Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does Calvinsim Equate to Fatalism?

This was posted a few months ago on my other blog. It is an issue that has been debated for years.

Lately, I've been following a couple of comment threads on some blogs of which the titles caught my interest (comment threads here, and here. The two I have mainly been reading.)

It seems that in both these threads the main argumentation against Reformed Theology (or Calvinism, if you prefer) goes something like this: "Calvinism, when carried to its logical conclusion, is nothing but Fatalism."

This argument can really be labeled as nothing more than an ab absurdo argument (the idea that the position taken is wrong because it seems absurd). But make no mistake, Arminians are not the only ones who use this argument. I have read plenty of Calvinists who argue from the same position—that Arminianism is wrong because "Arminianism, when carried to its logical conclusion, is nothing but Open Theism."

So you see, both sides can use this so-called logic to disprove each others theological positions—and both sides would still be wrong! With that in mind, I will attempt to prove the fallacy of this kind of argumentation, mainly from the Reformed view. I will then use the same argument to "disprove" Arminianism (yeah, I know I just said you can't use that kind of argumentation). Then I will summarize the correct way for substantiating or invalidating ones theology. Stick with me on this one and I'm sure you will find it interesting.

There are three main reasons why the Logical Conclusion End holds no real validity:
  • First, the Bible doesn't teach Fatalism so it should not be assumed (logically) that a person believes such, nor should it be assumed that this will be the outcome of their belief. Using logic is still a valid tool, mind you. But we should be careful how we attribute it to Biblical interpretation.
  • Second, Both sides have their extremes. Let's look at the whole picture and stop pretending that our theologies are wrapped up nice and neat with a little red bow on top.
  • Third, Scripture should be the final authority in determining which theological conclusions stand or fall.

The Bible Doesn't Teach Fatalism

There will be two main points to this section: (1) Scripture affirms God's purpose and decrees, and (2) Christians affirm God's purpose and decrees in prayer/speech.

Scripture declares God's purpose and decrees

Before beginning this portion of argument it would be helpful to define Fatalism. It is defined by the Online Webster Dictionary as follows:
fatalism - a philosophical doctrine holding that all events are predetermined in advance for all time and human beings are powerless to change them

Immediately, one would jump to the conclusion of the Calvinistic belief of God's eternal decree and state, "Yep, sure sounds like Calvinism to me." But Fatalism goes well beyond God's decree and basically states, "Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!" In other words, things happen out of random chance rather than a determined purpose. the Biblical view of God's decree is that everything that He does, He does for a purpose, whereas Fatalism states that men do what they do and have no choice because it has been determined.

Compare the above definition to the Westminster Confession of faith concerning God's eternal purposes and decrees:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Thus, Reformed Theology states that "Neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established". In other words, man is still responsible and free (withing the confinements of his nature) to choose right and wrong, not simply because his actions have been "determined." But God does have a purpose, even in man's rebellion and so we must still let Scripture guide us as to His all-wise decrees.

(Isa 49:9-11) Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose. calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

(Ps 148:5-6) Let them praise the name of the LORD! For He commanded and they were created. And He established them forever and ever; He gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.

(Pro 19:21) Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.

(Pro 16:33) The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.

(Ex 9:16) But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.

So we can see clearly from Scripture that God has a purpose in bringing events to pass. Fatalism, on the other hand is very different in nature. It concludes that there is no purpose for things that happen. In Fatalism all of the good, the bad, and the ugly are just there, just "life." But Christianity states that these things to do not come about as accident. God has a reason (though we may not know why) for everything, including evil. Thus, to summarize the passages above we see in those passages God's purpose clearly being the grounds for which these things come about, namely praise, man's plans, the destruction of Pharaoh, and even the so-called "random" acts of casting lots to determine which course one should go in.

Everything God does is done for the purpose of His good pleasure, and most Christians, rather they are Reformed or not would heartily and readily agree with this statement. If this be the case, should Reformed folk continue to be accused of believing in a fatalistic God?

Christians affirm God's decrees in prayer/speech

While Reformed Christians heavily stress the importance of God's decrees, even when evil happens, it seems that non-Reformed believers focus more on His decrees when circumstances become more personal (i.e, a loved one becomes sick or dies, or other personal tragedies). They then seek comfort in knowing that God has a purpose for this particular trial or event in their lives and by so doing they themselves acknowledge these decrees. But what about everyday life when bad things don't happen? I would dare say that many believers who do not hold to Reformed Theology are, in actuality, unintentional Calvinists.

Consider for example, how one might say, "If it is God's will I shall. . ." What is meant by this kind of talk except that he believes that God may have something different in mind for him than what he himself has planned? It is merely the reality of Proverbs 19:21 played out in the life of a believer. And what about how we pray? "Accomplish Your will in such and such." Again, we are recognizing God's supreme authority to have His purpose carried out. And the most curious one is the prayer that is usually offered for the salvation of a loved one: "Lord, please break his heart and bring him to repentance. Do whatever it may take to cause him to call upon your name for salvation." What is being asked for in essence, is for God to intervene by changing the will and emotions or bringing about some circumstance of extremeness in order to cause the person to begin to seek God. Would one really pray in that manner if they did not believe God to have his/her salvation accomplished? And if the choice is left soley to the individual why pray at all? for this indicates that God has no power to thwart that which will cause a person to reject Him (namely sin) or even to change the will in order to see the beauty of Chrit's atonement. Rather, when anyone prays in this manner God's complet sovereignty, and dare I say His decree, is fully recognized.

In both the examples above, God's purposes, intentions, and eternal decrees are recognized. And unless one is ready to deny the supreme rule and decisions of God while they themselves affirm them (knowingly or not) the 'Fatalism' logic must be put to rest.

Consider also, the great care that most believers take in determining God's will. They will pray, fast, and essentially refuse to move on an issue of great importance until they are certain that God's will is the guiding light behind what they are about to do. Again, if the Reformed idea of God's eternal decree is to be rejected upon the grounds of Fatalism, why pray and act in this way? When one does, he acknowledges that his will may not be the same as God's will; and if his will is not the same as God's will it is an acknowledgment that God may have had a different purpose (or decree) for him the entire time. This must be the case, for the only other option is to carelessly do whatever he wishes only to find in the end that his plans, and not God's, have been frustrated.

Both Sides Have Their Extremes

Extremes abound in all forms of theology. A careful recognition of this should guide the person's argument against any theological issue straight to the text in question rather than immediately jumping to the end conclusion. This is the exact reason for my writing this post. It seems that most would rather "assume" how a person's theological convictions could, but not necessarily lead to an extreme, rather than a careful study of certain passages that have been offered as proof of these convictions. As Christians, we need to stop dancing around these key passages and deal honestly and integrally with the text. Instead of forcing our own conclusions on Scripture, let us use careful exegesis and examine closely what the Biblical writer's intentions are for the disputed passages at hand.

For this reason, I would like to use the assumed conclusion argument to disprove the theology of Arminianism. This will not be a long, drawn out argument but simply a list of "logical" reasons why Arminianism is a false theological system. By doing so, I hope to establish that believers can no longer afford to use this type of logic to assume the fallacies of a theological position, but rather a system that is rooted in a careful study and exegesis of the Scripture should be the plumb line used in determining our theology.

Arminianism, when carried to it's logical conclusion, is Open Theism.

A. Man's freedom to choose right and wrong

Man is a completely free moral agent. He must determine the course his life will take. We know that God does not violate man's free will by "forcing" Himself upon him. He allows man to make his own decisions and act upon those decisions without interference. When man acts contrary to the Word of God the usual consequences ensue. But when he acts in line with the Word of God it is reasonable to assume that God's blessing will be upon him. This explains why there is sin and evil in the world. However, it does not quite explain why God doesn't intervene all the time. Certainly there are times when He does, but why not all the time?

B. Evil in the world

Can one really deny that evil abounds in this world? Not really. Evil has been a problem since the fall of Adam. This presents a huge problem for the Christian. If there really is a God, and He is good, as we boast, then why does evil seem to triumph? We know and understand that God is not the author of evil. He does not will it to happen, nor does He Himself force anyone to sin or be evil. Yet sadistic people live in our societies and commit evil atrocities everyday: a young child is snatched away from parents and brutally abused and murdered; a woman is robbed of her purity because some man could not control his lusts; money is stolen because people are greedy and would rather take than work for what they desire. The list goes on and on but the answers to these predicaments seem far and few between. The only logical conclusion can be that (1) God has a purpose for evil abounding and will ultimately use it for His glory, or (2) God's knowledge is somewhat limited and He is not completely and able to control evil.

C. The logical conclusion to the evil problem: Open Theism

I think it is rather ridiculous to say or admit that God has a "purpose" for evil. Sure, the Bible teaches that God arranges or works out these things to His advantage, but does that really mean that there is a purpose. That can't be right. It is contrary to everything I have ever heard about the nature and character of God. Since He certainly doesn't cause evil to happen, and He most certainly would never cause men to sin, the only logical thing left to assume is that God just doesn't know everything that's going to happen. The things He knows about are the things that He intervenes upon and changes the circumstances of those situations. But those things that do happen that are evil must be the things that He was not aware that were going to happen. This is the only real explanation of why evil abounds so prevalently in our lives.

The above logic has not been completely fleshed out. It was not my intention to do so. I only wanted to show the fallacy behind the kind of logic that abounds when we essentially use the same kind of reasoning to disprove a person's theology. But alas, do not be discouraged for there is a way to to determine whether our beliefs stand or fall.

Scripture is the Determining Factor

As stated previously, a careful study of the Scriptural passages in question should ALWAYS be the final arbiter of any given theological conviction. I think all Christians would readily agree with this statement so there is really no need to launch into a long-winded homily of why this is true. I would, however, like to list a few steps in the study of a passage that may help guide in the final interpretation of any given conclusion.
  1. Consider the entirety of the book: audience, why it was written, cultural context, and circumstances under which it was written. This can give great insight into the means of the book in the first place.
  2. Consider the immdediate context of the passage. Don't just take a few words or sentences and build an entire theology on those few words. There is lots to consider within that context:
    • Word/phrase meanings
    • Uses of the words elswhere
    • Time and voice aspects of key verbs
    • Syntactical and grammatical nuances

  3. Do word studies of the key words in the text. What do the words actually convey? Is the author being literal or figurative in his speech? Word studies can often lead a person to a clearer understanding of the message that was being conveyed to the original audience. A basic working knowledge of the original languages is an extremely valuable aid. With the advancement of technology there should be no excuses why a person cannot obtain a grammar and learn the languages himself/herself. At the very least, make sure you invest in some good lexical aids. There are plenty of free ones out there on the Internet.
  4. Check commentaries from both sides of the debated position. I have a good collection of commentaries from both Arminian and Reformed positions and I use them both. Checking to see how each interprets a passage can give you a glimpse into how detailed the commentator actually studied it. Was there much usage of the original languages? or did they simply "gloss" over key words and phrases to allow their own understanding of the passage to prevail? Of course, we should be careful that we or the commentator has not read anything more into the passage than what is has actually been said.
  5. Finally, determine the meaning of the passage ONLY after using all of the above means. Let me be clear in saying that a private interpretation outside the norm is just as bad and heretical as eisegesis. When a particular passage has been interpreted a certain way for hundreds of years by those who have mastered the languages, should we assume their conclusions wrong simply because we disagree with them? I certainly hope not! Let us all be careful in the conclusions that we arrive at.

The above is certainly no exhaustive means for studying Scripture, just a few steps that should be considered when approaching a text. Since all believers are called to understand God (not in the fullest sense) and convey to the lost world that message, we should then be most ready to go much further than "the logical conclusion" and be honest enough with ourselves to give a fair and Biblical scrutiny to ANY Christian theology.

Affirming the 5 Solas of the Reformation,

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