An Arminian Response to C. Michael Patton’s “The Irrationality of Calvinism” Part 1: The Set Up

[Some important updates have been added regarding the footnotes as of 1/19/13.]

C.Michael Patton is the President of Credo House.  He has now written two separate and similar posts defending the “irrationality” of Calvinism as actually being a strength of the system, specifically over and above Arminianism. In this newest post, Mr. Patton levels many unfair and unfounded criticisms against Arminian theology and “Arminians” in general,  betraying a basic lack of understanding concerning what Arminians believe and why they believe it.  For this reason, an Arminian response seemed appropriate in order to set the record straight.  This response will interact with the entirety of C. Michael Patton’s post, which would make for a very long interaction as a single post.  For that reason, the response will be broken into parts.

 Part 1: The Set Up

Patton: I am a child of Western thought. Therefore I like to figure things out. If possible, I like to figure it all out. It causes some problems sometimes with me and God and I need to deal with it better. Sometimes I only really follow or engage with God when I get it.  When things make sense to me, it eases my intellectual anxiety and engages my will. Who?, What?, Where?, How?, and, especially, Why?

Honestly, I don’t like the way this starts out.  It makes it seem like logic and wanting to figure things out is just a “western” thing.  That is not the case at all.  It’s pretty basic to human nature and our desire to understand and make sense of reality and the world we live in.  This desire goes far beyond just questions of theology, and it is not limited to “western thought” in the least.

Patton:  Theological gurus call this “cataphatic” theology. Cataphatic theology emphasises God’s revelation and our understanding of it. Taken to an extreme, we can find ourselves in arrogantly awkward position of, as A. W. Tozer put it, “trying to look God eye to eye.” When we have to understand everything, we attempt to trade our finitude for infinitude. And this should scare us to death. We need a healthy dose of “apophatic” theology. This emphasizes mystery.

Actually, we need a balance of both.  There are unhealthy extremes on both ends.  Patton admits this later on.

Patton: Our Eastern brothers and sisters normally get this better than we do. They are content without publishing a new theology book every year. They normally don’t write papers explaining the mysteries of the world, have societies discussing the nuances of our faith, and they don’t argue about too much.

But why is that?  Personally, I think a lot of that is because Eastern theologians almost unanimously reject Calvinism and so don’t find themselves in the position to always try to reconcile irreconcilable problems.  Honestly, a tremendous amount of Calvinist scholarship is caught up in dealing with problems that Calvinism alone creates (and this post by Mr. Patton is yet another example).

Patton: Taken to an extreme, it can lead to an unexamined faith where people know what they believe but they have no idea why. And God did go through a lot of trouble to explain quite a bit of himself to us. While there are secret things that belong to the Lord (apophadic), the things revealed belong to us (cataphatic). We need balance. We need a cool yet passionate head about us. We need to hold some theological ropes very tightly, but we need to loosen our grip on others. There is quite a bit that we can know about God, but there are so many things that we don’t get and we will never get.

Agreed.

Patton: Why all of this? Because I am going to talk about something that is very divisive in the Christian life. And, for the most part, I am going to try to encourage some of my Western brothers and sisters to take a que [sic.] from my Eastern brothers and sisters and step down off the stool and quite [sic.] trying to look God eye to eye. I am going to encourage us to allow some tension in a very debated issue in Protestant Christianity.

The reason for all of Mr. Patton’s set up now seems rather clear.  It is to create the idea that it is unreasonable to reject contradictions and irrationality in a theological system, namely (and only) Calvinism, of course.  That’s right, Mr. Patton has just introduced a new so called “tension” into the mix, the wild claim that it is irrational to have a problem with irrationality.  Of course, this is circular and self-defeating, just as the main thrust of Mr. Patton’s entire post.  Not only that, we see another slam on “western thought.”  Why does Mr. Patton keep going back to that?  The answer seems to be that if he can convince his readers that their problems with irrationalities in Calvinism are just an unfortunate and invalid symptom of less sophisticated “western thought”, his readers will be more likely to feel OK about embracing such irrational “tensions” in Calvinism.

I have seen this same tactic many times before.  For example, Craig Brown, in his little book, “The Five Dilemma’s of Calvinism,” says,

“In my defense of the Reformed faith, I will be ‘the Devils advocate’ and attack five principles of Calvinism from the standpoint of American common sense.” (pg. 9, see here for a post dealing with this quote and other aspects of Craig’s book)

So the argument is now framed to be more of an issue of Calvinism versus flawed Western or American thinking, rather than Biblical truth. [1] Indeed, Mr. Patton will eventually spin things to such an extent as to potentially convince his readers that those who embrace such irrationalities (“tensions”) are nobler and just more honest with the Bible than those who do not (namely Arminians, of course). [2]

Patton: I am a Calvinist. It is funny. I often hear people talk about Calvinism as a closed box system that forces everything to fall in line, even when we have to sacrifice biblical integrity to do so. I often hear the accusation that Calvinism is a system that makes rationality its primary goal. And this is often true. Sometimes Calvinists do attempt to fit things into a system and engage in questionable logic driven hermeneutics to do so.

An admission that should not be soon forgotten.  It is important to note here what Mr. Patton apparently means, though it is not very “apparent” from what he says here.  Mr. Patton speaks about Calvinism being a “closed system” because Calvinists often pride themselves on the logic of that “system.”  Indeed, many people seem to embrace Calvinism because the logic or coherence of the “system” appeals to them, or seems compelling.  Patton finds this ironic since he embraces Calvinism because it has the same “tensions” (“apparent” inconsistencies, or irrationalities) that he sees in the Bible.  So it is not coherence that attracts Mr. Patton to Calvinism, but “apparent” incoherence. [3]

If Mr. Patton’s post were simply about explaining why he personally holds to Calvinism and finds it attractive, or how he finds it ironic that people are drawn to Calvinism based on the supposed logic of the system when he embraces it for its “irrationality”, that would all be well and good, but Mr. Patton does more than that.  He attacks Arminianism in the process, and unfairly so.  That is why this response seemed necessary.

Go to Part 2: Theological Imprecision and Misrepresentations

__________________________________________________________________

[1]  Craig Brown and other Calvinists will actually take this a step further and say that Arminians embrace Arminianism and reject Calvinism, not just because Arminians are influenced by “western thought” or “American common sense”, but because Arminianism so strongly appeals to our sinful nature!  See the following posts to see such wild claims for yourself: The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 1 and J.I. Packer Calls Arminianism “An Intellectual Sin of Infirmity”  

[2] Unfortunately, this is a typical Calvinist tactic.  The aim is to shame “logical” and “rational” interpreters as not submitting to what the Bible says as, supposedly, only Calvinists have the guts and the fortitude to do.  Besides painting the Calvinist as more noble and honest than those who refuse to “embrace” such “tensions”, it also amounts to saying, “So what if Calvinism doesn’t make sense; neither does the Bible!” As will be discussed further, there is no reason to assume that such “tensions” are inherently “Biblical” tensions.  Rather, they are the direct results of the Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. They are Calvinist tensions, not Biblical ones.

[3] For further evidence that this is Mr. Patton’s view and one of the main reasons for writing these posts, see his comments in the thread of a similar post called, “Why Calvinism is the Least Rational Option.”  You can see that comment here  (which seems to be a partial and general response to a comment I made earlier in that thread that will be quoted below).

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23 Responses

  1. I look forward to this! Michael, as typical of too many Calvinists, cannot operate objectively with regard to Arminian theology. When i used to engage him, he used to practice all of the same fallacies regarding Arminianism as he still does today. I’m glad that you’re engaging him. God bless!

  2. Reblogged this on Arminian Today and commented:
    Good defense here against C. Michael Patton’s misleading post on Arminianism.

  3. I am willing to agree with him, if his point is that Calvinism doesn’t make sense.

  4. SLW,

    LOL . . . well, there’s at least the confession that Calvinism is irrational. I’m happy so far with that! We can build on that — we have something to work with now :^)

  5. I agree with what you have said thus far. In other words, there are teachings in scripture that are hard to understand and explain. One such teaching is the Trinity, although we may not truly understand it, or be able to fully explain it, hopefully we all embrace it, and leave it to the mysterious. However, as you have made plain, it is not a virtue to appeal to the mysterious, simply to hold on to a belief, that is hard to understand, or explain.

    Having said this, lets not assume this is a tactic only Calvinists use. There are Arminians who use the same tactic. One such example can be found here on your site.

    Andrew Barker, on November 17, 2012 at 2:48 am said:
    Dear Jack
    I believe that you really can’t see where Calvinists go wrong. But I will try to explain. Calvinism is fixated on explaining everything about salvation. Everything has to make sense. So when Jesus says the dead will hear they have to explain it. Taken at face value this is not only sensible but laudable. So why is there a problem? Because they then start to apply human logic and thinking to a spiritual truth.
    It fascinates me how people can quote scripture on the one hand and not let it really become part of their thinking. We all do it to one degree or another but this is a classic for the Calvinist camp. So when a person holding Calvinistic views looks at Jesus’ words “the dead will hear” they immediately have a reaction along the lines of , well that’s not possible, a dead corpse can’t hear and so they seek to explain the process. The result is normally …. “I know, we’ll give this person a helping hand and enable him to believe. Then everything will be fine. God will do this enabling so there’s no cause for that person to feel they have done anything to earn or merit their salvation and then they can believe”! The problem is that it’s all based on human logic and reasoning and has no firm basis in scripture
    .
    Of course naturally speaking it is not possible for a dead person to hear, we all recognize that. But to understand Jesus when he says the dead will hear there’s no point in apply human reasoning, it just doesn’t work. I think this is a classic case of God hiding truths from the wise and revealing them to babes. I fear you are well entrenched in your views, as of course am I , but I do hope this helps to explain in part the nature of your problem.

    Notice, how you say, speaking of Patton,

    Unfortunately, this is a typical Calvinist tactic.

    Then notice Andrew’s statement,

    Because they then start to apply human logic and thinking to a spiritual truth. It fascinates me how people can quote scripture on the one hand and not let it really become part of their thinking. We all do it to one degree or another but this is a classic for the Calvinist camp.

    Your point is that Calvinist appeal to the mysterious. Andrew’s point is the exact opposite, and that is that the Calvinist attempt to apply human logic and thinking.

    My point is, just because you have pointed out a fallacy on the part of a Calvinist, and I have pointed out the same fallacy on the part of an Arminian, does not mean either of us has established the truth in this matter. All we have done is to point out fallacies on both sides from certain individuals.
    ,
    I

  6. Jack,

    I am not going to speak for Andrew or try to defend him. However, I don’t see that what he said is necessarily opposite of what I have said so far (I haven’t even gotten into the “mystery” portion of Patton’s post). He is just pointing to another problem among Calvinists. But that Calvinists downplay reason and logic when convenient and make it seem like a strength is typical among many Calvinist writers, especially published ones (and I quoted just one example).

    Also, Patton basically concedes Andrews point right in this post:

    I often hear the accusation that Calvinism is a system that makes rationality its primary goal. And this is often true. Sometimes Calvinists do attempt to fit things into a system and engage in questionable logic driven hermeneutics to do so.

    So Calvinists are guilty of both. It just depends on what suits them at the time, depending on the argument. There will be much more on this in subsequent posts. If these two thoughts necessarily contradict each other as you seem to suggest, well that may just be another example of Calvinist irrationality.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  7. My point again is, simply pointing out fallacies by certain individuals on either side, does not establish the truth of on side or the other. Good luck.

  8. One more point, Are you suggesting that there Arminians that do not appeal to both sides? In other words appeal to the mysterious and also human logic and reason? Again either way does not establish the truth.

  9. My point again is, simply pointing out fallacies by certain individuals on either side, does not establish the truth of on side or the other. Good luck.

    Are you attempting to point out a “fallacy” here?

  10. One more point, Are you suggesting that there Arminians that do not appeal to both sides? In other words appeal to the mysterious and also human logic and reason? Again either way does not establish the truth.

    You are really missing the point, Jack. Yes, Arminians do appeal to logic and mystery. Nothing in these posts will say otherwise. I will just suggest that you slow down a little and maybe let the series finish out before getting all excited about proving what you perceive to be inconsistencies in what I am saying. Maybe then you will be in a better position to level legitimate criticisms.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  11. First of all I am not exited in the least. Secondly, I have agreed with you on an above point. In other words there are those who appeal to the mysterious, when they want to hold on to a belief they can not understand, explain, and or, defend. We both have establish this by citing, others appeal to the mysterious. You cited a Calvinist, while I have cited an Arminian.

    Now I want to stress this point. I am not attempting to prove what I perceive to be inconsistencies in what you are saying. My point is this. Just because I have pointed out an inconsistency in what an Arminian says, does not therefore mean, Arminianism is false. In the same way, if you show the inconsistency of a Calvinist, this does not demonstrate the falsehood of Calvinism.

    Let me put it in this way. I could no doubt write a series on the inconsistencies of Roger Olson. My question then is this. If I clearly demonstrate Olson is constantly inconsistent, does this disprove Arminianism? If inconsistencies on the part of Calvinists and Arminians demonstrate their falsehood, then both systems would be found false. Having said this let me ask this question. Is it possible that both Arminianism and Calvinism are false? I believe it is.

  12. Now I want to stress this point. I am not attempting to prove what I perceive to be inconsistencies in what you are saying. My point is this. Just because I have pointed out an inconsistency in what an Arminian says, does not therefore mean, Arminianism is false. In the same way, if you show the inconsistency of a Calvinist, this does not demonstrate the falsehood of Calvinism.

    Jack, like I said, you are missing the point. I am not trying to demonstrate the falsehood of Calvinism with these posts. That is why I said you should slow down and not get excited (i.e. overly eager to attack this post, to make a the point that you are trying to make, when it is not really even relevant). I am mostly concerned with Arminianism being attacked and misrepresented in the process of Patton trying to explain why Calvinism being the least rational option is actually a strength for Calvinism as a system. I thought I made that clear in the first and last paragraphs of the post.

    Let me put it in this way. I could no doubt write a series on the inconsistencies of Roger Olson.

    I wish you would, then I could come and give you a hard time in the comments thread. Do you have a blog?

    My question then is this. If I clearly demonstrate Olson is constantly inconsistent, does this disprove Arminianism?

    Well, that depends. It depends on the severity of these “inconsistencies” (i.e. are they blatant contradictions?) It also depends on whether or not these inconsistencies are truly representative of Arminian thought. If you could show that they were, and they were contradictory, then you could certainly lay a claim on Arminianism being false. But if they did not truly represent Arminian thought, you could still show that at least Olson was wrong.

    I’m curious. What motivates you to keep reading my blog and leaving these sort of comments?

  13. BTW, from what I remember reading of Andrew Barker’s comments, he does not represent Arminian thought. There is a difference between a non-Calvinist and an Arminian.

  14. Appeal to mystery might work if one is at the limits of reason, but not when something is unreason.

    On a side note I find “mystery” an interesting choice of word in these discussions because biblically (though not necessarily in standard English) it means hidden till revealed, not unknowable.

  15. Hello Jack,

    You apparently believe that both Calvinism and Arminianism have inconsistencies suggesting that they both are false. So it seems that you believe that something else is preferable to both Calvinism and Arminianism: what I am wondering Jack is what do you suggest as a better alternative?

    Robert

  16. This should be interesting.

    I recall John Piper wrote a blog where he claimed that Chesterton (a staunch anti-Calvinist) inspired him to become a Calvinist through Chesterton’s opining on paradox in the Christian religion. Which is to say, he decided Calvinism was supported by the fact it was incoherent.

    The attitude seems to be that if it is incoherent and irrational, then it must be God’s plan because human minds shouldn’t be able to understand God’s plans.

    However, assuming my understanding of that position is correct, I have to disagree. Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” If a solution is incoherent, illogical or irrational then it’s time to start searching again. Perhaps it isn’t for us to know, perhaps we will not find out the coherent, logical, rational solution, but it is necessary to try.

    PS I find the Trinity easy to understand through the Hebrew framework of Wisdom theology. Perhaps we need to look to the Jews to understand the tension between human will and God’s predestination. Perhaps the Rabbi’s answer to the question, “do human beings have free will, or does God foreknow all who will be saved,” is simply, “Yes.”

  17. Robert,

    From conversations I have had here with Jack, I don’t think he considers himself an Arminian (obviously) or a Calvinist. While he holds to unconditional election and, I think, limited atonement, he rejects exhaustive determinism. At least that is what I have gathered from his comments to this point.

  18. Jason,

    I agree that the answer to the last question you pose is “yes”, since exhaustive foreknowledge and free will are fully compatible.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  19. i’m curious. What motivates you to keep reading my blog and leaving these sort of comments?

    I will start out by answering this question in the same way Dee has on another thread which was,

    Unfortunately when you have such a site you invite comments and perhaps discussion.

    Now I would do away with the word unfortunately, because I do not believe it is unfortunate, however I would think that you would expect comments such as mine and others.

    The long answer is the fact that when I wanted to read more about Arminianism, I simply entered the word Armininan in the search on the web. This site naturally came up. I began to read the articles, and saw what I believe to be inconsistencies. When I saw there was the opportunity to comment, I decided to join the conversation. This is why I would leave out the word unfortunately, because this site has been a tremendous help to me

    Is there a problem? If there is I believe you have options.

    1) Leave my comments as they are, and do not interact with me. Although the interaction has been of great benefit to me, to which I am grateful.

    2) Delete my comments.

    3) Block me from commenting. ..

  20. i’m curious. What motivates you to keep reading my blog and leaving these sort of comments?

    I will start out by answering this question in the same way Dee has on another thread which was,

    Unfortunately when you have such a site you invite comments and perhaps discussion.

    That’s true, but that doesn’t explain why you keep coming back and reading my blog. You don’t have to answer, but I just wonder, since you seem to have a problem with everything I write. Is that the reason?

    Now I would do away with the word unfortunately, because I do not believe it is unfortunate, however I would think that you would expect comments such as mine and others.

    I do. That is why I allow comments. That is why I have spent countless hours interacting with such comments. I just wonder why someone who clearly does not agree with what I write and doesn’t like what I write keeps coming back and reading what I write. See what I mean?

    The long answer is the fact that when I wanted to read more about Arminianism, I simply entered the word Armininan in the search on the web. This site naturally came up. I began to read the articles, and saw what I believe to be inconsistencies. When I saw there was the opportunity to comment, I decided to join the conversation. This is why I would leave out the word unfortunately, because this site has been a tremendous help to me. Is there a problem? If there is I believe you have options.

    Not if Calvinism is true, I don’t. :-)

    There is no problem. I was just curious. It is a little annoying at times when I have gone over things with you and your further comments often seem to proceed as if nothing has been said at all. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with me, but it is as though you pay no attention to what I write, which does tend to discourage further discussion as it feels like I have wasted my time.

    1) Leave my comments as they are, and do not interact with me. Although the interaction has been of great benefit to me, to which I am grateful.

    Could you tell me how these interactions have been a “great benefit” and a “tremendous help”? I would be interested to know.

    2) Delete my comments.

    3) Block me from commenting.

    I only do this when someone’s rhetoric goes over the top or does not comport with the comment rules. But thanks for telling me what my options are.

  21. Let me apologize. I just ran across your last post here when I returned to copy an earlier comment from someone. Therefore allow me to attempt to answer your question as to how these interactions have been a “great benefit” and a “tremendous help”?

    First let me say without a doubt, my motivation has never been to attempt to sway you from your views. Next I would say that I know where I stand on the issues at stake here. However, this does not mean that I think that I am right and there is no possibility of error on my part. I continually look for the possibility of my own error. My struggle has been over, how we as Christians (not just you and I, but rather the whole of Christians) can read the same scriptures, guided hopefully by the same Spirit, can come to such disagreements.

    This struggle has lead me to read a wide variety, of Calvinist and Arminian commentary. You do a great job here, of pointing out the inconsistencies of certain Calvinists,the same inconsistencies I have seen myself. Therefore continuing to read your commentary, and having the ability to interact has help a great deal in sorting all of these things out in my own mind.

    Now I realize, as you say, you spend countless hours here on your commentary, and interaction, which is why I would completely understand if you did not, or could not respond to all, or any of my comments. I would also understand if you deleted my comments or blocked me from commenting. At any rate I truly appreciate your efforts, as I said it has helped, and continues to help me sort these issues out in my own mind.

  22. Thanks Jack.

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