Surely, one of the most popular Reformed authors today is R.C. Sproul. I first began to read Sproul in the early 80s when I saw him on a John Ankerberg television show. I have devoured his taped lectures on Philosophy, Ethics, Theology and Biblical themes. Having read most of his books--many more than once--I cannot underestimate the impact he has had on me, especially in the turbulent years when, as a young theological student, I was trying to wade through debates about the Bible, Inerrancy and Authority, Neo-orthodoxy and Conservativism...>>>
And, were it not for Sproul, Geisler and Francis Schaeffer, I suppose the pressure of my Philosophy professor, with whom I built a close relationship, would have hurled me over the edge to nominal Christianity, if Christianity at all.
I say all that to say Dr. Sproul is a good teacher and a worthy representative of conservative Calvinism. Yet, I find myself disagreeing with my old literary mentor as I become older.
Some would conclude from that I am ungrateful for his contribution to my theological development. Not at all. But, I am under the distinct impression that, in the end, no matter who has contributed to our lives, each of us must learn to churn his own butter.
So, let's churn...
In perhaps Dr. Sproul's most popular book, "Chosen by God", a book that surely most every new Calvinist believer has read, Sproul writes in chapter one about God's Sovereignty relating to Predestination. There he attempts to defend God's actions from critics who accuse God of "foreordaining sin" if God determined the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Some Calvinist critics reason that, if God determined Adam and Eve to sin, then sin is not the fault of Adam and Eve but sin is the fault of God. For them, they suggest this makes God sin but Adam and Eve become innocent parties to a Divine conspiracy concocted before the world began.
To relieve Calvinists of this dilemma, Sproul argues similarly to what most of us have either heard or used ourselves. He writes:
"If it is true that in some sense God foreordains everything that comes to pass, then it follows with no doubt that God must have foreordained the entrance of sin into the world...All that means is that God must have decided to allow it to happen. If He did not allow it to happen, then it could not have happened...We must conclude that God's decision to allow sin to enter the world was a good decision. This is not to say that our sin is really a good thing, but merely that God's allowing us to do sin, which is evil, is a good thing. God's allowing evil is good, but the evil he allows is still evil. God's involvement in all this is perfectly righteous. Our involvement in it is wicked. The fact that God decided to allow us to sin does not absolve us from our responsibility for sin" (Chosen by God, pp. 31-32, embolden added).
Thus, Sproul sings a familiar song to most of us as we try to grapple with God and evil, God and sin, etc. I think I may have bellowed that tune almost note for note. Haven't you? The language of "permission." The reason why there is sin and evil is because God permitted it to be, or in Sproul's words, God "allowed" it to be.
For Sproul, it is the same with Joseph's Brothers who, because of jealously over Joseph's coat, which was indicative of particular favor toward him from their Father, sold him into the slave-market. Consequently, God was behind it all.
Interestingly, Sproul does not sing of permission God granted the Brothers here. Rather, he sings the tune similarly to a hard-boiled absolute determinist. After rehearsing a series of "what-ifs" about the historical chain of incidents beginning with possible failure of Jacob giving Joseph the coat and continuing through the "what-if" Joseph did not go to Egypt making it impossible, then, for the Exodus to happen, etc, Sproul writes:
"If we telescope this collection of "what-ifs?" we conclude that if it were not for Joseph's technicolored coat there would be no Christianity, and every chapter of human history would have a different ending." (The Invisible hand, p.95).
Whoa, boy! Sounds like history is so absolutely connected, that, one tenny wenny decision to do otherwise than must be done throws the equilibrium of God's world completely out of whack. "No Coat, No Cross." Perhaps a great sermon for my Calvinist brothers!
Let's give Sproul the benefit of a doubt, however. Perhaps he would, were we to ask him to clarify, simply say he wish he would have mentioned that God "permitted" Joseph's Brothers to be mean to him so that He could be merciful to him. I do not at all think that's a bad response. Indeed I think that's what I would say, if I can throw my nickel's worth in.
Sproul similarly argues for Pharaoh's hard heart as he did Adam & Eve's predicament stated above. He concludes:
"In the act of passive hardening, God makes a decision to remove the restraints: the wicked part of the process is done by Pharaoh himself." (Chosen, p.146).
Again, though Sproul does not use God "allowed", surely he means precisely that. God "allowed" Pharaoh to do his dirty deeds in order to bring His Divine deliverance to His people.
There is an interesting anomaly, however,reflected in all this language of "permission" and "allowing" that Calvinists like Sproul speak as well as many with whom I converse. Unknown perhaps to especially many new Calvinists, dissent on the language of God merely "permitting" any phenomenon or event to take place in time comes from none other than the king of kalvinism himself, John Calvin.
And, given Calvinists clear agreement with Calvin's Divine determinism, it becomes, if I can share my view, somewhat of a sticky little briar in their britches.
Calvin held little patience for those who spoke of the Sovereign Ruler merely "allowing" or "permitting" anything to just "take place" or in Sproul's words,
"All God had to do to harden Pharaoh's heart further was to remove his arm. The evil inclinations of Pharaoh did the rest." (Chosen, p.146)
Really? How would God know that Pharaoh would continue to resist Moses in the specific way he actually did? If God removed His arm, how did God know Pharaoh would not slice off Moses' left arm? Even more significant, how did God know Pharaoh would chase Moses to the Red Sea just by simply removing His arm?
Contrary to Sproul's softening of Calvin's view, Calvin firmly held that the future was not fixed because God peered through his crystal ball and saw it. Rather, God saw perfectly the future because He fixed it all to take place, precisely including those things Sproul seems to suggest God "allowed" or "permitted."
After offering a catalogue of actions God performs on men's hearts, including hardening of Pharaoh, Calvin clearly writes:
"These instances may refer, also to divine permission...But since the Spirit clearly expresses the fact that blindness and insanity are inflicted by God's just judgment [Romans 1.20-24], such a solution is too absurd. It is said that he hardened Pharaoh's heart [Ex.9.12], also that he made it heavy [ch.10.1] and stiffened it [chs. 10.20,27; 11.10; 14.8]...for if "to harden" denotes bare permission, the very prompting to obstinacy will not properly exist in Pharaoh. Indeed how weak and foolish it would be to interpret this as if Pharaoh only suffered himself to be hardened!...from this it appears that they had been impelled by God's sure determination." (Institutes, Book 1, ch.18, P.2).
Calvin then sums it up by words no one can confuse:
"To sum up, since God's will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made this providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to display its force in the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience." (Ibid).
Still, the greater anomaly to consider, is while Sproul does not follow Calvin in refusing to speak of God's "allowing" or "permitting" the sinful actions of men and women, he does have a guide to whom he turns for guidance in this very difficult area. Listen to these words:
"After God had given him [Pharaoh] all this space to repent, and had expostulated with him for his obstinate impenitence, in these solemn words, "How long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself before me?" (x.3) what wonder is it, if God then "hardened his heart", that is, permitted Satan to harden it? if he at length wholly withdrew his softening grace, and "gave him up to a reprobate mind?" (italics added)
And just who is this that Sproul finds as a friendly guide in such difficult terrain? Why, John Wesley, of course! (Works, vol. 10, p.236).
In conclusion, when the non-Calvinist hears the Calvinist speaking of God "permitting" or "allowing" such and such to happen, be relatively assured that the Calvinist may just happen to be buttering his bread from another table.
With that, I am...