Chosen but Free? A Review of Norman Geisler’s Attack on the Doctrines of Grace (Part 1)
Dr. Norman Geisler is presently the President of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has previously taught at Dallas Theological Seminary among other evangelical institutions. He is the author of hundreds of articles and dozens of books. Many have found great help in his writings, this author included. Alas, even exceptional intellects are subject to the limitations of humanity. With one Prominent Exception, our race is an unbroken line of fallible beings whose thinking process is marred by personal and ancestral histories, undetected prejudices, and undiscovered blind spots which prevent us from the objectivity that we desire in regard to our intellectual pursuits. This human frailty is more or less obvious according to the individual and the subject matter with which he is dealing. In Dr. Geisler’s case, it is readily apparent that, for him, the doctrine of election in particular, and Calvinism in general, is subject to this frailty.
Dr. Geisler’s latest production is entitled, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election (CBF). It does not take long, however, for the theologically literate reader to understand that this particular work is anything but a “balanced” view of election. Beginning with the self-evident contradiction in the title itself, it should be evident to any objective reader that balance was not the aim in its production. Rather, CBF sets out to present its viewpoint, which is simply a form of Arminianism cloaked under another name, as being so obviously correct that the reader must wonder how exegetes and theologians of the stature of John Calvin, John Owen, B.B. Warfield, John Murray, etc., did not see it.
This presentation is flawed in a number of ways which will be dealt with in the remainder of this booklet. The first thing that strikes the reader is Geisler’s blatant attempt to redefine traditional theological terminology. He furthers this end in a number of ways which will form the structure of this critique. In addition to redefinitions, one will also find an almost continuous flow of misrepresentations concerning the position of his opponents, logical leaps with little if any supporting argumentation, and a general neglect of real exegesis in favor of mere assertions.
The issue which CBF attempts to address is really much more than the doctrine of Election alone. Rather, it is the entire set of biblically derived doctrines commonly known as Calvinism. But what is Calvinism? That is a question which, in CBF, is clouded from the very beginning. As one begins to wade through CBF, one is immediately aware that Geisler is not dealing with terms in their historical context but rather redefining terms in order to demonize those who would disagree with him. Calvinism, traditionally and minimally explicated by the TULIP acrostic (Total depravity or inability; Unconditional election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the Saints) is said to be “extreme” Calvinism. What a surprise this must be to men such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, George Whitefield, J. Gresham Machen, and contemporaries such as James Boice, R.C. Sproul and John Piper. Geisler says in a footnote to his first use of the term “extreme Calvinism”,
“We use the term “extreme” rather than “hyper” since hyper-Calvinism is used by some to designate a more radical view known as “supralapsarianism,” which entails double predestination (see appendix 7), denies human responsibility…or nullifies concern for missions and evangelism….
We should note that theologians we classify as extreme Calvinists consider themselves simply “Calvinists” and would probably object to our categorizing them in this manner. In their view, anyone who does not espouse all five points of Calvinism as they interpret them is not, strictly speaking, a true Calvinist. Nonetheless, we call them “extreme” Calvinists because they are more extreme than John Calvin himself (see appendix 2) and to distinguish them from moderate Calvinists (see Chapter 7).”
Leaving aside Geisler’s apparent confusion concerning hyper-Calvinism and supralapsarianism, Geisler’s fuzziness when dealing with these theological terms must be noted. Despite his desire to wrench the term “Calvinist” from its commonly recognized usage, the fact remains that theological labels are useful only due to the near universal agreement concerning their definitions. If one were to question someone who is at all knowledgeable in the subject as to what constitutes a Calvinist, regardless of their personal viewpoint concerning the issues one would receive a reply which reflects not Geisler’s ideas, but rather those of historic, traditional Calvinism….that which Geisler calls “extreme.”
Geisler’s Calvinism, however, when put in historical context, is unrecognizable as such. He holds to only one point of traditional Calvinism, that being the Perseverance of the Saints, and yet refers to himself as a “moderate” Calvinist. Outside of his own self-serving redefinition, he would be described by the vast majority of theologians as representing the Arminian school of theology, or at best, “moderate” Arminian thought. For some reason, Geisler prefers not to identify with Arminians who would agree most closely with his own theology, but would rather appropriate for himself terminology traditionally used to describe those whose views he opposes. His purpose for doing this remains a mystery.
Geisler engages in this redefinition not only with regard to the general term “Calvinism”, but he also redefines the individual doctrines which are part and parcel of Calvinism. This is seen in his discussion of T-U-L-I-P.
Although he affirms the doctrine of Total depravity with one hand, he takes it away with the other by again redefining traditional terminology.
“All the Scriptures used by extreme Calvinists are accepted by moderate Calvinists; the only difference is that moderates insist that being “dead” in sin does not mean that unsaved people cannot understand and receive the truth of the gospel as the Spirit of God works on their hearts. That is, it does not in effect erase the image of God (but only effaces it.”
This misrepresentation of the true Calvinist position will be dealt with elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Geisler’s idea of deadness is clearly the Arminian view of deadness. That is, being dead does not really mean being dead. Man, whom Scripture describes as “dead”, still has the ability to respond positively to the gospel of Christ. This may be Geisler’s view, but it is not the Calvinist view.
He states that unconditional election is also held by “moderate” Calvinists. However, we again find Geisler redefining commonly accepted terminology. Calvinism has historically held that unconditional election is just what it says….unconditional. It is unconditional on the part of the God who elects and on the part of man who is elected. Geisler, however, wanting to hold on to the term while denying its meaning, redefines unconditional election.
“It is unconditional from the standpoint of the Giver, even though there is one condition for the receiver – faith.”
Geisler never addresses the problems with this view, however, and this is another weakness in CBF. One would think, reading this book, that none of the issues he raises have ever been answered by traditional Calvinists, when in fact, all of them have been answered time and time again. The problems with his view of Unconditional election should be clear. If election is conditioned upon faith, which must of necessity be foreseen faith, the concept of election is itself stripped of any actual meaning. If God foresees that someone will believe, and God cannot be mistaken in what He knows, then that person will, in fact, believe. What then is there to elect? Another issue that Geisler fails to deal with, either here or in his discussion of free will, is why, if all are free to come to faith, why one does and another does not. There are only two possibilities. Either the source of faith is in the sovereign decree of God, or the source of faith is within the person himself. If, as Geisler views it, each man has the freedom to believe, then the logical conclusion is that there is something within a person which causes him to believe. Whatever this may be is necessarily lacking in the person who does not believe. Either there is a difference in intellectual capability, or in their levels of spiritual discernment or in their inherent righteousness, because to believe is a righteous act. Whichever the case, there is a difference between those who believe and those who don’t. If that is the case, then those who believe have something in which to boast. Of course, this is precisely what Paul denies in Ephesians 2:8-9.
Another redefinition is seen when Geisler addresses the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. He says,
“Irresistible grace is exercised on all who are willing, as was stated in chapter 5. That is, anyone who is receptive to God’s work in his heart will be overwhelmed by His grace.”
But this makes nonsense of the terminology. If someone is already willing, what need is there to describe grace as irresistible?
It remains a mystery why Geisler insists upon redefining terminology which is commonly recognized by all sides of the debate. Rather than clarifying the discussion, it serves no purpose other than to cloud the issues at best, and at worst to deceive those who are less knowledgeable concerning the points under discussion. As will be seen, aside from the Perseverance of the Saints, Geisler’s position is that of Arminianism, not historic Calvinism. He would have done his readers a great service to simply admit this, rather than to confuse the matter with artificially imposed definitions.
In addition to redefining traditional terminology, Geisler engages in a degree of either misunderstanding or misrepresentation that is surprising coming from a man of Geisler’s background and ability.
“Indeed, one response to the problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is that of extreme Calvinism.
This response claims that free choice is simply doing what we desire, but that no one ever desires to do anything unless God gives him the desire to do so.” (italics mine, JMH)”
To support this contention, Geisler footnotes a comment by Edwin Palmer, whom he calls an “extreme Calvinist” which says nothing at all similar to what Geisler has asserted. I will let the reader examine the footnote in its entirety and compare what is said to Geisler’s representation of what is said.
“Edwin Palmer, an extreme Calvinist, insists “that man is free – one hundred percent free – free to do exactly what he wants.” But this is totally misleading in view of what is said only a few lines later, namely, “Man is totally unable to choose equally as well between [the] good and the bad.” He adds, “the non-Christian is free. He does precisely what he would like. He follows his heart’s desires. Because his heart is rotten and inclined to all kinds of evil, he freely does what he wants to do, namely, sin.” See Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1972), 35-36.”
Can anyone examine these statements by Palmer and in doing so, find the source of Geisler’s claim that Palmer has said that no one ever desires to do anything unless God gives him the desire to do so? Now ultimately, the point may indeed be true. When understood properly, belief in the ultimate sovereignty of God can lead no where else. But Geisler’s use of sources to support his contention is both inaccurate and misleading. This is representative of what is found throughout CBF. The attentive reader will find again and again individuals and positions which are misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented as well as footnotes which are completely disconnected from the statement they are intended to support.
“According to this view (Calvinism), God’s predetermination is done in spite of His foreknowledge of human free acts. God operates with such unapproachable sovereignty that His choices are made with total disregard for the choices of mortal men.” (italics, Geisler’s).
No Calvinist would recognize this definition of predetermination. To begin with, Geisler is assuming a definition of foreknowledge which is much in dispute. Foreknowledge, as Scripture uses the term in the passages pertinent to this discussion, does not mean simple precognition. Rather it contains within it the ideas of both relationship and determination. God’s predetermination is not in spite of God’s foreknowledge. Rather, His foreknowledge is based upon God’s fully independent decree. That is, God knows because God decreed, and those decrees determine the free acts of His creatures. This is so clearly asserted by reformed thinkers that one wonders how Geisler can miss it.
Geisler continues his misrepresentation in that same context when he asserts of Calvinists that they hold the following,
“If free choices were not considered at all when God made the list of the elect, then irresistible grace on the unwilling follows. That is, man would have no say in his own salvation. Accordingly, the fact that all men do not choose to love, worship, and serve God will make no difference whatsoever to God. He will simply “doublewhammy” those He chooses with His irresistible power and force them into His kingdom against their wills (see chapter 5).”
Irresistible grace on the unwilling is a constant theme that runs throughout CBF and it is nothing more than a strawman. The reformed view is not that God forces people into the kingdom against their wills, but rather that God causes dead men to live. No one comes into the kingdom unwillingly. God so acts upon man that man becomes willing. The only people that come to Christ are those who want to. The reformed view is clear. If God did not do this work in the heart of man, that is, if He did not do what the Lord says through Ezekiel, “I will take from them their heart of stone, and will give them a heart of flesh”, they would never choose Christ, for they would be forever unwilling.
Other examples of this misrepresentation abound. In his chapter entitled, Avoiding Extreme Calvinism, Geisler provides a chart attempting to detail the differences between what he calls “moderate” Calvinism and “extreme” Calvinism. In that chart he asserts that the extreme Calvinistic view of the will is that it has been destroyed by the fall. It is interesting that Geisler provides no source for this statement. Surely that is because there is none. No Calvinist would say such a thing. One need only review the titles of classic reformed works concerning the will to see that this is a ridiculous charge. Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards did not write, The Destruction of the Will, but rather, The Bondage of the Will and The Freedom of the Will, respectively. Can something that has been destroyed be either bound or free?
This same page contains this statement in regard to the Calvinistic view of Ephesians 2:1, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…”,
“First of all, spiritual “death” in the Bible is a strong expression meaning that fallen beings are totally separated from God, not completely obliterated by Him.”
Once again, one looks in vain for a source. Which reformed thinker has stated that spiritual death equals obliteration? We don’t know, for we are provided only with the bare assertion that such a person exists. There is not a footnote to be found in its support. And no reformed scholar that this author is aware of has or would say such a thing. But in a quote that has been noted previously, Geisler makes a similar assertion when he says that the Calvinist definition of Total depravity is that the image of God is erased. Amazingly, in his footnote on this point he reveals his knowledge that Calvinists do not actually hold to this view. In spite of this knowledge, he feels free to misrepresent the opposing view because in his opinion,
“…logically this is what their view demands and practically this is what they hold.”
Of course, this logic is never presented, nor is any evidence that this is what Calvinists practically hold. It is simply one of innumerable assertions, support for which is never even attempted.
This leads us into another problem with Geisler and CBF.
The direction of the book is quickly evident as one completes the generally helpful first chapter, which is a survey of the attributes of God, and turns to Chapter Two where one will read the title, “Why Blame Me?” Geisler explains his title by asking, “If God is in control of everything, then why should we be blamed for anything”? Whether intended or not, this question immediately puts the reader in mind of a very similar question put forth by the apostle Paul in Rom. 9:19. In a discussion of unconditional election, Paul anticipates the question that will come to the mind of the Roman Christians: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’”
The difference in the manner in which the apostle Paul and Dr. Geisler respond to this question is stark. The inspired apostle replies to this question with a simple rebuke: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” Geisler, on the other hand, spends the next 223 pages trying to answer that question. And it is at this very point that Geisler goes off track. He is not satisfied with Paul’s answer. He doesn’t like the implications. He wishes to find an answer other than that which Paul provides, which is, simply put, God is sovereign over all and yet, in some way, remains righteous and just in holding men accountable for their sin. This is perhaps the strongest argument for the Calvinistic view (and I would argue, the Pauline view) of election that one could muster. For unless one understands Paul to be arguing for election based upon nothing but the independent decree of God, the question and answer he puts forth in verses 19-21 make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
It is startling that in a chapter specifically devoted to the very question raised by Paul in Rom. 9, this crucial passage is referred to not at all. When Geisler finally does address the passage, it is twisted beyond recognition by ignoring the clear logic of the passage in favor of an explanation which must be wrenched out of the natural flow of the text.
Geisler’s first explanatory comment in this regard is to point out that the question “Who resists His will?” is not Paul’s question at all, but rather a question which is anticipated to be in the mind of his readers. No one can or would argue with this conclusion. It is self-evident. The further conclusion that Geisler draws from this fact is erroneous, however. He says,
“…the idea that one cannot resist God’s will may be no more part of Paul’s teaching than the view that we should do evil so that good may come…”
Geisler is referring to a similar objection introduced in Rom. 3:8. The point that Geisler ignores is that Paul is assuming that his readers, upon a proper understanding of what he is saying, will ask this question. The question itself is senseless under any other understanding of what Paul is teaching. If his readers are misunderstanding him, Paul certainly would have clarified what he was teaching, saying something like, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ But that question reflects a misunderstanding of what I’m saying. What I really mean is…..” But Paul does not do this. He feels no need to clarify what he is teaching. He obviously understands that the natural response to what he is saying, will, in fact, be to ask, “Why does He still find fault?” So instead of correcting a misperception, he confirms that they do properly understand his teaching, but explains that their reaction of questioning God’s active decrees, is out of place and improper.
Geisler does not stop there. He actually turns Paul’s statement on its head. Geisler says, in regard to Paul’s response to the imagined question,
“…the direct implication is that if it is irresistible, then we should not be blamed.”
But it should be obvious that Paul is saying just the opposite. The question is a logical one to ask given Paul’s teaching of the unconditionality of election. This is why he answers the way he does. If, for example, Paul were teaching that election were based on foreseen, freely chosen faith, his answer would have been quite different. When Paul is asked, “Why does He find fault?” we would have expected him to answer, “Haven’t you been listening? They have the ability to believe and they freely choose not to. Obviously, they are responsible for their unbelief.” Of course, if that were the issue, the question never would have been raised. The question is raised in the first place because of the problem that seems to exist between God’s unconditional election to salvation and the fact that he holds those who are not elect responsible. If this were not what Paul was teaching there would be no reason to ask such a question. Geisler not only ignores this fact, but attempts to deny the obvious force of what Paul is saying.
Geisler’s logical leaps continue. In discussing the question of causation in regard to Lucifer’s sin, Geisler assumes a contradiction in the Calvinist position, saying,
“God cannot be good and not good. He cannot be for His own essential good and be against it by giving Lucifer the desire to sin against Him. In short, God cannot be for Himself and against Himself at the same time and in the same sense.”
Geisler demonstrates a logical leap by assuming that an act or event which seems to our finite eyes and minds to be against God, cannot in fact be for God. What Geisler is presenting here is another version of the classic problem of evil. Simply put, the problem of evil states that God cannot be both all-powerful and all-loving. If He is all-powerful, He could prevent evil from occurring. If He is all-loving, He would want to prevent evil from occurring. But evil exists. Therefore, the argument goes, God is either not all-powerful or He is not all-loving. But those who propose this argument overlook a fatal flaw that even atheist philosophers such as Michael Martin admit, and it is the same flaw that Geisler overlooks. The problem of evil is not a problem if God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing that evil to occur. Likewise, Geisler is making a logical leap when he ignores the possibility that there is a morally sufficient reason, ordained within the sovereign plan of God, for allowing Lucifer to sin. If one denies this, as Geisler does, but also admits, as he does, that Lucifer did in fact sin, one has just abandoned any possibility of the existence of a truly sovereign God.
The only way to avoid this conclusion is to join the free-will theists in redefining the nature of sovereignty. It is interesting that Geisler spends an entire chapter rightly critiquing free-will theism while never seeing that position as the logical extension of the very position which he holds. Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, and others have correctly diagnosed the logical implications of the Arminianism which Geisler here sets forth. They have come to realize that if God foresees one’s faith, then that one will, in fact, believe and that belief is inevitable. Hence, freedom as defined by Geisler and Arminianism, is an illusion. The free-will theists, having seen where the logic of Arminianism leads, were faced with two choices if they were to be consistent. They could abandon their Arminianism and embrace the biblical teaching that God is completely sovereign and has complete knowledge of all things precisely because he has determined all that will come to pass, or they could follow their Arminianism out to its logical conclusion and deny God’s omniscience and immutability. Pinnock, Boyd, and others have taken the latter course. It is an unbiblical conclusion, to be sure. But it is, at least, logically consistent. Geisler has not yet faced up to the problem. Rather, he continues to hold to a logically indefensible system.
Other examples of Geisler’s logical leaps should be noted. For instance, in a discussion of irresistible grace, Geisler states,
“In spite of some apparent inconsistency on this point (see his comments on Luke 14:23), John Calvin faced honestly the biblical teaching that the Holy Spirit can be resisted. He recognized that Stephen said of the Jews, “‘You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!’” (Acts 7:51). Calvin remarked, “Finally, they are said to be resisting the Spirit, when they stubbornly reject what He says by the prophets.” Calvin describes this resistance with phrases such as “stubbornly reject,” “intentionally rebel,” and “wage war on God.” But if God’s grace can be resisted, then it is not irresistible.”
One marvels. The assertion that Geisler makes is a classic example of question begging. His statement “If God’s grace can be resisted, then it is not irresistible”, is only true if one already assumes Geisler’s Arminian position. But it is incumbent upon those who would undertake a work such as CBF to do more than assert. Within the Calvinist system, none of what he quotes here, either from Scripture or Calvin, presents the slightest problem. It is, in fact, entirely consistent. Who are these that Stephen is addressing? How does Stephen address them? He uses terms such as “stiff-necked” and as having “uncircumcised hearts and ears” and says that they “always resist the Holy Spirit”. Is this not a wonderfully accurate description of an unbeliever in his natural state? Of course the unregenerate resist the Holy Spirit. That is why regeneration is necessary. If not for irresistible grace upon the elect, all would forever be in this state of resisting the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ statement that “All whom the father gives shall come to me…” (John 6:37) would make no sense whatsoever.
Geisler’s logical leaps can also be seen in his assumption that God’s attributes must function in a way that Geisler himself either expects or understands.
“In fact, if God is one indivisible being without any parts, as classical Calvinists believe, then His love extends to all of His essence, not just part of it. Hence, God cannot be partly loving. But if God is all-loving, then how can He love only some so as to give them and only them the desire to be saved? If He really loves all men, then why does He not give to all men the desire to be saved? It only follows then that, in the final analysis, the reason why some go to hell is that god does not love them and give them the desire to be saved. But if the real reason they go to hell is that God does not love them, irresistibly regenerate them, and give them the faith to believe, then their failure to believe truly would result from God’s lack of love for them (see chapter 2).”
The arrogance of this boggles the mind and again puts one in mind of Paul’s response in Rom. 9:20, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” These statements might cause one to wonder when Dr. Geisler become the judge concerning how God’s love should be displayed.
There are many who deny eternal hell and would turn Dr. Geisler’s question back on him, asking, “How, if God is love, can He send anyone at all to hell?” The fact remains that hell will be the final destination of untold numbers of fallen human beings. Apparently, that is not inconsistent with the love of God. Geisler’s inevitable contention that there is a difference concerning the basis upon which human beings arrive in hell does not address the issue. Both Arminians and Calvinists agree that there is something God values to a greater degree than the ultimate salvation of every man, woman, and child. The typical Arminian response is that God does not desire robots. Therefore, that which He values more than a person’s ultimate salvation, is a person’s free-will. The Calvinist, in addition to denying the assertion that a lack of Arminian free-will equals a robot, will agree that there is something which God values more highly than the salvation of every man, woman, and child. But it is something infinitely more valuable than the absolute free-will of His creature. It is, rather, the glorification of His own attributes, specifically, those of His mercy and justice. We must not lose sight of the fact that just as we are told that our highest priority is God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31), so it is also God’s highest priority. His utmost concern in all that He does is His own glory. That includes the existence of eternal hell, whether Dr. Geisler is able to understand it or not.