With the recent publication of Michael Horton’s For Calvinism, along with Roger Olson’s reply Against Calvinism—both with Zondervan (2011)—the Calvinism/Arminianism debate has once again been vaulted front and center in evangelical circles. Horton and Olson are theologians, of course, and their exchange is carried out on that level. Philosophers rarely get invited into this ‘conversation’. They more or less have to push their way in, as Jerry Walls did in his Why I am Not a Calvinist (IVP, 2004). Though of course many Christians are Calvinists, scarcely any Christian philosophers are. No doubt there are many reasons for this. As Christian philosophers, here’s how we look at the issue.
The Leviticus Principle
It is part of the essence of Calvinism that there are two distinct groups of individuals in God’s overall economy: the elect and the non-elect. The elect are the grateful recipients of God’s irresistible, unmerited grace and are thereby saved. The non-elect, by sad contrast, receive no such grace; they are passed over. Consequently, they are damned for all eternity.1
Now even Calvinists admit that this scenario makes it at least appear that God is being unjust or unfair. After all, why not just give irresistible grace to both groups? What we want to argue is that the appearance here is the reality. To flesh out the supporting argument, let’s begin by considering this penetrating (revealed) insight into the nature of justice—
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly (Leviticus 19:15).
Notice how Moses—not exactly a novice in legal matters—contrasts perverting justice with judging fairly. You pervert justice (i.e., act unjustly) when you fail to judge fairly. Fair enough. Why then is it unfair and a perversion of justice to show partiality to the poor and favoritism to the great? The answer, quite plainly, is that the properties of being poor and being great are entirely irrelevant so far as judging between individuals (say, in moral or legal contexts) is concerned. An individual’s socio-economic status isn’t in itself relevant to a moral or legal assessment of his person or situation.
The more general principle at stake behind Moses’ admonition is what we might call the ‘Leviticus Principle’:
LP1: It is unjust or unfair to favor A over B in context C, if your basis for doing so is C-irrelevant.
LP2: It is just or fair to favor A over B in context C only if your basis for doing so is C-relevant.
Here it might be helpful to consider a few applications of LP to make it clear just how it works itself out ‘on the ground’:
- It is unjust or unfair of Prof. Franks to favor Jack’s paper over Jill’s paper in an academic context, if his basis for doing so is academically irrelevant (e.g., one attends the professor’s church; the other doesn’t).
- It is unjust or unfair of an employer to favor one job applicant over another in a work context, if his basis for doing so is irrelevant to the work to be done (e.g., one is white; the other isn’t).
- It is unjust or unfair of a pastor to favor one person over another in a church leadership context, if his basis for doing so is spiritually irrelevant (e.g., one man is “wearing a gold ring and fine clothes”; the other is a “poor man in shabby clothes” [James 2:2]).
- It is unjust or unfair of Isaac to favor Esau over Jacob in a parent-child context, if his basis for doing so is parent-child irrelevant (e.g., Isaac has “a taste for wild game” [Gen 25:28]; and only Esau is skilled at hunting and preparing wild game [27:3-4]).
- It is unjust or unfair of Jacob to favor Joseph over his other sons in a parent-child context, if his basis for doing so is parent-child irrelevant (e.g., that Joseph “had been born to him in his old age” [Gen 37:3]).
It’s a pretty solid principle, isn’t it? It’s biblical (not secular or worldly). Further, you can see that we consistently assume it when we denounce various things as unjust or unfair. Is there, perhaps, also an application of the Leviticus Principle to the differential dispensing of irresistible grace?
A Deontic Principle?
There is. First recall that according to the Calvinist story, God gives irresistible grace to some (the elect) but not others (the non-elect). If that’s the case, then some individuals are shown favor that others are not. The question at once arises: Is this just or fair? Notice that in asking this question, we’re not asking whether it is just of God to punish those who deserve it. Of course it is. Nor are we asking whether it is generous of God to bestow grace on those who don’t deserve it. It most surely is. Rather, we are asking whether it is just or fair for these two (spiritually) qualitatively identical groups—i.e., the elect and the non-elect—to be treated differently.
It’s also important to see that we cannot simply assume that it is just. To simplify things, suppose we let P = ‘God withholds irresistible grace from the non-elect’, and Q = ‘God bestows irresistible grace on the elect’. Next let’s assume that both
(1) It is permissible that P
(2) It is permissible that Q
are true. Does it follow that
(3) It is permissible that (P & Q)?
Surely not. For the inference from (1) and (2) to (3) has a logical form that is notoriously invalid. No deontic logician we know of would get within a mile of it. Here’s a little counterexample to show why. Perhaps we’d all agree that it’s alright to drink. We’d probably also agree that it’s alright to drive. But it hardly follows that it’s alright to drink and drive. (The individual permissibility of distinct conjuncts doesn’t entail the permissibility of their conjunction.) What this shows is that the logical form of the argument is invalid, in which case the Calvinist can’t just assume that (3) is true since (1) and (2) are.
A Deontic Dilemma
But there is a further, truly fatal difficulty. The Calvinist proponent of (3) faces the following dilemma. Either God has a basis for his differential treatment of the elect and non-elect or he doesn’t. If there is no basis, then God’s decision to award irresistible grace to the one but not the other of these groups is wholly arbitrary; in which case God is a reckless, unprincipled decision-maker–a conclusion which is at once both manifestly unfair (to the non-elect) and theologically appalling. If you don’t think it’s appalling, just ask yourself how you’d like it if your professor used a similar method to grade your term paper. Without a doubt, this horn of the dilemma is squarely on the broad road leading to destruction.
Well, let’s suppose instead that God does have a basis for his differential treatment of these groups. Then according to the Leviticus Principle, it must be contextually relevant. Now the context for giving or withholding irresistible grace is spiritual or salvific. Therefore, according to LP2, it will be just or fair for God to favor the elect over the non-elect only if God’s basis for doing so is a spiritually relevant one. By hypothesis, however, there is absolutely no spiritually relevant difference between the elect and the non-elect: they are all dead in their sins; they are all incapable of recommending themselves to God. On this horn of the dilemma, then, God has favored the elect but on a purely context irrelevant basis. By LP2, therefore, he has acted unjustly.
It does little good to reply that the basis for the favoritism is a mystery hidden in God’s being. For all that means is that God hasn’t revealed it. Were he to do so, we would of course discover what that particular reason is. But whatever it is, we already know up front that it will be spiritually irrelevant to the differential treatment. Thus the heart of the problem stems not from what we don’t know about God’s basis or reason, but rather from what we already do know about it.
It follows logically and inescapably that God’s treatment of the elect and non-elect is either arbitrary and unprincipled or it’s contextually irrelevant. Either way, the unhappy outcome is that God has unfairly and unjustly favored some with irresistible grace while withholding it from others. But given the Leviticus Principle, the elect and non-elect should have (i) all received an installment of irresistible grace, or (ii) no one of them received an installment of irresistible grace. That’s what biblical justice or fairness demands. And since God, if he exists, is essentially just and fair, but Calvinism implies that he’s not, it follows that Calvinism actually entails atheism: the non-existence of God. That’s why we’re not Calvinists; it’s because we’re theists.
The solution, of course, is simple. We must recognize that because God is supremely fair and just, the grace he gives is universal but resistible. This explains why although God wants everyone to be saved, some aren’t. It’s not because God passes over some poor, wretched souls, refusing to give them the irresistible grace they so desperately need. Not at all. On the contrary, it’s because they did receive God’s grace but stubbornly and willfully rejected it. The Great Apostle is right, however, we are not free to choose God (cf. Rom 3:10-12; Eph 2:1-3). Rather, it is only by God’s prevenient (prior, enabling) grace that we are enabled to stop resisting God’s entreaties. Our wills are not free, but they are freed that we may ‘lay down our arms’ and receive the precious gift of life through his Son.2
1. Objection: “Note the word, ‘Consequently’, in the last sentence. In this context it appears to mean: ‘they are damned because they did not receive prevenient grace’. But surely this is not what Scripture teaches” (Craig Carter, “In Defense of Calvinism” [link]).
Reply: In this connection, it’s important to distinguish between causes and conditions. To say that the damnation (D) of the non-elect is a consequence of God’s withholding (W) of IG does not mean that W is the (active) cause of D. What it means, rather, is only that W is a sufficient condition for D. Think, e.g., of what Paul says in 2 Thess 3:10—“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Here not eating is a consequence of not working. This isn’t to say, of course, that refraining from workcauses the state of affairs of not eating. Nevertheless, it is a sufficient condition for it; for if you are unwilling to work, then you shall not eat. And the thing to see is that a person can be morally accountable for his refrainings when they are sufficient for (forseen) bad states of affairs that could have been prevented by refraining from refraining (i.e., by doing something). One thinks here of the Levite’s response to the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho (cf. Luke 10:30-37). The application to Calvin’s deity, who passes by the terrible plight of the non-elect, is patent.
2. For additional philosophical difficulties with Calvinism, see William Lane Craig’s “Troubled by Calvinists” (ReasonableFaith.org), his debate “Does God Exist?” (with Antony Flew), and Alexander Pruss’ “Consequence Argument Against Calvinism,” (23 Nov 2010). For a conjecture on why Calvinism isn’t popular among Christian philosophers, even those who style themselves as Calvinists, see Keith DeRose, “Calvinism—A Report (‘All’s Quiet’) From the Philosophy Front.” On the possibility of being an Arminian Calvinist, see Alvin Plantinga’s email correspondence (16 Aug 2008) with Mike Almeida reported on Prosblogion here. Our colleage, James Pedlar, has some perceptive comments about divine predestination here and here.
- Craig Carter, “In Defense of Calvinism,” The Bayview Review (16 Dec 2011).
- William Lane Craig, “Troubled by Calvinists,” ReasonableFaith.org
- William Lane Craig, “Does God Exist?” Debate with Antony Flew.
- Keith DeRose, “Calvinism—A Report (‘All’s Quiet’) From the Philosophy Front.”
- James Pedlar, “John Wesley on Predestination” (16 Feb 2012).
- Alexander Pruss, “Consequence Argument Against Calvinism,” AlexanderPruss.Blogspot.com (23 Nov 2010).