Benjamin Corey is a blogger over at Patheos and writes some really interesting stuff. He is always provocative but always kind. He is smart and someone who is sincerely seeking the truth. I enjoy reading his stuff. Last week he wrote an article titled, A Sincere Question For My Calvinist Friends. I found that he framed the conversation of God’s sovereignty in a very unique way. He seeks to show how double predestination would make God unworshipable. At the end of the article, Corey writes this,
what if it’s the person you love most in all the world who God picked for hell? Presupposing your theology is correct, do you really think you could worship that God?
He is of course writing this to Calvinists. Since I am one, I thought I would take a shot at answering his question. Like Corey, I am hoping to find the truth and live in it. I also want to help my Christian friends see the beauty and lovlieness of God. So here is my shot at an answer:
I would suggest first of all that Corey’s questions are secondary to two larger questions:
- who is God
- what purposes did he create the world.
I think once you can answer these two questions, you can then answer Corey’s questions.
So who is God?
For the Calvinist, God is the most happy, the most competent, the least anxious and the most powerful person anywhere. This is His essence and who He has always been! John Piper (who I know you love Corey!) writes, “God has been supremely and eternally happy in the fellowship of the Trinity.” The reason Calvinists believe such a thing is that this is the steady proclamation of the Scriptures. Even at the lowest point of history, the crucifixion of Jesus, we are told that it was all done for joy (Hebrews 12:2). Calvinists also think God is competent. The technical term for this is sovereign. This simply means that what God wants to do He can do (Job 42:2). Nothing can thwart His plans and purposes. Calvinists would also say that God is eternally good and at His core is love (Psalm 136:1, 1 John 4:8).
This is what I propose is a decent, biblical definition of God: God is the most happy, the most good, the most competent and the most loving person anywhere.
I like my definition of who God is but I think we need something better. Adam Clarke, by no means a Calvinist, but who still got some things right :), gave this as a definition of God:
God is the eternal, independent, and self-existent Being; the Being
whose purposes and actions spring from himself, without foreign
motive or influence; he who is absolute in dominion; the most pure
the most simple, the most spiritual of all essences; infinitely perfect;
and eternally self-sufficient, needing nothing that he has made;
illimitable in his immensity, inconceivable in his mode of existence
and indescribable in his essence; known fully only by himself, because an
infinite mind can know itself. In a word, a being, who from his infinite
goodness, can do nothing but what is eternally just, and right, and kind.
Clarke hits the mark! This is the Calvinist view of who God is. I like this definition and so would Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, etc.. I wonder if you would agree with this? How would you change this definition and still keep the biblical view of God? This is the God that Calvinists have in their view when they speak of His sovereignty.
What purposes did God create the world?
Let me assert why I think God created the world: to show his goodness (glory/beauty) to free creatures that can decide to choose Him. I admit that this does not sound thoroughly Calvinistic at first glance but let’s see if I can show you how this is a Calvinistic idea. I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes right now and Calvin has lots to say about free will and sovereignty! According to Calvin, the only time humanity had free will was before the original sin of Adam and Eve. Before sin, man was truly free. Free to follow God. Free to do what he wanted. And yes, free to sin. This is the world as God created it. This was the original design (Now I think this pre-sin life was marked by grace as well but that is another story). Man was free and used that freedom to move away from God in rebellion.
It is here that sin entered the world. For Calvin, sin severely diminished human freedom (he thought it totally obliterated free will in fact). Because of sin, we are now slaves to sin. Slavery by its very definition means a lack of freedom. The disease of sin has ruined the will. It can not choose good nor can it even want it nor would it want to. This is the human dilemma! So by the sin of one man, freedom was lost. We can no longer choose Him (the point of creation remember). We need help.
To free us (and our wills), Jesus came. Salvation for sure justifies but it also makes us free people again. I think one of the most powerful themes of the book of Romans is this idea of becoming people with free wills once again. This is the good news of the gospel! We can be free. But there is a problem, if we are slaves to sin then we will need help to choose God and live for him. This is what grace actually does. Grace is, as Dallas Willard states, “the activity of God in our lives.” It awakens us, forgives us, empowers us and finally it frees us to be free people.
Creation was a place where humans had free will and they could choose to follow God. But they chose sin and lost their freedom. God has sent His Son to justify and free His people. It is through the Son and the grace He offers that we can choose God and live for Him. And this is where it becomes amazing! Through redemption it is better than it ever was before. We now have the likeness of the Son and His freedom. God gets to show His beauty off in ways that would never had been possible if sin never happened. Good news! This the story of the cosmos from Calvin’s perspective.
Two more clarifications
I am close to answering your question but want to give two more short clarifications. The first is this; I think the idea that God condescends to reveal himself to humanity will help us in our conversation. I want to assert that the idea of “double predestination” is a term of condescension. I heard of God’s condescension first from my friend and theologian Todd Billings. It is simply the idea that when God reveals himself to us that it is done in way so we can understand. Much like how I reveal myself to my five-year-old son. I must speak and be with my son at a level in which he can understand what is going on. It is the real me and what I share is true but there is much more to me than what my son is experiencing. Matter of fact, as he grows older he will see me, reality and truth in a much clearer way. I think double predestination is a way for us, the five-year olds, to understand something well beyond us. It is true in a sense but there is much more to it than what our dimly lit theology can see. To talk about it is to delve into the mysteries of God. We must be careful or we are in danger of losing our way.
The second clarification is another term I want to introduce. This is the term antinomy. This is the idea that two opposing ideas are actually reasonable. J.I. Packer introduced antinomy as way to understand free will and God’s sovereignty. We are free agents who can choose and God is totally sovereign in whom He chooses. I basically agree (Piper does not). I think from God’s perspective, we are people free to choose (somehow by grace) and God chooses (somehow) who will receive grace. Again, we are delving into the mind of God. He is totally unlike us and we are speaking as children. He is of such immensity and greatness that I think He can hold two seemingly contradictory ideas and in Himself bring them together. I assume that in eternity it will become clearer and clearer how this happens.
Now to your question: what if it’s the person you love most in all the world who God picked for hell? Presupposing your theology is correct, do you really think you could worship that God?
With all that said, I am ready to answer your question. God is love and He is so good that I can trust Him with my most dear friends and family. Whatever He chooses, which will be the most good He can do for all involved, is all right by me. This is the God I worship, follow and adore.
Simple and short. I think the best answers are usually the most simple. You will have to decide if I came close to giving a compelling answer.
A Question to Benjamin Corey
Now that you know how a friendly Calvinist would answer your question, I have a question for you: what Christian hope do you have if God is not sovereign? How would you explain the good that He can do to a person in the Sudan, or a loved one with cancer? If God is not competent, if He cannot do what He wants, then how could you worship such a being? To me, it sounds like He is like the rest of us, just doing the best He can. This might be admirable but it is not, at least to me, the God we find in Scriptures. So, what hope do you give your child, or your friend, or the world or even your enemy? The ball, my friend, is in your court.