John Calvin’s Distortions

I grew up with Calvinist thinking. I spent my time reading Puritans and Spurgeon, checking things in Louis Berkhof, and promoting the books of John Piper. I was fully immersed! I made Mark Driscoll look like a soft Arminian.

Over the years I’ve questioned everything. Naturally. This is The Grit! And as I have, I’ve noticed some structural problems in my faith, some tensions, ways that it didn’t all hang together. I now hold my Calvinist heritage in a slightly more nuanced way. I’m thankful for the truth in it, but willing to acknowledge its weaknesses and critique it also.

I think some of the weakness in Calvinism occurs at a deep structural level. After a decade of thinking this over, I’m ready to sum it up. Here’s my critique:

Calvinism starts with the complete sovereignty of God. Whereas it should end there.

By starting where it should end, it collapses the space in which the story might unfold. It has an anti-narrative bent, a static tendency, built-in. There is no deep significance to time in the Calvinist worldview. Whatever time it is, at the deepest level all is well, for every molecule is following the predetermined will of God. And so all times are fundamentally the same time.

But we need space for the story. We need time for the story. Because the story is the gospel.

For Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is defined basically apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Whereas in the NT, I take it, that event is the defining moment for what it means that God is king. When Calvinists say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, they don’t intend to be saying anything much about God’s sovereignty: that’s already been established long ago. Whereas for the apostles, ‘Jesus is Lord’ was pretty much all they had to say about God’s sovereignty.

For Calvinists, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t really change much. There is no room for a real coronation, and real victory of God at the cross. Because God’s victory has always been total anyway. He was King the day before, just as he is the day after. The main thing that changes is the appearance of the thing to us down here. But the underlying, unseen relationship between God and the world (i.e. complete sovereignty/submission to his will) remains the same.

In other words, God is not personally implicated or involved in the changes and events that make up the story, because there can be no real event for that sort of God. He is immutable in his utter sovereignty. Try making a story with a leading character like that!

This key aspect of the Calvinist world view, it seems to me, is ultimately anti-gospel.

I have another way I want to express my critique of the Calvinist thought-tradition I belong to. It’s another angle on the same thing:

Calvinism divorces God’s sovereignty from God’s kingdom.

These are metaphors. We can understand something about God by saying he is like one of our human rulers. He is King. He is in charge. He has a territory over which he holds sway. This is his sovereignty.

Or is it his kingdom?

Thing is, the two metaphors are not two, but one. It’s the same image. Therein lies the problem for Calvinism. Let me show you what I mean.

The first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture is at the Exodus:

…your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy…
You brought your people in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O LORD, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established.
18 The LORD will rule as King forever and ever.” Exodus 15

What does God’s sovereignty mean here? It means he came down and smashed Pharaoh, and created a people and gave them a land where he would rule over them. It’s not abstract, it’s very concrete. It’s about God’s presence and visible action.

In the Psalms, God’s kingship is introduced as a Messianic concept:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” Psalm 2

Another classic ‘kingship psalm’, 29, begins and ends with the image of God hovering over waters:

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. Psalm 29
This is a creation image. God asserted his power over the waters, in the creation. They obeyed his voice. In this sense he is viewed as ‘enthroned’ over the waters. This is his kingship, or sovereignty.

Psalm 74 bemoans that in God’s absence, foes have made a mockery of his land. But that is not the whole story: there is still hope of God’s kingship.

Yet God is my King from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. Psalm 74

This is God’s kingship: his victory over the waters and the leviathan. His parting the Red Sea and smashing the ‘dragon’ Egypt. And it may return.

All of these psalms view God’s kingship as something concrete and visible that happens ‘down here’. We tend to overlay this with a framework of ‘God is already fully king, it just needs revealing‘. This is an abstract structure of thought which I suspect would be meaningless to the psalmists.

Seems to me the Jewish Scriptures have a view of God’s sovereignty which is pretty close to what we might call, ‘God’s kingdom’.

In the NT, of course, God’s sovereignty (or kingdom) is completely bound up with Jesus. Revelation 15 is typical: there the first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture, from Exodus 15, is transformed:

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed.”
God can be declared ‘king of the nations’ because of his new victory, which brings all the nations to his feet. Which victory? The victory of the lamb. This is after all ‘the song of the lamb’.

In fact, the NT really has nothing to say about God as sovereign apart from what he has done in making Jesus King. This should give us pause for thought…

This kingdom is of course something that arrives. It means ‘God’s will starting to be done on earth, the way it already is in heaven, as people come under the leadership of Jesus.’ At Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, this starts to be a reality.

In Scripture, then there are not two concepts, God’s sovereignty and his kingdom/kingship. They are one and the same.


I am aware that systematic theology feels at liberty to use words in a different way from how the Scripture uses them. With its bent towards abstract thought, Calvinist systematics has constructed a whole theology of invisible ‘eternal’ stuff lying behind and prior to God’s action in the gospel, and labelled that concept ‘sovereignty’. Which of course, means ‘kingship’. But it uses this word in quite a different way from how the Scriptures use it.

This is a serious problem for ordinary Christians, as whatever contact they have with Calvinist systematics leads them to misread the Bible’s talk about God’s sovereignty. When they read in the NIV everywhere ‘Sovereign LORD’, they hear it as asserting the Calvinist doctrine of sovereignty. But Adonai Yahweh does not have that meaning. So we have this distortion.

It’s time for the two rival terms and concepts for God’s kingship in the Calvinist tradition to call each other out, confess that they are the same metaphor, go toe to toe and duke it out for the rightful title. This faith ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Historically, ‘sovereignty’ has packed the bigger punch, to the discomfiture of ‘kingdom/kingship’.

But I’m putting my money on ‘kingdom of God’. Coz it’s in the Bible.

Jonathan survived theological college, and now enjoys talking about books, scripture, theology, church, politics, mission, people, stuff like that.

The photo shows, “The Parable of the Blind,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, paimted in 1568.

The Reach Of Philosophy

Can we imagine knowing anything much about the world without the microscope and the telescope? Our knowledge of the world around us has become so much dependent upon such instruments of science, becoming more and more sophisticated and “technical” in their use, that without them we appear to be as children or naifs if we try to explain things without relying upon those who are expert in their use.

Yet it is easily forgotten that these are relatively recent inventions in the long course of the history of human knowledge and science. It is important to appreciate that such artificial aids to our understanding need to be used with discretion.

Marvelous as they are, we can become overawed by their power. We ought from time to time to put them aside and look at the world with our own natural eyesight. That is to say we should not forgo our common sense and the philosophy of life that we are able to build upon this natural basis of all knowledge. Almost without our realizing it, the possession of these powerful instruments of modern science has changed the “focus” of the eyes of our understanding.

We need to be careful that these magnifying glasses do not in fact narrow our focus instead of enlarge it; that they do not direct our attention away from the real world rather than towards it, according to the warning contained in the celebrated French saying: ce que l’on voit se cache ce que l’on ne voit pas; “that which one sees hides that which one does not see”.

Such an artificial concentration of attention can mean that we miss seeing much that is nearby, and otherwise obvious, to ordinary eyesight. The astronomers, for instance, tell us there is no evidence of God in the outer reaches of the Universe; the bio-chemists tell us that there is no evidence of an invisible principle of life in the innermost parts of the human body and endeavour to explain its vitality without recourse to any soul.

Yet these intangibles are conclusions of the natural and superior wisdom of the sages of mankind, such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, and are almost universally recognised, if indistinctly, by people of ordinary common sense. One has only to refer to the common language of all peoples to see this is so.

John Young has done us a great service by reminding us of the real world around us, which we have almost forgotten about because we have come to neglect “old” Philosophy in our admiration for the latest science. For there is much, indeed in a real sense everything, within the Scope of Philosophy.

The title is significant. We do not need a telescope to see a distant God; the Supreme Being, as a conclusion of reason, is within the scope of philosophy. We do not need a microscope to observe the soul; it is within the scope of natural philosophy as known to Aristotle, no mean example of human intelligence (il maestro di color che sanno; “the master of those who know”. Inferno 4, 131).

It is of course an ambitious project, to deal with the scope of philosophy within 340 pages. Indeed, it can only be an introduction, but it is a necessary re-introduction for many of us. The author’s plan is a good one. A brief survey of the history of philosophy is a good way to start, dealt with by a degree of familiarity with the subjects and a clarity of exposition that will satisfy I believe both expert and general reader.

Then follows a comparison of philosophy with other kinds of knowledge; beginning with common sense knowledge, the important connection with which is sadly overlooked in many other books on philosophy. He includes here, of course, the much-vexed matter of the relation of philosophy to science as understood today.

Necessarily, this can only be touched upon in a short overview. Finally, he mentions the relation of philosophy to Sacred Theology. As an evident admirer of St. Thomas he brings out well the intimate connection but clear distinction between these two.

As a concession to the somewhat excessive concentration in modern philosophy upon knowledge as such, rather than starting with the study of reality as obviously known, the author deals next with the nature of knowledge, devoting three chapters to it, treating first of knowledge in general, then of sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge.

This I believe is a good strategy. For, unfortunately, the main difficulty today with studying Philosophy is the underlying skepticism that seeks to undermine our confidence in human reason. Following upon this is a chapter with a critique of various schools of modern and contemporary philosophy. This fits appropriately after the discussion of knowledge.

Then there is a chapter on human nature which also appropriately follows the treatment of human knowledge. Within the confines of such a short treatment many issues have to be dealt with rather perfunctorily. Some “technical” terms of Thomistic philosophy may cause some difficulty.

But, overall, the author succeeds to maintain a clear and coherent presentation. One of the virtues of this author is his ability to present concepts and principles in an easy to understand manner. A chapter outlining the classification of the various parts of philosophy follows.

This makes use of St. Thomas’s classification of theoretical sciences in his commentary on Boethius’s De Trinitate, of which there is a translation in English under the title The Division and Methods of the Sciences.

To this he adds the division of the practical sciences. It is the traditional Aristotelian division. The terminology may prove a bit off-putting to some, but the author generally explains it clearly and simply. As to the content of the division one might quibble here and there about details but it gives a good overview.

I would have liked a bit more to have been said about the rational art of Dialectic as defined by Aristotle and its relation to Logic. Omitting it leaves Logic a bit stark on the philosophical landscape. Aristotle in fact includes Logic in a whole complex of rational arts. The remaining chapters deal with “some questions in philosophy”.

It is a good sample of the more principal parts of philosophy, including Metaphysics, Ethics and “Poetics”. This last one concerns the philosophy of the fine and useful arts (though he treats almost exclusively of the fine arts). It ought not to be confused with “Poietics” as used by Aristotle, which is concerned with the literary arts such as drama and poetry.

Finally, there is a chapter on the importance of philosophy, perhaps something that ought to have been placed at the beginning. But there can be no doubting that John Young has produced a book that is of the utmost importance to our time. There is no more crying need today than a return to reason in the ordinary sense of looking at the world with our own eyes and reasoning things out.

The value of the telescope and the microscope is not to be denied. But they have not necessarily extended the scope of our understanding; rather have they helped to fill in the details of what lies beyond the ordinary range of our senses. Philosophy is a universal kind of knowledge, founded on our common knowledge of things, on experience available to all.

Science, especially modern science, tends more and more to be a series of specialisms, in many respects the preserve of a few in whom the rest of us must put our trust. An increase in specialized knowledge does not, or should not, change our common sense grasp of things and our basic philosophy of life.

Unfortunately, the modern philosophical fashion of ignoring the obvious and promoting a radical skepticism has encouraged many to endeavor to reconstruct reality upon speculative theories, purportedly based on the findings of highly specialized sciences, that fly in the face of common sense.

John Young’s book, hopefully, will show up the spuriousness of this “scientific” vision of the world. It will certainly prove to be a tonic for those wanting to see a restoration of a sane philosophy to its rightful place in the culture and educational institutions of our society.

Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

The photo shows, “Lady Philosophy offers Boethius wings so his mind can fly aloft.” The French School (15th Century).