Tuesday, September 15, 2009

No Place To Go: The Appeal To "Mystery"

In case my readers here at the Center for Theological Studies don’t realize this yet, I have to admit: I read quite a lot. And as a result of my reading, I’ll often be working on a series here at CTS on one book, while reading another. And sometimes, while reading the new book, a post title or thought will jump out at me; usually, it’s one of those things where, if I don’t write it right away, it won’t get done…

So, this is one of those famous moments. For the last two days, I’ve been traveling through the book “Grace, Faith, Free Will; Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism” by Robert E. Picirilli. Let me tell you from the outset: what impressed me most about this book initially is that Robert E. Picirilli has been writing on Arminian theology for 45 years. That’s right: FORTY-FIVE YEARS! As you can imagine, he has quite a lot to say about the Reformation Arminian belief (also known as the Reformed Arminian position). I’ve been working on Stephen Ashby’s work on the Reformed Arminian view. For those who haven’t read my Ashby posts, click on the section “Doctrine of Perseverance/Eternal Security” on the far right of the main page. More will be added in the coming days.

Picirilli writes about the choices of men:

“Two types of such ‘free’ actions exist:
1. For sinful acts, the decree is PERMISSIVE; man is left alone to bring sin to pass;
2. For good acts, the decree is EFFICACIOUS; God works immediately on man’s will to incline it.
For both types, THE ‘HOW’ IS A MYSTERY TO US: both how the permissive decree can render certain without causing, and how God’s positive influence on the human will can work effectively and yet the man remain truly free” (Robert E. Picirilli, “Grace, Faith, Free Will, Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism.” Nashville: Randall House, 2002, page 25).

It is in the above quote from Picirilli regarding the Calvinist view that we see the inconsistency in the Calvinist argument.

When a person commits sin, such as adultery (like David), that person is “permitted” to sin—“man is LEFT ALONE to bring sin to pass.” Here, the Calvinist attempts to leave God out of the sin—attempting to save God’s character. But what happens when a person does something good? “for good acts, the decree is EFFICACIOUS—God works IMMEDIATELY ON MAN’S WILL to incline it.”

So God acts on the will when someone does something good, but leaves man alone to make his own decision when the choice made will be evil. In other words, God allows man to make ONLY BAD DECISIONS, while God makes all the good ones in man!

What this appears to do is “defend God” at all costs; but it costs the Calvinist to make this claim; for now, God allows the human to make choices that He doesn’t support. In other words, GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IS COMPROMISED: for some choices are IN HIS CONTROL to cause while others are not.

And then, the worst claim to make is when the Calvinist says, “the ‘how’ is a mystery to us…” God stands behind some choices and ALLOWS us to make others; and, according to the Calvinist, how it all works out has not been given to us to understand or find out.

I’ve told a story here at the site about a friend of mine whose father has committed to five-point Calvinism. While she and he were discussing Calvinism and Arminianism, he told her that he believes that God predestines the elect to go to Heaven, while the others CHOOSE to go to Hell. In his mind, it all makes sense; but the problem with his view is that, some are “predestined,” controlled by God, while the others “control” themselves. It seem as if this “single predestination” idea makes God out to be weak and impotent—the sinners are allowed to go their own way, which is OUTSIDE of God’s predestinating power. Of course, double predestination is worse than single; but single predestination just weakens God’s sovereignty and power—it doesn’t do much else.

What fascinates me most, though, is that Calvinists make the claims regarding evil above that they do, without thinking through such claims. There are only three ways to tackle divine sovereignty and human responsibility—one, God is the author of good, as well as sin and evil (which most refuse to believe; it’s against everything they know to be true about the nature of God to accept that God causes sin and evil); two, God causes man to do good while man causes himself to do evil (which, as I said above, gives man power to cause his own evil acts, outside of God’s control); three, God gives man choice, to perform both good and evil (which most Calvinists will not allow man to have the power of self-determination to will his own actions).

If the Calvinist claims that God is the author of sin and evil, he violates James 1, which tells us that God does not tempt anyone (humans tempt themselves when they lust after something); if the Calvinist believes that God causes the good in man while man causes the evil in himself, then man still has some power to act over his own choices—which undoes the idea of God “causing” man to do anything. If the Calvinist chooses option number 3, which involves man having will power over his decisions, then God cannot CAUSE anything.

It seems that Calvinists have nowhere to go. They have spent time claiming that God is not the author and evil, but they have to account for the presence of evil in the world somehow (and they can’t blame it on God, so who will be responsible for it?). On the other hand, they can’t give man will power over his decisions, but they do believe man is responsible for evil. As a result, where can they run? Absolutely nowhere! Instead, they have to appeal to mystery: “the ‘how’ is a mystery to us…”

I wanna say here, though, that the appeal to mystery is what I like to call “theological laziness.” If it is true that man will stand before the Lord and be judged for his actions (2 Corinthians 5:10-11a), then it makes no sense to say that we don’t know how man causes his evil actions but God causes man’s good actions. After all, man will be judged for ALL his actions: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, WHETHER GOOD OR BAD” (2 Cor. 5:10, Holman Christian Standard Bible). This means that man will stand responsible for ALL his actions in the end—even the good ones.

Last but not least, the idea that Picirilli claims is espoused by Calvinists has been presented in current literature on the subject as the “Moderate Calvinist” position. Bruce Ware advocates this position in his self-edited work, “Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views.” I’ve quoted from this work quite a bit this summer. Look under the “Perspectives on the Doctrine of God” label here at the site.
In any case, Bruce Ware believes that man has freedom—but he only has freedom to do evil acts, called the “freedom of inclination.” But there’s a problem with such a position: man cannot have “freedom” if he cannot choose between two or more actions. After all, this is the reasoning behind why someone who shoots another person in self-defense is not made to serve a prison sentence for doing so. The person who shoots is defending his or her own life, and he or she is forced to do so by someone who is threatening their own. Freedom only comes when there are no external or outside forces acting on you, coercing you to choose one option or another.

Calvinists have nowhere to go; for their appeal to mystery is the only option left for those who refuse to acknowledge the will power of man.

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