The First Fatal Flaw in the Calvinist System Revisited

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by Roger E. Olson

Recently I wrote about flaws and fatal flaws in theological systems. All have flaws. Some also have fatal flaws. One I mentioned that I see in the Calvinist system (as articulated by some leading Calvinists) is the dual claim that everything without exception is foreordained and rendered certain by God for his glory and that certain heresies (probably all heresies) detract from, diminish, demean God’s glory and rob God of his glory.

Some respondents here have attempted to defend these two claims by arguing that God’s glory is eschatological or that (and this seems to amount to the same) certain things that detract from God’s glory are foreordained by God because they are necessary or helpful for his full glorification. I’m not convinced that these defenses relieve the contradiction. Here’s why.

I will use an analogy. Imagine a husband whose wife has been diagnosed with a terrible cancer. The doctor tells him that the only cure is a three step treatment of chemotherapy and that the first two will destroy her health while the third, which cannot work without the first two, will cure her. After the third step of the treatment she will be cancer free and completely restored to health. The doctor asks the husband if he agrees to the treatment in spite of the fact that it will make his wife extremely ill at first. The husband jumps to agree – Yes, of course, start the treatment!

The doctor sends the wife to a clinic where they begin the first step and the wife becomes gravely ill. The second step makes her worse, bringing her to death’s door. She is in such suffering the husband becomes angry with the clinic and technicians who are administering the treatment but does not withdraw his permission to continue the treatment. He still remembers that all this is necessary for his wife’s full recovery.

However, during the second step he puts pen to paper and writes a letter to the CEO of the clinic and to the American Medical Association and to the local newspaper’s editorial pages editor blasting the second step of the treatment as doing great harm, which is against the medical community’s code of ethics. He brings charges against the nurse who is administering the therapy and the clinic where his wife is staying during the treatment. Strangely, however, he doesn’t bring charges against the doctor who ordered the treatment. He is still grateful to him and sings his praises everywhere. The husband continues his emotional crusade against the clinic and the treatment administered there because it is making his wife so ill, all the while knowing this is necessary to make her well.

Finally, a friend takes the husband aside and says, “Aren’t you being illogical? I understand your inner turmoil over your wife’s suffering, but you know the medicine that is making her so ill is necessary so the next medicine they are going to give her can cure her. And you aren’t withdrawing your permission to keep treating her. Don’t you think you’re being unreasonable to keep up this crusade against the clinic?” The husband looks at his friend and says, “My wife’s cure is future; right now she’s suffering terribly. There’s nothing unreasonable about fighting what is making her so ill even though I know it is necessary so that eventually she’ll get well. Someone has to point out how toxic this second step is.” His friend says, “But you know its toxicity is exactly what is necessary for the third and final step to work.” The husband replies, “Yes, I know that.” The friend just looks at the husband and shakes his head in bewilderment.

In my opinion, that is an exact analogy to the illogic of those Calvinists who claim (often vehemently) that some heresy detracts from God’s glory or diminishes God’s glory or robs God of some of his glory (etc.), all the while confessing that God foreordained it for his glory (i.e., as a necessary step towards his full glorification). Just as there is a fatal flaw in the husband’s thinking and acting in the story, so there is a (the same) fatal flaw in Calvinism’s polemics against heresies. I cannot take them seriously. I can only, like the husband’s friend, shake my head in bewilderment.