On Calvinism

Dear Hannah,

I don't remember ever directly encountering the 5 Points of Calvinism in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, but here they are, in case you aren't sure you remember them.

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

They mean, in essence,
1) That from the second you're born, you're in a position of damnation
2) That God chose you to be saved regardless of anything you'd ever do
3) That God only chose some of us, and then damned the rest
4) That you don't have a choice in your salvation
5) That once you're saved, you'll always be saved

That Calvin has been reduced to these five points is a tragedy; but certainly no more a tragedy than Schopenhauer being limited in his genius to giving up, or Burke being linked after all his writings with simple stubbornness.  The need to boil men into their essentials should be obvious: we have hundreds of real geniuses who've made real contributions to Western Civilization, and few of us have time to read them all.  I suppose it's better, in the long run, that we at least know what we've taken from them.  Our schools can only teach us the basics about men before we have to move on to someone else.  But whenever I've heard someone say "Erasmus was wrong" or "Nietzsche was wrong," what it really means to me is "I was taught about Erasmus and Nietzsche, but never read much of them."  John Calvin is no exception to the rule. He's much more brilliant and far more useful and much more boring than he's given credit for.  Almost nobody has ever read him.

This being said, the Five Points of Calvinism may not have even been the five points Calvin wanted us to take from The Institutes; and from what I can tell, not only from paying attention to Calvin's references, but from reading City of God, much of what's known as Calvinism today had already been taught by Augustine.  If the Catholics call Calvinism a heresy it's an old heresy -- at the very least a fifth century heresy, "invented" by a man already canonized into sainthood and revered by Catholic monks around the world (particularly the most infamous Augustinian monk ever known, Martin Luther).  If "double predestination" is offensive to the Catholic, it proves more about the Catholic than about the heresy.  He adds double because he doesn't understand the meaning of predestine.  I've also never met anyone who was double destined for anything.  One would think one destiny is enough.

The most interesting thing about five-point "Calvinism" is that it's a reductio ad absurdum of certain Biblical teachings -- or in other words, it focuses so closely on several Biblical statements and takes them to their utmost logical conclusions, that it makes the Christian religion silly.  Consider what the Five Points imply: that God is so sovereign, that nothing you do matters. You might as well say our entire moral existence is meaningless -- more meaningless, you might even say, than the biological determinist's.  The determinist believes that men are a chemical reaction and we'll die after a lifetime of chemical accidents.  The Calvinist says that men are a spiritual reaction, and so we'll die after a lifetime of simply responding to spirits.  The difference between the two is that the Calvinist believes some of us will go to hell for it.

That the Scriptures teach these things is irrefutable.  If Paul doesn't mean that all unsaved men are under the power of the Devil, then he means nothing.  If Jesus doesn't mean that all who come to Him are those the Father had given Him, then He means nothing.  If Paul says we can't learn anything about God unless the Spirit teaches us, then we're left entirely at the mercy of the teacher.  If Paul says we've been chosen from the beginning to share an eternal inheritance, then we have been chosen from the beginning.  If we're all effects, then nobody is a cause.  If our nature is the problem, then the only person to blame is our Designer.

That Paul and Jesus do the opposite is also irrefutable.  Each apostle instructs us to be on our guard so we don't fall away.  We're commanded to pray for assistance, probably because praying will do something.   We're given moral instructions, because we have to change what we're doing.  Nobody in the Bible ever expected that once God's in charge we're supposed to do nothing.  You might even say that once God's in charge we're supposed to do everything.  The victory is won, but now begins the fight.

I have no way of explaining this paradox, but it seems like a healthy way to live -- at least, if you can apply the right doctrine at the right moment.  When we're losing we say that God is still advancing.  When we're winning or capable of winning we're told there's every reason to keep fighting.  There's room for neither hopelessness nor laziness: whether you consider it sleight of hand or an inexplicable mystery, Christianity seems to have its cake and eat it too.  The difficulty is when any of us tries to take either statement too seriously.  But it's difficult to imagine a Christianity in which neither statement was. 

The chief problems of the Calvinist aren't the Scriptural passages that say humans can choose, but human experience and morality.  He begs us to care about men whom God doesn't, and to evangelize to men God has already (technically) saved.  He asks us to hold men responsible for damnation, when only God can make them saints.  He tells us to work and says all our works are filthy rags.  Scripture says that nothing happens without the will of God toward a specific purpose (Matthew 10:29) -- common sense says that men can be righteous and evil, willfully ignorant or learned, pursue wisdom and folly, and that if they find themselves living with the worst ramifications of any of these, that men themselves can be held responsible.  If I have to choose between sovereignty of man and sovereignty of God, I have to choose man; not because I don't believe in God, but because nobody can live otherwise.  To be a man, supreme above all the animals, means to hold men responsible.  There is no such thing as a belief which we counteract every second of every day.  There is a such thing as a creed which we counteract every second of every day.  If the Bible says something we never actually believe, the best thing we can do is admit we don't really understand it.  The next best option is to admit we don't believe it.

Culturally, the Calvinist holds the ironic and uncomfortable position of believing everything is miraculous, and somehow, at the same exact time, believing that Christians don't work miracles. The evidence of your having the Holy Spirit is more like the Bible saying you do, than like knowing you have a heart or a leg.  His inspiration, like the Muslim's, is a book; or in other words, he isn't really inspired.  He lacks the "tongues"and "prophecy" of the Charismatic; he lacks the superstitious miracles and Saints of the Catholic.  His evidence for Biblical truth is a spiritual confirmation -- but not quite the burning of the bosom of the Mormon.  He confirms his own salvation because he's "looking unto Jesus;" but when you ask him how he knows he's looking to Jesus, he directs you to "the fruit of The Spirit," which means he's directing you to his own behavior.  In essence, the Calvinist is his own miracle.  He points with one hand to the sovereignty of God, and then with the other points to the sovereignty of his own behaviors as proof that God is working. It might have been easier, and less intellectually laborious, if he would originally point to his works and say his works are proof of his salvation.  But enough on soteriology.

We should be fair to the Calvinist: there's some truth in real, objective, phyisical experience to back his claims.  It's absolutely true that we act, but our liberty is restricted by our circumstances.  None of us is born where and to whom he chooses.  Our minds take us places we never thought we'd go, for reasons that we'd never planned, which gives the distinct impression that we're being led.  Life is larger than our expectations, which means our plans are often frustrated, and we experience many surprises.  We see truths we hadn't seen before, and could have missed our entire lives.  Our entire lives seem to lead us to specific points, which couldn't have happened any other way than by a series of unlikely happenstances.  We can only choose what we like, and we can't like whatever we choose, which means we oftentimes feel trapped within ourselves, and incapable of changing.  Each of us has a deep and irrefutable feeling that something about us has been horribly corrupted.  And when put together, all these truths lead to the feeling that something beyond our understanding is moving us -- and that we're helpless against it.  And then suddenly there's Christianity: a violent reclamation of our moral nature, a salvation entirely mysterious, a faith nearly inexplicable -- and many of our closest and most moral and most intelligent friends live and die without becoming Christians. 

Who can explain the mysteries of life, the seeming unfairness of salvation, a seeing without sight?  Much of Christianity -- much of life itself -- is Calvinist, without a series of difficult Scriptural passages to say so.  The Calvinist isn't crazy.  He only requires a bit more of a balance.  And I think we can all agree that each of us, in our own way, has hung on too tightly to some aspect of our reality. The key is holding on to precious truths tightly without letting go of all the rest.  The key is knowing when to act on a belief, just as much as knowing what we believe.  The key is being humble enough to admit our faults and limitations, without becoming so obsessed with them, that we forget to admit our virtues. 

The chief difficulty of Calvinism is saying God is sovereign and somehow believing at the same time that I am responsible. The chief difficulty of Arminianism is saying I am responsible, and somehow believing at the same time that God is sovereign.  The existence of all morality and wisdom requires that we live like Arminians.  The existence of all hope in the goodness and mercy of God requires that we pray like the Calvinists.

Your father,