Blog

How Calvinists Should NOT Respond to Newtown

One of my first girlfriends died when she was twenty-one. She was gunned down on her neighborhood street while in her car. The killer was never caught. There was never any motive discovered. She was just found dead, on the side of the road, with seven bullet holes in her chest. I attended her funeral, where the pastor gave the dreaded sermon. How can one respond to such a tragedy? The three worst funerals I have ever conducted were those of a stillborn baby (the memory of the casket will never leave me), a father who died in a house fire in the middle of the night as he tried to rescue his son, and my sister, who committed suicide on January 4, 2004. I know what the pastor was going through when he attempted to find words. He wanted to defend God. The primary question was evident: “How could God have allowed this to happen?” So he believed he had to provide some sort of answer. Although I don’t remember much of what he said, there was one phrase that he repeated with great resolve: “This was not God’s will.” Over and over he said, “This was not God’s will.” This was before I even knew the words “Calvinist” or “sovereignty.” All I knew as I left that place was that I was less comforted and more fearful than when I came. His defense of God made God, in my eyes, a cheerleader in heaven whose willful hand is present when good things happen, but strangely absent when evil comes our way.

For me, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is not some far-off academic discipline, revived in my mind by arguments – black ink on paper – in some book I read long ago. It is much more endearing. So much so that I often wonder if I grip it so tightly that it may cause me to be unbalanced.

Never is the sovereignty of God so close as when tragedy enters my life. Because of the pain that follows these tragedies, I often find myself on my knees praying that God is sovereign. “Lord, please don’t let this be some random act in which your hand was not intimately involved. Please don’t be playing a game of chess with evil. Let things be more meaningful. And don’t – please don’t – be nothing more than a cheerleader in Heaven who lowers your pom-poms when pain and suffering strike their dreaded blows. Let your hand be behind it lest I die. Let your shaping hand guide all things.”

Having said that, let me give three points of advice to my fellow Calvinists about handling the tragedy in Newtown.

1. Don’t make this an us (Calvinist) vs. them (Arminian) issue

The issue of God’s sovereignty is not exclusively a Calvinist position. All Christians – Calvinist, Arminian, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and the like – believe that God is sovereign. As well, everything I said in my second paragraph (including the prayer) could also be said by an Arminian. Arminians believe God is sovereign. While we may frame things a bit differently, the best Arminians I know don’t think God is a cheerleader, nor do any (but Open Theists) believe he is a chess player. They believe that God is in control and could have prevented the happenings in Newtown. Like us, they don’t know why he did not prevent it. All of us believe that God will bring good out of this tragedy.

When we make it an us vs. them thing, we unwittingly push people to defend extremes that don’t represent the best of their theology. In these battles, unnecessary division takes place between brothers of the same faith as our theology begins to lisp. Don’t make the Arminian theology lisp simply because you want to turn this into an opportunity for theological politics to find a canvas. Arminians, this goes for you too.

2. Don’t say that this was God’s will

“It was God’s will that this evil occur. He brought it about for his glory!” Simply put, there are way too many qualifiers that we have to add to such statements. In times of emotional hurt and pain, while it may be true that it was God’s “will” for something to happen, it is not God’s “will” for you to pronounce such right now. You see, most of us (Calvinists) know how we distinguish between God’s will of decree and will of desire. We know that there is the will of the heart of God and the will of the hand of God. God’s heart did not want these children to be murdered, and he mourns over the death of those lost. Yes, he decreed it to take place before the foundations of the world, but his heart is not always in concert with his decrees. God is never the agent of sin or evil, but he does make extensive use of it in a fallen world. It is all he has to work with. But when we speak theologically in a time of tender tragedy, while we may think we are being theologically astute, we are not (how can I put this?) using our heads. Wisdom is sometimes betrayed by knowledge. When we say “It was God’s will for these children to die,” to a broken world with undried tears, all you are saying is that killing children represents the heart of God. So “will” may not be the best word to use right now.

On the converse, saying it was not God’s will for this to happen is just as negative, as it presents to people, at least in their minds, an impotent God who does not have the power to stop such a tragedy. Remember, we believe it was God’s will and it was not God’s will at the same time, but  in different relationships to the event. When the time is right, we can publish such theology. But the time is not right. Let’s keep from saying it was God’s will without qualification. It smacks of arrogance and misrepresents the heart of God.

3. Don’t be too quick to respond theologically

So much of the Christian life is a mystery. Mystery’s bed-fellow is silence. There will definitely be a ripening when theological answers are necessary, but our sad countenances will be theological enough for most people. The tears on our own cheeks along with our silence is often the best we have to give in times like this. People need a shoulder to cry on, but it is a much more inviting shoulder when we too are broken before God in the mystery of his sovereignty. Let people be mad at God for a bit. God prefers this to indifference. We are all in a wrestling match with God that is without words. Let’s all wrestle together with the God we love during this terrible time.

66 Responses to “How Calvinists Should NOT Respond to Newtown”

  1. Hmmm. This sounds like an admission that Calvinism is an embarrassment. Maybe it should be a warning sign if you can’t “respond theologically” in the time when people so much need theology.

    God has two wills, that of decree and that of desire? Sounds hard to justify that one exegetically. In fact, I would have thought Psalm 115:3, oft quoted by Calvinists, would argue against it: “God does (decrees?) whatever he desires”.

  2. How not to respond to Calvinism: see comment number 1.

    :-)

  3. It’s good that we don’t understand everything. To God there is no time. I mean He is not restricted to living in time like we are. He invented it for us. We just live in it. God knows that life extends beyond our frame of reference. He is way more concerned about eternity than the here and now. It is amazing to me that God has people die here on earth and it is terrible to us, yet He knows that that is not all there is. So, is God not bothered by death? Should we not be so bothered by it? Should we think more like God? Again, a little mystery requires humbleness on our part. And that is a good thing.

  4. Hey John, read point #1 above.

  5. Amen John.

  6. Oops. Looks like I was reading Mike’s mind.

  7. No it wasn’t God’s will. Sin is not his will. Death is not his will. Evil is not his will. There is nothing that needs to be qualified about this. There the definition of sin is that it is something that is done in opposition to God’s will.

  8. Bror,

    As far as the way I know you are using the word “will” I agree.

  9. @Adam Parker “Hey John, read point #1 above.”

    Except, I’m not sure I’m convinced the Arminians are embarrassed to respond with their theology, so…. Hmm. Is #1 true?

    • No one should be embarrasses. Each side has their hard to swallow issues, but not need to become polemic and say that either side should be embarrassed. If nothing else it seriously departs from the spirit of this post.

  10. The Book of Job is good place to read right now!

  11. I think the title of this blog post should see #1.

    (btw- I eagerly await to see the follow-up post to this one titled “How Arminians should NOT respond to Newton”. Maybe you could get friend of the Credo House Paul Copan to write it)

  12. I was expecting to see at least a fleeting comment about Westboro since they are proudly TULIPian :)

    (John)

  13. West-burros get a lot of undeserved credit they have neither earned or been given.

  14. Human tragedy helps to strengthen my longing for the time when all the earth will be filled with God’s glory. The hope and confidence that God has planned better things can make all the difference. The fact that It enabled Jesus to willingly endure the tragedy of the cross speaks volumes, and his resurrection transformed the believer’s view of the crucifixion, and has enabled many to see past the pain to the joy that follows.

    The pain of bereavement can distract us from the vision of resurrection, but the apostle Paul advises to us to comfort one another with such hopes. This needs practice, for which we have (in God’s wisdom) many (ostensibly random) opportunities!

    If such things can deepen our sense of need they fulfil a very real and worthwhile purpose for which we should thank God that he (in wisdom) allowed it! Without it we may have remained just too independent for our own good.

  15. “Jesus wept” John 11.35

  16. he mourns over the death of those lost
    3. Don’t be too quick to respond theologically

    thank you. You might also appreciate this crucial theology for this event http://www.gty.org/blog/B1212172

  17. In relation to those directly affected by death, such as in Newtown, I’d agree with Greg Boyd that the grief stricken get to chose the theology that helps them get through the moment.

    However, I believe that it is precisely at these times that it is important to discuss appropriate theology and theological deficiencies. Events such as these put such issues front and centre and stark relief and the emotional imapct of the events is an important and God given aspect of how we consider them.

    Nevertheless, it’s CMP’s blog and so it’s his call as to how discussion will proceed, and he’s said that such debate is off limits for now.

    John I.

  18. Unlike so many Calvinists, I can say with surety that Jesus loves, forgives, and died for all those poor victims, and the perpetrator.

    That some may have died in their sins, rejecting Him, is another story altogether. Something that Calvinists seem to have a hard time understanding.

    • theoldadam,

      Calvinist can certainly believe in the election of all infants. Arminians can believe in the age of accountability. Or both can reject and have their problems. Don’t lump either group together with staw-men here.

      As well, there can most certainly be four-point Calvinists. A four-point Calvinist believes that Christ died for all but only elected some. There is a great historic tradition among Calvinists there as well.

  19. Calvinism and Calvinists, at least the proper historical version, and this theologically, don’t have problems here, they cast themselves upon the sovereignty and providence of God…and here there is certainly mystery! But they know that no matter what happens, or what God allows HE is in control! For God is God, always! The great problem here is our definition of God! Sovereignty means just that GOD is always fully sovereign, or He would and could not be God!

    And there is a great difference that God’s provision in the Death of Christ is sufficient, verses efficient. It is always and only “efficient” for the elect and chosen of God! Note, John 17: 12, and surely this can only be Judas! Did Christ “die” efficiently or in the efficaciousness of grace for Judas? The Text here says no! (Romans 9 fully!)

    This is Calvinism!

  20. Open Theism falls way short here, in my opinion, at least to the Biblical Doctrine of God! What if God, could have done x, y, or z? Does little , note the Book of Job and Job’s God!

    “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1: 21)… “Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God,” (Verse 22)

  21. Amen Michael! # 21 I am myself Infralapsarian…God’s plan of salvation for some.. followed and was a consequence of the fall of man from grace. Note, this is opposed to Supralaparian (preceded the fall). When God looks at all men they are sinners, elect and non-elect alike!

    *And our covenant children are under grace & God’s glory!

  22. You are right once again, Michael.

    The Sovereignty of God is not a “Calvinist” doctrine; it is a doctrine of Christian theism.

    People who don’t understand it, and they are many, are not Arminians, but poorly taught Christians. Part of being poorly taught includes a grossly distorted understanding of what Sovereignty means, and it also does include a grossly distorted understanding of what Calvinist doctrine asserts. And Arminian doctrine for that matter.

    The doctine of “predestination”–so often confused with Sovereignty–is specifically soteriological–not a general philosophical position about destiny in general.

  23. Truth Unites... and Divides December 18, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Never is the sovereignty of God so close as when tragedy enters my life. Because of the pain that follows these tragedies, I often find myself on my knees praying that “God is sovereign. “Lord, please don’t let this be some random act in which your hand was not intimately involved. Please don’t be playing a game of chess with evil. Let things be more meaningful. And don’t – please don’t – be nothing more than a cheerleader in Heaven who lowers your pom-poms when pain and suffering strike their dreaded blows. Let your hand be behind it lest I die. Let your shaping hand guide all things.”

    Your prayer is my prayer. Thanks for writing a great post.

  24. CMP,

    That’s a good start.

    That Calvinism turns so many ‘inward’ for the assurance of their salvation for a real lack of trust in the external Word and sacraments, is a real testament to rationalism over trusting in the things that the Lord has given us, totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

    When Calvinists get there, then they will be on their way down from the ladder.

  25. Truth Unites... and Divides December 18, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Don’t make this an us (Calvinist) vs. them (Arminian) issue

    Steve Martin: “That Calvinism turns so many ‘inward’ for the assurance of their salvation for a real lack of trust in the external Word and sacraments, is a real testament to rationalism over trusting in the things that the Lord has given us, totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.”

    How about the Looters vs. the Calvinists/Reform?

    ;-)

  26. If one looks historically at some Anglican Calvinists, this inward includes the Sacraments! See Archbishop Ussher’s works, I like especially his book: A Body Of Divinity, Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion. Not to forget some Anglican hymn writers, Joseph Addison, and of course the Victorian era, Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, to name a few. Historic Hymnology is a lost art in the Church today!

  27. You mean Lutrens?!

    We look to the externals…only.

  28. Truth Unites... and Divides December 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Eve Martina,

    You know, da Lutes, da looters, Lex Luther and the 666 theses, lutes with the big glutes, ….

    ;-)

  29. The time to wrestle with suffering and the sovereignty of God is before entering into trials, not in the midst of them. When in a season of suffering, the pain is too real, too close. It is difficult to see grand theological truth through the haze of pain and hurt. It seems to me that one of the primary roles of the pastor is to prepare people for suffering. Sadly, this role is too often neglected in pulpits in favor of pragmatic and moralistic sermons that offer no anchor for coming storms.

  30. Michael, you posted: “You see, most of us (Calvinists) know how we distinguish between God’s will of decree and will of desire. We know that there is the will of the heart of God and the will of the hand of God. God’s heart did not want these children to be murdered, and he mourns over the death of those lost. Yes, he decreed it to take place before the foundations of the world, but his heart is not always in concert with his decrees.”

    I’m not a Calvinist, but I appreciate how Calvinists emphasize God’s sovereignty and glory. Maybe I haven’t read enough Calvinists, because I cannot remember ever reading a Calvinist say that what God decrees is not necessarily what he desires. Or that his hand (actions) and heart (desire) are not in sync. That doesn’t sound like sovereignty at all… as if God is not even in control enough to do what he really wants to do. I’m curious if you could comment on this.

    I’m not trying to nitpick or critique too harshly, I’m just very surprised by those statements.

  31. Excellent article. You are always going to have the run of the mill Arminians calling the Calvinist God a monster since He won’ t play the game their way.Like Obama,never let a good crisis go to waste.They are not here seeking truth,but only to parade their superior compassion.

  32. Oh ya…sure…you betcha…us Lutes love our freedom.

    Won’t be bottled up by any religious exercises to make us better.

    Nooope.

    __

    We had a whole bunch of Calvinists (9 of them) come to my pastors class about 4years ago. My pastor was teaching on Luther’s Treatise on Christian Liberty. Within a year, all but one had become Lutherans (the almost Lutheran LCMS type).

    But that’s what can happen when you heard that liberating Word that frees you from all of that internal examination/ladder climbing for your assurance stuff.

    I know it’s anecdotal, but it’s a true story. Although not a one of them goes to our church. We are just a bit too free for their liking…being of the biblicist strain, they stuck with that and went LCMS.

  33. Jay, see Michael’s point 1.

  34. Michael is right. I personally came into calvanism kicking and screaming due to misconceptions and wrong teachings about it. That said I now have much more peace and confidence during times like these due to trusting God with the way life plays out in tragedy ( soverienty). It doesn’t mean we have answerers or throw our hands in the air and say “it was Gods will” , but we can trust that God knows what he is doing and we can only see life dimly in a mirror. I personally find refuge in Habbakuk in these times……
    Nck

  35. Not sure what all that stuff is on top of my post…….

  36. “That Calvinism turns so many ‘inward’ for the assurance of their salvation for a real lack of trust in the external Word and sacraments”

    If never thought of it quite like that, but I think that’s right. Faith is not enough in Calvinism, it’s got to be just the right kind of faith, since so many with faith seem to fall away, making their apparent faith false faith. So you have to keep self analyzing if your faith is the real deal or not.

  37. The problem with such statements as “don’t make this an us vs them” is that the door is left open for the “them” to attack the “us”. Great job, commenters.

    The problem with the armchair theologians is that they never get beyond their systematic theology and into their pastoral theology, and that cuts across soteriological positions. Instead of taking an opportunity to comfort the injured and proclaim the gospel to the lost, it turns to opportunism to burn another strawman and shamelessly self-promote one’s piety. It’s the same opportunism of the gun debate on display. I know we don’t all have pastoral gifts, but, it doesn’t hurt to practice! And if you can’t, bridle thy tongue.

  38. It seems to me that the title of this blog betrays rule #1.

    Why not title it, “How Christians should not respond to Newtown”

  39. drwayman,

    Good point. I also find it interesting that when an apparent non-Calvinist criticized Calvinism in the first comment, so many were quick to chime in that the person should see rule #1; but in follow up posts where Calvinists criticized Arminians (saying they are just uneducated Christians who don’t understand sovereignty, or that Arminians commenting here are not concerned with truth, but just “to parade their superior compassion”), nobody seems to mind or refer them to rule #1. Maybe rule #1 only applies to Arminians? I have much to say on this subject, but I fear I can hardly do so without being accused of violating rule #1. Oh well.

    I do wonder why it is OK to harshly criticize Arminianism any other time (as Patton often does-just note the “similar posts” at the end of this post), but not in the face of tragedy. While we need to be sensitive to tragedy are those who are dealing with it, it is also the point at which our doctrines face the real test- when the rubber meets the road. Patton makes this point in this post regarding personal tragedies in his own life, describing how the apparent theology of certain people seemed inadequate and left him feeling less comforted, etc. (and I confess that I greatly admire anyone who has gone through such horrible things and still come away from it with faith and love for God, as Michael has). I guess I am just not sure why that is OK, but it is not OK here to express why we find problems with Calvinist theology in the face of such tragedies, or how rule #1 does not, as drwayman pointed out, violate those sections of the post I just referred to. Anyway, just my two cents.

  40. @theoldadam: The latter is true of me! I was Luther friendly first, then later became a “Calvinist”! It it was more Calvin himself, that convinced me! ;) Note, Reformed Theology is not really a doctrine of ONE historical Church. I am still an Anglican!

  41. Indeed High Tower Theology, is just that “high tower”, and often not useful! But to be fair, all Systematic Theology needs to be pressed biblically… Biblical Theology! ;)

  42. Truth Unites... and Divides December 19, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Systematic theology is pastorally comforting… at least to me it is.

  43. I agree, but Systematic theology is always, or should be pressed “Biblically”! Note, I am myself an Anglican “Reformed”, or Calvinist, though somewhat neo-Calvinist to degree. I would hope actually closer to John Calvin himself?

  44. Truth Unites... and Divides December 19, 2012 at 11:48 am

    “You mean Lutrens?!
    We look to the externals…only.”

    Pharisees looked to the externals also.

    ;-)

  45. Truth Unites... and Divides December 19, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Biblical theology is pastorally comforting… at least to me it is.

  46. — ” 2. Don’t say that this was God’s will” —
    — “3. Don’t be too quick to respond theologically” —

    How many times have we been told that Calvinism IS “The Gospel” – aka “The Good News”.

    What’s the Greek word for “The Bad News” ?

  47. I would say that John Calvin’s Calvinism, is perhaps the best of so-called “Calvinism”! Today many are reading and re-thinking his works. Note for example, Julie Canlis’s book: Calvin’s Ladder, A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, (2010, WM. B. Eerdmans) So when we make all these statements about what Calvinism is, or is not, we simply must make use of Calvin himself, and the lastest thinking and scholars! And indeed the Ascension of Christ is just central in Calvin’s Gospel!

  48. @Fr Robert: “I would say that John Calvin’s Calvinism, is perhaps the best of so-called “Calvinism””

    The original and best eh? :-) I don’t know, I think Calvin might have been only a 4 pointer. Perhaps we should claim him for us Arminians. :-)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Destinations « Luggaged - December 18, 2012

    […] C Michael Patton tells Calvinist how not to respond to the tragedy at Newtown. […]

  2. Thursday Link List « Thinking Out Loud - December 20, 2012

    […] Michael Patton offers his fellow Calvinists some advice on how not to respond to tragic events, including trying to overly theologize (it’s a word now) the […]

  3. Audio debate between James White and Michael Brown on Calvinism « Wintery Knight « The Beginning of the End - January 5, 2013

    […] How Calvinists Should NOT Respond to Newtown […]

  4. An Arminian Response to C. Michael Patton’s “The Irrationality of Calvinism” Part 2: Theological Imprecision and Misrepresentations « Arminian Perspectives - January 19, 2013

    […] as both Calvinists and Arminians believe in God’s sovereignty (which Mr. Patton happily admits here ), which is why Mr. Patton’s previous comment is awkward and […]

Leave a Reply