Books Hamartiology

On the essence of Calvinism, and on the condition of fallen humanity

Having worked our way through Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism, I’m now reading Michael Horton’s For Calvinism. As I read this book, I want to hear Horton’s presentation in its own right, recognizing that neither of these two books was written as a response to the other; they were written simultaneously. At the same time, Roger’s challenges are fresh in my mind, so I will be looking for ways in which Horton’s independent work speaks to Roger’s objections to Calvinism. In the meantime, I will also be reading in search of ways to better conceptualize my own theology, and I will be attending to differences between Horton’s Calvinistic formulation and mine.

Michael Horton’s presentation 

“Introduction. Calvinism and Arminianism: Why Bother?”

Horton is convinced that common perceptions of where Calvinism logically leads are based on misunderstandings, so he hopes to correct these in his current work. For instance, critics frequently confuse Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism (13). Though Horton considers it a mistake to reduce the beliefs of Calvinism to the “five points,” commonly known by the acronym TULIP, he is going to explain, defend and clarify these points, because they are the object of focus in the work of most contemporary critics of Calvinism. His own preferred way of referring to them is as the “doctrines of grace,” but he also speaks of the “five points,” or the “Calvinist distinctives” (16).

Horton identifies the basic difference between Arminians and Calvinists as their opposing frameworks of synergism and monergism (16). Consequently, he objects to the suggestion that there are Calvinist verses and Arminian verses in the Bible, which would attribute internal incoherence to Scripture (17). He notes that the Calvinist/Arminian divide “cuts across many church traditions, from Anglican to Baptist,” and that it therefore unites believers across that same spectrum (20). Yet, Horton is aware that “an implicit Arminianism seems more widely represented today than Calvinism, even in churches formally committed to Reformed convictions” (20).

The Essence of Calvinism

The bulk of this book is devoted to the “five points” because Horton thinks Calvinism is not less than those points, even though it is more (23). The term “Calvinist” arose around 1558, from Lutheran polemicists, against the Reformed view of the Lord’s  Supper, but churches holding this theology have never used Calvin’s name in self-reference, as Lutherans have used Luther’s. “Reformed” was the more common way for those who shared Calvin’s theology to describe themselves, and various confessions (e.g., French, Scottish, Belgic, Helvetic, Heidelberg), which all expressed the same substance, arose in different contexts. They were followed by The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England that wanted “to pattern itself on ‘the example of the best Reformed churches on the continent,’” and the Westminster Confession developed by the Westminster Assembly called by the English parliament.

Reformed confessions were catholic in their appropriation of the ecumenical creeds, and it was their intention to re-enforce those convictions while expressing their distinctive beliefs. So Horton believes Reformed Christianity to be both catholic and evangelical (27), and he denies that there is a central dogma in Calvinism (30). This runs contrary to the common assertion (by both friends and foes) that predestination or the sovereignty of God are “central” to Calvinism. Horton challenges this assertion on 3 grounds: (1) Calvin was not the first Calvinist, since his view on predestination “can scarcely be distinguished from that of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, and Gregory of Rimini,” and even Aquinas comes close to affirming the “five points” (28).

(2) Calvin was not the only one who shaped the Reformed tradition. Others of importance were Bucer, Bullinger, Knox, John à Lasco, Zanci, and Vermigli (29). (3) Calvin himself never identified predestination or election as central, though they were important. “Predestination does not even appear in his Geneva Confession (1536),” and “divine  election is asserted more directly in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England than in the Heidelberg Catehcism,” whose interest was in affirming the essentials of Christian faith, while differentiating their interpretations from those of Roman Catholics and Anabaptists (29). As Calvin had to debate opponents, election became more prominent, but “even in the final 1559 edition [of the Institutes], predestination is nothing like a central dogma and follows on the heels of a richly devotional treatment of prayer” (30).

Others might assert that the covenant is a central dogma in Reformed theology, but Horton identifies it as “more like the architectural framework,” a perspective he appropriates from B. B. Warfield (30). To situate Calvinism, however, Horton lays out a map including Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism and Socianism, and he locates Calvinism in respect to these views (31-34).

“Of Regents and Rebels: The Human Condition”

The second chapter addresses the first of the five points, but Horton rejects the stereotype that may have been generated by the beginning of these points with “total depravity.” “Reformed theology never starts with the fall, but with God’s good creation” (35). Calvin and his heirs criticized Roman Catholic theology “for locating sin in an alleged weakness of human nature itself” (36), because that “attributes sin to human nature as God created it” (37). Adam and Eve were good creatures who reflected the moral attributes of God (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10), but they misused their God-given freedom and corrupted themselves (38), thereby causing people to be “bent toward unbelief and sin” (39). The fall did not destroy the will, any more than it did the mind, senses, or other faculties, but it corrupted every faculty.

This dual emphasis, upon the natural goodness and dignity of human creation and its willful sin, is found in the Canons of Dort, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession and its catechisms. The totality of the depravity affirmed by these confessions has to do with its extensiveness, not its intensiveness. The whole person was corrupted by the fall, but the image of God was not totally eradicated (as per Lutheranism). The Spirit of God, who works savingly in the elect, also works in common grace among the reprobate, which is “why humanity remains in some sense God’s image-bearer and covenant partner” (42).

After the fall, humans are free from external compulsion, but not from sin and misery.  Prior to the fall, humans had both natural and moral ability but now, though we have a natural ability, we have a moral inability. The fall has not taken away our faculty of will but it has made us unable to will that which is acceptable to God (44). This is not to say that all unregenerate humans are equally vicious, but all are completely guilty before God (47).

Dort attributed original sin to the transgression of Adam “by his own free will,” so “Reformed theology is obliged to hold together two apparently conflicting theses: God has decreed whatever comes to pass, yet this in no way infringes on creaturely freedom.” God is not the author of sin because “he does not directly cause or bring it about,” in that he “does not make, create, or coerce creatures toward evil.” But “the fall did not catch God by surprise.” What mattered to Calvin was “to affirm simultaneously that God is neither the author nor the passive victim of creaturely aggression” (48).

Horton concludes this chapter by framing the Calvinist understanding of original sin and salvation in terms of the Reformed construct of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (52).

My reflections

I found helpful Horton’s introductory comments concerning the ongoing debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, and I think he has done a fine job of identifying the essence of Calvinism and correcting common misunderstandings on that point. In my reflections, however, I want to pick up on a few items which stimulated my thinking and raised questions.

The “doctrines of grace”

I understand Horton’s preference for other terms than TULIP, given how regularly Calvinist theologians restate the points that make up the acronym. But, to call the Calvinist soteriology the “doctrines of grace” does not sit well with Arminians, who rightly argue that their soteriology is also a doctrine of pure grace. Horton is aware of this, and I concur with his assessment that, though Arminians may well affirm that salvation rests solely on God’s grace and mercy, it is doubtful that “Arminianism actually can square this with its other convictions” (17).

I generally prefer not to offend other Christians by my terminology, and I pondered briefly whether we might be better to speak of “doctrines of monergistic grace.” At this point, however, I am thinking that so long as our Calvinist identity is known, it is legitimate for us not to add that adjective because it is redundant in the context of Calvinist (though not of Reformed) theology. I have noticed that my fellow Reformed Baptists like to speak of “sovereign grace.” This has a nicer ring than “monergistic grace,” but it is equally problematic to Arminians who insist that they too affirm God’s sovereignty, though they assert that God has sovereignly chosen not to be completely in control. I am happy to mention at this point, however, how much I enjoyed reading Tom Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace, almost 20 years ago. It is as winsome an account of God’s gracious work as I have met from an Arminian perspective.

The nature of God’s freedom

I am puzzled by comments Horton makes about God’s freedom when he is criticizing the libertarian view of human freedom. He asserts that libertarianism “assumes that the will is independent of the mind, preferences, character, and heart of persons,” and then states that “not even God has this kind of freedom of will,” because “God cannot choose to do evil or to tempt anyone to do evil. He can only choose that which is consistent with his nature” (44).

This is confusing because libertarians generally acknowledge that our freedom is “situated,” and that it is significantly limited by precisely the factors Horton has mentioned. The issue is not whether our decisions are consistent with our nature, but whether they are determined by our nature, as soft-compatibilists assert regarding humans. I discussed the nature of God’s freedom in an earlier post, so I won’t pursue it at length here, but I think it necessary that we affirm that God is libertarianly free. Otherwise, creation and all his other acts are determined by his nature; he could not have done otherwise. I certainly concur that God cannot act contrary to his moral nature, any more than we can, but within those limits, it seems to me, God must have the power of contrary choice. Horton has probably said more about this in other works but, without pausing to track that down now, I’ll simply register my puzzlement about his position here. Perhaps you can illuminate me.

The nature of human freedom before the fall

Horton quotes Calvin as stating that, prior to the fall, the human condition  “was such that he could incline to either side” (45). Is this an affirmation of libertarian freedom prior to the fall, or only a statement that the range of possible moral choices was wider, including both good and evil, before the fall, whereas now we can only choose evil, unless freed by God from the bondage of our wills? I could not answer that question from what was said in this chapter.

God’s absolution from moral responsibility for the fall

On our way through Olson’s book, I noted how frequently he objected to Calvinism on the grounds that it made God the author of sin. So I had my eyes open for what Horton might put on the table that would address that objection. I am sure that his affirmation of paradox, and the insistence that we must “hold together two apparently conflicting theses” (48), will do nothing to assuage Roger’s concern. Whether or not compatibilism is coherent is the critical issue at stake. Horton is satisfied with it, but he makes little attempt here to distinguish the “paradox” from nonsense. It may well be that we Calvinists can do no more. We hear unmistakably in Scripture that God is not morally culpable for human sin, that humans are, but that, though God could have prevented the fall, he had eternally purposed that it should occur. So we affirm both God’s meticulous sovereignty and human responsibility, as revealed by God, whether or not we understand how they go together.

In “my compatibilist proposal,” however, I posited that there is

 a kind of moral entropy in the moral realm, similar to the physical entropy that is a fact of the created physical world. Only God has life in himself (Jn 5:26), and everything else that exists does so only by God’s creation and continual sustaining. Likewise, only God is good intrinsically and self-sufficiently. The moral goodness of all moral creatures, like their life, persists only so long as God maintains it. God created everything good, but not self-sufficiently good. I take this to be the substructure of the common Calvinist distinction between those things which God deliberately effects and those which he deliberately permits. He is morally accountable for what he effects, but he only effects what is morally good. He is not morally accountable for the evil he deliberately permits creatures to do because the sinfulness of those actions derives completely from the evil disposition of the creature.

I find this idea of moral entropy helpful, though it may do little to satisfy the concerns of Arminians. When Horton was describing Calvin’s objection to the Roman Catholic understanding of the fall in terms of a created natural weakness, I wondered whether I had unwittingly wandered into that territory myself. I need to explain, therefore, why such is not the case. My proposal affirms the created goodness of human being, and it does not attribute the fall to the pulling down of Adam’s spiritual by his sensual constitution. My point is not that there was any deficiency in human nature as God created it, but that there was, and always is, an essential dependence upon God, both for our life and for our goodness. Given God’s good purpose for withholding from Adam and Eve the moral sustenance necessary for their continued obedience, God is not morally responsible for their sin. They had no claim upon God either for the life or the goodness which he had graciously given them.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

2 replies on “On the essence of Calvinism, and on the condition of fallen humanity”

Terry, when I wrote my licensing thesis for the EFCA several years back, I argued that man before the fall had the susceptibility to evil, but not the propensity to evil that we have now after the fall. In other words, prior to the fall, God created humans with the ability to sin, and given that ability, sin became an inevitability. Since the first sin, we are now inclined that way, with a bent and an inward desire in that direction. Not being a scientist or one interested in physics, I am not quite sure what the technical definition of entropy is; however, from what I think I hear you saying, I do not think we would be far off.

It sounds like we may well be on the same page here, Keith.

“Entropy” may not be the most helpful descriptor for my idea, but I think it works. In connection with the laws of thermodynamics it is defined rather obscurely for non-scientists. What I had in mind was captured in one description I found on the web, which stated this:

“The second law of thermodynamics states that the amount of energy in a system that is available to do work is decreasing. Entropy increases as available energy decreases. In other words, the purely natural tendency of things is to move toward chaos, not order, and available energy necessary for work is lost (mostly as heat) in this process. Eventually, the universe will run down and all life and motion will cease because all the energy that exists will be, more or less, evenly distrubuted so that no work can be performed and no life and exist. This is the natural tendency of all things. Batteries run down, machines break, buildings crumble, roads decay, living things die, etc. Left to the natural state, all things would eventually cease to function.”

That is what I have in mind, the principle that things run down if not continually provided with energy.

I started to think of the situation in non-physical terms, speaking of “moral entropy” some years ago. It derives from the fact that only God is intrinsically good morally, so that any being whom God does not continually sustain in moral goodness lapses into sin. I used that term because it looks to me like a complete parallel to the physical situation, in light of God being the only who “has life in himself.” Were he to stop sustaining anything in existence it would cease to be. So God upholds both existence and righteousness as continuing acts of will.

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