The Irrationality of Calvinism


Allowing for Mystery in our Lives

I am a child of Western thought. Therefore, I like to figure things out. If possible, I like to figure it all out. This causes problems between me and God sometimes, and I need to deal with it better. Sometimes I only really follow or engage with God when I get it.  When things make sense to me, my intellectual anxiety is eased and my will can engage.  Who? What? Where? How? and especially Why? Theological gurus call this “cataphatic” theology. Cataphatic theology emphasises God’s revelation and our understanding of it. Taken to an extreme, we can find ourselves in the arrogantly awkward position of, as A. W. Tozer put it, “trying to look God eye to eye.” When we have to understand everything, we attempt to trade our finitude for infinitude. And this should scare us to death. We need a healthy dose of “apophatic” theology. This emphasizes mystery. Our Eastern brothers and sisters normally get this better than we do. They are content without publishing a new theology book every year. They don’t normally write papers explaining the mysteries of the world, have societies discussing the nuances of our faith, or argue about too much. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to an unexamined faith, where people know what they believe but they have no idea why. And God did go through a lot of trouble to explain quite a bit of himself to us. While there are secret things that belong to the Lord (apophatic), the things revealed belong to us (cataphatic). We need balance. We need a cool yet passionate head about us. We need to hold some theological ropes very tightly, but we need to loosen our grip on others. There is quite a bit that we can know about God, but there are so many things that we don’t get and we will never get.

Why all of this? Because I am going to talk about something that is very divisive in the Christian life. And, for the most part, I am going to try to encourage some of my Western brothers and sisters to take a cue from my Eastern brothers and sisters, step down off the stool, and quit trying to look God eye to eye. I am going to encourage us to allow some tension in a very debated issue in Protestant Christianity.

Calvinism is Not a Closed Box Rational Based System

I am a Calvinist. It is funny. I often hear people talk about Calvinism as a closed box system that forces everything to fall in line, even when we have to sacrifice biblical integrity to do so. I often hear the accusation that Calvinism is a system that makes rationality its primary goal. And this is often true. Sometimes Calvinists do attempt to fit things into a system and engage in questionable, logic-driven hermeneutics to do so.

However, I think we need take a step back and see that while the shoe fits when it comes to some particular issues in Calvinism, these accusations are far from forming the bedrock of the primary issues in Calvinism. You see, one of the many reasons I am a Calvinist has to do with the tension that is allowed within the Calvinistic system that is not allowed in other systems. Calvinism centers on one primary doctrine: predestination. While the sovereignty of God has its place, it does not ultimately determine where one lands. An Arminian can believe that God is sovereign to a similar degree as a Calvinist. But an Arminian cannot believe in predestination in the same way as a Calvinist.

All Christians Believe in Predestination

Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in predestination. In other words, whether or not God predestines people is not the issue. All Bible-believing Christians believe this doctrine. The issue has to do with the basis of this predestining.

The Calvinist says that God’s predestination is unconditional. God did not choose people based on any merit, intrinsic or foreseen. This is called unconditional predestination, because there are no conditions man needs to meet. It does not mean that God did not have any reason for choosing some and not others, but that the reason is not found in us. It is his “secret” and “mysterious” will that elects some and passes over others.

The Arminian says that God’s predestination is conditional. It has its founding in the faith of the predestined. In other words, God looks ahead in time, discovers who will believe and who will not, and chooses people based on their prior free-will choice of him. Therefore, God’s predestination of people is “fair” and makes sense. After all, there are too many questions left unanswered when one says that God chooses who will be saved and who will not. Why did he choose some and not others? Did God make people to go to hell? Is God fair? “Why does he still find fault, for who resists his will?”

Book Recommendation: Why I am NOT a Calvinist

The Consistency of Arminianism

The Arminian chooses this position because, for them, it is the only way to reconcile human freedom and God’s election. Both are clearly taught in Scripture. Therefore, in order to have a reasonable and consistent theology, one or the other must be altered. If God unconditionally chooses people, then people don’t have responsibility in their choice, good or ill. Therefore, in order to make things fit, the Arminian defines divine election or predestination in such a way to make it fit with human freedom. The Arminian says that God’s choice is based on man’s choice. Therefore, we have consistency. The tension is solved. There is no tension. No mystery. Cataphatic theology trumps apophatic theology.

The Tension of Calvinism

However, the Calvinist is not satisfied with a redefining of God’s election to make it fit. To the Calvinists, man is fully responsible for his choice, yet God’s election is unconditional. This creates a problem. It creates great tension. For the Calvinist, this tension cannot, and should not, be solved. So how does the Calvinist live with this? How does the Calvinist answer the Why? questions? “Why does God choose some and not others? Why does he still find fault?”  What is the Calvinist answer to the How? question?  “How can there be true freedom when God is sovereignly in charge of election?”  We have no answer. We get off our stool and punt to apophatic theology. The tension is left intact. We place our hand over our mouth here and say, “Though we have no answers to why God did not choose people he truly loves, we will trust him without judgement.” We will redefine neither divine election nor human freedom to make them fit a more rational or logical system. While there is nothing wrong with using one’s reason to understand truth, there are problems when reason takes priority over revelation. If the Bible teaches both human freedom and sovereign election, we leave the two intact. If the Bible teaches that God loves everyone more than we can imagine and that God desires all to be saved, yet he does not elect some, we trust God’s word and live with unanswered questions. These two issues, human freedom and sovereign election, are not contradictory when put together, but they are a mystery.

The Mistake of Arminianism

This is one of the mistakes I believe the Arminian system of conditional election/predestination makes. There is no need to solve all tensions, especially when the solution comes at the expense of one’s interpretive integrity. There are many tensions in Scripture. There are many things that, while not formally irrational, just don’t make sense. The doctrine of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and creation out of nothing all fit this category. All of these are beyond our ability to comprehend. Once we smush them into a rational box and tell ourselves we have figured them out, we have entered into heresy (although I do not believe the Arminian view is heretical). The issue of human freedom and unconditional election is in the same apophatic domain. We can’t make sense out of them and once we do, we have entered into error. There are many things God reveals that confuse us and baffle our thinking. They seem irrational. Yet we find God saying, “Chill. Just trust me. I’ve got this under control. While I have revealed a lot and I know you have a lot of questions, this is a test of trust. I love everyone but I did not elect everyone. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Will you trust me or will you redefine things?”

Book Recommendation: Why I am NOT Arminian

Putting it all Together

God’s sovereign unconditional election can stand side-by-side with man’s responsibility without creating a formal contradiction. We may not know how to reconcile these two issues, but that does not mean God does not know how. Their co-existence does not take away from their collective truthfulness.

I believe that the Arminian system sacrifices biblical integrity for the sake of understanding and doctrinal harmony. The Calvinistic system allows tension and mysteries to abide for the sake of Biblical fidelity.

As I said before, I have had people say to me (often) that they are not Calvinists because the system attempts to be too systematic with all its points for the sake of the system itself. I think it is just the opposite. The Calvinistic system creates more tensions than it solves, but seeks to remain faithful to God’s word rather than human understanding. I think it is a good illustration of how West meets East. Revelation meets mystery. Cataphatic theology meets apophatic theology. While Calvinism is not formally irrational, it is emotionally irrational. I get that. But I think we need to take both pills.

Now, I must admit. I am confused as to why most of the “progressive” Evangelicals I know are more attracted to the rationalistic approach of the Arminians than the mystery-filled approach of the Calvinists.

Let the assault begin . . .

Course Recommendation: The Theology Program Soteriology

499 Responses to “The Irrationality of Calvinism”

  1. I’m not sure I’m convinced that Calvinism really allows much in the way of tensions. It might give lip service to statements like “God desires all to be saved”, but in reality, such statements are heavily qualified or interpreted into oblivion. Or to put it another way, when faced with that statement, and a statement that seems to teach unconditional election, they’ll accept the unconditional election statement in the Calvinist way, and take the seemingly Arminian “God desires all to be saved” against the plain meaning.

    Another example. Does Calvinism really allow the statements in scripture that talk about falling away to stand in tension against the Calvinist TULIP preservation principle? Of course not. They are interpreted in a very creative way so as to make sure they don’t say what they seem to say.

    I’m not sure it’s fair to say that because Arminianism supposes that election is based on seeing into the future man’s free will, that it is purely an artificial construct created to complete an Arminian “system” and to solve an otherwise unsolved tension. I think it would be argued based on Ro 8, “Those he foresaw, he also predestined” teaches that. I know Calvinists have their own spin on that, but I think it’s easier at least to understand foreseeing as what Arminians say, and it’s not about completing a system.

    At the end of the day, Calvinism boils down to “God chose everything that happens. End of story”. It’s attractively simple. Not much tension in such a view though. Notions such as freewill still exist, but their meaning is always subsumed within what Calvinism needs it to mean.

  2. I am with john on this Calvin’s Institutes did not continually her rewritten and grow out of anything but a desire to see eye to eye with God.

  3. What if Arminianism and Calvinism coexist? Why must God do things “one way or the other?” What if there are some who God treats Calvinistically and some whom he treats Arminianistically?

    Scripture can only truly be read exegetically when we don’t limit God to one system or approach to handling humanity.

    Are there people who are unconditionally predestined? Yes. Calvinism holds.

    Are there people who are won or lost based on their (or our) actions? Yes. Arminianism holds.

    God can be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow without being limited to a single system (Calvinism or Arminianism) that must apply every time, with every person, in every situation.

    Plus, this allows for both mystery and reason. The bottom line for me is, whatever God tells you when you’re talking to him, do that. Be calvinist. Be Arminian. Whatever bent you have when you’re talking to Jesus, go with it and don’t worry about if it’s “THE RIGHT” answer.

  4. “I believe that the Arminian system sacrifices biblical integrity for the sake of intelligibility and doctrinal harmony. The Calvinistic system allows tension and mysteries to abide for the sake of Biblical fidelity.”

    I think Arminians see the exact reverse of this. They would say they see the mysteries, and they are holding to biblical integrity; while it is the Calvinists who are trying to hold to doctrinal harmony.

  5. I hope I say this in (or, rather, with) tact: “intact” (from the Latin intactusin- + tactus) is a single word.

  6. The visceral dislike of Calvinism I believe stems from 2 sources:

    1. Sovereignty and free will do seem to be formal contradictions whereas the Trinity and Hypostatic Union aren’t. There are many everyday examples like these. One family can have many persons. I am both fully American and fully male. Whereas fully predestined and fully free defies easy resolution.

    2. Neither pole the Trinity nor Hypostatic Union produces necessarily bad outcomes, hence people have embraced them. The Jews still have a monarchian view of God. You could also be outright polytheistic, as some are. Similarly, you could consider Jesus just a man. Or he could be just God. Like non-Euclidian geometries, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. However, while free will has no obvious problems, a God in total control of man’s life who nevertheless sends that man to hell immediately suggests that God would be a moral monster.

    Neither of these means Calvinism is untrue, but I think they explain why it’s difficult to parse for many people.

  7. John says, “they give lip service to ‘God desires all to be saved.'” You’re making Michael’s point. The reason you see it as lip service is because it doesn’t seem to fit with unconditional election. Calvinists believe both are true.

  8. It’s interesting that all the negative comments against Calvinism have little basis in scripture and much in human reason. And the scriptures quoted are from a context of a different nature. The very comments posted prove Michaels thesis to be right about Arminianism – that it is grounded in human reason – in an ironic way. I believe one is of faith and the other not. The God of Arminians when it comes down to brass tacks is not infinite when the implications of their doctrines are allowed to run there natural course. Which is funny because they, the ones using reason, fail to use logic against their own system.

  9. I think that calvinism actually creates more problems than it solves. Can a Calvinist, even a person who by all indications is a supposed christian, be sure that he is one of the elect who has been predestinated to be saved? How can he know if the basis or reason for ones predestination is a “mystery”?

  10. Delwyn Xavier Campbell December 13, 2012 at 9:56 am

    There is a third option – Luther. God is sovereign – Yes! Our will, vertically speaking, is in bondage and can only be freed by God – uh-huh! Our will, horizontally speaking, is free right now – sure is!
    The End.

  11. “Calvinism creates more problems than it solves.”

    Yes, and that is a point of this post. Leaving things in tension is difficult for us.

  12. Both Calvinism and Arminianism attempt to provide rational answers to questions that the Bible doesn’t answer.

    The Bible is clear that salvation is all of God and that damnation is all of man.

    Calvinists fudge on damnation being all of man. God doesn’t *really* want to save all men with everything he has. If he did, wouldn’t they all be saved? There must be something in God that causes men to remain damned.

    Arminians fudge on salvation being all of God. If God wants all to be saved equally than why are only some saved? It must be because they chose God… somehow… just a little wee bit.

    The Bible doesn’t answer the question of why some are saved and others are not. But it does answer two questions clearly.

    Q: Why are some saved. A: God
    Q: Why are some damned. A: Man

    I suggest leaving it at that, submitting human reason to God’s word.

    By the way, for those interested in doing more research on the subject, this is the Lutheran position.

  13. The “tension” wouldn’t be a tension at all, without a doctrine that God chooses never to even try saving some people from their sins.

    That’s the big difference between Calvinistic and Arminianistic predestination, and the big sticking point.

    It’s also why (as John says in the first comment) many or even most Calvinists (throughout history and still today) haven’t interpreted the Bible as teaching “that God loves everyone more than we can imagine and that God desires all men to be saved [from their sins]”.

    If you actually believe those two propositions are Biblically accurate, Michael, then they are outright contradicted by the notion that God chooses not to even try saving some sinners from sin: someone who loves both Sinner A and Sinner B more than humans can possibly imagine and also seriously desires them to be saved from their sins, would at least try to save them from their sins. It is clearly very easy to imagine a love less than that, after all!

  14. Boltok the wrapper December 13, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Let’s major on the majors (love God, love others) and minor on the minors (theological debates like this that will not end God grants us the wisdom to fully understand Him)

    We cannot yet, at our present expansion of neuro-filled-intellectually-induced-scientifically-based bodies, but we will try and explain away the essence of God when there are clearly missing elements on both defenses.

    Perhaps the seeming contradictions and mysteries of God are meant to remain unsolved. Just as the seemingly complexities of humans. Sometimes we’re kind, sometimes we’re pricks. Sometimes we care and sometimes we could care less. We have the good and the bad, the ugly and the sad. We are enigma’s ourselves that we cannot understand, yet we will argue and unfortunately even condemn…out of a claim that we know the “truth.”

    How about humility of not knowing it all? How about saying the calvanist have a point! The arminians also have a point! I’ll run my race, you run yours…let God be the judge. Let’s not play mr. Know-it-all…let’s just play nice.

    Love God! Love one another!


  15. “The Calvinistic system creates more tensions than it solves, but seeks to remain faithful to God’s word rather than human intelligibility. I think it is a good illustration where the West meets the East. Revelation meets mystery. Cataphatic theology meets apophatic theology. While Calvinism is not formally irrational, it is emotionally irrational. I get that. But I think we need to take both pills.”

    Nice statement here Michael! I am always amazed how little people actually perhaps read the whole of your posts! Indeed I am one that has waded into the EO myself, and like much there, but I always return to what I see as the West, and St. Paul’s Jewish Hellenistic and Greco-Roman revelation and theology… Gal. 4: 1-7 (noting especially that the Law of God is always Jewish, and even the concept of Adoption was Jewish also – Rom. 9: 4). But Paul changes that and makes “Adoption” personal & indivdual…an “adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:5-7). And in the end, only the chosen or “elect” soul: crys “Abba Father”!

    Btw, here is the sort of baseline in the Doctrine of God, of He Who Is: The Biblical God is both “transcendent” and “immanent”, God is transcendent “to it” and immanent “in it”. Indeed we simply always have divine mystery in the “doctrine of God”! And the God who is Totally Other, has revealed Himself, but only ‘In Christ’, Himself the “Incarnation” of God! We can see the same reality in St. John, (John 1: 17-18). It is here btw, that I love that wee Johannine revelation even in Matthew’s Gospel: 11: 25-27!

  16. I think I get and agree there @Jason! Romans 9 does become personal and individual, but only for the “Elect”, (Rom. 9: 11-13, etc.)…And we really must see the etc., God’s mercy is under His sovereign will! (Verses 14-15-16)

  17. BTW at the end of the day, I still find it easier to have a Calvinistic viewpoint because of the mystery of God’s sovereignty, juxtaposed to our felt need for self worth. Ergo, none of us created ourselves in our own image. Nuff said…

  18. Amen Doc, “Nuff said”! :) We simply must bow our knees here! Again, only the chosen/elect soul crys: Abba Father… Father, Father! And whether Calvinist or Arminian. We cannot exclude proper spirituality, I think as “Doc” suggests!

  19. I think I would agree that Calvinism is irrational… at least I’ve never made sense of it. ;-)

    Seriously though, I do think the Calvinist-Arminian debate creates something of a false dichotomy. Both views rely more on Augustinian thought than the earlier Lutheran approach, which moved from Augustine a bit more Eastward in many respects. Having been raised Lutheran, I never could understand why everyone else was so obsessed with this debate…

  20. I love Luther, but “Lutheranism” much, much less! And btw, Luther WAS an Augustinian, and he most certainly “obsessed” in both the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of salvation! Note his debate with Erasmus.

  21. And sadly many Lutherans today, don’t have a clue to the real and historic Luther! But, that’s another debate! ;)

  22. @Delwyn: #10 Btw, Luther did not hold to “free will”, as more of “responsible will” before God, again Luther knew man was bound by sin, by also by God’s grace in Christ, he was responsible to respond and repent! Indeed a “biblical mystery”!

  23. @Fr Robert, that is sadly the case for all denominations.

    I’m probably to practical to read a theological blog like this, but I do … and it’s very interesting. But I can’t help but walk away from debates like this with troubling questions. Like, if the God of the universe’s great plan of salvation was for his own son to die, it seems a bit of a waste if it’s not applicable to all mankind. I know there’s no Bible verse for that, I’m just saying when Jesus died, it was to pay the universal price for sin. Or wasn’t it? If his death only covers the sin of some, then why bother?

    Yes, I’m being a tad snarky, but that really is a question I have. I mean, if you’re god, and you’re going to kill your son to effect some result, one would think it would work. That has nothing to do with Calvinism except that Jesus died for ALL, yet all are not saved. That doesn’t seem to fit the general tenor of Calvinism.

    Sorry, no bible verses to back myself up. just a general feeling that “Calvinism and only calvinism” doesn’t fit the overall “come unto me all you who are weary and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” tenor of the New Testament in general, or of Jesus in particular.

  24. God does love all men and He writes in His word how that is manifest: “God demontrates his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Christ died for ALL sins, and while we tend to think that God must choose all men (or elect all men) I think He did in the sense of the verse above, but it is man that is responsible for what He does with the Christmas Gift and man is responsible for His sin.
    God is not unjust either for not choosing all, rather, He shows immense, eternal love each time a person calls on His name for Salvation.

    My personal conclusion, we don’t have all the answers but that is okay. There is much we can confirm about Calvinism (I personally see 4.5 points as accurate) but what don’t understand about the scriptures will one day be revealed and we will be face to face with our creator and know in full things not revealed(1 Cor. 13).

  25. Perhaps we should see both Infralapsarian: Calvinism, so called that sees that God’s plan of salvation for some people followed and was a consequence of the fall of man from grace. Note, most Reformed Creeds are Infralapsarian! See too, Supralapsarian…God’s plan of salvation for some, preceded the fall, etc. Was Calvin and even Luther supra?

  26. The main reason for the ongoing Calvinist/Arminian debate in evangelical circles is not due to the conundrum of how to reconcile human free will and divine sovereignty (although, that is a real conundrum) but the fact that our present understanding of various biblical verses reflect mutually contradictory positions. Hence, Tom Talbott’s trilemma:

    (1) God in his omnipotence can save whomever he desires (John 6:44; John 10:25-30; Rom 8:30).

    (2) God in his omni-benevolence desires to save all people (John 1:29; 3:16-17; 1 Tim 2:4).

    (3) Some people will be permanently separated from God and will not be saved (Matt 25:46; Rev 14:11).

    So, evangelicals can pick any two but not all three, even though all three statements ostensibly enjoy clear, biblical support. Arminians reject (1), Calvinists reject (2), and Christian Universalists reject (3). Hence, I think the most profitable way to settle this debate is to determine which of the preceding three statements is most likely to be false, and why the relevant biblical verses for that position do not teach what they seem to teach for reasons other than preserving the logical coherence of one’s theology.

    When phrased in this way, my money is on (3) being false. It not only enjoys the weakest biblical support in terms of numbers of verses but also the support it does enjoy invariably hinges on the correct interpretation/translation of a single Greek adjective (i.e. aionios).

  27. @Mike: I am an Augustinian and somewhat a Calvinist. Certainly Infralapsarian! God’s sees all men as sinners! And in some real sense Christ’s Death is certainly “sufficient” for all sin and sinners, but it is strangely “efficient” only for the Elect! (See 2 Peter 2:1) I know this is somewhat scholastic logic, but none the less biblical to my mind anyway. And btw, until a Christian and especially the pastor-teacher grapples with the “Rubicon” of election and predestinarian, he cannot really preach fully the Gospel in my opinion. The doctrine is central in soteriology! As it was such for both Calvin and Luther! Again, my thoughts at least. But indeed always biblical mystery, with logic, but mystery always wins in the end, and here I would quote Paul’s 1 Cor. 13: 9..with verse 12, “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” :)

  28. Michael: {{Yes, and that is a point of this post. Leaving things in tension is difficult for us.}}

    I don’t think you’re being comprehensive enough about the difficulties involved, yet.

    It is only by application of rational logic that anyone comes to have any ideas at all about anything, including what the scriptures teach. (Setting aside the question of rationally basic notions, which don’t apply to scriptural exegesis.) If the logic isn’t adding up, then that’s a sign something is wrong somewhere: data is missing, or data is faulty, or the logic is invalid somewhere.

    Appealing to mystery (in what is actually a non-Biblical sense, since mystery referred to secrets that had been revealed) to avoid the contradiction, isn’t going to protect anyone from heresy, which can (and frequently does) hide behind such invulnerable appeals to mystery! Such a strategy also tends to kill any hope of self-critically detecting, much less correcting, one’s own mistakes.

    I’ll grant that if a re-examination of the data seems to point to all the data being solid, then a remaining resolution could be unknown data points resolving the problem. But if further investigation suggests there can be no data points for resolving the problem, then the solution isn’t to give up and accept everything illogically anyway: one might as well go straight to religious pluralism and declare on the same basis that all religious (and irreligious) ideas are equally true!

    If logic suggests the thinker is in error about something, and he cares about truth, and regards the topic as important, then the proper procedure is to keep on asking and knocking at the data until one is proven false and so either rejected or modified. (Which could be the indication that there can be no extra data resolving the problem even in principle.)

  29. Oh rock on @Jason! Indeed Biblical mystery is revelation! And certainly Pauline Mystery is such also, as too the Johannine, but we find it in the logic & mystery of the Text itself! Thanks to remind us!

  30. Btw, Jason, your point needs to be addressed by our Orthodox Brethren, where “mystery” get pressed outside of Christ sometimes; it can only be as Paul states: “In Jesus name”!

    Note, this was one of the places that Karl Barth took the EO to task, i.e.”mysticism”, beyond the biblical revelation!

  31. As I was reading the post and comments I found myself thinking many of the thoughts just expressed by Jason (#27).

    If something is contradictory, in the sense of logically contradictory, then it is false. It is part of God’s nature to be logical, which is part of the reason he cannot lie, and he gifted logic to us so that we can reason and communicate.

    If our faith can be logically contradictory, then we have no tools to argue against cults or religions that hold to contradictory ideas and beliefs. Their response can be the same as Michael’s, “you may call our belief contradictory, and therefore wrong and a reason to leave our faith, but we call it a mystery and so can stay as we are”.

    Belief that contradiction is not only acceptable but part and parcel of our faith is destructive of both apologetics and missions.

    Biblical mystery is not contradictory, but something that is not revealed. To call a contradiction a mystery is to call a toad a prince. A contradiction is an error.

    One of the chief obstacles in a clear discussion of the issues is the use of terms such as “freedom” as if everyone was meaning the same things. But that is not the case for the Calvinist and Arminian concept of “freedom” (and other terms) is very different. So different that they don’t even overlap. What frequently also happens, is that writers will equivocate in their use of words.

  32. Fr. Robert,

    Paul’s retort in Romans 9 refers to one or more of several OT scriptures where God is chastising people for believing that God has hopelessly punished Jewish and Gentile rebels and will never save them from their sins! This is the referential point both of “Who are you to answer back to God” and the potter/clay analogy. There is no distinction of elect and non-elect in those OT scriptures Paul is referencing, in the sense of who gets elected to be saved from sins and who doesn’t. God may reshape a pot on the wheel, or may restore a pot that He has shattered on the floor (the latter being something impossible with man but possible with God, and indicative of resurrection): both are applied to rebel Israel, and by various topical and thematic extensions to rebel Gentiles.

    Paul goes out of his way in reference to Esau to remind readers of the outcome of God “hating” Esau (the nation of Edom in the OT scripture Paul is referencing): so that Esau may serve Jacob/Israel, which also refers back to Isaac’s blessing on Esau that he will be blessed in Israel. The election of Israel is for the sake of Esau’s blessing, too. It isn’t about God choosing not to even try saving Esau from his sins.

  33. The subsequent quote from Exodus 9 about Pharaoh, references one of the few places in that incident where God (through Moses) rebukes Pharaoh for continuing to rebel even when God isn’t hardening his heart: but the explicit point is that God refused to kill Pharaoh for his sins so that the king would come to give glory to God. Some rabbis in Paul’s day (and afterward) understood this to mean that, since Pharaoh did not witness to God across the nations subsequently, he either must be saved from his sins by God post-mortem and raised in the resurrection to evangelize to evildoers; or else he survived the Reed Sea deluge (or was miraculously resurrected), gave glory to God, followed the Israelites incognito in humility, kept on going when the rebelled and were forbidden to cross the Jordan, went up north (instead of rebelling to cross the Jordan)–and became king of what would become the city of Ninevah!

    Thus the rabbis explained why the king of that city led them in repentance at the ridiculously minimal (and hostile) preaching of Jonah: he either was the descendent of Pharaoh, or was actually Pharaoh himself kept miraculously alive to fulfill the word of God in the days of Jonah to save the inhabitants of Ninevah.

    So God’s salvation does not depend on the man who wills (rebel Pharaoh resisting the salvation of Israel) or on the man who runs (Jonah the rebel prophet resisting the salvation of pagan Ninevah) but on God, Who has mercy.

    (The other main rabbinic theory about the Mosaic pharaoh was that he survived the flooding of the sea, or was resurrected by God, gave glory to God, went back to Egypt, and became the monotheistic pharaoh Ahkhenaton. Paul seems to be referring to the Pharaoh/Jonah rabbinic tradition, but he who wills could be Pharaoh and he who runs could be Israel fleeing Egypt who wouldn’t want their pagan oppressor to be saved by God.)

  34. In context of all that, the reference to Exodus 33 (in Rom 9:15) where God incorporates mercy and compassion into the self-expression of His divine name of self-existence, while passing by Moses, should probably not be read as a tacit explanation for why God refuses to have any compassion at all on some sinners (it’s His inscrutable choice even if that makes no logical sense to us based on other things He reveals to us about Himself), but as a root connection between God’s fundamental self-existence and His intention toward sinners: He may by no means leave the guilty unpunished, but the punishment is subordinated to His divine mercy, which is not subordinated to but is rather an expression of His divine sovereignty. (Thus God may stop being angry, but He will not stop loving, even while being angry.)

  35. John I,

    Yes, but I do want to be fair to people who as far as they can tell think the Bible affirms that God has the capability, the competency, and the intention to save all sinners from sin, but also thinks the Bible testifies not all sinners will be saved from sin by God (much less by any other way).

    It isn’t illogical under those conditions to expect resolving facts somehow logically validate all the propositions, whether or not God ever resolves them for us by leading us to the resolving facts.

    What I do think is irresponsibly illogical is to rest content in the situation AS BEING IRRATIONAL AND ILLOGICAL!

    Much less to regard this state of affairs as being superior in faith to Christians who aren’t content to accept a fundamentally illogical theology (especially for self-critical purposes to detect where they themselves have messed up understanding God rightly somehow. Which has a bearing on the witness we’re supposed to give to the world about God: right-representation, “ortho-doxy”.)

    Also, strictly speaking Biblical mystery is not something that hasn’t been revealed, but something that has at last been revealed (even if we don’t understand it yet).

  36. @Jason: I would like some classic Calvinists see Romans 9 as somewhat parenthetic, the Gospel does not set aside the covenants with Israel, when talking about Gentiles. But here Paul is talking about Israel after the flesh, the natural posterity, and also Israelites who, with or thru faith are also Abraham’spiritual people or children. So Gentiles who believe are also of Abraham’s spiritual children. But in Romans 9 Paul is considering the two kinds of Israelites, verses 8-13. But note “election” is still central! (Verse 11) But when we get to the Gentiles, (24-30). The same principle applies, God’s mercy is under His sovereign grace and will! (Rom. 11: 24)… Also Paul’s example of Pharaoh (17) is just certainly in God’s sovereign will, purpose and grace…14-24 are simply unmoveable! Aye, I am a “Calvinist”! But, note, an Historic Pre-Mill! ;)

  37. I think Calvinism is WAY TOO Rational.

    Christ can’t really be present in the bread and the wine because, ‘He’s sitting at God’s right hand’ ?

    ‘Not all people will go to heaven, so Christ didn’t die for and forgive everyone’s sins’?

    No. They are just too rational. And in these errors their assurance is greatly lacking and therefore must look inward for it. Bad move.

  38. Yes, biblical mystery is a “musterion”, but in the NT this is always revealed, itself, as in Col. 1: 25-26-27. So we can only use the word “mystery” loosely theologically. But biblically, it is used in general revelation itself. We even get the idea of “manifested”, “revealed”, even “dispensation”!

  39. Faith is always itself both objective and subjective! Note Paul asks the Corinthians to “Examine” or test yourselves, whether you be IN the faith, prove your own selves. Know you not your own selves, how Jesus Christ is in you, except you be “unapproved” the test’! (2 Cor. 13: 5) And as the Wesley brothers I believe also properly saw, the is an inter-witness too in salvation, Rom. 8: 16, etc. Here by faith comes our assurance of salvation, which should be the norm for the Christian. Indeed as I have read about John Wesley, when his father lay dying he told John, the inter-witness, the inter-witness of faith.. of Christ!

  40. “I believe that the Arminian system sacrifices biblical integrity for the sake of intelligibility and doctrinal harmony.”

    I think one can say the same thing swapping out the word “Arminian” for “Calvinist”. Which is where John (#1) seems to be coming from.

    “While there is nothing wrong with using one’s reason to understand truth, there are problems when reason takes priority over revelation.”

    If one is sacrificing biblical integrity how do you know? What would the criteria be for knowing when one has sacrificed “biblical integrity” vs when one is just allowing for tension and mystery? Doesn’t reading a text (revealed or otherwise) require logic and reason to understand it? And doesn’t evaluating different interpretations of that text require logic to determine which is most likely correct?


    • Reason is always required. But reason does not cancel out mystery. We strive for the cataphatic until we sweat blood. Then, when no solution makes good sense of revelation, we allow mystery to come in and do it apophatic job. Again, think Trinity and you will see what I mean. Can you rationally understand the Trinity? If you can, you have just entered heresy. I think that there are five great mysteries in the Scripture that we cannot resolve:

      1. Creation ex nihilo
      2. Hypostatic Union
      3. Dual nature of Scripture
      4. Trinity
      5. Human Freedom/Responsibility and Divine sovereignty (unconditional election included)

      Do you a agree that we cannot rationally understand the first four and that we have to punt to mystery?

  41. It’s far better than to trust in the external Word and in what God has done for you in your Baptism, and what He does for you and promises to you in the Supper…than to look inward to anything that you do, say, feel, or think.

    Faith in God is far superior and solid, as compared to faith in faith.

  42. @theoldadam: You know I believe too that faith is always central, but faith also simply always has a witness or evidence, and the internal life of the Christian believer is itself a place for this, this is St. Paul’s whole thesis biblically in Romans 8, as too his statement in 2 Cor. 13: 5 (I quoted). And this is the essence of the Letter of James. See the sweet test of obedience in James 1: 17-25!

    And this is not “faith in faith”, but faith “in the indwelling Christ!” As Paul can say: “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (glorification).

  43. Yeah, I am a “Calvinist”, and not a “Lutheran”! ;) Note Calvin’s doctrine of Justification & Sanctification is somewhat different here than Luthers. But, Law/Gospel is still an important issue, with both.

  44. I’d like to add that it’s immensely comforting to believe in God’s total sovereignty when we are going through serious trials (as I am now). If God really gives man free will apart from total sovereignty, then he isn’t really sovereign in what happens in my life as 90% of the problems most of us experience result from other people. I’m on my own since God can’t make other people do things except in extraordinary circumstances. I think it’s ridiculous to claim that God gives man one and only one free choice – to chose Him or not – but every other action is determined. If God as moral monster is the Achilles heel of Calvinism, God as not really in control of what happens to us is the same for Arminianism. I would not call myself a Calvinsit as yet, but I can recognize that at some level predestintion is inescapable. it goes all the way back to the garden of Eden. God knew the future, yet he put the serpent there anyway, though he had no obligation to do so and arguably Satan and his followers deserved to immediately be cast into the lake of fire. Even RC Sproul admits he doesn’t know this one. To say that “all things work together for the good to those who are in Christ, who are called according to his purpose” is to assume that God’s actually in control of what happens in the world. The real question isn’t predestination as such. The real question is whether you and me believe God is in absolute authority and control over what happens in our lives day by day.

  45. NW (comment #26) hit the nail on the head. Arminian and Calvinist ideologies are BOTH supported by scripture. We can argue all day about which is *more* supported by scripture, but I find it ridiculous that people on either side insist that THEIR side is the one trying to remain faithful to scripture, and that the other is “too rational”. The fact that people on either side say as much should indicate that both sides are probably trying to be faithful to scripture, and that both have scriptural support.

    I think it is important to acknowledge that there are genuine “mysteries” (things we don’t know/understand), to be sure. But I do not think that there is any value in believing something that appears to be irrational, regardless of whether or not it is supported by scripture. Why should I believe that scripture is “inspired” or “inerrant” if it is (supposedly) telling me mutually contradictory things?

  46. Fr. Robert,

    I wish you luck in your internal examinations.

    I have found that they always lead to one of two outcomes….pride, or despair.

    I walk by faith, and not by sight. What I do, say. feel, or think, has no bearing on what the Lord has done for me.

    I trust in that…alone.

    (I love that very Lutheran word…’alone’)

  47. “…this is not “faith in faith”, but faith “in the indwelling Christ!” ”

    St. Paul also said that” the devil can come all dressed up as an angel of light.”

    You can’t trust in that internal stuff. It may even be last night’s pizza speaking to us.

    We Lutherans much prefer to trust in the tangible, concrete acts that He does for us in the sacraments, the real presence
    of Christ in earthen vessels…given for us.

    Thanks, Fr. Robert.

  48. @theoldadam

    I’m sorry, did you just say that how God acts through sacraments is “tangible”…? In what way?

  49. CMP,

    “Reason is always required.”
    “But reason does not cancel out mystery”
    does NOT =

    that we are obligated to *believe* mysteries.

    The only reason for holding to this would be that one considers “revelation” as trumping “reason”. We then have to consider what “revelation” is. Is it what the Bible says? Perhaps, but we have to interpret what it says, as you well know. And I do not know of anyone willing to argue that their interpretation, or even a consensus, is equivalent to “revelation”. So the concept of “revelation” needs to be elucidated, and why it would trump reason justified. But of course that requires reason itself. So, I’m not really sure how we could justify not adhering to reason.

    One can hold that it’s axiomatic for revelation to trump reason. But then one must somehow be able to demonstrate a concept has been “revealed”. This requires reason. So, it seems to me reason must always be the trump card.


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