I thank Dr. Davis for his collegial reply; this is indeed an entertaining aside in the midst of marking piles of exams. But it is also a serious doctrinal issue. His reply did not really answer my criticism of his arguments, although his reply did relieve my mind on a couple of important points.
Is Calvinism False?
Dr. Davis started this debate by claiming to have a “demonstration” that Calvinism is false. So the question at issue is whether or not his argument makes Calvinism false or not. His argument boiled down to a charge that Calvinism makes God immoral in that in Calvinism God gives grace arbitrarily to some and not others, thus showing partiality. Dr. Davis is sure that God being partial is untrue because he believes in the perfection of God. So if God is partial and arbitrary he is unfair and therefore morally imperfect.
Now I heartily agree that any doctrine which portrays God as having a moral fault is false doctrine. But, obviously, I do not believe that this is what Calvinism does.
Why do I think Calvinism is innocent of this charge? I explained it in terms of the definitions of justice and grace. Justice is getting what I deserve; grace is getting what I don’t deserve. God giving grace to some and not others does not make him unjust. It does not portray him as having any moral fault at all.
It is, of course, (fallen) human nature to try to shift the blame on to God when it belongs squarely on our own shoulders. Adam started it in the Garden and it has not stopped yet. The Arminian objection to Calvinism tries to say that God is to be blamed if He does not give prevenient grace to all. But I don’t think this is true. God can justly give or withhold grace as He chooses and He owes us (like Job) no explanation.
God is not responsible for our sin; we are. We are guilty and helpless before Him. If He chooses to save any of us, then that is undeserved grace.
What Dr. Davis did in his original post was to make God’s withholding of prevenient grace into the reason why some are damned. In his reply he tries to maintain the same thing while simultaneously denying he is doing so. He writes:
Two quick points. First, what I actually said was that the non-elect are damned because they don’t receive irresistible grace (hereafter, ‘IG’). On my view, as I say at the end of my article, everyone receives prevenient grace. Secondly, to say that the non-elect are damned because they don’t receive IG doesn’t in any way imply that sin isn’t the reason the non-elect are judged and condemned. What then does my “consequently” remark mean? Well, simply this:
(4) If the non-elect had received IG, then they would have been saved from God’s judgment against their sin.
And (4), by itself, doesn’t imply any of the untoward consequences Prof. Carter rightly deplores.
In his original post, he wrote:
It is part of the essence of Calvinism that there are two distinct groups of individuals in God’s overall economy: the elect and the non-elect. The elect are the grateful recipients of God’s irresistible, unmerited grace and are thereby saved. The non-elect, by sad contrast, receive no such grace; they are passed over. Consequently, they are damned for all eternity.
I have put two sections in italics. If you compare them you will note the shift from the hard assertion in the original post (“. . . they are passed over. Consequently they are damned . . .) to the softer form in the reply (If the not-elect had received IG then they would have been saved.) The second formulation is more acceptable than the first.
Now, this may not seem significant, but it is to the Calvinist. God passing over the sinner and doing nothing to save him is quite different from God causing the sinner to be damned. It is the same difference we are getting at when we distinguish between active and passive euthanasia. There is a significant moral difference between letting a dying person die without trying extraordinary measures, on the one hand, and actually poisoning a person who may be close to death or not. Doing nothing is different from doing something.
The entire Christian tradition has been united in holding that God should not be blamed for causing or doing evil and this distinction does crucial work in theodicy. What I think is illegitimate is Dr. Davis’ treating of the positive form of this statement as equivalent to the negative form. And this equivalence is crucial to his argument. It makes all the difference in the world to say: “God allows sinners to damn themselves by sinning” and saying: “God refusing grace to some is the cause of them being damned.”
Why is it crucial? Well, if God not giving grace to the non-elect is perceived as doing nothing then it is difficult to describe that as causing the damnation of the wicked. (Surely, “nothing” cannot be the cause of anything!) And if that is the case, that is, if God does nothing with regard to the non-elect, then the whole objection against Calvinism falls apart. God does not cause the damnation of the non-elect. God is not partial or morally imperfect and, therefore, Calvinism does not portray God is a demeaning manner.
Grace Alone? Faith as a Gift of God?
There is one further matter I wish to raise, although strictly speaking it is not a reply to the reply, but to the original post. I hesitate to bring it up because I do not want to false accuse my colleague of holding an odious view he does not hold. This is just a caution rather than an accusation.
In his original post, Dr. Davis writes:
Either God has a basis for his differential treatment of the elect and non-elect or he doesn’t. If there is no basis, then God’s decision to award irresistible grace to the one but not the other of these groups is wholly arbitrary; in which case God is a reckless, unprincipled decision-maker–a conclusion which is at once both manifestly unfair (to the non-elect) and theologically appalling.
Here we may see an even deeper root in Dr. Davis’ objection to Calvinism that even his worries about partiality. If we take this explanation of Lev. 19:15 seriously and literally, we are forced to conclude that Dr. Davis is saying that God should only discriminate between the elect and the non-elect on the basis of foreseen merit in them. This seems to be the clear sense of the first sentence in this quotation. I sincerely hope Dr. Davis does not mean to say what I have suggested this sentence (and his whole argument) seems to imply because, if so, he is undermining the Reformation doctrines of “grace alone,” “faith alone” and “Christ alone.”
How so, you ask? Well, it is crucial to understand the Reformers recovery of the meaning of texts such as Eph. 2:8-9
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast.” (ESV)
The faith with which we believe is not generated from within ourselves; it is a gift of God. We believe because the Holy Spirit regenerates us. This is what distinguishes faith in the NT from merit.
Now, I realize that Dr. Davis will likely say that faith is a gift in the sense that it is based on prevenient grace. But does this do justice to the New Testament teaching of salvation by grace through faith? For Arminians, faith precedes regeneration (though not calling) and so, while faith is clearly not a solely human act, it is definitely a partially human and partially Divine (synergistic) act. The sinner receives enabling grace that allows him to say “yes” or “no” to the Gospel call. The work of God comes to a halt as God waits for the human decision. If it is positive, then regeneration takes place and justification and so on. If the human decision is no, then the sinner is condemned. So faith is partly a gift and partly a human act, inspired by Divine grace, to be sure, but not caused solely by grace.
So, while the Arminian account of enabling grace is better than a pure Pelagian doctrine in which humans have the innate ability (apart from Divine grace) to believe the Gospel and do good works, it is still not the biblical doctrine of grace. It is closer to the synergism of the late Middle Ages, the doctrine of the unreformed church that was reformed through the re-discovery of the glorious doctrine of justification by faith in the ministries of Luther and Calvin. The Medieval/Arminian account of faith makes faith (partly) into a meritorious work rather than the gift of God.
Now, I realize that Dr. Davis and I do not agree on the Augustinian/Calvinist interpretation of the order of salvation. But I have to register my worry here that Dr. Davis is using an argument against Calvinism that is dangerous. You can’t wipe out just one city block with a nuclear weapon and you can’t introduce “foreseen faith that is partially a Divine and partially a human work” into the debate without it doing more damage than intended. The danger is that what is being introduced is a semi-Pelagian, pre-Reformation understanding of salvation instead of the Reformation’s doctrine of grace alone. The problem with saying that God is partial if He does not elect us upon the basis of foreseen faith that is partially caused by faith and partially caused by human will is that it means that salvation is only partly a matter of grace.
I don’t think Dr. Davis intends to introduce the idea of merit into salvation so that it is no longer totally by grace and becomes partly by grace plus foreseen human faith. But if not, he would be wise to re-consider the advisability of pursuing the arguments he has made against Calvinism because they seem to depend on compromising the Gospel of salvation by grace alone and the doctrine of faith as the gift of God.
NOTE 1: In his reply, Dr. Davis makes a point of saying that he said in his original post that it was irresistible grace, not prevenient grace, that God withholds from the non-elect. But from the Calvinist perspective, this is a distinction without a difference for all prevenient grace is irresistible grace from the Calvinist perspective. The kind of grace God gives to all is common grace, which is non-salvific. So I’m not sure what the point of this clarification was.
NOTE 2: In his reply to my question of what about those who never hear the Gospel, Dr. Davis’ reply is reassuring. He says that if they never hear, we can be sure that God has foreseen how they would have responded had they heard and knows that they would not have repented and believed. This means we need not imagine that Dr. Davis is sympathetic to open theism; he affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, which is good. And it also means that Dr. Davis is firmly rejecting the idea that people can be saved apart from hearing about Jesus Christ, which is also good. Dr. Davis appears to be a conservative Arminian, as opposed to more radical Arminians such as Clark Pinnock and the other open theists. Conservative Arminians have been able to work together with Calvinists for the past three centuries even while disagreeing on important doctrinal matters.