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John Piper’s 2012 piece “The Sovereign God of ‘Elfland’ (Why Chesterton’s Anti-Calvinism Doesn’t Put Me Off)” puts so well into words something I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about for a while. A taste:

It is a great irony to me that Calvinists are stereotyped as logic-driven. For forty years my experience has been the opposite. The Calvinists I have known (English Puritans, Edwards, Newton, Spurgeon, Packer, Sproul) are not logic driven, but Bible-driven. It's the challengers who bring their logic to the Bible and nullify text after text. Branches are lopped off by "logic," not exegesis.

Who are the great enjoyers of paradox today? Who are the pastors and theologians who grab both horns of every biblical dilemma and swear to the God-Man: I will never let go of either.

Not the Calvinism-critics that I meet. They read of divine love, and say that predestination cannot be. They read of human choice and say the divine rule of all our steps cannot be. They read of human resistance, and say that irresistible grace cannot be. Who is logic-driven?

For forty years Calvinism has been, for me, a vision of life that embraces mystery more than any vision I know. It is not logic-driven. It is driven by a vision of the ineffable, galactic vastness of God's Word.

It’s not my aim to be redundant, especially when I couldn’t say it half as well as Piper has, but this observation (and you should read his whole post, because it’s bigger than just that one point) resonates with me, for this reason:

When I first “converted” to a Reformed view of soteriology, much of the criticism I received had to do with how hyper-logical Calvinism appeared to be. “Don’t put God in your little theological box!” was the sort of thing I heard multiple times from multiple people. That always sounded strange to me, because I had discovered in Calvinism a vision of God much, much bigger--”ineffeable” and “galactically vast” to use Piper’s words--than the one of my “Arminian” upbringing. Coming to a Calvinistic reading of the Scriptures opened up the box, as it were (for me, anyway).

But over the last few years, I’ve noticed that the criticism has shifted. I hear much more these days the charges that Calvinism doesn’t make enough logical sense, that it’s too illogical. “How can sovereign predestination and human freedom coexist?” they say. “It’s self-refuting.” Or we get the logical-ethical conundrum of how a limited atonement could complement a God of love.

I find all this fascinating, this wrangling with how the theological vision of Reformational theology is now deemed too conflicting with our sense of rationality and neat categories. Which is odd, again, since previously it appeared Calvinism didn’t allow for enough mystery. Now it allows too much. Ironically enough, it’s typically the proponents of the “generous orthodoxy,” “wider mercy” type streams of thought, the ex-emergent, “progressive”-type believers in a mysterious God who bristle at the irrationality of Calvinism. For some reason there is more concern now than before that that little theological box is empty.

I believe this is relativism (spiritual and moral) at work. It is neither logic nor wonder that drives the critique, nor even theology, but an animosity to any concept of God that challenges or convicts. May I propose that, to paraphrase one of the progressives’ own prophetesses, you can safely assume you’ve created god in your own image when he defies all the logic you defy and embraces all the emotionality you embrace?

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12 thoughts on “Wonder and Rationality in Calvinism (So-Called)”

  1. gk says:

    Yep, real ^^ initials. :)

    Enjoyed this piece and the link to Piper too. His opener…

    “Ever since my days at Wheaton College, when I followed Clyde Kilby’s advice to read G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, it has been one of my favorite books. I think it’s the only book I have read more than twice (except for the Bible).

    This is strange. Not only was Chesterton a Roman Catholic, he also hated Calvinism. So what’s up with me and Orthodoxy? I still think at least half a dozen Roman Catholic distinctives are harmful to true Christian faith (e.g., papal authority, baptismal regeneration, transubstantiation, justification as impartation, purgatory, the veneration of Mary). And I think “the doctrines of grace” (“Reformed theology,” “Calvinism”) are a precious and healthy expression of biblical doctrine.”

    ….reminded me why I loved that book so much too, and why I ended up a Papist: “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.”

    (GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy [written whilst still an Anglican! :>])

    Now go out and play.

  2. Dan says:

    We’ve walked similar paths as far as “Arminian” upbringings and later embrace of Calvinism. The one area that I still feel is more logic driven is Limited Atonement. It seems to me that it fits the system, and then on that basis, people try to defend it biblically. I’m not saying it doesn’t have some biblical support, it just seems that exegesis isn’t the driving force.

    1. Sam says:

      Really? Have you read the death of death in the death of Christ by John Open? No one has been able to refute his exegetical work since he wrote it, and that is not overstated, it comes right from the mouth of J.I Packer

    2. Matt Rollins says:

      Dan, I agree. I’ve come to embrace reformed soteriology after being Arminian (even “open theist” after reading John Eldredge early in my walk with Christ), I want to be faithful to the text, and I can’t always see definite atonement in there. One passage that has made some sense of it for me is Christ’s words about His sheep in John 10, specifically verse 15.

    3. Mark says:

      I think John 17:9 (in the entire context) is a good exegetical argument. “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (ESV) Jesus’ prayer, as an act of his priestly intercession that finds its focus in the cross, is for the elect, not for the world. Jesus says it is for their sake that he consecrates himself (17:19). I think the high priestly prayer is a solid defense for definite atonement, since the atonement is at the heart of Jesus’ priestly work.

  3. doug sayers says:

    Thanks Jared, I would agree that logic is not the strong suit of historic Calvinism but we cannot do proper exegesis without it. It is logic that keeps us from assuming that justification by the law of works and justification by the law of faith (Rom3) are somehow compatible mysteries, even though there are numerous texts, which could lead us to think that we are saved by our works. It is logic that enables us to understand how that Jesus could come from Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Egypt…..

    Perhaps the question of salvation by grace vs salvation by irresistible grace boils down to *where* you want to play the “mystery” card.

    I have a very hard time with both the logic and the exegesis that says every baby ever born was born guilty of Adam’s sin and will be left to perish unless God has already decided to bestow upon him/her the irresistible grace needed to “voluntarily” repent and embrace the gospel Truth.

    We should all wear the accusation of “proofer” or “proof-texter” as a badge of honor. When we dispatch with logic in our Bible study, liberalism is not far behind. We can make the Bible say anything we want.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Doug, I’m not playing any cards here. I find in Reformed theology a very logical system, making the best sense of the biblical texts. But I also see that it does not “put God in a box,” as it were. My point in this piece is not to say that Calvinism is illogical. It is only to mention the shifting goal-posts from critics, who I think will use any critique that seems to fit, so long as it keeps the uncomfortable claims of Reformed theology at arm’s length.

  4. JP says:

    Calvinsts are clearly biblically smarter than the rest of us heathen Arminians. Piper’s pups are not prideful though…Of course not ;)

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      JP, what a weird comment.

      1. JP says:

        You throw shade at Arminianism (or your upbringing of some off form of it). Both sides have issues or the benefit of logic in different areas. Both sides have mystery. Maybe your criticism is not directed at intentional Arminians, and I am merely misreading. Either way. The same theme that often comes out of these articles is that Arminians are a lesser form of Christianity (hence the Piper reference from my first comment). Maybe your criticism is more toward emergent types (not Arminians). If so…then my bad.

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          JP, I see. For my part, I am not trying to “throw shade” on Arminianism proper, but rather a particular critical approach of some Arminians. The point, I hope, is that the best kind of criticism employs the weight of the biblical text, not one’s individual preferences about logic or mystery — though the Bible contains plenty of both.

          1. JP says:

            I appreciate you engaging this topic. I also agree that criticism should be based from the text, first and foremost. The difficult thing becomes, once the text can be interpreted two ways, by what means can we deal with the implications of either interpretation? Some appear to mystery, some appeal to logic, some appeal to what fits God’s character, and some don’t appeal to anything. Your observation is interesting regarding the pendulum swing of criticism, against Calvinism, as it relates to logic. I don’t run in any official theological circles, as a laymen, so I’ll take your word for it. Arminians, however, are concerned with protecting against logical implications that swing God character close toward a potentially dangerous union of God being the author of sin, or God being “unloving” (as it relates to predestination/reprobation).

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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