Evangelical Slander

In the past, different Protestant denominations expressed their disagreements in terms we would today consider impolite and, at least in America, associated with each other as little as possible. We are all thankful that mutual courtesy and cooperation have largely replaced this previous unhappy – and unhealthy – way of relating.Alas! The inter-denominational “cold war” has, it would seem, merely changed battlefields and tactics. Now, we may treat those with whom we differ courteously to their face, but in our own “in-house” communications, and even in public, we engaged in what amounts to “evangelical slander.” We hear Calvinists intemperately accusing Arminians of not caring for the sovereignty of God. Amillennialists and post-millennialists assert that pre-millennialists have abandoned our duties in this world to wait for the Lord’s return. Dispensationalists and pre-millennialists, in return, claim that amillennialists don’t really care about the literal meaning – and, they often darkly hint, even the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Those who believe that we are no longer under the Mosaic covenant are held by Covenant theologians to advocate rank antinomianism, while they in turn are said to be legalists, just like the Pharisees and circumcision party of New Testament days. But one set of statements now going around the Evangelical circuit really bothers me. I refer to the cluster of claims by those who oppose predestination, election, the absolute sovereignty of God in providence and salvation, and other hallmarks of what can be loosely termed “Calvinistic” theology Why am I troubled? Because these writers and speakers have resorted to name-calling, thinking thereby to dismiss a long and noble tradition of Christian thought with simple ad hominem arguments. That simply will not do in Christian circles. Let me explain. “Logic” versus Scripture It is widely asserted that e “Calvinists” rely on human logic rather than on the Bible for their doctrines. This logic is usually also termed “cold” or “rigid” - terms which do not set well in our relational society. This charge fails on two counts: First, if you read Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Hodge, Henry, or Piper (to same some representatives of this school), you look in vain for “ruthless logic” in support of their teachings. Instead, you find page after page of exegetical comments on the Scriptures. Thus, when I read or hear this assertion, I must conclude that the author has not read the original sources. Secondly, the Arminian position is guilty of the very thing of which it accuses the Calvinists. Those who promote the necessary role of human free choice in salvation (and even, now, in providence) reason this way: God wants us to love him. Coerced love is meaningless. Therefore, our love for him must proceed from voluntary choice. But that presupposes the ability to choose otherwise (the power of contrary choice). But that assumes the reality of that choice; that is, there really must have been an option when one decides to obey God. But that means that some things – namely the contrary choice, and thus the contrary behavior which we could have made – is free of God’s control. Thus, there are some things that God does not control. Q.E.D. Or, the argument may go this way: God is just. He would not command us to do, or punish us for not doing, anything that lay outside our ability. Otherwise, we would be commanded and punished for things over which we have no control. If we are not able, then we are not responsible. But the Bible assumes we are responsible. Thus, we must be able. If we are able, then we are free to choose. That being the case, we are free to choose otherwise. Thus – again – there are some things over which God (usually, it is added, in his sovereignty) God has chosen not to exercise sovereign control. Q.E.D. Now, I ask, If this is not logical reasoning, what is it? Furthermore, where in the Bible do we find such reasoning? That is, we may find texts which would seem to support one or another of these propositions, but where do we find this chain of argument? But this argument seems to be self-evident to Arminians and Pelagians (like modern Openness Theologians). They may be correct, but are they thus acquitted of the charge of basing their conclusions on “logic” as well as (or, even more than; or, to put it even more baldly, instead of) the Scripture? Thus, I plead with those who believe in freedom of choice in all matters: You may believe what you like, but please do not say that Calvinists base their position on logic, whereas you build yours entirely from the Bible. “Greek” versus “Hebrew” Coupled with the “cold logic” claim is another, equally damning: Calvinists and others who believe in God’s absolute sovereignty in providence and salvation are subject to Greek thought, especially Platonic speculation. They take their ideas – so it is said – from the polluted wells of philosophic speculation of Hellenistic philosophy rather than from the pure streams of “Hebrew” concepts. Nowadays, the “Openness: people add Aristotle to the list of culprits, because of his famous “unmoved mover” concept of God (more on that later). Adolph Harnack popularized this view in the 19th century, much to the delight of Johovah’s Witnesses, who quote him and his disciples in their anti-trinitarian literature. Once again, however, the critics of Calvinism are wrong. Just read Augustine on Plato, and you will find that, while he can accept some Platonic ideas as containing germs of truth, he rejects Platonic philosophy. He goes so far as to repudiate some of his earlier works, which he realizes were too heavily indebted to pagan thought. His later works, which happen to be the ones most clearly committed to the sovereignty of God. Likewise, Luther and Calvin called loudly for the expulsion of Aristotle and his philosophy from the theological schools, in conscious reaction to the pervasive influence of Greek speculative thought in Roman Catholic theology, and especially Thomas Aquinas. Contrary to Thomas, they wanted no part in mixing Biblical and philosophical ideas. They claimed to be returning to the Scriptures, including Augustine’s exposition of them. “Calvinistic” writers since the Reformation have similarly built their case upon the Bible and most definitely not upon Plato or Aristotle. The one exception would be the so-called Protestant Scholastic movement of the 17th century, in which some Aristotelian categories were used in the organization of theological systems. Even here, however, a careful reading of a representative figure like Wollebius will demonstrate that his drew his doctrines from the Bible, not Greek thought. Thus, again, I have to question whether any who say that Augustine and Calvinists depend more on “Greek” thought than they do on “Hebrew” concepts have read any of the authors whom they so sharply criticize. But to make matters worse for the critics, the once-popular contrast between “Greek” and “Hebrew” thought has been dealt a mortal blow by the scholarship of the past forty years. This simplistic dichotomy (which resembles Marcion’s radical separation of the Old and New Testaments) ignores several obvious facts: For one thing, the Old Testament was translated into Greek before the time of Christ. Greek terms were given Biblical meanings. For another, there was considerable intermingling of Hellenistic and Hebrew thought in the inter-testamental period. In the time of Jesus, it was a bit hard to distinguish between “Greek” and “Hebrew” schools o9f thought. Moreover, the New Testament was also composed in Greek, using both common and technical language. Are we to say that God made a mistake in his choice of languages for this final revelation? Is Greek incapable of expressing divine truth? “Enlightenment rationalism” versus Biblical teaching Adding insult to injury, critics pile up more unsavory names to paint Calvinists in the darkest hues. One of these charges is that the insistence upon God’s absolute sovereignty in human affairs results from the pernicious impact of the Enlightenment upon Evangelical theology. I have even heard one speak of “16th century rationalism.” At this point, one does not know whether to laugh or to cry. The most cursory perusal of Evangelical writing during and after the Enlightenment will disprove this assertion. “Unmoved Mover” versus “Most Moved Mover” Aristotle’s “god” was described as the Prime Mover, the Unmoved Mover, who was not influenced by other beings or forces, but who set everything else in motion. Critics allege that Calvin’s God resembles this impersonal force more than the God of the Bible who, as we all know feels all sorts of emotions, including intense pity for the suffering and plight of His creatures. If – to take only one example - God is such an Aristotelian unmoved mover, how can we make sense of the many promises that He will answer prayer? No, He must be the “Most Moved Mover” as one prominent advocate of Openness Theology writes. Once again, this criticism rests upon massive understanding, and perhaps even ignorance. How could anyone read Calvin’s section of prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and come away with such a conclusion? A cursory glance at the sermons and writings of Jonathan Edwards or C.H. Spurgeon, not to mention John Piper, would at once refute the allegation that their God lacks compassion and other emotions ascribed to Him in the Scriptures. Likewise, the frequent criticism of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s description of God as “without body, parts, or passions.” One must only hope that genuine ignorance of the Latin background of the word “passions” and of the long theological and philosophical debates behind this word has led to the common misunderstanding of its intent. The Westminster divines were not denying that our Lord has emotions, or that He does not react to the prayers and plight of His people. On the contrary, the same paragraph denying “passions” to God asserts that He is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him…” Similarly, the Catechism declares that God will “hear the requests, pardon the sins, and fulfill the desires of all” who pray to Him. I have heard it said that the God of 17th and 18th-century Reformed theology is “distant.” To which I must reply, Has anyone making this statement read even a few lines of the Puritans or of Jonathan Edwards? When the same claim is made about John Piper’s theology, one must ask the same question. Back to the word “passions.” It comes, of course, from the Latin verb patior, which means to “suffer” in any way. Such “suffering” could be of the sort we connect with unpleasant emotions, such as fear. Or it could merely refer to the experience of being “moved” – that is coerced and overpowered - by the power of a greater person, force, or circumstance. The Westminster theologians were of course referring to this latter sense of the word “passion.” Just as the “passion” of Jesus Christ describes those actions of others to which He submitted, so “passions” in the Confession denotes the impossibility of God’s being deprived of His absolute freedom to act. Being sovereign and omnipotent, He is not subject to the will or work of any created being. He is immutable, unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and forever. Now, one may question whether such an understanding of God accords with the Bible. But we should at least be accurate in our description of the position of those with whom we disagree, and not attribute to them notions which they do not hold. “Dominating Despot” versus Alluring Lover Is the God of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Henry, Piper a cruel, dominating despot – as prominent critics affirm – or is He a kind, alluring lover. Does God coerce us into submission, or does He draw us with the cords of love? To read John Eldridge and others, you would think that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God collides fundamentally with the Biblical teachings concerning both His kindness and with our own freedom and responsibility. Space does not allow us to discuss this ancient and very vexing question at length. Let me only state categorically that no Calvinist whom I have ever read or heard would identify God as a dominating despot. “Calvinists” of all stripes worship a Savior who has lavished His unmerited kindness and affection upon them, and they willingly, freely, and gladly respond to His unconditional love. In other words, as with so many other such claims, this supposed contradiction does not exist in Calvinistic theology. “Whole Counsel of God” verses Wholesome Humility Recently, I have heard a new source of disapproval towards Reformed thinkers: They claim to proclaim “the whole counsel of God.” Isn’t that an expression of rank arrogance? After all, how could anyone presume to know all about God, much less to explain His person and works comprehensively, not to mention exhaustively? Once again, this critique seems to come from lack of knowledge. To begin with, “the whole counsel of God” is a perfectly Biblical phrase, as we all know (Acts 20:27). Secondly, Reformed teachers do not claim to have succeeded in declaring the whole counsel of God, but only to attempt to imitate Paul in this endeavor. And finally, the term reflects a conviction that the Bible speaks to all of life – the so-called “Reformed world-and-life view” – and thus has something to say about every aspect of human endeavor. In other words, our message includes not just how to get right with God, but how to think, speak and act throughout the week, not matter what we do. Not surprisingly, Reformed thinkers have often been at the forefront in reflection upon possible Christian understandings of economics, politics, education, philosophy, and the family. That is, they have tried not only to preach the Gospel and baptize but to teach believers “to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Should they be faulted for this? “Enjoying God” verses Being Enjoyed by God” One of the most surprising comments I have heard attacks the usually well-accepted answer to the first question in the Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” “To enjoy God and enjoy Him forever.” The criticism has two parts: First, why start with the chief end of man? Why not begin with the chief end (purpose) of God? Which is to say, These Calvinists are too man-centered! If the rest of the Catechism does not answer this question adequately, then perhaps the critics could peruse the Confession of Faith. They could also take time to study the background of this question, which is the long philosophical debate over the summum bonum – the highest good. In the face of all the usual answers given in classical ethical teaching, the Westminster divines put man’s highest happiness right where it belongs, in knowing, serving, and enjoying God. The second half of this charge comes as an even greater surprise: John Piper, today’s chief exponent of “enjoying God,” is accused of neglecting the fact that God enjoys and takes pleasure in us. How anyone could make this claim after reading even one of Piper’s books astonishes me. After all, doesn’t he constantly say that God is most delighted in us when we are most delighted in Him? All the above criticisms seem to me to spring from ignorance which, though inexcusable when one is presuming to find fault with another’s theological position. This last one, however, is stunningly different. I refer to the increasingly-popular assertion that Calvinists are guilty of “Pagan” versus “Christian” teaching This crowning accusation – one meant to sweep away the entire structure of Augustinian and Calvinistic understandings of God’s nature and ways – is the recent claim that this brand of theology is nothing less than “paganism” in disguise. That, my friends, is a low blow. If one has to resort to this sort of attack, it must be either that you have lost contact with your Evangelical brothers or that you cannot buttress your own views with enough evidence. Perhaps both are true. When respected Christian theologians are allowed to make such statements without public rebuke, discourse among Evangelicals has sunk to a new low. May we all do our best to avoid “Evangelical Slander.” And if you think I have been guilty of it, please let me know!