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. Perhaps a Kuperian Calvinist makes more sense in today’s world.

  2. Indeed seeking to do a whole presuppositional theological statement, would not be easy, but for me a more simple statement would be closer biblically, and that would be that God’s revelation has an absolute authority, and thus a certain priority over all human thought. And here we can see in Van Til his concept of the analogical knowledge that presses us to think God’s thoughts after Him. And thus God’s revelation must serve as our ultimate place of the criterion of truth. And we should note that the presupposition is in God, and not some idea of an argument. Indeed it is the preeminence of God’s word and revelation! Just my thoughts anyway.

  3. @Greg: I most certainly agree with you as to so-called “Calvinist” theologians these days, hell even Tom Wright seeks to pass himself off as generally as Reformational and Reformed, which of course he is not! And this is not a personal attack on Wright either, but a most Biblical and Reformed point! Indeed, where are the Reformed Creeds among the so-called Reformed theolog’s these days? It is here that I have a great respect for that great American Reformed statesmen, R.C. Sproul! Though I don’t personally follow him in many places. Btw some have asked who was or is my favorite modern Reformed guy, and I have two who are near equal, the Scots born, John Murray, and the Dutch or Netherland born, Geerhardus Vos! And both came to America. (And Vos died the year I was born, 1949) And both were not just theologians, but pastor-teachers themselves! But today I also like John Frame.

  4. I realize this is an old post, but having recently returned to following Jesus Christ, I am in the most dire of straights.
    That is that I am absolutely tormented with fear … my soul cries all day long.

    If the God of Armenianism is my God, I will love him with all my heart, soul and mind, as He loves the world and all His creation with His whole being.
    The God of Calvinism is the most horrid, unloving, cruel, deity I can imagine, and I could never come to love Him.

    Today I read in the Bible: “Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they rejected him and stoned the prophets. He cried “How I would have gathered you but you would not” (Mathew 23:37).
    Why would Jesus cry over something He had decreed to happen?
    Thanks to whomever might read this old post and answer.

  5. Maggie, I think you can make a biblical case for either Arminianism or Calvinism, depending on which verses you use. Both have their “hammer” verses, and both have verses that would create tension.

    The example you cite does neither, IMHO. It affects neither position. The reason is because what Jesus knew is not necessarily indicative of what God the Father knew. Or, as some would contend, what Jesus *consciously* knew is not necessarily the same as what He *unconsciously* knew. In other words, it is possible that Jesus wept over Jerusalem because even though He was omniscient, He did not remember pre-ordaining what was to happen. This would be similar to him asking “who touched me?” You can consider Jesus to be omnisicent, and yet not knowing (or at least not remembering or accessing that information) certain things.

    Now, how convincing that would be, is a different matter. But that is how many Christians would approach the matter.

  6. Alternatively, you could try claiming that Jesus did, in fact, remember everything – including pre-ordaining His own rejection – but that this still caused Him grief. In other words, having omniscience does not necessarily exclude emotions such as regret. This would “solve” the problem of God regretting having made mankind in Genesis and then flooding the earth. Why would anyone be so angry/upset over something they knew all along would happen? It’s hard to fathom. So, I would find a response similar to the above one more convincing.

  7. …although it’s MORE convincing that the emotion/pain/regret that is felt is spurred by the fact that it was unexpected.

  8. Mark W. Gaither July 15, 2014 at 8:58 am

    Excellent article as usual, Michael. I could quibble with a point or two here and there, but that’s not important. What you have articulated is a reasonably classic view of authentic Calvinism, one that holds high God’s sovereignty without removing human responsibility. It is paradoxical, and that drives some people crazy.

    Sadly, however, many self-identifying Calvinists are not as sophisticated. They know just enough about this school of thought to have barely more than a superficial understanding of it. Consequently, they bring upon Calvinism many of the criticisms you mention early on in your post.

    It is my observation that there are Calvinists, and there are “5-Pointers.” (Don’t get hung up on my terminology. We might also call them TULIP-huggers.)

    Calvinists accept that human theological constructions are never perfect and cannot explain everything. 5-Pointers, on the other hand, view all of life in binary terms, allow little or no room for ambiguities or paradoxes, cannot abide unexplained phenomena, and view all of life through TULIP-tinted lenses.

    Here’s a classic test to see if you’re dealing with a 5-Pointer: Begin a conversation on any theological topic. If you end up talking more about how the issue aligns with Calvinism than how it aligns with the Bible, or if all scriptural citations are footnoted with Calvinism, you’re probably talking to a 5-Pointer. Also, if you find yourself wearing a scarlet ‘A’ (Arminian) by the end of the conversation, despite your protests to the contrary, you were most assuredly talking with a 5-Pointer.

    “5-Pointers” display other indicators, but you get the point.

    At the end of the day, let us all agree that our ultimate goal is to be biblical in our worldview; theology is merely a means to that end. Let us further agree that some theological frameworks help us more than others, but ALL of them inevitably leave biblical loose ends that cannot be tied up and must not be trimmed off. (Let the 5-Pointer understand.)

    As one of our greatest prophets wrote, “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” (1 Cor. 13:12).

  9. Hi everyone.


    I know there have been a lot of comments and maybe it has been answered but I have a question:

    Would an Armenian say the have “redefined” election and predestination definitions?

    I think the term “redifined” may be a bit loaded. I think this term is one that we as Calvinists can use to to elevate our own position. We are making the claim that our definitions are the right ones. Maybe we should explore these definitions as claims and look to see who is biblically correct.
    I do not know, but I would only guess that both sides would say we are “redifining.”

    As a five point Calvinist with a Pentecostal background,
    I am really interested to see the arguments for and against both sides of those definition.
    I don’t think it would change my mind, but would give a good understanding to how Armenians Biblically definite those terms. Of course, I am now just assuming that they would say they are not “redifining.” :)

    Thanks for the clarity!

  10. @Greg: You’re in a basement that nobody has seen, and nobody has written about, other than in speculation.

    Does a worm have epistemology Greg? Because a lot of what goes on in human life is based on the same epistemology a worm uses.

    I have 3 kids, nearly grown up.

  11. @Greg

    -“Tell me please whether this lack of acceptance includes eternal perdition.”-

    I’m uncertain what you mean by this. If you’re asking what Pelagius believed about eternal perdition, then I have no idea. If you’re asking about whether or not we “earn” eternal torture, or whether that is “granted” to us, then the answer is the same as I outlined above.

    If God has no moral obligations, then God has no obligation to have mercy. Neither does He have any obligation to punish. He may, of course, choose to do either (Exodus 33:19); and He may or may not make the basis (if applicable) for this discretion known.

  12. @Greg “I’m asking John a question. Can the God of the bible damn a man in whom there is no sin? Not WILL he, but CAN he?”

    This discussion takes evermore interesting twists and turns.

    I say no, because I’m uncomfortable with the idea that God is not subject to basic logic and basic goodness.

    JB has taken this an interesting direction. You Greg claimed logic was part of the created order. So it doesn’t apply to God when he is acting outside of the created order. To be saved, a man has to be saved from this created order, in which by nature he dies. The logic of this created order doesn’t apply. So there is no inherent reason why God should save a righteous man from the premises you want me to believe.

    Furthermore, in Calvinism especially, goodness is rather arbitrarily whatever God decides it to be. And also, you want us to believe that EVERYTHING, including elementary logic, and therefore presumably what is righteous, is whatever God decides it to be. So God is not especially righteous to save a righteous man. And a righteous man is whoever God deems such, whenever and however he wants. That guy you thought was righteous? Sorry, but God just made scratching your left ankle on a full moon to be a sin, so he’s damned.

  13. @greg “God CANNOT pronounce guilt and condemnation where no crime has been committed ”

    Yeah but Greg… You told us what God does is good by definition. That means if he condemned the innocent, that would be a really really good thing right? Anyway, not committing a crime is a crime if God says, right?

  14. @Greg

    -“Good moral and right IS the nature and character of the creator God as He has Himself graciously revealed in the collection of ancient books known as the Christian scriptures.”-

    I don’t want to sell you short, but I’m not sure that you are appreciating the difference between saying that “God is good” vs. “God is by nature good”. The scriptures unilaterally declare the former, but are silent on the latter, which is a far more complex philosophical question that theologians grappled with.

    -“God is good because He is God and by definition the standard by which all else is measured.”-

    None of this makes sense. Let’s break it up:

    – God is good because… He is God

    I suppose that this means that “God” is, by definition, “good”. If that satisfies you, then so be it, but there is a reason why so many have tried desperately to avoid the “arbitrariness” horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma.

    – God is good because… He is the standard by which all else is judged.

    Fair enough, but that doesn’t make the standard “good”. There is a reason why we use that word in particular: it means something. One doesn’t refer to NIST rulers as “good” standards. They simply are the standard; their value is neutral. We would declare other rulers “good” or “bad” in comparison to them. The scriptures do not refer to God being neutral in value.

    -“God CANNOT pronounce guilt and condemnation where no crime has been committed because the whole of the scriptural testimony reveals a God who uniformly judges sin and rewards righteousness.”-

    So… scripture creates boundaries on what God can and cannot do? So when scripture says “All things are possible with God,” it actually meant the opposite?

  15. @Greg

    Since you invited me to ask a question, however, I will do so! Back to something more along the lines of what we were discussing earlier, let’s consider how God actually makes things more certain by presuming “God” in the first place.

    Argument A:

    Assumption: Logic is a reliably way of knowing
    premise1: All humans are mortal.
    premise2: All Calvinists are humans.
    Conclusion: All Calvinists are mortal.

    Argument B:
    Assumption: God makes logic is a reliably way of knowing
    premise1: All humans are mortal.
    premise2: All Calvinists are humans.
    Conclusion: All Calvinists are mortal.

    You would claim Argument A is flawed because the argument becomes self-referential. Argument B is not self-referential, and so it is superior. In your words, the only escape is “faith”. The problem, to me, is that you want to claim that faith in God somehow makes things more certain.

    This seems obviously wrong given that if I ask for clarification (as I have repeatedly), there is no explanation. *How* does God make logic a reliable way of knowing? We don’t know. He just does. In this sense, it is no different than “magic”. Come to think of it…

    Argument C:
    Assumption: Magic makes logic is a reliably way of knowing
    premise1: All humans are mortal.
    premise2: All Calvinists are humans.
    Conclusion: All Calvinists are mortal.

    So, this argument is not self-referential and also requires faith. So, I ask you: is it more “certain” than Argument B, and if not, why not?

    It seems to me that the only possible objection here is to claim that magic doesn’t exist, or at least that there’s no good reason to think it does. But, if we’re consistent, then that requires an argument as to why we have good reasons to believe God exists. Which, if we’re to avoid circularity, requires we drop God from the premise. Which would bring us back to an argument in the form of “A”.

  16. “Everything God does IS good by definition, but He He cannot act in contradiction to His own righteous nature which means that He CANNOT condemn the innocent. ”

    @Greg: looks to me like you contradicted yourself in one sentence. If he did condemn the innocent, it would be good “by definition”, and therefore it would hardly be acting in contradiction to his righteous nature.

  17. @Greg

    -“I’m saying without assuming the God of the bible first neither you nor any other created being can ask any question at all.”-

    This makes no sense at all. I’m fairly certain that there are some aboriginal tribes who have never heard of “the God of the Bible”, and yet they are perfectly capable of asking questions. So, either you accept that the presumption of YHWH is unnecessary, or you accept that they are, in fact, presuming YHWH – and so I suppose don’t need the gospel.

    -“You would neither exist nor be endowed with the intellectual equipment to be aware of 2+2 equaling 4.”-

    If God doesn’t exist, then presumably this is all true. But that doesn’t mean that we need to assume God’s existence to make thought possible. These are two unrelated ideas. Assuming God’s existence does not make my brain “go”.

    -“We REQUIRE by necessity of created finitude that we begin with a first principle that IN AND BY OURSELVES is unprovable and yet can account for our knowledge of ANYTHING whatever.”-

    Let me translate the jargon here, and tell me if I have faithfully captured the essence of what you mean: “Because we are finite, we need to assume an unprovable first principle that is capable of accounting for all knowledge.”

    What should be obvious is that the dependent clause does not follow from the conditional. In other words, simply because we are finite does not mean we *need* to assume anything, much less ONE thing that can account for everything. It would be equally valid to simply say “Because we are finite beings, our knowledge-gaining efforts are limited”.

  18. Greg: just answer this one question that I’ve been on at you for ages to answer: how do you know if you are certain about something?

  19. @Greg those are some bible passages where some folks seems sure about stuff, no question. But it’s not really addressing the question asked. How do YOU know if YOU are sure about something? I mean what is it? A feeling perhaps? You get a warm tingly feeling about certain questions which you interpret to mean “I am sure”? Or is it something else?

  20. Well Greg, if “certainty” is an attitude of conviction, such that you surrender all that you are to that conviction, then I guess I am certain too! Alleluia.

    But I might mention that I’ve had an attitude of conviction about other things and surrendered myself fully to them, and subsequently discovered I was dead wrong.

  21. @Tiribulus (Greg)

    -“Here is how it works John (and JB) “Faith”, in the biblical sense, is an attitude of conviction wherein it’s object is taken to be true and worthy of full confidence.”-

    Seems to me that James makes it very clear that there is a bit more involved than simply attitude. I don’t think that’s terribly important for this conversation, however. What should be obvious from this is that “faith” and “certainty” are being used interchangeably by you. Certainty does NOT mean “an attitude of conviction”.

    I too, can easily say that I have “an attitude of conviction” about my faith. That does not mean I am “certain” about it – in the way the English language uses the term.

    -“I take take that attitude fully and intentionally.”-

    No, you don’t! God gives it to you. You were predestined for it. That’s Calvinism.

    -“People LIVE what they actually believe regardless of what meaningless blitherings may come out of their mouth.”-

    Indeed! I couldn’t agree more. I live according to what I *BELIEVE*. So glad you have seen the light!

    -“You KNOW that 2+2=4 in every sense that you are required to live your life by.”-

    So now we are using “believe” and “KNOW” interchangeably? Come now, Greg, at some point your butchering of the English language has to stop. Words mean things. You have to respect that. That I *believe* in math, or *trust* in math, or even have an *attitude of conviction* about math DOES NOT MEAN that I am certain of it! Not unless we are using the Tiribulus Dictionary, apparently.

  22. Greg: presuppositions are usually considered a bad thing. Look at all the evils that were brought onto the world with presuppositions. The aim of most rational people is to track down, test and hopefully eliminate presuppositions.

  23. Greg: I didn’t say elimination of all presuppositions was possible, only that they are undesirable, and to be eliminated wherever possible. Surely you must agree with this? Do you seriously advocate we all stick to whatever presuppositions we have right now with no attempt to eliminate? If so, why are you trying to convince us of stuff with your arguments, and not allowing us to keep our own presuppositions? Basically we here are advocating to you that any and all presuppositions should, wherever possible be examined, questioned and tested. You are saying, don’t worry, presuppositions are totally cool and fine and we shouldn’t even hope or dare to examine or test them. And you are comparing us to atheists because we do. How far do you want to take this? If my presupposition is that 2+2=5, should I stick with it?

  24. Delwyn Xavier Campbell January 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    At some point, you are engaging in fruitless debate, which the Bible tells us to avoid. If you don;t have enough wisdom to know when you’ve reached that point, here’s a hint: is the conversation generating a lot of heat, but little light? Are you going around in circles, ending up at the same place? Other than you feeling like you are bearing witness, is there any evidence that The Lord is bringing any transformation into the interaction? “As much as lies within you, pursue peace with all, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”

  25. Delwyn Xavier Campbell January 6, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Ok, Greg. I’m not privy to the directions that God is giving you regarding this exchange, only you are. You say that you are just following His orders, to God be the glory for the results. I pray that this situation comes to a resolution that does just that.

  26. Delwyn Xavier Campbell January 6, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    I read a book in one of my classes that you might enjoy. It’s called “The Quest for Holiness,” written by Adolf Koberle. It is written from a German Lutheran background (n fact, it is a translation from German), but I really enjoyed it, and it really helped me when I was dealing with the tasks of being a single parent AND caring for an elderly relative who was in the first stages of dementia.

  27. Greg: One question, dating back to early in this thread I still want answered is exactly what things you are supposedly certain about? Apparently the list includes both theological and non-theological propositions (2+2). So what is the full range of things?


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