The imperfect God of classical Calvinism

One thing has always perplexed me about classical Calvinism — it so strongly insists on God's perfection (I love that theme within the Reformed tradition) and yet it simultaneously insists on a God who is, despite their protests to the contrary, less than perfect. This is not a new criticism, but it bears repeating.

Anselm insisted that God is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." But it seems that, in Christian terms, it is easy to conceive of a God greater than the God of classical Calvinism.

Consider: for Christian theology "God is love." Which, at very least, means that in his very essence God is love. He is not loving by some happy accident but by virtue of being who he is.

Now, if you love someone you desire the best for them. Not necessarily what they think is best for them, but what is actually best for them. So if God loves someone then God will desire what is actually best for them. In a Christian view of things, what is actually best for human creatures is for them to be united with God in eschatological glory. That is the fulfillment of the human telos.

Further, if God is loving in his very essence then God cannot not love his creatures without ceasing to be the God that he is — which is, of course, impossible.

So if God is love in his very essence then he must love all his creatures and must desire to actualize what is best for them. For humans that entails a desire to unite them to himself in glory (which, given sin, requires that he desire to save them from sin).

The Calvinist God, however, does not desire to unite all humans to himself in glory, and thus does not desire to save them all from sin. This can only be because he does not love them enough to desire what is best for them. He may love them somewhat (offering them common grace), but not perfectly (refusing them saving grace).

But surely, if love is a divine perfection then loving all creatures perfectly is greater than loving only some creatures perfectly. God's not loving some creatures would be God falling short of his very being — impossible. Yet the Calvinist says that God only loves some creatures perfectly. I can imagine something greater than that. Imagining something greater than God is impossible. So the Calvinist vision of God is, in Christian terms, impossible, because it falls short of divine perfection.

At least, that is how things appear to me.


Tom Nicholson said…
Thanks for that, Robin.
So good to have that spelled out so clearly.

A hard Calvinist may reply the usual: "Ah but God's ways are not our ways..." (Is. 55:8)

But the context of that quote is precisely what you are saying -- that God's ways are higher and better than typical human ways -- indeed the highest and best we can imagine.
David said…
I agree with you. So please don't take this as disagreement. I do, though, think you're being a bit disingenuous in your presentation of classical Calvinism.

You point out that "God is love." This is definitely true. But just as you can point to 1 John and show that in Scripture, so too could someone point to the Psalms and express the deep sense of God's justice present in those passages. In some cases, justice necessitates punishment (again, "eternal damnation" is certainly too strict a punishment if the crime is "unbelief;" that's neither here nor there, though).

Additionally, if the statement "if God loves someone then God will desire what is actually best for them," is true, that's great. But what if God's perspective is not individualist? What if God's perspective is: "If God loves EVERYONE, then God will desire what is best for EVERYONE." That means looking at humanity, not as a collection of individuals, but as a collective of which each member is a small part. What may be "best for them," then, might not be "for them to be united with God in eschatological glory," but rather for those who are meant for that eschatological glory to be free of those who are not, so that they can flourish.

Again, it's not that hard to pick apart some of those arguments in more detail, and I'm certain you can do it. But it IS a bit unfair to you start with a conclusion with which the other side would disagree and make it a premise of your argument (i.e., "what is actually best for human creatures is for them to be united with God in eschatological glory"). When doing so, it becomes really easy to prove your point. In other words, I could argue, "Everyone knows Jesus is a wombat. So we should start worshiping wombats." Well... what if Jesus isn't a wombat? Similarly, your argument starts from a different point than classical Calvinism, so OF COURSE you reach a different conclusion. Classical Calvinism would do the very same to your theological arguments: start from a different place, and reach a different conclusion.

That's my thought about it, anyway.
Robin Parry said…
Thanks David,

That is interesting.

I am a little unclear on your reason for worry.

You suggest that the problem is that I begin with a premise that a Calvinist would reject. Namely, "what is actually best for human creatures is for them to be united with God in eschatological glory." As such I cannot expect a Calvinist to feel the weight of the argument because they do not even accept its starting point.

The reason that I am unclear is that I am not aware of any Calvinists who do not accept this premise. Of course, there may be some, but I'd have thought that it was pretty uncontroversial for a Christian—including a Calvinist.

After all, Calvinists do not argue that going to hell is what is best for certain people. Rather, the point is that it is what they deserve.

Indeed, that Calvinists do accept this claim is suggested by the fact that they claim that the reason that God does not do what is best for everyone is that God does not love everyone—he loves the elect.

So the really contentious part of the argument is not the part that you identify—which I think Calvinists normally would accept—but the claim that if God is love he will love all people. THAT is the premise that Calvinists typically try to deny.

Or have I misunderstood you?

(On the issues of humanity as a whole and individuals—why must God choose? God loves the world, God loves the church, but God also loves me. Even if the world is not simply a collection of individuals—and it is not—I can't think why God's love is not also directed towards individuals, even if they are individuals-in-community.
David said…
I agree with your statements, but perhaps am not making myself clear. It's NOT best for (since he's the easy strawman) Hitler to end up in hell. What a classical Calvinist might argue, it's that it's best for humanity for Hitler to end up in hell; looking at the collective of humanity monolithically rather than as individuals. The elect are loved; the unelect are loved. In order for the elect (and God, the classical Calvinist would argue) to have JUSTICE, as well as love, requires that some would be left out. I guess that's just the nuance with which I'm used to hearing it. I worry I'm still not making sense, but I'm trying.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Robin
you have nicely explained my main ill-formulated unease with classical Calvinism - not Scripture or Tradition but the view of God.

We can see this historical evolution/development of ideas of divinity.
Zeus - chief god, powerful etc. but not ultimate creator (Zeus had a beginning) - revise one's idea of divinity.
An ultimate creator who is also morally perfect is a greater idea of god.
A transcendent god who becomes incarnate is greater than one who does not (or cannot).

cf: an architect who lives in the place he designed (which was well designed and started well but has become a slum because of its residents' misbehaviour, in order to show the residents how the place was designed to be used) is greater than one who does not descend there (ceteris paribus).

A king who lives amongst his people and shares their privation is greater than one who is aloof.

"Ordinary" divine omniscience knows that I suffer, but not the experience of suffering: hunger, thirst, cold, betrayal, crucifixion, death etc.. A god who who can experience the above (in solidarity and example) is "more omniscient" than a non-incarnate one.

I sometimes use the above Anselmic analogies to try to explain to Jehovah's Witnesses and my Muslim friends that the Trinity and Incarnation is a higher view of God as Love - not primitive pagan one.

Eric McCarty said…
I was recently engaged in a conversation with a Calvinist friend on the topic of mercy and goodness and I think it plays into this idea of perfection as well. If perfection is defined as "as good as it is possible to be" (as some dictionaries suggest) then the Calvinist may run into trouble.

We were discussing Romans 11:32 "For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may show mercy to all." My friend's response was that Paul was speaking of the elect in that section and "all" in the second part of that verse is referring only to the elect. OK, let's grant the Calvinist that ground, for the sake of argument. God shows mercy on the elect, but not the damned. Assuming there is no higher law to which God must submit, this not showing mercy is a free-will decision on God's part. So let's take this idea of showing mercy on a minority only and see what that says of His goodness (and, therefore, His perfection).

Look at the story of the "Good" Samaritan. The priest and levite walked by without showing mercy. The Samaritan showed mercy. Mercy is 33% present in this parable. If we make the assumption that most people aren't elect, then this fits well with possible percentages of people in never-ending torment. God is merciful to a minority of people ever created, 33% might not be a bad guess. We refer to the Samaritan as being "good" because he showed mercy. Taking that concept and applying it to God and some assumed probabilities with the elect, God is "good" 33% of the time. If we take the definition of perfect to be "as good as it is possible to be" then this God is not perfect.

This might be another way of showing the imperfection of the Calvinist God.
Robin Parry said…

Got it! Thanks for that.

Well, there are LOTS of issues here — and we could get lost in a very long set of discussions.

But as I want to stick with issues that Calvinists are likely to agree, let me just say the following.

As you agree that to love Hitler would be to desire what is actually best for Hitler, let us pose the question, does God love Hitler?

Option 1: Yes.
Option 2: No.

Now I think that you are suggesting that the Calvinist might argue that while God does indeed love Hitler and want to do what is best for him, God cannot do that without failing to love humanity as a whole. God's love for humanity overrides his love for Hitler. The upshot is that while God wants to do what is best for Hitler, he does not actually do what is best for Hitler.

Now I happen to think that this scenario is wrong—i.e., that God can do what is best for Hitler and what is best for humanity as a whole. Indeed, I'd go further and suggest that God cannot do what is best for humanity as a whole without doing what is best for Hitler. (And note, what is best for Hitler will probably involve Hitler going to hell for a period.) But let's set that aside for now.

Now, as I understand it, your solution for the Calvinist is to offer them a way out. They can assert that God does love Hitler and wants to save him, but is simply not able to do so because his overriding love of humanity as a whole makes it impossible.

My point is simply this: I cannot imagine any Calvinist taking that way out. Calvinism is committed to the view that God in his sovereignty can do what he likes. He could save everyone if he wanted — Hitler included — without failing to love humanity as a whole. That God does not save Hitler is not because he cannot, but because he chooses not to. Hitler is not among the elect. God has chosen not to set his love on Hitler. That is the Calvinist line. Your solution may appeal to some Arminians, but I doubt there will be a queue of Calvinists.

Or that's how it seems to me at the moment

David said…
I agree entirely with your reasoning as presented in the post above, with the exception that I think your last paragraph needs some nuance. My opinion in studying Calvinist tradition (which is different from studying Calvin, which is what I actually know much better, so I could be getting a little mixed up here) is that the purpose of some not being among the elect is that God's justice must be satisfied. My experience with evangelical Calvinists (I'm a Presbyterian pastor in the US, which limits my experience to the so-called "mainline" churches, more than the evangelical ones) is that the purpose of double-predestination is to allow for both God's love (in grace and salvation) and God's justice (in eternal punishment for those who are not elect) to be meted out. I don't really think that God's "overriding love of humanity as a whole makes it impossible" to save Hitler - it's that to not save Hitler would leave God in Godself unsatisfied, due to justice not having been served.

Again, I don't really think these are strong arguments, because I think there are too many holes. But I think the purpose is that the Calvinist looks along, mathematically speaking, the two axes of love and justice, while you are looking primarily to love as the only axis in your calculation. That is how I've heard it described, anyway. Again, I may be misinterpreting.

Either way, thanks for the mental stimulation. I needed it on a bit of a sleepy Wednesday.
Robin Parry said…

you are right that many in the Reformed tradition would say that hell is necessary because creation exists to display the glory of God—both the glory of his love and the glory of his justice and wrath.

You are also right that this is not a strong argument—for many reasons.

But for a trad Calvinist it is especially weak. This is because they embrace penal substitution. In which case, God could display the glory of his love and justice in creation on the cross. He could elect all humanity and Christ could die for them all. Then they'd all be saved. AND STILL the glory of his justice would be fully displayed in Christ. Thus saving Hitler would not leave God's self unsatisfied.

So I agree with you in that I don't think that this works as a justification for hell, even simply in terms of the Calvinist system.

I also think it is wrong because it sets divine love and justice up in opposition to each other. I think we need a more integrated view of God. His love is just. His justice is loving. Everything he does must be a manifestation of love and of justice.
SATheologies said…
Hi Robin,

Thank you for writing this thought-provoking post.

I'm just a Presbyterian preacher from Singapore, and am not in any extend an expert on Calvin and Calvinism. I don't know if what I'm about to point out contributes to your discourse with David. Nonetheless, for what it is worth, I would like to highlight one sentence in your reply to David which seems to reduce Calvin's own exposition on God's election.

You wrote: "That God does not save Hitler is not because he cannot, but because he chooses not to. Hitler is not among the elect. God has chosen not to set his love on Hitler. That is the Calvinist line."

I do not know what do you have in mind in your reference "Calvinist". John Calvin's idea of divine election seems to have enough space for divine mystery in God's election, which does not reduce it to his negation to love reprobates such as Hitler.

"I admit that by the will of God all the sons of Adam fell into that state of wretchedness in which they are now involved; and this is just what I said at the first, that we must always return to the mere pleasure of the divine will, the cause of which is hidden in himself."


"Paul gives the name of elect to the angels who maintained their integrity. If their steadfastness was owing to the good pleasure of God, the revolt of the others proves that they were abandoned. Of this no other cause can be adduced than reprobation, which is hidden in the secret counsel of God." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Hendrickson, revised edition, 2008), 627-628)

To Calvin, reprobation is always hidden in God. So reprobation is not the result of God choosing not to love, but a mystery. I may not wrong, but this is how Calvin seemed to think.
David said…

YES! Penal substitution is the #2 most ridiculous reason for the double-predestinarian thoughts of most Calvinists. How is JESUS not enough? And if he isn't, what on earth does that say about God? Is God just some bloodthirsty megalomaniac?

But that's not even as bad as the #1 reason, which you also point out: why would love and justice need to be dichotomized?

Thanks for engaging me on this blog. I do enjoy your posts here. And thanks for letting me argue some points I don't really agree with. It's just hard for me to understand perspectives sometimes unless I can actively try to engage with them. Thanks, and keep up the great work!
Robin Parry said…

Thanks so much for that clarification. It is good to have someone who knows Calvin's work comment. Really appreciate it.

Nevertheless, I don't think that it undermines my point.

Calvin is seeming to suggest that God, in the mystery of his will, chooses to set his electing love on some people and not on others.

The reprobate, by definition, are those that God, for unknown and mysterious reasons, has not chosen to set his love on.

So the reprobate are those who are not loved by God — at least, not loved with electing and saving love.

But that is all that my argument needs in order to work. I can imagine a more perfect God than that. (And, I do not mean by this that I can imagine a God that fits my own preferences better. I mean that I can imagine a God more in conformity with biblical perfections.)

If anything, Calvin's argument may make matters even more problematic. Here God's will is elevated above God's being such that God, in his sovereignty, can choose whether or not to set his love on someone. He can choose not to love. I find this a profoundly problematic theology. God's will is an expression of his being, and his being is love. It makes no sense to insist that God can will things that run counter to his very essence.

Divine mystery is critical, but not as a means of covering over incoherent claims.

That, at least, is how things appear to me.
Anonymous said…
From a non-Calvinist perspective, I agree with you 100%. And I see my favorite Calvinist (Karl Barth) as saying essentially the same!

Vail Palmer

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