An Arminian Response to C. Michael Patton’s “The Irrationality of Calvinism” Part 1: The Set Up

, posted by Ben Henshaw

C.Michael Patton is the President of Credo House. He has now written two separate and similar posts defending the “irrationality” of Calvinism as actually being a strength of the system, specifically over and above Arminianism. In this newest post, Mr. Patton levels many unfair and unfounded criticisms against Arminian theology and “Arminians” in general, betraying a basic lack of understanding concerning what Arminians believe and why they believe it. For this reason, an Arminian response seemed appropriate in order to set the record straight. This response will interact with the entirety of C. Michael Patton’s post, which would make for a very long interaction as a single post. For that reason, the response will be broken into parts.

Part 1: The Set Up

Patton: I am a child of Western thought. Therefore I like to figure things out. If possible, I like to figure it all out. It causes some problems sometimes with me and God and I need to deal with it better. Sometimes I only really follow or engage with God when I get it. When things make sense to me, it eases my intellectual anxiety and engages my will. Who?, What?, Where?, How?, and, especially,

Honestly, I don’t like the way this starts out. It makes it seem like logic and wanting to figure things out is just a “western” thing. That is not the case at all. It’s pretty basic to human nature and our desire to understand and make sense of reality and the world we live in. This desire goes far beyond just questions of theology, and it is not limited to “western thought” in the least.

Patton: Why? Theological gurus call this “cataphatic” theology. Cataphatic theology emphasises God’s revelation and our understanding of it. Taken to an extreme, we can find ourselves in arrogantly awkward position of, as A. W. Tozer put it, “trying to look God eye to eye.” When we have to understand everything, we attempt to trade our finitude for infinitude. And this should scare us to death. We need a healthy dose of “apophatic” theology. This emphasizes mystery.

Actually, we need a balance of both. There are unhealthy extremes on both ends. Patton admits this later on.

Patton: Our Eastern brothers and sisters normally get this better than we do. They are content without publishing a new theology book every year. They normally don’t write papers explaining the mysteries of the world, have societies discussing the nuances of our faith, and they don’t argue about too much.

But why is that? Personally, I think a lot of that is because Eastern theologians almost unanimously reject Calvinism and so don’t find themselves in the position to always try to reconcile irreconcilable problems. Honestly, a tremendous amount of Calvinist scholarship is caught up in dealing with problems that Calvinism alone creates (and this post by Mr. Patton is yet another example).

Patton: Taken to an extreme, it can lead to an unexamined faith where people know what they believe but they have no idea why. And God did go through a lot of trouble to explain quite a bit of himself to us. While there are secret things that belong to the Lord (apophadic), the things revealed belong to us (cataphatic). We need balance. We need a cool yet passionate head about us. We need to hold some theological ropes very tightly, but we need to loosen our grip on others. There is quite a bit that we can know about God, but there are so many things that we don’t get and we will never get.

Agreed.

Patton: Why all of this? Because I am going to talk about something that is very divisive in the Christian life. And, for the most part, I am going to try to encourage some of my Western brothers and sisters to take a que [sic.] from my Eastern brothers and sisters and step down off the stool and quite [sic.] trying to look God eye to eye. I am going to encourage us to allow some tension in a very debated issue in Protestant Christianity.

The reason for all of Mr. Patton’s set up now seems rather clear. It is to create the idea that it is unreasonable to reject contradictions and irrationality in a theological system, namely (and only) Calvinism, of course. That’s right, Mr. Patton has just introduced a new so called “tension” into the mix, the wild claim that it is irrational to have a problem with irrationality. Of course, this is circular and self-defeating, just as the main thrust of Mr. Patton’s entire post. Not only that, we see another slam on “western thought.” Why does Mr. Patton keep going back to that? The answer seems to be that if he can convince his readers that their problems with irrationalities in Calvinism are just an unfortunate and invalid symptom of less sophisticated “western thought”, his readers will be more likely to feel OK about embracing such irrational “tensions” in Calvinism.

I have seen this same tactic many times before. For example, Craig Brown, in his little book, “The Five Dilemma’s of Calvinism,” says,

“In my defense of the Reformed faith, I will be ‘the Devils advocate’ and attack five principles of Calvinism from the standpoint of American common sense.” (pg. 9, see here for a post dealing with this quote and other aspects of Craig’s book)

So the argument is now framed to be more of an issue of Calvinism versus flawed Western or American thinking, rather than Biblical truth. [1] Indeed, Mr. Patton will eventually spin things to such an extent as to potentially convince his readers that those who embrace such irrationalities (“tensions”) are nobler and just more honest with the Bible than those who do not (namely Arminians, of course). [2]

Patton: I am a Calvinist. It is funny. I often hear people talk about Calvinism as a closed box system that forces everything to fall in line, even when we have to sacrifice biblical integrity to do so. I often hear the accusation that Calvinism is a system that makes rationality its primary goal. And this is often true. Sometimes Calvinists do attempt to fit things into a system and engage in questionable logic driven hermeneutics to do so.

An admission that should not be soon forgotten. It is important to note here what Mr. Patton apparently means, though it is not very “apparent” from what he says here. Mr. Patton speaks about Calvinism being a “closed system” because Calvinists often pride themselves on the logic of that “system.” Indeed, many people seem to embrace Calvinism because the logic or coherence of the “system” appeals to them, or seems compelling. Patton finds this ironic since he embraces Calvinism because it has the same “tensions” (“apparent” inconsistencies, or irrationalities) that he sees in the Bible. So it is not coherence that attracts Mr. Patton to Calvinism, but “apparent” incoherence. [3]

If Mr. Patton’s post were simply about explaining why he personally holds to Calvinism and finds it attractive, or how he finds it ironic that people are drawn to Calvinism based on the supposed logic of the system when he embraces it for its “irrationality”, that would all be well and good, but Mr. Patton does more than that. He attacks Arminianism in the process, and unfairly so. That is why this response seemed necessary.

Go to Part 2: Theological Imprecision and Misrepresentations

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[1] Craig Brown and other Calvinists will actually take this a step further and say that Arminians embrace Arminianism and reject Calvinism, not just because Arminians are influenced by “western thought” or “American common sense”, but because Arminianism so strongly appeals to our sinful nature! See the following posts to see such wild claims for yourself: The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 1 and J.I. Packer Calls Arminianism “An Intellectual Sin of Infirmity”

[2] Unfortunately, this is a typical Calvinist tactic. The aim is to shame “logical” and “rational” interpreters as not submitting to what the Bible says as, supposedly, only Calvinists have the guts and the fortitude to do. Besides painting the Calvinist as more noble and honest than those who refuse to “embrace” such “tensions”, it also amounts to saying, “So what if Calvinism doesn’t make sense; neither does the Bible!” As will be discussed further, there is no reason to assume that such “tensions” are inherently “Biblical” tensions. Rather, they are the direct results of the Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. They are Calvinist tensions, not Biblical ones.

[3] For further evidence that this is Mr. Patton’s view and one of the main reasons for writing these posts, see his comments in the thread of a similar post called, “Why Calvinism is the Least Rational Option.” You can see that comment here (which seems to be a partial and general response to a comment I made earlier in that thread that will be quoted below).

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