The day the tulip died, part 3

I like being right.

I mean, I REALLY like being right.

Which might explain why I was drawn to Calvinism. To quote Ben Witherington:

Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.

It’s come up in dozens of conversations with friends: a sense that many Calvinists come across as arrogant. (An odd trait for a theology that starts with something called “total depravity.”) Even some Calvinists have observed with concern a tendency toward theological arrogance.*

All I know is I did little to challenge the stereotype.

Among Calvinists (or anyone who values theological certainty), there’s a strong pull to look on competing views as “theology lite.” Easy answers for those who can’t handle “red meat” doctrines like predestination.

That’s how I felt about Calvinism’s chief rival, Arminianism. The classic Arminian view of predestination says that God looked down the corridors of time, saw everyone who would someday put their faith in him, and predestined them on the basis of his foreknowledge. Also known as “individual election based on foreseen faith.”

Anyway, it felt like a copout to me. Besides, then open theism came along and unhelpfully pointed out that if God foreknows something with certainty, then there are no real alternatives. Anything he foreknows might as well have been predestined beforehand. It comes to the same result.

But there’s another way to read the predestination texts: something called the “corporate view of election.” I was introduced to this perspective by a college mentor who studied theology at Asbury. He was someone I looked up to, despite our differences of opinion. And luckily for me, no amount of theological arrogance on my part could change that.

The corporate view affirms the idea of election (or predestination) without trying to redefine it as simple foreknowledge. But it insists that election as described in the Bible is primarily corporate, rather than individual.

That is, when the Bible speaks of predestination, it speaks of a group of people — God’s holy people, the body of Christ, etc. Calvinism thinks of election primarily in individual terms, as if God were playing a cosmic game of duck, duck, goose.

The corporate view says that election only applies to a given individual if and when he or she chooses to join the elect group. In other words, God elected that there would be something called “the body of Christ.” He elected to pour out the blessings of salvation on this group. But anyone can join up with this group and so become part of “the elect.”

Not that I was convinced. Not immediately, anyway. It would be another six years or so before I gave the corporate view a fair hearing . . .

Part 4 of this series can be found here


*That’s not to say all or even most Calvinists are arrogant. I’ve known some who are and others who are anything but. I have Calvinist friends who are incredibly kind, generous, and humble. But in my experience, Calvinism — particularly the neo-Reformed variety — lends itself to theological arrogance more readily than other systems of belief.

15 thoughts on “The day the tulip died, part 3

  1. Wow… never heard it explained that way. I love that explanation. Fits much more closely with what I’ve held to be true without knowing the terminology.


    1. Did you know Brent Ellis when we were at Taylor? Anyway, he’s the one who introduced me to this view. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but I’ve come back to it (or maybe a nuanced version of it) in more recent years…


  2. “That is, when the Bible speaks of predestination, it speaks of a group of people — God’s holy people, the body of Christ, etc. Calvinism thinks of election primarily in individual terms, as if God were playing a cosmic game of duck, duck, goose.”

    This is an absurd assertion… Calvinism/ reformed theology/ the doctirnes of grace all speak of predestinations for individuals that ARE the poeple of God, which are a group of people… Dude you really need to consider the things your write… You are building strawmans like crazy, misrepresenting who your opposing… c’mon man.


    1. So is calling it an “absurd assertion” your idea of being “humble in [your] deep theology”?

      Reformed theology teaches that God predestined specific individuals to salvation, and either predestined the rest to damnation (double predestination) or passed over the rest (single predestination). In other words, Calvinism’s view of predestination starts with the individual.

      My point here is that there are other plausible views to consider, including two Arminian options: predestination as an expression of God’s foreknowledge and corporate predestination.


  3. Sometimes you have to shoot a dog when it’s hurt…

    Calvinism/ Reformed theology/ Doctrines of Grace, are the same man, at their roots… So to say that one claims cosmic duck duck goose (an arrogant statement in itself), while the other picks group is a false statement.

    “For those he foreknew…” – “those” inevitability start with the individual, and are apart of the greater whole of God’s elect. Which is Calvinism/ Reformed Theology/ Doctrines of Grace.


    1. “‘Those’ inevitably start with the individual…” That statement is offered without any proof. And it’s my belief that it runs counter to the culture and worldview of the Bible, which emphasize the community (in contrast to our culture and worldview, which emphasize the individual).


  4. What kind of proof would you need. I don’t understand the reason in saying that. If I wanted to choose a certain group of people for a baseball team, I would call them individually, and them ultimately unite them as a team… It also seems to me that if you take the individual out of this election, or predestination then you would also need to take out all the exhortations that Paul was making in chap 8 that would serve to the edification of a believer as an individual. It’s in that sense that I don’t understand you insisting on group. I understand the the community of God is the main theme and purpose of Scripture, but though part of a body, we were once,individuals out side that community that God called into that community.


    1. I won’t say much here, since I plan to come back to Romans 8 at some point. But for now I’ll just say I believe the key to interpreting this passage is to understand Paul’s larger purpose in writing this letter. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that Paul is not advocating for the kind of individual predestination that most Calvinists see in this particular text…


  5. I would like to understand what you say “most Calvinist” believe exactly.. Maybe you can include that when you address it later.



    1. Hmm…that’s a tall order, since there are many variations within Calvinism itself. But I’ll try to summarize what I think are the big distinctives (and maybe unpack them a bit further in a post at some point – thanks for the suggestion).

      (1) God uses his sovereign power to predetermine all of history.
      (2) As a result of the fall, human beings are subject to total depravity and thus utterly incapable of choosing God. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, this belief is not exclusive to Calvinism, but perhaps it’s fair to say Calvinists tend to emphasize it more heavily.)
      (3) Before the foundations of the earth, God elected certain individuals to salvation and either passed over the rest (single predestination) or predestined the rest to eternal torment (double predestination). The saving effect of Jesus’ sacrifice is restricted to those he elected beforehand (limited atonement). In other words, only those elected to salvation beforehand will be saved.
      (4) Salvation is primarily understood through the legal/forensic lens of “justification.”
      (5) The penal substitutionary theory is the primary (if not only) legitimate way to think of the atonement.
      (6) Because God’s election is absolute (see #3), no one who has been predestined to salvation can “lose their salvation” (perseverance of the saints).

      I don’t mean this to be an exhaustive summary…just a few of the high points that distinguish Calvinism from other Christian traditions. Do you think it’s a fair summary?


      1. Oh…one more I’d add:

        (7) God’s chief attribute is his holiness, and his chief concern is his own glory. All other attributes or concerns (love, desire for relationship w/his creation) are secondary to these.


  6. yeah that sounds like a good summary…

    What I wanted to know from you exactly was what you said “most Calvinist” believe about individual election, rather than a group, etc… And what views are different, i.e. the group advocates, etc…


    1. I know I’m really kicking up some old comments, but It might be helpful to new readers. I believe the point Ben was trying to make is NOT that “Calvinism/ Reformed theology/ Doctrines of Grace” believe in a form of corporate, or group election. He was saying that “Calvinism/ Reformed theology/ Doctrines of Grace” DO NOT, but as an alternative to the “Calvinism/ Reformed theology/ Doctrines of Grace” understanding of election one might explore the idea of Corporate election.

      In my opinion you really have to read corporate election into many verses. It seems nice, and certainly sounds like a loving God, however I’m just not quite sure it fits. For example, the corporate reading of Romans 9 is only available to us now because of recent knowledge of first century judaism/ christianity, and the so called “New perspective on Paul”.

      Why would God inspire verses that would be misunderstood for 2000 years?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s