My conversion to Calvinism
I'm writing this as a preface to a post I want to make where I'll reconcile God's sovereignty with man's responsibility. This is all just autobiography, and you can skip it if you aren't interested.
I didn't grow up in a church, and I was never really taught theology when I was a kid. I formed a lot of my ideas from reading the Bible by myself and just thinking. But I did hear theological phrases and such from people at school sometimes. One I remember hearing a lot was "God is in control."
When I heard that, an idea formed in my mind that was, as it turns out, not what the other person had in mind when they said it. The other person meant that God actually intervenes in everything that happens. I took it to mean that God could intervene anytime he felt like it. I thought that for the most part, God had a hands-off approach to the world, and he only intervened in the rare case of miracles or such.
I remember using an analogy to explain what I thought was meant by "God is in control." After all, I wasn't about to dispute with my better whether it was true or not. I accepted that it was true, but then explained how it could be true under my understanding. I compared it to a person driving a car. As long as the person has his hands on the steering wheel, he's in control of the direction of the car even if he doesn't happen to be turning the wheel or manipulating it at all. He could manipuate it any time he wants, but he's still in control even if he doesn't happen to be manipulating it at the moment. I figured God had the same kind of control over creation. He could intervene anytime he wanted, but that didn't mean he was intervening on a continual basis.
I don't remember hearing much about God's sovereignty until I was an adult. When I heard that phrase, "God is sovereign," an idea formed in my head that also turned out not to be what people meant. Here, I don't think I can be faulted too much. People still mean different things by saying God is sovereign. I took it to mean God is the highest authority in the universe. There's nobody above him, and he makes the rules that apply to everybody. It had nothing to do with God's intervention in the universe except in regard to judging, rewarding, and punishing.
It turns out that that's not exactly what a lot of people mean by saying God is sovereign. Although what I thought may be included in what they think, it doesn't exhaust what they think. When people say God is sovereign, they often mean the same thing my friend from high school meant when she said that "God is in control." God isn't just sovereign in his authority, but he is sovereign over all events, meaning he is in control of them.
I remember being 23 or 24 the first time I heard that there was a distinction in God's will. A girl I used to know told me that God has an active will and a permissive will. His active will included those things he actually does. His permissive will includes those things he allows to happen. Of course I bought into this distinction right away, because it cohered nicely with what I understood it to mean that "God is in control."
It was around this time, also, that I first heard of this problem of reconciling God's sovereignty with man's responsibility. With the understanding I already had in place, I couldn't figure out why it caused anybody problems at all. I figured God's sovereignty, even over human action, only implied that God could intervene if he wanted to, but human activity normally fell under God's permissive will. People don't act because God somehow causes them to act. Rather, God allows them to act freely. So God is sovereign in the fact that he is in control of people and can stop them or manipulate them any time he wants, but people are still morally responsible because God doesn't ordinarily manipulate people.
I was agnostic for a while in my early 20's, but it's also around that time that I start seriously studying the Bible. It's also about that time that I first discovered the internet. Through the internet, I ran into people of a vast variety of religious beliefs that I probably could never have done otherwise. I had my first exposure to Calvinism at that time.
I didn't fully understand Calvinism that early, but there were a few things people said that I was sympathetic to. Not that I agreed with them, but it was understandable to me how they could come to their conclusions. Through reading the Bible, I found much that seemed to be consistent with Calvinism. I always put it on the back burner, though. I figured these were isolated verses here and there, and the whole of scripture was against how the Calvinists understood them. My exposure to Calvinists was sparse enough for me to pretty much ignore them.
Two things happened, though, that made me decide I needed to educate myself on the whole question of Calvinism. First, I kept running into Calvinists more and more, and I became aware that there was serious debate on the matter going on. Second, I saw a book called The King James Only Controvery at the Christian bookstore by James White. I had run into a guy a few years earlier who thought the King James version was the only valid translation. At the time, I thought he was an anomoly, but when I saw the title of this book, I decided to get it and read it.
Through that book, I became aware of this guy named James White. It turns out that James White is the head of an apologetics ministry called Alpha and Omega, and the web site address was in the back of the book. I did some reading on the internet about White and discovered he was writing a book (or had written a book) called The Potter's Freedom, in which he defended Calvinism against Norman Geisler's book, Chosen But Free.
I went into White's chat room and interacted with the people there, almost all of whom where Calvinists. I didn't debate much with them, though, because I didn't feel myself too educated on the subject. After a lot of time being in there, though, I started wishing I knew more so I could debate with them. Eventually, I decided I could postpone my education no longer. I had to learn about the whole Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate.
I had heard enough about Calvinism and Arminianism to know that I had some disagreements with both. The Calvinists, however, didn't seem to recognize people who didn't fall into one camp or the other. Anybody who didn't fall into one camp or the other was just called "inconsistent." Since I was closer to being an Arminian than a Calvinist, I wondered if I would eventually fall into the Arminian camp once I read up on the arguments.
I decided a good place to start would be to read the books by Geisler and White. To my surprise, Geisler started his book by arguing for the sovereignty of God over all events--even human decisions. Although I had stumbled across plenty of verses that seemed to support this view (e.g. Proverbs 16:9 and 20:24), I had never heard it argued so pursuasively before. It was so pursuasive, in fact, that it caused me to change my mind right away. I wasn't at all impressed with the rest of the book, though. First, he seemed to contradict everything he had written in the first chapter. Second, his arguments just weren't that great.
Since I was so unimpressed with Geisler's book, I didn't really read White's book with anticipation about how he was going to refute Geisler. Instead, I read White's book with anticipation about how I was going to refute White. I thought maybe I'd write a critique of it.
As I read the first few chapters of White's book, I didn't think I'd have much problem critiquing his book. But then I got to chapter seven--"Jesus teaches 'Extreme Calvinism.'" In that chapter, White made what seemed to me to be an airtight case for Calvinism from John 6.
I didn't convert to Calvinism right away, though. First, I wanted to read other interpretations of John 6 and see what kind of responses there were to White's arguments. White had said at various other times that he had never seen a consistent interpretation of John 6 that got around the points he made. I wanted to know if it was true.
After reading around, I found that what White said was true. There have been numerous attempts at refuting White's arguments from John 6, and there have been all kinds of interpretations of it, but none of them come close to upsetting the case White makes for Calvinism. His case still seems to be solid to me.
Still, my conversion to Calvinism did not come easy. As I continued to read and learn about Calvinism, I discovered that it required a Copernican revolution in my worldview and in my understanding of the Bible. There were still places in the Bible that I had always understood in a way contrary to Calvinism, and it took a long time to iron them all out.
At a certain point, though, I came to realize that overall, the Bible supported Calvinism far more strongly than it supported the contrary. I decided I was a Calvinist before I got it all ironed out. In fact, I probably still don't have it completely ironed out.
There was another problem with Calvinism, though. The problem wasn't only Biblical, it was philosophical as well. In fact, the philosophical problem seemed worse than the Biblical problem. I became convinced that the Bible taught Calvinism, but Calvinism seemed to have some serious philosophical problems.
Since I'm sure non-Christians are reading this, I'll tell you that, yes, I did consider the fact that if the Bible definitely teaches Calvinism, and if Calvinism is philosophically bankrupt, it would follow that the Bible can't be the inspired word of God. I also considered that if the Bible supported both Calvinism and non-Calvinism, then the Bible is contradictory and can't be the word of God. But I'm not going to get sidetracked on those lines of thoughts now.
Anyway, the philosophical problems only increased the more I learned about Calvinism. One book in particular caused me a great deal of consternation. John Piper wrote a book called The Justification of God in which he gave a very thorough exegesis of Romans 9. From Romans 9, Piper argued for double predestination. You see some Calvinists are willing to say that God predestined people to eternal glory, but not that he predestined people to eternal damnation. Rather, God simply allows, passively, people to fall into damnation. Piper argued from Romans 9 that God creates some people for the purpose of damning them. I found that (and still find that) incredibly disturbing. Yet his case was pursuasive.
Before going into the philosophical problems with Calvinism (which is the subject of this series), I want to mention one other problem I had with Calvinism. The problem I had with it was my general impression of Calvinists themselves. There was a guy in my Monday night Bible study who was a Calvinist--a pushy one, too. He was always getting me to read his Calvinist books. Two of them that stick out in my mind were by Martin Luther and Arthur Pink. I remember thinking they were both just really nasty. James White seemed pretty rough around the edges, too. My general impression of Calvinists was that they were just some rude and nasty people.
Of course I recognized that it was fallacious to fault Calvinism just because a lot of Calvinists seemed nasty to me. I'm human, though, and I can't help that it caused me to be suspicious of Calvinism.
Anyway, one of the major philosophical problems with Calvinism in my mind was how to reconcile God's sovereignty with human responsibility. The first time I ever heard the problem expressed in light of Calvinism was when I read a book called Decision-Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxon. It turned out, though, that Calvinists were not the only ones who had a strong view of God's sovereignty (Geisler being one example). Being much influenced by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, I believed libertarian free will was necessary for moral accountability. Besides, libertarian free will had a strong appeal to common sense for me.
You might wonder how I reconciled that with my Calvinism. Well, I think my view was a lot like the view of Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason. Basically, I did not think we had free will in regards to accepting or rejecting the gospel. The Bible seemed clear on that. But I figured we had free will in every other aspect of life. At the time, that seemed consistent with Calvinism to me.
It wasn't, though, and I think Koukl recognizes this. God's sovereignty must cover all moral choices, not just the choice to accept or reject the gospel. Koukl has often said on his radio show that the hardest theological problem for him is how to reconcile the fact we have moral obligations with the fact that we have an inability to obey. We are dead in sins, unable to please God apart from his intervention, necessarily sinful. You see, we have this strong intuition that "ought" implies "can." That is, we can't have a moral obligation to do something if we are unable to do it. How is it, then, that we DO have a moral obligation if we also have an inability to meet those obligations?
Dennis (the guy in my Bible study), let me borrow The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards. This book caused another Copernican revolution in my way of thinking. It completely resolved every philosophical problem I had with Calvinism. It raised problems I didn't have before, and solved those, too. Though it didn't cure me of my discomfort with double predestination, it did satisfy me intellectually. Of course I had to read it a couple of times to understand it, and there are some sections I've read several times to understand them.
The major shift in my thinking was from believing in libertarian free will to believing in compatibalism. Also, from thinking libertarian free will was necessary for morality and compatibalism was inconsistent with it to thinking libertarian free will was inconsistent with morality and compatibalism was necessary for it. That was probably the most interesting thing I got out of the book.
Most importantly, Edward's book solved the problem of how to reconcile God's sovereignty with human responsibility. I wish I could convince all my readers to read his book--especially Steve and Dagoods. I wish I could convince Greg Koukl to read it, too. Edwards covers a lot of area that I can't cover without writing a book of my own, and he argues better than I could hope to do it.
to be continued: God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, part 1