It’s Not Calvinism But Rationalism That Divides Us

by Ken Hamrick

Having debated Calvinism for many years, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of leaving to mystery that which can never really be figured out—a view espoused by many others before me. Such a position is disdained by both sides as something of a weak and anti-intellectual compromise. But arriving at this Antinomist position after thoroughly studying the issues is to arrive in strength, not in weakness. I’ve always argued from the middle anyway, previously confident in the power of reason to explain truth.  But unless the intellect is tempered by faith, it is a hindrance to real understanding; and only by faith can reason be humble enough to see its limits. Reason is just not equipped to take us beyond our finite, temporal thinking so that we can grasp the ways of the infinite, timeless God who transcends creation—that is faith’s role. Seeing that there is more to the equations involved in reality than the merely finite and temporal is also faith’s role. Accepting this, I find that I now have little interest in arguing with either side (which may be why the middle is so rarely heard from). As such, this article is intended to appeal to those who are not yet “sold out” to one side or the other, rather than to debate with those who are. The latter may strongly disagree, but I no longer feel the need to answer them beyond what is offered below.

Rationalism & Antinomy: Opposites

Rationalism insists that two seemingly contradictory principles in any position must either be reasonably reconcilable or the position is false. Antinomy allows for some things which cannot be reconciled in this life (by human minds) but will be reconciled in the next (by God). Rationalism assumes that the way in which God’s agency and man’s agency interact can indeed be comprehended by reason, and rejects Antinomy as a non-argument. It is this Rationalism that drives the unending debate between Calvinism and “the opposing party.” Both have used reason to arrive at opposite conclusions.

Resulting from this Rationalism, the enduring divisiveness of the Calvinism debate among Southern Baptists can never be solved by reasonable arguments, agreements to peaceably disagree, or by enforcing equal distribution of proponents among our leadership. Rather than embracing Rationalism further, we need to expose its assumptions. Reasoning from the Scripture is not wrong in and of itself; but there is a danger in relying too heavily on it, and building a “top-heavy” edifice of reason on a foundation that does not actually justify all that is reasoned from it.

There is something very seductive about reasoning and logic. If we find in Scripture that A = C, and we find by reason that C = D and D = F, then the temptation is to declare on the full authority of Scripture that A = F… when, in fact, it is the authority of reason and not of Scripture. In some cases, whole chains of “If, then” arguments are adopted, which fail if one thing is overlooked or unknown (such as a “B” or “E”). In short, the further we reason from Scripture, the more confidence we are putting in the flesh, and the more likely we are to err; which brings me to the main point. The Calvinism debate is steeped in this kind of overconfident, “top-heavy” reasoning; and the Rationalism of both sides compels them to emphasize one Biblical principle at the expense of another.

Logic is only as good as the presuppositions on which it is based. Using logic, fallible men construct a chain of reasoning, giving too much weight to their conclusions with too little examination of their premises—and have far too much confidence in the whole process. Such fallible logic has been used to construct philosophies, with which many Christians have become enamored, such as Determinism and its counterpart, Libertarianism. Philosophies are only useful to the extent that they comport with Scripture—and where one must be bent to fit the other, it must be philosophy that gives way and not the Bible. But while men lack confidence in understanding certain truths in Scripture, they lack no confidence in human reasoning, the power of logic and philosophy to explain these truths.

Affirming Both Principles—Denying Neither

So we are told that we must choose one or the other of these views, with their respective philosophies, or be guilty of logical contradiction. While they emphasize that logical contradiction is unacceptable, the two sides never prove that any contradiction is involved in the middle position, preferring instead to offer it as “self-evident.” Unless a contradiction is proven, the objection fails. Antinomy is NOT the embracing of a contradiction, but the embracing of Biblical principles as true based only on the fact that they are Scriptural, even without the ability to fully understand the mystery of how they work together.

The Bible presupposes on every page what every man’s conscience attests to—that men are so free in their choices and actions as to be justly held responsible for them, precisely because in every decision they could have chosen otherwise. But whether we can reconcile these or not, the Bible also affirms that God is in control of everything, including the destinies of men. A. W. Tozer (who was no Calvinist) points this out well:

…However deep the mystery, however many the paradoxes involved, it is still true that men become saints not at their own whim but by sovereign calling. Has not God by such words as these taken out of our hands the ultimate choice?

It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. . . . No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him. . . . No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father. . . . Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. . . . It pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me. (John 6:63, 44, 65; 17:2; Galatians 1:15-16)

God has made us in His likeness, and one mark of that likeness is our free will. We hear God say, “Whosoever will, let him come.” We know by bitter experience the woe of an unsurrendered will and the blessedness or terror which may hang upon our human choice. But back of all this and preceding it is the sovereign right of God to call saints and determine human destinies. The master choice is His, the secondary choice is ours. Salvation is from our side a choice, from the divine side it is a seizing upon, an apprehending, a conquest of the Most High God.

God has indeed lent to every man the power to lock his heart and stalk away darkly into his self-chosen night, as He has lent to every man the ability to respond to His overtures of grace, but while the “no” choice may be ours, the “yes” choice is always God’s. He is the Author of our faith and He must be its Finisher…[1]

Contrary to what is commonly understood, Calvinism does not have the corner on the affirmation that God is the ultimate determiner of the destinies of men. Centrists have long affirmed this while rejecting the excesses of Calvinism. It is a mistake to define Calvinism and the opposing view by which of the two principles they affirm, since there has long existed a vast but quieter middle group that affirms both. Rather, what defines the two opposite views is which principle they deny, rather than which one they affirm. Calvinists dismiss one principle, the opposing view dismisses the other; but Centrists (whether Antinomists or not) affirm both. This is why the use of the broad-brush term, “Non-Calvinists,” is so misleading, incorrectly including Centrists with “Traditionalists” and Arminians.

When faced with the revelation of Scripture, it is incumbent on us first to believe what is revealed and affirm all that Scripture affirms. If we can, based on that, arrive at a reasonable explanation for what is affirmed—without denying any of what is revealed—then all is well and good. But if our reasoning backs us into a corner where we must dismiss either one revealed principle or another, then our reasoning has become a snare.

Although we may never fully grasp how God’s sovereignty is reconciled with man’s freedom, we can be careful to observe the boundaries of both together. Thus, the excesses of emphasizing one principle at the expense of the other can be clearly seen. Some of these are listed below.

God, Human Freedom & Responsibility

If we construe man’s freedom to be of such an extent that God is not the ultimate determiner of destinies, then we have gone too far. Conversely, if we construe God’s control to be of such a nature that men have no freedom to choose otherwise, then we have gone too far. Both errors come from the unprovable, rationalist assumption that God’s determining and man’s freedom to choose otherwise are mutually exclusive. It is unjustifiable human arrogance to think that we can plumb the depths of the power, mind, and ways of God sufficiently to declare that He does not have the ability to determine a free man’s destiny.

If we theorize that all things happen of necessity, such that no real alternative possibilities exist, then we have gone too far. In determinism, there are no real choices being made by men, but only causes being carried through to their necessary effects. And although many Calvinists have adopted a “Soft-Determinism,” acknowledging that men freely choose according to their nature, they still deny that men are free to choose against that nature. However, the Bible everywhere presupposes that men are true agents, faced with real decisions—and that in these decisions, they are confronted with more than one possible course of action. Every man’s conscience and daily experience together testify that in every wrong decision made, the right choice was not only available but should have been taken. No man shall be able to claim at the Judgment, “I had to choose to sin at 3 pm, May 12, 2014, since it was the necessary effect of all antecedent causes—it was impossible for me to do other than what was according to my nature and strongest desire.” Men are accountable precisely because of the volitional freedom by which they chose to sin in every occurrence. While it is true that sinners cannot escape their sinful nature and avoid sin all together, it is just as true that there is no particular occasion of sin that was beyond their natural ability to choose otherwise.

Just as the sinner cannot escape the fact that he could have done otherwise, and the unbeliever cannot escape the fact that he would have been saved had he been willing to believe, the Church cannot escape the fact that there are many who perish for lack of a little more influence—such as one more witness or one presentation of the gospel that would have been enough to bring them to their knees in repentant faith. There will be many who could have been reached and might have been converted but were not, because the laborers were few.

God is indeed ultimately in control and all things happen according to His plan; but never in such a way as to absolve men of their sin, their unbelief, or their failures—not even when it comes to believers. If there are any problems in putting these two together, they are merely problems in our understanding of the mystery of God’s ways; but mystery is no disproof of the proposition.

If we think that foreknowledge renders the future necessary, then we have gone too far. It should be admitted on all sides that God knows the future. God transcends both time and creation, and sees all moments in time without waiting for any of them. But such knowledge of the future does not make that future certain. God’s knowledge of what will actually occur does not cause what occurs, any more than my knowledge of what is now occurring is causing it to occur. This is a common error. People usually assume that if God knows now what I will choose later, then it will be impossible for me to choose otherwise when the time comes—else God’s foreknowledge will fail in accuracy. What such an error is trying to do is to get under, behind or prior to God’s knowledge, which cannot be done—God is always there first and there’s no way around Him. It is an error in reasoning to pit your freedom against His accuracy. God looks at the future like we look at the past. What occurred is a fact, but such occurrences were free acts. Your choice in that future moment will also be a free act, but if you had chosen differently in that moment, then your different selection would have been in God’s foreknowledge. There is no way to get around, behind, under or prior to God, and the claim that your freedom is denied by God’s knowledge just does not “hold water.”

If we conceive of spiritual death as an analogy to a corpse, then we have gone too far. As physical death is the separation of the soul from the body, spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God. Sinners are separated from God, but they are not without any ability to respond to the gospel. Even a rejection is a response. The gospel is addressed even to the unelect because it requires a decision even from them, and they may believe if they choose to do so.

If we understand inability as applied to the will to be literal rather than figurative, then we have gone too far. It is a fact of language that terms of inability are always figurative when applied to the will. When Jesus said, “No man can come to me unless the Father draw him…” He did not mean that a giant hand would come out of the sky, grab the man’s arm and pull him to where Jesus was. The drawing is not of the man’s body and literal, but of the man’s will and figurative. The drawing is by appealing to the man’s will through the “teaching” of the Father. The inability of “no man can come to me” is just as figurative. The reason that they cannot come is because their wicked hearts lack the willingness to come to Him. When it was said of Joseph’s brothers, in Genesis, that they “could not speak peaceably to him,” it is also of the will and figurative. As Fuller pointed out, it is a common expression of language to describe an unwillingness of heart in figurative terms of inability. However, in no case is such an inability absolute, leaving the man with no ability whatsoever. Rather, inability as it relates to the will always leaves the man without excuse, since all that he lacked was the willingness. There is much that we are unable to do if we are unwilling; but it is a misuse of terms to say that we are unable to be willing.

If we view man as being so free that he earns some credit for choosing to believe in Christ, then we have gone too far. Just ask any true believer and he will testify that it was God alone who brought him every step of the way to faith. As Fuller said, “God has ever maintained these two principles: All that is evil is of the creature, and to him belongs the blame of it; and all that is good is of Himself, and to Him belongs the praise of it.”[2] God is in some mysterious way the cause of all good things that happen.

If we conceive of sinners as being passive in salvation to the extent that they move from unbelief to belief without first choosing to do so, or conceive of unbelief as being other than rebellion against God, then we have gone too far.

If we reason that God cannot be the ultimate determiner of destinies and love all men without also determining a heaven-bound destiny for all men, then we have gone too far.

If we think that Christ’s blood covers those who will not be saved, then we have gone too far. And if we think that Christ’s death had an atoning reference only to the elect, such that it had no universal saving applicability, then we have gone too far. Christ’s death was a sin sacrifice that will provide a propitiating atonement to anyone who is joined to the Spirit of Christ by coming to Him in faith. It is spiritual union, or “inbeing,” with Christ, and not election, that gives one an atoning reference in Christ’s death. This was explained in detail in a previous Voices article.

Some Problems with Determinism & Libertarianism

Since sinners could have and should have acted differently, then it follows that men cannot escape the ramifications of what might have been if they had acted differently. In other words, the trajectory of events, actions and results would have been different had the sinner not sinned in any particular instance; and that better path that was not taken hangs over the sinner as a judgment. To those who chose a wrong path, it was not God who denied them access to the right path but their own sinfulness. Even nonelect sinners would have been gloriously saved by the cross of Christ if they had but been willing to lay down their rebellious unbelief and embrace Him. Since every man has been graciously given at least a minimum of revelation of the truth of God’s existence (Rom. 1:18-23;—and many have been given much more), then any nonelect man who might choose to believe would have only God’s grace to credit for his conversion (and if he believed, but did not yet have the gospel, then God would send a missionary to him as He did for Cornelius in Acts 10). And further, since it is impossible to get behind, beneath, or prior to God’s foreknowledge and plan, then any nonelect sinner who might choose to believe would be included in God’s plan as one of His elect from eternity past.

God saves by means of the preaching of the gospel. Can we be so sure that He (in His eternal plan) does not also allow men to perish by means—the means of sin, of unbelief, and in some cases even the means of our neglect? Had it not been for the sin of the race in Adam, all men would have been in righteous relationship with God; and that sin of Adam has far-reaching effects, even among the household of God. The urgency of proclaiming the gospel must come from more than a mere desire to obey the Great Commission. True urgency entails an understanding that men’s lives really do hang in the balance—that men will perish or be saved based in large part on our efforts to reach them with the gospel in word, in witness and in example. An important component of the urgency of the gospel is the implication that God’s unconditional election in eternity past is not a limitation on whom may be saved as a result of our efforts, but a mysterious correlation to how much labor we are willing to apply to the fields that are “white with harvest.” Objections to the contrary are merely attempts to get behind, under, or prior to God.

While Libertarianism gives all men the “freedom to choose otherwise” in whatever decisions with which they are faced, it ultimately leaves the destinies of men to chance and circumstance. Affirming that all men do have enough of a revelation of God to leave them without excuse for rejecting God, the Libertarians neglect that fact that disparities in the number and extent of influences toward God are empirically selective. This is the very reason why we endeavor to send missionaries to peoples who have never heard the gospel. If it is not because we believe that many of them can be saved through such efforts who would never be saved otherwise, then why go? It is a fact that in places where such influences toward God are present, such as the preaching of the gospel and the availability of both the Bible and the testimony of believers, people get saved—and where such influences are not present, people do not get saved. And this principle is true on a much smaller, more individual scale, in that no man comes to Christ without benefiting from those personal influences that God brings to bear in a man’s life. Was it really just by chance that someone’s tire blew out and he was given a ride by a believer (and later gets saved)? Either God is really in control of such selective disparities of influence, or those who perish are the victims of circumstance.

The Conclusion

If this is a true assessment, that Calvinism was born of excessive rationalism, causing it to err in adopting tenets that are repugnant enough to incite an equally rationalistic backlash, then the high-ground of reason from which the two sides dismiss the middle as academically inferior and “embracing a contradiction” is shown to be an illusion. Rather than the highest achievable standard of theology, the rationalism of both sides has become a hindrance to God’s mission. As needless division and distraction are to be avoided, so are futile debates. I, for one, have wasted too many hours on what has been too rationalistic to begin with… and spent far too few hours on what has eternal rewards.


[1] A. W. Tozer, God’s Pursuit of Man (Camp Hill: Wingspread, 2007)
[2] Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), vol. II, p. 330

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2 Responses to It’s Not Calvinism But Rationalism That Divides Us

  1. rhutchin says:

    Hamrick writes, “Resulting from this Rationalism, the enduring divisiveness of the Calvinism debate among Southern Baptists can never be solved by reasonable arguments, agreements to peaceably disagree,…”

    There need be no conflict between a Pelagian or free will flavored system and Calvinism. Both sides agree that God knew from Day 1 those who were to be saved and those not. So, how does it happen? The Arminian/Traditionalist will say that people choose to be saved “Since every man has been graciously given at least a minimum of revelation of the truth of God’s existence…” The Calvinist is fine with them believing that adding only that God is then able to save from among those who reject salvation, some additional number that He alone determines. Thus, the total number of those saved includes those who freely chose salvation (the non-Calvinist system) and those who reject salvation but then are chosen by God for salvation (the Calvinist system).

    The uproar appears to have started when the Calvinists described the unsaved as Totally Depraved. This means that the number of those who freely choose salvation is zero. The Arminians conceded that the unsaved are Totally Depraved as a consequence of Adam’s sin just as the Calvinists claimed but then said that God extends grace to all enabling all to make a free will decision (Whew!). They just couldn’t explain how anyone would reject salvation – either all should accept or all reject given all are similarly enabled. The Pelagian just denied Total Depravity but again could not explain why anyone with half a brain would reject salvation. Regardless, there were still plenty of rejects under both Arminian and Pelagian systems whom the Calvinists could play with and still allow God to choose some to save.

    So, why the antagonism? Rather than deal with the real issue (Total Depravity), those opposed to Calvinism made an issue of a non-issue – God’s choosing to save some from among those who freely reject salvation and then confusing this with the original decision on salvation. It didn’t help that Calvin had no sympathy for those who denied the implications of Total Depravity and ignored any idea that a person could freely accept salvation. That appears to have crushed a few egos.

    The issue is not whether reasonable arguments are being made. The issue is whether the proper reasonable arguments are being made. The non-Calvinists should have just stuck to their guns and maintained that a Totally Depraved person could freely choose salvation (either outright or with prevenient grace) and left the Calvinists to deal with the rejects who freely turned down God’s offer of salvation. They just couldn’t do that for some reason. Perhaps, because they were so easily intimidated by Calvin.

  2. jay adams says:

    Great article Ken. I think the reason so many on both sides of the subject want to cast some lack of insight or other denigrations to those of us who don’t join either side is they both so badly want to be right and want to bring as many converts to them. I havent seen too many militant Arminians but certainly many militant in attitude Calvinists.

    And what’s odd is this is not the only subject in the Bible where there is a mystery that when trying to harmonize 2 Truths we can’t in our finite minds do that though some claim they can. For example, the Old Testament Truth that the Lord directed his people to kill their sworn enemies yet the New Testament Truth that Jesus directs Peter to put his sword away, teaches his disciples a way of non-violence.

    Some would even say the Trinity is an Antinomy but believers agree that what we do understand of the Trinity is enough and to fully understand we can look forward to our Eternal Hope in Heaven where we may come to understand it more & more.

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