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).

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