Calvinism Is Impossible
Obviously by “impossible” I don’t mean it doesn’t exist. Here I am using the word “impossible” in a very unusual sense, but one I borrow from Calvinist theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge was by most accounts the most influential American conservative Protestant theologian of the nineteenth century and a convinced and somewhat aggressive Calvinist. His three volume Systematic Theology (1871-1873) is still in publication well over a century after it was first published. I doubt it ever went out of publication. It has served as a model of conservative evangelical systematic theology even well into the twentieth century. His student James Pettigru Boyce founded Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and influenced it toward Calvinism.
In volume one of Systematic Theology Hodge laid out the correct method of theology—“inductive.” The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the scientist—a storehouse of facts to be studied and organized into a system. And yet, following Common Sense Realism, Hodge acknowledged that there are certain presuppositions with which the theologian must begin his or her work.
In Chapter III: Rationalism, Hodge wrote about the “Proper Office of Reason in Matters of Religion” and argued that reason is necessary for the reception of revelation. “The Impossible cannot be believed,” he wrote and then explained “What is Impossible.” “(1.) That is impossible which involves a contradiction; as, that a thing is and is not; that right is wrong, and wrong right. (2.) It is impossible that God should do, approve, or command what is morally wrong. (3.) It is impossible that He should require us to believe what contradicts any of the laws of belief which He has impressed upon our nature. (4.) It is impossible that one truth should contradict another. It is impossible, therefore, that God should reveal anything as true which contradicts any well authenticated truth, whether of intuition, experience, or previous revelation.”
Now, don’t “breeze over” that. Let it sink in and soak in. I do not know whether all Calvinists would agree with Hodge about these necessary axioms of thought. Let it stand for now that the mighty Hodge believed them and made them part of his system of theology. I believe he was right. These four axioms must be followed rigorously for theology to be taken seriously.
The problem is that Hodge himself did not follow them. Later in his Systematic Theology he left them behind and taught a theology of God’s sovereignty that is, by his own standards, literally impossible. That is impossible to be true or believed without sacrificing reason.
Here is the Achilles Heel of Calvinism—following Hodge’s self-evident first principles. According to classical Calvinism’s (including Hodge’s) doctrine of divine providence, God is the all-determining reality. Whatever happens, without exception, is God’s will. Yes, many of them use the language of “permission,” but they clearly mean (and say so) a “willing permission” that is effectual, rendering certain everything including sin and evil. Sin and evil, like everything, are foreordained and rendered certain by God. Then, in their doctrine of predestination (including Hodge’s), sinners condemned to hell, the “reprobate,” are said to deserve their fate. Why? Because they sinned voluntarily and according to their nature. Suddenly what was said earlier in the doctrine of all-encompassing, meticulous divine providence is forgotten. Why and how did they sin? Because God withdrew the good and grace they needed not to sin. This is apparent in Calvin, Edwards, Hodge, Boettner, and many later Calvinist luminaries. In what world is a person guilty and damnable (to eternal hell) for doing what he or she could not have avoided doing?
I believe Calvinism is impossible because it more than implies that God does what is wrong. In it, God creates human persons in his own image and likeness solely for the purpose of damning them to hell for his glory. Or, in some versions of Calvinism, God determines to “pass over” some fallen persons, created in his image and likeness and selected by God for damnation (“the reprobate”), when he could save them (because he is omnipotent and all-determining in his exhaustive, meticulous providence).
In brief, the claim “God is good” loses all meaning in Calvinism because there is no analogy to that goodness. Look back to Hodge’s four first principles. The fourth strongly implies that intuition is a factor in deciding what is possible and what is not possible. There is no human sense of “good” that is similar to the “good” in “God is good” said by a Calvinist. When pushed to explain, most Calvinists will say that whatever God does is good just because God does it. That is called voluntarism—the idea that God has no permanent, eternal, unchanging character but is absolutely and totally free to do whatever his will desires. Either way, “God is good,” said within a Calvinist context, is uninformative and really impossible. And yet all Calvinists say it.
Calvinism is impossible, given Hodge’s first principles, because it involves a contradiction (or more than one) between two doctrines—providence (exhaustive, all-encompassing, meticulous, “fine-grained”) and double predestination defended on the basis that the reprobate deserve their eternal destiny of damnation in hell because they sin voluntarily. And it is impossible because it empties “God is good” of any informative meaning. It is meaningless chatter within a Calvinist context. And yet all Calvinists say it as if it is an informative claim. It isn’t.
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