentation of God that we see throughout Scripture, and therefore, that it contains a paradox at its center is tolerable. Flat earthism would be an example of a framework with too low a ratio — it explains little while invoking many dubious assumptions to prop itself up.

    Without criticizing or critiquing Calvinism directly, I’d just like to make it clear that my objection to Calvinism is not that it entails mysteries, but that the ratio of things explained by it to things it leaves mysterious is too low.

  46. Lisa Robinson March 6, 2010 at 7:10 am


    Too much school work right before our break has kept me out of this conversation. However, I have gotten glimpses of responses and the question you pose is indeed a tough one. I’m not sure how often you are on Theologica, but I posted a question with respect to God’s love yesterday to my fellow Calvinists. I thought you would be interested in observing the responses.

    See, even we Calvinists can challenge our own theology ;)

  47. Thanks Lisa.

    I will go and read it. I do check over there often but not since you posted that one.

  48. I read the thread on Theoligica that Lisa started.

    I have noticed something very interesting about the Calvinist understanding of “God is love” in relationship to men. One person there said God loves everyone but loves them in different ways. One person said God doesn’t love the non elect at all but only hates them.

    In other threads discussing Calvinism on this site in the last days, one person said “God is love” only defines God’s relationship to the elect. Still another person said that love is only one aspect of God’s attributes and that He has to demonstrate (may not be the right word used here) them all equally.

    It seems to me that Calvinists tend to have totally different understandings of this concept even among themselves.

    For me, the bottom line question is this: When God defines Himself as “Love” and then refuses to offer love at all to a person in the most important area of that person’s life and well being–eternity–how can that be love??

  49. Michael,

    Who came up with ex nihilo and why do you hold to it?

    Creating ex nihilo can only be accomplished in one’s head since nothing from nothing will always equal nothing. Does it not make more sense that matter (which cannot be destroyed) always existed and God used it to create?

    1 Timothy 6:16 (New International Version)
    16who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

    This unapproachable light is perhaps the energy God used. That God lived somewhere before He created the heaven and the earth is clear from the fact that He is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps. 90:2). If He had no beginning and the Heaven and the Earth did have, as stated in Gen. 1:1, then God lived somewhere else before they we created. What he did or what form God had before creation is not revealed so we do not need to concern ourselves about that secret of God, according to Dt. 29:29.

  50. I a world where even science produces mysteries should we be surprised that God and His ways are beyond our understanding (Romans 11:33). If light can be particles and waves at the time might there not be things about God such as He is three in one at the same or that He can be sovereign and choose and still be loving that would blow the human mind. This does not say what side we should fall on the controversial issues involved but it does for me help put it in perspective. I would have a hard time believing in a God I could fully understand. I would be afraid He was my own invention.

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