Saturday, July 31, 2010

Calvin on Election

Today I am reflecting on Book III, Chapters XXI - XXIII in Institutes of the Christian Religion. Let me start by acknowledging one thing at the outset. This segment of Calvin's work really is nearly as intolerable as most people make it out to be. Calvin stubbornly insists on pressing the doctrine, even though he is clearly aware that some of his own allies are more inclined to be more moderate on the topic. The primary theme that sticks out to me in Calvin's whole work is the theme of humility--and humility plays the most prominent role in his doctrine of election--yet a question that occurs to me is, how can one humbly beat others over the head with humility? That seems to be what Calvin is doing here, and it's not fun to read. So let me be honest about my complaints, while I also attempt to glean what is most insightful about these chapters.

First, I should give Calvin some credit at the outset for prepping the reading against two errors.
First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder.


There are others who, wishing to cure this evil, all but require that every mention of predestination be buried; indeed, they teach us to avoid any question of it, as we would a reef. Even though their moderation in this matter is rightly to be praised, because they feel that these mysteries ought to be discussed with great soberness, yet because they descend to too low a level, they make little progress with the human understanding, which does not allow itself to be easily restrained. Therefore, to hold to a proper limit in this regard also, we shall have to turn back to the Word of the Lord, in which we have a sure rule for the understanding. For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress.
It's clear from this passage why Calvin is willing to go ahead and push through the doctrine of predestination, even though he is aware of the first danger that he mentions. I admit that he is probably not guilty of the first danger, in the sense that he is very restrained in his interpretation of God's foreknowledge.

But his fault, I find, is something like this: It is as if a doctor were to tell you your wife had cancer, and then explained to you in clear, scientific terms why this was the case. And should you cry out in tears if there is anything he can do about it, the doctor would respond, "Well, no, of course not! The facts are irrefutable." I don't know if Calvin means to sound this way, but he does.

For illustration, here are some nice, friendly quotes:
"No one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply deny predestination, by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death. But our opponents, especially those who make foreknowledge its cause, envelop it in numerous petty objections. We, indeed, place both doctrines in God, but we say that subjecting one to the other is absurd."

"As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation."

"But others, not versed in Scripture, and deserving no approbation, so wickedly assail this sound doctrine that their insolence is intolerable. Because God chooses some, and passes over others according to his own decision, they bring an action against him. But if the fact itself is well known, what will it profit them to quarrel against God? We teach nothing not borne out by experience: that God has always been free to bestow his grace on whom he wills. I shall not inquire in what respect the descendants of Abraham excelled other men, except in that esteem whose cause is not found outside God. Let them answer why they are men rather than oxen or asses. Although it was in God's power to make them dogs, he formed them to his own image. Will they allow brute beasts to argue with God about their condition, as if the distinction were unjust? Surely, it is not fairer for them to possess a privilege that they have obtained without merits than for God variously to dispense his benefits according to the measure of his judgment!"

Delightful, isn't it? The worst part is the way in which Calvin makes his view irrefutable, by insisting that God's will is irrefutable:
"For God's wil is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, must be considered righteousness."

"They will say that God's righteousness is not truly defended thus but that we are attempting a subterfuge such as those who lack a just excuse are wont to have. For what else seems to be said her than that God has a power that cannot be prevented from doing whatever it pleases him to do? But it is far otherwise. For what stronger reason can be adduced than when we are bidden to ponder who God is? For how could he who is the Judge of the earth allow any iniquity [cf. Gen. 18:25]? If the execution of judgment properly belongs to God's nature, then by nature he loves righteousness and abhors unrighteousness. Accordingly, the apostle did not look for loopholes of escape as if he were embarrassed in his argument but showed that the reason of divine righteousness is higher than man's standard can measure, or than man's slender wit can comprehend. That apostle even admits that such depth underlies God's judgments [Rom. 11:33] that all men's minds would be swallowed up if they tried to penetrate it.... Monstrous is the madness of men, who desire thus to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason!"

The effect of these statements is to shield Calvin's view of predestination from any possible objection raised by human intuition. Here we arrive at an age-old puzzle. If God is really God, then in some sense that's the way it should be--God is God, we are not, and our opinions don't measure up to His. But on the other hand, we all have to make a choice--is this voice truly the voice of God? And then how will we decide? Of course, if Christians say "the Bible" and Muslims say "the Koran," then we can all continue to be exactly where we are. But we will not get any closer to answering the question. It is, in my experience, an impossible conundrum, but nevertheless one that cannot be ignored.

All I can say is that Calvin's statements here shield him not only from other religious points of view, but even from other Christian points of view (even from his own allies). To me this smacks of folly. It is true that Calvin uses large pieces of biblical evidence from both the Old and New Testaments to make his point, but he seems a bit too hasty to conclude that he has been faithful to the Scriptures where hundreds of great theologians and millions of faithful believers have failed.

I will grant that Calvin makes some important clarifications. Specifically, he refutes the idea that predestination means what we do doesn't matter.
"For who can hear, they say, that either life or death has been appointed for him by God's eternal and unchangeable decree without thinking immediately that it makes no difference how he conducts himself, since God's predestination can neither be hindered nor advanced by his effort? ... Yet Paul teaches that we have been chosen to this end: that we may lead a holy and blameless life [Eph. 1:4]. If election has as its goal holiness of life, it ought rather to arouse and goad us eagerly to set our mind upon it than to serve as a pretext for doing nothing."

"But they stretch their blasphemies further when they say that he who has been condemned by God, if he endeavors through innocent and upright life to make himself approved of God [cf. II Tim. 2:15], will lose his labor. In this contention they are convicted of utterly shameless falsehood. Whence could such endeavor arise but from election? For whoever are of the number of the reprobate, as they are vessels made for dishonor [cf. Rom. 9:21], so they do not cease by their continual crimes to arouse God's wrath against themselves, and to confirm by clear signs that God's judgment has already been pronounced upon them--no matter how much they vainly resist it."

There will be more to say on Calvin's doctrine of election next time, since there is another chapter I still have to read. However, I were to summarize Calvin's doctrine in a way that is as sympathetic as possible, I would have to say, it comes down to this. Christians ought to pursue salvation, struggle to attain holiness, and live charitably toward all people, desiring first of all their salvation and secondly their every good. Yet all the while Christians ought to acknowledge that it is not by anything in ourselves that we receive salvation, nor is it by any effort of our own that we attain holiness, nor is it by any hope or prayer in ourselves that others are saved. Rather, it is all according to God's will, since He governs all. At base level, then, Calvin's doctrine is about exalting God's will to the highest degree, and about instilling humility in human beings, in the most extreme way possible. In some sense, no Christian can argue with that.

I also agree with Calvin on one crucial point: there really doesn't seem to me to be any difference between God's permission and God's will. As Calvin says, "But why shall we say 'permission' unless it is because God so wills? Still, it is not in itself likely that man brought destruction upon himself through himself, by God's mere permission and without any ordaining. As if God did not establish the condition in which he wills the chief of his creatures to be! I shall not hesitate, then, simply to confess with Augustine that 'the will of God is the necessity of things,' and that what he has willed will of necessity come to pass, as those things which he has foreseen will truly come to pass."

Indeed, I've never seen why it makes matters any better to assign a little or a lot of the process of salvation to man's free will. The fact still remains, God could have established conditions in which things would have happened differently. Can any Christian seriously deny that? If God wanted to, He could have made it so that Judas didn't betray Jesus. Is it really possible to deny this? Or is God subject to some higher authority?

One possible solution to all this is a Florenskian approach (which is perhaps the approach that many Eastern Orthodox take). From this point of view, "truth is a self-contradictory judgment." God's sovereign election and human free will, then, would simply exist in tension with one another, inseparably part of the truth, though contradicting one another. That's an attractive option in a lot of ways, because it perhaps holds the mysteries of God in even higher esteem than Calvin's view does: God's truth is so mysterious it cannot even be expressed rationally, as one or the other.

But even this doesn't seem to really deal with the thing that is hardest to deal with: the idea that judgment is eternal, and that inevitably some people will be cast into hell. Why should any Christian be comfortable with this idea? I still have never gotten a good answer.

I don't know what the answer is, but I will point out an important contradiction that I find in Calvin's view. When he was talking about prayer, he said, "If we would pray fruitfully, we ought therefore to grasp with both hands this assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins with his own voice, and all the saints teach by their example. For only that prayer is acceptable to God which is born, if I may so express it, out of such presumption of faith, and is grounded in unshaken assurance of hope." But then when he discusses predestination, he agrees with Augustine when he says, "For as we know not who belongs to the number of the predestined or who does not belong, we ought to be so minded as to wish that all men be saved."

To change but a few words of Calvin in section 12 of Chapter XX, "Now what sort of prayer will this be? 'O Lord, I am in doubt whether thou willest to hear me, but because I am pressed by anxiety, I flee to thee, that, if thou willest, thou mayest save all people.' This is not the way of all the saints we read in Scripture." It really isn't: whether it's Abraham interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Moses interceding for his own people, the saints of old did not sit back and accept God's judgments without a plea for mercy. Why, then, do Christians hear Christ telling them to pray for their enemies, and yet have absolutely no faith that God will hear those prayers?

Call me a heretic, but the only option that makes sense to me is some sort of universalism. The objection is always that there are examples in Scripture of people who are already under condemnation. As if God could not reach down into the depths of hell and save those who are already under judgment! Does this defy the words of Christ? I don't think so--no more than his own words defy the words of the Old Testament. As they say, it's all in how you interpret things. I would probably be better off leaving my heretical opinions to myself, but then this blog wouldn't be what it is.

In any case, Calvin's view actually gives me more motivation to pray for all people. If it is God who ultimately saves, then it is to God that I must go to make my case. Human minds cannot be changed by human power, if the Scriptures are to be believed. Should I not pray, then, that all people will be transformed? And when I pray, should I not pray believing that I have already received it, so that it may be granted [cf. Mark 11:24]? So much, then, for the problem of predestination.

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