A Word of Explanation
As part of my pastoral residency at Emmaus Church, I am responsible this month for writing a position paper on the five points of Calvinism. I had intended to post the entire thing as a blog upon finishing it, but it occurred to me that the thing would be ridiculously long, and I doubt anyone would read it. I believe that this introductory post will prove to be the longest one. Let me also clarify a couple of other things. By “Calvinism,” I do not intend to include the polity and sacramental concepts of the Calvinistic tradition; I’m really just concerned with soteriology here. Also, the term “Calvinism” is really only helpful insofar as it serves as theological shorthand; I hope to show that these doctrines are biblical. In other words, these truths are much older than Calvin. In fact, they’re older than the foundations of the world.
Setting the Stage
The fundamental concern for Calvinism, which distinguishes it from other theological traditions, is to recognize the bigness of God. Of course, proponents of non-Calvinistic traditions will certainly take issue with this assertion; they will insist that God’s sovereignty and centrality are crucial to their theological position, and I don’t want to be uncharitable to them. But I will argue that the Calvinistic understanding of God and man is the only theological position that does justice to the Bible’s claims on God’s sovereignty.
Let’s start in the beginning. Christian’s hold that God created the universe ex nihilo–from absolutely nothing (Genesis 1). This reality itself sets the stage for how we understand everything. This beautiful doctrine finds God situated squarely in the middle of all existence; nothing in this universe can be properly understood until it is understood in relation to God. This means that everything that exists outside of God is necessarily, ontologically derivative of God. If God created everything, then the only thing you can find outside the scope of God’s creative imagination is nothing. Although it may seem redundant, this is quite important; this understand of God’s relation to the rest of creation is what distinguishes biblical, trinitarian theism from deism.
Most theological traditions that unintentionally minimize the sovereignty of God do so by starting here; by failing to recognize what “from nothing” truly means. They view God as the director of a movie; whose sovereign authority is genuine, but who is nevertheless dependent on his actors and crew to play their parts and add their personal flair to make his vision possible. In contrast to this, the Calvinistic tradition views God as more like an author, whose sovereignty literally creates his characters. He needs them for nothing, his imagination is the sole origin of their very existence.
Creator and Sustainer
Now, this much we could establish from the doctrine of creation alone. However, God has graciously given us more liberty to justify such audacious claims about him. Let me explain. In Genesis, we are told that God’s Word is the instrument for conceiving the universe (“And God said, ‘Let there be…’”) and in the first chapter of John, we discover that this Word is not merely a sound coming from his mouth; the Word of God is the second member of the Trinity; God the Son (John 1:1-3). So this ontologically originating instrument of everything is the eternal Son of God. And the work of the Son in creation is constant. Lest we think that Jesus’ creative contribution was simply a thing that he performed at the dawn of time, we are told by Paul not only that “all things were created through him and for him,” but also that “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-20) Additionally, we are told in Hebrews not only that “he created the world,” but also that “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
This means that Jesus is willfully, intentionally keeping our hearts beating at this very moment. I woke up this morning on purpose; that is, Jesus’ purpose. There are stars in the cosmos–stars we may never become aware of–which are dying at this very moment because Jesus is telling them to. Somewhere in this world, a mountain goat is giving birth at the command of Jesus. There are no loose ends; the whole thing is kept together not merely by a system that God designed, but by God himself. We can only call the universe a clock, and God its clock-maker, as long as we insist that the clock’s battery is the will of God, and that the springs and cogs and wheels and screws exist because the will of God is keeping the molecules that comprise them in place, and that those molecules are themselves existing according to his own creative imagination. This is what Calvinism means when it says that God is sovereign. He is the boss. Not hypothetically, but in real time and space.
History On Purpose
If this is true in the broad sense, it must be true in the narrow as well. If God’s sovereignty extends to the very fabric of every created thing, this must include the fabric of every individual who drives history forward, which means that he is sovereign over history as well. This is exactly what we find in Scripture. He can never be thwarted by the will of man (Psalm 33:13-19), he does what he pleases (Psalm 115:3). Kingdoms rise and fall according to his purposes. (Proverbs 21:1) Human history isn’t incidental; God is telling a story. This is how Nebuchadnezzar can appropriately say of God,
His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34b-35)
When God answered Job in a whirlwind with a litany of questions, it wasn’t because he was curious and was hoping that Job had the answers; we was telling Job the answers (Job 38-41). This is how God can literally use Babylon as a “hammer of war” to punish Israel (much to Habakkuk’s horror), and then turn around and punish Babylon for being a hammer (Jeremiah 51). This is how Paul can rightly identify God as “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (Ephesians 1:11)
The Problem of Evil
Now, this is where things get a little hairy for us.Because the most glaring consistency in human history is sin. The wheels of history are covered in blood; blood shed in sin, by evil people. What about God’s sovereignty there? God clearly hates sin; he does not approve of it and does not want us to participate in it. Yet he orchestrates a history that is marked by evil and sin. What can we say to these things? This is really where other theological traditions can mistakenly assume the position of moral high ground. They say that God has nothing at all to do with the evil events in history, and the responsibility is solely man’s. To be sure, we are told that man is personally and solely responsible for his own sin, and is never actually justified in accusing God of making him sinful (Romans 9:6-21). However, this does not alleviate us from the problem; the temptation to accuse God of making man sinful is there for a reason. The Bible clearly describes God using evil for his own purpose (Genesis 50:20). The very crucifixion was the most wicked event in all of human history, and it went completely according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). These things are in tension; God is absolutely sovereign and he absolutely hates sin, and man is totally wicked and is absolutely responsible for his sin.
We often attempt to minimize the tension of this mystery by hiding behind theological jargon. So we say things like, “There are two wills of God; his revealed will and his secret will.” or “We affirm compatibilism.” Don’t get me wrong, these terms are helpful and useful, and I will explain them in more detail as we proceed. But these terms are only useful insofar as they are merely ways of stating the tension that exists in scripture, as opposed to explaining them away. The Christian faith is built on mysteries. The Trinity. The Hypostatic Union. Union with Christ. The resurrection from the dead. We cannot be afraid to have our thinking adjusted by the word of God. In fact, we must have our thinking adjusted by the word of God, because if what was initially said about the ontological relationship between God and everything else is true, then he must necessarily be the one who sets our epistemological standards.
The Glory of God As the End of All Things
There is a final thing that needs to be said here, to sum up the most obnoxiously long introduction I have ever written. All of what has been said up to this point can rest comfortably on our consciousness only when we realize this one crucial truth: the purpose for everything in the universe is the glory God. God is after his Glory. If you’ve never thought about this before, it might be surprising for you to notice how God-centered God is in the Bible. The ultimate end for everything he does is his own glory. All throughout Scripture, we find passages like Isaiah 45:22-23, which says,
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out righteousness a word that shall not return; “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.”
Here we see that God intends for even his grace in saving to conclude with bowed knees, and affirmations of allegiance. This point is even more clearly accented in Isaiah 48, where God speaks through his prophet to declare:
For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:9-11)
This may upset our sensibilities, but it shouldn’t. Isn’t it right to ascribe praise to that which is supremely worthy of praise? Is there anything in existence that is more deserving of worship besides God? It would be inappropriate for God to be pleased with glorifying anything besides himself, because anything besides himself is infinitely inferior to himself! Understand this very important truth: God is after his glory, and he will get it. And, as we will soon discover, this is good news for us; because if we belong to God, his glory will certainly be that which brings us joy.
Big, “Boots-On-The-Ground” Theology
What frustrates us are scenarios in which we cannot conceivably think of an outcome that would justify a given crime. Like a plane crashing into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Or a myriad of Jews, marched like cattle to be poisoned or burned in Nazi death camps. Or African villagers ripped from their homes by slave traders, to be put to forced labor and treated as subhuman. Or millions of infants hacked up in their mothers’ wombs, to be offered up as a sacrifice to the idol of Autonomy and the idol of Convenience. Or young girls being lured away from their homes and assimilated into the deplorable, and lucrative business of sex trafficking. Is God actually glorified by this crap? And if so, could his glory actually be worth it?
This is where our theology is very important, and if it operates properly, it will certainly take the swagger out of our step. We must hold these bold truths with humility, because ultimately, we have to deal with the harsh reality that God is allowing–if not, ordaining–these nauseating realities that he hates. But lest we allow for our indignation towards these realities pull us away too soon from the (seemingly) unbearable possibility that God has good purposes for them, let us consider our options. It makes our stomach churn to think that God might have good eschatological purposes for keeping the heart of a rapist beating while he rapes his victim, but what’s the alternative? A God who can’t say “stop beating” to the rapist’s heart? Or worst yet, a God who can stop his heart, but chooses not to because he values the free will of the rapist over the safety of his victim? No. I, for one, am glad that God has promised to work all things out for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
We can either tell the victim, with tears in our eyes, that her suffering matters to God, but the autonomous volition of her abuser matters more; or we can tell her, with tears in our eyes, that her suffering matters to God, and it is not wasted; it is an affliction that will yield for her an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). We need a God big enough to say that about, and we need a theology big enough to describe him. Thankfully, we have Calvinism.