by Bob Wheeler
Chosen or Not?
467 pp., h.c.
In his book Chosen or Not? author and blog commenter Doug Sayers gives us a long, sustained indictment of Calvinism. It is a long, rambling philippic aimed at the theology associated with the name of the famous 16th Century reformer.
Doug at one time was a deacon in a Reformed Baptist church. What apparently disenchanted him with Calvinism was an incident years ago when his then three year old son nearly drowned to death in an accident. That raised the question of what would have happened to the boy had he actually died. Where would he have gone? When a Calvinist friend refused to give an unequivocal answer to the question, Doug began to wonder. He surmised that under Calvinist theology God could have sent the boy to hell, even if he had not actually committed any sins of his own, on the premise that he was guilty in God’s sight of having committed Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Doug was appalled, and he came to question the whole idea of predestination and original sin.
As a result much of the focus of the book is taken up with some of the more difficult and controversial aspects of orthodox Calvinism – reprobation, the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity, and limited atonement. Doug raises many of the usual objections: Calvinism is fatalistic, it makes God out to be an arbitrary, unjust monster, it leaves the reprobate with no chance of salvation, it denies human responsibility. It could be argued, however, that Doug is reacting to a particularly extreme form of Calvinism known as “Supralapsarianism.” As even Doug notes, Calvin himself did not believe that Adam’s guilt was imputed to his posterity (Institutes, II.i.89), and it is not at all clear that he believed in limited atonement. We fear that Doug is, in effect, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
To his credit Doug does show a familiarity with the sources, and he quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith along with a number of mostly contemporary Calvinistic authors. The chief defect in the book is its weak exegesis. Doug reminds us at the outset that “. . . we should never let that which is clear in the Bible take a back seat to that which might be inferred from the Bible” (p. 48). Yet curiously, his argument relies heavily on human logic. We are frequently told that “it is reasonable to conclude,” “our natural sense of justice bears witness,” “It is reasonable to think,” “most people don’t think it would be right,” “It would be right (or fair) for God,” “It would also be reasonable (and fair) for God.” And all of this on just a single page (p. 127)! As Doug candidly admits, “Some philosophy is inescapable and both sides of our argument should be prepared to admit it . . . the question involves both Scripture and evident reason” (p. 9).
Doug’s basic argument runs something like this: Suppose that “A” represents many of the doctrines associated with Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. And let’s say that “B” represents certain biblical texts that talk about God’s love for all mankind, the free offer of the gospel, and human accountability. To hear Doug tell it, if a Calvinist believes in “A” then he cannot possibly believe in “B.” And if the Bible teaches “B” then it cannot possibly teach “A.” Therefore, Calvinism and the Bible are irreconcilably opposed to each other.
The weakness of this argument is that does not take into consideration the possibility that there could be paradoxes and antinomies in the Bible. For example, in Phil. 2:12 we read, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . ” (NKJV). Here we have as clear a statement of human responsibility as we are likely to find anywhere in the Bible. The sentence contains an imperative verb (“work out”) giving a direct command and laying a responsibility on the readers to act. Is this not proof positive that Paul was not a fatalistic Calvinist? Yet in the very next verse we read, ” . . . for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13). Try as one might, it is exceedingly hard to make the word “works” mean anything else than “produce a result.” In this instance the text actually goes so far as to say that God “works in you . . . to will and to do.” In other words, God controls both our wills and our actions. Did Paul just contradict himself? We don’t think so. The confusion is likely to be in our minds, not his. Let us beware of trying to be more logical than the Bible! What we have here is the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, something that Doug insists is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.
Unfortunately Doug’s logical method of reasoning leads to some regrettable conclusions. On the one hand, by maintaining that a Calvinist cannot possibly believe in “B,” he basically says that there is no real difference between a Calvinist and a Hyper-Calvinist (a Hyper-Calvinist is a person who really would deny “B”). In Doug’s view, a Calvinist is simply a “Hyper-Calvinist with a better presentation,” as he likes to say. And if a Calvinist tries to deny that he is really a Hyper-Calvinist, he is simply being dishonest. It is easy to see why a moderate Calvinist would resent the caricature.
On the other hand Doug is faced with the considerable challenge of trying to show that the Bible really does not teach “A.” It basically involves trying to explain away the large amount of Scripture that describes what God does in salvation. The sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and salvation by grace are all major themes of the Bible. The Scriptures tell us that God chooses us, redeems us, begets us, and keeps us. There are repeated references to the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. And there are also passages that explicitly discuss predestination and election. It is hard to miss the point.
It is not that Doug doesn’t try. A good example is his treatment of Rom. 8:28-30, which reads: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”
Doug’s immediate concern in this passage is to try to show that the predestination involved is not a predestination of certain individuals unto salvation. Doug tries to tell us that “Paul is listing some of the terms and conditions of the deal, if you will” (p. 94). “This is a listing of God’s gracious provision for our salvation” (p. 95). God makes the provision, and we must act upon it by faith. The ones who are predestined are simply the ones whom God could foresee would believe. But Doug insists that “No reason is given here for any specific individual’s faith” (Ibid.).
But the passage does not say that God merely created certain terms and conditions; it says that He does certain specific things to people that result in their salvation. The direct objects of the verbs are relative pronouns which all have the same antecedent: “whom He foreknew” (v. 29). This, in turn, refers back to “those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” in the preceding verse. Verses 29 and 30 are basically an explanation of the phrase “those who are the called according to His purpose” in verse 28.
The usual anti-Calvinist explanation here is that when Paul said “whom He foreknew,” he meant that God could foresee who would believe, and then chose them. But that is reading something into the text that is not there. Paul is probably using the word “foreknow” in the same sense in which he uses it in 11:2, where it most definitely does not mean that God foresaw that the Israelites would obey. What is in view there is their disobedience. Moreover Doug’s interpretation weakens the verb “predestined,” of its force. There is no “destiny’ involved, according to him.
Moreover, when we look at the various other actions described in verses 29 and 30 we notice that it says, among other things, that “whom He called, these He also justified” (v. 30). This “calling” results in justification; it has the actual effect of bringing the sinner to salvation. It is “effectual calling,” the very same irresistible grace that Doug says is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.
Thus the passage does not say that God predestined a plan; it says that He predestined people. The passage is a beautiful expression of what God does to save us.
We could multiply examples of Doug’s exegesis, but the pattern is clear. All too often human logic is enlisted to rob passages of their force and meaning. The net effect is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. Is this really a sound way to approach Scripture? We hardly think so.
Next: Doug’s own theology