If you haven’t had the chance yet, I’d recommend catching up on the earlier posts in this series before reading this one.
Once upon a time, there was a king who would regularly invite a peasant into his throne room. The king was good and just, and the peasant was selected at random from his kingdom. Upon entering the throne room, the peasant would find him/herself staring at the back of the throne, for the king would turn his throne around and face the other way before the peasant entered so as not to see them. The peasant would wait silently until the king made a pronouncement, either to offer them a large sum of gold and a place of prestige in society or else to have them executed. Sometimes good people would be given the gold and honor, sometimes they would die. And the same went for evil people as well.
One day, one of the king’s advisors boldly asked him, “How is it that you know so well which subjects to honor and which to behead? You do not ask me or the other advisors for guidance, you do not speak or even look upon the subject, and we cannot figure out by what criteria you make such a decision. What insight do you have into whether or not each subject is deserving of glory or destruction? Quite honestly, it seems random.”
The king answered, “The decision is based on absolutely nothing. No insight or knowledge, no merit or crime. This is why I turn my throne around before they enter, so that my choice will not be influenced by anything.”
“So, it is random,” his advisor said.
“Not random,” the king replied. “Merely unconditional. How gracious of me to offer blessings to those who don’t deserve it, don’t you think?” After all, he was a good and just king.
The Nature of Justice
I hope that when you read the above story, you feel a little uneasy and dissatisfied with the king’s answer. In fact, I hope you are incredibly uneasy and dissatisfied by it. Were this a true story of a real-life ruler, I would hope that you would be incensed and upset. Why? Because despite what the story claims, the king is neither good nor just. Here’s why:
Justice can mean different things to different people. Even philosophers, ethicists, and theologians don’t always agree on what justice is. Thankfully, however, there are some good principles for thinking about justice that allow us to all be pointed in the same general direction, even if we can’t agree on the exact end point. One of those principles is what we call proportionality:
Retributive justice holds that it would be bad to punish a wrongdoer more than she deserves, where what she deserves must be in some way proportional to the gravity of her crime. Inflicting disproportionate punishment wrongs her just as, even if not quite as much as, punishing an innocent person wrongs her.
In short, true justice means that a punishment must fit the crime. Sure, it may have been very gracious of the king in the story to give extravagant blessings to those who didn’t deserve them. That’s all good and well. But what he did in executing people who had broken no laws, that violates the principle of proportionality in the opposite direction and is therefore unjust.
Now, this principle of proportionality is largely employed when discussing retributive justice. And, if you know me, you know that I am not a fan of retributive justice. I believe it is a cheap knockoff of the real thing. True justice, in other words, is not about returning one offense for another, but about restoration and healing what is broken.
However, even with a view of justice as restoration, the principle of proportionality is there. You restore what is broken. Attempting to restore something that is not broken does not produce more justice, and neglecting to restore what is broken fails to produce justice. In other words, action taken must be warranted by the problem at hand.
Perhaps a deeper principle to consider when thinking of this is not proportionality, but causality. Even if we fail to respond to injustices with the correct proportion of retribution or restoration, at the very least our response ought to be in relation to the injustice at hand. Here’s an example of what I mean:
I had a friend in college who was standing outside a pizza joint. He wasn’t doing anything other than hanging out with his friends talking when suddenly a large man stumbles out of the joint. The man had been in a scuffle inside, and had just been asked (or forced) to leave. After angrily coming out of the pizza place, the man catches a glimpse of my friend and throws a wide hood straight into his face, breaking my friend’s jaw. Now, why was this unjust? Was it because the man had dealt a disproportionate consequence to my friend? Not at all. The injustice of his action was precisely because his violence toward my friend had absolutely nothing to do with my friend. Aside from the misfortune of accidentally being in the wrong place at the wrong time, my friend was entirely unrelated to the scuffle inside the pizza place. Even more fundamental than the lack of proportionality was the lack of causality.
This is precisely why the doctrine of Unconditional Election is problematic, because it ascribes injustice to God. Unconditional Election teaches that God’s unilateral decision to elect only part of humanity to be saved (remember Limited Atonement) was based on essentially nothing (hence, unconditional). Moreover, it assumes that, prior to humanity’s existence, God unilaterally acted unjustly toward humanity. God’s entire relationship with the human race is premised on an unjust disposition—choosing some to be saved and some to be damned based on absolutely no sense of proportionality or causality.
Of course, as with any theological tradition lasting more than a week, the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election has been paired with a number of passages which are believed to teach and support the notion that God chooses some and not others based on no conditions whatsoever. Understanding what Scripture actually says on this topic, however, requires a keen eye and a critical mind, since often passages will be passed off as supporting this view, even though they don’t actually pass muster.
For example, John 1:13 speaks of those “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” But what does that have to do with Unconditional Election? In the ancient world, being “born of” God (or the gods) had nothing to do with being handpicked by God (or the gods). Rather, it simply meant that you were a follower of that God (or god). In fact, you almost have to go cherrypicking specific English translations in order for the wording in this verse to fit Unconditional Election (you’ll notice that when Calvinists reference this passage to support their view, it is not an accident that they will almost always go with the CEV translation).
Other times, apologists for Calvinism will point to passages, which they interpret to mean that God unilaterally chose some and not others, as evidence for Unconditional Election. But remember, Unconditional Election emphasizes that God’s supposed method of choosing His elect was entirely unqualified. It is the doctrine of Limited Atonement that emphasizes that this choosing of some and not others even happened. Even if you could point to passages that support Limited Atonement (and that’s a big “if”), that doesn’t necessarily prove that this election was unconditional. So passages mentioning election, such as Mark 13:20 and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, actually do nothing to support Unconditional Election.
And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, passages mined from Romans 9 do not actually support Calvinist theology once they are interpreted within the flow of Paul’s argument (in fact, the opposite is true).
Moreover, when we come across passages that do seem to strongly suggest a choosing on God’s part, they explicitly say that this choice was not unconditional. For example:
[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will. (Eph 1:4-5)
God’s choice was according to His kind and loving will. In other words, God’s choice was not unconditional. Now, don’t get too antsy. Paul is speaking corporately here (as opposed to our hyper-individualistic tendency to interpret such passages). Saying that God chose to have a corporate body of saints (v 1) is a far cry from saying that God hand selected each individual that would be in that body. Moreover, the fact that God’s election was specifically done according to His kindness should raise flags for Calvinist theology, since choosing the reprobate for damnation could hardly be an act of kindness.
Here’s a similar example:
[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity. (1 Tim 1:9)
Again, the ecclesial nature of Paul’s letter ought to tip us off to the fact that he is talking to the church as a community, not as merely a collection of individuals. But, more to the point of this post, God’s calling was done in according with God’s grace and purpose. It was not unconditional.
There are several other passages that are often brought up in defense of Unconditional Election (Rom 9:11-13, 16; 10:20; 1 Cor 1:27-29; 2 Tim 1:9), all of which reference God’s intentional efforts to draw people to Himself, none of which actually support the Calvinist doctrine that says God unconditionally chose some for salvation and others for damnation. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to go back and read these passages within their context and with the understanding that Paul is speaking corporately (or communally), not individualistically. Even references to the individuals Jacob and Esau (Rom 9:11-13) are meant to regard them as figureheads or representations for the nations of Israel and Edom (or gentiles in general). Once we stop reading Scripture as radically individualistic, 21st century westerners, and start reading it as communally minded, first century Christians, we find that the Calvinist interpretation of these passages is not so much dependent on what the text says as they are on cultural lenses through which we have come to read it. Once those lenses are gone, Unconditional Election (along with the other four points) becomes pretty shaky.
Which came first?
Now, again, some within the Calvinist tradition see the problem here. It would seem that in the doctrine of Unconditional Election God’s actions are no more just than a cosmic game of Russian roulette—completely random, and ultimately unjust. So, in an attempt to distance God’s character from that of, say, the villain Two-Face from D.C. Comics, they have sought to assign some sort of reason or rationality to God’s election. One such approach is to say that God looked into the future, saw who would choose to accept His salvation, and then chose those individuals as His elect.
On the one hand, this quickly raises all sorts of chicken-or-the-egg questions about God’s relationship with the future (which I have strong, not-Calvinistic opinions about), not to mention that such a move has the distinct odor of an ad hoc argument. On the other hand, the idea that God chose select individuals based on a foreknowledge of their future choices actually undermines the doctrine of Unconditional Election since it ascribes a condition upon which God made His election, namely those future choices. One of the underlying goals of Calvinist theology is to ascribe all the credit of salvation to God’s initiative. But if God’s initiative is based on human free will, then we can’t help but say that God’s initiative is not the only thing contributing to salvation. And that’s just not okay for Calvinist theology.
But don’t take my word for it. In his blog post, Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election, Calvinist theologian and former pastor John Piper offers this pointed definition:
Unconditional election is God’s free choice before creation, not based on foreseen faith, to which traitors he will grant faith and repentance, pardoning them and adopting them into his everlasting family of joy. (emphasis mine)
Of course, Johnny boy doesn’t mention the negative side of that definition (that God chose to withhold faith and repentance from the rest of humanity), but he did make a point of refuting the notion that God chose His elect based on their future faith.
Piper stumbles through a list of weak and poorly reasoned “reasons” throughout the rest of the article. For instance, he writes that we should embrace unconditional election because it is true (which is a perfect example of the begging the question fallacy), saying, “All my objections to unconditional election collapsed when I could no longer explain away Romans 9.” Apparently he must not have been trying very hard, since a proper explanation of that chapter ought to have been more than enough. I could go on, but feel free to bring your own critical eye to his post.
In the meantime, I want to highlight something in Piper’s definition of Unconditional Election that still fails to acknowledge the absurdity of the doctrine. He writes that Unconditional Election “is God’s free choice”; however, it starts to become difficult to understand what it means for God to make such a choice, since saying God’s choice is unconditional seems to imply that it was in fact not an act of “free choice” by God, but of capriciousness. One would assume that a genuine free choice by God would be made with reason, love, and justice. But those would be conditions, wouldn’t they? Without such things, however, God’s choice is utterly random and arbitrary, no more of a decision than the spastic flicker of an eyelid. After all, what is the difference between God choosing some and not others based on absolutely nothing, and God choosing some and not others at random?
Okay, so maybe God’s choice of His elect is random, some might respond. So what? At least that randomness results in grace for some.
And this seems to be the last ditch effort to save the doctrine of Unconditional Election. Even if God’s election is about as just as throwing spaghetti at a wall, at least some of it stuck. Some people are still being saved, and that is more grace than we humans have a right to demand from God.
Why? Because in Calvinist theology nobody deserves God’s grace and love. This brings us to the first point in the T.U.L.I.P. acronym, and the second to last post in this series: the doctrine of Total Depravity.