ANSWERING COLIN MAXWELL, A FREE PRESBYTERIAN IN NORTHERN IRELAND

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Colin Maxwell informed the Society of Evangelical Arminians, of which I, William Birch, am a member, that he had “robustly . . . answered Mr. Birch’s satire,” entitled “Reinterpreting Cain and Abel: A Disturbing Satire.” The following is my response to his response, Answering an Evangelical Society of Arminians Satire of Calvinism.”

Using Cain and Abel, I satirized the events of those two young men, as is recorded at Genesis 4:1-11, noting that if what Calvinists suggest is true, that God “influences the desires and decision of people,” getting them to do what He wants from what He has decreed for them to do (Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrines, 146), then events such as those of Cain and Abel need to be reinterpreted in that light. I used the New Living Translation in the original post because of its fluid style: the passages were also checked against the New American Standard Bible, English Standard Version, New King James Version and the New International Version.

Colin asks: “what is meant by ‘simple foreknowledge’? Does that mean that God has access to information that means nothing to Him? That He has access to information that causes Him to shrug His shoulders as if He didn’t care whether He heard or not?”

I was referring to the notion of the Calvinist, which insists, much as does the Open Theist, that God could not “simply foreknow” the decisions of those whom He created in His image, but must have first decreed what those decisions would be. This, they suggest, is the case because God is sovereign. Of course, by “sovereign,” they mean that He meticulously decreed whatsoever should come to pass, including the most atrocious sins imaginable, and brings all things to pass by influencing the desires and decisions of people.

To the Calvinist, for God to “simply foreknow” what a person may do is to make God “dependent” upon the creature for His knowledge. Thus, like the Open Theist, the Calvinist insists that God could not simply foreknow what creatures would choose to do (and why not?), but must have decreed what they should do. However, at this juncture, the Calvinist is quick to affirm that people are not puppets or robots, as did Colin. What he means is that people do those things which God has decreed for them to do, and they do so “freely”: they “freely” choose to do that which God has decreed for them to do. More on this below.

Colin suggests that God influenced Abel to grant Him a proper offering. However, God did not do the same for Cain. He questions the use of my quote from Grudem, that God influences the desires and decisions of people, wondering what is the context. This is a fair question. Grudem is advancing the same theological construct as is Colin. Grudem notes that all of our actions are “under God’s providential care” (Bible Doctrines, 146), and Classical Arminians agree. The difference, however, between our actions being “under God’s providential care” and His “influencing our desires and decisions” (146) is paramount. Shall we, when we sin, insist that God was influencing our desires and decision to sin? God forbid! Shall we, when we hear of a little girl having been raped or molested, insist that God was influencing the desires and decision of the rapist? Let us hope not! Grudem writes:

    God influences the desires and decisions of people, for he looks down “on all the inhabitants of the earth” and “fashions the hearts of them all” (Ps. 33:14-15). When we realize that the heart in Scripture is the location of our inmost thoughts and desires, this is a significant passage. Yes, we know that we make willing choices, but who formed our will to make those choices? God “fashions the hearts” of “all the inhabitants of the earth.” God especially guides the desires and inclination of believers, working in us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13) (146).

The problem with Grudem’s interpretation, and thus that of the Calvinist, of Psalm 33:14-15 is three-fold: 1) God “fashioning” the “hearts” of all people alludes to Him as Creator (cf. Psalm 139:13-15), not as One who foreordains what a person shall desire and choose (such a notion must be inferred); 2) the statement, as it stands from Grudem, assumes meticulous, exhaustive determinism, when there is nothing in the text to suggest such (though God indeed is at work in us, “to will and to work for His good pleasure,” Phil. 2:13 NASB, such is not efficacious, else Paul would not have needed to command us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” Phil. 2:12 NASB); and 3) the statement, as it stands from Grudem, assumes that God, strictly taken, decrees all sin.

Colin, at least being consistent at this point, admits: “From a Calvinistic point of view, we see that God did indeed “influence” the desire and decision of Cain to offer up his false and gospel-denying offering. . . . God did not author Cain’s sin, nor even tempt him to sin, because God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man (James 1:13). All God did, was draw Cain’s sin out of his wicked heart.” Arminians agree that God influences the desires and decisions of people, but only to those things which are commensurate with His holy and just nature. Thus God does not influence the desires and decisions of all people in all things irresistibly.

The reason why God did this, according to Colin, was to leave Cain “to the relative wickedness of His own heart.” This, however, only strengthens my argument. God is portrayed, in Genesis 4:1-11, to willingly receive both Cain and Abel’s offering, favoring neither one or the other initially. God even approached Cain afterward, informing him that if he would “do well,” then things would go well for him (Gen. 4:7). God even warned Cain that sin was “crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7 NASB). What is more, even after Cain murdered his brother, God showed him mercy by putting a seal of protection upon him, so that if anyone found him as he wandered the earth, they would not kill him (Gen. 4:13-15). But from Colin’s perspective, and thus that of the Calvinist, Cain represents the non-elect — those whom God has unconditionally chosen not to save. I do not think that Cain placed his faith in the LORD. But Scripture does not grant us license to advocate that Cain was not unconditionally elected, or that the doctrine of unconditional election is even viable.

(For the reader’s sake, I will neglect to answer some of Colin’s repetitive refutations at this point. I do not want this post to become too cumbersome.)

When Cain murdered his brother, I wrote (in the satire piece): Cain found it very odd that the LORD asked him, “What have you done?” For Cain knew, as every good Calvinist knows, that God influences the desires and decisions of people. “What have I done?” asked Cain. “I have done that which you influenced me to do. You gave me the desire to murder my brother. You influenced my decision to end his life. What have I done? Why did you influence me to desire to murder my brother? Why did you influence me to decide to end his life? That is the question!”

Colin balks at this point: “Can Mr. Birch show us any Calvinist commentator of note who believes that ‘God gave Cain the desire to murder Abel?'” Heavens no! Rarely will the Calvinist be so consistent! He continues: “The desire to murder Abel came from the wickedness of Cain’s heart. Read James 1:13ff for the details. What God did — to repeat myself again — is but draw out Cain’s wickedness which was already there.” Here is where we find the Calvinist’s inconsistency at its finest. Calvinists such as Colin want to affirm that God does indeed influence the desires and decision of people, but then denies that God influences the desires and decisions of people. For Colin concludes:

    This leads us to conclude either that Mr. Birch is seriously unfamiliar with his Bible on this matter (which is probably the more charitable position) or that he believes that Paul grievously misled the Philippians when he wrote that God works in us both to will and to do his great pleasure. Or that David was wrong to attribute his willingness to the great power of God (Psalm 110:3), or that “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:1), etc.

Colin’s problem, at least as far as I see it, is that I actually know my Bible all too well. That is why we are having such a strong disagreement. I see explicitly places in Scripture which teach that God did not influence the desires and decision of people, to the contrary theory of the Calvinist. For example, while being punished for their sins against the LORD, the Israelites sacrificed their children to a false god, an abominable thing which God admits, “I did not command, and it did not come into My mind” (Jer. 7:31 NASB, cf. Jer. 19:5; 32:35).

But how can this be, God, if You have strictly foreordained all things which come to pass, not by Your exhaustive foreknowledge of what Your creatures will do, but by Your decree? And how can this be, God, since You influence the desires and decisions of all people? Either Scripture is right, or Calvinism is right, but both cannot be right at the same time.

Another example includes the Israelites forgetting or ignoring or neglecting their God: “They did not wait for His counsel, but craved intensely in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. So He gave them their request” (Psalm 106:13-15 NASB). God gave them something which He did not desire for them to have (as also when Israel desired a king other than the LORD, cf. 1 Sam. 8:5-7). Yet another example includes the Israelites rejecting the good (i.e. God), so that the enemy pursued him (Hosea 8:3). The LORD said: “They have set up kings, but not by Me; they have appointed princes, but I did not know [or approve] it” (Hosea 8:4 NASB).

I have noted several times on this site (and will continue to note) that the Calvinist wants to affirm God’s efficacious, exhaustive determinism in all things, by decree, but insist that God is not the author of sin, or morally responsible or culpable for sin. Bruce A. Little, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, writes:

      In the midst of all of this discussion lies the question of moral responsibility. Those of a Calvinistic position often disavow God’s moral responsibility for evil. Both Clark and Piper maintain that their deterministic explanations for evil do not shift the moral responsibility to God. Instead, both claim that God is not blameworthy and man is responsible. Still, apart from assigning moral responsibility, according to the Calvinist’s position, the evil in this world would not be here if God had not ordained or willed it. In other words, in the final analysis, Jessica (and the hundreds [of young girls who were raped and murdered] like her) suffered her end because of God. The Holocaust, the millions slain by Stalin, Pol Pot’s killing in Cambodia, every baby beaten to death, and every cancer could not be here if it were not for God willing it or ordaining it. At the end of the day, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that God is morally responsible, although arguments are offered to deny this conclusion. . . .

The logical end of the Calvinist position on the question of sovereignty leads to a strong form of determinism, which is not the necessary outcome of biblical sovereignty. In addition, moral responsibility for sin must find its final causal agent to be God. The protest against drawing this conclusion involves an argument that commits the fallacy of equivocation (particularly with the word “will”) and the fallacy of explaining by naming — just saying it is so makes it so (Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, 292-93, 96-97).

We are not suggesting that Calvinists admit that God is the author of sin. Clearly, if anything, they are adamant that God is not the author of sin. The Westminster Confession of Faith states: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Chapter III, Of God’s Eternal Decree, 1).

Calvinists, such as Grudem and Colin, insist that their theology does not make God the author of sin. What we are suggesting is that, in spite of their confession, their theology leads one to admit that God is the author of sin. Just because they say that their theology does not make God the author of sin (though He strictly decreed all things and brings them to pass, and influences the desires and decisions of all people) does not make it so. The burden of proof is upon the Calvinist to demonstrate how God decreeing that all people “freely” do that which He influences them to do does not make Him the author of sin. There has not yet been a sufficient answer, even (or especially) among those who affirm mystery or antinomy.

Originally posted at the Classical Arminianism site.