This is the first part of a short series on difficulties people have with Reformed theology. This isn’t just for non-Reformed people; a couple of the questions I’ll tackle were articulated to me by a Calvinist.
Needless to say, I don’t think, in the final analysis, that these are genuine problems for Calvinism. But they are certainly perceived that way—they are psychological barriers which many people (including Calvinists) find hard to overcome.
I’d like to suggest some ways we can overcome them—hopefully ones which are simple and fairly brief.
Problem 1: God’s glory
The first problem is with why Calvinists say God does anything. In some ways, I could address this at the end of the series, because it tends to only come up in discussion after walking through some of the other problems I’ll be covering. But I want to address it first, because it is foundational to assessing what Calvinists think about God, and his reasons for doing things.
Basically, the objection looks something like this—this is an actual comment I’ve received from a (professing) Christian, and I’ve heard many others like it:
The summum bonum that God pursues in saving and damning is supposed to be his own glory. How in the world does damning someone eternally glorify God. How does taking voices out of the heavenly choir glorify God? Sending people to hell by a decree before the foundation of the world deprives God of glory.
Many non-Reformed Christians say a similar thing about predestination or election. They tend to agree that God’s glory is what is important—because the biblical evidence for this is overwhelming—but they question whether certain doctrines glorify God.
Nonbelievers, by contrast, tend to take a slightly different approach by questioning whether God’s glorifying himself is good in the first place. Indeed, here I can paraphrase my own objection prior to becoming a Christian:
A God who would seek his own glory as the ultimate end of creation, especially at the expense of millions or billions of people, is not a God worth serving.
This seems reasonable on the face of it, because when people seek their own glory, that strikes us as selfish, self-aggrandizing—even megalomaniacal. The term “delusions of grandeur” springs to mind.
But this illustrates two interrelated problems with understanding God’s glory:
2 problems with understanding God’s glory
- We don’t have a clear idea of what his glory is in the first place
- We tend to fuzzily define it in human terms by comparing God to us
But simply thinking about the differences between God and us quickly shows why it is good for him to seek his glory—and in fact, why a God who did not do everything for his own glory would be unworthy of worship. Here’s what I mean:
Differences between us and God
- We are sinful (morally corrupt)—God is morally perfect; in fact, he is what goodness is
- We are mortal—God is immortal; in fact, he is what life is
- We are finite in power and wisdom; God is omnipotent and omniscient; in fact, he is what power and wisdom are
In other words, when people seek to glorify themselves, they are trying to “show off” their sinfulness, their mortality, their limited power and wisdom. But those aren’t things worth showing off. They should not be exalted because doing so makes them out to be better than they are.
By contrast, when God seeks to glorify himself, he is exalting his perfect goodness, life, power, wisdom and so on. In other words, for God to glorify himself is for God to reveal his perfection. And needless to say, perfection is something worth “showing off” because it is…perfect! It is the best there can be; the thing we would always want more of. To exalt God’s attributes is not to make them out to be better than they are, but to accurately express that there is nothing better.
In fact, to not show off perfection would itself be imperfect. It would be trying to hide or downplay the ultimate good—making it out to be worse than it is. This is why a God who did not seek his own glory would not be worthy of worship: because a God who does seek his own glory is, by definition, seeking the ultimate good; and a God who does not seek the ultimate good is not perfect.
God’s glory defined
This lets us come up with a simple definition of God’s glory that will be very useful as we look at some of the other thorny problems with Calvinism (because they all come down to the question of God’s glory):
God’s glory is simply his revealed perfection.
We’ll see how important this is in the next post on election.