An Introduction To The Doctrines Of Grace And Why I Dislike Calvinism

In links on May 3, 2008 at 10:11 pm

John Calvin ShirtHere is a great 9-part series on the Doctrines of Grace taught by John Piper, audio/video/text is available to suite your fancy. Yes, you could call this an introduction to Calvinism if you’d like. (HT: JT)

On a personal note, I’m beginning to dislike the term Calvinism more and more. As I look through what Calvin taught and how he taught it, I’m not so sure he would have agreed to this 5-point summary commonly referred to as TULIP. Not so much because the doctrines are contrary to his beliefs or teaching, but more so because it is such a short and quick summary of it. John Calvin seemed to go about his teaching for the long-term effect of it. He taught seminary-type classes for his more advanced “students” one day per week, every week. Given the fact that John Piper covered TULIP in 9 sessions, and that includes a bit of history and a discussion on Arminianism, it would appear that John Calvin was into a whole lot more than just five points.

If you look through what is commonly called John Calvin’s seminal work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, you’ll see statements like this:

Moreover, it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling. For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents.

So, it is difficult to say that Calvin was only interested in these 5-points that bear his name. It was a kind sentiment by his students to name an entire doctrinal system after the great reformer, but it’s unfortunate that something that causes so much misunderstanding and division seems to be the one thing that most folks remember John Calvin for.

  1. I agree with the desire to step away from labelling a certain set of beliefs “Calvinism” or even “Arminianism.” Further, I do believe that neither label completely encompasses the current, modern systems of belief with repeat to the state of man and the nature and actor(s) in salvation. Rather than renaming them again here and falling into the same predicament again, I would like to request a discussion here concerning two beliefs that ate normally labelled as “Calvinist:” the doctrines of total depravity and the necessity for an irresistable call in order for salvation to occur. Stated most simply, my question is this:
    Is it possible to believe in total depravity and assert a need for an irresistable call without believing that God commits evil?
    My own syllogistic work has found that the idea of God as the author of evil is a necessary precondition to believe in total depravity. I am open to discussion on this, however, and would appreciate anyone’s defense of the above. I will refrain from attacking piper’s argument in the 9 points, as he likely did not intend his noted to be a fulsome discussion of the necessary points to establish his argument, but will instead leave it to his supporters to defend completely here, if they are willing to do so.

  2. anonymous – thanks for posting your question, I apologize for my delay in responding.

    I wonder if you wouldn’t mind explaining your statement a bit further though. I’d like to get a discussing going on your question but I don’t want to dive right in before I understand what you mean. Could you elaborate more on why you think God must be the author of evil for the doctrine of total depravity to be true? Maybe the easiest way to do this is to explain your take on total depravity and also what God being an author of something means as well.

  3. Very well. As we endeavor to discern which philosophy is true, I believe it is generally futile to argue points past the first few setsof assumptions made by each viewpoint. There will always be more than one way to interpret some scriptures depending on what heuristic is used to view the scripture(s) in question. I feel that ratherthan wasting time in arguing points of view that can each be logically valid, yet lead to different conclusions due to differing starting points, it is instead better to determine which starting point is true.

    My principle objection to the philosophy which is usually called Calvinism is one of its foundational assertions, namely the Doctrine of Total Depravity and the assertion that man is INCAPABLE of doing good without God. You have cited Piper, so to him we shall go. In his outline on TULIP under total depravity in the notes, he summarizes thus: “Man’s inability to submit to God and do good is total.” What this says, and that which is the basis of the argument that man apart from God can do no good, is that man is INCAPABLE of doing good. If man is incapable of doing good, and God is man’s Creator, then God has created a being which is incapable of doing good. As the only other option to good is evil, restated, the assertion is God created a being which can only do evil. As this view removes choice from man, and thus free will from man, the only will acting is God’s will. Without man having an independent, free will that can choose good or evil, the unavoidable conclusion is that it is God who authors evil. As surely as no one places responsibility on the cue ball for sinking the eight ball, but rather the pool player, so does God become the impetus for evil.

    At the foundation of the pedesination philosophy is a denial of man’s free will. An unavoidable consequence of this belief is that there remains only on real will: God’s. Since we observe evil, and posit God as the only real, sovereign will, we have thus deduced God as the author of evil. For this reason alone, I beleive “Calvinism” to be in error. Thus my question for all is this: is it possible to believe in total depravity as Piper describes it without believing God is the will responsible for evil, the will who does evil, even though it be through choice-incapable beings called men?

  4. By the way, this critique also applies to Arminianism, as total depravity is a common framework to both.

  5. My apologies for taking so long to respond, I have been kept from this blog for a while now.

    Anoymous67: I think your take on total depravity is far reaching, it makes sense because of the terms used to describe it: “total” and “depravity”. Maybe I can help to explain and so let’s look at two passages:
    “None is righteous, no, not one;
    no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
    All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
    Romans 3:10-12 quoting Psalm 14:1-3 or 53:1-3
    and then:
    “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
    John 15:4-5
    So from these two verses we see that no one seeks after God on his own and that no one does good on his own. It is not that God has created a being incapable of doing good, He has created a being that apart from Him is unacceptable in His sight because of that being’s own sin. And so you say that that does not remove God from being the author of sin because He has still created a being that is not acceptable to Him. But if we are acceptable to Him, of what need is Jesus? Jesus is He who justifies us to God and makes us acceptable to Him.

    So, when we use the term total depravity, we use it in terms of man’s justification before God. Man has chosen sin over God and will continue to unless we are, as Christ said, “in Him”.

  6. With your permission, I will quote from the last post in order to resolve the implied difference…

    First, in regard to the scripture quoted, I would note that it states, “all have TURNED aside, together they have BECOME worthless.” These words turned and become imply a change, a transition. This shows a movement from good into evil. How does this change come about? Joshua 24:15 says “CHOOSE for yourselves the day whom you will serve…” Man chooses to move from good into evil. I do not disagree that all do so. All men do choose evil, but all men are not CREATED evil.

    I believe that an imprecise use of the words “incapable” and “unacceptable” are the source of some confusion. The previous post states, “it is not that God has created a being incapable of doing good…” but that is precisely what the doctrine of total depravity posits. The post then states, “if we are acceptable to Him, of what need is Jesus?” please note thatthe initial post says nothing about our being acceptable to Him. I would contend that we have the ABILITY to do good but we invariably CHOOSE to do evil. Of what need is Christ? He is necessary for salvation for every man, as all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.

    The key diffference is whether or not man chooses to do evil or is created only capable of evil. If the former, man still may and do fall, Christis still necessary, and He is still the only way to salvation for the sinner. If man is incapable of doing good, then we have a god who asks more of the creature than the ability which he gave him, making him capricious at best. If man has no choice but evil, then this god has created little evil automatons, making this god evil. If they are not only capable of evil, then they must have the ability to choose good. Note that this does not necessarily imply a man who is good, justthat all are capable of it. We know from scripture and personal observation, however, that none choose to do good always, or even often.

    As for “no one understands, no one seeks…,” this is a statement concerning the character of each man’s life that the psalmist is communicating, not a statement that no one is capable of good. This is a statement to be taken generally.

    You have stated the desire to define total depravity, but did not do so above. Will you accept the definition of Piper for total depravity? “Man INABILITY to submit to God and do good is total?”

  7. Yes, I agree that men are not created evil, this would make God the author of evil and this cannot be (1 John 5:18). I am saying though that we are all cursed from before birth. After Adam chose to sin and was held responsible for his sin, God cursed Adam and the entire human race such that each of us are born with a sinful nature:

    Romans 5:19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners…

    God has cursed all mankind because of Adam’s sin, this is what I mean when I say we are unacceptable to Him apart from Christ and what Paul means in Romans 8:8 “and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

    Man can do all the “good” he wants, he may choose to feed the poor and care for widows and orphans and love his neighbor but all of this does not matter in God’s eyes because we are stained with the curse of our sins and cannot gain acceptance apart from Jesus. Otherwise, we would have a justification that we could earn that is contrary to the gospel (Ephesians 2:9). God does not define these things as “good” because they are done without submitting to Him.

    I think I see where we’re differing here. I will accept Piper’s definition of total depravity as a whole because it is comprised of two parts:
    1) man’s inability to submit to God
    2) man’s inability to do good.
    Meaning, man is unable to do good because he is not in submission to God as defined by God Himself.

  8. Praise God for His mysterious ways!

    I suspect this discussion will eventually come around to the free-will/God’s sovereignty question and I would like to avoid that if possible because we are not meant to know how it is that God is sovereign over all things (Eph 1:11) and yet we are responsible for our choosing to sin (Rom 9:19-23).

    This is a mystery and not defined in Scripture, we are only told it is so. And so I say with Paul after he defines the mystery in Romans 9:
    Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

  9. When you say God cursed all mankind with a sin nature, where are you finding this? Genesis seems to me to indicate that God cursed the ground on account of man, but that man was not cursed by God for his actions. If I understand the flood portion of Genesis correctly as well, this curse was lifted after the flood.

    Secondly, does not the new testament say through one man sin entered the world? Entry is different than holding absolute sway. I suppose what I’m asking here is does your last comment mean that this sin nature of which you speak overrules man’s judgement and compells him to have no choice but to sin?

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