An Arminian Response to C. Michael Patton’s “The Irrationality of Calvinism” Part 5: Taking The Mystery Out of Mr. Patton’s Strange Arguments

[updated with some necessary corrections on 2/5/13]

Part 5: Taking the Mystery Out of Mr. Patton’s Strange Arguments

Patton: These two issues, human freedom and sovereign election, are not contradictory when put together, but they are a mystery.

This is the same claim Mr. Patton made in his first post called “Why Calvinism is the Least Rational Option.”

We have already begun to highlight the problems with this claim.  Mr. Patton makes an assertion here and nothing more.  If human freedom and sovereign election is understood in the Arminian sense, then there is no mystery.  If “human freedom” is to be understood in a compatibilist sense (which Mr. Patton holds to), then there is still no mystery.  The mystery is removed by redefining “human freedom”.  The only reason we would have for seeing this as a supposedly “apparent” irrational “mystery,” would be if “human freedom” was taken in the true libertarian sense, and if “sovereign election” were understood against the backdrop of exhaustive determinism.  But Mr. Patton rejects human freedom in the libertarian sense, so his claim here is puzzling.

Patton: This is one of the mistakes that I believe the Arminian system of conditional election/predestination makes. There is no need to solve all tensions, especially when the solution comes at the expense of one’s interpretive integrity.

Again, Mr. Patton quickly turns the “unanswerable problems” that his Calvinism creates into an attack on Arminianism.  We have already shown how this is an easily reversible argument in Part 4.  It is also interesting to see Mr. Patton imply that Arminians handle the tension (that only Calvinism creates) by giving up on interpretive integrity.  Again, this would seem to be easily reversible when one considers the way that Calvinists typically try to “interpret” the many passages that seem to plainly contradict their system, since it seems to us that Calvinists very quickly jettison interpretative integrity for the sake of making such passages “fit” with their Calvinism. [8]

Patton: There are many tensions in Scripture. There are many things that, while not formally irrational, just don’t make sense.

Fair enough, but how do we determine what is “formally” irrational and what is only “apparently” irrational?  My guess is that if it is part of a Calvinist claim, then it can only be “apparently” irrational, regardless of whether or not the Calvinist can in anyway show how the irrationality is only “apparent”.  Let’s see…

Patton: The doctrine of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and creation out of nothing all fit this category. All of these are beyond our ability to comprehend.

True enough, but none of these doctrines are illogical.  To say something is beyond our ability to comprehend does not mean it is irrational.  But Mr. Patton knows that the claim against his Calvinist “tensions” is that they are actually illogical. So how does reference to mysteries that are clearly not illogical help him to explain illogical “tensions” in his system?

It is quite true that we simply do not know how God could create things out of nothing, but there is nothing illogical about that.  That is an example of a true Biblical mystery and no Christian has a problem with that mystery.  Likewise, there is nothing illogical about one Being existing in three persons.  It is beyond our comprehension because we have no examples to look to in our finite experience (in our experience, all beings are both one being and one person, so it is very hard to imagine a single being who is also three persons).  It would be a contradiction if the doctrine said that God is one person and three persons, or one being and three beings, but the doctrine doesn’t say that.  If it did, Christians would be right to reject it as “real” and not just “apparent” irrationality.  So the Trinity is likewise an example of true Biblical mystery, and no Christian has a problem with such mysteries (when properly understood). [9]

Patton: Once we fit them into a rational box and figure them out, we have entered into heresy (although I do not believe the Arminian view is heretical).

This is a bizarre statement.   Surely Mr. Patton knows that Arminians, like all Christians, fully affirm the Biblical mysteries he just described (the Trinity, creation ex nihilo and the hypostatic union) and therefore, do not need to “fit” such Biblical mysteries into a rational box, since there is no indication that these mysteries are irrational in the first place.  All of this just deflects and confuses the issue.  While it is true that both mystery and contradictions cannot be “figured out”, they cannot be figured out for entirely different reasons.  “Mystery”, as Patton has so far demonstrated, cannot be “figured out” because it goes beyond human capabilities and comprehension, but does not contain contradiction.  Contradiction and irrationality cannot be “figured out” because it reveals error.  To say a contradiction cannot be “figured out” is simply to say that it is false and, by definition, cannot be made true.

Patton: The issue of human freedom and unconditional election is in the same apophatic domain.

No it isn’t.  It is not the same at all, and Patton hasn’t shown that it is.  Instead, Mr. Patton has given us examples of legitimate mystery and then just asserted that the tension involved in his system is likewise legitimate.  But examples of true mysteries do nothing to prove that contradiction is mystery.  Again, all we get from Mr. Patton on this is baseless assertion.

Patton: We can’t make sense out of them and once we do, we have entered into error.

Rather, we can’t make sense of them because they reveal error. Talk about twisting things out of shape.  Mr. Patton has now essentially claimed that to allow contradictions to reveal error is itself an error.  What a mess Mr. Patton’s polemic is creating.

Patton: There are many things that God reveals that confuse us and baffle our thinking.

True, but irrelevant.

Patton: Theyseem irrational.

And again, Mr. Patton does nothing to help us know how we can tell the difference between real (formal) irrationality and only “apparent” irrationality.  The best we can assume is what I mentioned earlier: any irrationality in Calvinism must, by definition, be only “apparent” rather than real.  How do we know that?  Because Calvinism is true, of course!  This is a wonderful situation to be in as a Calvinist.  The Calvinist system is now entirely safe from falsification of any kind.  You can’t point to irrationality to disprove Calvinism.  In fact, that itself would be “error” and lead to “heresy.”  Ah…but how nice that the Calvinist can still use rational arguments to disprove opposing systems like Arminianism.  It must be so nice to be a Calvinist!  This is another point I made to Patton way back in 2008,

“Also, when you affirm tensions that seem to me to be plain contradictions (though it seems you would deny that or at least try to “reconcile” it) you give up all rights to criticize an alternative theological system on rational or coherent grounds. You forfeit the right to point the finger at Arminian theology and say, “that doesn’t make sense with what the Bible says”, etc. You put your system in a position of being impossible to falsify and yet attack other positions based on incoherence.

Now maybe you have never done this. Maybe you have never said that Arminianism leads to conclusions that simply do not make sense or are incoherent, etc. But if you have attacked Arminianism on logical grounds with respect to what you perceive as Biblical realities, then you have no right to affirm “apparent” contradictions within your own system and even go so far as to make the acceptance of such “apparent” contradictions (“tensions”) into a pious act for the sake of just trying to be more honest with the Bible etc. Do you see where I am coming from? Hopefully I am misunderstanding you on this.” (Link)

…But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Patton in the least, and based on many more posts criticizing Arminianism on logical grounds, I am confident I have not misunderstood him.  Again, it must be nice to be a Calvinist.  If you disagree, you are just afraid to embrace tension.  You are just trying to make the Bible “fit” your man made system, traditions or false common sense assumptions.  If you point out inconsistencies, they will just appeal to mystery and shame you for not being willing to embrace Biblical mystery as they do.  Indeed, you might even be told that you are actually committing error (being irrational) in expecting things to be so rational.  You are just so hung up on your western thought and American common sense.  You just want things to be fair.  You just want to get your way.  You just want to be sovereign over God.  You just want to talk back to the Potter. You might even be told that you are just trying to satisfy the desires of your sinful nature.  And on and on…

Patton: Yet we find God saying, “Chill. Just trust me. I got this under control. While I have revealed a lot and I know you have a lot of questions, this is a test of trust. I love everyone but I did not elect everyone. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Will you trust me or will you redefine things?”

And so we can add “you just don’t trust God” to the list of why anyone would dare criticize or reject Calvinism.  My goodness, who wouldn’t want to be a Calvinist at this point?  And notice again the blatant question begging in that, for Mr. Patton, the only possible reason for rejecting Calvinism would have to be an attempt to redefine Biblical teaching.  Does Mr. Patton really believe that Arminians have no Biblical grounds at all for rejecting Calvinism?

Patton: God’s sovereign unconditional election can stand side-by-side with man’s responsibility without creating a formal contradiction.

So Mr. Patton keeps asserting.

Patton: We may not know how to reconcile these two issues, but that does not mean God does not know how. Their co-existence does not take away from their collective truthfulness.

But if such issues are false, God certainly does not know how to reconcile them.  The One who is Truth cannot reconcile falsehood.  Their “collective truthfulness” is certainly taken away if they cannot co-exist at all (i.e. they are false).  Assertions and question begging do not prove co-existence.

Patton: I believe that the Arminian system sacrifices biblical integrity for the sake of intelligibility and doctrinal harmony.

Funny, that’s what I think about Calvinism!

Patton: The Calvinistic system allows tension and mysteries to abide for the sake of Biblical fidelity.

Well, allow me to counter-assert that the Calvinist system improperly labels irrationality, contradictions and error as “mystery” for the sake of Calvinist fidelity and to render Calvinism unable to be falsified, even by reason and truth.  And let me point out again that Calvinists will often go to great lengths to try to remove such “tension and mystery”.  The doctrine of compatibilism is just one such example.

Patton: As I said before, I have had people say to me (often) that they are not Calvinists because the system attempts to be too systematic with all its points for the sake of the system itself. I think that it is just the opposite. The Calvinistic system creates more tensions than it solves, but seeks to remain faithful to God’s word rather than human intelligibility.  I think it is a good illustration where the West meets the East. Revelation meets mystery. Cataphatic theology meets apophatic theology. While Calvinism is not formally irrational, it is emotionally irrational. I get that. But I think we need to take both pills.

Translation: Calvinists are brave and noble because they accept “tension”.  If you reject Calvinism, that is probably because you are just too western, too rational, too intelligible, too Cataphatic, too emotional and just not brave or tough enough to “take both pills.”  Shame on you!  And note again that while Mr. Patton never tires of asserting that Calvinism is not formally irrational, he has still not taken up the task of demonstrating why this is so.  Why should we just take his word on it, especially when it is the main point in dispute? The question begging continues.

Admittedly, Patton would probably not put things as gruffly as I have here, but this is exactly what his arguments amount to when simplified and taken to their logical conclusions, and it is time that Calvinists like Patton are taken to task for such claims.  They have gotten away with this stuff too long, and it has made fruitful and honest discussion nearly impossible.  The Calvinist and Arminian debate is first and foremost a debate about Scriptural interpretation, and interpretation involves reason just as any other thing that looks to discover truth.  Calvinists need to stop making the outlandish claim that Calvinism is superior because it accepts mystery where Arminianism does not.  They need to stop talking like they are just tougher and braver for accepting hard truths that Arminians are just too afraid to face.  They need to stop telling Arminians why they believe as they do, when they really haven’t a clue. They need to stop demonizing logic and reason while, hypocritically, using logic and reason against those who disagree with them.  They need to stop telling Arminians that Arminianism is all about philosophy, when their arguments are extremely philosophical.  They need to stop talking about accepting “tension” when they are not willing to accept “tension.”

Nobody is perfect, and none of us are fair or right or consistent at all times when debating tough issues.  However, such silliness as this has really gone on for far too long.  From now on, let’s try to play by the same rules and stop assuming that if people reject Calvinism it must be for some sinister spiritual or emotional reason, and cannot possibly be because we simply find Calvinism unbiblical.  I can honestly say that if I could find Calvinism in the Bible, I would happily accept it.  However, I cannot find Calvinism in the Bible, and so I find no reason to accept it or live with the supposed unanswerable questions that Calvinism apparently creates.  Hopefully, Mr. Patton and Calvinists like him will begin to accept this fact.  The sooner they do, the sooner we can have an honest, respectful and fruitful dialogue on these important issues.

Go to Part 1


[8]  Obviously, Arminians find Calvinist attempts to deal with passages that express a universal scope to the atonement,  God’s love for the world, desire to save all and desire that all come to repentance, as contrived.  Such attempts by Calvinists to reconcile such Biblical declarations with their doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement would seem to be anything but an exercise in interpretive integrity.  The same holds true for the many warning passages in Scripture and passages that seem to plainly teach the possibility of apostasy.  For a detailed exegetical examination of such passages, see my 13 Part series on Perseverance.

[9] Patton might be interested to know that some Calvinists are Calvinists because they apparently cannot deal with the supposed “tensions” and “mysteries” in Arminianism.   F. Leroy Forlines cites John S. Feinberg as one such example.  He cannot deal with the “mystery” of how God can foreknow anything without predetermining what it is He foreknows.  Forlines quotes him as follows:

“If indeterminism is correct, I do not see how God can be said to foreknow the future.  If God actually knows what will (not just might) occur in the future, the future must be set and some sense of determinism applies.” (Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, pg. 32)

Forlines cites J.A. Crabtree as another example,

“No one, not even God, can know the outcome of an autonomous decision that has not been made, can he?  To assert the possibility of such knowledge is problematic.” (The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, vol.2, pg. 436)

Likewise, Loraine Boettner echoes the same distaste for such “mystery”,

[Arminianism’s rejection of divine foreordination constitutes a rejection of] “the theistic basis for foreknowledge.  Common sense tells us that no event can be foreknown unless by some means, either physical or mental, it has been predetermined.” (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 42; All quotes taken from F. Leroy Forlines’ Classical Arminianism , pg. 44)

[I wonder what Mr. Patton would make of Boettner’s appeal to “common sense”?]

As we can see from these quotes, foreordination (determinism), for most Calvinists, takes the mystery out of foreknowledge.  For them, God cannot possibly foreknow what he does not decree and predetermine will take place.  Therefore, God simply cannot foreknow truly free will choices or contingencies.  God’s foreknowledge must, therefore, be entirely dependent on his decree.

It has been pointed out by Arminians that this leads to the unfortunate and unavoidable logical implication that God can only foreknow our sinful thoughts, desires and choices, because God first thought them up and decreed them from eternity, making God the responsible author of all sin.  It is interesting that Calvinists will swallow this horrible implication under the guise of “mystery” and “tension”, but cannot bring themselves to accept the mystery of God’s ability to foreknow the truly contingent free will choices of His creatures.

Calvinist James Oliver Buswell, Jr. is an interesting exception.  He finds no problem with affirming God’s ability to foreknow libertarian free will choices,

“To the question then how God can know a free act in the future, I reply I do not know, but neither do I know how I can have knowledge by analysis, by inference from reason or from causes, or from statistical data reported by intuition, or (if it is insisted upon) by innate ideas.  Knowledge is a mystery in any event, and God’s knowledge of free events in the future is only one more mystery, revealed in Scripture.  We have good and sufficient grounds to accept, and no valid grounds to reject, what Scripture says on this subject.” (A Systematic Theology, 1:60, quoted in Forlines’ Classical Arminiansim, pg. 74)

Arminius, like Buswell, was happy to leave the mystery of how God can foreknow the future as a mystery.  There are plenty of other mysteries in Arminianism that Calvinists simply cannot tolerate (like how we can have alternative power in the will).  One doesn’t need to read too much from popular Calvinist writings to see that.  I guess Calvinists just cannot deal with a system that has so much mystery and tension.

For a concise article on how divine foreknowledge is completely compatible with libertarian free will, see here.

10 thoughts on “An Arminian Response to C. Michael Patton’s “The Irrationality of Calvinism” Part 5: Taking The Mystery Out of Mr. Patton’s Strange Arguments

  1. Ben,

    I’ve enjoyed reading this series. I had some thoughts on your final comments in regard to this long standing theological debate.

    “They need to stop telling Arminians why they believe as they do, when they really haven’t a clue.”

    I am increasingly surprised at how true this is. The other day I read an article on SEA’s site about what Arminians believe taken from Calvinist quotes and was astounded at how untrue they painted Arminian beliefs (and motives for such beliefs)–quotes from MacArthur and from a book I own which claims tell what Arminianism is as opposed to Calvinism (The Five Points of Calvinism). I have been believing what I’ve been told by Calvinist friends and resources regarding Arminianism and frankly I feel angry. I gladly accepted Calvinism (albeit reluctantly at first) partly because if such arguments as painted by Patton. And sadly I participated in such debates against Arminians out of my ignorance of both sides.

    Interestingly, I reviewed a sermon from my early days of Calvinism at my home church and although the word Arminian wasn’t used, it was implied. The text was Ephesians 1:4, 5 and the alternate position was portrayed as God foreseeing who would believe. I understand now that this is not the Arminianism you teach. I saw the proof texts come alive!

    “They need to stop demonizing logic and reason while, hypocritically, using logic and reason against those who disagree with them. They need to stop telling Arminians that Arminianism is all about philosophy, when their arguments are extremely philosophical.”

    If we cannot use logic and reason when we come to the Scriptures, then what can we use? I tried to follow Vincent Cheung’s writings for a while to bolster my (presuppositional) apologetic against atheists regarding the irrationality of science as a system to lead us into truth. I’m not sure how I feel about his writings now, but someone told me that he was relying too heavily on logic or reasoning and not on the Scriptures. I think this comment was made because of the conclusions Cheung came to and not because of a lack of appealing to scripture.

    Anyway, I’m continuing to seek the truth and will be using my brain to do it.

  2. “what did you mean when you said, “I saw the proof texts come alive!”?”

    I meant in the sermon I listened to on election….Verses regarding man’s inability such as 1Cor. 2:14, John 6:44, and Romans 9. I now see those as having a meaning other than what most Calvinists would say they mean. I now understand Total Depravity in a much different light, but I’m still working through Unconditional Election. The corporate election view seems reasonable (Corporate Election Quotes was the article I found helpful on SEA’s site), especially reading through John, but there are so many other passages I have yet to work through before I come to any firm conclusion. I think I have to unravel all the things I’ve believed and put them back together one by one.

  3. Now Dimly,

    Make sure you check out the other resources on corporate election when you get the chance. And feel free to ask questions about other Scriptures you are working through as well.

    God Bless,

  4. You bet. I started reading a good one–can’t remember the name–before SEA changed their website up. Something about the transfer of the faithful covenant believers from the Father to Jesus in John’s gospel. I think it may have been one you recommended elsewhere in the Questions page…

  5. I’ve had some more thoughts on this topic after reading Grudem’s chapter on God’s Providence. The main problem I’m seeing with the “tension” of God’s sovereignty (or providence/decrees) and man’s ability to make real choices is that compatibilism seems to ride on a razor’s edge; sometimes it teeters to one side, sometimes to another. We are told by Calvinism that “All our actions are under God’s providential care…” and that “Our words, our steps, our movements, our hearts, and our abilities are all from The Lord.” (Grudem, p 320, 321).

    I can agree with this. But then we’re told that we can honestly make truly free choices, yet somehow God also makes the choice at the same time. So my question is, does that include a believer’s sinful actions?

    On p. 322 he says, “to say that God could not make a world in which he causes us to make willing choices…is simply to limit the power of God.” He emphasizes “could not” and “causes us to make willing choices.” So to be consistent, I think anyone who wants to be a consistent Calvinist must be willing to say that God causes believers to make willing sinful choices since God causes all our actions. Furthermore, God would be causing us to make willing choices that go against what he has commanded of us not to do. Thus it would appear that God doesn’t know what he wants from us. Should we be holy or give into sin? We can’t blame him for sin, but yet he causes all our willing actions?

    This isn’t just tension or apparent contradiction, it’s an absurd conclusion as far as I can tell presently. How is it that the laws if logic must be followed when we argue against unbelievers, but when this issue arises among Christians we can suddenly rule out the law of non-contradiction as if it doesn’t count?

  6. Those laws of logic don’t only kick in for the Calvinist arguing against unbelievers, but also when arguing against Arminians or anyone they disagree with. There is no other way to argue rationally. And this goes back to the whole premise of Patton’s post, which tries to pass off irrationality for mystery and paint it as some sort of virtue.

  7. Now Dimly,

    You are exactly right, which is why Arminians have always made the charge that decretal deterministic Calvinism cannot avoid making God the author/originator of every sinful and evil thought, desire, and action. The only way to get around it is to claim that it is some sort of acceptable theological “tension” that we would be wrong to reject (as Patton tries to do).

    Here is a great quote from non-Calvinist (and former Calvinist) Daniel Gracely. Your first few sentences brought this quote immediately to mind:

  8. I only have a minute, but I did want to make myself a little clearer…that razor’s edge I spoke of was the fact that sometimes it seems Grudem leans more on God’s sovereignty and sometimes more on man’s responsibility. I think you knew what I meant. But when he talks of “concurrence” in his Systematic Theology (Grudem) that’s where the logic seems to fall apart. I know the Bible talks about both, but its the conclusions that seem wrong when you try to follow all the logic.

    I think Patton is at least honest to admit that it sounds contradictory and to state that he doesn’t get it all, but as has already been said, use that conclusion of contradiction to take a second look at your exegesis and don’t just settle for “covering your mouth” before accepting bad reasoning as the necessary outcome.

    I will check out that quote. You guys have a blessed day!

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