Monday, January 4, 2016

“The family secret”: when Calvinists all but deny Calvinism

Christianity Today columnist and THINK contributor Andrew Wilson, in “Piper and Olson: Does God Ordain All Sinful Human Choices?”, writes:
“As I have said here before, many high Calvinists answer like Arminians when asked about the problem of evil, displaying a fatal inconsistency which indicates either that their Calvinism doesn’t work, or that they haven’t really thought about it properly. If you believe that God ordains all sinful choices, from the fall to the Holocaust and beyond, then saying that Auschwitz was a tragic result of God giving humans freedom is simply not an option; Nazis killed Jews because God ordained that they would, even if they remain morally culpable for it. But if you believe, as I do, that God ordained some sinful choices in the history of his people and his Son, but always with redemptive purpose, then the classic answer to the Holocaust question is the right one: God allows human beings to make evil choices, even though it grieves him when we do. And this, if we’re honest, is much more compelling on an Alpha table than saying it was all pre-planned for God’s greater glory. Especially when the Bible doesn’t actually say that.” 
Wilson says “Calvinists answer like Arminians” with such casualness that I wonder if my post is even worth while--it seems to be well known. (Perhaps the incongruity of Calvinism is one reason why, as the Tyndale Philosophy Department wrote, "Though of course many Christians are Calvinists, scarcely any Christian philosophers are", link).

Yet, if it is held that “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else”, as Spurgeon once suggested (link), then why is it all but denied by leading 5-point Calvinists when they are in front of non-believers?  In practice, it seems JI Packer was right to call the doctrine of election “the family secret of the children of God” (link) but in a different way than he intended.

Here are a few examples other writers have noted of three leading Calvinists (well, two plus Mark Driscoll, but he was a leading Calvinist at the time, so I’m counting him) who, when given the opportunity to explain their “glorious vision of God’s sovereignty in saving sinners” (link), shy away from it instead. We will look at Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, then John Piper.

Tim Keller

Matt from A Theology in Tension has outlined four examples of Tim Keller presenting an Arminian perspective in public forums instead of his own Calvinist view.

One is in his article “Tim Keller: Private Calvinist, Public Arminian”, where Matt shows the great contrast between Dr Keller’s preaching “in the safe confines of his reformed church [where] he has no qualms about spelling out his belief in Unconditional Election”, and an event where “Keller is on the hot seat in a public forum as to why not all can be saved, and he sounds more like a water-downed Arminian than the bold Calvinist he is unashamed to be in a Calvinist church. […] It is an acceptable answer from an Arminian perspective– but only half the story from a Calvinist perspective.”
Keller says, “All I can ever say about this is God gives me, even as a minister with scripture, a lot of information on a need to know basis…here’s all I can tell you. Unless you get Jesus Christ, who created you to start with, unless you are reunited with him sometime, there is no eternal future of thriving. If Jesus is who he says he is you gotta have him. If right now someone doesn’t have him, he or she needs to get him. If someone dies and they don’t have Jesus– I don’t know. In other words I’m on a need-to-know basis. This is all I know–you need Jesus.” 
Here Keller is simply pretending he “doesn’t know” and pretending he lacks certainty. Why is he pretending? Because in his private, Calvinist chambers he does know and is not at all on a “need to know basis” as to what happens to people who don’t “have Jesus.” As a Calvinist he thinks he has ample, more than sufficient information to warrant a definitive answer– God unconditionally predestined them to perish eternally 
[..] However Keller intuitively knew that if he answered the interviewer’s question in a straight-forward, Calvinist manner he would have immediately lost all intellectual and moral credibility in the eyes of the audience. The point is– if it can’t be preached in public it shouldn’t be believed in private.

You can read the full post here. Be sure to also read the discussion in the comments section (more at the end of this post).

A second example comes from one of the comments of the post above, where Matt adds:
Someone sent me a clip of another segment in which Calvinist Keller is retired in the public forum and Arminian Keller emerges. It is quite telling. He is asked about who goes to hell and he strongly implies that the choice to want God and choose God is available to everyone; and that the only ones in hell are those that refuse to choose God–the driving insinuation being that they could! Calvinist Keller never bothers telling the public forum that according to his privately held beliefs it is God who chooses who “chooses” him, and those in hell are those that God did not want! Once again if it can’t be preached in public without God’s loving and moral integrity (in “desiring that no man perish” and “all to come to a saving knowledge of him”) becoming a joke, then it ought not be believed in private. I once again get the sense that Keller wants to shed the arbitrary God of Calvinism and embrace an Arminian informed portrait of God’s soteriology–but for whatever reason just can’t bring himself to do so when re-immersed in Calvinist company.  
See for yourself: link

In another article, “Calvinism: The ‘Gumby’ Theology”, Matt notes two additional examples of Tim Keller contradicting his Calvinism when he is in front of non-believers:
[I]t is all the more astonishing to me to hear Keller say things that simply do not logically cohere with his Calvinist “Doctrines of Grace.” For example in his DVD series on The Reason for God he is in a room full of only non-believers, and while looking intently at each one of them, and without any qualification, he says to all of them, “God came into the world to forgive you of your sins.” However we all know such general statements of God’s universal intent to forgive people of their sins has no grounding in Calvinist theology. Since Keller affirms Calvinism he can only guess, only hope, only wonder that what he is saying is true. Unlike an Arminian, he actually doesn’t know! It could very well be that God unconditionally predestined all of them to suffer eternal damnation and intentionally left them out of the orbit of his redemptive love. And therefore it would be a malicious lie to say, without qualification, “God came into the world to forgive you of your sins.” But it gets even worse. 
In the second section of the DVD series titled, “How can you say there is only one way to God”, Keller astonishingly converts to full blown Arminianism concerning the extent of Christ’s atonement for sins. In speaking of Christ’s mission to enter our sinful world, he states without qualification, “In the gospels Jesus comes into the world and forgives all sins. Jesus says, ‘All sins are against me and so I forgive you.” 
There is no way Keller, the Calvinist, can honestly say such statements. As a Calvinist, Keller is bound to the view that Jesus did not die for “all sins” and that a large section of humanity was intentionally left out of Christ’s redemptive love, intention and forgiveness. 
Moreover when asked what the Bible teaches about people who die without knowing Christ, he states, “I don’t know… that belongs to the secret things of God.” Such statements can’t be given a pass. Keller is sweeping the dark elements of his Calvinism under the rug. For a principle doctrine of Calvinism is that one of God’s many “secret things” was his “secret decree” to foreordain a particular portion of mankind to damnation.

Mark Driscoll

A second example comes from Mark Driscoll (HT: TC Moore) who was a prominent New Calvinist teacher before his exit from Mars Hill (though I understand he is now planting a new church and ministry, link).  Before that mess, in an interview back in 2009 he was asked about the existence of Satan. Over all I think he provides an excellent presentation--but note that it is a thoroughly Arminian presentation:

Here is a transcript from the video:
Interviewer (11:18): “Pastor Mark, if God is a loving God why would He create Satan?”

Driscoll: “I think he created angels and people and he gave us the capacity to have free will. For there to be virtue, there must be the possibility of vice. And that’s what distinguishes those of us--people and angels--from other forms of creation: trees, animals and the like. We have volitional will, we have consciousness, we have moral decision making. And so God didn’t create evil; God didn’t create injustice or tyranny or oppression. He created free will in angels and people, and Satan and demons and human beings have chosen to disobey--to rebel--and that’s the source of the trouble.”  


Interviewer (13:50): “Why create that choice? Why not just let everything be peaceful?”  
Driscoll: “Well, I think if you don't allow choice, the theologians will say you don't have love. That love requires volition and that God does not want automations, he wants persons.  And so, the argument is made that if God were not allowing choice, then you wouldn't have evil, but you would also not have love.”
Notice Driscoll immediately appeals to free will and provides an entirely Arminian view. We're left to wonder why he never provides his own Calvinist perspective on the matter at all.

John Piper & Jonathan Edwards

The last example comes from John Piper's re-packaging of Jonathan Edwards.  Unlike the examples above, here Dr Piper is not shy about his Calvinism--at first. Both Piper and Edwards begin with their Calvinist interpretation, but only to switch mid-way through to the Arminian position in order to avoid the only conclusion to which the Calvinist argument leads -- and now purport the Arminian view as their own.  We see this in John Piper’s sermon, “Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be?”

Also note here, that unlike the examples above, Dr Piper does not use this switch in front of non-believers but rather at the Jonathan Edwards Institute.  Let’s think about Andrew Wilson’s alternatives: “high Calvinists answer like Arminians when asked about the problem of evil, displaying a fatal inconsistency which indicates either that their Calvinism doesn’t work, or that they haven’t really thought about it properly.” Since Dr Piper seems to have thought through these issues more than almost anyone, yet still appeals to Edwards presentation of the Arminian perspective, I have to conclude that his “Calvinism doesn’t work”.

Here is an excerpt from Arminian Perspectives (bold mine):

For all of Piper’s arguments that God decrees and necessitates sin, he is only able to avoid making God the author of sin by following Edwards in arguing like an Arminian.  Just like Edwards, Piper has extensively argued for decretal necessitation of sin (even to the point of suggesting that all sin and evil actually originates by God’s “fatherly hand”), but now defends only the Arminian position of permission and non-prevention.  Not only does this contradict his own arguments to this point (which actually do imply that God is the necessitating author of sin), but it also vindicates the Arminian perspective on God’s sovereignty in relation to sin as well as the Arminian interpretation of the same passages that Piper previously used to show that God ordains all sin and evil.  Again, Whedon drives this point home in his response to Edwards’ use of the same sorts of passages,
Edwards next proceeds to the Scripture argument.  He adduces the cases of Pharaoh, of Joseph’s brethren, of the king of Assyria, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of the crucifiers of Christ to prove- it is not very clear what.  These passages, it is at present sufficient to say, have terms of causation that seem to ascribe authorship of sin to God.  These passages either prove God’s necessitation of sin, or his mere permission or non-prevention.  By Edwards own argument they cannot mean the former; for he asserts there is nothing but mere permission.  If there is nothing but mere permission, then they make nothing against Arminianism.  He quotes but does not analyze them on this point, very much as if he meant, non-committally, to have a causation and necessitation of sin, by the reader inferred, which he thought best not explicitly himself to express. (ibid. 346)

So, for all of Piper’s arguments we are left with the Arminian theory of non-prevention to account for God’s ordaining sin in such a way as to avoid making God the author of sin. How does Piper avoid the implications of his theology?  He avoids them by adopting the Arminian perspective, the very perspective he has worked so hard to argue against in his sermon.  But as Whedon points out concerning Edwards, Piper’s permission and non-prevention solution likewise cannot comport with Piper’s overall theology,
It is not merely permission, not-hindering, non-annihilation, non-prevention, privative non-interference, nor the sole arranging that sin, if not prevented, will take place, that Necessitarianism teaches.  It teaches that God is the necessitative first cause, through a straight inevitable line of necessitating second causes, of man’s existence, and of his very acts, and of his final damnation for the being and act.  Necessitated to be what he is, to do what he does, of that necessitation God is the original necessitator who not only negatively precludes any different results from any possible existence, but positively necessitates that sole result to come into existence.  That is, God necessitates his existence, his nature and sin.  Man has no adequate ability for different existence, choice, act, or destiny. (ibid., pp. 343, 344)

We are left with only two possibilities.  Either Piper is truly relying on the Arminian non-prevention position to escape the force of his own Calvinist logic in making God the author of sin, thereby defeating his previous arguments to the contrary, or he is using “permission” in a manner that is contrary to normal usage and understanding.

You can read the rest of this post here.

One more thing

I’ll close with part of the exchange from the comments section of Matt’s first post, linked above. One commenter, Zach, quoted Tim Keller saying (in part): 

“The Biblical view of things is resurrection—not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater” –Tim Keller; I love that Keller says here basically God will ultimately get the glory for every piece of evil and suffering that has taken place in the world.
To which Matt replied (in part, bold mine): 
For starters it is crucial that we see the hypocrisy and utter nonsense of the Calvinist position. Keller says that God will manifest his glory when he undoes and repairs horrible things that evil has caused. Well Zach– who decreed all that evil in the first place? God did according to Keller’s privately held theology! It’s absurd. Again Calvinism’s portrayal of God and his glory is akin to a man setting his neighbors house on fire and then running in as the rescuer to save some (but passes over others to let them burn) just so he can splash his name across the newspapers and glorify himself as a hero. Honestly–how is this being missed? Do you not see the hypocrisy of the Calvinist position in saying God decrees the evils of X, Y and Z so that he can glorify himself by undoing and repairing the horrible things that resulted from the evils of X, Y and Z? 
God’s glory that you highlight IS NOT seen in him justifying all the evil of this world in virtue of decreeing all the evil of this world. Rather God’s sovereignty and glory is best seen in him overcoming and overruling all evil (that is not of his decretive will) and achieving his ultimate, sovereign purposes in spite of humanity’s misuse and abuse of a good thing– freedom. God’s sovereignty is much greater than you think Zach.  

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