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A Portrayal of Calvinism

As you may know, I decided to read through both of the Finding God in The Shack books released this month (two books, two authors, one title). Last week I reviewed the first of these (see: Finding God in the Shack (1)) and in a day or two I will review the second. But first, I wanted to share a few quotes from the book.

It is not lost on me that the majority of the people who vocalized objections to The Shack were Calvinists (Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Yours Truly, etc). Randal Rauser and Roger Olson noted this as well and both make a point of refuting some components of Calvinistic theology in their books. Rauser, a Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary, touches on Calvinism several times, but does so primarily under the heading of “The Biggest Problem in the Universe”—a chapter that deals with theodicy (the justice and goodness of God in the face of suffering). This is, after all, one of the main themes of The Shack and one whose treatment offended many Calvinist readers. Unfortunately, Rauser’s portrayal of Calvinism is, in many ways, just plain wrong. It is offensive and almost libelous at times. I am a Calvinist and have been for many years. Never have I heard anyone claim what Rauser says to be true of Calvinism.

Here are a few examples. I have taken the liberty of bolding a few of the most outrageous statements.

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Our first pass at theodicy will consider the possibility that God is not all-loving. While this may come as a surprise to many Christians, this is the position of a major theological tradition called Calvinism. … To be more specific, Calvinists believe that God is perfect in his love, but he chooses not to show this love to all his creatures.

To begin with, the Calvinist believes that God controls all events perfectly, including free human choices. That is, God gives us the desires that we freely fulfill, both good and bad. (Other Christians disagree and think instead that while God can know what we will do in advance, he cannot make us do it if we are truly free.) As a result, Calvinists believe that God could have made the world such that Adam and Eve would never have fallen. It follows that Adam and Eve sinned because God gave them the free desires to sin. Likewise, the Little Ladykiller [the villain of The Shack] sinned because God gave him the will to sin. Everyone who sins does so because God has formed his or her character to do so. As Paul tersely put it, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18). So the reason there is evil in the world is simple: though perfectly loving, God wants there to be some evil!

This Calvinist view raises an obvious question: why would a perfectly loving God desire evil in the world? In order to explain this, the Calvinist denies what many Christians assume: that God loves all his creatures equally. Rather, God’s ultimate concern is to manifest his glory most fully. Therefore, God is concerned to ensure that creation provides the best opportunity for God to display his magnificent attributes. … [A]dversity within creation provides an opportunity for God to display his leadership qualities.

In the midst of adversity God is able to manifest his mercy and love to those creatures he has decreed to choose the good. At the same time, he manifests his wrath and justice to those creatures he has decreed to choose the evil (Romans 9:22-23). Through all good and evil, God’s glory is more fully on display than if he had willed a creation where everyone did his will perfectly. One final point: the same reasoning that applies to the present age applies in eternity as well. There, too, rebellion must be present so God’s fullest display of attributes can be manifest. As such, Calvinists believe that God decrees that some people would reject the offer of salvation so God can rightly damn them eternally and thereby ensure that his perfect wrath and justice are both forever on display.

I confess that I am one of many people who find Calvinism not only unpalatable but nearly incomprehensible. Let’s start with God’s glory. I don’t accept that the only way to have a high appreciation of God’s glory is by seeing God crush human rebellion. There have been many great leaders in history who led their people in peacetime. Couldn’t God have fully displayed his attributes through peaceful rule as well? Indeed, Calvinism is in danger of Manichaeism, the view that good and evil are equal and necessary opposites so that good can only be known to the extent that evil exists. But my biggest problem is with Calvinism’s view of God’s love. Contrary to the Calvinist claim that God only loves some creatures and hates others, I believe that God loves all people (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).

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My reaction when reading all of this was, if not anger, real frustration. I hate to think that thousands of people will read such an inaccurate, uninformed, fictitious view of Calvinism (and this by an author who has some credibility by virtue of his position as a Professor of Theology). Even where Rauser is correct, his words often lack the charitable nuance we might well hope for. But in so many ways he is really, really wrong. Not surprisingly, he does not quote any sources; I know of none that would support his statements.

I thought of writing an article to refute some of the worst of these statements. But then I found myself thinking about R.C. Sproul’s book Getting the Gospel Right. Here Sproul exhorts Christians to be careful in the way they portray what other people believe. The context of the book is a defense of the gospel against Catholicism and he says, rightly I think, that Christians often caricature Roman Catholic theology, not taking the time to find what the Church really teaches. It is too simplistic to say “Protestantism is about grace and Catholicism is about works.” I know I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes it is easier to take the little tidbits we have heard from others, assume they are fact, and build a case. But I think we owe it to others to truly understand before we determine that we know the facts.

So when I saw this nonsense that Rauser had passed off as fact, I guess I saw an opportunity to ensure that when I speak out against Arminianism or Open Theism or Catholicism or any other area of poor or false theology, I do so with grace and I do so only after ensuring that I know what I am speaking about. There have been too many times when I’ve failed to do just that.