Why Calvinists are Pantheists

Jason Micheli —  June 6, 2016 — 5 Comments

This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’

It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.

Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.

A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible  universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.

If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.

With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.

The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.

Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.

Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.

As DBH writes:

“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.

To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.

Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.

Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.

In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.

Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.

How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.

The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.

To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.

In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.

When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).

There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other.  Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.

Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.

Jason Micheli

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5 responses to Why Calvinists are Pantheists

  1. Hey, I’m glad I found your blog. I love DBH’s work and use some of it in my own doctoral work on law, theology and neuroscience. I’ve written many of the same things as you about hard-line Calvinism and nominalism and about Divine simplicity and the unity of God’s being and will — so great to find a kindred spirit! So — I agree that the hyper-Calvinist theodicy creates all kinds of theological problems and ultimately is heterodox. But, doesn’t a theodicy that understands suffering and evil as privation raise its own insuperable problems? After all, God didn’t have to create, but when he chose to create, He already knew that His free creatures would rebel and that privation would ensue. If God were really fully self-sufficient and entirely good, wouldn’t He better have chosen not to create? I think folks like DBH who lean towards apokatastasis ultimately argue that this suffering is permitted exactly because it provides an occasion for the operation of grace and all is redeemed in the end. But this also gives suffering an affirmative, operative role in God’s divine plan. At the end of the day I’m not sure the difference between God “ordaining” and “permitting” something in light of a redemptive end is that significant. The bigger distinction here between the orthodox tradition and heterodox hyper-Calvinism seems to me to reside in hyper-Calvinism’s dual decree, which makes eternal reprobation part of God’s ordained plan. A minority strand of the orthodox tradition allows for something like apokatastasis and a the broader strand of the orthodox tradition leaves eternal reprobation to the mystery of human freedom — but in either case suffering and evil have a redemptive purpose.

    BTW I’m sorry to hear about your personal circumstances. These issues are only real when they’re personal and I understand that from my own family circumstances.

    • D,

      Might there be a distinction between evil being redeemed or “not outside the scope of God’s providence and redemptive purposes” as compared to evil being a “thing” (as opposed to privation) that has a necessary purpose and inherent value in and of itself?

      I’ve not seen anything that actually ascribes purpose (which implies necessity) to evil in DBHs thought. Have you? I find the exact opposite, with the only question being whether his arguments are persuasive.

  2. Jason, your distinctions are interesting. They remind me of our Lord’s prayer when Jesus prays that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven – as if it is possible for us or others to fail to embody God’s will. Maybe, “everything happens for a reason” is such a popular phrase because we want to understand and we want everything to be understandable. So, wanting to discover the reason sends us to research an event until we have identified the history of what happened. We learn what happened well enough to place the event in a story. And, when we tell the story we want to complete it by adding Why.

    Why is trickier than how because it is invisible. We can only guess. We can look for motives that moved others or God to act but is is like a fill in the blank test in high school when we didn’t know the answer and just guessd. We want to write “this happened because…” But we aren’t sure. I know there are some events I incorporate into my story, not by looking to motives of others in the past but by bending the story to my will and connecting the events to a future I’m creating. I just make it up. Other times I just surrender because the pain is so great I can’t find a why I trust. Maybe one day I will. Until then the truth is that some events don’t make since to us. The idea that I can know the mind of God by looking at every event of the world is preposterous. Which events would I pay attention to? Are they all equal? Aren’t there some events on earth that are more like those in heaven? Sometimes faith screams at the world saying “No!”

    I think the genuine goodness of events that are heaven on earth come to us as both gift and possibility. I can take the seed of good that comes with each day and corrupt it or nurture it to fulfillment. I’ve learned that I personally can not only corrupt the good, I got mad skills as you know. Some of my skills I made up, some I learned from my community and the world. The consequences of our corruption shatter peace and spread violence. Our skills at corruption render us in need of a real redemption of grace in a world with real history unfolding and where choices matter. Jesus isn’t play-acting in a pre-scripted drama but actually participating in the history of the world for its salvation. Jesus participates in the freedom God gifted to the world and uses his freedom to offer to God his faithfulness.

    When I can’t make good since of the will of God I pay attention to the will and work of Jesus to learn what to do now.

  3. Interesting article. I’ve come to believe that, when God created all that exists, seen and unseen, he established boundaries (think, boundary equations) that limit the created order. Within these boundaries, much can happen according to the laws God put in place—scientific, theological, etc—but the boundaries cannot be breached. Accordingly, what looks highly random within the boundaries is randomness enmeshed in non-randomness—the boundaries. Within the boundaries, we deal with such issues as why bad things happen to good people, why cancer and a myriad of other issues. For instance, take cancer or any other disease. As we elucidate the cause of the disease, some of the causality may be random, some may result from cause and effect, e.g., tobacco for most persons. Yes, we may have free will to smoke or not smoke but many non-smokers also develop lung cancer for no apparent causal effect. Thus, randomness seems apparent. (Perhaps because we don’t yet comprehend the causality.) We might well, and often do, ask why God created the universe within these boundaries so that the possibility of evil, disease, etc. occurs? I think we receive the two-part answer given to Job: (1) The “why” of my creation is not for you to understand because it is God’s business, not human business other than to carry out the prime directive to glorify God and enjoy God forever. (2) The question is not “why” but how will you deal with the circumstances in which you find yourself? I don’t find this construct bleak because we can rely upon God’s magnificent promise: If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord because no circumstances exist under which we can be separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Please understand that this scientist nevertheless believes that we should explore the nature of God’s creation and do what we can to eliminate/treat disease and a host of other negative processes within the boundaries of God’s creation. I strenuously object to the idea that suffering is necessary and even enabling, despite what St. Paul said. My faith kernel absolutely rejects the idea that God directly causes human suffering for any good reason whatsoever. The causality comes with the created order within the boundaries. Again, “why” God set up creation in this manner is God’s business. Oh, yes, I still wonder “why?”

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