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Is There a Middle-Ground to Calvinism?

A while back, I articulated some reasons Why I Am Not a Calvinist. As I’m not a theologian, that post could probably use some re-thinking and polishing. Nevertheless, it highlights my ongoing struggle with Reformed theology.

I call it a “struggle” because there’s lots of things I agree with and appreciate about Calvinism. And there’s some I don’t. As an example of the latter category, let me submit the following.

I recently heard a pastor use a moving illustration about free will and election. People who go to hell, he said, “will” to go there. They blatantly disregard God’s love and choose to bolt. In order to save them, God must violate their desires and rescue them. By way of example, he told a gripping story about the day he rescued his young daughter from dashing into oncoming traffic. She had been told to not run into the busy street, and had the consequences explained to her. Yet one day she disobeyed her father and barreled into the street. The pastor had only seconds to respond and yank her out of the way of a truck. The story was quite powerful. This, he said, is what God does to the believer. They are recklessly running from God, and if not for the Father’s intervention, will forever be plastered.

But if this is an illustration of God’s mercy and loving election, I think it’s flawed. Why? Because it means God is equally righteous and just in letting His children run into traffic. So does God watch millions of souls careen into hell, souls that He could rescue, and do nothing?

I ask if there’s a “middle ground” to Calvinism for this reason: The Bible seems to advocate two different points-of-view 

  • one where God is fully sovereign and one where man is fully free
  • one where God’s choice is the defining factor in salvation, and one where the individual’s choice is the defining factor
  • one where God rescues only those He wants, and one where God attempts to rescue everyone

For example, Scripture tells us that the Lord “is not willing that any should perish” (II Pet. 3:9), but that He has also chosen some as “vessels of wrath fitted for destruction” (Rom. 9:22). We are told that God’s offer of life extends to all who are thirsty (Rev. 22:17) and “whoever believes” (Jn. 3:16), but that His choice is limited to the “elect” (Jn. 6:37). Then there’s some verses that juxtapose both truths, like Philippians 2:12-13:

…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

You work out what God works in.

I realize that some will see this as wishy-washy, as an attempt to simply skirt the hard consequences of a biblical reality. Nevertheless, at this stage in my faith journey, I believe there IS a middle ground, not just regarding Reformed theology, but many other seemingly paradoxical points of view.

Which is probably why I appreciate Charles Spurgeon’s position on this. Spurgeon was of the Reformed tradition, not a hard 5-Point Calvinist, but definitely in the camp. However, he often addressed the apparent tension between these two positions — predestination and free will. In a sermon entitled, Faith and Regeneration, Spurgeon said this:

I earnestly long that these two doctrines may be well balanced in your souls… Brethren be willing to see both sides of the shield of truth. Rise above the babyhood which cannot believe two doctrines until it sees the connecting link. Have you not two eyes, man? Must you needs put one of them out in order to see clearly? Is it impossible to you to use a spiritual stereoscope, and look at two views of truth until they melt into one, and that one becomes more real and actual because it is made up of two? Many men refuse to see more than one side of a doctrine, and persistently fight against anything which is not on its very surface consistent with their own idea. In the present case I do not find it difficult to believe faith to be at the same time the duty of man and the gift of God; and if others cannot accept the two truths, I am not responsible for their rejection of them; my duty is performed when I have honestly borne witness to them.

This metaphor — seeing “both sides of the shield of truth” and having a “spiritual stereoscope” — is quite helpful to me. Of course, it’s led some to suggest that Spurgeon was an Arminocalvinist. Nevertheless, I’ve found this approach useful in approaching other biblical paradoxes. It’s also made me wonder how much religious polarization and doctrinal squabbles are simply the result of looking at Truth through a monocle, rather than with both eyes.

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • E. Stephen Burnett March 20, 2014, 5:57 AM

    Good piece, brother. But I think if you re-read 2 Peter 3:9 in context, the audience is a certain audience. This isn’t even one of those tricky “what does ‘world’ or ‘all’ mean?” issues — simply ask: in this passage, to whom is the Lord exercising patience? Either way you find man’s meaningful choice in this passage. The only thing you don’t find (in this text, anyway) is any expression that God equally wants to save every single person in the world.

    Meanwhile, Philippians 2: 12-13 is about sanctification, wouldn’t you say? This is one of those rather hilarious elements of biblical truth, in that if there were any part of the Christian life we would much prefer God be responsible for 100 percent, it would be holiness. And yet here He says that santification requires both His action and human effort. Alas! Here we do have free will (set free by the Spirit), and are responsible to be holy!

    • StuartB March 20, 2014, 7:21 AM

      Sanctification requires both God’s action and human effort? Yeah, probably, it’s never really cut and dry. What I’ve noticed is a tendency from many to focus entirely on sanctification while forgetting justification. Apparently the sole goal of the Christian’s life is to weed out sin, and any sin in your life is proof you aren’t really truly saved, or lacking a true experience, or need deliverance, or or or.

      Yeah, I’ve spent too much time in holiness camps.

      I’ve come to the realization that I don’t really care about sanctification that much anymore. It’s not a focus. Focus on God, focus on others, focus on life. Trust in Him for the sanctification to follow, and quit staring at it trying to make it work.

    • David James March 21, 2014, 3:27 AM

      Stephen, you reference messages written to two different sets of believers with two different sets of promises. The Jewish believers were written to by Peter and he wrote to them as Jewish believers because he was the lead apostle for the Gospel of the Circumcised. Paul was writing to the Gentile believers and wrote accordingly as the apostle of the Gospel of the Uncircumcised. Both are accurate, but must be looked at for what they are. Also, the part that Paul talks about must be put into the overall context of what Paul is saying and not just plucked out like that.

  • StuartB March 20, 2014, 7:17 AM

    The classic story I’ve heard to describe Calvinism is that you are dead at the bottom of a lake. Not sinking, not unable to swim, utterly and totally dead. You are a corpse. And then God raises you to life, you swim and he reaches down and pulls you out of the water. But you start in a state of being utterly, totally, dead, not even conscious of hope.

  • Johne Cook March 20, 2014, 7:40 AM

    I feel I’m in that middle ground, but there’s more. While I am quick to embrace some labels (I like Prog Rock, Film Noir, Space Opera, and the Green Bay Packers), I am loathe to adopt any of these spiritual labels. I want to embrace God and His scripture, not some stance. I want to take scripture at face value, not impose the lessons or presuppositions from one camp or another. I guess that makes me a Pan-Arminocalvinist – my position is the tension between these two positions will pan out in the end. 😉

    • StuartB March 20, 2014, 8:07 AM

      I can get behind those labels. Go Pack Go!

  • Joanna March 20, 2014, 8:12 AM

    I feel like that quote of Spurgeon is one of the best I’ve heard about seemingly contradictory elements of doctrine. Thank’s for sharing that Mike. That’s really where I’ve ended up, and I feel like he put it so well.

  • Jay DiNitto March 20, 2014, 9:39 AM

    I personally don’t want a middle ground since I tend to do away with both systems altogether. If we go from the starting point that God is a person and that He is ultimately incomprehensible in the human sense (as opposed to someone we can experience but not quantify), then a materially logical system of the salvific process is damnable.

    I used a strong word for that but look at what we’re dealing with: a “system” and a “process”. Those are my descriptors but they are tied too strongly to material epistemologies and by framing the conversation into a Hegelian synthetic of two opposing concepts is presupposing non-divine concepts.

    I would reject the question altogether. The most correct answer is that the ontology of salvation is neither Calvinist nor Arminian but completely transcendent. We can get a shadow of the idea but it’s conceptually inexpressible using material (human) epistemology.

    • Michael Bridge March 23, 2014, 6:08 PM

      God isn’t wholly transcendent (I know you didn’t say that) or he would be wholly unknowable. What we do know is that he spent a lot of time talking through a lot of people (Prophets and Apostles) to try to explain things to us, which seems illogical if we weren’t intended to be able to comprehend it.

      If the ontology of salvation was completely transcendent, then we would know nothing about it at all. Yet we know a lot about it as it is a dominant theme of the New Testament. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we could know and comprehend these things, even if we don’t understand them fully. It is one thing to say we can’t grasp it all because we are finite and limited. It is another (and completely wrong given the time the bible spends trying to explain it) to say that it is completely transcendent, which would make it unknowable and not particularly worth us spending any time even thinking about.

  • Jill March 20, 2014, 10:57 AM

    “Those are my descriptors but they are tied too strongly to material epistemologies and by framing the conversation into a Hegelian synthetic of two opposing concepts is presupposing non-divine concepts.” I’m still thinking this one through, or processing it, to be specific….

    • Jay DiNitto March 20, 2014, 11:08 AM

      Sorry, bit of a run on sentence there.

      What I meant was that Mike seems to be presupposing that Hegel’s dialectic (idea a + opposing idea b = correct idea c) is a good way of arriving at the “workings” of salvation. I’m disagreeing because I believe the truth of divine things cannot be concluded through material logical methods.

  • Jay DiNitto March 20, 2014, 11:13 AM

    But, not to completely boof on Mike, because I think he’s on the right track: he is correctly pointing out the verse paradox in scripture concerning salvation. There’s paradox because it’s really unknowable, but we can have a small grasp of the idea though analogy and “meta” logic of paradoxical scripture.

    • Mike Duran March 20, 2014, 7:50 PM

      Jay, you said, “the truth of divine things cannot be concluded through material logical methods.” While I agree that human logic can’t necessarily arrive at nor fully comprehend the mysteries of God, the writers of Scripture wrote for just that reason: to make what was hidden known. So while I’d agree that salvation is a great mystery, I wouldn’t say it’s “completely transcendent.” We know some things about what salvation is, the processes that spurs it on, the Message required, its object, etc.

  • sarah witenhafer March 20, 2014, 2:37 PM

    A couple of things – please forgive me if they have already been mentioned. I don’t have time to read all the comments. Number one, we aren’t all God’s children so the analogy of running into the traffic only goes so far. Number two, in our current culture it’s especially hard to keep in mind we are not the point. In Ephesians, God says He has purposed all of this to display His character to the angles and authorities in heaven.

    If He created all of mankind, and the world, and the universe to do this, then doesn’t He have the right to use some of His creation to exemplify the justice side of His nature?

    Having said that, I have to also bring up the point that God did not create a bunch of toys to throw around as He wishes. He places great value on every person. He says He does not wish anyone to perish, and even placed Himself on the cross to save those whom He has chosen. He went the distance.

    I don’t know exactly how all of it fits together. There is some mystery involved as to how God does anything. But I absolutely know God makes it clear we cannot choose Him apart His intervening grace. Understanding that has meant a world of difference to my faith. I’m no longer tossed about in an ocean of self-introspection, and doubt. I rest securely in knowing God was determined before time began to make me His, and nothing will ever snatch me out of His hand.

  • Lyn Perry March 20, 2014, 7:21 PM

    Wondering if this concern for human freedom is what’s giving us problems. Seems more like a Western concept than it is a biblical one. The bible speaks of human responsibility not human freedom when it comes to salvation. I’m with Jay, salvation can’t be systemitized.

    • Michael Bridge March 23, 2014, 5:53 PM

      I agree, Lyn. The Bible never tells us we have such free will, it speaks of human responsibility, which Calvinism does nothing to refute or diminish. We, as Westerners, and particularly as Americans, seem so sold on the need for absolute freedom and autonomy that we read it back into the scriptures.

      I found the original post intriguing, but the scripture verses, in context, don’t cause any antimony at all. Peter is writing to the elect. Here is how he introduces the book. “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Notice the letter is written to those who have obtained a faith by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. It was a gift to them. When he later speaks of God’s patience in bringing about the end, when he says that God desires for none to perish, he is speaking of none that are of the elect. Think about it, Peter’s point makes no sense the other way. If God isn’t bringing about the end times because he wishes none to perish, then why does he keep bringing more and more people into the world who will perish? Wouldn’t it be better for less people to exist so that less perish if this is what is being spoken of? But if he means that God wills for none of the elect to perish, then God can (and will) wait until the fulfillment of his plans by saving the end for after he has brought the last of those he has set aside from the foundation of the earth into being.

      There is no contradiction between God offering his forgiveness to the world, and to whoever believes, and the fact that the only people who do accept the offer are the elect. Who are the all who are thirsty? Apart from Christ we are enemies of God and not thirsting for him. And it is a true statement that anyone who would believe would receive salvation. But these statements don’t imply libertarian free will or that anyone is capable of believing them. They are simply true statements that anyone who would believe would be saved. The real question is, “who ends up believing in order to make good on those promises?” and that is where the quote from John (and actually several places in John’s gospel) becomes relevant to this discussion. It is only the elect, or those the Father gives to the Son, that end up believing. Jesus is pretty clear on that point.

      My point isn’t that I am right and someone else is wrong. I am still working a lot of this out too. But the point is that the passages mentioned don’t cause any contradiction on the issue. There are no clear statements in the bible that say we have libertarian free will to do anything and make any spiritual decisions. We read that into scripture. But there are passages that are very clear about God’s role in election. John 6:36-37 (right before the verse cited in the OP) has Jesus saying, “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” He even deals with the seemingly contradictory issue of “whoever believes will be saved” vs. “God elects” a few verses later in vs. 40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” So, what we see is that those who don’t believe, Jesus says don’t believe ultimately because they weren’t given to Jesus by the Father, because ALL that the Father gives to the Son come to the Son and are never cast out. Then he says that the will of the Father is that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life and be raised up. He says the two seemingly contradictory statements (God chooses who is saved, and all that believe will be saved) in the same teaching, making clear that there is a difference between the question of who will be saved (all who believe) and how will the come to believe (because they are given by the Father to the Son).

      Finally (sorry this is long), don’t reject a system because you heard someone use a bad analogy for it. If that was the case, we would have to deny the Trinity because of the number of inadequate illustrations used for it. But while that pastor’s illustration might be inelegant, it doesn’t solve the problem. Either God lets some run out into traffic and doesn’t stop them, but stops others (Calvinism), God stops all of them from running into traffic (Universalism), or God lets every single one of them run into traffic, and only those smart enough not to are saved. Discarding Universalism, we are left with two options that both have God letting people run into traffic, but in one of them (Calvinism) he does something to stop some of them.

      Thanks for the blog. I read it a lot, but never comment. And I have really enjoyed Subterranea and am looking forward to reading Resurrection.

  • David James March 21, 2014, 2:00 AM

    Mike, I’ll send you a link to a book you may find worth reading.

  • Jodie B. March 22, 2014, 2:16 PM

    A lot of the heresies in the Christian faith seem to be when people cannot reconcile that God can embody opposites. So some say … God is EITHER One OR God is Trinity; Jesus is EITHER Man OR Jesus is God; we are EITHER saved through our own free will choice OR we are predestined.

    It’s like it can only be either/or, not both/and.

    I believe the Bible teaches that God is BOTH One AND Trinity; Jesus is BOTH Man AND God; we are BOTH saved through our own free will choice AND saved through predestination.

    I know theologians have been struggling over these for, well, millennia, but it has always seemed simple to me.

  • Tim George March 22, 2014, 7:13 PM

    “Spurgeon was an Arminocalvinist (not a hard 5 point Calvinist).”

    Now there’s one to think about. More accurate to the way Spurgeon saw himself was a not-so-soft 5 point Calvinist who saw no need to reconcile the mysteries of how God works out His purposes. This is why the Prince of Preaches was once said to have grown over enthused during prayer and cried, “Lord, save all the elect, and then elect some more.”

    Along this line Jodie B. has it right when it comes to the “both and” tension we will always know in this finite existence. Lyn Perry, nails it with human responsibility as opposed to human freedom.

  • Michael Bridge March 23, 2014, 6:02 PM

    I am interested in this quote from the blog: “So does God watch millions of souls careen into hell, souls that He could rescue, and do nothing?” I mentioned it in a previous comment, but after rereading it, I realize that it seems to suggest that the issue is God’s sovereignty. On Calvinism God could save them, but are you suggesting that on your view (I assume Arminian, but honestly don’t know) that God’s power actually doesn’t extend to having an ability to control his creation? Is God so limited that he can’t intervene to save them? That understanding puts one in direct contradiction to clear teachings by Jesus himself, such as John 6:36-40 that I mentioned in an earlier comment. One of the main concerns for Calvinists is to honor God’s sovereignty. It is a different issue to say that God doesn’t vs. God can’t. The bible clearly teaches that God can override our will even if one doesn’t believe that it teaches that he does in all cases.

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