Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mormon Misgivings Concerning Calvinism

Latter-day Saints believe that all mankind may be saved through the atonement of Christ by responding appropriately to the gospel message (see Articles of Faith). Contrast that with Calvinist theology, where God supposedly predestines only an elect few for salvation, while a vast number of his children are eternally damned.

In my view, the Latter-day Saint/Mormon view of God is one of an all wise and all loving Father in Heaven whose plan of salvation is big enough for all his children. Yet the Calvinist view of God appears to me as unfair and stern, at best, and sadistic at worst.

Elder Quentin L. Cook diplomatically addressed this very issue in the last General Conference. He said that "for many of these people who are open to religious faith, one issue has been particularly troubling. They have had a difficult time reconciling the correct doctrine that we have a loving Father in Heaven and the incorrect doctrine that most of mankind would be doomed to eternal hell."

He goes on to quote from his own great-great-grandfathers experience: "Sometimes they found fault with me because I wanted a more liberal salvation for the family of man. I could not believe the Lord had made a part to be saved and a great part to be damned to all eternity.”

Many today fail to see just how revolutionary this is, but "at the time Joseph Smith received revelations and organized the Church, the vast majority of churches taught that the Savior’s Atonement would not bring about the salvation of most of mankind. The common precept was that a few would be saved and the overwhelming majority would be doomed to endless tortures of the most awful and unspeakable intensity. The marvelous doctrine revealed to the Prophet Joseph unveiled to us a plan of salvation that is applicable to all mankind, including those who do not hear of Christ in this life, children who die before the age of accountability, and those who have no understanding".

Elder Cook boldly teaches that "a loving Father has provided a comprehensive and compassionate plan for His children 'that saves the living, redeems the dead, rescues the damned, and glorifies all who repent.' Even though our journey may be fraught with tribulation, the destination is truly glorious. I rejoice in the great plan of salvation that is big enough for all of our Father in Heaven’s children. I express gratitude beyond my ability to articulate for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I bear my witness of Him."

This provides me with the perfect backdrop on which to spotlight several landmark and eye-opening posts. They highlight the reasons why Calvinism is so unpalatable to Latter-day Saints:

A zealous anti-Mormon explains his motivations

“God made me do it” — On the motivation of the Fluffy Bunny Nice Nice Club

Aquinas also provides a summary of those exchanges and reminds us all that understanding the difference between Mormonism's emphasis on free will/agency and Calvinism's lack thereof is imperative for interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding: Explaining a Calvinist Worldview to a Latter-day Saint.

I'll share one quote which highlights an important difference/irony:
"The Grand a narrative of God siting in council with the Sons of God before the creation of the world, contemplating the creation and the salvation of man. In the narrative, Lucifer, a member of the council, proposes that he should be sent as the Savior and that he would redeem all mankind. Latter-day Saints understand Lucifer’s proposal to entail a complete destruction of human free will, or agency, in order to achieve the goal of saving all men, as all men would be coerced to do God’s will. Lucifer rebelled against God and was hurled from the council, thrust down, becoming the devil.

"The great irony here is that the God of Calvinism ends up even more horrific than Lucifer since at least Lucifer planned to save all mankind, whereas the God of Calvinism not only chooses to create a world where mankind ultimately cannot act contrary to God’s will, but then inexplicably chooses to redeem only a portion of mankind created."


NM said...

As a teenager, I used to detest the doctrines of Calvinism. It is only in the past 3/4 years have I come to understand it and be truly humbled by it...

Nice post Clean Cut.


Anonymous said...

I'm a Latter-day Saint. I cherish my free will as much as anyone. I believe in the council in heaven as you explained above.

But I can't help thinking that this is an oversimplification of Calvinism. Granted, I don't know that much about it, but a Christian thinker dedicated to the ideals set forth by a Christian gospel–in whatever form–would have to be a moron to set up a theology with such a hateful God. It would attract few and be short-lived.

So why, if Calvinism is so rotten, do so many loving, sincere Christians espouse it? I hardly think they are ignorant or brainwashed. That's what people say about us too.

Clean Cut said...

As one who understands the Grand Council narrative and who believes that free will/moral agency is absolutely imperative in God's plan, I personally cannot appreciate Calvinism as a Calvinist does. I would, therefore, have more in common with an Arminian Christian.

I suppose this is where I should invite those with more expertise on the issue to weigh in. But if I was coming from the background of espousing Calvinism's TULIP doctrine, I'd have a very different perspective. In other words, if I believed in total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints as a Calvinist does, then I probably wouldn't see it as "rotten".

However, as a Latter-day Saint, I'd say that "rotten"--I used the word "unpalatable"--is the way it appears to us because of what we know. It's critical that both camps seek better mutual understanding.

Geoff J said...

So why, if Calvinism is so rotten, do so many loving, sincere Christians espouse it?There are probably a few reasons

1. Most people who attend Calvinist churches probably never give a second thought to the implications of the theology their pastor teaches. In fact, a lot of Calvinist preachers probably or only semi-Calvinist too (like Todd Wood). The truth is that people don't think about theology that much and they certainly don't often think about the negative logical ends of their theology.

2. I think a lot of Calvinists are "cafeteria Calvinists" who would say "oh I don't go for that part" when they see the implications of TULIP.

3. The few who really do get it and understand it seem to have a two part justification: A) They say "that's what hte Bible says so who am I to fight that" (even though it takes a very specific and filtered reading of the Bible to arrive at Calvinism in my opinion), or B) They don't worry about it too much because they just feel so relieved that they are fairly certain they made the mysterious (read: arbitrary) salvation cut-off by God.

Unknown said...

-interesting how you falsely present both Mormonism and Calvinism. Mormonism is not universalism, developing as much "us and them" language as Calvinism, and as much as the Bible, for that matter.
Calvinism presents "the decrees of God," as God's actions beyond time and space in his infinite wisdom and authority. In contrast to these infinite decrees, Calvinism presents the redemptive acts of God occurring in time and space - in history. These two realms of actions do not contradict one another but rather present the richness of biblical revelation. When we try to discuss and understand the infinite decree of predestination within the realm of time and space, then we run into trouble and misrepresent it. BTW, "predestine" is a biblical term used 6 times in the N.T. It is lexically and contextually clear. Calvin did not coin this word or assign its meaning to the actions of God. The Apostle Paul wrote Romans 9 and Ephesians 1. The Old Covenant prophets spoke the very words of God. In time and space, in history, we Calvinists speak of "the sincere and universal offer of the gospel" as we accept the biblcal texts like, "God wishes that none should perish and that all would come to a knowledge of him." No Calvinist denies this divine desire and love.

Papa D said...

Nathan, every Calvinist quotes those two chapters (all six references are in only TWO chapters attributed to ONE author - Paul) - while totally ignoring the hundreds of references that, in a clear and direct and literal reading, contradict the Calvinist view of predestination. Geoff already hinted at that, but I will state it more directly:

Paul used the root or conjugated word six times in two chapters. Jesus himself taught various repudiations of the Calvinist predestination in dozens of passages, and other apostles (including, most notably James) also discredited the Calvinist reading. (Luther, interestingly, got rid of James simply by calling it uninspired. Calvin essentially agreed, but he couldn't say that about the Gospels - so he simply ignored or subjugated the words of the Savior. That's not surprising, since hardcore Calvinism essentially is Lucifer's plan - administered by his more sadistic twin.

As Geoff said, very few Calvinists look seriously at the implications of hardcore Calvinist predestination - and most of those who do nuance it to be nothing more than a fraternal twin of Mormonism's fore-ordination. I have little problem with the general interpretation of Calvinism that dominates much of the Calvinist population today; I loathe "pure" Calvinism as Lucifer's plan on steroids. I would be happy to explain exactly why in summary detail, if anyone is interested, but the streamlined version is:

Lucifer promised all would return to the Father, just lacking any real growth and progression; Calvin promised some would return to the Father, just as lacking in any real growth and progression - while many would roast eternally just to show God's power. It makes God a sadistic puppeteer - actually worse in important ways than Lucifer. No thanks.

It's no wonder we believe Joseph's time (and continuing) is a powerful dispensation for Lucifer's influence. (I won't get any clearer with that reference.)

NM said...

Papa D, try not to think of it as Paul vs. Jesus as if we choose pieces of Scripture that fit with our preferences of who-God-is. Rather, look at Scripture in its entirety and look to change what we know of who-He-is in light of what Scripture reveals.

How do we treat passages like Romans 9 (10 & 11), or Ephesians 1 or John 10 or Exodus 33? etc, etc. We can't just gloss over them as if they didn't exist, right?

Clean Cut said...

Thanks to all for the discussion!

Nathan, I'm not misrepresenting Mormonism OR Calvinism here. I'm just saying how Calvinism comes across to me as a Mormon. (By the way, read the comments strand in my last post and you'll see that I'm not saying that Mormonism is Universalism. That's what the atheist in that strand was hoping/thinking Mormonism is--but I had to clarify where our theology fits in-between the two extremes of pure Calvinism and Universalism). Nevertheless, I have to say that my view is a much more generous view of God.

Look, this isn't personal. I'm separating the theology from the person espousing it. But I can read Romans 9 until the cows come home and still not believe it's saying what you believe it's saying. Nevertheless, I'm grateful to have a believing Calvinist--and a Presbyterian pastor at that--to explain why you see the beauty in it. I can benefit by stepping into your shoes and seeing things through your lenses for a time.

But ultimately, knowing what I know, this is how your words translate in my mind:

"It's not just Calvinism that claims that God is a supreme and sovereign jerk. The Bible says it! So there!"

Papa D said...

NM, I do try to see the big picture - and that's why I reject the hardcore Calvinist position. I believe the big picture supports what I would call modified Calvinism - what is actually the Mormon view of fore-ordination. That's why I am fine with how many Calvinists actually view the issue - MUCH more moderately than Calvin's more extreme predestination is interpreted by those who espouse what I term "hardcore Calvinism". That type of Calvinism is what I abhor; the more moderate Calvinism is close enough to Mormon theology to be fine to me.

Ron Henzel said...

I appreciate the fact that you understand the link between the death of Christ and salvation. I've posted my own thoughts about the atonement of Christ in an article at

NM said...

Ron, that article is fantastic!

Clean Cut said...

Well, I'd still love for a Calvinist to answer sundaypages excellent question above. I think the Mormons here have tried to answer according to our understanding. But it would still be nice to have a Calvinist expert willing to try to explain things to the rest of us. The floor is still open.

I would hope that any attempt to explain Calvinism in a winsome way could be done without getting defensive. I hope this can be a place to seek better mutual understanding in an respectful and non-threatening manner.

I've expressed here some misgivings I have concerning Calvinism. I still have them. I'd now like to invite a Calvinist ambassador (if there is such a thing) to explain their faith in this theology in a way that can resonate better with a Latter-day Saint audience.

Anonymous said...

I'm not asking anyone to make the jump of making Calvinism appealing to Mormons. That's a pretty tall order. I'm just skeptical that all hard-core Calvinists can be ignorant about the implications of their theology. I'd like those people to share their religious feelings. Is it true what Geoff J says? Do you really just adopt the attitude that "The Bible says it, whether we like it or not?"

I'll take a stab at why it's so "unpalatable" to Mormons though. After watching the video tribute to Truman Madsen, it made me think of how revolutionary Joseph's concept of man was. Perhaps if I did only view myself as a creation of God, a mere speck of dust in the Grand scheme of things, it would be comprehensible that God was in control of EVERYTHING, including my will and that he saved whomever he wanted and damned the rest despite whatever they had done. But if man is a co-eternal ontological cousin of God, it's hard to believe that we are completely depraved and that even our agency is subject to him, or that our destinies are determined by his will alone and not on our choices.

But I'm not a theologian. I just like the open theist-flavored view that Geoff J espouses. :)

NM said...

I'm no greek scholar/theologian, but how about we do a verse-by verse study of the book of Romans? Or if we want to be specific to this topic of 'Calvinism', we could just do Romans 9? Would people be up for it? I have a few friends who attend WEST, studying greek/hebrew - and I guess I could ask them to join in...

a helmet said...

I'm neither a calvinist nor a mormon, however the calvinists' salvation rests as much on their works as the mormons' salvation. However, the calvinst interprets his works just in a different way, namely as "flowing from the transformation of the regenerate believer". Mormons, on the other hand, must work in order to win God's approval. Calvinists must work in order to check whether they have been given "genuine" faith. The calvinstic dogma that they are saved by faith alone, is misleading. They are saved by "true, saving faith". What is that? -- Well, here is the rub in the matter. You only know that you have been given that kind of faith if you persevere in good works to the end. Calvinists never know whether they possess genuine faith or whether they have been deluded by a false faith. The only why to gain assurance about the "reality of their faith" (what an awkward concept...) is to do many good works and conclude that you must obviously be a genuine believer whose faith now results in these many good works. So calvinism really boils down to what might be called "Check-If-You-Are-Saved-ism".

So both mormonism and calvinism don't offer salvation apart from human works.

-a helmet

Clean Cut said...

Thanks helmet. I do, however, reject the statement that Mormons believe "they must work in order to win God's approval."

He extends grace to us APART from our works; BEFORE we can do anything to merit it; no one merits or deserves grace. So clearly there is another (better) reason(s) why we do "works".

You do bring up an interesting question though. I wonder how Calvinists themselves would describe how they "know" with a surety that they are indeed one of the "elect" and are thus "saved".

a helmet said...

BEFORE we can do anything to merit it?!

For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, AFTER all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).


Without good works, no grace!

-a helmet

Clean Cut said...

2nd Nephi 25:23 is generally misunderstood by evangelicals, and unfortunately, too often by Latter-day Saints. It says: "For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do".

Robert Millet (in “Claiming Christ” ) explains that “this does not mean that we must do everything we can do BEFORE Christ can assist us. This is not about chronology. Further, who do you know who has or will ever do ALL they can do? Grace is not just that final boost into heaven that God provides at the end of a well-lived life, although we obviously will need all the help we can get. Rather, the Almighty assists us all along the way, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, all through our lives. It does not mean that we will carry the bulk of the load to salvation and Jesus will fill in the gaps; he is not the God of the gaps. Our contribution to glory hereafter, when compared to his, is infinitesimal and miniscule. If I might be permitted a paraphrase of what the passage stated, “We are saved by grace, above and beyond all we can do, nothwithstanding all we can do, in spite of all we can do” (p. 188).

Misinterpreting this means that people will be guilty of practically attempting to save themselves—“a works-righteousness that discounts, understates, underappreciates, and even sets at naught the mighty work performed by our Savior and Redeemer” (Millet, p. 189).

Moreover, when you compare this verse with all the other teachings of Nephi, you'll see even more clearly that the sentence actually means: "Even after all we can do, it is still by grace that we are saved." The heart of it is saying that we are saved by grace NOTWITHSTANDING all we can do. Or in other words, "after all is said and done, or after all we can do (which isn't much)--we are saved by the grace of Christ."

This is much more in line with LDS teaching and with all the other scriptures in the Book of Mormon, which eloquently states the doctrine of salvation by grace--and that we need grace here and now, not only after or at the end of our lives. After all, Jesus is the Savior and Redeemer, not just a “wise consultant” or “celestial cheerleader”.

I’m kind of passionate about this, because it is so critical to understand this, and to not misunderstand this. Stephen E. Robinson has suggested that in that passage, “all we can do” is have faith in Christ. This is made clear in the following verses, particularly 25:26, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophecy of Christ, and we write according to our prophesies that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” Moreover, the Book of Mormon elsewhere states that “all we can do” is to repent and turn to Christ. (Alma 24:10-11).

As a fellow blogger has written: "Of course, we are to try to do all that we can do, but exactly what we can do pales in comparison to what He has done - saved us by His grace regardless of what we can do. It takes the pressure off of us and puts the focus where it should be - on His incomprehensible grace that so fully he proffers us."

Clean Cut said...

Another possible interpretation is that the "we" in "all we can do" might actually be referring to just Nephi and his fellow prophets, not an "impossible standard that is “required” of humankind before God grants forgiveness and salvation, but of the efforts he and his brethren have put forth to write and persuade".

Katie writes: "To rephrase it, might he be saying, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that after all we can do [to write and persuade], it is [ultimately] by the grace [of Christ] that we are saved.”

"Framed this way, Nephi is NOT making a sweeping statement about the necessity of each man and woman to turn to Christ only AFTER you’ve done the best you can; but instead is acknowledging that the work he does is insufficient, for it is by GRACE that he is saved, even after all he does."

Clean Cut said...

sundaypage, I great follow-up comment. And thanks for sharing that link to the Truman Madsen video. It was wonderful.

NM said...

An interesting article, written by John Piper concerning John Calvin's impact upon American culture.

Anonymous said...

I`m a Calvinist who has read the Institutes of the Christian Religion in both English and French and I can say I am not a 1/2 believer. I fully believe that is correct. Additionally, I fully believe in TULIP and have no problem with its implications of many people going to hell. That is why hell is there and why grace via Christ is so amazing.

I am studying the Book of Mormon now, along with baptism theology, and find the practice of baptizing the dead to be quite challenging. I feels good to the believer however, baptism exists as a testament of the faith of the believer. God works first, then baptism occurs.