CALVINIST RHETORIC: Consistency

, posted by Martin Glynn

Or “Van Til It Hurts”

What I Mean By Consistency

In the 1920s a Dutch Theologian by the name of Cornelius Van Til (hence the joke in the subtitle) revitalized an apologetic approach known as presuppositional apologetics. In essence, presuppositional apologetics assesses the validity of a philosophical view by its presuppositions (the underlying assumptions upon which the view is based) and whether these presuppositions contradict each other or are consistent with each other.* It is sort of like a monological Socratic argument.

Oh, and Van Til was a Calvinist.

Personally, I have no issue with presuppositional apologetics. Indeed, I think it is a powerful rhetorical technique, and is vastly important in inter-religious studies as well as systematic theology. I even defend it in this post. However there are some precautions one should consider before they completely trust arguments from consistency.

First, there are very few beliefs that are homogenous, that is, existing in only one form. For most philosophies, there are variations, and some of these variations are going to be more consistent than others. Therefore, if one is intent on making good and honorable arguments (instead of trying to just destroy whatever you disagree with, regardless of validity), one must study the breadth and depth of the other position.

Second, if you are going to argue from consistency, then you must only consider the other opinion. You cannot allow your own presuppositions and priorities to be involved in the argument. This is really, really, really … really hard to do. Therefore, one must not only study the breadth and depth of the position to be critiqued, but also must completely and exhaustively and critically study the full depth of one’s own position so that it may be appropriately set aside.

Third, there needs to be an understanding that if you are making an argument from consistency, you are not criticizing what a person believes, at least not directly. If I say that to be consistent, a Calvinist would have to believe that God is the source and designer of all evil, I cannot then say that God, in Calvinism, is evil. I have to admit, if I care about being honest, that Calvinism doesn’t actually teach this (thank goodness).

Fourth, we have to consider how much strength we can give to an argument from consistency given the theological category of mystery. Mystery is the simple and humble acknowledgement of God’s ineffability: we cannot fully describe Him. Though without having any stipulations as to what properly constitutes a mystery the idea becomes an intellectual cop-out, we do still have to be careful about how much strength we give to consistency arguments when the subject is the ineffable God.

Consistency in Action

Synergism

Here is an example of this:

You may say, how can “everything be of Christ” if faith is from us? I would answer, it is possible to be inconsistent! (We all are to some extent.) But it is a happy inconsistency, as long as they truly rest on Christ alone.

The accusation is a common one: if Arminians were consistent, we would note that we are the cause of our own salvation. I would say that this accusation is completely false. Although one could call us synergistic, we do not hold that we in any way cause our salvation. (Of course, this depends on your definition of “synergism,” so I don’t find the appellation helpful in theological discourse. )

Why do we say salvation is all of Christ? Because we do not do any of the saving. The actions of salvation (justification, salvation, election, sanctification, regeneration, etc.) are completely done of God. We have no energetic input into any of these processes. The “part we play,” so to speak, is passive: we get out of the way and trust God to do all of the work. That is hardly something causal.

But Calvinists say that is inconsistent. Inconsistent with what? Here is one of the major problems with the way in which Calvinists use the rhetoric. In order to demonstrate inconsistency, they must point out two or more beliefs that Arminians hold and show them to be incompatible. However, they usually don’t really do this. They usually merely state that we are inconsistent.

Personally, I think that they usually don’t mean “inconsistent” (there are counter examples of course). “Inconsistent” is just a euphemistic way for them to say “illogical.”

However, saying “illogical” directly gets them in much more trouble, because it is a much harsher accusation to make and a much harder accusation to prove (not to mention untrue). Much like the political use of the word “tolerance” in lieu of “acceptance,” it is a way of saying what they really want to say, while not sounding like they are saying something obviously objectionable.

The truth is Arminianism isn’t illogical, nor inconsistent. This is because all logical arguments start with unprovable presuppositions, and even though both Calvinism (at least certain forms of it) and Arminianism (at least certain forms of it) are completely logical, they are still different belief systems. This is because we hold different presuppositions, different starting places. The Calvinist claim that we are inconsistent is usually based on their inability to separate out their own presuppositions in their analyses.

The End Result

The way that the term “consistency” is used gives a lot of unscholarly Calvinist arguments a scholarly feel. It makes them (the arguments) sound a lot more impressive than they really are.

Think about it. To say that something is inconsistent is to claim that you have done all of the work that I mentioned in the first part of this post (studying the breadth and depth of Arminianism, exhaustively and critically studying the full depth of Calvinism, and setting aside Calvinistic assumptions). Therefore the Calvinist is rhetorically taking this higher ground that says, “Trust me. I’ve thought about this.”

However, the gross ignorance of of these same Calvinists on what Arminianism teaches, coupled with the absolute assumption of certain Calvinist presuppositions, means that most have actually not done this work. For many, Arminianism is inconsistent because Piper or Sproul said so, but they don’t actually know themselves. The arguments simply make sense to them, so it must be true.

Dealing with this rhetoric, though, is actually fairly simple. First of all, you can simply give it back (like how they say that making the human will a secondary cause in salvation** puts salvation in the hands of man, but God only being a secondary cause to sin completely absolves Him from it).

Second, point out how they are assuming Calvinist presuppositions in their analysis, which is a failure in showing inconsistency. Finally, by calling you inconsistent, they have essentially invited you to explain Arminianism. Take up that invitation and set the record straight.

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*Actually any argument based on an analysis of presuppositions is an example of presuppositional apologetics. Arguments from and for consistency are just the most common and basic form of it.

**I wouldn’t actually say that humans are a “secondary cause,” since I don’t think that we take as causal a role. But, Calvinists do argue that human inaction alters the course of one’s eternal destiny, and is thus causal in some way. But even if it is causal, it is, at best, a secondary cause, since God does all of the action.

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