Objections to CALVINISM

as it is

by Randolph S. Foster




THE SUBJECT OF PREDESTINATION has, for many ages, engaged the attention of theologians and philosophers. That the world is governed by fixed and permanent laws is evident, even to the casual observer. But by whom those laws are established and how far they extend have been matters of controversy. In the Christian world, all admit that the will of God is the great source of law. In the arrangements of the vast systems of worlds, as well as in the formation of the earth with all its varied tribes, we recognize the hand of him who doeth “his will in the heavens above and in the earth beneath.” All acknowledge the existence of a Divine decree; but questions arise. Do all things thus come to pass? Are human actions the result of laws as fixed and unalterable as those which govern the movements of the planets? Is the destiny of every human being unchangeably determined before his birth without reference to foreseen conduct? Or has the mind a power of choice? Can it move freely within certain specified limits? And will the nature of its movements and choice influence its eternal happiness? These are questions which in some form have exercised the highest powers of the human intellect.


The Atheistical school of philosophers, ancient as well as modem, taught the doctrine of necessity. With them, matter is eternal; and, no designing mind superintending its movements, there must be a necessity in nature. This has been differently expressed in different ages. Sometimes it appears as the atomic theory of Democritus and Leucippus and, again, as the Pantheism of Spinoza. But, whatever form it may assume, it teaches that all actions come to pass by necessity and denies the responsibility of all beings. It annihilates the freedom of the human will and degrades intelligence to mechanism.


Another class of philosophers admits the existence of a Deity, but denies his special, superintending providence. Such imagine the great First Cause to be, according to the Hindu mythology, in a state of beatific repose; or to be employed in movements so transcendentally important that the affairs of earth are neglected; or that he is himself subject to fate.


The third great class is composed of such as not only admit the existence of God, but who worship him as the supreme Governor and as invested with all moral as well as natural perfections. They reject the doctrine of fate and all necessity, other than that which springs from the Divine decree. But they differ as to the extent of that decree. This difference has given rise to the formation of sects and parties in all ages and to controversies of the most exciting character. Milton in his Paradise Lost fancies the fallen angels engaged in discussions of this nature. They


Reasoned high


Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate;


Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge, absolute,


And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.


Such, too, has been the character of many human controversies. One party maintains that God decrees whatever comes to pass and that the number of those who are to be saved and of those who are to be lost is definitely and unalterably determined from eternity, while others teach that some actions flow from man’s free will and that God gives man the power to choose between life and death–decreeing salvation to those who obey his Gospel and pronouncing death upon the disobedient–or, in other words, that characters and not persons are elected. The latter sentiment, so far as a heathen ignorant of gracious influences could perceive, is expressed by Plato when in his treatise against the Atheists he says that God “devises this in reference to the whole, namely, what kind of a situation everything which becomes of a certain quality must receive and inhabit; but the causes of becoming of such a quality, he hath left to our own wills.”


The Jewish sects differed upon these as well as upon other points of doctrine. The Essenes taught predestination in its most severe form. The Sadducees held the freedom of the will in nearly the same manner as the Pelagians have since taught; while the Pharisees endeavored to combine the two systems. Prideaux says, “They ascribed to God and fate all that is done, and yet left to man the freedom of his will. But how they made these two apparent incompatibles consist together is nowhere sufficiently explained; perchance they meant no more than that every man freely chooseth what he is unalterably predestinated to. But if he be predestined to that choice, how freely soever he may seem to choose, certainly he hath no free will, because he is, according to this scheme, unalterably necessitated to all that he doth and cannot possibly, choose otherwise.”


The Mohammedans were, generally, rigid predestinarians. With them, every event in nature was fixed by an absolute decree. The soldier could neither be killed nor wounded until his time had come. Hence, they acquired a recklessness of all physical danger, as well as of moral feeling. But, even with them, the mind rebelled against fatalism, and the sect of the Motazalites and portions of other sects held the freedom of the human will.


In the early ages of Christianity, the doctrine of predestination, as extending to every act and fixing the destiny of every individual without reference to foreseen faith or works, was unknown. The early fathers teach no such creed. They occasionally use the terms foreordain, predestinate, elect, etc., but they invariably use these expressions in the Scriptural signification as employed by St. Paul and not in the predestinarian, or what has since been termed the Calvinistic, sense.


This continued to be the case for the first four centuries of the Christian era; but at the commencement of the fifth century, the Pelagian controversy arose. As usual in controversies, each party ran into an extreme. Pelagius was right in teaching that God willed all men to be saved and in denying the doctrine of infant damnation which had crept into the Church; but he erred greatly in teaching man’s ability, without grace, to commence a religious life or to keep the commandments of God. Augustine, perceiving his errors, held correctly that man’s salvation is of grace and that, apart from grace, he has no power to commence or continue a religious career. But he erred in teaching the unconditional election to life of a part of the race and the damnation of the rest, including some infants. Augustine was sustained and his works remain to this day standards in the Catholic Church.


It must, however, be remarked that Augustine is not at all times consistent in his statements. Hence, Calvin alleges that he had attributed to foreknowledge that which pertains only to decrees. His writings thus gave rise to discussions almost interminable. During the progress of the century in which he lived, a number who were termed Predestinarians advocated the doctrine of unconditional election and reprobation to the utter denial of free will. Again in the ninth century, Godeschalcus, a Saxon monk, having taught that God had predestinated some to eternal death, a violent controversy arose, heightened by what existed between him and Rabanus, who was his abbot. The doctrines of Godeschalcus were condemned by three councils, and he was cruelly cast into prison. But, afterward, his sentiments were approved by three councils, and at his death the controversy ceased.


The Dominicans, who were for many centuries among the strongest pillars of the Catholic Church and to whom the machinery of the Inquisition was committed, were strict predestinarians. So, also, were the Augustinians and the Jansenists. On the other hand, the Jesuits, who became the most indefatigable enemies of the Reformation, while they professed to believe with Augustine, yet were the advocates of free will. With all its professed unity, the Roman Church has been as much divided upon these questions as the Protestant. At present the Jesuitic theology is prevalent. They deny that they are either Calvinistic or Arminian. But, while they profess to accord with St. Augustine, they have no doubt departed far from his views.


At the time of the Reformation, the great reformers drew much from St. Augustine. Luther was an Augustinian friar, and he found the great doctrine of justification by faith so well established by that father against all opposers, that he received for a time his views on predestination also. On free-will he had a sharp contest with Erasmus, but afterward kept almost silent on these perplexing questions, and, in the latter part of his life, strongly recommended Melancthon’s works, which taught a different doctrine. The Lutheran Church, receiving their impress from him, hold only a predestination based upon foreknowledge; in this, strictly agreeing with the Arminian view.


Melancthon, in the commencement of his career, was a rigid Predestinarian. In 1525, writing of the decrees, he says: “Lastly, Divine predestination takes away human liberty; for all things come to pass according to Divine predestination–not only external works, but also internal thoughts, in all creatures.” He, however, in a few years changed his opinion, and struck out such passages from his works. To Cranmer he observed that there had been, among the reformers, “Stoical disputations respecting fate, offensive in their nature, and noxious in their tendency.” In writing to Peucer he compares Calvin to Zeno, saying, “Laelius writes to me that the controversy respecting the Stoical fate is agitated with such uncommon fervor at Geneva, that one individual is cast into prison because he happened to differ from Zeno.” And near his death, referring to the doctrines of predestination, he says they are “monstrous opinions, which are contumelious against God and pernicious to morals.”


Calvin became, among the reformers, the great champion of the decrees, and hence the system bears his name. So much importance did he attach to these peculiar views that he scrupled not to apply the most opprobrious epithets to those who refused to receive them. In one of his sermons he says, “The enemies of God’s predestination are stupid and ignorant, and the devil hath plucked out their eyes.” Again, “Such men fight against the Holy Ghost like mad beasts and endeavor to abolish the holy Scripture. There is more honesty in the Papists than in these men; for the doctrine of the Papists is a great deal better, more holy, and more agreeable to the sacred Scriptures, than the doctrine of those vile and wicked men, who cast down God’s holy election–these dogs that bark at it and swine that root it up.” And in another sermon he says, “The devil hath no fitter instruments than those who fight against predestination.”


Sentiments such as these, taught to the youth preparing for the ministry, could not fail to have an influence in promoting a persecuting spirit. These ministers were scattered among the reformed churches over Europe, and soon began to exhibit their disposition. Liberty of opinion was tolerated for a time; but, early in the succeeding century, the famous Synod of Dort was assembled in which the opinions of the Remonstrants or Arminians were condemned as heresy. Pious and influential ministers were banished from the land, many were thrown into prison, while some of their patrons were put to death. Macaulay well characterizes the proceedings of this synod as manifesting “gross injustice, insolence, and cruelty.”


A reaction followed. Arminianism and a modified Calvinism, known afterward as Baxterianism, gained ground upon the Continent and rapidly pervaded the Anglican Church. In the days of Wesley, a strong effort was made to suppress Arminian views. Calvinism being made a test of office in the college in which they were engaged, Mr. Benson was removed, and Mr. Fletcher resigned. A distinguished clergyman, Mr. Shirley, issued a circular, requesting a meeting of ministers to go in a body to Mr. Wesley’s ensuing conference and demand that he and his preachers should retract their sentiments. But, though the spirit of the Synod of Dort was aroused, the civil power to punish could not be employed. Mr. W. continued to preach, and Mr. Fletcher, in his defense, issued those masterly Checks which displayed at once his superior genius and the strength of the cause which he had espoused.


In America in early days, the religious sentiment was, generally, Calvinistic. Such churches were supported by law in the New England states until a late period. The colleges and seminaries were also principally under their control. Hence, the introduction of Methodism gave rise to numerous controversies. In the midst, however, of repeated conflicts, Arminianism has increased until now a majority of members in the Union belong to churches which reject the Calvinistic faith. Of the churches, too, which are called Calvinistic, at least one-half have embraced what is termed New School theology. Whatever may be the merits or demerits of that system, the Old School assert that it is a departure, not only to Arminianism, but to Pelagianism.


For some years past there had been a growing union among Christians; controversies were less frequent, and the Presbyterian and Methodist churches were living in peace and harmony. Recently, however, repeated attacks of the most virulent character have been made upon the doctrines and usages of the Methodist Episcopal Church. For a time this was patiently borne; but as forbearance only seemed to increase the frequency and severity of the attacks, a notice of the principles involved became necessary.


The letters contained in the present volume were written by Rev. R. S. Foster, A. M., a member of the Ohio annual conference, who has charge of Wesley Chapel in this city. A number of them appeared in the columns of the Western Christian Advocate; and, at the earnest solicitations of many readers, he was induced to present them in a more permanent form. Their style is clear and forcible, and the process of argumentation strictly logical. As the reader will perceive, he has limited himself to two principal points: first, to show what are the doctrines of Calvinism; and, secondly, to state the prominent objections to them. This work has been well executed by giving the standard authors in their own language and thus preventing any candid opponent from making the charge of misrepresentation. The book will thus be very valuable to such as have not access to extensive libraries, or who have not time to examine for themselves the various writers here quoted. The objections are distinctly and explicitly stated, and the intelligent reader will, we think, be fully convinced that they are well sustained. We commend the volume as one of great merit to such as are perplexed upon the subject of predestination. We doubt not that many, after perusing these pages, will fully acquiesce with Calvin, in terming, as he did, the decree of predestination a horrible decree.