I have recently been introduced to the Philosophy department at Tyndale University College, particularly through Dr. Richard B. Davis’s twitter account. I’ve enjoyed following him as a result of a question I posed a few months ago while I was trying to find theologically conservative philosophers (an admittedly vague category) who were active on twitter. I think Dr. Davis is the only person I follow from that search.
The Tyndale Philosophy department recently published a short piece on their blog titled, “A Demonstration Against Calvinism.” I’m thankful for this piece because it engages a theological question from a philosophical angle, and because it illustrates well much of what is unhelpful in today’s dominant methodology within Christian philosophy and much of theology.
In the intro, Tyndale (as I’ll refer to the collective authors from the philosophy department) observes,
Though of course many Christians are Calvinists, scarcely any Christian philosophers are. No doubt there are many reasons for this.
Though there are various and debatable reasons for the theological demographic among Christian philosophers, I would argue that one of the main reasons we see so few Reformed Christian philosophers is because of the philosophical guild’s built-in rejection of what is essential for theology: mystery. Proper mystery, not fideism. The kind of mystery that is the result of philosophical, theological, and biblical rigor, yet acknowledges when we as creatures reach our intellectual, conceptual ceiling. An additional reason is that philosophy’s (and theology’s) sacred cow, libertarian free will, contributes to barricading Reformed philosophers from academic entry.
Before looking at specifics within the Tyndale piece, we might step back and look at how they go about addressing the Calvinism issue. It would add a great degree of clarity in discussions like these if the term “Calvinism” faded away within the next couple decades, replaced by a more helpful term like “Reformed” or more specifically, “confessionally Reformed.” These alternatives point to a centuries-long tradition that includes hundreds of figures, a few theological confessions, and many theological topics, rather than just a single (albeit highly influential) individual and his anachronistically attributed “five points” regarding salvation. (cf. just about everything Richard Muller has written on this topic. “It is quite remarkable how little the acrostic [TULIP] has to do with Calvin or Calvinism,” Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, p. 59.)
The effects of understanding Reformed theology through Calvinistic five points manifest throughout the Tyndale piece. The authors characterize part of the essence of Calvinism in the following way:
The elect are the grateful recipients of God’s irresistible, unmerited grace and are thereby saved. The non-elect, by sad contrast, receive no such grace; they are passed over. Consequently, they are damned for all eternity.
This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far at all; it barely begins. There are a few more essential parts to Reformed soteriology than receiving God’s irresistible, unmerited grace, not to mention the ways in which a Reformed theology proper, Christology, anthropology and so forth are crucially involved in the matter.
The authors quote Lev. 19:15 to support their “Leviticus Principle”:
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly (Leviticus 19:15).
If you’ll allow a momentary rabbit trail, I have never understood why philosophers do not apply the same exegetical and interpretive rigor to Scripture as they do to philosophical works. If I was to quote from a philosophical work, normally it would be expected of me to be somewhat familiar with the cited work, the author’s other related works, and the consistency of the quote I cited among the canon of the author. These basic principles are almost never applied when Christian philosophers quote Scripture. You will rarely find an attempt at exegesis from the original language, nor a biblical-theological comment on where a passage fits within the history of redemption. Much of the time, and in this case in the Tyndale piece, passages are treated as primarily isolated, abstract, propositional truths.
The ESV translates Lev. 19:15 more faithfully to the Hebrew:
You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.
While “fairness” is certainly involved as an implication in v. 15b, the verse actually says that “righteousness,” a broader category that involves more than fairness, was operative in how Israelites were to treat their neighbor. There is also a similar concept expressed in Deut. 16:19, though the Tyndale authors do not mention the related verse. More exegetical and hermeneutical work is required to show how this particular verse in Leviticus has universal, trans-cultural moral implications for creatures, not to mention how this passage also applies to God’s justice as Creator.
Regardless of the authors’ lack of exegesis of Lev. 19:15, the Leviticus Principle (LP) is
It is just or fair to favor A over B in context C only if your basis for doing so is C-relevant.
The Tyndale authors then clarify the question they seek to address:
we are asking whether it is just or fair for these two (spiritually) qualitatively identical groups—i.e., the elect and the non-elect—to be treated differently.
It is difficult to see how the non-elect and the elect are “spiritually qualitatively identical groups”; more pointedly, it’s difficult to understand what they mean by that phrase because they do not specify. We’ll table its meaning for now and address the logical point the authors make:
suppose we let P = ‘God withholds irresistible grace from the non-elect’, and Q = ‘God bestows irresistible grace on the elect’. Next let’s assume that both
(1) It is permissible that P
(2) It is permissible that Q
are true. Does it follow that
(3) It is permissible that (P & Q)?
Surely not. For the inference from (1) and (2) to (3) has a logical form that is notoriously invalid.
True. If a Calvinist were to reduce a few propositions involving irresistible grace to the logical forms above, (3) is undeniably not necessary based on (1) and (2). So the Calvinist can rule out making that argument.
But Tyndale’s main point focuses on what they understand to be a fatal difficulty for the Calvinist. They believe that,
Either God has a basis for his differential treatment of the elect and non-elect or he doesn’t. If there is no basis, then God’s decision to award irresistible grace to the one but not the other of these groups is wholly arbitrary…
…let’s suppose instead that God does have a basis for his differential treatment of these groups. Then according to the Leviticus Principle, it must be contextually relevant. Now the context for giving or withholding irresistible grace is spiritual or salvific. Therefore, according to LP2, it will be just or fair for God to favor the elect over the non-elect only if God’s basis for doing so is a spiritually relevant one. By hypothesis, however, there is absolutely no spiritually relevant difference between the elect and the non-elect: they are all dead in their sins; they are all incapable of recommending themselves to God. On this horn of the dilemma, then, God has favored the elect but on a purely context irrelevant basis. By LP2, therefore, he has acted unjustly.
In one sense, the first part of this argument has merit. If there is no basis for something that God does, then that act would be arbitrary by definition. But we know that everything God does is ultimately based on his own character, so an arbitrary act is an impossibility with God. God doesn’t do “random.”
LP demands a contextually relevant reason for someone to favor one thing over another, and the Tyndale authors see the elect and non-elect as spiritually identical, somewhat specified as both groups being dead in their sins and “incapable of recommending themselves to God.” Because the authors simply stipulate the terms for the contextual spiritual identity of both groups, any reason God has for giving favor to someone must, according to the authors’ terms, be non-spiritual and therefore contextually irrelevant. Based on this scenario, anyone who argues for divine favor applied to one group over another is forced by implication from the authors’ stipulations to conclude that God is unjust.
The Tyndale authors seem to be deriving much of their theology from a creation-based scenario analogous to a divine version of “The Bachelor.” (A show that, in full disclosure, I don’t watch. Really.) In this type of scenario, God is surveying a group of (spiritually) identical-looking, hideous (sinful) people from which he is to choose. If the “rose” he gives is irresistible grace, God gives this gift to some but not to others. Those to whom he gives the gift are the chosen elect, and those passed over remain the non-elect. The authors are saying that either God gives this gift arbitrarily since all the “contestants” are identical, making the choice arbitrary, or God sees something pleasant in one of the participants and gives them the gift based on that difference, which would then be contrary to Calvinism. So the authors believe that because Calvinism denies either of these only options, Calvinism can’t be true.
Even analogously, this is not how irresistible grace or salvation works. There are ultimate reasons God chooses some and not others that we cannot know and never will know. Even speaking of God having “reasons” for things is to speak analogously since God does not reason discursively.
We could ask whether the kind of divine sequence of events that the Tyndale authors describe reflects the biblical imagery and language of salvation, and God’s role in it. What if there was another biblical passage that could shed some light on this issue?
In Romans 9, the apostle Paul addresses this exact dilemma as though he was anticipating this Tyndale piece, and all like it, 2,000 years ago:
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:6-13, ESV)
Paul is describing two groups: children of the promise and children of the flesh. To illustrate this point, Paul gives the example of Jacob and Esau. If any two people were ever “spiritually identical,” it would be these two. Just to make it crystal clear who/what determines who is elect and non-elect, Paul states that God’s election occurred before either Jacob or Esau were born (of the same womb); before they had done anything at all (including even having the chance theoretically to “resist grace”).
But Paul likely has had this theological conversation before. He knows that his objectors will want to hold God to a creaturely standard of justice. The inevitable objection will be, “That’s not fair!”
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh,“For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—
Paul could not be more explicit or precise on the very matter that Tyndale brings up: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy,” quoting an Old Testament passage that directly addresses God’s justice, Exo. 33:19. Not only does Paul make the positive argument that God’s favor in election is true, but he locates God’s reason in God himself and his own desire to show his wrath and power. He anticipates the counterpoint that God is unjust, and he specifically rules out human will or exertion as the reason for God’s favor. We can swap out the pronouns to drive the point home: “Tyndale will say to Paul then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” God, through Paul, has addressed Tyndale’s question.
It’s important to take note at this point that the topic we’re discussing is not merely a philosophical head-scratcher, but an intensely pastoral, relational topic. And if Rom. 9:6-24 was the only passage that discussed God’s election and character, it would probably be fodder for a different picture of God than the complete biblical canon gives us. That doesn’t take away a shred of truth from the passage itself, it just means that this particular passage, as in the case of the LP passage, doesn’t give a total picture. This is related to the previous point above regarding philosophy’s built-in resistance to mystery, paradox, and groups of truth claims. On this side of heaven, we won’t know exhaustively how to put them all together. How do we understand Rom. 9 in light of 1 Tim. 2:3-4 where God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”? The answer is not to deny or ignore Rom. 9, but to understand the truth of 1 Tim. 2 in light of the truth of Rom. 9. And that takes work.
These kinds of questions demonstrate how crucial an exegetically-based, non-speculative systematic theology is when sorting through who God is and what he does in creation. The answers matter and they affect the lives of those who have an audience of any number. A good amount of relevant biblical passages could be cited here (e.g. some of the WCF supporting passages: Eph. 1, James 1:17, Pro. 16:4, 1 Thes. 5:9, 2 Tim 2:19f, etc.), and the WCF 3.1 phrases the theological balance in characteristically concise and precise form:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
It is a testament to man’s pride that the sovereignty of God may otherwise go unchallenged if not for the threat to some that man’s autonomous, libertarian free will may be in jeopardy.
Everything a human being does is under the decree, providence, and sovereignty of God, including our response to God’s grace, and this truth is not compromised by simultaneously affirming with the WCF that violence is not offered to our will. If Arminian philosophers and theologians wish to offer a genuine challenge to Reformed doctrine, it can only be done through exegetical means toward a consistent biblical-theological and systematic end, both in content and in methodology. Bringing up passages that involve contingencies, counterfactuals, and alternative scenarios involving God’s actions in creation is no more of a challenge to Reformed doctrine than is God’s speech (or for that matter, the incarnation).
Though it may be a foolish thing to spend time on a four-page piece that claims its conclusion “follows logically and inescapably,” I thought I would offer some initial thoughts given the piece addresses topics in which I am interested. I do hope that in the future the Tyndale authors will continue to go deeper into these and other issues for the benefit of their readership.