The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 1

I will break down the critique of Craig Brown’s book, The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism,  into several parts.  There is very little exegesis in the book.  There are, however, long lists of Scriptures at the end of several chapters that the reader is called on to “ponder” and “consider” in light of some Calvinist doctrine that had just been discussed.  Part of these reviews will be focused on “pondering” whether or not these Scriptures have anything at all to do with the doctrines that Brown is promoting as gospel fact.

Cursory Observations and Getting “Set Up” 

The book is only 126 pages and the pages are very small; very little content for a work that is supposed to tackle and adequately deal with the “Five Dilemmas of Calvinism”.  The five dilemmas have to do with “responsibility” (chapter 3), “motivation” (chapter 4), “obedience” (chapter 5), “evil” (chapter 6), and “babies” (chapter 7).  But Mr. Brown is primarily concerned with clearing up “misconceptions that have hindered [Calvinism’s] acceptance by the modern Christian community.”  He tells us that these misconceptions are due to a “fundamental lack of knowledge concerning the truth about Calvinism.”  His hope is to “fill that knowledge gap.”

So right off the bat we see that for Mr. Brown the way to solve these dilemmas is simply to better educate (i.e. indoctrinate) those Christians who might be troubled by such  apparent difficulties in Calvinism by way of clearing up misconceptions.  It would seem that we are expected to believe from the onset that there really are no problems or dilemmas at all in Calvinism, just a few misunderstandings (the back of the book asks the question, “True dilemmas or simple misunderstandings?”).  R. C. Sproul echoes this fundamental conviction in the foreword,

Calvinism is certainly no easy system to master.  But in addition to being difficult to understand, Calvinism is often the subject of grave misunderstanding, simply because it is so counterintuitive and countercultural.

It is hard to take such statements seriously.  The rhetorical device employed here by Sproul is both shameless and astounding.  That a system is counterintuitive should apparently have no bearing on our evaluation of it according to Sproul, yet the irony is that many of Calvinism’s doctrines rely heavily on “intuition” (e.g. the rejection of the possibility of God being able to foreknow real contingencies, etc.).  It seems that Sproul is setting us up so that when we are confronted with contradictions we can just assume that we are falsely trusting our “intuitions” and if we will just abandon our “intuitions” we will soon see that contradictions aren’t really so bad after all.  In fact, the reason that contradictions seem so bad is probably just a result of our “culture”.  We just haven’t been raised to think properly (i.e. like a Calvinist). If it seems illogical that is just because our intuitions have led us astray.  To embrace Calvinism is to be “countercultural” and everyone knows that being “countercultural” is really, really cool.

O.K., maybe I am being a little hard on Mr. Sproul.  Maybe he isn’t trying to set us up in order to make the hard medicine of Calvinism a little easier to swallow.  After all, our intuitions do not always reflect truth or perfectly conform to reality and we are all influenced negatively by our culture at times as well.  But it is hard to give Sproul the benefit of the doubt when considering what else he has to say on the subject,

As George Whitefield , the evangelist of the Great Awakening, once declared, “We are all Arminians by nature.”

What did Whitefield mean by this?  Perhaps this only means that we are all born with a sense that truth excludes contradictions.  Or perhaps it is because we are all naturally aware of the reality of choice (something Calvinist philosophy essentially denies), just as we are naturally (intuitively) aware of our own existence.  Or perhaps it is because we all naturally come to Arminian conclusions when reading the Bible (weird stuff like God’s love for the world and desire to save all) prior to being indoctrinated into “Reformed Theology” by a friendly and “concerned” Calvinist.  Or maybe, just maybe it means…

Simply put, the tenets of Arminianism taste sweeter to our sinful human natures than those of other doctrinal systems.

Sproul then tells us,

Not surprisingly, these teachings [the tenets of Arminianism that taste so sweet to our sinful nature] are affirmed and ingrained in us by the culture and, sadly, by immense segments of the church.

Well, there you have it.  To reject Calvinism is to be swept up in the [sinful] culture we live in.  It is to indulge our sinful human nature with the sinfully sweet tenets of Arminianism (such horrible evils as the belief in freed will, the love of God for all of His fallen creatures, and the impossibility of contradiction in the revelation of God’s truth).  It is to put far too high a premium on “intuition” and common sense.  Mr. Brown, a huge fan of Sproul, echoes these same thoughts on page 9,

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.

So we can be sure that any apparent contradictions in Calvinist theology are not real contradictions but merely contradict “American common sense.”  The solution is to learn to abandon common sense (for uncommon sense? nonsense?) and happily embrace contradictions.  Anything less is simply to indulge the sinful nature with the sweet taste of Arminianism.  So if it seems illogical that is just your “American common sense” getting the best of you (one wonders if this book will ever be read outside of America).  On the other hand, to embrace Calvinism with all of its inherent inconsistencies is to rebel against American culture and “common sense” (who wants to be “common” anyway?) and overcome the sinful human nature which desires nothing more than to drink deeply from the well of evil Arminianism.  And we wonder why there is a resurgence of Calvinism among young people in America?

Sproul continues,

In these pages, Craig Brown battles misunderstandings that have dogged Calvinism for long years [and in 126 short pages no less!].  In so doing, he provides apologetic help for Calvinists stymied by the misinformed questions of their Arminian friends.

This is extremely ironic as Mr. Brown continually misrepresents Arminianism in his little book and seems to have learned all about Arminianism, not from Arminians, or from James Arminius, but from Calvinists like Daniel N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas (of whom he quotes and references incessantly).  He also has a rather lopsided (and I dare say inaccurate) view of Christian history which paints Calvinism as the indisputably purest form of Christianity opposed only by heretics throughout the church ages.  He calls Augustine “the greatest theologian of the early church”  and assures us that “Calvinism” has “been called a synonym for Biblical Christianity.  Paul was a Calvinist, Augustine was a Calvinist, and Luther was a Calvinist.”  Really?  Both Luther and Augustine believed that truly regenerate believers could fall away from the faith (certainly not a feature of Calvinism), and Paul?  Well, at least he didn’t say Jesus was a Calvinist.

Whether Mr. Brown truly “provides apologetic help for Calvinists stymied by the misinformed questions of their Arminian friends” remains to be seen…..

Go to Part 2

7 thoughts on “The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 1

  1. “. . . and Paul? Well, at least he didn’t say Jesus was a Calvinist.”

    No, Jesus founded Calvinism! Whatever. I hope you continue this book review in greater detail. I just can’t seem to get enough of Calvinistic banter and their unremitting martyr complex!

  2. Be prepared brother for the onslaught from Calvinist blogs. This book is the new thing for Calvinists.

    If this book is the “new thing” then that doesn’t speak well for Calvinism in my opinion. Thanks for the heads up Roy.

    God Bless,

  3. One of the things that I could not get around that lead to me abandoning Calvinism was my realization that Satan’s existence did not make sense from both Calvinism and the Torah. Under the Torah Law, if you negligently kill someone, you are a murderer. By that standard, God is the author of sin for creating the angel who he knew beforehand would become Satan.

  4. Thanks for writing your first installment in the Five Dilemmas of Calvinism–I enjoyed it and look forward to reading the rest in the series.

    Blessings to you,

  5. Open theology.
    Satan had to have free will in order to fall and God couldn’t have forknowledge of it otherwise it makes God complicit in Satan’s fall. IMO there are better ways to deal with the problem of evil than it caught God off guard but my main problem with open theology is it relegates Christ to plan b.

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