Week 32 of 50 in the Institutes: Objections Against Election In Calvin’s Day and Ours

In 3.23 of the Institutes, Calvin responds to five objections to the doctrine of election which were common in his day, but by no means unique to it.  Just this morning, for instance, someone asked me about the doctrine of double-predestination, or reprobation, passing along some objections he had received from an acquaintance who dismissed the doctrine out of hand.

Calvin himself took a lot of flak in his day for his teaching on predestination, in no small measure due to misperceptions about his views.  Jerome Bolsec (d. 1584) contended that Calvin’s doctrine made God the blame for sin’s entrance in the world.  Bolsec’s zeal in opposing Calvin and other ministers on the subject wound up getting him banned from Geneva by the city council.  When Jean Trolliet later picked up where Bolsec left off, the city council read the Institutes for itself and concluded that Calvin’s views were fully biblical (try to imagine a government body doing that today!).  [Source: Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 192]

So before rejecting Calvin’s views on predestination, the prudent course is to give him a full hearing, because he was a careful student of Scripture.

Right off the bat even before responding to the usual objections, Calvin addressed the repugnancy, common in his day and ours, of the whole concept of reprobation, or double predestination.  Calvin had the insight to recognize that the bone of contention was not really with reprobation itself, but rather with the doctrine of election and a misguided attempt to rescue God from a charge of inequity.  But as Calvin noted, for there can be no election without reprobation (3.23.1):

Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated. This they do ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation. God is said to set apart those whom he adopts for salvation. It were most absurd to say, that he admits others fortuitously, or that they by their industry acquire what election alone confers on a few. Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children. Nor is it possible to tolerate the petulance of men, in refusing to be restrained by the word of God, in regard to his incomprehensible counsel, which even angels adore.

Calvin went on to say, in light of Romans 9:22-23, that: it by no means follows, that he transfers the preparation for destruction to any other cause than the secret counsel of God.” 

And now we consider the objections to the doctrine of election, common then and now (a Reader’s Digest summary version):

Objection #1: The doctrine of election makes God a tyrant.
Answer: The Lord’s will is the cause of all things, God is just toward the reprobate, and God’s hidden decrees are not to be searched out, but marveled at in obedience.

Objection #2: The doctrine of election takes guilt and responsibility away from man.
Answer: The reprobate want an excuse for sinning, and seek to find such an excuse in the secret counsel of God, but their sin springs from their own nature, and they are hence accountable and guilty before God.

Objection #3: The doctrine of election leads to the view that God shows partiality.
Answer: The fact that God chooses one and rejects another arises not from regard for the man (i.e., his riches, power, pedigree, etc.) but solely from His own mercy.

Objection #4: The doctrine of election destroys all zeal for an upright life.
Answer: The goal of election is holiness, and so it ought to arouse and goad a person to set his mind on holiness rather than use it for an excuse for doing evil, or nothing at all.

Objection #5: The doctrine of election makes all admonitions meaningless.
Answer: Scripture teaches both man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty, and rightly preaching the gospel must include both.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 10: 3:22.4 – 3.22.7

Aug. 11: 3.22.8 – 3.22.11

Aug. 12: 3.23.1 – 3.23.5

Aug. 13: 3.23.6 – 3.23.10

Aug. 14: 3.23.11 – 3.23.14
(Skipped – no blog entry)

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