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A Calvinism Post from someone who’s never studied it

May 9, 2009

An interesting twist on the whole dynamic between Mormons and Anti-Mormons (which I just got done writing about) is that one of the prominent counter-cult evangelicals, Aaron S, is calvinist. Now, the fun thing about this is that Mormonism, with its central idea of agency (it’s tied entirely to the plan of salvation, after all), is about as far from Calvinism as you can get. So, the overriding question of Geoff J at New Cool Thang has been wondering how a Calvinist like Aaron S justifies trying to preach to anyone.

(As an aside, Ray of Things of My Soul goes so far as to say Calvinism is “four steps below Lucifer’s plan,” an “abominable” theology that he “cannot respect.” This is interesting because from all of Ray’s posts, I get the idea that there’s very little, if anything, that can disturb him. So, this Calvinism thing…serious business.)

So, why am I writing this post? Well, I think that Geoff J shouldn’t necessarily be wondering why Aaron is continuing his evangelizing…and I don’t think that this evangelizing is, as Geoff says, self-defeating because of Aaron’s professed Calvinism. Geoff raises up this summary:

The obvious disconnect between Calvinism and missionary work of any kind is this: Calvinists teach that God predestines all souls to heaven or hell before He even creates them. Therefore the story of our souls is over before it starts. Therefore missionary work won’t save anyone since the outcome is determined regardless of the hard work of anyone. Therefore, why bother?

Simply, I don’t think this kind of disconnect is all it’s cracked up to be…so now, please don’t cringe while I play in heavy philosophical traffic with something I probably do not know enough to talk about to get involved.

I’ll begin by pointing out Calvinism’s Five Points (and there I go again, using these bad sources!). Actually, I don’t even want to talk about them all…what I want to talk about the one that has a special place in my obviously non-feeling nonbelieving heart…the one this blog gets its namesake from:

The doctrine of irresistible grace (also called “efficacious grace”) asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and, in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith.

The doctrine does not hold that every influence of God’s Holy Spirit cannot be resisted, but that the Holy Spirit is able to overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible and effective. Thus, when God sovereignly purposes to save someone, that individual certainly will be saved.

What does this have to do with anything? I think we  ask next: how God will influence people through the Holy Spirit? Could it be that evangelism is a tool by which God theoretically applies the saving grace to his elect?

Now…someone might point out…but the elect were chosen way back when, before we even got here, so it’s useless to try to convert a non-elect! This is our U (unconditional election) from TULIP…and tied closely with it is predestination.

The question shifts again: who are the elect and how do we distinguish? It seems to me that this is such an obvious question to ask with such novel ramifications because I’ve heard it asked before — with people who believe in determinism for other reasons (such as physical determinism), they assert the illusion of free will that exists because we don’t know the exact mechanism of the determinism (among other things).

With our idea of irresistible grace, it could be that someone who appeared to be an unelect heathen for 99% of his life sees the light in the final 1% and persists with it, so he was elect all along! It was predestined too; we just didn’t know it. And just as equally predestined was the fact that he would resist 99% of  efforts, because irresistible disgrace doesn’t suggest that every effort of the Holy Spirit will succeed…just that in the end, when God has you in his sights, he doesn’t miss the mark.

So, as Geoff points out, Aaron answers that he persists because God made him do it. And couldn’t this theoretically be the case? We are operating under an illusion of free will (possibly caused by a veil of ignorance which Mormons should actually know fully well about) that may make our actions appear to be free…but who knows if there aren’t marionette strings we just do not (or cannot) pay attention to? So, then, the point of evangelism is not to switch people from unelect to elect (which would be impossible)…but to make the elect realize they are elect by bombarding them with influences of the Spirit (or what the evangelist thinks are such) that…eventually, will succeed for the elect. And if the evangelist never succeeds in converting them? Well, that’s because that person was always not elect. But because of a veil of ignorance, we couldn’t see that.

…now, that’s all good theoretical talk. Do I believe it? No, I don’t think I do. But as a compact framework, it seems consistent with itself.

This gives me a segue to talk about the name of the blog. Even if I do not necessarily believe in a calvinist God (I’ll pass on making a judgment call on his alleged narcissism or sadism),I can conceive of how irresistible grace and irresistible disgrace might work. Mormon theology, for example, is intensely optimistic about the ability of people to just desire to believe, have a particle of faith, be obedient and grow a testimony. And quite frankly, it seem so sweet as to induce diabetes.

Yes, LDS scripture recognizes that it’s easier for some to believe than others (some have the gift to know…and others get the short end)…but in the end, I get the sense that some members feel that regardless of feelings, everyone must submit to the gospel. (Or, they might even doubt the possibility that someone could not feel a burning in the bosom toward the church or the Book of Mormon!) At least with Calvinism, we recognize the gospel message is never going to “feel” right to some.

Then again, maybe one day, I’ll see the light after all. And then my blog will be all for naught.

EDIT: Geoff raises a point I hadn’t considered. And this is actually…embarrassingly obvious from the wikipedia version of it:

The doctrine of unconditional election asserts that God’s choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to himself is not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people.

So, unconditional election shouldn’t require even conversion to evangelicalism or anything. The plot thickens…

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26 Comments
  1. Hey Andrew,

    I agree with your read of Calvinism. Back when I was a Calvinist, I thought of history as a sort of novel or play. It is written ahead of time, but it must still be read or acted out in order to be meaningful as art. Similarly, in any good epic narrative there are both heroes and villains. The author may determine what choices the characters will make ahead of time, but that does not negate the cause and effect relationship between choosing to be a hero and actually becoming one. It remains true that if a character wants to be a hero, he has to choose to be one. So why would the discovery that one’s role is pre-determined lead one to stop playing the part? I mean, assuming that the part is a role the character doesn’t mind playing?

    Although I’m not a Calvinist anymore, I am still a determinist. And actually, I still conceive of the problem in similar terms. Pre-determined or not, my choices still make or break my sense of happiness and fulfillment in life. So being a determinist in no way negates my motivation to choose well.

    I see the debate between determinism and libertarian free will as analogous in several respects to the debate between atheists and theists. The typical theist thinks that losing his belief in God would lead him to abandon all morality and hope for the future. He thinks that atheism necessarily entails nihilism. It is only when he actually loses his belief in God that he realizes very little has really changed, at least in terms of how he goes about his life. Advocates of libertarian free-will have much the same misconception about determinists. But again, when they finally embrace determinism they find that their lives go on as usual, and no nihilism ensues at all.

    Best,

    -Chris

  2. now, even as you posted, I realized that my article basically got seemingly refuted…

    can you tell me more about unconditional election (the U of TULIP)?

    Geoff J at New Cool Thang later comments:

    This must be you rejecting important parts of Calvinism then. Good idea. I mean the word “unconditional” in TULIP is pretty clear and if people are saved unconditionally then they certainly don’t need to convert to evangelical-flavored Christianity right? (Converting to a religion is a “work” after all.) So if you reject the unconditional election of grace I commend you as making strides toward truth. Or perhaps you don’t think irresistible grace is really irresistible and therefore God needs a helping hand on that front. Either way I commend your rejecting important pillars of Calvinism.

    Now, it seems that this could just be from a misunderstanding of unconditional election (as I think he misunderstands irresistible grace)…but it seems to me (again, from a cursory wikipedia-ing) that unconditional election nullifies a lot of things…

    In Calvinism, this election is called “unconditional” because his choice to save someone does not hinge on anything inherent in the person or on any act that the person performs or belief that the person exercises.

    and later on seems particularly damning…

    The Reformed position is frequently contrasted with the Arminian doctrine of conditional election in which God’s eternal choice to save a person is conditioned on God’s certain foreknowledge of future events, namely, that certain individuals would exercise faith and trust in response to God’s offer of salvation.

    So…why would it matter if someone elect follows the “right” doctrine…when God’s choice to save someone does not hinge on any belief, any action taken, etc.,?

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Unconditional election, as I understand it, refers simply to the fact that God is the sole author of both our election and our response to our election. We have no individual contributions to make to our own salvation because God is the source of all that we offer him. Thus, for example, although Luther believed that only the baptized go to heaven, he saw baptism not as our promise to God but as God’s promise to us to regenerate us and make us capable of living elect lives.

    Unconditional election is often misunderstood to imply antinomianism, but that is not what the Reformers originally meant by it. They meant only to avoid what they considered to be the heretical teaching that we have something of our own to offer or contribute to God and to our salvation. Rather, they suggested, we can do only what God has predestined for us to do. if he has predestined us to believe and be baptised then we will do those things and be saved, but not by any merit of our own. It is God’s merit in us that merits salvation for us through our faith and actions.

    To apply this to the example of the “work” of conversion, the Calvinist would say that your election is not “conditional” on your conversion because your conversion is part of what you were elected to. Thus to talk about conversion as a “condition” for election would be to put the cart before the horse. The Calvinist would say that if you don’t convert you’re not elect, but would argue that this only seems to be a condition from our finite perspective.

    The Arminian position contrasts with this because according to the Arminians God knows ahead of time what we will choose but is not the original author of our choices. Thus our choices come from ourselves and are genuinely ours, in such a way that we can genuinely merit or contribute to our salvation.

    Hope that makes sense.

    Best,

    -Chris

  4. Great post, Andrew.

    I was once in love with a Calvinist and apparently he was in love with me all along as well (as he told me years later), but he stated firmly early on that we could never be any more than friends because I was a Mormon and he would never date a Mormon.

    Now I’m not sure what it says about him that he shut the door on me so quickly since he had no way of knowing then whether I was elect or not. He could have at least waited a little longer. 🙂

  5. Re Chris:

    I guess that makes…somewhat…more sense…it just seems strange that election would seem like a package deal (conversion is part of what we are hypothetically elect *to*)…but I guess I got trapped in the finite position thing.

    Re Faithful Dissident:

    it’s situations like these which make me wonder, as someone wondered in a comment over at NCT, if the actions of certain Calvinists may reflect the doubt in their belief of election. I mean, it sounds like your Calvinist friend was *scared* of dating a Mormon — as if that would somehow lead him to realize he was not elect after all and more appealed by Mormonism.

  6. I’m glad you appreciated my question about the “unconditional” part of TULIP Andrew. I agree with you that Calvinist election in practice seems highly conditional to me.

    Regarding Irresistible Grace — I think you are not addressing my point on the subject. I recognize that in a Calvinist universe God certainly could use people to preach the Gospel and gather the predestined elect. But my question is what motivates a Calvinist in this universe to wake up in the morning and decide to go harass Mormons all day (or do missionary work or whatever). If grace really is irresistible then it looks like ark steadying to me. Or at least completely superfluous effort.

    Let’s make an analogy of watering the lawn. Let’s say God wants the lawn watered, and has storm clouds gathered that should roll through in an hour or two. What would be the sense of grabbing a Dixie cup and running from the kitchen sink over to the lawn over and over prior to the storm? It could be motivated by 1) a lack of faith in God’s own ability to water the lawn, 2) impatience with God’s timing, 3) totally useless duplication of effort. Maybe the Dixie cup runner is doing it out of desire to help, but it seems somewhere between pointless and faithless to me. Why not just trust and admire God’s power in that situation? This is how I see Calvinist missionary work.

  7. I think if you recognize that God certainly *could* use people to preach the Gospel and gather the predestined elect, then the rest of it shouldn’t be problematic regarding irresistible grace.

    For example, your idea of watering the lawn. It feels like you understand that God *conceivably* could have the lawn watered through a bunch of people predestined to feel like they need to grab dixie cups and do it cup by cup, but you want to see a big miracle instead. You want to see it rain. See a storm.

    What if God didn’t *intend* to water the lawn with a storm, but in fact, he meant all along for it to be by dixie cups? But since we, in our temporal, limited senses, wanted to see something fantastical and miraculous, were too blinded to see the micromiracles happening in front of our eyes? I am reminded of a biblical story about a certain leper being told by a prophet to wash in the river Jordan…and being insulted because he expected the Prophet to bring magic and awe. Or, in a more contemporary sense, the guy who was about to be flooded out in his home, prayed to Jesus to be saved, rejected three firemen who came to save him and drowned. When he asked Jesus why he never came to his rescue, Jesus said, “I came THREE TIMES, dude, and you rejected me each time.” I think your three points are shortsighted (at least, from a theoretical calvinist sense).

    Next, I think you’ve got a misunderstanding of irresistible grace. I don’t think it means in a calvinist sense that first offer = instant conversion. It means, very broadly, that if you are elect, *eventually* it’ll stick. So, if YOU, Geoff, are elect, then eventually, you’ll see Aaron’s side. And then Aaron can say, “See, it was predestined and irresistible.” Ultimately, I think the fact that 1) we don’t know who is elect, 2) that irresistible grace doesn’t have a time scale and 3) we don’t know how God operates/how he has prewritten the earth experience novel gives calvinism some nice loopholes to work with.

  8. Andrew: I think if you recognize that God certainly *could* use people to preach the Gospel and gather the predestined elect, then the rest of it shouldn’t be problematic regarding irresistible grace.

    We are talking about two different problems here. The “problem” I see is that Calvinism provides no logical motivation for the religious zeal I see in ant-Mormons like Aaron. There seems to be a disconnect between the behavior the theology logically would naturally yield and the all-out zealots it actually can yield.

    The question I am asking is what is the incentive for a Calvinist to do really hard things like missionary work? Based on Calvinism doing hard things like missionary work that will have zero *net* effect on who God saves or not and it will have zero net effect on the salvation of the missionary. So what motivates the Calvinist missionary or anti-Mormon work at their task with such zeal?

    It feels like you understand that God *conceivably* could have the lawn watered through a bunch of people predestined to feel like they need to grab dixie cups and do it cup by cup, but you want to see a big miracle instead.

    You misunderstood the analogy then. In the analogy it is about to rain and everyone knows it. That is not some big miracle. But it does make the frantic dixie cup runs pointless.

    What if God didn’t *intend* to water the lawn with a storm, but in fact, he meant all along for it to be by dixie cups?

    Well that’s the whole thing isn’t it? If Calvinists claimed their actions were based on modern revelations it would make sense. But they are completely against modern revelation and go to great lengths to preach against it to Mormons. So how would a Calvinist know what God wanted as the storm approached and they pondered the dixie cups in the cupboard? They wouldn’t. They would just have to choose to start making runs from the sink to the lawn in my view. But what motivates that illogical choice?

  9. I don’t see such a problem. If we take your answer for Aaron (even though you admitted that was never actually said in the conversation) of “God made me do it,” that actually makes a load of sense.

    I think you’re still assuming that people *choose* to be zealous — which makes sense from a libertarian free will/LDS point of view, but doesn’t make sense from a calvinist perspective. I would say instead that the Calvinist missionary is motivated because he is designed to be motivated…he is INCLINED to be motivated. This kind of faith is part of his personality. It would be like saying, “Why do so many gay people act on their homosexuality/SSA?” Because they are…well…inclined to. And in reality, this comparison is very flawed. Because we wouldn’t even say that sexual orientation is predestination. But in a calvinist worldview with predestination, couldn’t someone’s predestination lead them to zealous evangelizing?

    FURTHERMORE, this unchosen zealotry actually seems intuitive. It seems to me that people don’t choose faith or doubt. It *happens* to them. It — the inclination to believe or disbelieve, and furthermore, the INTENSITY of this inclination that can cause some to be devout and evangelical — is dropped in their lap.

    You misunderstood the analogy then. In the analogy it is about to rain and everyone knows it. That is not some big miracle. But it does make the frantic dixie cup runs pointless.

    Then I think the analogy ultimately fails to match the situation. We do *not* know under a Calvinist system how God will make the elect realize they are elect. The calvinist system only proposes that there *are* elect who will, eventually, realize their election.

    Well that’s the whole thing isn’t it? If Calvinists claimed their actions were based on modern revelations it would make sense.

    I’m afraid you’ve lost me. It doesn’t seem like modern revelation has anything to do with this at all…The calvinists do not need to know anything about what God wanted as the storm approaches (and I’m suggesting that they don’t…nowhere in the points of calvinism is suggest a complete understanding of God’s will.) So, we don’t have enough information to say if their actions are even chosen (esp. since choice is foreign and alien to the calvinist worldview), or if they are illogical or not.

  10. Andrew,

    I personally reject a the notion of a determinist universe so I have been trying to figure out the source of Calvinist zeal in a the LFW universe I believe in. I actually think I have my answer to that question now though. See an explanatory comment in my thread here.

  11. Something about this reeks to me of, “I believe what I believe and there are certain non-negotiable aspects of this. So, rather than meeting others who do not believe these things on their turf, I need to rationalize why they believe erroneously in the framework of non-negotiable aspects.” In the end, it seems like you don’t actually refute calvinism (but then again, is that possible? is refuting any system possible?) nor come to an understanding of calvinism on its own terms, but instead justify your dislike of it using your terms.

  12. Clearly you are fundamentally misunderstanding my intent then Andrew.

    I am trying to comprehend the motive and incentive for the zeal displayed by some Calvinists.

    I understand the basics of the answer they might give: “God made me this way”.

    Ok, that is one possible explanation. My problem is I don’t believe it because I don’t believe in the universe they describe. So I also sought alternate explanations. I linked to one possible alternate explanation for the motivation in my last comment.

    This is the kind of thing that outsiders always do when trying to understand religions. When non-Mormons do histories on Joseph Smith they almost never assume Joseph Smith actually saw God in 1820. They mostly try to figure out the man under the assumption that whatever motivated him it wasn’t what he claimed motivated him. It doesn’t bother me. I fail to see why you should be bothered by this general approach either.

  13. I guess I see what you mean.

    But I thought your intention was figuring out how Calvinists — from within a calvinist worldview — reconcile their calvinism with missionary work. In this case, it would be like asking, “How do Mormons reconcile (insert confusing detail about the church or its history) with their faith?” While we could certainly say (and some people do in fact say) members are deluded and brainwashed, this would not represent anything but our own biases. And I would think that you *would* be bothered by such an approach precisely because it would marginalize and trivialize faith, spiritual experience, etc.,

    On the other hand, I see the point about how an outsider might come to a different conclusion than an insider, and for good cause. I just think that it would be doing two different things.

  14. Geoff J,

    You don’t appear to me to be making a good faith effort to understand Calvinists on their own terms. It seems to me that you find Calvinism intuitively objectionable and are simply trying to logically justify that gut-level feeling.

    The Calvinist recognizes two different perspectives that must be held together as we go through life. On the one hand, there is the God’s-eye perspective from which all is determined and we contribute nothing to our election. Keeping this perspective in mind keeps us focused on the majesty of God and reminds us to trust and depend on his providential provision for us. It also keeps us humble about our works and achievements. On the other hand, there is the more pragmatic perspective, from which there are certain actions we must take in this life in order to demonstrate that we are elect. From this practical point of view, there are conditions that we must meet in order to be saved. While these two perspectives may seem intuitively incompatible, the Calvinist would (I think rightly) insist that they are not necessarily so. The apparent conditionality is an illusion.

    Although I am not a Calvinist, I am a determinist. I have studied libertarian free will very carefully, and was drawn for a time to open theism, but concluded that the libertarian model is ultimately not really workable. Nor, frankly, is it really desirable. In a thread on my blog a while back, I presented an argument against libertarian free will and carried on a discussion about it with Blake Ostler for about twenty comments. The discussion illustrates, I think, how libertarian free will is a position that relies primarily on intuition and on overly idealized definitions of the words “freedom”, “power”, “responsibility”, and “control”. The discussion also illustrates the libertarian failure to provide a coherent account of the relationship between Being and Becoming, of how choosing occurs, or of what exactly the “self” even is.

    The Arminian position, in which choices are free in a libertarian sense but God somehow foreknows them, only adds still more logical difficulties to those the “open theists” have already created.

    -Chris

  15. Christopher Smith: You don’t appear to me to be making a good faith effort to understand Calvinists on their own terms.

    You are wrong. Not only have I made a good faith effort to understand Calvinists on their terms I believe I do understand Calvinists on their terms pretty well.

    What you seem to be misunderstanding is that I had additional goals as well in my latest few posts. I believe I have met those additional goals as well.

    From this practical point of view, there are conditions that we must meet in order to be saved.

    Right. Herein lies the problem for the Calvinist “grace alone” preachers. Conditions=works.

    Last, as an open theist I say you are absolutely free to not believe in your own LFW if you want. See our long discussions about determinism vs. libertarianism here (some of the posts are by Blake and he participated in all of the long debates). Within a Mormon context LFW is a no-brainer in my opinion. Outside of a Mormon context I recognize that it is tougher to sell LFW to some folks.

  16. I don’t think LFW is a no-brainer in an LDS context. The fact that souls are eternal in LDS belief offers some help in solving the problem from a deterministic point of view, without the need to import the problematic assumptions of LFW.

  17. Well we spent a lot of time on this subject in July of ’07. See the two posts from that month in my last link and feel free to join those long discussions if it turns out you have a point that we didn’t cover (pun intended).

  18. If you are interested in classic Calvinist-Augustian theology, click on my name and scroll down the index page. The blog is an archive of primary source material with little to no comment from me.

    Thanks,
    David

  19. Geoff, I posted a comment on a 2007 post on your blog and expanded on my thoughts here.

  20. Dom permalink

    The funny thing about the “God has predestined men already so why evangelize” argument against calvinism is that people on the other side of the fence believe the exact same thing.

    If you believe God is all knowing (which you should) then even if you’re not calvinist, you believe that God forsaw by looking through the corridors of time who would respond and who wouldn’t. With the people who wouldn’t respond, He created them anyways.

    So why evangelize if God already knows who is going to respond and who won’t? Question for arminians and others?

  21. Well, the difference, even trivially, is that in free choice arguments, you choose freely for or against. So, God’s having full knowledge doesn’t mean that he is predestining you to one way or another. Theoretically, the actions of masses of missionaries could convert everyone (and that omniscient God would see it coming, but still).

    The difference in Calvinism is that it is impossible to become saved if you aren’t. You are either predestined to be elect…or you are not. And every action you take is actually planned; you are merely an action figure.

  22. Dom,

    I hold that God knows all that is knowable. That does not include the future which does not exist. (Look up “Open Theism”) So, no, the people on the other side of the fence do not believe the same thing.

  23. I think Dom was assuming a classically Arminian framework, in which God chooses the elect on the basis of foreknowledge.

  24. Ethan permalink

    Mormons do believe Christ was divine. Also, Don’t confuse the LDS doctrines of salvation vs. exaltation.

    Actually, Mormons believe all mankind is SAVED by the GRACE of God, even Hitler will end up in a degree of glory (for Mormons hell is a lesser glory relative to the higher state where God dwells and family units are eternal). Conversely, Evangelicals believe a person must perform the WORK of physically “accepting Jesus” vocally to be saved. For them, not all will be “saved.”

    Therefore, mormons believe in being saved by grace and Evangelicals believe in salvation by works (act of being born again).

  25. Ethan is a Mormon spammer.

    I’ve seen this exact same comment on about 5 other blogs – usually only tenuously related to the post, if at all.

  26. yeah, I didn’t know what was going on, but it wasn’t hurting anything, so I allowed it.

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