How is week one of fatherhood? When I was holding Sunny last night I thought to myself: “This is a tiny human.”
Anyway, these brief conversational vignettes we’ve been having over the past year or so regarding our theological differences have been valuable to me. As you’re well aware, we have some pretty significant disagreement in our theology that has never managed to become divisive, that is to say, we’re still friends. But where do we disagree exactly? You openly tout the Reformed label, while I myself subscribe to Open Theology.
Of course, you know better than most that the Reformed tradition is about as broad and diverse as it can get. Most evangelicals equate Reformed theology with 5-point Calvinism and the New Calvinist movement. But if I’m not mistaken, you’re hat is not entirely in that lot. I’m very interested in the nuances of your theology, how much of Calvinism you affirm, and why.
So, we thought, why not bring the dialogue into cyberspace and begin an e-mail correspondence?
Before I launch into the fray, let me emphasize what I’m after, personally, with this conversation.
- A better understanding of my friend’s views.
- Having my own views understood by my friend.
- Emphasizing the fact that it is entirely possible to have strong, passionate disagreement without being divisive.
- Emphasizing the fact that it is entirely possible to be against someone’s theology without being, in any way, against them. (e.g. Against Calvinism, not against Calvinists. Against Open Theism, not against Open Theists, etc. )
What I am not setting out to do is:
- Convert you to my own theological views.
- Address any and all issues within the nuanced spectrum of Calvinism and Open Theism.
- End the debate on Calvinism and Open Theism once and for all in my favor, or anyone else’s favor for that matter.
The debate over the topics we will inevitably cover have raged for hundreds of years of church history. We will not end it in our letters, nor would we attempt to do so. No one leaving comments on these letters will end the debate. Thus, this is not a goal we aim for.
I’ll go out on a limb and assume that it’s evident via our friendship that I am no way against you, Andy. It is my hope that we can be genuinely open (no pun-intended) in these talks and speak as strongly as our convictions dictate without either of us feeling under personal attack. If anything I say ever violates this ambition, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll do the same.
So, without further ado, allow me to present the topic of our first correspondence:
Issue #1: Meticulous Providence
Do you affirm divine determinism?
In my personal estimation, meticulous providence (or “divine determinism”)—the idea that God specifically determines, ordains, renders certain, even predestines every single thing that happens in the world, including evil—is the poisonous soil out of which all Calvinism’s toxic theology grows.
For the first few hundred years of church history, no one believed God was all-determining until Augustine introduced the idea. Since then, many have embraced this view, including the 16th century French reformer John Calvin.
Calvin illustrates his point in Institutes of the Christian Religion with a story about a traveling merchant who enters the woods with friends, wanders from the group, and is captured and killed by thieves. Calvin says of this scenario:
“What will a Christian think at this point? Just this: whatever happened in a death of this sort he will regard as fortuitous by nature, as it is; yet he will not doubt that God’s providence exercised authority over fortune in directing its end.”
That is to say, along with Augustine, Calvin held that all events in human history large or small, wonderful or tragic, are specifically determined and ordained by the will of God. This commonly held belief often rears its head in non-Calvinistic Christian circles via idioms such as “everything happens for a reason,” “God has a plan,” “God is in control,” etc. Needless to say, the meticulous providence view horrifies non-Calvinists, as it necessarily holds that every act of murder, genocide, war, rape, pedophilia, child abuse and the like are all specifically determined, ordained and rendered certain by God himself. Not against his will, but specifically by his will.
Though some Reformed Christians reject meticulous providence, the majority of those within the new Calvinism movement affirm it enthusiastically. John Piper, for example, has openly described God’s determinative will as the only cause of everything from September 11th to natural disasters. Most recently, Piper’s blog said of the Sandy school shooting:
“…the Bible says more than that God could have prevented it; it says that it occurs ‘according to the counsel of his will’… Indeed, he works all things according to the counsel of his will. And when the Bible says ‘all things,’ it means all things.”
Now, it’s true that Calvinists such as Piper use scripture to support their doctrine of divine determinism. Passages such as Amos 3:6, Proverbs 16:33, Isaiah 14:27; 43:13, 45:7 and Daniel 4:35 all seem—at a glance—to support this view. The problem is that whatever these verse are saying, if they do indeed teach meticulous providence, then they do so over and against passages such as Ezekiel 18:32, which says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Or Ezekiel 18:32, 1 Tim. 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9, which all teach that God wants everyone to be saved. James 1:13 says that God never tempts anyone. This is saying nothing of the dozens of instances in scripture where the Lord is said to change his mind, to react to the decisions of human beings, to express regret or sorrow, to speak of the future in terms of what may or may not be, and so on.
On top of all this, we (non-Calvinists) can not see how the meticulous providence view does not make God guilty of sin. For all the Calvinist explanations that appeal to convoluted philosophy or sweeping everything beneath the rug of God’s “mysteriousness,” there seems to be no way to wash God’s hands of the sin that he determines, ordains, predestines and renders certain. Calling on the will of humans doesn’t work, as God is said to be the one who determines their will. To make divine determinism work, one must do violent twisting to a multitude of scripture and in the process absolutely mar the reputation of a benevolent God. This is what led John Wesley to say of Calvinists: “You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust… It cannot be.”
Now, why drill this issue home if not all Reformed Christians affirm meticulous providence? It is my personal estimation that the whole of Calvinistic doctrine depends on a presupposed acceptance of divine determinism. All 5 points of the TULIP soteriology seem, in some way, dependent on a level of acceptance of meticulous providence.
If humans are inherently and totally depraved and therefore incapable of choosing God, then God must elect individuals to salvation and, logically following, he must elect reprobates to damnation. (All Christians, including non-Calvinists, affirm that salvation is by faith and not works. Non-Calvinists disagree that human free will necessarily implies a works-based salvation as some Calvinists have argued.) If salvation is based on God’s unconditional election of humans and not even in part on a free-will decision granted to all people, if Jesus’ work on the cross offers only a limited atonement effective for the elect alone, if irresistible grace is offered to the elect exclusively, and the damnation of the reprobate has been determined by God, if those elected to salvation will remain saved no matter what, as perseverance of the saints states, then salvation and damnation are both determined by God and no allowance for free will can be made.
Now, if one is to pick and choose petals of the TULIP soteriology to affirm or else deny, how can even one be chosen without simultaneously affirming meticulous providence? If human salvation and damnation are both entirely determined and predestined by God, what is left to attribute to human free will? Does God grant human freedom to do good or evil in the world but deny humans the ability to make the most important of all decisions: whether or not we will follow Jesus? Can I, independent of God’s steering, commit mass murder, rape or arson of my own volition but have no ability granted from the almighty to accept or deny Jesus? If so, why?
The Calvinist movement is marked by an emphasis on divine determinism. R.C. Sproul says that anyone who disagrees with his idea of God’s sovereignty should admit to being a “convinced atheist.” John Piper seems at times to equate meticulous providence with the gospel itself. Meticulous providence, in my view, is so disastrously false a teaching, so despicable and so blasphemous that it tarnishes the name of a God fully revealed in Jesus and distorts his name as to make him unrecognizable at best, and indistinguishable from the devil at worst.
If you affirm divine determinism… how? If you reject it, then why sign your name to a movement so pervasively marked by the idea?
Your brother in Jesus,
P.S. Abi is making bringing you guys dinner tonight. She is an excellent cook.
Fatherhood is awesome! I have never been so tired in my life, but Sunny is so cute. I still wake up almost every morning (or every 3 hours) thinking, “oh man, I was not dreaming. She is real and she is here!” Also, thanks so much to you and Abi for bringing us dinner. It was great! Best potato soup I have ever had. Having you and others make us dinner the first few days after having a baby is amazing. I feel like I barely have time to shower, let alone cook dinner. So thanks again.
And sorry that it has taken me so long to respond to your first letter in this continuing dialogue. Between being new to fatherhood, figuring out how to jump back in the daily rhythm of life, and trying to catch some sleep when possible, I have been strapped for time to say the least.
Anyways, let’s get to it. I am excited to continue this dialogue with you, not just because I enjoy theology, but because I can honestly call you my friend and brother even in the midst of disagreement. Also, thanks for listing what you are hoping to gain from this conversation. I felt like I should do the same. I am hoping through this conversation to:
- gain a better understanding of my friend’s views
- gain a better picture of who God is. Even though I am convinced in my mind as to my views, I do not think I know everything. I have much to learn. While I subscribe to reformed theology (in some form), I recognize and will be the first to admit that I do not believe it paints a complete picture.
- have my friend understand my views more clearly.
- build our friendship through challenging disagreement. I have heard it said before that to make a muscle stronger, you first have to tear it slightly (workout); then when you get protein to the muscle it will heal the tear and make the entire muscle stronger.
- be a catalyst in unifying all who follow Jesus even in the midst of theological differences
As you stated, I also am not out to:
- convert you to my views.
- address each and every problem.
- end the debate for all time.
DISCLOSURE: I am terrible with grammar and spelling. Also, I have the tendency to just want to be heard and not listen very well. Please tell me if you are sensing this. I want to listen to you and learn from you because you are a friend I respect.
Issue #1: Meticulous Providence – Do I affirm divine determinism?
Let me start out as a self-proclaimed subscriber to “reformed theology” ( I like that terminology better than Calvinism. Mainly because there is more to reformed theology than just the thoughts of Calvin). I must answer this question with a strong and potentially surprising NO; at least if I am to use the definition you provided. With divine determinism being defined, as you stated, “the idea that God specifically controls, determines, ordains, even predestines every single thing that happens in the world, including evil.” By this clear and articulate definition, again as someone who claims reformed theology, I DO NOT affirm this idea; and I would argue that neither do many in the “New Calvinist” movement.
You had mentioned that a “majority” of those within the new calvinist movement “affirm it [meticulous providence] enthusiastically”. I do not agree. There will always be people who affirm it while claiming reformed theology, and while I can only officially speak on my behalf, I think many of the “new calvinists” today would deny belief in THIS definition of divine determinism. Matt Chandler may be one of the more famous cases. He is the pastor of The Village Church (as well as one of the leaders in the Acts 29 church planting movement [which is openly reformed]), a mega church in the Dallas area and one of the more prominent leaders of the new calvinist movement. About 4 years ago on Thanksgiving day, he collapsed on the floor in front of his daughter and started seizing. He was immediately brought to the hospital and the doctors found a violent, ferocious form of cancer in his brain. After many surgeries and other procedures, Matt is cancer-free. When asked if he thought God gave him the cancer, he said this: “I believe the Scriptures teach that God is aware of every act at every level of the universe. From a star exploding to the rate at which our planet spins to a cell dividing, He knows. I don’t believe in the end that God gave me cancer, but He certainly could have stopped it and didn’t. So I have to believe like Joseph, John the Baptist, and Paul had to believe when they were in prison — that God is working, and what the enemy means for evil, He will turn to good.”
This hits home for me as well. When people ask Christina if she has any brothers or sisters she always says no, but this is not exactly true. 3 years before Christina was born, my in-laws had another daughter named Lindsay. When Lindsay was 2 years old, she had a seizure and was rushed to Seattle for some tests. Within a week she died from a large tumor on her brain. A year after Lindsay’s death, my in-laws had Christina. I mention this because like Chandler, I do not believe God gave Lindsay cancer.
Just because I, or anyone else for that matter, claim to believe reformed theology, does not mean that I believe every act of evil such as murder, genocide, rape, war, pedophilia, etc. specifically comes about because God wants and desires it to happen. Part of the reason I think many have such a warped, divisive, and hostile stance towards those claiming reformed theology is because they assume all believe the definition of divine determinism you gave above; and this is simply not the case. Those that do affirm this definition are, in my opinion, much fewer and on the extreme edges of reformed theology.
Now you briefly mentioned John Piper and his use of scripture passages like Amos 3.6, Proverbs 16.33, Isaiah 14.27, 43.13, 45.7 and Daniel 4.35 to support divine determinism. You stated that these verses, “all seem—at a glance—to support this view. The problem is that whatever these verse are saying, if they do indeed teach meticulous providence, then they do so over and against passages such as Ezekiel 18:32, which says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” While I agree, my question is two-fold: 1.) Are you saying the scriptures are contradictory? If these verses ARE teaching meticulous providence (or some nuanced version of it [which is what I would most likely say]), are they really doing so “over and against” other passages like those you listed? 2.) If these verses ARE NOT teaching meticulous providence (or again, some nuanced view), how do you explain them while not flat-out ignoring passage upon passage that teach and affirm this view?
As for the claim that “affirming meticulous providence makes God guilty of sin” I admit that this is a question I grapple with. I am ok with a certain amount of “mysteriousness.” I do believe, based on many passages in the scriptures, that there are things about God and His nature and attributes that we as humans cannot fully comprehend (ie; the Trinity, the hyper-static union, etc.) and I think this is one of them; and I think this not just because reformed theology does not have an “adequate” answer, but also because I do not believe the Arminian view washes the “guilt from God’s hands”. You say that “calling on the will of humans doesn’t work, as God is said to be the one who determines their will.” Couldn’t it be said in the same form of logical thought that, according to an open-theology, God is responsible for sin because He ultimately created a being with the ability to sin and bring evil into the world? In the same way that the reformed position seems lacking, so does the open-position, unless you ascribe some sort of mysteriousness to either side, which I am ok with. Again, this is definitely still a question that I seek a greater understanding in, but so far, the reformed position (that denies your definition of meticulous providence but affirms some degree of providence) provides the best answer in the midst of a degree of mysteriousness, in my opinion (WOW that was a run-on sentence).
You have given a very thorough and logical defense of why you think the entirety of “Calvinistic doctrine depends on a presupposed acceptance of divine determinism” which I respect. But, it is difficult for me to engage, in part because 1.) I am not a 5 point calvinist and 2.) it is all dependent on your earlier definition of divine determinism. But let me end this thought by saying, I agree with most of what you have said about divine determinism being “disastrously false” and distorting Jesus’ name. We are on the same page, a lot more than you think.
Now, of your entire letter, there was one sentence that stood out to me the most. You said, “It is my personal estimation that the whole of Calvinistic doctrine depends on presupposed acceptance of divine determinism.” While I love you and your passion, please hear me when I say that this could not be further from the truth (again, at least according to the definition of divine determinism that you have given). In order to understand many of the nuances of reformed theology, you must distance yourself from the thought that the entire theological structure is upheld by this one belief, which again, I do not agree with nor many in the new reformed movement. It is not fair to assume that all who claim reformed theology, read Calvin and Luther, or listen to Piper and Driscoll believe this, because again, it is just not true. To assume this is divisive and destructive to the church.
While this topic could be debated round and round, I want to offer my best attempt at a concise and articulate description of what I believe and why. There may be many, even in the reformed camp, who may disagree with small nuances, but I will do my best to stay true to the reformed beliefs I ascribe to. So here it goes.
I believe the Scriptures teach that there is one Creator God, who by Him and through Him, all beings came into existence. I believe God to be sovereign (not synonymous with divine determinism). By sovereign I mean that nothing happens in the world that God is not aware of; not that He determines or causes all things. I believe there are things that happen in the world that are evil and go against God and His desires, but I do also believe God can and will redeem all things. I do also believe that from the outside, there are things or instances that “seem” evil, but God has planned to use for good. I again admit a level of “mysteriousness” and not fulling understanding it.
While this is not everything I believe, this is a concise snippet.
Lastly, you asked why I sign my name to a movement marked by divine determinism. While I reject your definition of divine determinism, the reason I sign my name to the reformed movement is because I believe many in the reformed camp are leading the way in regards to the mission of God and advancing Jesus’ name around the globe. Whether that is locally on the city level or globally, the zeal and tenacity of those in the reformed movement for sharing the gospel with those that do not know Jesus is astounding. Their theology drives this. For example, take Jeff Vandersteldt. He is a pioneering leader in the missional community movement, has been invited to preach at Solid Rock, and is on the board of Acts 29. In my personal experience, men like Jeff and others that claim reformed theology, are the most sold out, urgent, sacrificial, and bold when it comes to advancing the kingdom of God and spreading the fame of Jesus worldwide. They inspire me to do the same; and like them, my theology drives this passion.
I am not saying that those who claim open theology are not missional. I just do not personally know many that claim open theology and are totally sold out in introducing others to Jesus in the same capacity.
Sorry this has taken me so long to respond. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
It is an honor to call you friend and brother,
P.S. We are super excited to have lunch with you later. Christina really wants burgers at New Seasons, but we can be persuaded elsewhere. Also, Sunny loves spending time with Auntie Abi and said she misses Uncle Josh.