Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Calvinist Who Was Predestined to Become Catholic

Today's 2nd reading was Ephesians 1:3-14 which also happens to be amoung a Calvinist's favorite passages. Calvinists particularly love verse 5:

he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will

I was raised in a reformed Presbyterian church. Needless to say I've been a Calvinist all my life. The precepts of Calvinism made a lot of sense to me especially since I had a general tendency to lean towards determinism in my world view. I even went as far as scoffing at those who didn't believe in predestination. When I came to the Church I didn't know what they believed on the subject. When I found out that they rejected predestination I was a little shocked to be honest. 'They believe like the Baptists?! ' I thought...

Anyway, I put this issue on the back burner. When I found this debate between G. Brady Lenardos and Francois Tremblay (author of Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics) my viewpoint began to change a little. For the first time, I started to wonder if free will was perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of the universe and at the same time the greatest evidence for theism.
The debate is well worth the read (it's long) but I think any honest person would have to give the debate to Lenardos. (Of course I read a debate by William Laine Craig & John Dominic Crossan on the historical credibility of the gospels in which if Craig had defeated Crossan any more soundly there would have been an arrest that night and yet somehow liberals still thought Crossan held his own in the debate... I was baffled...but I digress).

Let me take this time to point out what most people don't seem to understand about Calvinism. Calvinists do not reject free will. They only insist that people are not able (as fallen creatures) to accept God without His grace being applied. This is a strong argument.

So I have been pretty surprised by the general lack of knowledge about Calvinism outside of reformed circles but especially in the Catholic church. In fact, I have yet to see anyone accurately represent it. I am no expert on Calvin and I've never read his 'institutes'. I'm not an expert on the Catholic teaching about salvation either so I don't intend to discuss in great detail the finer points of each side. I just want to make a few quick points.

I was having lunch a few Sundays ago after mass with my sponsor and his brother. Interestingly enough, his brother lives in Japan and belongs to the PCJ which is the exact church I grew up in except his is in Japan not America. Something his brother said got my gears turning over the next couple weeks. We were talking about the Catholic doctrine that those outside of the Church cannot be held responsible for their ignorance of Christ. Coming from a reformed background, this doctrine was a little offensive to me at first also.

His brother said that according to reformed theologians, it is not their ignorance of Christ which sends them to hell, but their sins to which they are rightly due eternal punishment for. This view point again is a strong position but it does have a weakness. It would be erroneous to attempt to argue this point from what might appear to be the obvious method.

You cannot accuse God of being unjust (really in anything) because of the fact that this is His creation. If God wanted to create people for the sole purpose of torturing them for their entire lives and then sending them to an eternal hell that would be just fine. Who would tell Him otherwise? This is His creation He will do what He will. There is no morality outside of Him. There is no justice greater than Him.

This is an answer to the age old philosophical problem - either right and wrong is a force outside of God (which even He would therefore be subject to and no longer truly "God" in our current sense of the word) or morality is simply a question of who has the most power. I remember apologist Greg Koukl answering the question posed to him by a caller by saying that there was some kind of a third option in which right and good were intrisically connected with God's very being and were simply part of who He was. Of course, a quick pondering of the answer will reveal that Dr. Koukl had conceeded by agreeing with the second supposition (right & wrong is simply a question of who has the most power). These are really the only two options. It is a strong basis for us to truly understand morality and I will post on this more sometime in the future. But I say all this now to show that God cannot be accused of injustice simply because we don't like something. So its quite reasonable on the surface for the reformed theologians to say God sends men to hell based on their sins.

Here is the problem, however, with the argument. Like I said before, it would be 'just' for God to create the world for the sole purpose of torturing His creation. If he had dones so, this behavior would become what justice itself is defined by. What God does is right by it's very intrinsic definition. It cannot be otherwise. But we can look at the world around us and at history and at the revealed truth from His Church and see that God didn't do that! He didn't create the world to torture us. By examining His attributes we quickly realize that He is a personal, loving and good God. He could have been anything He wanted to be. But goodness (like Dr. Koukl said) is an intrinsic part of His nature and by very definition it must be. The kicker is that we all like goodness. We like love. We like charity. We like pleasure. These things are good and what God intended for us.

So if we arrive at such conclusions (God is a good God) by observing the world and the ontological attributes of the universe, so shouldnt we arrive at conclusions about salvation by some similar methods? The reformed theologians claim that God sends people to hell because of their inherited sin nature and not because of their ignorance of Christ (therefore it is just for God to do so. My sponsor's brother said this in rebuttal to my point that even us sinful humans can see the injustice of God requiring something from someone which he is not able to produce. He was basically saying that I was looking at it incorrectly. It's not that God accepts those who are able and rejects those who are unable, but that God sends all men to hell based on their justly deserved punishment of eternal damnation yet He has chosen by special providence to save a select few; this is the heart of the Calvinistic theology). So what are the 'similar methods' I'm talking about? Just look at the Scriptures. When do we ever see God behaving in such a way? Do we see God requiring of someone something he is literally not capable of producing?

The T on Calvin's TULIP stands for "Total Depravity". Contrary to widespread misconception, this doctrinal point teaches that men are total depraved insofar as they are unable to respond to God's call [many are called but few are chosen(1)] without God's unmerited grace. It does NOT teach (as I've heard some Catholics propose) that all men are total depraved and thoroughly evil to the point that they are unable to do any good works. While this sort of theory would not be self-contradictory (such as the theory of Sola Scriptura), it does have problems. (That is, it could be true as a doctrine by itself if we didnt have a fuller understanding of Scripture and Church teaching).

In my post on the importance of symbolism, I attempted to outline my belief that God delights in symbolism and prefigurations. They say art imitates life... I've heard some say life imitates art. God uses not only logical, tangible means to convey truth but also abstract, interconnected, analogies found throughout all of creation with such an unparalleled beauty and truth to them that its hard to see sometimes how those who are outside of His grace can be so blind to the wonder of it all.

So therefore I also believe that to at least some degree, God's personal interaction with humans as recorded in the Scriptures paint us a beautifully accurate picture of how God also interacts with humanity on a broad scale. Afterall, do we not call the Scriptures 'the Word of the Lord'? How is a story about Abraham part of the Word of God? It's precicely because of this reason: God interacted with Abraham on an individual level, but this interaction is part of the message of God which reveals Himself to us. His individual interaction with Abraham is a thread woven in a tapestry of truth, the entirety of which, reveals to us the living Word. God does not change and He does not deal with mankind differently than with man (of course some details may change based on practicality).

Consider when Abimelech took Sarai from Abraham (Abram at this time) with the intentions of sleeping with her because Abram had said ‘she is my sister’.(2) When Abimelech found out through a dream that she was really Abram's wife, God said “because you were ignorant, I kept you from this sin".

God is aware of our state and our ability and this passage is a great illustration of that. God knew that Abimelech was ignorant, therefore by special grace God did not allow him to sin. This is a picture of those who are ignorant of Christ and His Church. In agreement with the Catholic doctrine, God is certainly capable of providing special grace for these individuals. Taking it even a step further, we know by observing God's past interaction with men that He is especially prone to render special grace on behalf of those who need it most. As we pray in the Rosary , 'lead all souls into heaven especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.' Furthermore, was Abimelech a 'born again Christian'? Was he even a Jew? Did he practice Judaism in piety before God? We'd all like to say "no one knows" but lets all just be honest and say "no". Yet why did God withhold him from sin? What difference does it make since (according to Calvinistic theology) he's going to hell anyway? Perhaps God provided him with special grace by withholding him from sin and this act was but a prefiguration of the special grace God would impart to him towards salvific ends (and not only for him but for the remainder of the human race who were in desperate need for this kind of special grace).

Now lest you think this is some kind of anamoly, read the entire Bible (all 73 books). You will notice that God always acts in this way. Again, yes it would be just (philosophically) for God to require whatever He wanted from men. He could condemn us all to hell without a trial. He could tortue us mercilessly from the day we were born. He could easily send all men to hell except those who had first heard of Christ and then not only accepted but followed faithfully His teachings. He could send all the ignorant tribesmen to hell without a second thought. But what we know from the teachings of the Holy Scripture and from the Infallible teachings of His Holy Church is that this is not the kind of God we serve.

Much more needs to be said on the subject and I certainly will post other things on the topic of Calvinism and predestination. But I hope this much has been helpful to some.


Anonymous said...

You do know that Lenardos is a calvinist and sees no problem with free will and preestination?

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

No I didnt know that but it doesn't surprise me. I wasnt commenting on his beliefs just commenting on what his debate led me to start thinking about. Thanks for letting me know though. I have a lot of respect for Calvin's TULIP and it's certainly a very reasonable viewpoint. A lot of brilliant thinkers have believed in it. Apparently Lenardos is another one of those.

Katerina Marie said...

Thank you for this post. I'm currently learning about the effects of Calvinism on economic and social ethics at the time of the reformation. I appreciate your posts and blog very much! Very informative!

Keep it up and Merry Christmas!


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Katerina, thank you for the kind words. Your blog is also a valuable resource to me. God bless you & I hope you and your family also have a wonderful Christmas.

George Weis said...


Again a great post... a little long for my blog attention :D But good stuff in there. I see that the Reformed church did have an effect on you... always very thought provoking even if they are wrong in their assumptions at times :D By all means the Calvinist view on these matters puts God in the box... even though I think they desire to give him full range to do as He pleases. I once came under a 5 point Calvinist, and I loved the man, and he helped shape my views, but today I believe my standpoint, is that the issue of our salvation is beyond our grasp. We have what we NEED to know, but the rest is in Gods hands. Somehow I think his choosing and our free will are worked out in a mysterious way. I have no need of putting the cap on such an issue. Let God be God.

Again, I am glad you are a thinker! Maybe you will do some good in the RCC ;)


Tim A. Troutman said...

George, you say that as if the Catholic Church doesn't normally have people who think - yet historically Catholic theologians and pundits have always been the thinking type. In recent years Benedict XVI, Peter Kreeft, Pope JPII, Chesterton and then greats like Pascal and Aquinas which is to mention nothing of the earlier greats like Augustine and Chrysostom.

At any rate, I do hope my humble musings can be of some small impact on a few (for the better!!!)

George Weis said...

No I was saying that the Reformed branch that you come from is usually great thinkers. I absolutely agree that there have been and are great RC thinkers.

Now Augastine would have considered himself catholic... but not Roman :D

Love ya lots man!


Bob said...

James Akin has an article "A Tiptoe through TULIP" that shows that Calvinist doctrine could be understood in a Thomist way. I suppose the Church typically leans toward free will in practice, but the theology is there.