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Back when I proudly wore the label “Calvinist” I honestly knew very little about the French Reformer named, John Calvin, or his actual writings. This label was simply a short-hand explanation of my soteriological views. When non-Calvinists would bring up Michael Servetus, a man killed under Calvin’s rule in Geneva for disagreement over doctrinal matters, I would simple dismiss them as avoiding the biblical arguments in favor of ad hominem attacks on an old dead theologian who had little to do with the actual doctrines.
I suspect that is where many modern day Calvinists are on this issue. They could take or leave the label “Calvinist,” and might even prefer to leave it in favor of labels like “Reformed,” or affirmers of “TULIP,” or “Sovereign Election,” or “Doctrines of Grace.” Typically, Calvinists see the personal arguments about John Calvin’s harsh treatment of dissenters as a distraction from the biblical doctrines that matter to them.
Honestly, Calvinists have a valid point here. If the non-Calvinist is not willing to fully examine the biblical doctrines of soteriology as proposed by the Calvinist, they really have no ground to question the name-sake of the systematic. Proof that John Calvin treated dissenters in a sinful manner does not prove that Calvinism’s soteriology is wrong.
(And yes, it is a documented fact that John Calvin did believe torturing and killing those who held to false doctrines was justified. See THIS LINK for documentation)
However, if a Calvinist does step into the arena of defending John Calvin’s actions, then the non-Calvinist has every right to bring the full weight of these charges for consideration. For instance, I have seen many Calvinistic scholars argue that John Calvin “lived in a different time” and we need to understand that “he was a man of his day” because “this type of harsh treatment was the more common belief and practice of Christians in the 16th century.”
Actually, it was specifically the more common belief and practice of Calvinistic reformers of the 16th century, not all Christian reformers in general. In other words, the harsh treatment of those who disagree was more commonly seen among those who affirmed a TULIP systematic.
Balthazar Hubmaier and most of the Anabaptist believers of the Reformation era taught that even atheists (and especially Christians with differing doctrinal beliefs) should be shown grace because that is what God has shown us.
Plus, to argue this was just the way things were ignores those who stood in opposition to Calvin. For instance, we learn from the link cited above:
* Between 1542-1564, there were 76 banishments. The total population of Geneva then was 20,000.
* Calvin’s own step-daughter and son-in-law were among those condemned for adultery and executed.
* In Geneva, there was little distinction between religion and morality. The existing records of the Council for this period reveal a high percentage of illegitimate children, abandoned infants, forced marriages, and sentences of death.
* In one case, a child was beheaded for striking his parents. (Following Old Testament Mosaic law, Calvin believed it was scriptural to execute rebellious children and those who commit adultery.)
* During a period of 17 years when Calvin was leading Geneva, there were 139 recorded executions in the city.
Sabastian Castellio, a friend of Calvin’s who urged him to repent of his intolerance, made the shocking remark,
“If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope [John Calvin], but one who burns men alive while the pope at Rome strangles them first.”
Castellio also made this remark:
“Can we imagine Christ ordering a man to be burned alive for advocating adult baptism? The Mosaic laws calling for the death of a heretic were superceded by the law of Christ, which superceded by the law of Christ, which is one of mercy not of despotism and terror.”
Zwingli, Luther and Calvin followed the tyrannical practices of the corrupt Catholic church by promoting the use of state sponsored torture and capital punishment against those who disagreed theologically. Could their soteriological doctrines have been an influence on their view of how Christians are to demonstrate grace and patience toward their enemies?
This is a valid question considering the common charge against Calvinists for their harsh treatment of others even in modern times. John Piper, one of the leading proponents of Calvinism today, even acknowledged this trend when he was asked the question, “Why are Calvinists so negative?”
I love the doctrines of grace with all my heart, and I think they are pride-shattering, humbling, and love-producing doctrines. But I think there is an attractiveness about them to some people, in large matter, because of their intellectual rigor. They are powerfully coherent doctrines, and certain kinds of minds are drawn to that. And those kinds of minds tend to be argumentative.
So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn’t tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender. Therefore this type of person has a greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive or intellectualistic.
I’ll just confess that. It’s a sad and terrible thing that that’s the case. Some of this type aren’t even Christians, I think. You can embrace a system of theology and not even be born again. <link>
Could the soteriological belief that God chooses to effectually save some and reprobate the rest from before the foundation of the world affect how you treat others? If you sincerely believe God loves all of His enemies and genuinely desires for everyone of them to come to repentance, wouldn’t you be more likely to show patience and grace to all of your own enemies? That certainly seems to be a very reasonable conclusion.
Moreover, does denying the concept of libertarian free will affect one’s treatment of others? There are secular studies which indicate that affirming free will does have a positive effect on how we respond to other people.
In 2008, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia conducted experiments highlighting the relationship between a belief in determinism and immoral behavior. They found students who were exposed to deterministic literature prior to taking a test were more likely to cheat on the test than students who were not exposed to literature advocating determinism. The researchers concluded those who deny free will are more inclined to believe their efforts to act morally are futile and are, therefore, less likely to do so.
In addition, a study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and the University of Kentucky found participants who were exposed to deterministic literature were more likely to act aggressively and less likely to be helpful toward others.” Even determinist Michael Gazzaniga conceded: “It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.”” The existence of free will is a common characteristic of our experience, and when we deny we have this sort of free agency, there are detrimental consequences. <link>
Calvinistic scholar and Southern Seminary President, Dr. Albert Mohler, actually addressed this trend in his podcast called, “The Briefing.” <link> In Mohler’s argument against naturalistic determinism he states:
The subversion of moral responsibility is one of the most significant developments of recent decades. Though this subversion was originally philosophical, more recent efforts have been based in biology and psychology. Various theorists have argued that our decisions and actions are determined by genetics, environmental factors, or other forces. Now, Scientific American is out with a report on a study linking determinism and moral responsibility.
The diverse theories of determinism propose that our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control. As Scientific American explains, determinists argue that “everything that happens is determined by what happened before — our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action.”
In other words, free will doesn’t exist. Used in this sense, free will means the exercise of authentic moral choice and agency. We choose to take one action rather than the other, and must then take responsibility for that choice.
This link between moral choice and moral responsibility is virtually instinctive to humans. As a matter of fact, it is basic to our understanding of what it means to be human. We hold each other responsible for actions and choices. But if all of our choices are illusory — and everything is merely the “inevitable consequence” of something beyond our control, moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.
Scientific American reports on a study performed by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler. The psychologists found that individuals who were told that their moral choices were determined, rather than free, were also more likely to cheat on an experimental examination.
How Molher avoids the same charge against the theistic determinism of Calvinistic Compatibilism is beyond me. After all, the “inevitable consequence of something beyond our control” which leads to the “delusion of moral responsibility” is the same problem for the theistic determinist as it would be for the naturalistic determinists when it comes to the practical implications of how one behaves. Whether one believes those choices are determined by “mother nature” or an actual divine being would not change their inevitability and the resulting delusion of individual responsibility for those choices.
Soteriology Affects Behavior
The argument is that one’s soteriology does in fact impact one’s behavior. Therefore, pointing out the bad behavior of those who held to certain soteriological perspectives historicially as evidence that the perspective itself has not typically resulted in healthy behavior toward others, is a valid argument.
As Mohler himself concluded when rebutting naturalistic determinism, “If we are not responsible for our actions, then why would people do the right thing? The most immediate result of such thinking is the subversion of moral accountability.”
Likewise, if the reprobate of the Calvinistic worldview is not responsible for his rejection of Christ, in that the choice was inevitably determined by someone other than the moral agent making the choice, then the most immediate result of such thinking is the subversion of the moral accountability in their rejecting of Christ.
Moreover, if John Calvin is not responsible for his actions toward dissenters, meaning he could not have done other than what he did, then why would his followers do the right thing except that God determines it? The moral accountability of Calvin is brought into question due to the same inevitability on compatibilistic determinism as would be on naturalistic determinism, with one exception: On Calvinism, John Calvin’s mistreatment of others was God’s determination, not mother nature’s.
How different would the test results be between the naturalistic determinist and the theistic determinist given both affirm the inevitability of human choices as being determined by someone/something other than the free moral agent? How does one do any more or less harm to the concept of moral accountability?
We are Compatibilists not Theistic Fatalists!
It’s interesting to me that when a Calvinist seeks to defend against the charge of being a “Theistic Fatalist” he often argues “God not only ordains the end; but also the means” as if that is a point the Theistic Fatalist would in anyway deny. <link>
That argument does not avoid the charge of Theistic Fatalism, but in fact affirms it. For what is Theistic Fatalism if not God’s determination of not only the ends but every single desire, thought and action (i.e. “means”) that bring about those ends?
What do the Calvinists think this qualification is accomplishing in their effort to distinguish themselves from the Theistic Fatalist? The belief that God unchangeably causes every meticulous detail of both the ends and their given means is at the very heart of Theistic Fatalism.
Are there Theistic Fatalists out there arguing, “God doesn’t determine the means,” while the Calvinists are going around correcting them saying, “No, no, no God does control the means too?” Of course not. Both systems of thought clearly affirm God’s cause of all things, including the ends and their respective means.
So, what is the Calvinist seeking to accomplish by pointing out a common belief that Calvinists share with Theistic Fatalists?
It appears to me the only real difference between a Theistic Fatalist and a Compatibilistic Calvinist is that the latter refuses to accept the practical implications of their own claims in order to remain consistent with the clear teaching of the Bible.
The only logical argument a Compatibilistic Calvinist could bring to this charge is, “That’s true but you can’t think that way!” In other words, the Compatibilist has to ignore the truth claims of his own systematic in order to live practically. His actual beliefs are untenable and must be ignored in order to remain consistent with the Biblical mandate.
There is no difference in the actual claims of the Calvinist and the Theistic Fatalist. The only difference is in how the person chooses to act in response to that commonly held belief of theistic determinism. And therein lies the problem for the Calvinist, for that choice is just as unchangably determined by God as is the choice of His elect to believe.
Did you follow that? Under the Calvinistic system, God unchangeably determines those who will accept the belief that “God not only ordains the end; but also the means.” And He determines if that believer will respond with evangelistic activity or inactivity. In other words, God decides if the believer of theistic determinism will become a hyper-Calvinist who refuses to actively participate in evangelism or a productive, obedient Calvinist. God also determines if a Calvinist treats unbelievers with patience and love, as did William Carey, or destain and hatred, as did John Calvin.
Calvinists are known to argue, “God has ordained for His elect to be saved through the proclamation of the gospel,” But wouldn’t they likewise argue that God has ordained for the saved to proclaim the gospel when they do proclaim it and not to proclaim it when they remain disobediently inactive? After all, Calvinists do affirm that God causes all things that come to pass, which would include the inactivity of the saints, would it not?
Think about this. If any particular Calvinist chooses to disobey God and not proclaim the Gospel when impressed to do so by the Holy Spirit, who is really responsible for that choice to disobey?
Has God, for some unknown reason, not granted the sufficient grace to convince the will of His messenger to proclaim the truth when told to do so? Or has that messenger disobeyed of his own libertarian free will? And what is the result of that disobedience? When an individual Calvinistic believer disobey’s God’s command to evangelize, did any fewer elect individuals respond in faith than what God ordained? Of course not. Why? Because God ordained for that Calvinist’s disobedience with the same level of “sovereign control” as He does in ordaining for another Calvinist’s obedience.
You see, a Calvinist may argue that evangelism in general is necessary for the salvation of the elect in general, but logically your individual responsibility to evangelize any particular elect person is not necessary for the salvation of that elect person. After all if you weren’t ordained to evangelize that elect individual, someone else was, otherwise they wouldn’t be elect.
Granted, someone (but not necessarily you) has to share the gospel with the elect in order for them to be saved. If God has ordained you to be that evangelist, then He will give you the effectual desire to do so. Thus, if you refrain from doing so you could rightly conclude that you weren’t meant to be the means for that person’s salvation. You are left with the perfect excuse for your inactivity and disobedience to God’s command: “God unchangeably ordained the means, or in this case, my lack of participation in those means.”
So the next time a Calvinist argues that “God ordains the ends as well as the means” just remember this does not avoid the charge of Theistic Fatalism but actually confirms it. In fact, their system logically affirms that the believer’s inactive disobedience is as much according to God’s ordained plan as is another believer’s active obedience. So, if and when a Calvinist becomes “hyper” or “anti-evangelistic” in his behavior, he does so by God’s decree. And, so too, if a Calvinist becomes highly evangelistic in his behavior he does so equally by God’s decree (i.e. “God ordains the means”). A consistent Calvinistic scholar cannot get around this logical fact no matter how much theological rhetoric they use to placate their opponents. The best they can do is say, “Just don’t think of of it that way,” which in essence means, “Act like what we believe isn’t true.”