So far we’ve explored three external conceptual problems for the soft determinist/Calvinist view of freedom, and, thus the Calvinist view of election. Yet there are still two more external conceptual problems we must consider before drawing a final conclusion.
Making Sense of Evil
In an earlier series, I discussed why the reality of evil does not disprove the existence of God (“If God Exists, Why is There Pain and Suffering?”). One of the arguments I offered is that while God allows evil, he does not cause evil. Rather, he allows free persons (beginning with Adam) to choose between doing what is right and wrong. Though this causes great pain, it is better than the alternative of God not giving us true freedom, in which case there would be no such thing as true love and goodness. As J. B. Phillips summarizes, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.” (God Our Contemporary, p. 88.) I develop this line of reasoning in post 7 of that series.
Yet this argument hinges on our freedom being of the libertarian type. If we have freedom in the soft determinist sense, then God is giving us the beliefs and desires which determine our choices. It follows that if we then choose evil, the ultimate source is not the person who chooses evil, for he did not have the ability to choose otherwise. No, the ultimate source of the evil choice is God himself.
Yet this is contrary to the clear teaching that God is holy and pure (1 Peter 1:15-16). If God is the ultimate cause of evil, he would not be good, holy, and pure. (In the series I reference above I explain how God can give us libertarian freedom to choose evil, and at the same time remain holy himself.)
So the reality of evil is a fourth external conceptual problem for Calvinism. (Note how this argument differs from the second internal conceptual problem for Calvinism raised in Post 9–the reality of hell. That was a theological argument, based on other data we have from Scripture. The argument here is based on extra-biblical data for the reality of evil, and the best causal explanation of that reality.)
Making Sense of Data from Missiology
Missiologists study, among other things, data concerning those coming to saving faith in Christ at different times in history, as well as in different cultures at a given time. One fact to be explained is why some times in history and some cultures at a given time have a higher percentage of Christians than others. (Similar data is accumulated by Christian sociologists and cultural anthropologists.)
For instance, more individuals came to faith in Christ during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century than came to faith in the 15th century. Similarly, more individuals have come to faith over the past two years in South Korea than have in Afghanistan. Or on a more local scale, why do families with Christian parents see more of the children come to saving faith in Christ? How is this data to be explained?
One explanation is that individuals living at different times, in different cultures, and in different families have more or less access to the gospel, and therefore, are more or less able to respond to God’s offer of salvation. Consequently, it is during these times and places that we see more acting on their knowledge of the gospel and choosing to come to saving faith in Christ.
This is what we would expect if the Arminian view is correct. If a person must first understand the gospel in order to be in a position to choose for or against Christ, it would follow that times, cultures, and families with more access to the gospel message would correlate to more conversions. Conversely, those living at times or places with less access to the gospel would not have the necessary “plausibility structure” within which to understand and respond to the claims of Christ. So, for instance, it would be harder for a Muslim living in Afghanistan to understand the gospel and follow Christ than a nominal Christian raised in South Korea.
Yet this correlation of access to the gospel and response is not what we would expect on the Calvinist view. Since God’s election is completely unconditional, whether one has access to the gospel does not play a causal role.
This is not to say the Calvinist can’t argue evangelism is still necessary, because God commanded us to do so. Yet ultimately “regeneration precedes faith,” and so regardless of what a person does or does not hear, their salvation is already determined by God’s unconditional election. So we should expect conversion rates would not correlate with access to the gospel due to one’s historical, cultural, or family circumstances. But this is not the case. The Calvinist view does not explain this data.
The Calvinist may respond that God has the prerogative to (unconditionally) elect whomever he wishes. Therefore, if he chooses to elect more from times and places and families with better access to the gospel, it is not for us to question his choice.
Of course, if God does unconditionally elect some to be saved, that is (by definition) his choice, and not to be questioned. Yet that is precisely the issue we are seeking to determine: does God in fact unconditionally elect those who will be saved? So this objection seems to beg the question by already assuming the question we are discussing has been answered.
Another response is that perhaps God chooses, by fiat, to unconditionally elect more from times, places, and families with access to the gospel. This is certainly possible. But it seems a bit ad hoc to argue this, simply to make the Calvinist view square with the data.
A final response is that perhaps God has his reasons to elect more at some times and places than others, reasons we simply can’t know. However, if this is the case then election is no longer conditional. Rather, it is based on some condition (albeit a condition God alone knows). So this doesn’t seem to be a fruitful way to explain this data for the Calvinist either.
In summary, the fact that there is such a strong correlation between the times, places, and families in which the gospel is better known and the number coming to saving faith must be explained by both Calvinism and Arminianism. While this is to be expected by Arminians, it is harder to make sense of for Calvinists. As such, this is a fifth external conceptual problem for Calvinism.
I have now discussed five external conceptual problems for the Calvinist view of salvation. However, the Calvinist may argue that Arminianism has its own internal and external conceptual problems. I’ll discuss the first of these next week, as I near the conclusion of this series.
Until then, grace and peace.
Stan, how would you relate this discussion to the role of the Holy Spirit in decision making, responsibility, and the independence of the soul? If our decisions are completely independent, then how is it that the Holy Spirit is credited with accomplishing work in our lives?
Great question, Jerry. I am making the distinction between decisions being influenced and decisions being determined. Decisions are certainly influenced. And as such they are not “completely independent,” as you write. But they are not determined.
So, in the case you cite below, the Holy Spirit influences us in a number of ways in decision making. He gives us truths to consider. He gives us nudging to point the way. He may even influence our emotions to be inclined to embrace one choice over the other. However, these all fall short of determining. We still have the ability to choose contrary to these influences. And therein lies the essence of our freedom, as well as the driving force behind our character formation.
So, given influence but not determination by the Holy Spirit, we are still responsible, for it is ultimately our choice. And we are still independent. Influence doesn’t eviscerate independence as determinism would.
This means that both the Holy Spirit and we play a role in our growth. The role of the Holy Spirit is a necessary factor (or a “necessary cause,” using this term with its connotation in logic): without the working of the Holy Spirit, there would be no growth. But the work of the Holy Spirit is not a sufficient cause, for something else is needed: my choice to respond and choose accordingly. I think this is what is referred to in Phil. 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.“
We continue to work (make right decisions leading to right attitudes and actions), as God is working on us through His influence to fulfill His purpose. It is a both-and.
What do you think?
Stan, thanks for the explanation. I’ll continue to give this thought! It makes sense.