Update: I’ve swung more Reformed since the original writing of this post, but will leave as is for the sake of being lazy, and because the main point still stands.
I named this blog Reformedish for various reasons. Probably the main one is that I am a newcomer to the Reformed tradition and so there are parts of it I still wrestle with and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Unsurprisingly one such area is the doctrine of God’s predestination. I’ll just be honest and say I’ve never been excited about double-predestination for all of its logical-consistency and the strength of the biblical arguments. Laying my currently-held cards out on the table, I’m something of a Calvinistically-inclined Molinist. If you don’t know that means, don’t worry about it–I don’t know if that actually works, but that’s where I am most days–except on Thursdays when I teach–I need to believe God’s efficaciously calling people or else it’s on me and that’s just too much pressure. My buddy Scott and I have joked since college that we’ll definitely be full-blown Calvinists by the time we’re 40.
In any case, I’ll say that there is one argument that some Calvinists make I’ve always found unconvincing and will probably continue to find unconvincing even if/when I cross that final rubicon. Taking their cue from Paul in Romans 9:22-23–“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…”–they argue along the lines that God’s decree of election to salvation and reprobation to damnation is to perfectly display his attributes for the sake of his glory. In a nutshell, on this view, God damns sinners according to their guilt in order to display his justice and saves some in order to display his mercy. Otherwise, how would we know about these perfections?
Now, Jonathan Edwards convinced me a while back that God does all things (creation, redemption, etc) with an endview towards his glory. No need to argue that point–I’m fully on-board. But like I said, I’ve never bought this particular argument. And as I mentioned, not all Calvinists do. In fact, theologian Herman Bavinck, contemporary to Abraham Kuyper and author of the beastly 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (which would make a great present if any generous readers are wondering–just message me), had some questions about it as well. In an article on the difference between Supralapsarianism (supra) and Infralapsarianism (infra)–two positions regarding the logical order of God’s decrees–he argues that this, typically supra, line of reasoning has some holes in it:
In the first place, to say that the manifestation of all God’s excellencies is the final goal of all of the ways of God is indeed correct; but when supra includes in that goal the manner in which the divine glory will be revealed in the eternal destiny of rational creatures, it errs. For, the eternal state of salvation or of perdition is not in itself the goal, but one of the means employed in order to reveal God’s excellencies in a manner suited to the creature. It would not do to say that God would have been unable to manifest his glory by saving all men, if this had been his pleasure. Neither is it correct to say that in the eternal state of the reprobate God reveals his justice exclusively, and that in the eternal state of the elect he manifests his mercy exclusively. Also in the church, purchased with the blood of the Son, God’s justice is revealed; and also in the place of perdition there are degrees of punishment and sparks of divine mercy. The final goal of all God’s work’s must needs be his glory, but the manner in which that glory will shine forth is not thereby given, but has been determined by God’s will; and although there were wise and holy reasons why God purposed the perdition of many and not the salvation of all, nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us: we are not able to say why God willed to make use of this means and not of another.
Bavinck makes what’s always been my sticking point: God can and does perfectly display his mercy and justice in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, in which case that argument could just as plausibly be deployed in favor of univeralism. In a sense, if it proves anything it proves too much.
Of course, this does not disprove Calvinism, election, reprobation, infra- or supralapsarianism, or that God’s ultimate goal isn’t that final state of glory. It’s really just dealing with this one argument. Still, Bavinck’s wisdom is to push for greater theological modesty at this point. Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Inst. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history and salvation, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”
Soli Deo Gloria