About a year ago, his Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah addressed the meeting of the ACNA at which he delineated a number of things that must be jettisoned were real ecumenical dialogue to occur between the Orthodox and this newest iteration of Anglicanism. Among the eschewed was what his Beatitude called “the heresy of Calvinism.” That very weekend, while attending a reception for my nephew John and his new bride Becca, her father, a minster of the Reformed Episcopal Church, and a friend of mine from some years back (more than twenty: we had attended seminary together, we both served as clergy in the PCA parish in Allentown, PA), accosted me wanting to know what was heretical about Calvinism. The following post(s) is my reply.
This, like any essay on some historical ism, immediately demands an explanation of what exactly that ism entails. The matter becomes more urgent when certain people wish to rearrange categories at one time more-or-less settled, and with these disputes I shall have little to say. By “these” I mean the suppliants of the erstwhile Bishop Thomas Durham (aka N. T. Wright) and his putative new readings of Paul, and the tentacles of such readings that have ensnared contemporary Reformed circles under the sobriquet of Federal Vision. To be just, federal vision predates N. T. Durham’s musings by decades, many tracing it back to the disquiet surrounding Norm Shepherd at Westminster Seminary in the early 80s. I remember at the time thinking Shepherd’s stance odd, and later in the decade, having fallen in with a circle sympathetic to Shepherd (the aforementioned PCA parish in Allentown) due to some sacramental and ecclesiological affectations on my part, I found Shepherd more to my newly acquired taste. It is all now too easy to see such readings’ incoherence and inconsistency, both with the Westminster Standards, and with Calvin (though I do not equate the two), and like the Finns with Luther, all seemingly suffering from a case of ‘deification envy’. Thus for them, claims to be “Calvinist” at best must come with the obscene caveat “Calvinism better-informed.” All the arguments about Federal Vision and its accouterments I shall leave to one side, for they do not concern the basic Orthodox critiques: perhaps they are of great weight, but not to the basic problems as the Orthodox see them, for they concern matters “after the fact”. That is, they don’t address the questions of predestination, satisfaction theories of the atonement, and human union with Christ based upon human nature’s redemption through union with the Incarnate Logos. Thus, whether one wishes to sail on R. C. Sproul’s end of the Reformed boat, or on Jim Jordan’s, it is all of apiece for the Orthodox.
The essential problems of Calvinism arise from one source, namely the confusion of nature and person, and these problems so engendered array themselves against Patristic thought (and thus Orthodoxy): to wit, the will of God is coterminous with the Divine nature so as to confuse agent and end (this arises from the Calvinist adoption of certain Augustinian categories); that which is natural is determined (and thus the will is not free); difference entails opposition; Christ’s righteousness is not that of a divine Person, and is not what we unite to; and correlative to this, Christ’s consubstantiality with our nature does not heal it; death is a curse or a punishment; sin as personal becomes a consequent of it being natural; and finally, the virtues are not natural things. These items concerned the fathers in various ways, and they weave in and out of the Christological controversies, as well as the controversies with the Gnostics and the Arians. I will defend the Orthodox counter propositions, which could very well, of course, necessitate several posts.
Calvinism as a species of Augustinianism accepts in full the West’s later developed Augustinian Trinitarianism. This entails, of course, the enormity of the filioque, but for our purposes it also entails a reading of Augustine that sees the unity of the Trinity as arising from the single nature, and not flowing from the monarchy of the Father (a position that St. Augustine himself contradicted, even in De Trinitate). Consequently, the attributes of the divine nature in the Reformed mind become determinative of the actions and relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. One need only look at the Westminster Standards’ chapter on the Trinity which begins with two fulsome statements on God in general, delineating His attributes, and only then gives a brief aside that this one God exists as three Persons. Compare this with St. John of Damascus, who begins with a discussion of the powers and names of God, but then makes clear that he is not speaking of the one divine nature, a God-in-general, but of the Father.
What has this to do with Calvinism? First, for Calvin and the Reformed (a fantasia on a theme from Augustine if you would) and then all who sail in them, because the one divine nature is the defining element of ‘what’ God is, the first basic principle of this deity is its unity: God is not made of parts or composed, for then God becomes contingent (could God be God without justice?). Consequently the divine nature in the Reformed theological order means the coalescing of all attributes by the great metaphysical category of being. Augustine himself writes “So also the Trinity itself is as great as each several person therein. For where truth itself is magnitude, that is not more great which is not more true: since in regard to the essence of truth, to be true is the same as to be, and to be is the same as to be great; therefore to be great is the same as to be true [De Trinitate 8.1.2. Sic et ipsa trinitas tam magnum est quam unaquaeque ibi persona; non enim ibi maior est quae uerior non est ubi est ipsa ueritas magnitudo quia in essentia ueritatis hoc est uerum esse quod est esse, et hoc est esse quod est magnum esse; hoc ergo magnum esse quod uerum esse.].” And, “since in this simplicity, to be wise is not other than to be, therefore wisdom is there the same as essence [De Trinitate 7.1.2 Et quia in illa simplicitate non est aliud sapere quam esse, eadem ibi sapientia quae essentia.].” Consequently, the so-called attributes cannot but be identical to the divine essence and with each other, and as well determinative for the inner life of the Trinity, in that the unity of the Trinity is predicated not on the personal, but on the natural: “the divinity, …the Godhead itself…is the unity of the Trinity [De Trinitate 1.8.15 [Christus] conuersum iri postea in ipsam diuinitatem uel, ut certius expresserim, deitatem, quae non est creatura sed est unitas trinitatis incorporea et incommutabilis, et sibimet consubstantialis et coaeterna natura.].” Augustine saw that this could lead to dire results (are the persons products of the attributes?).
Thus it should not be marveled that for St. Augustine, God’s predestination can be none other than his foreknowledge: hoc enim propositum ad praescientiam et ad praedestinationem Dei pertinet (Epistolae ad Romanos inchoata Expositio 8:28-30). Thus whatever “attributes” we predicate of God cannot be actually differentiated from one another, however much we may wish to distinguish them. For both Aquinas and Calvin, as good Augustinians, the will of God is not other than His essence, and so follows Aquinas’s notion of God as actus purus. The divine nature, as one person put it, has become an enormous metaphysical equals sign: God’s justice is God’s mercy is God’s goodness is God’s love. Further, what God wills, since the will cannot be a part of God (as God has no parts), but resides within the divine nature, what He wills He wills eternally. I don’t know that we can here ignore the questions surrounding the eternality of creation (whose origins we see within Origen, who held a similar order of theology to Augustine, and who both borrowed generously from later middle- and Neoplatonism), but I shall hold that in abeyance, and take as coherent (for the moment) the assertion that what is willed is distinct from the will. Now, this distinction Orthodoxy embraces: creation is not eternal, and while God wills that all men everywhere be saved, they are not. But for a Calvinist this must lead to a sundering of God’s will, the creation of the poorly thought-out distinction between God’s permissive and absolute will, a shabby distortion of the medieval distinction between God’s ordained power and His absolute power, a distinction Calvin himself rejected. Such distinctions can only be admitted as verbal at best, and not real, for within God are no distinctions. In this theology, predestination is inescapable.
Orthodoxy, however, does not hold to such Theology. For the Orthodox God is a relative term, and the divine nature a relative thing, for it is held by all three Persons of the Trinity, and is as well known by all of creation. Instead for the Orthodox, we see the absolute as residing with the Father, that is, with the unbegotten. As St. Gregory Nazianzenus asserted in his theological orations, deity is not the absolute term, for it is relative: who is God the God of? Of everyone and everything. But when we speak of the monarch, the sole principle, we speak of the Father: of whom is He begotten? Of no one. Thus, unbegotten, the Father is, is the Monarch. This monarchy is seen in the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit. Relationship here is by origin, the Father retaining the Divine Monarchy. Thus what we predicate of God we see as arising from what He has revealed to us (for even as Trinity God is ineffable), and thus the attributes we give to God we do so in seeing his dealings within the Trinity, and his dealings with creation.
Further, in the Divine Trinity we see God’s glory, power, and goodness descend to us creatures in infinite manners. St. Paul speaks about the various glories of God’s creation in I Cor. 15. And so with the will of God. Will is natural and not personal. Thus the will resides in the divine nature, and thus the three Persons will the same things. Note, God’s will wills a multitude of things, and effects numerous realities. Some of these are products of God’s will that are eternal (the Father willing to love the Son), and some of these actions of the will have temporal and not eternal realities (rocks are not eternal). For the Orthodox, God wills according to His Word and His words, and thus while simple, in that God has not many wills, his will has numerous ends, and thus the will is at once both simple and not. Were the will simple analogous to the manner in which Plotinus spoke of simplicity, coterminous with the divine nature (a nature with which we identify all perfections), and not finding a goal outside of itself (for how could a will that wills only the good as a simple will, will anything other than itself, and thus make all of creation only an emanation or extension of the divine nature?), then we are left with the eternal creations of Origen. Yet both Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli, whose Commonplace on predestination was so formative on English Protestantism, affirmed that the will of God was coterminus and identifiable with his nature: “Just as predestination is the purpose or the will of God, and the same will of God is the first cause of all things and is one and the same with the essence of God; there fore it is impossible that is should have a cause (PMV in his Commonplace on predestination);” and “When the question is asked, says this holy man (Augustine), why God acts so, the answer is: because He willed. If you go on to enquire why He so willed, the reply should be: You ask for something greater and higher than the will of God itself, and this cannot be found. Let human temerity, then, be repressed, not asking for what is not, lest perhaps it do not find what is. Augustine here speaks the truth, and I fully subscribe to it (Calvin, On the Eternal Predestination of God. VIII.4).” For the Orthodox, the perfections and infinite words of God, which we also call, after the Holy Fathers, His eternal energies (His glory, love, goodness, et cetera) are also the proper ends of God’s will.
Consequently, what the Orthodox deem the predestinations of God have to do with the eternal things concerning God. (St. Maximus spoke of those eternal things peri Theou around or concerning God: whether we translate peri as around or concerning they amount to the same thing.) When St. Paul says we are predestined unto good works, he is not saying we are predestined to act well or goodly, but that the goal for which we were created as creatures to enjoy God is to participate in the eternal good things around/concerning God, i.e., the multiplicity of goods, the logoi, that are the abundance of the life of God. I shall stop here.