Calvinism’s Confusion about God

Although both Calvinism and Extensivism (the belief that God genuinely wants every person to be saved and has made it possible for them to be saved) fall within the parameters of orthodoxy, and I do love my Calvinist brothers and sisters, we embrace very different ideas of God. Since God’s salvation plan is the most dominant theme of Scripture other than God himself, and Extensivism and Calvinism hold such disparate perspectives regarding salvation, with some points being mutually exclusive, it seems easy to see why we would have some significantly different concepts and emphases regarding God himself.

God’s choice to endow man with either compatible freedom (as Calvinism claims) or libertarian freedom (as Extensivism claims) says more about who God is than who man is (though the differences in man are substantial as well).[1] Each time I contrast the essence of these different soteriological (salvation) perspectives, it always leads me to contemplate the nature of God. Thus, I am unwilling to categorize our differences as secondary or tertiary (in the same way we do ecclesiology or eschatology) because, to me, that would be to contemplate God irreverently. Therefore, I might categorize the importance of our soteriological differences as a tertium quid or a primary-minus, neither heretical nor secondary. I mention three significant areas in which the nature of God plays a significant role, which I believe Calvinists complicate and confuse.

Goodness and Omnibenevolence
Charles Hodge says, “Goodness, in the Scriptural sense of the term, includes benevolence, love, mercy, and grace. By benevolence is meant the disposition to promote happiness; all sensitive creatures are its objects“[2] (italics added). Similarly, Millard Erickson says regarding benevolence, “By this we mean the concern of God for the welfare of those whom he loves. He unselfishly seeks our ultimate welfare”[3] (italics added). Erickson then quotes John 3:16 as an illustration of this benevolence, which strongly indicates he includes people’s salvific welfare.

I agree with Hodge that benevolence is the promotion of true happiness for all humans. I also agree with Erickson. But these explanations generate questions in my mind. For example, does providing for the “happiness” and “ultimate welfare” of a person not necessitate giving an opportunity to experience salvation? Does this benevolent act not tower exceedingly over all other promotions of “happiness” and “welfare?” Without such benevolence, with its concomitant eternal loss and damnation, all other blessings are doomed to eternal meaninglessness, and to talk otherwise is at least a massive distraction.

That is to say, benevolence that provides only such temporal items as sunshine, food, and water is eternally meaningless since, in the end, only salvation matters. Unfortunately, Calvinists often echo the sentiments of Hodge and Erickson, which confuses the issue because their sentiments are inconsistent with Calvinism’s exclusive salvation. They are, however, perfectly reflective of Extensivism. Moreover, the difference is not merely what omnibenevolence encompasses but the nature of the omnibenevolent being.

Predestination
I strongly contend that all consistent Calvinists believe in double predestination, irrespective of their views of the decrees of God. Because, as I insist, their system inescapably (not to mention the actual claims) teaches that the eternal destiny of every person was either actively, passively, or consequently predestined by God. It is unavoidable, in our world, that unconditional selective election and limited atonement are intrinsically predeterminative.

Calvin averred, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”[4]

Additionally, suppose Calvinism is true and mankind was created compatibly free. In that case, it is, according to the nature of compatibilism and God’s sovereignty, undeniable that God could have created a world in which at least one more, many more, or even everyone could have been numbered among the elect and been saved (see my article Is Reprobation Necessary For God To Demonstrate His Holiness and Wrath). It appears one could conclude God would have been more benevolent since fewer or none would have suffered God’s wrath. Moreover, it seems difficult to find biblical support for how that would interfere with him still doing everything for his glory. It appears such a plan would pedestal his omnibenevolence, resulting in at least as much glory as the plan according to Calvinism.

I would argue that what we know from Scripture that people’s suffering in hell is not so that God may show his glory in wrath, but rather for their own sin and rejection of his grace, which they could have accepted (Matt 11:20-21; Luke 13:3-5). The Calvinist argument that teaches God chose to predestine people to eternal damnation, and this despite the Scriptures that say God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and the countless Scriptures that explicitly say and portray that God gives man a choice to know him and desires that he do so, depicts a God I do not see in the pages of Scripture (Ps 86:5; Ezek 18:23, 32; 33:11; Titus 2:11; Rev 2:11. See also my article Calvinism and the Problem of Damnation and Hell).

That God endowed man with libertarian freedom (ability to choose otherwise and grace enabled him to be able to do so as a sinner when confronted with the gospel which “is the power of God unto salvation” Rom 1:16) does not mean that some, or even many, things cannot be determined apart from man’s choice. It only means that some, by God’s design, are not. In contrast, within Calvinism’s compatibilism, everything is determined, and man cannot ever choose differently than God determined him to choose. Nevertheless, Calvinists regularly speak, pray, preach, and write libertarianly, which confuses people about their utter rejection of libertarian freedom and the micro-deterministic nature of their compatible moral freedom.

Foreknowledge
Millard Erickson explains how God foreknows the future regarding salvation and everything else. He says, “He foreknows what will happen because he has decided what is to happen. This is true with respect to all other human decisions and actions as well . . . God’s decision has rendered it certain that every individual will act in a particular way”[5] (italics added). Keep in mind, Erickson is a moderate Calvinist. His understanding of how God foreknows is reflective of consistent Calvinism. God knows the future because he micro-determined what the future will be. Calvinism rejects libertarian free will and imposes compatible freedom on man; therefore, man cannot ever choose differently than he chooses, given the same past, in any particular situation.

There are much better ways to understand how God knows the future without resorting to Calvinism’s biblically problematic micro-determinism, some of which are God being essentially omniscient,[6] Molinism,[7] and God exists in an eternal present.[8]

I believe Scripture depicts God’s foreknowledge as an essential property of deity in the same way as omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence; hence, he is essentially omniscient. Therefore, it is not required that he predetermine everything to know what will happen in the future (time and space continuum) since, as an essential property of his being, he cannot be mistaken or have a false belief about the future.[9] Essential omniscience comprehends that he knows events he determined to happen, which cannot be altered by human choice (definite events), and these happen necessarily. He also knows events he permitted to happen, resulting from libertarian free choice or contingencies (indefinite events). Indefinite events, contingencies, do not happen necessarily as do definite events since the libertarian free being could have chosen differently, which Calvinism’s system precludes. But God knows they will happen, and therefore, they happen certainly.[10]

Linda Zagzebski explains “essential omniscience” this way. “In that case God would not only be omniscient as things actually are, but he could not be anything but omniscient. In the parlance of possible worlds, to say that God is essentially omniscient is to say that God is omniscient in every possible world. Not only is God not mistaken in any of his beliefs, he cannot be mistaken . . . Essential omniscience entails infallibility.”[11]

As for God living in an eternal present, Zagzebski says, “All things are present to God, not in the sense of being temporally simultaneous, but in the sense of being ‘before the mind.’ This includes everything that is future to us. Since the foreknowledge dilemma arises only for a fallible being within the flow of time, it does not apply to an eternal God. There is no problem in attributing comprehensive infallible knowledge to God, including knowledge of the precise moment you will pull yourself out of bed tomorrow.”[12]

She further explains, “Every moment of time is simultaneous with eternity but no moment of time is simultaneous with any other—the point of the circle analogy of Boethius and Aquinas. An important aspect of this kind of simultaneity is that it is defined relative to an observer, either in the temporal sphere or in eternity. Events that are simultaneous relative to a timeless observer are not simultaneous relative to a temporal observer.”[13]

At this point, we need to remember that Calvinism often conflates God’s perfect knowledge of the future with their determinism. But in this, they err because knowledge does not require determinism. They are two different categories, and to conflate them as though knowledge of something happening entails or is the same as determinism is a categorical fallacy. God’s knowledge of future acts because he is an essentially omniscient being, does not require Calvinism’s micro-determinism and to say it does is born out of Calvinim’s confusion.

Calvinism’s perspective of how God knows the future in time presents not only a different view of man, salvation, and moral freedom, but most significantly, a different view of the nature of God than does Scripture and Extensivism. In Extensivism, God is by nature able to know events he determined and events that arise from beings he determined to create with libertarian freedom so that people make choices, and, in many scenarios, they could have chosen differently. Whereas, in Calvinism, God knows since he predetermined it to be; that is to say, man’s choice cannot ever originate a new possibility or sequence of events. As a result, our two views of God are very different.

They confusingly seek to exalt God by saying he determines everything, which actually diminishes God and his crowning creation, mankind. God is diminished in that, according to Calvinism, it is impossible for him to know or be sovereign over the acts of libertarian free beings, contingencies, and can only know what he micro-determines. Man, his crowning creation, is degraded to being a determined, and thereby deceived, being who can only choose what God determined him to choose even though he believes he lives in a world, making real choices between accessible options. While such a state of affairs is demeaning to mankind who is created in God’s image, it pales in light of how such misrepresentations degrade God.


[1] COMPATIBILISM: Determinism and moral responsibility are compatible, hence the name. This compatibility is not achieved by compatibilism being less deterministic than hard determinism. Rather, it is achieved by defining free choice to mean as long as a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he has made a free choice for which he is morally responsible; even though given the same past, he cannot choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Consequently, the difference between compatibilism (soft determinism) and hard determinism is not to be found in the levels of the deterministic nature of each since they are the same. Rather, the difference is compatibilism simply contends people are morally responsible for their choices if they are made according to their greatest desire, and hard determinism says they are not. Therefore, moral responsibility is the product of defining free choice as a person acting in accordance with his greatest desire even though the desire is determined.

LIBERTARIAN: Man is not determined. He has the actual ability to choose between accessible options, at least in some scenarios. Libertarians contend determinism is not compatible with moral responsibility. Man possesses actual otherwise choice and can, therefore, act or refrain in the moral moment of decision, given the same past within a given range of options.

Extensivism argues God endowed man with this ability, which is an aspect of being created in the image of God. God determines the range of options. Adam’s range of options, the result of creative grace, was greater than mankind’s options after the fall. Fallen man can still choose between options, but the range of options is less than man had prior to the fall. This lessening includes losing the ability to make choices that are inherently righteous or spiritually restorative (making one right with God) based solely on creative grace. In order to make an inherently righteous choice or one that is spiritually restorative, God had to provision redemptive grace—grace enablements—which he did.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986), 1:427.
[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 1:292.
[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, bk. 3, chap. 21, sec. 5, pg. 206.
[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 1:326.
[6] This is how I describe my perspective: see my book Does God Love All or Some? and see Linda Zagzebsk’s comments on God being essentially omniscient in, “Recent Work on Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will” The Oxford Handbook, 50. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195178548.003.000.
[7] William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (Eugene: OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999) and William Lane Craig, “The Middle-Knowledge View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), and Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, A Molinist Approach (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2010).
[8] Regarding Aquinas and Boethius’ use of the circle analogy, Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski says “Compared the way an eternal God is present to each and every moment of time to the way in which the center of a circle is present to each and every point on the circumference.” In “Recent Work on Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will” The Oxford Handbook, 50. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195178548.003.000.
[9] See my book Does God Love All or Some? or my blog articles, “God’s Essential Omniscience Does Not Require Calvinism’s Determinism,” and “Answering Calvinism’s Claim That We Are All Determinists,” both at ronniewrogers.com.
[10] Events are said to happen necessarily because God determined that they cannot be affected by human choice, and events are said to happen certainly because they are the result of God permitting libertarian free beings to choose, and by their choice, to change things; these events could have been different if the being had chosen differently, which he could have done. For example, Bob chose to reject the gospel, which initiated a new sequence of events in his life, which would have been different had he believed the gospel, which he could have done. And the choice to believe the gospel and be saved would have initiated an alternative sequence of events. God always knew what Bob would freely choose, but if Bob had chosen differently, God would have always known that. God did not look down the halls of history to see what Bob would choose, but, rather, being essentially omniscient as an essential property of deity, he always knew by looking no further than himself. For God to know everything including indefinite events all he had to know was himself comprehensively, which includes his intentions.
[11] Linda Zagzebski, “Recent Work on Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will” in The Oxford Handbook, 47. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195178548.003.000.
[12] Linda Zagzebski, “Recent Work on Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will” in The Oxford Handbook, 50. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195178548.003.000.
[13] Commenting on Stump and Kretzmann’s idea of simultaneity. Linda Zagzebski, “Recent Work on Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will” in The Oxford Handbook, 52. DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195178548.003.000.