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Does Calvinism Make God a "Moral Monster"?

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Among the caricatures of Calvinism is the widespread claim that it renders God the author of evil, suffering, sin, and even the fall of humanity itself. In his recent book, Against Calvinism, Roger Olson carefully distinguishes the official teaching of Calvinism from where he thinks it logically leads. However, there are over three dozen statements in his book about Calvinism leading by good and necessary logic to a deity who is a "moral monster," indistinguishable from the devil.

I respond to this charge directly in my companion volume, For Calvinism. A thoughtful review of my book from an Arminian perspective came to my attention today and this question again rose to the surface. (By the way, Calvinists talk so much about predestination more because of the charges leveled repeatedly against it than because of its alleged centrality.)

If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to transgress his law, why didn't he change the circumstances so that they would have made a different choice?

Why would God create people he knew would be condemned for their original and actual sin?

The questions multiply.

Taking on this question in a blog post is a little dangerous. For a statement of the Reformed position and its scriptural basis, I'd refer readers to For Calvinism.

However, there is one point that is worth pondering briefly: Non-Calvinist theologies are just as vulnerable on this question. Classic Arminian theology shares with Calvinism—indeed with all historic branches of Christianity—that God's foreknowledge comprehends all future events. There is nothing that happens, nothing that you and I do, that lies outside of God's eternal foreknowledge.

Now go back and read those questions above. Notice that they don't refer to predestination, but to mere foreknowledge. They pose a vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God's exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God's knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose.

Roger Olson states his own view: "God is sovereign in the sense that nothing at all can ever happen that God does not allow" (100). So, if the fall happened, then God allowed it. The fall "was not a part of [God's] will except to reluctantly allow it" (99). OK, but then the fall was in some sense a part of God's will. Calvinists acknowledge that it was not part of God's revealed (or moral) will, but that he willingly permitted it as part of his plan. Yet Roger is looking for something in between: God "permits" it, but it is not a "willing permission" (64). Aside from the fact that any act of God in permitting something is already an act of will—a choice, my main point here is that Roger's weaker claim is still strong enough to get him into the same hot water with the rest of us. Roger agrees that God knows everything that will happen. God even supervises everything that will happen. Nothing escapes his oversight. "I believe, as the Bible teaches and all Christians should believe, that nothing at all can happen without God's permission" (71).

And yet, Roger rejects R. C. Sproul's statement, "What God permits, he decrees to permit" (78). Now, what could be more obvious than the fact that when someone with the authority to do otherwise permits something contrary to his revealed will, he is deciding, choosing, decreeing to allow it? Here again, Roger's notion of a presumably unwilling permission is an oxymoron. To permit something is to make a positive determination, even if it in no way makes the one permitting it responsible for the action. So what is the substantive difference between saying, with Roger, that "nothing at all can ever happen that God does not allow," and with R. C. Sproul, "What God permits, he decrees to permit"?

There is indeed a trail of hyper-Calvinism on the fringes of Augustinian Christianity that turns God's decree to permit into a decree to accomplish or bring about. There, then: God is the author of sin. Next question? That certainly solves the intellectual riddle. Or, one can untie the knot in the other direction. Some have moved beyond Arminianism into the Socinian view that God doesn't even know the future actions of free moral agents. Known as "open theism," this denial of God's omniscience recognizes that Arminianism and Calvinism are unable to resolve this dilemma. They rightly see that if God foreknows everything from eternity, including our free acts, then these acts are certain to come to pass. Foreknowledge entails predestination, so they reject the classical Christian doctrine of God's omniscience.

Hyper-Calvinists and hyper-Arminians share the same impatience with mystery. Neither position bows reverently before God's revelation, acknowledging its clear affirmations of divine sovereignty and human responsibility without answering all of our philosophical questions. Contradictions are abhorrent to the faith, but every important docrine in Scripture is shrouded in mystery. Hyper-Calvinism and hyper-Arminianism are willing even to set Scripture against Scripture, rejecting some clear teachings in favor of others, for the sake of rational satisfaction. Yet both, in different ways, represent deadly errors—indeed, blasphemies—against the character of God.

Happily, the debate between Roger and me is not hyper-Calvinism vs. hyper-Arminianism. The real difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is whether God has a purpose when he allows sin and suffering. Again, both views affirm that nothing happens apart from God's permission. However, Calvinism teaches that God never allows any evil that he has not already determined to work together for our good (Rom 8:28). Nothing that he allows can terminate in evil. What would we say of a deity who "reluctantly permitted" a terrible disaster or moral tragedy, without a determination to overcome that evil with good? But that takes a plan and that plan must necessarily comprehend the evil that he is to conquer.

Any view that makes God the author of sin does indeed turn the object of our worship into a moral monster. However, any deity who merely stands around reluctantly permitting horrible things for which he has no greater purpose in view, is equally reprehensible. In the one, God is sovereign but not good; in the latter, God is neither. Once you acknowledge that God foreknows a sinful act and chooses to allow it (however reluctantly) when he could have chosen not to, the only consolation is that God never would have allowed it unless he had already determined why he would permit it and how he has decided to overcome it for his glory and our good. Mercifully, Scripture does reveal that God does exactly that. Roger agrees that God "chose to allow" suffering and sin (72). The Calvinist says that God chose to allow them for a reason. It's permitting rather than creating, but it's permission with a purpose. Permission without purpose makes God a "moral monster" indeed.

Reformed theology has maintained consistently that Scripture teaches God's exhaustive sovereignty and human responsibility. God does not cause evil. In fact, God does not force anyone to do anything against his or her will. And yet, nothing lies outside of the wise, loving, good, and just plan "of him who works all things after the council of his own will" (Eph 1:11). That God's sovereignty and human responsibility are true, no serious student of Scripture can deny. How they can be true is beyond our capacity to understand. As Calvin put the matter, following Luther, any attempt to unravel the mystery of predestination and human responsibilty beyond Scripture is a "seeking outside the way." "Better to limp along this path," says Calvin, "than to rush with all speed outside of it."


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  • Guest - Micah C

    Good points, but Arminian views also agree that God permitted evil for the purpose of either redeeming the creatures who chose it, or judging them in good justice if they refused and merited judgement by their own abuses of free will. Tertullian made a powerful philosophical argument for why God - in His goodness, power, and foreknowledge - would create man and permit man to sin. Tertullian strongly affirmed that God permitted, not decreed, man's sin. His argument shifted me from being an Open Theist to a Classical Arminian. Hard to argue with the unanimous consensus of the first 350 years of Christians who were better philosophers than oneself. (See Against Marcion, Book II, Chapter 5, etc. Free online.)

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  • Guest - Micah

    God's character and heart is revealed most clearly by Jesus (Hebrews 1:3). Language has meaning - if God meant something utterly other than what we think of as love, He would have used a different word. God's love is illustrated by laying down His life for His friends... and His enemies. God's love is illustrated by Jesus crying out over Jerusalem that He wanted to gather them and nurture them, but they were not willing (Matthew 23:37). God does not decree that people will go to Hell for His glory, feeling the consequences of the actions He compatilistically willed them to perform. The universal ability to respond to God's inner call was affirmed by the entire persecuted early church for 350 years, from the time of the apostles to Augustine, and even after Augustine the church as a whole did not agree with him. The Council of Orange, influenced by Augustine, nevertheless anathemized anyone who would say that God desired that anyone would perish in Hell. It is clear from Jesus, Scripture, and universal early church consensus what God's love is like - and it is not the double-talk 'love' or limited love of Calvinism.

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  • Guest - Questioning

    Micah, that was beautiful. Words have meaning. God used words to convey what He wanted to say to human beings. If we can't trust the words God used, what CAN we trust in the Bible? I thought of 1st Cor. 13 and its description of what love is. Do faith and hope mean something different? Can God go against His own word?
    And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
    I'm sure that Satan, who roams the earth seeking whom he may devour, would instead be jumping for joy that God would hand over all those souls to him on a silver platter.

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  • Guest - Micah

    @ Questioning: Thanks! I know what you mean, but of course, Satan doesn't jump for true joy, since God is the source of all true joy. : ). But yes, a view that God authors the meticulous details of life's script (including dust mote movement, sin and unbelief) makes it seem that His goals and Satan's goals are ultimately the same. (Of course, Calvinists generally are too respectful of God to say this, and they leave it in the realm of 'mystery'... except for when they say things like "Satan is God's Satan", etc)

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  • Guest - Dennis Mullen

    This whole discussion starts from the wrong premise when it asks the question: "Does Calvinism make God a Moral Monster." The question presupposes that man is morally good. You need to ask "Does the Fall, based on a free will choice made my Adam and Eve make Man a Moral Monster." All these arguments begin with man and not God.

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  • Guest - Giles

    Well its God who decreed we should all be bound in Adam's sin. We didn't get a choice. But in appealing to Adam's free will you seem to concede he at least had libertarian freedom and that that his freedom to choose is what justifies God in condemning him/man. Arminians simply extend that argument.

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  • Guest - gary

    The views of modern society regarding religion, and specifically Christianity, are in a state of great flux. Beliefs that were once sacrosanct are now being called into question. Is the day soon coming when the majority of people in society will view "the Holy Bible" as immoral and evil?

    Imagine if your grade schooler brings home a few books from the school library with these titles:

    1. Giving the Death Sentence to People who eat Forbidden Fruit

    2. Drowning Millions of Children for the Crimes of their Parents

    3. How to Murder First Born Children in their Beds

    4. The Genocidal Annihilation of Evil Foreign Peoples is Justifiable

    You would be horrified that your local school would allow such books in a library for children, wouldn't you? But yet fundamentalist Christians would love to have the Holy Bible in the same library and would not bat an eye at the bloody, barbaric violence and twisted justifications for that violence and immoral behavior contained therein.

    "Oh but that was in another Era of time. It is a mystery why it was necessary for God to do these shocking acts, but we must simply accept by faith that God had good, moral reasons for his actions in the Old Testament."

    Ok...so we will sweep all that barbaric behavior under the rug because Jesus has changed everything. All that bloody violence is no longer necessary because Jesus has ushered in the Era of Grace. We now are to love our neighbor as ourselves...not slaughter him in righteous anger.

    But there is one little problem: Slavery.

    I don't see how putting shackles around the neck, ankles, and wrists of your neighbor and calling him your property is in any way, shape, or form "loving your neighbor as yourself". And I also don't see why a loving, just, Jesus would not have condemned this evil institution, which he did not, nor why the Apostle Paul would condone it, which he very much did.

    Any book that condones slavery is evil and should not be in any school library...nor on your child's nightstand.


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  • Guest - Giles

    I have to take issue about slavery. The limitations on slavery in the Old Testament made that institution a form of indentured labour as opposed to hereditary chattel slavery and were more humane than any other comtemporary legal code. In the New Testament Paul says slave trading deserves death, that masters must stop beating slaves and that masters must submit to slaves as well as vice versa. Kind of like saying make it Saturnalia every other day. Even when he persuades an escaped slave to return he says to the master "if he has wronged you" though contemporaries would have thought that a slave wronged his master by the act of running away. Why didn't he say "free all slaves"? He couldn't. Roman law restricted manumission in various ways. Nevertheless the early church bought mistreated slaves and encouraged manumission in the seventh year as in the Old Testament. And let's face it though many Christians opposed the struggled and freethinkers also supported it, it was Christians mainly and Christian countries exclusively that brought the abolition of slavery. With the other points you make a more serious challenge I concede.

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  • Guest - Micah C

    I appreciate that you embrace morality. But I think you fundamentally misunderstand what is going on in the examples you provide.
    For the first example (Adam and Eve), it is not so much a punishment for disobeying an arbitrary rule, as a forewarned consequence for actions that would inexorably lead to death. Adam and Eve were to be like God in their love and to stay in relationship with Him, since He is the source of life. To disconnect from the source of life by judging for oneself what is good and evil, trying to break away from God, would put a schism in the relationship that would ultimately end in death. If you check out Greg Boyd's YouTube video on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, I think he does a great job explaining the larger issues at play.

    In your second and following examples, God is not murdering children. They are dying, to be sure, but there are other examples of kids dying young by God's decree because He wanted to spare them, and we have reason to believe they went to Heaven. Especially in the flood, we have no reason to think young children died and then went to Hell, and good reasons to think they went to Heaven.
    I'll spare myself and everyone else a more detailed response, since it is unlikely to receive broad readership. I would encourage you and others to read Greg Boyd's book, Satan and the Problem of Evil, and his shorter work, Is God to Blame?

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  • [&] Knowing what will occur in the future is one of the ways that God proves that He is God. Most will not challenge the idea that God has foreknowledge. However, those who hold to a determinist framework based on decrees, will state that foreknowledge of the future makes all future actions just as certain and just as predetermined by God. [&]

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