Summary: In the segment of the Calvinist movie covering Unconditional Election, several interviewees describe the concept, provide proof texts, and recount their initial reactions to it. I conclude that the segment lacks nuance, that the proof texts fall short of their target, and that one man’s initial reaction to Unconditional Election evinces an intuitive truth.
The movie Calvinist1 introduces its audience to the Reformation-based sub-group of Christians known by the titular label. Modern exemplars of Calvinism typically affirm five interpretive positions easily remembered via the acronym T.U.L.I.P. This article addresses the “U,” which stands for Unconditional Election2. One speaker defines the concept by what it denies: it is the rejection of the idea that God elects individuals based on “something in them or what they do.” God does not “look down the corridors of time” to see whether an individual will believe in him and then apply his elective stamp of approval.
Another contributor asserts that the Bible teaches this doctrine in several places, especially in Romans, where the apostle Paul states that the saved were “predestined to conform” to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), that God may harden whom he wills and even prepares “vessels of wrath” for destruction (Romans 9), and that election does not at all depend on human will (Romans 9:16).
Gangster-rapper-turned-Christian-rapper Thi’sl then recounts his first wrestle with the above proof texts and, presumably, the concept of Unconditional Election. With a look of sincerity, he honestly professes that when he read Romans 9, he was “mad at God,” a reaction that later dissipated into a realization that God’s election is grounded in grace and love.
Issue 1: Lack of Nuance
Clocking in at just over four minutes, the segment on Unconditional Election is necessarily and woefully unnuanced. Perhaps that’s intentional, since much of the movie seems to prioritize production value and personality over depth of analysis. Having a diverse crowd of proponents can be persuasive. In any event, writing from a non-Calvinist perspective, I found several statements either misleading or particularly unhelpful.
First, the description of Unconditional Election is completely opaque. What is he getting at when he says that God does not elect individuals based on “something in them”? I was raised in Reformed circles, so I understand the lingo – God’s election is not contingent on the foreseen merits or intrinsic goodness of human beings. This is not an exclusively Calvinistic perspective (also affirmed by many Molinists, Arminians, Thomists, Amyraldians, etc.), but it does seem to be a necessary affirmation for one to be a Calvinist. With such a sparse description, however, one is left with the notion that God did not take into consideration anything about his creatures when deciding who would compose the elect and non-elect.
It seems that, at least according to the movie, the Calvinist is largely committed to the idea that it’s feasible for God to elect absolutely any human being he could create whatsoever.3 And, since most Calvinists also affirm that some will be damned, this logically entails that God shows a type of sovereign (arbitrary?) partiality in electing some. The common objection, of course, is that if we take seriously the biblical affirmation that God does not desire that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9) and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11), then his partial and unconditional election becomes inexplicable in the face of his ability to unconditionally save all.
The late R. C. Sproul himself says in an online article that this view of Unconditional Election (and even the term itself) can be misleading, preferring instead the term “Sovereign Election.” He asserts that there’s no violation of God’s justice in his bestowing grace and mercy on some and not others. While one may disagree with Sproul, I can appreciate the fact that in his written work he desired a greater level of clarity on the topic, something which was sorely lacking in the movie.
Second, the language of God’s looking down the “corridors of time” to view an action or condition on our part that then induces him to save us is terribly anthropomorphic, perceptualist (meaning God sees things that are actually there, like we would see a tree from a spatial distance), and rarely used among the more prominent opponents of Calvinism. The excellent Traditionalist Leighton Flowers notes the pervasiveness of this depiction by prominent Calvinists here.
Rather than the perceptualist concept attacked in the movie, what about a conceptualist model, such as that affirmed by almost all Molinists, where God is able to perfectly conceive of the creatures he could create, know what they would freely choose when presented the Gospel, and decide whether or not to create those creatures in those circumstances? On such a model, it’s not that God doesn’t take anything about creatures into consideration when electing, since God would need to know whether his free creature would or wouldn’t accept the Gospel if it was presented (and, thanks to middle knowledge, he would indeed know). On this model, it would still be God’s sovereign decision whether or not to make the universe or moral agents at all or the particular circumstances in which they would hear the Gospel and be saved. And none of this requires that God “look” down any “corridors of time” at creatures that don’t even yet exist (which is absurd).
But given the movie’s earlier contention that free will doesn’t exist (as anything more than a pagan concept), it seems rational to conclude that (again, according to the movie) Calvinists are comfortable affirming that God can simply elect any possible person, without any advanced consideration whatsoever about the person, because his causally determining them to believe makes such consideration superfluous.4
Issue 2: Paltry Proof texts
The speakers in the movie don’t explain their proof texts for Unconditional Election so much as quote from them and assume the viewer will see the proof as obvious. Maybe some will. That’s how much persuasion works. But for the one who likes to see the logical steps worked out, some immediate questions arise. One speaker suggests that the phrase “predestined to conform” (“predestined” is highlighted in the passage) of Romans 8:29 demonstrates that God’s election is unconditional. Of course, the complete verse says “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
We won’t unpack the term “foreknew” here, but clearly there’s a sense in which God’s foreknowing his creatures is an antecedent to his predestining them.5 Again, the Molinist model provides ample explanatory power, since God knows prior to his creative decree the free creatures he could possibly create and whether they would or would not freely accept the Gospel were it to be presented to them. This is not to say that the verse is a proof text for Molinism, but merely that the Calvinist concept of Unconditional Election as tenuously laid out in the movie is not nearly proven by Romans 8:29.
The appeal to Paul’s discussion of “vessels of wrath” and God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Romans 9 is likewise insufficient to prove Unconditional Election, since the emphasis is on the purpose rather than God’s precise method of predestination. The relevant question here is how God prepares vessels of wrath for destruction and how God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, as well as whether or not this method precludes God’s antecedent consideration of certain truths about creatures prior to his election or non-election of them. In other words, this segment of the movie is a classic example of underdeterminative prooftexting, which means that the proof texts do not include enough information to demonstrate what is being claimed.6
Issue 3: Intuition Ignored
The final observation I want to make regarding the segment is the anecdotal reflection of Christian rapper Thi’sl on his reading of and reflection on Romans 9. Given that this anecdote appears in the section on Unconditional Election, it appears that Thi’sl affirms the Calvinist reading of Romans 9. He mentions a book called “13 Things You Need to Know About the Christian Faith,” but I was unable to find any book by that title. Likely he meant “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” by R. C. Sproul, who himself appears several times through the movie.
One Amazon review of that book is titled “Decent read, but poorly titled,” observing that “It should really be something along the lines of ‘Essential Truths of Calvinist Christianity,’ as the author is pretty clearly a Calvinist and obviously believes that is the only Scripturally sound way to view salvation.” It’s a common experience that our interpretive options are often delimited by the authors, teachers, and mentors introducing us to new concepts.
The most stand-out statement Thi’sl makes, however, is that when he read the relevant passage, he states, “I was mad at God.” Presumably, this is because he concluded that, according to the explanation of the passage in the book he read, God’s election is unconditional and God chooses to predestine some for destruction when he could just as easily save them.
I want to suggest that his reaction was due to an intuitive grasp of the obvious inconsistency of several Calvinist premises with the biblical witness and the concept of as a perfect being. As noted in the previous section, not only do Calvinists believe God’s election is unconditional, but they also believe that God could, if he so desired, save all of humanity. Since some are not saved, this entails that God shows partiality to those whom he elects – a special love not afforded to those whom he predestines for destruction. People also intuitively conceive of God as perfect being, essentially loving, genuinely wanting all to come to him, as also attested in Scripture. But if God does want to save all and is able to save all, then, as I noted earlier, his election of only a portion of sinful humanity becomes inexplicable. What’s stopping him?
And, again, this is where the Molinist model is so much more attractive, for if God is able to create free creatures and desires to do so, then it may not actually be feasible to save all sinners. Why? Because it’s logically impossible to cause someone to freely believe.7 Omnipotence only entails that God be able to do that which is logically possible.
If I may include anecdotal evidence of my own, having been an admin of the Molinism – Official Page, I am constantly hearing from former Calvinists how they were angry or resentful or horrified because of the conception of God portrayed by Calvinism, only to have that anger, resentment, and horror assuaged because Molinism restored a conception of God as perfectly loving and just, as well as a sensible conception of humans as truly culpable for their rejection of God.
The aim of this article has not been to disprove the Calvinist concept of Unconditional Election, but rather to show that the movie’s treatment of the concept is shallow, undemonstrated via proof texts, and provides personal anecdotal reactions in line with intuitive notions of requirements for moral responsibility. I’m curious why those who would go through the trouble of creating an otherwise high-quality production would accept such superficiality. Hopefully, when a movie about Molinism is made, the director and contributors will pursue a depth of treatment and analysis of the topic that is regrettably absent from Calvinist.
2This is the second of a five part series. The first article in this series, which addresses “T” for Total Depravity, may be found here.
3I say “feasible” rather than “possible” because most Calvinists will deny that there’s any such thing as a world infeasible for God to actualize. The distinction between feasible and possible is explained by Dr. William Lane Craig here.