Why (High) Calvinism Is Impossible
by Roger Olson
March 16, 2014
By “impossible” I don’t mean, of course, “doesn’t exist.” I mean “exists but doesn’t work.” By “doesn’t work” I mean “cannot be believed consistently and coherently.”
In brief, my argument is that belief in the Bible as God’s Word and motivation to engage in its exegesis presupposes belief that God is trustworthy, that God cannot deceive. But this assumes that God has a stable, enduring, eternal character that is “good” in a way analogous to our highest and best intuitions of “goodness”—whatever their source may be.
Put another way, negatively, if one believes that God’s goodness is nothing like our best intuitions of goodness, that God’s goodness is possibly compatible with anything capable of being put into words (i.e., ultimately and finally mysterious), then there is no good reason to trust him. Trust in a person, even God, necessarily requires belief that the person is good and belief that the person is good necessarily requires some content and not “good” as a cipher for something totally beyond comprehension and unlike anything else we call “good.”
Put in technical language, if “good” applied to God is equivocal and not even analogical, then it is useless for describing God. If “God is good” is qualified with “but his goodness is completely different from ours” (meaning our highest and best ideas of goodness), then it is meaningless.
Not all Calvinists say that God’s goodness is completely different from ours. Paul Helm, for example, in The Providence of God, argues that “goodness” attributed to God cannot be totally other than goodness attributed to human beings (even as an impossible ideal). Unfortunately for him, I believe, he does not follow that insight through consistently but undermines it by attempting to combine assertion of God’s essential goodness with belief in double predestination.
I argue that belief in double predestination is simply logically incompatible with the claim that God is good—unless “good” is emptied of all meaning so that it is a useless cipher for something we don’t know.
But if God is not good in some way analogous to our highest and best intuitions, insights, into “goodness,” then there is no reason to trust the Bible. And if there is no reason to trust the Bible (because God, being not good in any sense meaningful to us, might be deceiving us), then there is no clear motive for intense biblical exegesis.
Every devout, evangelical Christian believer I have ever met or heard of approaches Bible reading and study (including exegesis) with the assumption that the Bible is true (even if not strictly inerrant)—that it does not misidentify God and God’s will for us. But built into that assumption is that God, the Bible’s author (by inspiration of the human authors) is good (which is why he is trustworthy and cannot deceive). But belief that God “designs, foreordains, and governs” hell for the reprobate who are chosen by God for hell for his glory without regard to any truly free choices they make undermines belief in God’s goodness. So does belief that God “passes over” some he could easily save (because election to salvation is unconditional and saving grace is irresistible), damning them to hell, for his glory.
There is no conceivable analogous human behavior that we would call “good.” The very concept of “good” rules out such behavior. (To say nothing of Jesus’ own goodness and the New Testament’s commands for us to love our enemies and do good to them.)
My point is, of course, that there exists a contradiction between two Calvinist beliefs: 1) that the Bible is inherently and unconditionally trustworthy, and 2) that God, its author, is not good in any sense meaningful to us. Belief “1″ assumes that God is good in a sense meaningful to us—comparable with our highest and best intuitions of goodness. Belief “2″ (necessarily implied by double predestination) empties belief “1″ of foundation.
Therefore, any exegesis of the Bible that ends up portraying God as not good, which high Calvinism (belief in double predestination) inexorably does, cannot be believed because it self-referentially turns back against the very reason for believing the Bible. In order to be consistent one must choose between belief in the Bible as God’s Word and belief in double predestination.
This is why I say with John Wesley about the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 “Whatever it means it cannot mean that.”
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Follow Up to Why (High) Calvinism Is Impossible
by Roger Olson
March 19, 2014
Suppose someone said “God is sovereign but God’s sovereignty is different from our ideas of sovereignty. God is sovereign but possesses only the power of persuasion.” Someone else objects saying “But wait. There is no meaning of ‘sovereignty’ known to man that is compatible with having only the power of persuasion.” The first person responds, “Oh, but you are assuming a human idea of sovereignty; God’s sovereignty is higher and better than any human idea of sovereignty. We can’t project our ideas onto God; we must learn from God what ‘sovereignty’ means.” The second person says “But wait again. When you say God is ‘sovereign,’ then, we have no idea what you mean because the word ‘sovereign’ becomes equivocal. It is compatible with anything.” The first person responds, “Well, God is mysterious and his ways are higher than our ways.”
In other words, two can play this game. The Calvinist believes God predestines people to eternal torment in hell apart from any truly free decisions they make (since he “designs, foreordains, and governs” all creaturely decisions) and could rescue them from it (because election to salvation is unconditional and grace is irresistible) but doesn’t say “God is good,” even though there is no OTHER meaning of “good” compatible with such behavior. This is no different from, say, a process theologian saying “God is sovereign” even though there is no OTHER meaning of “sovereign” compatible with total lack of power other than power of persuasion. In both cases we really have no idea what the words mean.
Almost all Calvinists insist that God is NOT the “author of sin and evil.” Why? Because that would be incompatible with being “good.” SOME Calvinists challenge that and ask why God can’t be good AND the author of sin and evil? The other Calvinists really have no answer to that because they have already emptied “good” of all meaningful content by saying it is compatible with God predestining people to hell (as described above).
Words cannot mean whatever we say they mean (contrary to the character in Alice in Wonderland). This is the whole point of saying that theological language must be analogical and not equivocal. High Calvinism makes “good” equivocal. Then, “good” becomes possibly compatible with anything and everything–including deceiving others. If God’s “goodness” is so elastic and equivocal, then there is no reason to expect that it could NOT be compatible with God deceiving us in which case we have no good ground for trusting the Bible.
I am convinced that all objectors so far have missed the point entirely. What scenario in human existence and experience can you think of in which something like predestining fellow human beings to eternal torment in hell apart from any free decisions they make would possibly be compatible with “goodness?” What scenario in human existence and experience can you think of in which refusing to rescue a fellow human person from eternal torment when one could rescue him is compatible with “goodness.”
If you say “Well, whatever God does is automatically ‘good’ just because God does it,” then you have made my point for me. We don’t have any dependable understanding of what that might exclude. In that case “good” MIGHT include deceiving us in God’s “Word” such that the reality is exactly the opposite of what it says–viz., that salvation is by works alone rather than by grace alone.
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