Tony Woodlief | Author

Because circles, for the love of God, aren’t square

My family and I were on vacation, and so I missed the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. I mean, July 10th happened where we were, it’s just that he wasn’t on my mind. I used to be a Calvinist. Many people I love are Calvinists. Others worship in churches that subtly advocate Calvin’s stern predestinationism, though they themselves don’t hold to it. I suspect a good many people remain Presbyterians only by virtue of ignoring the substance and implications of Calvin’s teachings.

A common challenge from Calvin’s devotees to someone who says such a thing, is: “Have you actually read Calvin?” It’s a fair enough question, though sometimes tinged with arrogance. There’s an underlying notion among some that if a person rejects Calvin, it must be because he hasn’t read Calvin closely enough. Calvin is so obviously right, in other words, so clearly steeped in the truth of scriptures, that he can’t be wrong. The problem is with you, pal. Or to quote the stern Frenchman himself, in response to those who recoil at the notion of God roasting infants in eternal hellfire to satisfy his sense of justice:

“For why, pray, should it be made a charge against the heavenly Judge, that he was not ignorant of what was to happen? Thus, if there is any just or plausible complaint, it must be directed against predestination.”

Which is sound advice, so I think I’ll take him up on it. The issue is indeed with predestination, or to be necessarily precise, with Calvin’s rendering of predestination. My Catholic and Orthodox friends would find a whole host of other issues, but for me the issue that began the slow unraveling of my confidence in Calvinism was that I can’t square the picking of eternal winners and losers with a generous God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son for its salvation.

But there’s so much more to Calvin, reply his admirers. Indeed there is. But tell me where in all his writings we can find a retraction of this claim, in Book III of his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

“. . . God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”

He follows with the specious argument, running through the heart of Calvinism, that because God can direct all things, therefore He does direct all things. It goes afoul of James’s observation that God is not the author of evil, but never mind, this contradiction is one of Calvin’s “mysteries,” a sleight of hand designed to lend man’s illogic the trappings of God’s unknowability. God can certainly be unfathomable and yet also Abba, Father. But puny man isn’t allowed to draw square circles. At least not according to my ninth-grade geometry teacher.

So we have this heinous claim that God arranged the fall of man for his own pleasure. I’ve certainly not read all Calvin’s work, so please tell me where he repents this blasphemy. And if he does not, then what are we celebrating? That he challenged the corruption in Roman Catholicism? Fine, applaud him for that (along with a lot of other reformers, more than a few of them in the Catholic Church itself). But for the love of God, let’s not forget the love of God.

And that’s the crux of the matter, for me. In the midst of telling us that He is unfathomable, unknowable, undiscernible, God tells us that He is Love. He crossed the great chasm created by sin, and was humiliated and killed, out of love for man. Does this sound like a being who, in the words of Calvinist writer John Piper, is the “ultimate hedonist”? Are we to believe Michael Horton, who claims that “We are on this earth to entertain [God], please him, adore him, bring him satisfaction, excitement and joy”? What would we say of a parent who had children solely to be satisfied and excited? Are these the descriptions of a loving father, or of a petulant, self-absorbed tyrant? How could it be that we, being evil, love our children more than God loves us?

It can’t, because we don’t. God loves His creation fiercely, beyond measure. To suggest that He created us in order to cause our fall into sin, that He might in turn torture most of us for eternity with no hope of salvation, is to call Him a monster.

Do I believe in heaven and hell? Absolutely. But I reject the logic which concludes that God’s sovereignty demands He give man no choice about where he ends up. A king is free to give his subjects free will. I understand the argument about how original sin made everyone wicked from birth, unable to choose good and therefore deserving of eternal torture, and that there’s mercy in God sparing even just a few, and that therefore a loving God does create humanity to be tortured with no hope of salvation. I get it. I just reject, along with a good many Christians over the centuries who are wiser than me, that these conclusions flow from a right understanding of scriptures.

Then again, I’m no theologian. But I’m inclined to take Paul at his word when he writes to Timothy, “God our Savior . . . desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Does He know how everything will turn out? Of course. But that doesn’t mean He predestines some to hate Him and others to love Him. He is a loving Father, not a tyrant. Which is why I’m not a Calvinist anymore. And I hope my Calvinist friends will understand that this doesn’t make me less a Christian.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that. Up next, a rundown on the many ways in which Wife is a far better water-skier than I will ever be, also known as the story of how Tony drank half a lake.

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