Last night the Sojourn Network hosted a debate on Calvinism. Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones represented the Calvinist, and Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd represented the non-Calvinist. Overall, the debate was entertaining, but not nearly as entertaining as the conversation on Twitter. My personal favorite was the ad-hoc drinking game that developed for every tired argument. “Gospel issue!” “Sovereignty!” “Plain reading of the text!” We’ve heard all these arguments before because there is nothing new about this debate. In fact, the debate is nearly as old as Calvin’s teachings and it isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
Honestly, I wonder what good there is in debates like this. I would be surprised to find that a person walked into the room a Calvinist and left questioning Calvinism. The only function of these debates, as I see it, is to provide a public forum to cheer for our team and experience confirmation bias. We get to put our guy on our shoulders and parade them around the room, singing our team fight song while the other team is doing the exact same thing. In the same room.
Before I go to much farther, let’s state clearly what the debate was about. The debate was about one small aspect of Calvin’s theology: soteriology or how we are saved. It wasn’t about Calvin’s ecclessiology, or theology of the Spirit, or sacraments, or sanctification. The debate was solely about how we are saved according to Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination.
For the record, I wrestle deeply with double predestination. If anything bothers me in the Reformed faith, it is that God may create some people and, before they take their first breath, are damned to hell. Any compassionate, thoughtful person, should be bothered by that. Thankfully, the Reformed tradition is broad and there are many others who do as well. For example, Karl Barth (referred to as a ‘character’ last night) believed that Jesus Christ was both the elect and the reprobate (damned), not any single person.
Now, one of the arguments I hear most often against this is “If God creates some people for the sole purpose of sending them to hell then God is a moral monster.” Non-Calvinists throw out this line as often as Calvinists point to God’s sovereignty. Talk about a drinking game. But here’s what I see, if God has the ability to save people, and chooses not to he is just as guilty, according to our anthropomorphic morality, as if he created for damnation. If I, as someone who was a lifeguard, see a person drowning and choose not to save them but rather to wait for them to figure out how to save themselves, then I am just as guilty of letting them drown as if I hopped in the pool and pushed them under. The difference is that one is active and one is passive, but both are problematic. Both are immoral. So this argument about “Calvin’s God being a moral monster” strikes me as odd. Both sides of the debate have to deal with the reality that God has the power and sovereignty to save everyone, and yet does not. Unless you are a universalist. At which point everyone calls you heretic.
This is why the whole debate is silly. By engaging in the debate we can neglect the problem with our own theology of how God saves by pointing out the problem of “their” theology. What would be better is four people sitting on stage saying, “We have no clue how this works, but regardless, God is good.” Because in the end, what is truly at stake? God’s sovereignty? Nope, both sides believe God is sovereign. Taking the Bible seriously? Nope, because a Biblical case can be made for both (yes, I said it). The centrality of Christ? Nope. Honestly, what is at stake?
Except not being right. Which might be what it is all about. We are right, they are wrong. We are in, they are out. Foolishness. No one believes your theology of salvation is what saves. Faith in Jesus saves you. So this whole debate is foolishness.
Here’s what I believe. I believe God is big enough and grand enough to allow us two ways of thinking about how salvation comes to an individual. I believe for some people, individual election helps them understand grace and God’s goodness to sinner’s in a way that is meaningful to them. I myself have written about that here. For others, the act of faith and making the cognitive choice to believe all have the opportunity to choose Jesus helps them understand grace and God’s goodness to sinner’s in a way that is beautiful to them. Maybe, just maybe, God is in both ways of thinking about salvation.
Maybe our understandings and systems and thoughts can’t comprehend all God’s ways, and our two little systems pale to the mystery behind the veil.
But what ever is happening, however it happens, we all believe the same thing. God is good and he is gracious, and he invites all of us into relationship with him through Christ and by the Holy Spirit so that we might participate in new life in Jesus.