Recently a group of folk from our church went and joined several other folk from other churches to be part of an audience for this live TV debate which I found rather late last night on youtube. The question was, Is Calvinism Biblical? Jacques More, author of the anti-calvinistic book So You Think You’re Chosen? debated Steve Jeffrey, leader of an evangelical and decidedly calvinistic church in North London.
Now, the video is an hour and twenty minutes long, so if you don’t want to watch it, I can only summarise by saying that on the one hand Steve seemed convinced that calvinism was Biblical, ie. that many of the central ideas (God’s sovereignty over everything, His supreme control, His involvement in every action that takes place) started straight from the Bible. Jacques and a mixture of other illustrious fellows in the audience (Roger Forster gets to make a number of VERY wise comments – okay, he’s the leader of my church) opposed this from a number of angles, seeing God’s sovereignty in a different manner, and as I saw it, picking holes in the logic of calvinism. One of the fundamental refutations to be made to my summary of Steve’s ideas was that calvinism, if it began anywhere before Calvin, began with Augustine. This is mentioned in the video. It needs qualification. Maybe we’ll get there.
But as I slept on it and have woken up this morning, I’ve got a lot of thoughts buzzing around in my head about the issue. It has probably all been said before. It probably won’t help anyone think differently (though I dearly wish it would). But I wanna say it all anyway!
The question is, where to begin? For me, as I mentioned above, I think it is the flawed logic of calvinism – or at least this particular calvinist – that most bugs me. Commenters on the video pointed out his use of unbiblical metaphor (sun and shadows, green and red doors) to explain calvinism, rather than using the Bible. Sure enough he starts with the problem presented by the Bible – mainly, one verse, Isaiah 45:7 (I’ll try to deal with that later) – but answers it with this strange metaphor that somehow God creates evil just as the sun is responsible for shadows. Instead of balancing that verse with the rest of Scripture, understanding it in its context and the way Isaiah wrote, etc. etc. Which is what Jacques and Roger do (I have to give the latter due credit not just because I know him but because of the clear authority of his contributions).
First of all, another amicable gentleman in the audience (I may or may not know him also) points out the over-simplification of using such a metaphor. I would like the point clarified and formalised still further. If we’re going to run with that metaphor, I would say folks who hold a more ‘open’ view (and I’m trying to embrace the intricacies of Arminianism and Open Theism and other similar views, not just one or the other, at this point – and don’t worry if you don’t know what any of those terms mean!) – those of us with a more open view than calvinists would say that the sun gives off only light just as God does, and is only good. “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The sun doesn’t just ‘create’ shadows as well. It’s the things in the way that create shadows! They use the fact that light is there, and create darkness by getting in the way. I would say opponents of the calvinistic view have a much stronger case for using such a metaphor, than do the calvinists.
Where Did Sin Come From?
It’s difficult to know which thing to deal with next, so you will have to bear with me. There is then the issue of where sin first occurred, where it first came from. And however much he tried to obfuscate the view, Steve basically believed it came from God. He didn’t say it outright, but he essentially said that God intentionally created the first evil. Nowhere in Scripture do we find this! What we do find is that iniquity was found in the heart of Lucifer, who became Satan, who fell – they cited Ezekiel 28:15. How was it found? It’s simple: Satan decided to go against God in a bid for the hearts of men. It was a choice.
We are getting into increasingly deep waters, and I think I’m going to have to say several things in one phrase that need paragraphs. Readers are encouraged to pick out things they want clarification on, and leave comments, if they wish.
Sin was a choice. It was possible because God created angels and men with free will. He did this especially for men because He created us in His image, and He has free will. Love involves choice. This makes much more sense than having to wiggle your way around lots of issues to somehow explain that God intended evil to be created and put us through the whole mess of human history deliberately. The fact is you cannot say “God made evil” when it says that He is light and there is no darkness in Him at all. He cannot create, or give, what He does not have. God clearly acknowledged the possibility that with choice, men (and angels) could choose away from Him. And so He had a redemption plan right from the start, not wishing for any to perish. That’s why it says He was the Lamb slain “before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8).
Strongly connected to this issue, is the issue of Satan. I think that under calvinism he essentially becomes irrelevant as a major spiritual consideration, which massively undermines everything that especially the New Testament has to say about him, and about the distinction between angels and demons, light and dark, God’s kingdom and the devil’s domain. (Reinforcing my actually little-stated assertion that calvinism stems from misreading the Old Testament – not letting it be filled up by the completion of revelation and understanding granted by the New. This is something that you generally find in conservative churches such as Steve’s, which is a shame. More to be said there but not now.) The offence calvinism takes with talking about the devil as independent from God’s control is that, well, that’s setting him up as an alternative deity, strong opponent, to God. Well, I don’t think any of us would assert that! God is clearly stronger and won the battle in the most amazing way – by dying on the cross. But as one member of the audience pointed out (to whom I shall return again later), Satan HAS been having his day, in stealing, killing and destroying people’s lives. Jesus acknolwedges this! (John 10:10) If God both sent the devil to steal and kill and destroy, and then sent His Son to give back again and to give life, then He’s contradictory, and at best, giving the recipients a FALSE sense of His loving them by giving back through the Son what they originally lost. Why would He want to do that?? Furthermore, if we have to make sense of verses like Isaiah 45:7 as the calvinists say (see below), we also have to make sense of verses like “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). God is not weak so as to not be able to defeat him; but obviously through giving free choice to His created beings, this is the way things are, and He is glorified when through the means and limitations He has set in place, He is able to thwart the devil’s purposes time and again through His redeemed people. Much like the chess player that was referred to at one point in the video, knowing His opponent’s play, knowing all the possibilities and outcomes on the board, and therefore ultimately the way in which He’s going to achieve checkmate.
There remains a plethora of issues and I feel like I haven’t begun to do justice to the ones already raised. But I will press on.
“Mystery” – ooooh…weird…
One thing that really bugged me was when Steve started to go on about this ‘mysterious’ problem that we have (still in particular referring to the problem of Isaiah 45:7 where God says “I create darkness”) and that we can’t really know the answer. No, Steve, if you’re a calvinist, you can’t know the answer. I think it’s quite clear that God wants to make Himself as clear as possible, in coming to earth as a man. What clearer illustration could you ask for?? We have a whole Bible and yet we don’t have an answer for this problem? Something’s not quite right here.
We only have a mysterious problem if we already have the precondition of calvinistic thought when we approach these problem Scriptures. Reading them in light of the fresh understanding of the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus helps us understand them through Him. Remember, John who wrote “God is Light” had MET that God and walked with Him for three and a half years, as Jacques helpfully pointed out. Jesus only ever did good. He said that the Father loves to give GOOD gifts (Matt 7:11) to His children – nothing about calamity there. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed – not by God, because then He would be contradicting Himself – but by the devil! For God was with Him (Acts 10:38).
It’s a mystery if we somehow try to believe that God created the first evil, and yet that He hates all evil. It must surely be obvious: God is Light (I make no apologies for harping on that verse) and so evil comes from a rejection of God. Evil is repulsive to Him because it is NOT of Him nor of His nature. SIMPLE! Perhaps we could say that “God creating darkness” (see my points on Isaiah 45:7 below) is His way of saying, “there are these things against My nature creating shadows, but ultimately that’s because I’m here shining a light, and so when you experience the darkness, of course you’re going to look to Me and ask why I’m doing it, because it seems to stem from the fact that I’m shining but that light is being kept from you.” Or something like that. But this is postulation. Otherwise, if God created evil and yet is repulsed by it at the same time, that is a complete contradiction in His nature, and presents a huge philosophical problem.
Again – more needs to be said, I hope I have done just enough justice to that point. I’m trying to keep this as brief as possible!
It’s about time we got down to Isaiah 45:7, as this provided the central problem for most of the debate – and I hasten to emphasise: one verse. Out of thousands that we have in our Bibles. Sure, there are a couple of others – two or three others, from the top of my head: there might have been one in Job (if someone can remember that would be helpful!); one in Ecclesiastes (again apologies I cannot remember the reference) and Amos 3:6. All from the Old Testament, and very few in number when held up to how many verses there are in the Bible altogether!
Isaiah 45:7 reads: “[I am] the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.” Now, the argument from the calvinist is straightforward: God says He creates darkness, and the word is “rua” which means “evil”. Therefore, that is what it means, we have to deal with that.
Jacques and Roger by turn came back with several helpful points on this particular verse. 1. even though the word “create” (“bara”) is the same as used in Genesis 1, it is also used in quite different contexts elsewhere in Scripture, such as “I created the smith” (Isaiah 54:16). 2. Jacques pointed out that there are different verbs used between light and darkness, to divide the difference between what is of God’s direct nature and doing, and what is consequential, coming as a result of the good that He has made. The same word “bara” is used for creating the darkness and the calamity, but two different words “yatsar” and “asah” are used for “forming” and “causing” respectively. This verse (ironically) is not as black and white as it seems.
On a tangent – I mentioned Isaiah 54:16. This might be called up as a further backup to the calvinist’s argument. It says, “Behold, I Myself have created the smith who blows the fire of coals and brings out a weapon for its work; and I have created the destroyer to ruin.” The calvinist might jump on this and say that God made the baddy. But does that mean He made him bad, or just that He made him? He made the one that – we could argue without stepping out of the Biblical logic – through choice has become bad, and is now being used as a weapon against the people of God. I say, read the next verse: “No weapon that is formed against you will prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn…” He made these guys who are coming against Israel, therefore He knows how to restrain them!
So I think in this verse and the few others like it, we see that God can and does take ultimate responsibility for the darkness that is created, because His light is shining. But He is able to use that darkness, manoeuvre and manipulate it, restrain it, to effect His good purposes. Hence being the ‘creator’ in this sense is beneficial; though He regrets the path that the vessel has taken, being its creator and even by proxy (of light to shadow-maker) carries responsibility for the darkness created, He nonetheless has power to restrain it and use it. I could say things about Pharaoh here, but I won’t, because I’m nearly up to 2000 words already, and haven’t got through the half of it…(feel free to ask in a comment though).
Is God Limited?
I’ll try to be brief about the next problem: the problem of limitations. Splashing a paintbrush across a huge canvas, the calvinist might desperately ask, if God is not all-seeing all-knowing all-powerful and in control, then are you telling me I worship a finite God? One of the audience members asks this sort of question.
But surely we HAVE to acknowledge, if He has made a creation, He has set obvious boundaries, whereby we can have understanding and learn about His nature, from the things created. If He created everything with an infinitude of possibilities, there would ultimately be no ground for building love and relationship with Him. That’s a huge philosophical statement and I realise might not necessarily make sense, but let me say this: love involves boundaries. Fact. Limitations, even. Creation involves boundaries; as Roger quaintly put it, God cannot make a four-legged tripod. Before time began, there might have been a time (!) when He could have done. But He has set restraints and boundaries in place for us to have logos, logic, and grounds for beginning to understand Him, and in that way build relationship with Him which can be held by love.
And so while we might say we worship an infinite God, that is meaningless for us at this present time because He has knowingly set boundaries in place for the purpose of relationship. In coming to earth as a baby He put Himself in, without doubt, the most vulnerable and finite place possible, because He is a humble God, and can show us through finite measures and means the infinitude of His love – that is His beauty and His power.
Moving on again (soon I’ll have to stop saying, “I could say more” – just bear it in mind!). Just a quick note on the idea that was raised, that calvinism comes from Greek philosophy. Steve made a funny but slightly foolish jest in response: “I’ve never read Greek philosophy”. It got a few laughs, but I would hope a man of his intelligence could recognise that he’s probably read people who have read Greek philosophy. Namely Augustine, Calvin, and I’m sure, a whole array of modern commentators and scholars. It doesn’t take much for platonic, nice-sounding ideas like “God is omnipotent/omnipresent/omniscient” to seep into Christian theology, and as soon as any of these assertions are challenged, the challenge is balked at because, if He isn’t, how could He be God?
Well the fact is, I’ve never felt the need to use any of the above ‘omni’s in my description of what God is like, because I don’t find any of them in the Bible, nor their concerns for describing God as this kind of out-there, BIG, everywhere-everything-permeatory, and frankly impersonal, deity. When I come to Scripture, it is His personal nature I see emphasised: the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in love, abounding in mercy, and so on. None of the omnis are found in the Bible. Let’s stick to Biblical terms and frameworks, please.
The Moral Problem – Again
We’ve already touched on this, but it needs to be reinforced. One man in the audience (mentioned above), who was the second to last in the show to have a say from the audience, brought the issue of tragedy in the life of a family of believers. He helpfully laid out the stark reality of where the rubber of this theology hits the road: in the day-to-day lives of people. Trying to explain to a family that has experienced tragedy which leads to deep, deep grief, that it was all intended by the God they worship and believe in, DOESN’T WORK. God gives good gifts to His children – oh except when He feels like giving bad ones that you won’t understand but you’re supposed to?
This man raised a large philosophical problem in a few brief words: if they think it’s wrong but this theology somehow tells them that God thought it was right and they just need to get in line with that, their natural sense of morality is higher than God’s. Or, we cannot be so categorical about what is morally wrong and right, if in fact God is somehow doing all the bad stuff as well as all the good stuff. There is no moral ground any more. This problem needs to be addressed!
In this scenario, if the calvinists are right, then it must mean that when God made us He wired us so that we DON’T understand His ways. If they’re right, then when a tragedy occurs, even though our hackles rise and we say “this is wrong,” we are somehow forced to have to accept that it’s NOT wrong, the problem is that we just don’t know or understand God. And that’s very discouraging, because I would hope that at the very least we could be clear, as I’ve already explained above, that the Bible says that we CAN know and understand God – He would want it, if He wants relationship with us!
It’s not only philosophically and Scripturally untenable, however; it is potentially pastorally disastrous. Some reconcile it with “well now God can use me to minister to others who have had loss” which is true, He can USE bad situations. But it’s philosophically illogical if at the point you say that, you’re still a calvinist, because all those people you minister to would have losses created by God also. In which case, He could have prevented all of them and wouldn’t have needed to create tragedy for you either in the first place!
So Is God In Control, Or Isn’t He?
This, I guess, is the fundamental question that has to be asked. If there is stuff happening in the world that isn’t His will, how is He God – does He have any power? A whole host of things pop into my head at this point and it is impossible to order them, but those of you who are still reading to this point deserve something worthwhile to keep you going, so I’ll try my best.
First of all this lines up with questions from atheists: how could a God who is all-loving and all-powerful allow suffering? Essentially this is linked. The thing is those atheists are asking about a calvinistic God. The calvinist, sadly, would have to tell them that the suffering is the will of God. Great.
Secondly, alright, if you non-calvinists are right, then God isn’t as powerful as we thought. But does that mean He’s not powerful? As I’ve already said, He’s clearly put boundaries in place for good reasons. He works through the things He has made, through the limitations of man, through “earthen vessels” as Paul says, “so that the surpassing greatness of the power would be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor 4:7). It’s the fact that He CAN still work His purposes (for GOOD) through these means, that He can work in all things for good with those who love Him (see Rom 8:28, RSV, arguably the best translation of that verse), that gets Him the glory, and defeats the devil in ways the devil didn’t see coming! (See 1 Cor 1-2; Col 2:9-15)
Let’s simplify the matter. We have to incorporate into our theology not just one statement “God is/isn’t in control”, but Biblical statements which I would sum in the following way:
Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.”
Psalm 115:16 “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to the sons of men.”
1 John 5:19 “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”
There are clearly, free agents running around, all doing their own thing, all having some claim to the world and what goes on in it. The earth is the Lord’s, He made it, knows how it all works, and can work with it and whatever is going on in it because He knows the mechanics and can use it to His ends. But He has given it to the sons of men to be responsible with it – because as beings made in His image, He wants them to learn how to rule and reign as He does, and to steward responsibility. Unfortunately, due to man’s choice and free will (being, as we are, in the image of the One who has free will), things have taken a slide and much of the world has fallen into the grip of the evil one – the one who chose to reject God and His purposes. Amazingly though, the plan remains the same: God’s people are to steward the earth, and through them He exerts His ultimate plan for goodness, thwarting the devil who thinks he has a grip on the world, seeing his grip loosened finger by finger, until “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:15) That would be meaningless and needless if He had been reigning all the time. As would be the need to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done!” (Matt 6:10)
One final anecdote: I rent a house. I’m not the owner, I’m a tenant. Some wonderful missionaries happen to be the owners. The house is theirs, and, well, most of the things in it (we’ll say all, to run with the picture) – hopefully you can see where I’m going with this. So anyway, they’ve given it into the hands of me and three others, to look after and steward, giving them due glory (money) for the privilege. Now unfortunately, if we don’t do a good job, if we don’t clean, look after it, get broken things mended, etc, pretty quickly it will get overrun, possbily infested, and impossible to manage. We could have rats, as I heard recently one student house has for such reasons – not just mice, RATS! Eugh! If we exaggerate the possibilites, all manner of unclean and nasty things could come to live here – if we let them. But, we try not to.
Do you get the picture? I hope you do. One day, the owners will come back, and tell us what they think of the place, and give us due claps on the back or clouts round the ears, depending!
It’s not a perfect picture – God has a lot more power over the earth now than the missionaries over the house. Perhaps we could express that by saying that we are doing the will of the owners by keeping it clean and so on. They don’t come and secretly throw mess into the house at night in order to make us clean it and do their will – that would be crazy!
I’ve said enough. I hope it makes you think. I could have said more, and I am in some senses inadequate to argue these things fully. I just hope it does something for someone. Over and out.