The deep structure of Calvinism

Posted: September 24, 2013 by J in Theology
Tags: , , ,

I grew up with Calvinist thinking. I spent my time reading Puritans and Spurgeon, checking things in Louis Berkhof, and promoting the books of John Piper. I was fully immersed! I made Mark Driscoll look like a soft Arminian.

Over the years I’ve questioned everything. Naturally. This is The Grit! And as I have, I’ve noticed some structural problems in my faith, some tensions, ways that it didn’t all hang together. I now hold my Calvinist heritage in a slightly more nuanced way. I’m thankful for the truth in it, but willing to acknowledge its weaknesses and critique it also.

I think some of the weakness in Calvinism occurs at a deep structural level. After a decade of thinking this over, I’m ready to sum it up. Here’s my critique:

Calvinism starts with the complete sovereignty of God. Whereas it should end there. 

By starting where it should end, it collapses the space in which the story might unfold. It has an anti-narrative bent, a static tendency, built-in. There is no deep significance to time in the Calvinist worldview. Whatever time it is, at the deepest level all is well, for every molecule is following the predetermined will of God. And so all times are fundamentally the same time.

But we need space for the story. We need time for the story. Because the story is the gospel. 

For Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is defined basically apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Whereas in the NT, I take it, that event is the defining moment for what it means that God is king. When Calvinists say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, they don’t intend to be saying anything much about God’s sovereignty: that’s already been established long ago. Whereas for the apostles, ‘Jesus is Lord’ was pretty much all they had to say about God’s sovereignty.

For Calvinists, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t really change much. There is no room for a real coronation, and real victory of God at the cross. Because God’s victory has always been total anyway. He was King the day before, just as he is the day after. The main thing that changes is the appearance of the thing to us down here. But the underlying, unseen relationship between God and the world (i.e. complete sovereignty/submission to his will)  remains the same.

In other words, God is not personally implicated or involved in the changes and events that make up the story, because there can be no real event for that sort of God. He is immutable in his utter sovereignty. Try making a story with a leading character like that!

This key aspect of the Calvinist world view, it seems to me, is ultimately anti-gospel.

for PART 2 click HERE

  1. Hi, here’s my 2 cents:

    The idea of the story ending with God’s sovereignty actually presupposes that God is sovereign from the start too. God sovereignly achieves his purposes in history and he couldn’t bring creation to its knees before his Son without being sovereign. Setting the concepts of time/story against the concept of sovereignty is a mistake. Both are crucial to biblical theology, and we mustn’t be forced to choose between them.

    I think you have a good point though on the failure of many Calvinists to call evil “evil”, as the Bible does consistently. But the Bible also (!) upholds God’s complete sovereignty over all things.

    • J says:

      Thanks for commenting, Matt. Worth much more than 2 cents!

      I think there is much truth in what you say. God has always carried out his purposes effectively in the creation. In that sense he has always been ‘sovereign’. However, the word is ambiguous, and much depends on what it is made to mean.

      If God’s sovereignty at the end is the same as his sovereignty at the start, then you haven’t got much of a story. At least not a story about the kingdom (=kingship) of God arriving.

      You assert, ‘both are crucial and we mustn’t be forced to choose between them’, and I am sympathetic to your view – but that doesn’t really address my argument that in calvinist thought they push in opposite directions.

      • Hi Jonathan, I agree about the ambiguity of sovereignty. We need more than one word to discuss this issue meaningfully.

        Whatever the terms (and I’ll just choose some here), we really need to distinguish between “God’s sovereign will” (his determining, controlling of all things down to the details) and his “Kingly-rule”, that is his being the acknowledged, rightful, ‘legal’ ruler of his creation. The story is about God bringing about the latter by righteous action: Jesus’ victory consists of his becoming the Kingly-ruler through right means, and not merely by the application of raw force. The achievement of Kingly-rule and salvation for sinners (but only through righteous means) is the drama of the story of the Kingdom. From the fall to the resurrection, Satan, death and disease rule… but no longer. The thing that stops this being a dualistic story is that God is sovereignly at work in the background working toward achieving the Kingly-rule of his Son.

        The thing that holds these things together as a Calvinist is substituting-in the gospel-story for the “best-possible-world” type of approach that many Calvinists take. Here is where I think your criticisms of much of Calvinism stick. We need to find a way to say that the world is not as it ought to be, and I think this is a key failing of many Calvinists. The future kingdom is opposed to the present age, as much as good is opposed to evil. I disagree with Calvinists whose approach to disasters is to simply call them as “part of God’s good plan” that will all make sense at the consummation (e.g. Piper). Maybe they will make sense and contribute toward something… but we should most acutely call them disasters and look forward to the age in which there will be none! Again, this draws us back to your concern for the story nature of the gospel: our hope is in the future.

        I agree that the ideas of time/story and sovereignty push in opposite directions, but the solution to this is an explicit affirmation of *compatibilism*, rather than choosing between them. The fact that both truths are taught in Scripture leads us to insist on both and insist that they are compatible though we can’t necessarily articulate the inner-logic of how they are compatible. I don’t think the Bible lets us relieve the tension in any other way.

      • J says:

        Thanks Matt, that is helpful clarification. Interestingly, I am currently writing a follow-up about God’s kingdom vs his sovereignty.

        You write,

        I agree that the ideas of time/story and sovereignty push in opposite directions, but the solution to this is an explicit affirmation of *compatibilism*, rather than choosing between them. The fact that both truths are taught in Scripture leads us to insist on both and insist that they are compatible though we can’t necessarily articulate the inner-logic of how they are compatible. I don’t think the Bible lets us relieve the tension in any other way.

        This is of course the sort of approach Calvinism traditionally uses: I think that’s what you mean by giving it a label, compatibilism.

        I have reservations about this approach to truth. To push to absurdity, if we read the Scriptures saying black is white, I’m not sure we should settle for that, and just trust. At the very least, I want to take a step back, and observe, ‘there’s a big whack of tension in that set of beliefs’. And I want to ask, ‘Are we sure we’ve got the Scripture’s teaching right on both ‘sides’?’ Shouldn’t we revisit both, and check them out?

        I’m hoping that once we understand the truth it will make sense and fit together into some sort of unity. That’s pretty core to my understanding of what ‘truth’ is!

      • Hi Jonathan, I look forward to seeing what you come up with as you look at these things further. They are certainly important issues!

        The label “compatibilism” isn’t my term; its used around the place in the literature. From a biblical studies perspective, Carson’s “divine sovereignty and human responsibility” defends the concept with that label.

        A couple of thoughts about theological method that I think are relevant to this issue:

        First, I don’t think we should be afraid of tension in our articulation of truth, though I totally agree that we need to be cautious in appealing to it too quickly lest we locate tension illegitimately or in the wrong place. Articulating the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ have always involved appealing to the notions of tension and paradox (incidentally, James Anderson’s book “Paradox in Christian Theology” is very interesting on this point). We may rule out tension if straightforward coherence presents itself without treading over good exegesis, but I think we need to allow for its possibility within our notion of truth.

        Secondly, and following that, I think we need to allow for the possibility of gaps in our theological theories, and have an epistemology that allows for that. Our view of “truth” has been heavily influenced by the idea that knowing is a kind of “seeing” – that is, knowing involves seeing the inner-logic of how things fit together and making coherent theories of how the parts relate. Whilst I regard this is a crucial part of thinking through issues, we need to have space for the possibility that not all truths are theorizable from our perspective. Not all knowing is theorising (seeing all the parts in relation to each other); there is also knowing things *alongside* one another without necessarily being able to relate the two.

  2. Wayne says:

    Hello, I was a very strict Calvinist for the first 30 years of my life. Gods Sovereinty was a key issue for me. Then I realised that I had the cart before the horse. If God was not as the scriptures desribed then I was LOST. Now I feel that the scriptures are not true. So ????

    • J says:

      Hi Wayne, thanks for sharing your story!

      Not sure I get the bit about the cart and the horse. What is the cart, and what is the horse?

      Can I ask, how does Jesus come into your thinking about all this? What do you think of him?

  3. David Ould says:

    fascinating thought. I’m a curious sort of Calvinist, slightly influenced by those who were themselves influenced by Barth so that the centrality of Christ in all things, including my Calvinism, was never an option.

    Which made reading this, as engaging as it was, a rather discordant experience and leaves me with a question.

    When you say “Calvinists”, who exactly are you talking about? And how do these Calvinists express the mistake that you say they are making? I guess that’s a call for you to give us some citations; a little flesh on the bones. I genuinely think you are onto something here but I’d like to see it from the pen of those you’re criticising.

    in Him


    • J says:

      Hi David,
      I’m glad you found it discordant. I find it discordant.

      See my follow-up post for more detail on how Calvinist thinking does this, btw. Might give just a little flesh on the bones.

      As for citations, I’m a little busy for footnotes at present. In general I’d say, if you’re from a calvinist tradition then either you recognise the picture I’ve painted of Calvinism, or you don’t. This is big-picture stuff. If it doesn’t ring true, then either you’re not really in a calvinist tradition, or else I’m straw-manning. Either way, a few footnotes aren’t going to convince you.

      Having said that, you could look at Berkhof (L), Systematic Theology. In Part 1, the doctrine of God. He gives sovereignty five whole pages, and in those five pages there is – get this – no mention of Christ. The structure of his thought about God’s sovereignty is totally non-Christological.

      Then he comes back for another go at it soon after, in Section II, the works of God. We get 8 whole pages on the Divine decrees, basically saying the same stuff again about sovereignty. And it is once again entirely non-Christological.

      Could all be Islam, as far as I can see.

      • David Ould says:

        thanks, that’s helpful – yes, I see exactly what you mean with regard to someone like Berkhof. Thing is, it’s not a calvinism I’ve experienced much of personally. Rather, I’ve seen “calvinists” who have pointed me to the sovereignty of God in bringing people to trusting faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. If you like, as well as speaking about us as the direct object of God’s sovereignty they have also, in the same breath, spoken of Christ as the “indirect object” (for want of a better phrase). I’m sorry you’ve not had that experience.

      • J says:

        Berkhof gets there later as well, it’s just not foundational in the structure of his thought about God’s sovereignty.

        btw Berkhof is considered the bog-standard source for reformed theology, pretty widely around the world.

      • J says:

        The westminster shorter catechism follows the same structure of thought as Berkhof. God’s sovereignty set out at the start with no mention of Christ, and Jesus’ kingship comes much later as a separate matter, unrelated to God’s sovereignty.

      • David Ould says:

        Doesn’t Q31 actually bring them together?

        Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
        A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

        Granted, the order is as you state but chronological priority does not always indicate ultimate priority. Just thinking around the issue that you raise. Still think you’re onto something in the expression.

  4. Tom says:

    Hi J,

    I’m still digesting some of your premises here, but from what I do understand (perhaps mistakenly), I think the concluding sentence is wholly unjustified. Anti-Gospel? Anti-Good News? The news “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4)?

    Because that, fundamentally, IS the good news, that Jesus saves us from our sin. It’s what he came to earth to do. I’m afraid I simply don’t see how a Calvinistic tendency to emphasize God’s sovereignty from the beginning damages or dismantles this. If God’s sovereignty ruins, for some, the climax of the battle between God and Sin by reminding us that Sin never really had a chance at winning anyway, that’s a very secondary issue and is absolutely unrelated to both the sufficiency and necessity of Christ’s atonement for our sin, the defining feature of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

    It may well be that when constructing a human narrative, God turns out to be a very inconvenient main character. I would think that that was to be expected. But does that in itself constitute an opposition to the Gospel?

    I’m unsure of what exactly you mean when you say that the resurrection doesn’t really change much. I think we’d both agree that it changes a great deal for the human race, since it is Jesus’ ultimate revelation to us OF his sovereignty and represents the Father’s affirmation of his sinlessness. If you mean that nothing about Jesus himself changed, then of course I agree, and I think that’s as it should be. After all, Jesus Christ is the alpha and the omega, he is eternal and he never changes as Hebrews 13:8 asserts.

    If you’re wrestling with God’s sovereignty in light of the fall of man and existence of sin in the first place then there are many better people than I to address those issues, but I get the feeling that you’re not moving in that direction…

    Sorry for the length,

    • J says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for taking the trouble to digest!

      I agree that salvation from sin is a central matter in the gospel. However, I think we see things differently at many points.

      You write that Jesus’ resurrection

      is Jesus’ ultimate revelation to us OF his sovereignty and represents the Father’s affirmation of his sinlessness. If you mean that nothing about Jesus himself changed, then of course I agree, and I think that’s as it should be.

      I guess I have a pretty different view of Jesus’ resurrection from yours. I think the chapter you quote, 1 Corinthians 15, can get you a lot further into the significance of the resurrection than you are going in this comment.

      Along with that goes a different view of Jesus. Because the Son became human, he can change. He has changed. Fundamentally changed. At his resurrection. I think Hebrews 13 is saying something different.

      I also think the NT is saying that the whole structure of God’s relation to the world changed with that event.

      Sorry to not find more common ground here. But I think it’s worth spelling out our differences for clarity’s sake.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks for your response,

        When you say that your view of the resurrection is different from mine, do you believe that it does not fulfill the function I ascribed to it, or that it does do so but also has other effects?

        If it’s the latter, I’m aware that there may be even more to the resurrection than what I mentioned, but I mentioned what I did as a response to your assertion that an emphasis from the beginning on the sovereignty of God denies the possibility of any significant change occurring as the result of the resurrection. I merely stated what I considered to be a fundamental change brought about by the resurrection which is in no way impaired by a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty.

        I would be interested in hearing your interpretation of Hebrews 13:8. In context, the verse is used primarily as a warning against being led away by false teaching, but the statement seems to stand alone for the most part. The inclusion of “Yesterday” in the passage would indicate to me that Jesus has never changed from the beginning of time. I would then assume that, although he entered human flesh, his divine nature didn’t undergo any sort of change, never has since, and never will. It leaves as many questions as it answers, but it’s what I’m working with for now.
        What do you think?

      • J says:

        Tom, thanks for your questions.

        It’s not easy to pursue big questions in detail in blog comments. I’ll try to make a couple of brief comments.

        Hebrews 13: 8 is about God’s faithfulness expressed to us in Jesus. It is his faithfulness that never changes. Context is everything, Tom. There are no stand-alone sentences.

        When talking about the achievements of Jesus at the cross, you are using salvation categories, what is technically called *soteriology*. During the c.20th bible scholars gradually came to realise that soteriology is not the big picture category in which to read Scripture, or understand the gospel.

        The big picture is *eschatology*. Eschatology is about goals. It’s about God’s purposes for his creation, which are derailed at the Fall, reinstated in Israel but lost again, finally accomplished by Jesus, worked out by the Spirit in the church and finally brought to perfection at Christ’s return. Personal salvation is a subset or aspect of these purposes.

        Those purposes involve the arrival of heaven and God’s rule on earth, and a resulting transformation of the creation itself from what Paul calls ‘flesh’ to what he calls ‘spirit’. The creation itself is to be flooded with the glory of God by his Spirit. And this happens through Christ. What happened at the cross/resurrection was Jesus himself undergoing and inaugurating that transformation, as we read in the chapter you quoted. The cross is thus the *victory *of God and his purposes for the creation.

        Calvinist thinking makes it difficult to appreciate this *eschatological*dimension, this victory, because it says that everything already responds in obedience to God’s will – just without realising it. God’s purposes were never resisted or threatened for a second. So there is not really room for a before and an after in God’s relation to his world.

        Not as brief as I would have liked…

  5. Tom says:

    I agree that context is vital, but you need to be consistent in your application of such a principle. The sentence in itself is not directly connected to the surrounding verses in a fashion that clearly establishes that when it says Christ never changes, it is not referring to Christ himself but merely one of his attributes, namely his faithfulness.

    How fortunate it is that we happen to live in the aftermath of the 20th Century when the true focus and purpose of scripture was finally discovered… Better 2000 years late than never, I suppose.
    I would like to examine these scholars myself before I take your word on that particular hermeneutical lens, however.

    If you wish to phrase your thinking in an eschatological rather than soteriological framework then of course you are free to do so, but although you mentioned the resurrection, you didn’t actually answer my question. Do you consider the function of the resurrection which I stated before to be merely incomplete, requiring more of an eschatological emphasis, or is it factually wrong?

    Again, I don’t know how capable I am of dealing with the entirety of your argument, but my main point is that a lack of appreciation for the eschatological dimension of God’s work due to a larger focus on his plan of salvation of sinners (the soteriological dimension) is a far cry from being definitively false, let alone ‘ultimately anti-gospel’. Do you not realize the seriousness of such a designation? That’s tantamount to labeling Calvinism a heresy, unless ‘anti-Gospel’ means something much milder to you than it does to me. It just strikes me as a tremendous overreaction.

  6. New to your blog by way of a facebook link, but you’ve nailed something profound here. I’d only like to add as an addendum a thought about how all this relates to Calvinism and
    liturgy, specifically its (or at least its Puritan) opposition to the Church Calendar. In short, if “all times are fundamentally the same time,” there can be no seasons of feasting and fasting. If time is flattened by the supremacy of God’s disinterested sovereignty, it loses any “texture” that might allow for varying modes of worship whether it’s the solemn penitence of Lent or the exuberant celebration of Easter. Liturgical monotony is the immediate result. The Church is thus called to maintain a pristine neutrality in its liturgical life — neither too penitential as to constitute a season of fasting nor too celebratory as to be set apart as a feast — which mimics the same neutrality that God ultimately maintains in relation to the world and its history. Hence, the “four bare walls and a sermon” stereotype that’s often associated with Reformed worship.

    Thanks for posting.

    • J says:

      Caleb, that’s a very interesting comment. It’s persuasive too. If the story happens at a fairly superficial level, while at the deep level of reality all is static, then in our worship we’ll naturally go for that deep level. Sameness will be the order of the day – every day.

      Thanks for introducing some pastoral realities into this discussion – we’re not very good at making that transition when we talk theology, here in Sydney. I’m guessing you’re from across the waters…?

      Come visit us again, and feel free to contribute.

  7. […] stumbled upon a blog post today via a Facebook link and there’s something really profound here.  To quote at […]

  8. […] The-deep-structure-of-calvinism […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s