CALVINIST RHETORIC: Idealistic Abstractions

, posted by Martin Glynn

Or “Plato: Imagination Taking Shape”*

What I Mean by Idealistic Abstractions

To be abstract means to be “thought of apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances.” To put it more simply (at least for our purposes), something which is abstract is something which is not defined by our five senses. For instance, love, peace, faith, grace, sovereignty, etc. As we can see from the examples, abstraction is quite important for Christianity. Indeed, it is quite important for life, since most subjects deal with abstractions, including science, politics, and even sports.

By idealistic abstractions, I mean the absolute “purest” sense of a particular idea. In practice, the “purest” sense of an idea ends up being the most extreme sense, where no qualification is allowed. Much of Calvinistic rhetoric, in fact, hinges on the idea that the “purest” sense of a particular attribute of God is a starting place for understanding who God is and what He is doing.

This shouldn’t be that surprising for those of us that know a bit about theological history. Calvin based a lot of his ideas off of Augustine, who in turn was highly and openly influenced by Plato, whose rhetoric was strongly based off of deduction from ideals. Here are some very telling quotes from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, 1997) with regards to Plato:

These doctrines are all based on a metaphysic … which contrasts the world of sense and everyday experience with a true and higher world of “Ideas” (or better “Forms”). (p. 1299)

Of perhaps even greater moment for the history of the Christian theology was the fact that the thought of St. Augustine was radically influenced … by Platonic doctrines.…Henceforward the Platonic Forms were regularly reinterpreted as the creative thoughts of God. (p. 1300)

Now, I am not saying that Calvinism is some form of Platonism. It’s not. Nor am I arguing that Calvinism is wrong because it was influenced by a pagan Greek philosopher. That would be a genetic fallacy, and somewhat hypocritical, since most of Western philosophy has been influenced in part by Plato and Aristotle. Instead, what I am merely saying is that Plato is indeed the source of this rhetorical style and is the reason why it is so prevalent in Calvinism especially.

Idealistic Abstractions in Action

It is difficult to not find a Calvinist argument or even belief which is not touched by a reliance on Idealistic Abstraction. It really is a foundation for a great many of their beliefs. For the sake of brevity I have chosen two examples to show what this looks like.

Sovereignty

I’ve chosen to use sovereignty here because it is a major part of Calvinists’ motivations and entire worldview. However, the Calvinist view of sovereignty is a very strong example of idealistic abstraction.

The word “sovereignty” means that one rules over a particular domain. It does not, in and of itself, describe how one rules; it just merely describes one as the ruler. Any argument which states that someone is not sovereign unless they rule in a very specific way is neither basing this on the definition of the word, nor on what the Bible says (which simply describes God as king). It is instead an argument based off of that person’s opinion of what perfect sovereignty should be.

This is how the logic works. You start with an assumption (in this case an erroneous one) that any attribute can be reduced down to some pure simple concept. In the case of sovereignty, we reduce the idea of lordship down to the simple idea of control. Sovereigns control things. Therefore, the purest form of sovereignty is absolute and complete control. We then treat this as the basic definition of the word, and then claim that it must be true of God.

This ignores the fact that no earthly sovereign in the history of the world has ever exacted this kind of control over their domain. It ignores the most common duties of a sovereign as part of the definition: creating a peaceful context in which citizens can live, protecting people from threats domestic and abroad, and exacting judgment between citizens and between the citizen and the state. It ignores that the Bible describes God’s interactions with Israel in precisely these terms throughout it. These are nothing more than “earthly particulars” which merely distract us from what sovereignty “should be.”

Aseity

Aseity means self-existence, or having no source or cause for one’s existence. It is one of those theological words that only describe God. God has always existed, and nothing comes before Him. He does not need anything to exist, and would still exist if nothing else did. This is what we mean by aseity.

The Calvinist argument from aseity is probably the most blatantly Platonic argument (that is, deriving from Plato) in their arsenal. Plato and his philosophical descendants held to the belief that God was static: He was completely distant, and did not react in any way (including emotionally) to anything else. They argued that this must be true because any movement of God must either be a move from or toward perfection, and, since God is always perfect, no movement is thus possible for God. This, of course, contradicts the biblical narrative, erroneously attributes all attributes of God, such as emotion, to ontology (the study of existence), and doesn’t take into account movements within perfection.

The Calvinist argument from aseity is very similar. Now, I don’t reject God’s aseity (quite the opposite) in much the same way that I don’t reject that God is perfect. However, I do reject the Platonic logic that Calvinists like to employ when trying to use it against Arminianism, especially since they make some similar mistakes.

Here is an example from Tim Prussic:

This Arminian notion makes God dependent upon creation for his knowledge. This aspect is exceptionally pernicious. One of God’s attributes is knowledge. This theory says (explicitly) that God knows because of us. We determine God’s knowledge. Don’t you see the impressive violence that does to the doctrine of God, his self-sufficiency, and possibly his immutability?

Josh Thibodaux does a good job dismantling this argument at SEA, so I do not believe that it is necessary to do the same here.

It is sufficient, for the purposes of this post, to point out how this argument is very similar to the Platonic argument that God has no emotions, especially in making the same mistake of attributing all attributes of God to ontology. Just like Plato arguing that God having an emotion causes a shift in His being, the Calvinist here is arguing that God’s knowledge is somehow ontologically tied to the thing known (as if my essence would increase as I gained knowledge, which might explain child obesity).

Like the Calvinist view of ontology, this is taking an abstract concept and taking it to an extreme. While it is contradictory to general experience that the subject of a piece of knowledge impacts my capacity to know and be, the Calvinist ideal of what aseity should be apparently says that God can only know that which He causes. Personally, I see this as circular reasoning.

The End Result

There are two major effects that I believe this style of rhetoric has. First, it allows the Calvinist to propose very powerful sounding arguments without the need for things such as proof or evidence. After all, they are arguing from the idea, and as long as that idea can be articulated well, they are going to sound convincing.

Second, it gives the Calvinist a great deal of power in debate. I would say that Calvinism doesn’t hold up as well under long careful analysis as Arminianism does. However, in the middle of a debate, it is not the one who makes the better argument who wins, but the one whose argument can be simply articulated. Platonic rhetoric was designed for discussion (hence why he always wrote in dialogue). Therefore it is unsurprising that a theology steeped in it also tends to do well in similar formats.

As Arminians, we expose this rhetoric by demonstrating what these ideas would look like in real life. Most of these arguments fall on their face when confronted with the real world. And if they are saying that we are defining God based off of the world, correct them, and point out that the Bible speaks out of the real world as well. The biblical authors didn’t separate out God from their tangible experiences. Indeed, that is precisely the way that they came to know Him. If that is how the biblical authors sought to understand God, then how can we do otherwise?

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*This is the official slogan of Play-Doh©, from Hasbro. Hasbro does not endorse this post, nor does it encourage the flagrant use of its product’s name to make bad jokes about ancient philosophers, gods of death, former planets, and animated canines.