Anyone who’s read my blogs over the last few months will know that I’m a fan of G.K. Chesterton. And in fact, despite being deceased for almost a century, he’s a regular Twitter user. He Tweeted recently, “I strongly object to wrong arguments on the right side. I think I object to them more than to the wrong arguments on the wrong side.” Chesterton is totally right. As Christians we should be committed to the truth to such an extent that we are willing to condemn bad argumentation from our own ranks.
But as Reformation Day approached, Chesterton tweeted the following, “I think Calvinism has been a greater curse than leprosy.” What followed was a thread of comments that called for strong objection. While I’m not a Calvinist (coming from a Wesleyan evangelical tradition and having adopted a Molinist account of divine providence) Chesterton’s comment seemed to be an unjustifiable overstatement. Generally, my experience of Calvinists has been a good one as well as having read enough Calvinists to know that theological discussion and the church in general has benefited greatly from Calvinist thought and spirituality. Now, add to Chesterton’s rather provocative statement about Calvinism the anonymity of social media, and the possibility of bad argumentation on the right side is heightened acutely and was demonstrated in the comments section. I’m going to concentrate on one particularly bad argument against the Calvinist view of things.
One Tweeter Twitted the following Tweet,
“Every Calvinist I’ve ever spoken with has told me they were one of the ones predestined to be saved. I haven’t met one that said, “nah, he didn’t pick me.” Weird!”
“Calvinism is fueled by arrogance. Limited atonement is aristocratic thinking.”
The argument seems to be that if you think you’re part of a special ‘elect’ group then you’ve automatically entered arrogant territory. But the problem with this is twofold.
Firstly the election of people to eternal life in Christianity is based on grace. By grace we mean unconditional love. Someone is part of the elect not on account of what they’ve done but on the basis of what Jesus has done. There is nothing in them that merits their status as elect.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
So one major factor mitigating any claims of arrogance in Christianity as a whole, let alone Calvinism, is that our election is based entirely on the grace of God.
Secondly, all Christians believe in some form of election. Of course, understandings of election differ (some allowing for libertarian accounts of free will and some opting for compatibilist accounts [and this I think is the main point of contention]), but because the Bible is so clear that election takes place in some form or another the existence of an ‘elect’ is incontrovertible (See Mk.13.20, 27; Lk. 18:7; Rom. 9:16, 2 Pet. 1:10, etc.). In which case, the argument advanced by the commentator above would apply not simply to Calvinists but to Christians in general, which is something I think he’d want to avoid. It easily morphs into an argument against Christian exclusivism along the lines of, “…if only Christians are saved, or only Christians have the truth, then that is theologically arrogant.” The same principle is at work.
Alvin Plantinga sums up common accusations against exclusivism, “It is irrational, or egotistical and unjustified, or intellectually arrogant, or elitist, or a manifestation of harmful pride, or even oppressive and imperialist.” (Plantinga, A Defense of Religious Exclusivism, http://www.andrewmbailey.com/ap/). The claim seems to be that exclusivism involves moral failure because it is exclusive. But Plantinga responds insightfully, “These charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby: Get close enough to use them against the exclusivist and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself.” (Ibid, 193). To claim that the exclusivist is wrong morally or intellectually would run the pluralist into the same kind of problems they accuse exclusivists of.
What we see then, is that it is important to condemn bad argumentation even if it is used in support of the right side. I think this is especially true of the Twitter comment above, since his argument wasn’t simply a poor argument against Calvinism but would also lead to some rather unorthodox conclusions about Christianity in general.