I think since I started blogging in 2005 I’ve covered the gamut in regard to writing on all things Calvinism. But what is it that I find most troubling about what Calvinism is offering? Any ‘system’ of theology will be funded by one primary touchstone; i.e. its relative doctrine of God. This is what troubles me most about Calvinism (of the classical sort): its way of thinking God; the God it presents the world and church at large. This, I would imagine is what troubles most people who have problems with Calvinism, and yet for its devotees it’s this very reality that attracts them to Calvinism. How can this be?
This begs the question: What kind of God does Calvinism present? For anyone in the know—even folks who aren’t Calvinists, but know something of its basic premises, they would probably be able to get the answer to this question right—we all know that Calvinists require that God be Sovereign in all things (in meticulous ways even). But the Christian in general might query: “well, yeah, don’t all of us affirm that God is sovereign?” Indeed, all Christians affirm that God is sovereign; and yet for me, this is the biggest problem I have with the Calvinist conception of God. But I am a Christian, and so I affirm the sovereignty of God in all things. So how can this be the biggest problem I have with Calvinism? It’s because the way sovereignty is construed for the Calvinist God is contingent upon the metaphysic they, by and large, utilize in order to fund their conception of the God ostensibly revealed in Holy Scripture.
Classical Calvinists, who are a subset of Classical Theists (which covers a continuum of Roman Catholic and Protestant thought) primarily start their thinking about God by way of integrating Aristotelian categories about God with the God revealed in Christ attested to in Holy Scripture. In this scheme we get a God who is all Powerful, all Sovereign, but framed by the requirements we find in Aristotle’s conception of the Pure Being (Unmoved Mover, Actual Infinite). So this conception of God will not be defined by any type of passion, emotions, or indeed Love. In order for God to remain God in this scheme God must remain unmoved by his contingent creation, or he fails at being God and as its sustaining sovereign Creator. Bruce McCormack writes this with reference to the attributes of the God given to us by the classical theists (the classical Calvinists):
Classical theism presupposes a very robust Creator/creature distinction. God’s being is understood to be complete in itself with or without the world, which means that the being of God is “wholly other” than the being of the world. Moreover, God’s being is characterized by what we might think of as a “static” or unchanging perfection. All that God is, he is changelessly. Nothing that happens in the world can affect God on the level of his being. He is what he is regardless of what takes place—and necessarily so, since any change in a perfect being could be only in the direction of imperfection. Affectivity in God, if it is affirmed at all, is restricted to dispositional states which have no ontological significance.
Veli – Matti Kärkkäinen provides further elaboration:
- Pure actuality: According to the philosophy of Aristotle, everything that exists is a combination of form and matter; thus, everything possesses both actuality and potentiality. Potentiality for Aristotle meant a lack of perfection; it implied that something was yet to come. Therefore, to preserve God’s perfect nature, Christian thinkers had to deny potentiality in relation to God. Consequently, God is absolute actuality, pure form, and there is no matter to actualize his potentiality.
- Immutability and impassibility: While these two attributes are not identical, they are related. The former suggests that God does not change, while the latter refers to the impossibility of God’s being acted upon. Often—but not always—immutability was interpreted in the sense that God cannot be “moved” in a true emotional sense; where Scripture seems to suggest that God grieves or rejoices, such passages were considered mere metaphor.
- Timelessness: God’s eternal existence is timeless, outside of time. While the majority of classical theists beginning with Augustine (according to whom God created time as part of creation) accept this statement as true, it has been and is a disputed issue. This element, therefore, is not a decisive feature of classical theism.
- Simplicity: God is not composed of parts as is everything else that exists. This attribute of God is, of course, related to many others, such as his changelessness. If God has no parts, God cannot change, since there are no parts for him to lose or gain.
- Necessity: This attribute has two aspects. On the one hand, God’s existence is necessary in the sense that it is impossible for God not to exist. Everything except God exists contingently (is dependent on God). On the other hand, necessity means that the divine essence itself—”the particular package of attributes God possesses”—is necessary. It is no accident, and it cannot be otherwise; God cannot be other than as he is.
- Omnipotence and omniscience: These attributes follow from what has been said before. Omniscience means that God knows all truths and holds no false beliefs. Omnipotence means that within the “limits” of God’s own attributes, God possesses the capacity to do everything.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are certain features in the classical theistic basket that seem illuminating or even non-negotiable in regard to an orthodox understanding of God. Yet, it is this conception of God that causes me certain problems. Again, not that God is all powerful, nor that he is distinct from his creation, or that he does not need us to be God. The problem comes when this philosophical conceiving of God is privileged over against the categories that come with God’s Self-revelation itself. The idea that when the Bible refers to God having emotions, passions, and genuine love do not mesh well with the philosophical categories classical theists feel compelled to work with; and so they must simply relegate such Bible talk to metaphor, anthropomorphisms, anthropopathisms so on and so forth.
What we get with a God who cannot genuinely be touched by his creation, who will not be moved by his love for the other (in reality), is the God we see operative in the Westminster Confession of Faith. We get a God who is simply a brute Creator God of pure power; who is framed by what the philosopher believes is required for us to get the type of creation we have; a powerful God who can be discovered by negating the finite and inferring from that negation who God must be categorically and infinitely.
But this is not what or who we get in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. We get a God who cries, in Christ, for the people; as if they are lost sheep without a Shepherd. We get a God who speaks of his church as if his bride who he seeks to consummate relationship with; the most intimate and sacred of pictures. Jesus says: ‘when you see me you see the Father.’ Is this also figurative, or is this actual and concrete reality? If this is actually the case then with the epistolaro, John, we can genuinely affirm that God is love; that his sovereignty is defined by his filial love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and not defined by his status as some sort of monadic pure being God who creates and relates to his creation as the brute Creator that he is only to be identified later (but figuratively) as a loving Father, and intimate Bride-groom Shepherd-God.
So this is the biggest problem I have with classical Calvinism’s God; he really is just a ‘God behind the back of Jesus,’ a God who really only interacts with his creation, when it comes to passionate-emotional realities, in figurative but not real or actual ways. When one must qualify their conception of God under such foreign pressures (relative to the Revelation itself), then we know there is something seriously awry. When the God we get in classical Calvinism (and Arminianism for that matter, and let’s not leave Open Theists out of this either) resembles the Pure Being of the classical Hellenic Philosophers more than the God revealed in Godself, in Jesus Christ, then we have a serious problem that must needs be attended to.
Sure, the most respected among us—particularly in the evangelical and Reformed ranks—have felt compelled to drink freely and without charge at the fount of classical theism’s wet bar; but why? The only response I can come up with in regard to the ‘why’ question is that these young (and old) guys and gals are seriously ecclesiocentrically driven. In other words, they want to be identified as Reformed catholics; i.e. they believe in a kind of progressive revelation under the care of God’s providential watch when it comes to the development of ecclesial tradition. They are fully committed to the idea that, all-in-all, the way the doctrine of God has developed through the centuries in the church has had to have Divine guidance, at some level. In other words, there is a serious natural theology at play here. These (relatively) young, restless, and reformed theologians believe, I surmise, that because it’s there—in church history and the history of churchly ideation—that, indeed, God must have wanted, for example, Thomas Aquinas to integrate Aristotle’s categories with Christian theology thus producing a faithful and orthodox accounting of how the church ought to understand and grammarize God in their theologizing and witness bearing capacities as churchly thinkers.
I have much more to say, but these are some inchoate thoughts (I have written on many of these themes over the years here at the blog and my other blogs of past repute). But I simply leave off with this: classical Calvinism’s conception of God (or any other expression of classical theism) is not of necessity the orthodox conception of God. There are better ways to think God, and we can be attuned to some of the classical theistic concerns while not giving them pride of place. We need to, as good Protestant Christians, give God’s Self-revelation pride of place; we need to realize that that revelation itself, as attested to in Holy Scripture (i.e. the ‘scripture principle’) comes with its own categories. We need to flip the normal way of doing business for so many of these classical theistic thinkers on its head, and return to the mode that believes the best way forward is to allow God’s Self-revelation in Christ, as attested to by Holy Scripture, to have the categorical say when it comes to how we think God.
I don’t personally want to worship a hybrid version of God who me and Aristotle could equally ascribe worth to based upon our similar convictions about his nature. I want to worship the God who is considered both foolish and weak; the God the Greeks originally believed this to be true of (i.e. weak and foolish), the God revealed in Jesus Christ (cf. I Corinthians 1.17-25). And there is a way to do all of this without losing orthodoxy; there is a way in the history of the church even.
 Bruce McCormack, ed.,Engaging the Doctrine of God, 186–87, cited by Bobby Grow in Evangelical Calvinism, 96.
 Veli- Matti Kärkkäinen citing David Ray Griffin in, The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction, 54-5.