An Orthodox defense of Calvinism

(I write this as an Orthodox layman with no pretensions that it speaks for any Orthodox other than myself. If others think it contradicts Orthodoxy, I solicit their input and correction.)

I recently found myself—surprisingly even to myself—coming to the defense of Calvinism on an evangelical-Orthodox email forum I’m on. Another member of the forum said that the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and irresistible grace make God capricious. But this, I replied, is not what Calvinists mean by these constructs in the traditional TULIP anagram used for remembering Calvinism’s "five points." Calvinism rather means that God is all-knowing and all-sovereign. Another writer said that, under the Calvinist teaching that God elects according to his secret counsels, no one ever knows whether they're among the elect or not.

But it’s also true that under the Orthodox and Protestant "Arminian" view of salvation, no one ever knows whether they're saved or not either! Even the most holy of Orthodox saints are preoccupied with their sins (and I agree with them that we should be, which had a lot to do with my becoming Orthodox).

But do we Orthodox deny that God is all-knowing and all-sovereign? Hardly. An Orthodox writer on the same forum said that faith, grace, salvation are all gifts of God. But this is the same thing, as I understand it, that Protestant reformer Calvin was saying, and for the same reason! Calvin's theology is about God, not so much about "us" as its critics want to make it.

But I agree with the Orthodox writers who say that Calvinist theology often confuses the faithful. In the days of Jonathan Edwards (one of the most famous Calvinist preachers ever, who lived around the time of the American Revolutionary War) people studied such issues enough (there were far fewer distractions) that most people understood the nuances. Edwards’ sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was considered the greatest Protestant sermon ever preached. (For decades into the 20th century it was a standard reading in public school readers as a classic of American literature, but today's Protestants would be hard put to understand it.)

In terms of being preoccupied with your sins, Edwards’ sermon could as well have been preached by an Orthodox monk as a Calvinist divine! But today, people want the one-sentence summary of everything, and they tend to jump from the Calvinist definition of "election" to the Baptist doctrine of the "security of the believer" to believing that if you once professed faith in Christ it's impossible to not be saved! This is theological nonsense, of course. It doesn't wash. It would be better if believers must reduce things to one sentence for them to have the one-sentence summary that if you're a sinner you need to repent, today, tomorrow and always.

After I posted sentiments like these (edited here to make them more understandable to readers who haven’t been following an Internet "conversation," I got some very good questions which prompted more thinking on the topic. The questions are indented below, my replies appear in full column width.

Is it too simplistic to say that a Calvinist rejects free will? I have always understood Calvinism as supporting the idea that before the world was created, God had foreordained/predestined those who would be saved and those who would be damned. In other words, it was set in stone, and no one could change it. Is this correct or not?

I guess the easiest way to explain it is in terms of the ontological-teleological tension. The ontological or existential is the way any individual sees life, his world, and himself. The teleological is the way these actually exist independent of individuals' perceptions, the way God and only God sees them because He and He alone is all-knowing. Anyone who knows physics or has read a book like A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L'Engle), or seen much of Star Trek, is probably aware that from a great enough distance one can "see" things that actually happened in the past as though they are happening now. (Even with our present telescopes on earth we can see stars burning out, I am told, which actually burned out eons ago, but we only now see their demises because it has taken this long for the last light to reach our perception.)

Now if God fills everything as we Orthodox confess in our prayers every day, He sees everything, including our futures, as though they are already present. That's the basis of the Calvinist belief. God is the author; we are characters in the book He has written. We're reading-living the book, but He wrote it. He knows how it ends, we don't. How could He tell us accurately what Armageddon is going to be like if we or angels or satan had the ability to change it?

This "authoring of the book" in Calvinist theology is called the Divine Decree. He spoke and the book was written: Decree. And His "novel" is so intricate that not only does He have a world to create, He also gives us worlds to create. But our worlds and His are not of the same essence; ours is created and under creation and time-bound; His is uncreated (He creates within it) and eternal, everlasting.

Yes, we have free will: that is, we have choices. In fact, life is nothing but choices. God created us to enjoy life and its choices fully. If we had no free will, no choices, He would really be capricious because He would be pulling all the strings and would be the author of the evil in our lives. It's because we have choices that bad things can happen to good people and God cannot be "blamed" for it. We, not He, make a false move on the freeway and suffer the consequences. But this is ontological, existential; it doesn't affect in any way the teleological reality that someone on Neptune would be seeing played out, given a powerful enough "telescope."

The fact that God knows our ends has absolutely no practical bearing on how we live our lives. This is what (I presume) another writer on the forum meant when he said this theoretical construct of Calvinism is good for nothing but systematic theology (actually, it has tremendous implications for any other doing of science Christians, or for that matter skeptics who've heard of it, undertake, too). As far as our ability to affect anything in the teleological realm is concerned, this system is useless, except that it gives us a conception of what God as a totally other being is like, and how He creates, deeper than we get from the clear statements about Him in Scripture. It gives just a glimpse of His power and majesty; that's all. But as for whether we're elect or not, it's not for us to know. We should be doing everything in our power to make sure we are. And if we live that way, it's a pretty safe bet that we are.

Now the Arminians read this sort of thing and say Calvinists have a God who is arbitrary. Calvinists never say God does anything arbitrarily; that's how their critics interpret them. To live your life as though you believe in determinism would be to slap God in the face; He gave us life to live fully and joyfully, not to mope our way through because "it's already all determined anyway and I can't do a thing about it." To say that and to mope about it is to say I'm jealous because I'm not God! That's the meaning of those verses in Romans, "shall the thing created talk back to its creator and blame Him for making it the way it is," to paraphrase Romans 9:19-24 loosely.

To me, though I've chosen to live now as "Arminian"—you could say I've come to terms with my createdness—this is the only way it could be. If God knows for certain that satan shall end up in the pit and His bride the church shall end up reigning with Him, and I'm certain He does, then there cannot be any way a puny being like me could change that, or even a highly powerful and cunning being like satan could change it. God knows nothing can go wrong. So it must be all "predetermined" as cynics would call it, but believers never would. We would say it's all in His Providence and leave it at that and praise Him all the more because of it.

I hope this explains why Calvinists say what they do a little bit. (And I would add, Calvinists who follow C. Van Til may likely disagree with this, but the larger schools, following Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, should have no problem with it.) A closing thought that will give you pause if you've read any of his books: remember, beneath it all, Robert Schuller of "Possibility Thinking" fame would profess that he is a Calvinist... (The point being, who does more to change the world around him and for good purposes, than Schuller—I'm not a big fanhis flamboyance can be pretty annoying at times—but I do have a lot of respect for him.)

I make these assertions only in an attempt to show that Calvinists and Orthodox are not as far apart in their theology and that Calvinism is not as unkind and misguided as is often alleged.

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1998 Jon Kennedy