Archive Joseph Minich Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Election and the Goodness of God: A Reply to Roger Olson

In this recent post, Roger Olson has attempted a deflationary argument against any argument presented in favor of a Reformed doctrine of election. His argument seems to be that (a) we can only trust the Bible if God is trustworthy, (b) we can only be confident that God is trustworthy if He does not violate our highest intuitions concerning justice, and (c) that the Calvinist doctrine of election does violate our highest intuitions regarding justice and therefore throws into question God’s trustworthiness and the trustworthiness of the very Scriptures which allegedly justify the Calvinist doctrine of election in the first place.

I have always appreciated Dr. Olson’s focus upon the doctrine of God. It is, indeed, the main issue, especially for Christians who are genuinely interested in knowing and loving God. It is precisely for this reason, I suspect, that the Westminster Divines stated that “the doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care” (WCF III.7). In point of fact, the doctrine of election can be expressed in a scandalous manner, as in the case of the notorious post-Edwardsian American theologians who argued that it was a special mark of election that one would delight in the divine decree even if it damned them.

Let us briefly look at the latter two points above. Certainly we would all agree with the first point that Scripture is only trustworthy if God is trustworthy. But what of the second? What of the claim that God is only trustworthy if He does not violate our highest intuitions concerning justice? I suspect that many would respond to this with something like the following: “By what arrogance does a fallen depraved heart raise itself to evaluate the actions of the Almighty by the filter of its own distorted vision?” And to be sure, this retort contains a grain of truth. Our hearts are distorted (Jeremiah 17:9) and it is possible for our highest intuitions to be distorted as well. But this is not a sufficient answer. In fact, Calvinists spill a lot of ink trying to reconcile the divine decree with divine justice precisely because there can be an intuitive conflict between these things. Even the terrible response, “God doesn’t do things because they are good; They are good because God does them,” is (in one respect) an attempted reconciliation by the redefining of terms. But let us imagine, for instance, that God were to make a universe full of people suffering in Hell for no reason and literally nothing else. There is no history. There is no creation of a universe and a process of creation, fall, and redemption. There is simply the ex nihilo creation of a bunch of conscious entities who are automatically and eternally suffering senseless torment for divine pleasure. Surely, with Abraham, we hold God to higher standards than that? “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Hint: Yes– because His doing right is rooted in His character and His character is the basis for our own sensibilities concerning what is right.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Certainly our sensibilities can be and are (to a very large extent) distorted. But our disgust at any notion of a god who delights in senseless suffering is not misplaced disgust. Such a god would not be good. And if election and reprobation are functionally equivalent to this, then we have indeed constructed an idol – and a god who is completely unworthy of worship.

Of course, I don’t believe that Calvinists worship such a god. Rather, Calvinists go to great pains to argue that God’s sovereign decree over these matters is consistent with a genuine human freedom and responsibility, as well as God’s desire to save all. For those who are interested in these specific problems, I have written about this elsewhere. But, as one might expect, these answers can be difficult and bring us to the very edge (and beyond) our our cognitive competency. Given this, it seems to me that one point that needs to be emphasized is the attunement of our moral instincts to the object(s) under consideration. For the most part, our highest moral intuitions are meant to help us navigate through moral reality in fairly specific circumstances. The more complicated a situation becomes, the less clear are our moral instincts. Moral philosophers love to come up with hypothetical scenarios for precisely these reasons. There are situations wherein one must act, but wherein the “right decision” is very difficult or next to impossible to determine. This does not mean that our moral instincts fail us, or that our highest intuitions concerning what is “good” are wrong. It rather means that we are limited and finite in our moral insight– sometimes confronting moral situations and objects which are greater than our knowledge and difficult to clearly relate to our intuitions. How much more will this be the case when we are talking about the decisions of God? Is this not what the entirety of the book of Job is about? “Where were you? What do you know? How are you competent to judge what the good is in this situation?” One might say that God’s answer is, in part, “If you only saw it from my perspective– but you don’t.”

This answer is not endlessly elastic, of course. Again, one would not use this reasoning or make these caveats to justify the hypothetical god described above (creating the innocent damned ex nihilo). But this does not negate the point. Such a scenario would, in fact, be morally simple. That is not what is going on in the doctrine of election. Here, we have free agents, moral responsibility, history, redemption, human nature, etc. Indeed, the divine decree and its “inner reasons” are as complicated as every bit of reality in relation to every bit of reality. It is impossible to fully comprehend. If moral philosophers can give us an object to which our moral intuitions are not a guide, then certainly when thinking of God Himself, we will have a similar breakdown in our moral apparatus (not because the good changes, but because we don’t know how to evaluate the object in relation to God’s character). Indeed, one might say that we should expect this.

In some ways, this response also deflates the argument that the Calvinist doctrine of election violates our highest moral intuitions (the third point above). But let us say that it did not help us. Then we’d be left with an even bigger issue on our hands. And that is that the problem, as stated by Dr. Olson, has analogues in any orthodox notion of God. Indeed, this is why such sensibilities tend toward open theism– for which Dr. Olson expresses not a little appreciation. But let us say that open theists were correct– that God does not foreknow all things. Surely God knows enough to prevent an enormous amount of suffering. Surely God could reveal Himself in more deeply persuasive ways to people. Imagine, for instance, that a little girl was in the middle of the street with a bus coming towards her. Imagine that God was not totally sure that the bus would hit the girl, but that He could, without much trouble, render it such that she moved out of the way of the bus. Is He too bothered to send a gust of wind, to play with her neurons in such a way that her legs spontaneously walk away, or send a nail to give the bus a flat tire? What would we think of any human person standing right next to the girl who could help her with ease, but just watched the whole event unfold? Here, once again, our moral intuitions can easily break down. I know what I’d think about the human being in such a situation. And it is tempting to think the same thing of God. It is the oldest question. “Why, God?” “How long, O Lord?”

Here is the point. The way Dr. Olson has framed the problem has a parallel problem which is an unavoidable aspect of reality itself. And so there is significant motivation to being careful about such reasoning, as I’ve tried to be here. For many, the cognitive dissonance cannot but lead to atheism. But for those who think that atheism is incoherent, that the divine decree is (by implication) metaphysically and biblically necessary, the pastoral problem remains. If God is necessarily good, sometimes He sure doesn’t seem good. Is reality insane? The problem is unavoidable and it is deeper than the divine decree and still present in the reduced calorie variant of open theism.

And so how can we get at this problem? One way is to recognize that while we do not know fully why God does all that He does, we know certainly what His reasons are not. And His reasons are not that He does not care, or that He does not weep with those who are weeping or save the suffering from their enemies. We know this because God Himself bore the curse of evil in the very object of His infinite love, His own Son. The cross and resurrection are the definitive nail in the coffin of any illicit view of God’s silence. Here He has spoken definitely, revealed His heart, and acted in history.

This does leave us with a gap in “positive reasons” for reprobation, suffering, evil, etc. And while we can fill in some of these gaps with phrases like “the glory of Christ in saving sinners,” these are not abstracted from complex questions of divine ordering, aspects of creaturely freedom necessary in any possible state of affairs, the relation between models of freedom and human responsibility, God’s delight in historical process, etc. That is to say, things get complicated and they get complicated quickly. And so, it seems to me that there are pastoral reasons to re-state a point which is implicit above, but easily missed in our culture– to wit, reality is big!

This seems obvious, but it is possible that we miss its import in our context. Especially in an environment where we are used to shaping reality to our own ends, the “bigness” of the cosmos and of God can often just become a name. Cultures which find themselves subject to the weather, utterly dependent upon rain for food, staring at an incredibly populated night sky reminding them of worlds unknown, surrounded by vast space which is entirely uncultivated and to which their entire life is subject – for these persons, the bigness of reality and of God are felt “in the bones,” so to speak. Rarely do these culture ask if there is a God. Saying “I would never believe in a God who” violates all they know about reality. It is not subject to our whims but we are rather subject to it. What they do question is how it is that God can be good. And it is precisely here that Job’s God expands his vision. “Where were you? Have you seen Leviathan? Have you been near the ocean?” Indeed.

Whatever positive answers we come up with to understand election and suffering, we must hold the answers gently and know that we only know in part. Our intuitions break down precisely because the world which we attempt to process and the God compared to whom it is all but a drop in the bucket are not easily grasped by these intuitions – even if they do not, as such, violate them. There are similar breakdowns in our intuitions about the nature of the physical universe once we get beyond the level at which we interact with the world. When the frame of reference is shifted, the fabric of the physical universe can be very counter-intuitive (even if it does not, again, violate a sort of factical three-dimensions of our experiential interaction).

And so, I am grateful that Dr. Olson keeps the focus on the doctrine of God. But his analysis is pastorally and theologically inadequate. These tensions are unavoidable. There is no such thing as a “problem of election” which does not have a thick parallel in an analogous “problem of reality” – and a problem for which the exact same argument(s) could be used as defeaters. Therefore, reality humbles our attempts to reduce God’s purely actual vastness and the vastness of His creation to the smallness of our faculties. Here, confessed ignorance is a rational response. But Christians also want to know, amidst this vastness, a God who is “for me.” And we indeed find this in Jesus Christ, who is God’s answer to these questions. Do you want to know the best way to get at God’s infinite life in finite terms? Then behold the Son, who represents Him perfectly. These questions, indeed, the whole Christian life and the whole cosmos, are suspended between a God who is infinite life in Himself and a God who is “for me,” the union of which is to be found ultimately in the crucified and risen King of all reality. Here is Beauty through which we see our absolute dependence most clearly, but which also draws out our absolute love.

By Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.