05 / 06
birds birds birds

An Atheist Defines Calvinism

September 21, 2020


An atheist professor asks for an evaluation of his understanding of Calvinism.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, the title of this article by Keith Parsons certainly got my attention: “Calvinists Needed.”[1] Keith Parsons – I just have to say, personally, that's one of my favorite debates that you've done. I know you've debated him several times. 4,000 people in Dallas-Ft. Worth in that auditorium. The first debate of yours that I attended. I just thought it was a rigorous debate. You did such a good job. I anticipated every objection so I was very proud of myself. [laughter] He writes for the Secular Outpost occasionally. He talks about his students. He is going to be doing a class, and he wants to make sure that he has his Calvinism right. A couple of things on this. First of all, a lot of what he addresses here is the current topic on Defenders. Talk about that a little bit.

DR. CRAIG: Well, in my Defender's class we've been talking about the doctrine of sin and now the doctrine of salvation. This gets into issues of predestination and free will – whether or not these are compatible with each other and how we should understand God's predestination and human freedom.

KEVIN HARRIS: The second thing that I want to point out is your modus operandi – your attitude – on this. You resist engaging the multitudes of our Calvinist friends of all stripes who are constantly wanting to debate these and get you to debate and things like that. Instead it's not that you want to run from the issues; it's just that you don't want to debate other Christians – in-house debates.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. Right.

KEVIN HARRIS: And the second thing I'd say is that you just offer Molinism. Just look at Molinism generally.

DR. CRAIG: I have a very clear sense of my own calling as a Christian evangelist, and my main audience is non-Christian people (unbelievers). Those are the ones that I'm trying to seek. So it's simply not my calling to be involved in these sorts of public debates over Christian doctrine. But having said that, I certainly have addressed these issues – for example, in my Defender's class – where I will interact with persons of varying opinions and try to present their views as persuasively and fairly as I can before giving my assessment and critique and offering a solution in certain cases. So I've certainly been engaged with the issues but it's not my calling to spend time getting involved in debates entertaining people.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Dr. Parsons says,

I am presently teaching a graduate-level survey of the history of ideas and we are covering the Reformation, with readings from Luther and Calvin. Below is a portion of some notes I plan to post for my students:

The greatest emphasis of Calvin’s theology is the majesty of God. God’s sovereignty is absolute. The universe and everything in it reflect the glory of God, and everything that happens occurs to serve the glory of God. Even the most atrocious actions of the wicked serve the will and purpose of God in the long run. Indeed, God is constantly active in the world to the extent that everything can be seen as an instrument of God’s activity and a product of his will. Even Satan and his devils acted upon God’s command. However, does this not implicate God in the occurrence of evil, since no evil thing can happen without his active involvement?

That's the first part. We can keep going, or we can look at that.

DR. CRAIG: I think he's given an accurate representation of Calvinism which has this extremely strong view of divine sovereignty, and I think he's posed a very acute question for the Calvinist. How does the Calvinist's doctrine of divine sovereignty and providence not make God the author of evil? This is an objection that Arminians and Molinists have lodged against the Calvinist perspective.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. He continues,

The problem of God’s responsibility for evil becomes particularly acute when we consider the famous (or infamous) doctrine of predestination. Calvin held that God has foreordained some for salvation and others for damnation. Since God is all-powerful, whatever he ordains must take place. Nothing any human can do can alter God’s eternal decrees. Those who are saved are saved by the irresistible action of the Holy Spirit. Free will has nothing to do with it. The spirit moves those elected for salvation and they must believe the Gospel, and so will be saved. However, if the lost can do nothing to alter their fate, does this not imply that it is God, not the sinner, who is responsible for the sinner’s terrible fate?

DR. CRAIG: Again, I think he has accurately characterized the view and posed a very acute question. At one level the sinner is responsible for his own terrible fate because it is he who has sinned and therefore justly deserves the condemnation of God. He is under the just judgment of God. But, as Parsons says, the only reason that he's not saved is because God does not accord to him his irresistible grace and draw him to himself in repentance. God prefers to pass over certain persons and allow them to suffer their just desert whereas he graciously and freely elects to save others who are equally undeserving but on whom God has put his love. The deeper question, of course, here is that although the sinner certainly deserves the punishment that God gives him, the sin itself is something that was caused and decreed by God so that it's as though God were to pull the strings on a puppet's limbs making it do something and then condemns the puppet for doing it. I think that is a deep problem for Calvinism.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues,

One possible way of avoiding blaming God for the fate of the lost is to say that God has foreordained their damnation but not predetermined it. God grants free will to all human beings, but, left to their own devices, all will fall into sin. All humans are therefore corrupt and deserving of hell, but God mercifully chooses to save some. Those he chooses to save are no more deserving than those not chosen. God’s reasons for choosing some and not others are wholly mysterious and unknowable. As for the unsaved, God does not force them to sin, but he leaves them in the state of sinfulness and disobedience which they have chosen for themselves. Therefore, God is not to blame for the fate of sinners, but is to be praised for his mercy in saving some.

DR. CRAIG: Now, I don't think that this accurately represents Calvinism. It seems to me that this is a description of Arminian theology – the attempt to distinguish between foreordination and predetermination. I can't understand that distinction on Calvinism if to foreordain or predestine something is to predetermine it. But what he seems to suggest here is that human beings have free will – they freely sin – and therefore they are under God's just condemnation. I think that God is under no obligation to save anybody. Everyone is justly condemned by God. And so if God chooses to save anybody at all that is not an unjust act on God's part. That is a gracious and merciful act that he would choose to save some. So he's not to blame for the fate of sinners – rather, they receive their just desert. But he is to be credited for those that he does choose to save because he's acted mercifully toward them.

KEVIN HARRIS: He ends this short article here in the final paragraph. He says,

First, are these points accurate, so far as they go?

DR. CRAIG: OK. Let’s stop with each one. “Are these points accurate?” Well, I don't think they are an accurate characterization of Calvinism, and if that's what Keith thinks I think he's wrong. I think these points would be a more accurate characterization of Arminian theology which flows from the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius who opposed Calvin and his teaching.


Second, according to Calvin, are humans individually responsible for their own corruption, or is corruption the condition into which we are all born, consequent upon the fall of Adam and Eve? Frankly, I find Calvin somewhat confusing on this point.

DR. CRAIG: I think that the answer is yes and yes – it's both-and. People are born into sin because of the fall of Adam and Eve. This is the doctrine of original sin. The idea is that there's some kind of corporate solidarity of every human being with Adam such that Adam served as our representative before God. Very often Calvinists will talk about the federal headship of Adam just as you and I have federal representatives who act on our behalf in the US Congress. So Adam was the federal head of the human race who acted on our part before God, and therefore when Adam sinned we are implicated in his act in virtue of his representation of us. Adam's sin is imputed to every individual human being because of our corporate solidarity with Adam. So we are individually responsible for our acts, but it's also the condition into which we are born in virtue of Adam's sin.

KEVIN HARRIS: Is that what you think? Do you hold to that corporate . . . ?

DR. CRAIG: No. I don't hold to that view. In our discussion in Defender's class of the doctrine of original sin, while I think that Paul in Romans 5 teaches that sin entered the world through Adam's fall, he does not say in that passage that Adam's sin is imputed to every member of his posterity. Instead what he says is that sin entered the world through Adam and so “death spread to all men because all men sinned.” So it was because each individual person sinned that the curse of death attended him. I just don't find it in Romans 5 that the sin of Adam is imputed to every other human being.


Finally, Calvin says that God shows his mercy by saving some and not others. Some of my students are sure to object as follows: If ten people are drowning and I can easily save them all but only save four, would I not rightly be blamed for not saving all rather than praised for saving four? Would not the same blame attach to a God who only saves some when he could just as easily save all? I have read Calvin’s answers to questions like these, but I am still not completely clear on his responses. Any elaboration or clarification would be appreciated by me and by my students.

DR. CRAIG: I think that the failure of the analogy of the drowning people is that it leaves out the critical factor that the damned deserve their fate. These drowning people are innocent. They don't deserve to die. The better analogy would be that there are ten people on death row because of capital crimes like murder and terrorism and other atrocities. They're all guilty. They all deserve to die. And then the governor pardons four out of the ten and allows the other six to go to their just desert. Can the governor be blamed for the deaths of these other six? Well, I think not. They deserved their fate. They are receiving their just desert. It's just that he showed mercy upon the four who got what they did not deserve. There is a beautiful illustration of this in Alexander Dumas’ book The Count of Monte Cristo. There is a scene in that where the Count of Monte Cristo is witnessing an execution – a beheading – of two criminals. And at the last moment he secures the pardon of one of the criminals and not the other. When he does this the other criminal begins to cry out at the injustice and the unfairness of this. “Why should the other one be pardoned and not me?” And kicking and screaming he's dragged before the executioner and mercilessly slain. The point that the Count makes in observing this is that that prisoner deserved to die, and so long as his fellow prisoner was going to die with him there was no protest on his part. He was going meekly to his execution knowing that's what he deserved. It was only when the one was shown mercy that he suddenly began to cry out saying that he should be shown mercy, too. And there was simply no reason for that. He didn't deserve mercy. So I think what this illustration shows is that the person who has not been shown mercy – who is executed – is not receiving anything other than his just desert. And the person who pardons the criminal is not doing anything unjust. Now, having said that, however, what the story does challenge is: Was the Count all-loving in securing the pardon of only one? If he could have secured the pardon of both but he chose to secure the pardon of only one then his love was not impartial and universal but it was selective and partial. And so I think what Calvinism calls into question is not the justice of God. I think that in allowing the reprobate to receive their just desert God does nothing unjust. But I do think it calls into question the love of God. If God could just as easily save everyone and he chooses not to then I think that puts a real question mark behind God's being all-loving. Therefore I'm not a Calvinist.

KEVIN HARRIS: I want to encourage everyone, in conclusion today, to go to and see the current Defenders Series. You are going through the doctrine of salvation covering these topics.[2]



[2]            Total Running Time: 17:52 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)