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).

An Apparently Not So Brief Response to C. Michael Patton on Rom. 9

I wrote a lengthy response to C. Michael Patton’s post on Rom. 9 entitled “Why Does He Still Find Fault”: Predestination, Election, and the Argument of Romans 9.  Apparently, it was a little too lengthy for Patton’s taste since he deleted all but the first in a series of posts and then made a general comment about people spamming his site, to which I responded,

I apologize for the length of my posts and that several of them were posted in a row, but the question you ask in your post requires a very detailed answer. So I didn’t see it as spam. I saw it as a detailed response to a question that was repeatedly asked in this thread: that someone offer an alternative interpretation to the one you have offered if one is to properly challenge that interpretation. I do intend on putting my comments above into a post at my blog at some point, but in doing so one can never be sure how many will think it worth pursuing. So I was trying to engage your post in the most direct way as possible. I thought that is what you were after and I made sure to limit the content to Rom. 9.  But again, I apologize if that response was longer than you approve of. I did not intend to violate your blog rules.

So for the sake of sharing an alternative interpretation and taking on the claims that the Arminain interpretation simply cannot honestly make sense of the text in question (esp. Rom. 9:19), I offer the entirety of my response below which was not permitted on Patton’s site.  I will also link to it at his site as he suggested long winded commenters like myself do.  I am tempted to add to it since I have the freedom to do so now, but for now I will leave it as is and maybe develope it further in subsequent posts:

***********************************

CMP,

There is so much to say concerning this that it is very hard to put it all in a post or two.  I really do think that the Arminian interp is in far better harmony with the greater context of Rom. 9-11 than the Calvinist interpretation.  I would also take issue with your view that Paul is speaking of unconditional security in Rom. 8:28-39.  Rather, Paul is speaking of all of the benefits that come to the believer through faith union with Christ (notice the bookend “in Christ” language in Rom. 8:1 and 8:39).   While one remains in Christ through faith, nothing in this world can separate the believer from Christ.  However, the passage says nothing of those who may reject Christ at a later time and remove themselves from the sphere of God’s elective love (which is “in Christ Jesus”, 8:39).

I would also argue that Paul is primarily speaking of the corporate body of Christ, the church, in Rom. 8:28-30 and of individuals secondarily only as they relate to and are identified with the elect corporate body that ultimately finds its identification in Christ (for more on the corporate election view see here).  So while these things are true of the corporate body of believers, they are only true of the individual on the condition that he or she remains in that elect body through faith.  This truth is clearly brought out in Romans 11:16-24.  So Rom. 8:28-39 does not preclude the possibility of apostasy on the part of the individual who may ultimately be broken off from the elect body through unbelief.  However, in his reflection on all of the covenant blessings and benefits that belong to the church as a result of their union with Christ, Paul’s thoughts quickly shift to his own people who have largely been denied these benefits due to their unbelief.  So the question naturally arises, have God’s promises to Israel failed?  Has God been unfaithful to Israel in denying them participation in the new covenant that the Gentiles are now enjoying?

In short, the answer is a resounding “no”, since God has the sovereign right to choose His covenant people on whatever basis He decides upon.  This basis is union with Christ through faith rather than heritage or works.  God decides who His covenant partner will be and who His covenant people will be.  This is Paul’s point in Rom. 9:1-13.  God chose His people through His sovereign election of the covenant heads (the patriarchs) and this election was not based on man’s decision but God’s decision.  But God’s ultimate purpose in election was to open the door for all people to enjoy His love as God’s chosen covenant people and that purpose has now been realized in Christ (cf. Rom 4:16-25).  Therefore, the children of the promise are not those that God unconditionally elected from all eternity, but those who receive the promise by faith (cf. Rom. 3:21-4:25; Rom. 9:8; Galatians 3:15-29).

The promise is ultimately the promise of a new covenant people through Christ Jesus (Rom. 4:16-5:9; Gal. 3:21-25).  It is through faith that we receive the promised Spirit and become children of God (Gal. 3:14, 22-29).  The first part of Romans is concerned with God’s divine right to name His covenant people based on whatever conditions He decides to set forth or based on whomever He decides to choose as the corporate representative through whom His people are named and draw their identity.  It was through Isaac that Abraham’s offspring would be “named” (i.e. called), for it was through Isaac that the promise would come to the people.  Further, God named His people through Jacob/Israel.  The covenant people of God were chosen in Jacob/Israel and this according to God’s sovereign right to make Jacob His corporate covenant representative rather than Esau.  The concept of corporate solidarity is plainly seen in Paul’s reference to the prophecy given to Rebekah (Rom. 9:11-13).  The people of God are tied up in the corporate representative Jacob/Israel and derive their identity and name through Him,

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger. (Emphasis mine; Note: the person Esau never served the person Jacob)

This is a prophecy of the destiny of these two people groups tied up in the persons of Jacob and Esau through whom these people would be “named” (i.e. “called”) and derive their identity.  God had the sovereign right to choose Jacob as the corporate representative of His covenant people, but this was only the beginning since the true “Seed” of Abraham was yet to come.  And it is ultimately through this chosen “Seed” (Christ) that God’s people will draw their identity as God’s chosen covenant people, and through whom all of the blessings and promises of the new covenant would be imparted to those who put faith in Him (Rom. 4:16-5:5; 9:8, 30-10:13; Gal. 3:14, 21-4:7).  Note especially Gal. 3:16-22, 29.

Furthermore, God has the divine right to make inclusion in the people of God based on the condition of faith in Christ, through which we are joined together with Him and receive all of the spiritual blessings that reside in Him (including election, cf. Eph. 1:3-13). So it is not of works or heritage, but of faith in Christ.  It is to this that the Jews protest since they believe that the promises belong to them unconditionally as children of Abraham and observers of the covenant laws and customs.  But God reserves the right to have mercy on whom He will have mercy (i.e. on those who put faith in Christ) and to reject/harden those who reject His divinely appointed means of effecting the new covenant and naming His new covenant people (through faith union with His chosen covenant Head and corporate representative- Jesus Christ, the true “Seed” of Abraham through whom the “promises” are received by faith, Rom. 4:13-17).

This brings us to the passage that you seem to find so convincingly in favor of the Calvinist interpretation (Rom. 9:19).  Paul is not addressing the protest of an Arminian but the protest of a Jew.  Paul just mentioned that even the hardening of Pharaoh ultimately served God’s purpose in that His name might be displayed in all the earth.  However, Pharaoh was not hardened arbitrarily.  His hardening was the result of His rejection of God and God’s right to do what He willed with His covenant people.  This is the parallel drawn with present day Israel.  The Israelites have experienced a hardening due to their rejection of God’s chosen means to effect His covenant and name His covenant people (through Christ).  However, just as with Pharaoh, their rejection and subsequent hardening have actually served to further Gods’ purpose in that His name is now proclaimed among the Gentiles and His glory more fully displayed through the inclusion of the  Gentiles as God’s covenant people through faith in Christ.  So the objection is not about why does God harden us irresistibly and then blame us?  The objection is: why does God hold us accountable when our rejection and hardening actually served His purpose in increasing His glory and making Himself known among the nations?  It is similar to the objection raised in Rom. 3:7,

If my falsehood enhances God’s faithfulness and so increases His glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?

This brings us to Paul’s use of the Potter imagery which draws on Jeremiah 18.  Rather than being used at this present time for noble purposes, the Jews are being used for “common use” in that they are still serving God’s purposes, but not in the way that God originally intended.  God has been forced to use them through their failure rather than through their obedience and faithfulness.  God had noble purposes for Israel, but they could not be fulfilled due to their rejection and rebellion.  Therefore, God endured them as objects of wrath just as He endured and sustained Pharaoh while simultaneously preparing objects of glory even through their rebellion and stubbornness (in the case of Israel God continued to enact His plan to send the Messiah through Israel [by whom He would prepare a people for glory] despite Israel’s continual rebellion and rejection of God and His covenant).

God could have destroyed them entirely many times, but endured them with great patience for the sake of His promise to bring the promised “Seed” out of Abraham’s descendents, through whom He would bless the world (Rom. 9:4, 5).  As Jer. 18:5-11 plainly testifies, God had noble plans for Israel but brought destruction on them instead due to their rebellion (Jer. 18:5, 9-12).  In the same passage God states that the nations of whom God warns of destruction can come into favor and avoid destruction through repentance (Jer. 18:7).  This is exactly what has happened in Paul’s day.  The Jews have been rejected, not unconditionally but as a result of their rebellion, and the Gentiles have been spared destruction and given hope through Christ due to their positive response to the Gospel (see also Isaiah 29:16; 45:9 which describes the same basic concept of judgment for rebellion as described in Jer. 18).

The Jews have rejected God’s ways and purpose fulfilled in the person of Christ and will now suffer the just consequences while the Gentiles who had previously rejected God and were cut off from the promises of God, will now enjoy His favor through their acceptance of God’s purposes in the person of Christ.  The allusion to Jer. 18 and the imagery presented there makes the Calvinist interpretation of these passages impossible.  So God reserves the right to say “not my people” to those who were formally His people and to call them “my people” who were formally cut off from the benefits of God’s covenant people (Rom. 9:24-29, and note again that “called” is used in these passages in the sense of “naming” a people for God, and not as some divine summons made irresistible for the “elect”; for more on that see here).  “My people” are those who receive the promise through faith in Christ (both Jew and Gentile) and “not my people” are those who reject Christ (both Jew and Gentile).  Romans 9:30-33 sums this up nicely in again locating the distinction between the people of God and those rejected of God as being based on those who have faith and those who do not.  Nothing is said of an unconditional election in Paul’s conclusion to this section, because this was not at all what Paul had been discussing in the chapter.

As we continue to read Rom. 10-11, the Arminian interpretation only gains strength while the Calvinist interpretation falters repeatedly.  Much, much, much more could be said, but I have already gone on far too long.   Thanks for letting me share an alternative perspective.

God Bless,

Ben