On The Absurdity Of Calvinism, part 2 of 7: Discourse Issues

part 1, Introduction. part 1b, More Introduction. part 1c, Last Introduction.

Welcome back! Thanks for reading. (Thanks especially for sticking around through all those introductions.)

As stated in the previous posts, I am specifically writing against J.I. Packer’s Introductory Essay to John Owen’s “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”. This post will deal with a few issues, not regarding Calvinism in general, but regarding the specific angle of Packer in this essay.

First, a question: are you a Democrat? No? Well, then, you’re obviously a Republican, and thus…I’m sorry, what’s that? You’re not a Republican either? Well…but…that doesn’t make any sense…

Packer’s argument for Calvinism is exactly one against Arminianism. This is the theological dichotomy underlying most Calvinistic debates: if not Calvinism, then Arminianism. But this dichotomy covers about as much of the theological spectrum as the two parties named above cover of the political spectrum. To reduce politics to Republican vs. Democrat is to ignore the voices of the Libertarian, the Socialist, the Communist, the Constitutionalist, the Anarchist, and so on – regardless of how valid those voices are, one must acknowledge they exist. Similarly, presenting Calvinism as a polemic to Arminianism ignores the existence of Free Will Theism, Open Theism, Universalism, Moral Agency, and so on – again, it doesn’t matter at this point what the content of those theologies is, only that they be given a place to speak. The universe of discourse in Packer’s essay is very constrained, because [1] Arminianism is not the only alternative to Calvinism. (I might again direct the reader to an old post, linked to in part 1, in which I develop Calvinism, free-will theism, and universalism as three contrasting ideas each justifiable depending on your particular scriptural lens.)

Of particular relevance is the fact that both Calvinism and Arminianism (as presented by Packer) are monergistic theologies (mono, “one” + ergos, “work” = monergism, “one worker”); that is, they assert that salvation is completely the work of one entity. For Calvinism, that entity is God; for Arminianism, it is the individual. Calvinism says you’re totally helpless by yourself, but if God has chosen you, then He has saved you, but nothing you do has any impact on His decision. Arminianism says God would really like to save you, so much that He bought your ability to be saved and all you have to do is take it, but He’s done all He can; His hands are tied, and it’s all up to you now. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Usually when there are two polar opposite sides in an argument, the best solution lies somewhere in the middle; this case is no exception for me. From Scripture, reason, and common sense, it seems clear to me that [2] Synergism makes a lot more sense than either side of monergism. Synergism (syn, “together” + ergos, “work” = synergism, “working together”) is simply the idea that salvation is a cooperative process. Neither side can (or will) accomplish the work of salvation alone. Man, independently of Christ’s sacrifice and call and God’s openness to receive, cannot save or justify himself. God, despite His removal of the roadblock of sin through the atonement of Christ, cannot or will not force salvation on certain people while withholding it from others. Calvinist reasoning says that the issue is black and white, that salvation must be ALL God’s work or NOT God’s work at all; synergistic theology understands that this is not the case.

Packer only briefly mentions synergism at all, stating that it is difficult to believe the gospel if “our thoughts are caught in the toils of synergism”. He goes on to elaborate a bit, implying that synergism is “a bewildering kind of double-think about salvation”, since its adherents must attempt to simultaneously believe that salvation is entirely the work of God and entirely the work of man. Of course, this is a poor way to formulate the concept. It is similarly poor to imagine salvation as 50% God’s work and 50% man’s work, or 60/40 or any other such split. It is helpful to ponder other instances of synergism-esque things in our theology, such as the Trinity (is it all God? all Jesus? all the Holy Spirit? 33.3333% each?) and Jesus Himself (100% God, but 100% human? 50% God, 50% human?). These are difficult concepts, but we have adopted a sort of “faithful agnosticism” toward them, believing that they make perfect sense even if we can’t make perfect sense of them. This, I believe, is the best attitude to take toward a synergistic view of salvation; it’s God’s work, and it’s my work, and I don’t fully get that, but I don’t need to.

Throughout Scripture, the picture of the relationship between God and humanity is one of effectual work on both sides. God frequently presents people with choices, leading to mixed results of obedience and disobedience. God sometimes intervenes and causes things to happen in a particular way for His purposes; other times, He allows humanity to sort things out for themselves; sometimes, we are even told He changes His plans based on human deeds. But the overarching thrust of Scripture is a communal interaction between God and humans – not a one-sided one. There’s no reason to believe salvation should deviate from this paradigm. Isaiah 64:5 speaks of God “assisting those who delight in doing what is right” – a God who assists people, not who controls and coerces them. In Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed boy cries out to Jesus “I believe; help my unbelief!” The man has some faith, and still needs help – that very assistance of which Isaiah spoke. The imagery of the vine in John 15 is one of mutuality; Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” In Paul’s sermon before the Areopagus in Acts 17, He states that God set things up in the world (His sovereign choice and effort) “so that [people] would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him” (human effort); and that He commands “all people everywhere to repent” (more human effort). Indeed, the author of Hebrews reminds us that we must have faith that God “rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). And it’s too much to quote, but look at 1 John 4:7-19 and ask yourself – who’s doing the work there? Who’s the “first mover”? The language almost seems intentionally synergistic – if we love, then we are from God, but we love because we are from God, but if we love, the love is perfected…it’s a beautiful, loving mess. Just the way it should be.

My last issue with Packer’s discourse is that he repeatedly characterizes a God who is unable (or unwilling) to completely do the work of salvation on His own as “weak”, “pitiable”, “impotent”, and “pathetic”. But don’t take my word for it, here are some direct quotes:

“Our minds have been conditioned to think of […] God’s love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help…”
“The pitiable Saviour and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel.”
“… it reduces God’s love to an impotent wish and turns the whole economy of “saving” grace […] into a monumental divine failure.”
“…it compels us to misunderstand the significance of the gracious invitations of Christ in the gospel of which we have been speaking; for we now have to read them, not as expressions of the tender patience of a mighty sovereign, but as the pathetic pleadings of impotent desire; and so the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open.”

“…we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in.”

Clearly, I have left out exact contexts and referents for these quotes, but you can read that for yourself by searching for them in Packer’s article (see link above). My purpose was just to show the general pejorative attitude toward a not-fully-saving God.

In response to that, particularly the last two quotes, I offer Revelation 3:20, in which Jesus states: “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me.” In no way is one out-of-context verse the be-all-end-all of salvation discussion; I will never attempt to use any single verse that way in this series. However, I find it odd that Packer rejects and diminishes the imagery of the Lord standing at the door and knocking, waiting for the door to be opened, when it is imagery attributed to the voice of Christ Himself in His Word!

Other Biblical refutations of certain ideas above will be addressed in a later post. But I would like to close by suggesting that, in general, [3] the attribution of “weakness” to God, and more importantly to Christ, is neither a deplorable nor radical idea. Jesus came as the suffering servant, did He not, as the poetic prophecy of Isaiah 53 suggests? And yet in both the suffering and the servitude there is a measure of what might be deemed “weakness”. Packer’s Calvinism would make Jesus into a grand king, though it is precisely this role that Jesus shied away from during His ministry. His birth was lowly, in a stable surrounded by barnyard animals and their accompanying filth. Even by being born, taking on human form, God in Jesus subjects Himself to the inherent weaknesses of humanity. This man Jesus is “impotent” in His inability to perform miracles in His faithless hometown (Mark 6:5); “pathetic” in His homelessness (Matthew 8:20); “pitiable” in His emotional distress at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:33) and the outskirts of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41); “weak” in His anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the point that His sweat became as drops of blood (Matthew 26:36ff; Mark 14:32ff;  Luke 22:44). And no verses need be cited regarding His weakness during His passion and crucifixion, the ultimate display of subjection. Indeed, Paul summarizes it in 2 Corinthians 13:4, which states Jesus “was crucified by reason of weakness”. This is our Savior, our Lord; does He look afraid or ashamed of weakness? I grant you, joyfully, that He now reigns in strength and power; no argument there. Yet He is no stranger to these conditions Packer so ardently vilifies.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Raleigh
    Mar 06, 2012 @ 14:27:55

    I really appreciate the discussion on synergism. I believe that either/or thinking places God into an oversimplified philosophical framework. Claiming to have absolute knowledge of how God does things is pharisaical and irreverent. I like how you mention that it is okay to claim that you are unsure of how God carries out his work. Not claiming absolute certainty in reference to “theology” frees us up from debate and argument to actually follow Christ in a practical way.


  2. Raleigh
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 14:16:36

    I just read a quote that I thought is relevant to this discussion.

    “We must be convinced that there are no such things as ‘Christian principles.’ There is the Person of Christ, who is the principle of everything. But if we wish to be faithful to Him, we cannot dream of reducing Christianity to a certain number of principles (though this is often done), the consequences of which can be logically deduced. This tendency to transform the work of the Living God into a philosophical doctrine is the constant temptation of theologians, and also of the faithful, and their greatest disloyalty when they transform the action of the Spirit which brings forth fruit in themselves into an ethic, a new law, into ‘principles’ which only have to be ‘applied.’ The Christian life does not spring from a ’cause,’ but it moves toward an ‘end’; it is this which completely changes the outlook for humanity, and renders the Christian life different from every other life.”

    -Jacques Ellul in The Presence of the Kingdom


  3. byrontye
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 23:20:33

    I understand this is a critique of JI Packer in John Owens however, I do not see a need to critique Calvinist as well. Though I do not lean towards either camps to be honest. I do not see it as a divisive issue. The mystery is deep and beautiful but something to be respected. With every question is a level of humility. My friends call me a deformed theist (instead of reformed) because my willingness to embrace the mystery.
    I really like open-theisim but I think it falls short the same way Calvinism and Arminianism do also. However, I cannot get behind Saberinalism, Universalism, or Palagienism, which are the no mans land of the 3 camps aforementioned.


    • Matt
      Mar 09, 2012 @ 15:23:21

      I’m with you, Byron. I totally agree with you regarding the “mystery” of theology, and I love the label of “Deformed theist”! That’s awesome! I hope it’s come through clearly so far that my point is about deconstructing systematic theology in order to preserve that mystery rather than believe we can figure it all out.


  4. Trackback: On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 3 of 7: Logical Contradictions « Not By Hands
  5. Raleigh
    Mar 12, 2012 @ 16:12:37

    Hey Byron! Good to hear from you! I actually do think that the issue is divisive up here in the Northeast. It’s quite unfortunate. Glad to hear that my Southern brothers and sisters are getting along in relation to this discussion.


  6. Sean Scheidt
    Mar 12, 2012 @ 16:44:54

    This is great so far Matt, and was exactly the point I was getting at in my last comment, synergism. I feel especially strongly about this in relation to free-will and pre-determinism. It seems quite clear in scripture that it is some mysterious mixture of the two.


  7. Kristen
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 23:17:36

    I’m a year late here, but I do think you’re misunderstanding Arminianism. It’s my belief that Arminianism issynergism, and that the man-God percentages of contribution to salvation which Arminianism sets forth amounts to: God 99%, humans 1%. It’s that 1% that Calvinists deny.


  8. Kristen
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 23:52:11

    P.S. To back up my position, here is a quote from Dr. Roger Olson, a leading Arminian theologian, who explains about his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities:

    “In the book I quote numerous Arminian theologians, from Arminius himself to Thomas Oden, to show that all classical Arminians believe that the initiative in salvation is God’s grace (prevenient grace) and that any good humans do, including the first exercise of a good will toward God, is so enabled by grace that there is no room for boasting.”

    Here’s a link to the source of that quote on Dr. Olson’s website:



  9. Matt
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 13:31:22

    Kristen, you may be right there in your description of Arminianism. But I think Packer would disagree with you, and that’s the framework from which I wrote this. It seems to be Packer’s attitude that Arminianism’s 1% can be blown out of proportion to effectively 100%, rendering God “powerless” to save people. And whether Packer’s description or yours is more accurate, my alternative is something more along the lines of God 100%, humans 100% (although, now that I go back and read what I wrote, I called that very idea a “poor way to formulate the concept”…).


  10. Kristen
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 16:57:04

    Matt — agreed. Packer himself is woefully misrepresenting Arminianism. The view of God presented by Arminianism is not a weak, impotent God helplessly imploring us to receive Him, but a divine Sovereign deliberately, and of His own free will, not only taking on human weakness in the person of Christ, but suspending His use of power for the sake of allowing human agency.


  11. Trackback: On The Absurdity Of Calvinism, part 1 of 7: Introduction | Not By Hands

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