Another Fatal Flaw in Calvinism

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by Roger E. Olson

The second fatal flaw that I will describe here in (at least some) Calvinism is worse than the first because it touches not only logic but God’s reputation.

Many Calvinists claim that God loves all people. The only way to make this work within the TULIP system is to redefine love so that it loses all meaning. The crucial question facing Calvinism is why God does not save everyone rather than “pass over” many, damning them to eternal suffering forever (when he could save them because election to salvation is unconditional). As Wesley said, “love” such as this makes the blood run cold. There is no sense whatsoever of “love” compatible with being able to save the loved one from eternal loss and suffering and not doing it.

The usual answer offered by Edwards-inspired Calvinists (the majority among evangelical Calvinists today) is that hell is necessary for the full manifestation of God’s glory, because all of his attributes, including justice, must be displayed without prejudice to any. As I have said before, this demeans the cross, as if it were not a sufficient manifestation of God’s justice.

Another way in which many evangelical Calvinists attempt to resolve this conundrum is to say that God blesses the reprobate during their earthly lives. He showers many blessings on them which shows his love for them. However, this is simply to say he gives them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in. That does nothing to rescue the truth that God is love and loves everyone from being qualified to death. Calvinism simply cannot account adequately for the love of God; this God (of double predestination) is not a God of love and does not love everyone.

One leading evangelical Calvinist bit the bullet on this and said famously, “God loves all people in some ways but only some people in all ways.” Really? What love is compatible with being able to rescue someone from absolute, total, everlasting torment but refusing to do it? The most important fatal flaw in Calvinism is that it departs from the biblical portrayal of God as loving and not wanting any to perish and falls into self-contradiction by saying that God loves everyone but refuses to save them even though he could.

Of course, some Calvinists will argue that for his own reasons God can’t save everyone. But why? Is God not sovereign and omnipotent? Is his love shackled by his wrath? Others (and some of the same) will argue that God’s “love” is different from ours. Read evangelical Calvinist Paul Helm’s treatment of this in his book Providence; he rejects that notion most pointedly. (But then, in my opinion, falls into contradiction himself.)

Some Calvinists argue that God actually regrets having to damn anyone. Why would he, if it brings him glory? And the same Calvinists explain God’s choice between the elect and the reprobate as “according to his good pleasure.” Why would something that brings him pleasure cause him regret? One leading evangelical Calvinist offers an analogy from the American Revolution. According to this analogy, George Washington signed the death warrant of a young officer for cowardice. He wept as he signed it, but had to sign it to keep order among the troops. Well, that analogy simply doesn’t work. To make it work, Washington would have to have condemned the one officer to death while pardoning another officer who committed the same offense. Also, Washington, presumably, did not foreordain or render certain the condemned officer’s acts of cowardice.

Some Reformed theologians solve these fatal flaws (reducing their fatality) by amending the Calvinist system in favor of so-called “single predestination.” Presumably that is what revisionist Calvinists like G. C. Berkouwer and James Daane (to say nothing of Karl Barth, Hendrikus Berkhof and other continental Reformed thinkers) have done. Some Reformed theologians such as Alan P. F. Sell amend Calvinism so far as to make it compatible with Arminianism (although they do not say so). For a Reformed systematic theology that is fully compatible with Arminianism. I recommend Sell’s three volume Doctrine and Devotion (2000) — the first volume of which is God the Father. Sell, by the way, was at one time theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.