Saturday, January 02, 2016

Is Calvinism pantheistic?

Although I posted two discussions of this, I didn't comment on it myself:

One preliminary remark I'd make is how unethical Arminians typically are when they attempt to critique Calvinism. Their animus towards Calvinism often disarms their critical judgment. Due to confirmation bias, they are suckers for any bad objection to Calvinism. They don't pause to consider if that's an accurate representation of Calvinism. They don't stop to consider if the objection is logical. Because this is what they what to hear, because they are predisposed to believe the worst about Calvinism, they nod their head in agreement. So McKnight unquestioningly hosts this hatchet job by Walker, which, predictably, is plugged by SEA. 

“To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?” asked philosopher John Stuart Mill. 

God's goodness can be different in one respect, but analogous in another respect. For instance, God's goodness can be the exemplar of man's goodness, but man's goodness is never the exemplar of God's goodness. So there's that fundamental asymmetry. 

Unfortunately, this redefinition of God’s nature occurs as the logical consequence of Calvinistic theology. The case can be made quite clear from comparing Calvinism with pantheism.
Before detailing these points of connection, it is important to define the terms. Calvinism refers to Christian theological movements which seeks to emphasize the concept of “sovereignty,” thereby reducing God to what Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart calls, “a pure exertion of will.” 

Consider Hart's alternative:

Hart has no theodicy. He labors to make a virtue of having no solution to the problem of evil. 

Pantheism is the belief that the entire universe is an expression of God.

An accurate definition of pantheism is a key assumption of Walker's argument. But where does Walker come up with this definition? It seems to be a definition he invented to attack Calvinism.

I suppose you could say that according to pantheism, the entire universe is an expression of God. That's because, according to pantheism, God and the universe are identical (or at least overlap).

However, the converse doesn't follow. If the entire universe is an expression of God, that doesn't entail pantheism. For one thing, "expression" is vague. That suggests intention rather than constitution. 

Consider some standard definitions of pantheism: 

At its most general, pantheism may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe.
We might understand God as proper part of nature, we might take nature as a proper part of God, we might regard the two domains as partially overlapping, or else we might hold that they are strictly identical.
For Spinoza the claim that God is the same as the cosmos is spelled out as the thesis that there exists one and only one particular substance which he refers to as ‘God or nature’; the individual thing referred to as ‘God’ is one and the same object as the complex unit referred to as ‘nature’ or ‘the cosmos.’ On such a scheme the finite things of the world are thought of as something like parts of the one great substance, although the terminology of parts is somewhat problematic. Parts are relatively autonomous from the whole and from each other, and Spinoza's preferred terminology of modes, which are to be understood as more like properties, is chosen to rectify this.
Notice that these are quite different from Walker's definition. Does Walker's argument still go through on a standard definition? 

I am not the first to associate Calvinism and pantheism. Jonathan Edwards, preacher of the deterministic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was accused of being a pantheist. 

Yes, it's true that Edwards may have been a pantheist. But Walker fails to explain why that's the case. Is that because Walker doesn't know?

i) If Edwards was a pantheist, that's not because he was a Calvinist, but because he was an ontological idealist. You could just as well say that Berkeley was a pantheist, but that doesn't make him a Calvinist. 

ii) In addition, some pantheists are physicalists rather than idealists. Furthermore, many pantheists deny the existence of a personal God. But both are antithetical to Calvinism, which affirms dualism and a personal God. 

iii) In mainstream Calvinism, The creation is categorically different than God. God objectives his idea of creation in time and space. God himself is not temporal or spatial. God is a se, the creation is contingent. In addition, you have a doctrine of second causes. 

Humans have minds. Every human has his own first-person viewpoint. That's not equivalent to God's first-person viewpoint, or God's third-person viewpoint of humans. These are irreducible perspectives.

Why is Walker so sloppy? Is he just ignorant? Does he lack the competence to draw elementary distinctions? 

Many critics, Christian and non-Christian, have launched attacks on Calvinistic modes of theology using similar lines of thought, including one of the foundational theologians of the Unitarian Universalist movement, William Ellery Channing.

Is that supposed to be an argument from authority? How does the opinion of a manifest heretic like Channing carry any weight just because he said it? 

In a Calvinistic worldview, everything is as God wills it to be. For the sake of consistency, those with Reformed positions have to believe the world exists the way it does because God wills it to bring himself as much glory as possible. Therefore, in this system, the definition of “good” is relegated to whatever is because whatever is somehow brings glory to God.

This is another key assumption of Walker's argument. And it's confused. Even an Arminian theologian like Randal Rauser appreciates the nature of the popular misrepresentation. Here's his corrective:

To begin with, the phrase “for the sake of one’s glory” is deeply misleading here. After all, it conveys the sense of a person perversely seeking to gratify themselves through the suffering of others. Frankly, this is a caricature if not a rank perversion of the Reformed position. Certainly it is a caricature of the Reformed position that I’ve adumbrated several times in the discussion threads precipitated by my initial argument. 
The point of God’s issuing decrees of election and reprobation is not to glorify God for God’s sake but rather for the cumulative benefit of creation. Any Reformed theologian will tell you that God exists a se and his glory is infinite independent of creation. His glory is already infinite and cannot be increased. What can be increased, however, is the creature’s grasp of God’s glory. And since God is perfect, he always acts to maximize the creature’s grasp of his glory, not for his own benefit but rather for that of the creature.

Back to Walker:

In a similar manner, the Calvinist cannot say disease or natural disasters are objectively bad because they are an expression of God’s will, designed to bring him the most glory possible.

That's simplistic. The same thing can both be bad in itself, but be a source of good. Murder is bad. Taking innocent life is bad. But that can result in good. Because their child was murdered, parents may have another child to take its place. That's a second-order good. A good that would not obtain apart from the prior evil. 

This problem is exemplified in Calvin's own writing. While he attempts to shield God from any moral culpability for sin and evil, he also admits, “What Satan does, Scripture affirms to be from another point of view the work of God.” Works and events which seem antithetical to God’s commands and nature are automatically grafted into his will.

Yes, Calvin struggles with this issue. That's because Calvin is faithful to Scripture. He honors whatever God reveals in Scripture, even if he finds that perplexing. 

In fact, Calvinism’s framework bears a striking semblance to the yin and yang. This Chinese symbol is meant to show that everything is interdependent and complimentary [sic.] 

Walker now indulges in full-blown parallelomania. 

This concept is “Christianized” by Edwards when he argued, “There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from.” Both extremes are necessary for God to receive his due glory.

The contrast theodicy is not a Reformed distinctive. 

The alternative to this problem created by these worldviews is to recognize evil as the logical consequence of sin. It is entirely separate from God on an ontological level. The opportunity to sin is a necessary condition for a meaningful relationship grounded in mutual love. The responsibility for sin lies with one who committed it and the consequences of sin are separation from God.

Notice that Walker is committed to the necessity of evil, as a necessary condition and necessary consequence of libertarian freedom. Yet he rejects the conditional teleological necessity of evil in a Reformed theodicy.

The reprobate are in a sense “good” because their condemnation is a prerequisite to the demonstration of God’s grace.

Once again, that's simplistic. Consider the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. The Joker is a classic foil character. The villain exists to establish a point of contrast between good and evil. That doesn't make the villain good, even though the director uses his villainy to illustrate moral heroism in the face of evil. 

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