Why I Am Not a Calvinist
Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004. Pap. $14.00. ISBN 0-8308-3249-1.
Certain topics seem to pass in and out of favor, almost on a cyclical basis. Book sales will expand and then decline as one measure of this pattern. Recently, interest in the topic of God's election to salvation is experiencing a surge—at least one would get that impression from a recent spate of new books on the topic. Walls and Dongell leave no doubt about the point of their new book; the title is clear enough. What makes their treatment a cut above others in the genre is the combination of expertise they bring to their task: Walls teaches philosophy, and Dongell teaches biblical studies—both professors at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. They maintain that all explanations of the issues over which Calvinists and Arminians contend grow out of important philosophical commitments, no less than judgments over the meanings of biblical texts. Writing on a popular level, they aim to unpack these issues for the interested layperson.
Their starting point sets the terms of their approach in the book: "The fundamental issue here is which theological paradigm does a better job of representing the biblical picture of God's character: which theological system gives a more adequate account of the biblical God whose nature is holy love?" (p. 8). That is, when all is said and done, what explanation of why some are saved and others are lost best accords with how the Bible describes God's nature and being? Of course, most Calvinists will not concede this as the appropriate starting point, preferring, perhaps, to ask: Which explanation best holds up God as the Sovereign whose purposes will be accomplished? As they evaluate books that address these issues readers must ask themselves what they deem the appropriate starting point.
The book starts with a hermeneutical refresher. The chapter "Approaching the Bible" affirms the intent of the Bible to convey truth as well provide a reminder that all interpreters do their exegetical work with theological commitments that influence their work. Reason, intuition, and experience all affect the conclusions to which readers come.
Then in "Engaging the Bible" the authors present and respond to what they consider the three strongest scriptural arguments for the Calvinist view of things: God's sovereignty, the gracious nature of salvation, and divine election. So, taking here only the first issue, in responding to the Calvinists' (and particularly the Westminster Confession's) presentation of divine sovereignty, Walls and Dongell show what particular election (God's choice of only certain ones for salvation) does to the assertion of divine love. Can God really love all people (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 2:2; Rom 11:32; 1 Tim 2:3-6; et al.) when he chooses to save only some? Tellingly the authors assert: "If love will not employ all available means to rescue someone from ultimate loss, it is hard to hear the announcement of universal love as good news" (p. 55). What are we to make of God's call for all to repent when he grants the very capacity to repent only to a select group? The chapter goes on to tackle the relevant issues of salvation as a gracious gift of God and predestination, more on which comes later.
Chapter 3 addresses the critical question of Calvinism and human freedom—with a philosophically nuanced discussion that assesses "hard determinism," "libertarian freedom," and "soft determinism" (also called compatibilism). They conclude that only libertarian freedom (people can make undetermined choices) is consistent with true moral responsibility. They argue that most Calvinists opt for compatibilism such that God determines what choices people make without coercing them, but by changing them internally so they want to make the choices they do. However, they note that other Calvinists are hard determinists who affirm that God specifically determines all things (e.g., J. I. Packer). In either case, how can people be responsible for their choices if God determines all they do? It is a "mystery" or "antinomy" in the view of many Calvinists. Walls and Dongell explode this convenient and typical retreat as the logical inconsistency that it is. They address this issue of consistency in more detail in chapter 5, "Calvinism and Consistency" attempting to distinguish such categories as contradiction, inconsistency, mystery, and paradox. They suggest, for example, that the orthodox view of the Trinity is a mystery, not a contradiction. But to say that God presents a bona fide offer of salvation to all but that he grants only to some the ability to respond to that offer is not a mystery or a paradox. It is a logical inconsistency that no pious appeals to "God's ways are above our ways" will mitigate. They drive home the point: "But what do we make of an offer that can't be accepted even though the one making the offer knows this is the case or—to make matters worse—could make the receiver able to accept but doesn't?" (p. 171; their emphasis). They also question a typical Calvinist tactic that alleges that God must damn some in order to display his own glory in his wrath against sin.
In "Calvinism and Divine Sovereignty," the authors address the philosophical basis of the ideas of sovereignty within Calvinism and Arminianism. That is, all systems affirm God's sovereignty; the issue is what they mean when they make this assertion. Here Walls and Dongell assert, "Calvinism is hard-pressed to account for sin and evil in a way that is morally plausible. For if God determines everything that happens, then it is hard to see why there is so much sin and evil in the world and why God is not responsible for it" (p. 133). They also assess Molinism (middle knowledge), the view that God determined the state of affairs that he wished because he foresaw all the free choices of people. Walls and Dongell find Molinism attractive but finally conclude that it is a variation on Arminianism. As well, Molinism leaves without explanation "how God can have foreknowledge of our future free choices as well as the middle knowledge on which such foreknowledge depends" (p. 141). In the final analysis they conclude that to affirm God's sovereignty is to affirm that God could sovereignly create any kind of world God wished, even one in which he would leave it to humans to exercise free libertarian choices. "Less control is not the same as less sovereignty if God chooses to have less control" (p. 145).
The final chapter considers some of the practical and personal implications in life that Walls and Dongell see in Calvinism. They raise questions for evangelism: can Calvinists with integrity tell people that God loves them? For if the hearers are not elect (and one can never know with certainty), it is a shallow claim. God does not love the non-elect in any meaningful use of that term. What about prayer? Are we commanded to pray (and we have the choice to pray or not), or has God determined when and what we will pray? Or the fate of the unevangelized? Walls and Dongell take on John Piper who argues that people need to hear and respond to the explicitly proclaimed message of Christ's salvation. This means that all unevangelized people must be non-elect and going to hell. What about assurance of salvation? Walls and Dongell argue that Calvinist believers cannot have assurance since they do not know they are elect until they persevere in the faith until death. They say, "Calvinism deprives those struggling with their faith of the single most important resource available: the confidence that God loves all of us with every kind of love we need to enable and encourage our eternal flourishing and well-being" (p. 201). On the existence of evil, many Calvinists assert that God purposed evil to serve some important role in his larger plan—as tragic as evil looks when we encounter it. The authors find another view more satisfying and encouraging: God did not purpose or will evil; it is the result of the fall, a consequence of the libertarian freedom God gave to his creatures and which they used to rebel against him in terrible and destructive ways. And despite evil, God will accomplish his good purposes in his people. Of course, Calvinists will have rejoinders to each of these points—or at least they need to if their faith is to "work" in such practical matters of life.
So, as Walls and Dongell framed the question at the outset, it all hinges on your view of the character of God. Does divine compassion and love for his creatures serve as the primary template through which all the divine attributes operate? Or does God's sovereignty, power, and will serve that function? [To repeat, all participants in the debate affirm God's sovereign power and his limitless love.] They have helped clarify what is at issue here, and how much is at stake biblically, philosophically, and practically. They attempt to blow away some of the fuzzy or merely pious thinking of those who wish to affirm simultaneously various elements that are not compatible. They also perform the excellent service of cutting away the wrong-headed thinking that asserts that Calvinism alone does justice to the biblical view of God (in all his power, sovereignty, and glory) over against an alleged namby-pamby "Arminian" God who wrings his hands hoping that some will choose to heed his call to repentance and faith. They show that both Calvinist and Arminian (and all in between) believers seek to take the Bible seriously in how they navigate this tortuous terrain.
Now, my students and colleagues will confirm that I am not a dispassionate and objective reviewer on this topic, having written a book on election that comes to some conclusions that are similar to the book under review. Despite my predilections, I believe this book presents a devastating challenge to the kinds of slippery Calvinism that many people espouse today. The authors contend there is a philosophically consistent type of Calvinism, but most who consider themselves Calvinists do not fall into this category for they find its tenets unpalatable. For example, Calvin said, "The decree, I admit, is, dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknow what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree" (Institutes III.23.7). Or, "since the will of God is said to be the cause of all things, all the counsels and actions of men must be held to be governed by his providence; so that he not only exerts his power in the elect, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do him service" (Institutes I.18.2). Now that is consistent Calvinism!
So, all who consider themselves Calvinists and who wish to hold a view that is philosophically consistent and biblically well-founded must respond to the arguments in this book—even if after reading this book, they believe that Calvinism offers better answers to the questions it raises. If more biblical fidelity and logical consistency emerge in the discussions, this book will have served a very useful purpose. [To hear a counterview, readers may wish to consult a companion book: R. A. Peterson and M. D. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004.]