Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reconciling Calvinists and Arminians?

The interplay between God's sovereignty and human responsibility is one of the most difficult aspects of theology to talk about accurately.  It's also one of the most important.  How can God permit evil without also being guilty of evil?  If God has predetermined everything in advance, doesn't that mean He is responsible for our sinful choices?  And why should we bother to do anything?  Que sera, sera!  But if God doesn't control everyone's choices, doesn't that mean our lives could be derailed (or even ended) by the sinful (or merely stupid) decisions of people around us?  Better build stronger walls!  These positions have been debated heavily and hotly by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and the debates are still active today.

There are really two aspects to the ongoing controversy.  First, there is the debate between determinism and libertarianism, which relate to the big picture of God's sovereignty and human responsibility in all areas of life.  Then there is the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, which focuses specifically on God's sovereignty and human responsibility in the salvation of humans from sin and God's wrath.  It is a subset of the bigger debate.  

Pastor and seminary professor Randy Alcorn has addressed both of these debates in his new book, hand in Hand(And no, that was not a capitalization mistake.)  Although I think he made a few blunders along the way, his book points readers in the right direction. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of this book is that it is irenic, not polemic.  In other words, it's peaceful.  Alcorn strongly tries to pull readers from both sides toward the middle, encouraging them to lay aside the invectives and assumptions they have about the other side. While clearly putting both Hyper-Calvinism and open theism outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, he seeks to show that mainstream Calvinism and Arminianism can both be orthodox. 

Alcorn also works hard to base his theology on Scripture alone, rather than a logical framework.  This is why he believes only four point of the five points of Calvinism.  He knows that this makes his theology less cohesive, but he prefers this to believing something he doesn't see in Scripture.  I applaud his intention even while I disagree with him in his understanding of some Scriptures.  I love where he says, "The best theological label is 'Berean'".

In addition to bringing together a number of Scriptures relevant to this debate, hand in Hand also includes a number of quotes from other recognized Christian thinkers and teachers throughout history.  For me, this was perhaps the most helpful part of the book because while I had studied most of the Scriptures before, I had not read many other writings about them.  (The only other books I have read on this subject are Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free and James White's rebuttal, The Potter's Freedom, which I recommend as a companion to hand to Hand.)

Alcorn has studied this issue far more carefully than I have.  So I was, frankly, surprised to find a few things that seemed like obvious errors, things that Alcorn himself may actually disagree with if he had thought about them more.

1. He attempts to find an analogies that will help explain how God's choices and human choices can both be real and meaningful.  He borrows Tozer's ship analogy (pages 152-153) and Strong and Fisk's fishbowl analogy (page 178).  The idea is that the ship captain controls the big picture (speed, destination, route) while the passengers have free choices within the ship (they can watch a movie, swim, eat, sleep, etc.).  Similarly, the fishbowl owner controls where the bowl is placed, how many fish are in it, what food they get, but leaves the fish free to swim as they will within the limitations of the bowl.  These analogies are both dangerously flawed, and I'm surprised Alcorn didn't see it.  The ship captain and fishbowl owner are unable to protect their passengers and fish from every contingency.  A passenger might kill another, and a fish might jump out and die.  The captain and owner do not even know what the actions of the passengers and fish will be, much less have a way to bring good out of every choice the passengers and fish make.  A god like this is not very comforting when tragedy strikes.

In the end, we must acknowledge that we do not and cannot understand how God's sovereignty and human responsibility coexist.  We just know with confidence that both do.  As with the Trinity (one God, three persons), we can see and describe what the Bible teaches on the subject, but we cannot fully explain or understand it, and no analogy will prove helpful. 

2. He repeats the often-asserted notion that God gave humans the ability to choose evil because otherwise we would be robots, and our love would be meaningless (pages 144-145).  The obvious problem with that is that Christians will be unable to sin in heaven, yet we will not be robots and our love and worship will still be very meaningful.  Alcorn asserts this very thing (pages 146-148) and yet fails to note that it contradicts what he just said.  Rather than saying that God gave us the ability to choose evil so that we would not be robots, the Bible seems to indicate that God gave it to us so that He could display His incredible patience and mercy toward us when we did choose evil (Romans 9:19-24).  God could have made us free, loving, non-robotic beings incapable of sin from the get-go, but He chose to make us capable of sin while on earth, so that He could display His wrath and His mercy.  

3. He quotes C. S. Lewis along these same lines, but with an extra kink:
Of course God knew what would happen if they {Adam and Eve} used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. ... If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying. (Page 56; quoting from Part 18 of Mere Christianity)

As I said before, man's freedom to choose evil is not God's tribute to the value of human self-determinism, but to the value of His own glory.  The extra problem in this quote was the reference to God taking a risk.  Only open theism teaches that God can take risks.  I'm positive Alcorn doesn't believe in open theism (he spends an entire chapter in the book dismantling it) so I'm surprised he didn't catch that.

4. In his attempt to calm the warring parties, Alcorn skirts some of the stickier issues, such as particular redemption and double predestination. Thus a person new to the debate could come away thinking there is less difference between the two sides than actually exists.

5. Hand in Hand also does not discuss the ways consistent Arminians and Calvinists live differently.  In other words, how do the differences in their beliefs result in differences in their behaviors?  This book could lead one to think it is it all theoretical and makes little difference at street level.  But especially when it comes to counseling, evangelism and prayer, the differences do have significant implications.    

So, with these weaknesses, why I am I still recommending this book?  (Since he's a four point Calvinist, I'm going to give him a four star rating!)  Mainly because there are too many angry Arminians and Cage-Stage Calvinists out there.  My first few exposures to the doctrines of grace (as I prefer to call the five points of Calvinism) were mostly negative snippets from snarky Calvinists.  But when I heard them explained in a peaceful way, similar to the way they are presented in this book, I realized how biblical and beautiful they are.  I hope that this book will have the same effect for you.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah in exchange for an unbiased review.

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