The Enigma of Calvinism
By T. A. McMahon
Calvinism, from my first exposure to its teachings and practices to and through today, has not ceased to be an enigma to me. In fact, the more I have learned about it, the more perplexing I find it to be. I’ve been told by a few of its advocates that I’m too dull of mind to grasp its teachings. Rather than being offended by that accusation, I consider it a criticism that puts me in great company. Dave Hunt, one of the most intelligent men I have ever known, was once accused by two young Calvinist pastors of “not having the ability” to understand Calvinism (i.e., being too stupid), primarily because he wasn’t knowledgeable of Greek and Hebrew. Dave’s gentle-yet-pointed response to them was that their own relatively brief education in Greek and Hebrew was hardly comparable to the first century Christians’ knowledge of the languages. Yet their knowledge of those languages didn’t appear to give the early believers any advantage when it came to living out the Scriptures, because much of the New Testament was written to correct their errors.
This article, however, is not an apologetic regarding Calvinism. Dave and others have written volumes critiquing that belief system, so anyone who is interested can readily access their perspectives. If you are not familiar with the beliefs of Calvinism, our extensive resource materials, from Dave’s comprehensive What Love Is This? to smaller books and booklets, are loaded with helpful information.
What I am presenting here are just some of the thoughts I’ve had over the years that are disturbingly puzzling to me, and I have yet to hear them reasonably explained beyond being told that “God’s ways, means, and thoughts are higher than my thoughts and understanding.” That’s certainly the case, although God does say, “Come let us reason together,” and He has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in our lack of understanding (Isaiah:1:18; John:16:13; 1 Co 2:14). Nevertheless, the thoughts that follow are some of the things that I find terribly perplexing.
Growing up as a Roman Catholic, educated in a Catholic elementary school, a Catholic military school, and a Catholic high school, I was quite serious about and knowledgeable of my faith. I was what was then referred to as a “devout Catholic,” meaning I took my religion seriously. One of the most highly esteemed Catholic “saints” was Saint Augustine. I was taught that he was the Father of and Doctor (Teacher) of the Catholic Church. He inspired some-and confirmed all-of the major dogmas of Roman Catholicism. He believed and taught the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine in the Mass; that the Mass, including the Eucharist, was an ongoing immolation (sacrificial killing) of Jesus; that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation; that Mary was sinless and a perpetual virgin; that the Apocrypha was part of the Old Testament canon; that the popes were a fulfillment of apostolic succession; that Christ would not literally reign a thousand years on the earth, and that all spiritual authority rests in the Roman Catholic Church. Regarding this last point, Augustine wrote, “If you should find someone who does not yet believe in the gospel, what would you [Mani] answer him when he says, ‘I do not believe’? Indeed, I would not believe in the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so” ( Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation ” 5:6). If there is any doubt that “Saint” Augustine was thoroughly Catholic, it has to be the product of wishful thinking or a less-than-honest support for one’s Reformation theology bias.
How does Augustine’s Catholicism qualify as an enigma? Calvinist Protestants, those who protest against the Church of Rome including John Calvin himself, held and continue to hold Augustine in a reverence bordering on idolatry. Calvin referred to him as “holy father” in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and cites him more than 400 times. Calvinist Francois Wendel acknowledges that “Upon points of doctrine [Calvin] borrows from Augustine with both hands” ( TBC 7/12). Dave Hunt points out in What Love Is This? the great praise of Augustine by leading Calvinists: “One of the greatest theological and philosophical minds that God has ever so seen fit to give to His church” (Talbot and Crampton, cited in Dave Hunt, What Love Is This? [Bend, OR: The Berean Call, 2006], 56). “The greatest Christian since New Testament times…greatest man that ever wrote Latin” (Souter, cited in Hunt, What Love? , 56). “[His] labors and writings, more than those of any other man in the age in which he lived, contributed to the promotion of sound doctrine and the revival of true religion” (Rice, Ibid.). This is from those who represent a religious system that has historically opposed the Roman Catholic Church-at least, that’s the general perception.
If that isn’t mystifying, consider this: One of the revered icons of Calvinism, B. B. Warfield, who headed Princeton Seminary, claimed that Augustine was both the founder of Roman Catholicism and the father of the Reformation (Warfield, Ibid., 59). It takes more than a creative imagination to make sense of that perspective.
The cry of the Reformers was sola scriptura , which means that the Bible alone is to be the Christian’s authority in all matters of faith and practice. I couldn’t agree more. However, although Calvin and Luther, among others, waved that banner, they did not live by its important truth. They kept some baggage from their former faith that isn’t even found in God’s Word, or it is contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Infant baptism, for example, was kept, and it was claimed that it makes children Christians and opens the doorway to heaven. The ritual of baptism, rather than being a public declaration of one’s identification with Christ, involved the removal of sins and granted spiritual regeneration. They also continued clericalism, giving special authority to their priests. They pushed Christ’s ordinance of communion far beyond its scriptural instruction. Communion became an efficacious sacrament with its sacred elements. It could be administered only by the clergy rather than performed as a simple act carried out by all believers in remembrance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Calvin, in particular, continued the Catholic practice of state churches, in which the secular government of Geneva supported his sometimes lethal decrees. Obviously, the sola of sola scriptura was functionally lost by those who said they desired to reform Roman Catholicism. I’m bewildered and grieved that such a critical abandoning of Scripture is passed over by Calvinists.
But there is much more that baffles me, and the Calvinist teaching on predestination is at the top of the list and infects the rest. I cannot comprehend how any Bible-believing Christian could possibly accept Calvin’s view of predestination and God’s sovereignty, which he took primarily from the writings of “Saint” Augustine. Calvin declared, “I say with Augustine, that the Lord has created those who, as he certainly foreknew, were to go to destruction, and he did so because he so willed. Why he willed, it is not ours to ask….”
Calvin taught that everything depends upon the mere will of God. Calvinist R. C. Sproul Jr. writes, “God wills all things that come to pass…God desired for man to fall into sin…God created sin” (Sproul Jr., Ibid., 275) Another Calvinist adds, “God is in back of everything. He decides and causes all things to happen….He has foreordained everything ‘after the counsel of his will’: the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist-even sin” (Palmer, Ibid.). Think for a moment about the implications of what these men have said, and what multitudes of other Calvinists who agree with them likewise teach. Do they truly believe that God is the author of every wicked act of mankind? If so, and I can’t see how they can rationalize their way around such a conclusion, it is the ultimate blasphemy directed at the character of God. My mind-boggled reaction is how men who profess to know and love God and are highly esteemed in Christendom, could even think that, let alone preach it? Has their “intellectual reasoning” blinded them to the clear and overwhelming number of Scriptures that contradict their theology? I don’t get why they don’t get it.
This is not so-called hyper-Calvinist thinking. Predestination is central to Calvinism’s teaching on sovereignty, foreknowledge, unconditional election, the denial of free will, irresistible grace, limited atonement, regeneration prior to belief, and most certainly the eternal destiny of millions, perhaps billions of souls, who were predestined to the Lake of Fire before time began.
I could fill up every page of this newsletter and more with the contradictions, the absurdities, and the tragic mischaracterizations of our God and Savior that the Calvinist beliefs in predestination and sovereignty generate. They are a dreadful offense to biblical truth and common sense. The space designed for this article however limits me to just a few. Nevertheless, I hope that those who call themselves Calvinists or lean toward that belief system will give some serious thought and prayer to them.
My questions: Why would Jesus preach repentance to the multitudes (Matthew:4:17) if their fate had already been predestined? What was the point of Jesus upbraiding cities where His miracles were done because they did not repent? Did they have a choice? Why would Jesus beckon all who labor and are heavy laden to come unto Him (Matthew:11:28) if those who are not of the elect cannot? Why would Jesus draw a little child to Himself (Matthew:18:1-4) and say, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven”? Shouldn’t He have qualified that: “Elect little children”? He said further (Matthew:18:14), “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these [elect?] little ones should perish.” Why would Jesus call “all the people unto Him” (Mark:7:14) and say, “Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand,” if they could not come or understand until they were regenerated? Did the angel who appeared to the shepherds (Luke:2:10) get his message wrong when he said, “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people”? If Jesus predestined untold numbers of souls to a horrendous destiny, why would He say, “For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke:9:56)? Why is there “joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke:15:10) if it was coerced by “irresistible grace” and was previously programmed? John writes, “And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (1 John:4:14) and “Many more believed because of [Jesus’] own word; and said unto the woman [at the well], Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world” (John:4:41-42). Were all those Samaritans regenerated before coming to Him?
Those are just a few of the verses that raise reasonable questions about Calvinist beliefs. Both the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament are filled with hundreds more. Regarding the Old Testament, why would Joshua say, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve” and “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” if, in fact, he and they had no choice in the matter? In the Book of Revelation we are told of the great white throne judgment of the lost (Revelation:20:11-15). If the Calvinist’s teaching of predestination were true, i.e., that the souls standing before Christ for judgment were preordained to the Lake of Fire before mankind was created, giving them no opportunity for salvation, what is to be judged on their part? If Calvinism is true, and not only the destiny of the lost was predetermined, but the sins that they committed were authored by an absolutely sovereign God, there is nothing to judge. Any attempt to reconcile those judgment verses with Calvinism turns what the Scriptures teach into a charade at best, and a mockery of Jesus and a travesty against God’s Word at worst.
Reading Calvinist writers, we find that the one thing that is consistent is their inconsistency. John MacArthur’s commentaries in his Study Bible are loaded with teachings that contradict his five-point Calvinism. For example, referring to Deuteronomy:30:15 he writes, “Here Moses pinpoints the choice -to love and obey God is life and good, to reject God is death and evil. If they chose to love God and obey His Word, they would enjoy all God’s blessings” (emphasis added).
For me, Calvinism has been an ongoing enigma. Having been a Roman Catholic for 30 years of my life, I’m grateful for the Reformers’ having stood up to the most powerful religious institution of the day and turning Christians in the direction of the Scriptures. I’m nevertheless grieved and appalled at the unbiblical theology the reformers created under the banner of sola scriptura and the distortion it presents of the character of God and its potential for misrepresenting the Gospel. Its growing influence is also very troubling and personally unsettling due to the fact that some of my good friends and family members are Calvinists or hold to some Calvinist teachings. Although I’m thankful that through prayer God provides opportunities to challenge their views through the Scriptures, it continues to be a burden that weighs upon my heart.
Even so, God provides encouragement. At one point, when I seemed to be getting nowhere with my Calvinist friends and it was getting me down, I blurted out a question to a pastor with whom I was riding. It had nothing to do with anything that we were talking about previously, so it took him by surprise when I asked him what he thought about Calvinism. He reflected on that for a moment and then explained that when he was in seminary nearly all of his favorite professors were Calvinists. Many of their favorite Christian writers were Calvinists, and he had read some of their books. Therefore, while he was in school, he believed that he was a Calvinist as well. My glum response was, “So, you’re a Calvinist,” which was more of an unhappy conclusion than a question. He looked at me with a grin. “No, I’m not!” At that point, I think I laughed in relief. To my question of “So, what happened?” he replied matter-of-factly that the more he read the Word of God, the harder he found it to reconcile his Calvinist beliefs with the Scriptures.
The only thing I can add to the above is my prayer that all who are attracted to Calvinism would do likewise by searching the Scriptures to see if such teachings are true to God’s Word. TBC