Seven-Point Calvinism and the Scarcity of Grace
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the rise of those calling themselves ‘seven-point Calvinists,’ John Piper being the standout example. If there were ever a theological system that exemplifies what Walter Brueggemann called ‘the myth of scarcity’ as it relates to God’s grace, it must be seven-point Calvinism. I have never encountered a theology that does a better job of reinventing the wonders of God’s grace and glory as a lot of ethically barren pseudo-mathematics.
Seven-point Calvinism, which differs from its five-point counterpart only by taking a harder stance on two supplementary doctrines, effectively transforms human salvation into a sordid little equation. Before we look at this unsavoury piece of theological algebra, however, it bears clarifying what sets the seven-point Calvinist apart from their five-point opposite number.
In addition to the traditional five ‘TULIP’ points of Calvinism (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints), a seven-point Calvinist explicitly affirms (6) double predestination. This is the doctrine that before you were born, God chose whether you would be damned or saved and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. They also hold (7) a belief that God will keep the tape of human history rolling long enough to damn enough people and to save enough people to demonstrate God’s glory as fully as God can possibly express God’s glory. It is these two adjunct points, incidentally, which spell disaster for seven-point Calvinism when this highly questionable theology comes under scrutiny.
What is being assumed in these latter two points? Seven-point Calvinists assume that God’s glory would not be fully attested were God either to damn or to save all of God’s creatures; rather, for the seven-point cohort, the divine glory is most fully revealed when some are damned and others are saved. In seven-point Calvinism, both universal damnation and universal salvation are inadequate manifestations of God’s glory. They will often present this unsettling assertion as if it were self-evident. It is a claim which implies a trade-off; in order to prove God’s glory, God must damn souls that God could have saved and God must save souls that God could have damned.
There are, at this juncture, three more things to observe: (1) for the seven-point Calvinist, God must choose every soul’s eternal post-mortem destiny between the two possibilities of damnation and salvation; (2) if God is omnipotent, it is as easy for God to damn a soul as it is for God to save one; and (3) each soul must end up somewhere in the final analysis.
Let’s think about how all of this aligns the contentions of seven-point Calvinism with the scarcity model of God’s grace that Brueggemann has observed. This will involve borrowing a graphical technique from economics known as the production possibility frontier in order to depict the cosmic soul trade-off in seven-point Calvinism in a visual format.
A production possibility frontier depicts the cost of variable X (on the bottom axis) in terms of variable Y (on the side axis). In other words, it is a graph which depicts a trade-off which arises due to the scarcity of some resource or another; in this case, that resource is divine grace. The chart below could, therefore, be titled, ‘a production possibility frontier showing the cost of the saved in terms of the damned.’
Let’s assume that a cumulative total of around 100 billion people have lived, and that it is at the final judgement when the everlasting fate of each will be decided:
Every point along the blue line represents a scenario in which everyone’s ultimate fate is accounted for: all the goats (if any) have been damned, and all the sheep (if any) have been saved.
Seven-point Calvinism holds that scenario A (everyone damned) and scenario B (everyone saved) are impossible because God is compelled — by whom? — to damn some and to save others maximally to manifest God’s glory.
Remember that, in the seven-point Calvinist paradigm, (1) damnation and salvation are the only two possible destinies for a soul, (2) every soul must end up somewhere when all is over, and (3) the divine glory can only be revealed in its fullness when some are damned are others are saved.
From these three statements, it follows that the marginal cost of one damned soul is one saved soul (when God forgoes damning a soul, that soul is saved) and that the marginal cost of one saved soul is one damned soul (when God forgoes saving a soul, that soul is damned). A soul, after all, cannot be both saved and damned at one and the same time. The proportional nature of this transaction, and the fact that it is as easy for God to damn as it is for God to save, are represented by the fact that the line on the graph is perfectly straight.
For the seven-point Calvinist, there is a point somewhere along the blue line (supposedly only known within the counsels of God), between A and B, at which God’s glory is optimally demonstrated by God’s use of sovereign power both to damn and to save, each in such a proportion as to manifest that same glory as completely as can be. Is this reasoning starting to sound a little circular? It seems so to me.
As mere humans, the argument runs, we must concede that it is God’s prerogative to withhold from us the knowledge of the precise cost of the saved in terms of the damned. If some of us are heading for heaven, it begs asking, then do we ever find out which poor hell-bound souls stamped our pearly passports? Could we live with ourselves in eternity if we really knew?
Make no mistake; if God really must exercise God’s powers both to damn and to save in order to reveal God’s full glory, then it follows that God is obliged, by the lights of seven-point Calvinism at least, to purchase the saved at the expense of the damned. In this line of reasoning, the path of the saints into the kingdom is paved with the irredeemable bones of the reprobate.
Let me clarify what I’m trying to say. Suppose I’m in charge of catering at my local church (which — praise be — I’m not). To demonstrate the full glory of my wonderful catering abilities, I must serve both tea and coffee; what sort of caterer would I be, after all, if I only served up tea or only coffee? If I’m to make myself the envy of church caterers everywhere, unrivalled in splendour when it comes to caffeinating my brethren in Christ, I have to provide two distinct fates to my fellow churchgoers as far as their beverage consumption goes.
A production possibility frontier for this catering scenario, assuming we’ve got 100 cups, looks as follows:
At point A, I’m serving only tea. At point B I’m serving only coffee. Neither of these points proves my glory as a competent caterer, as any caterer worth their salt would be capable of serving both tea and coffee. There is a certain point somewhere along the line — I don’t know where — at which I will have served just the right amount of both hot drinks and fully manifested my glory as a top-drawer church caterer. Likewise, in seven-point Calvinism, God cannot reveal the divine glory by only serving damnation or only serving salvation; God’s dealings with humankind must entail a certain proportion of both to unveil God’s glory as fully as possible, the seven-point Calvinist maintains.
Having explained how seven-point Calvinists model salvation, this brings me to the reason why we can’t predicate our conception of God’s glory on the scarcity model of grace.
If we’re not sure whether (1) God’s glory is most evident at a point further along the left of the blue line where there’s more damnation than salvation, or (2) God’s glory is most evident at a point further along the right on the blue line where there’s more salvation than damnation, or (3) God’s glory is most evident in the precise middle of the blue line where as many people are damned as people are saved, then it’s impossible to say anything objective about the glory of God.
Seven-point Calvinists can’t even answer, under the model that I have sketched, whether God is more glorified at close of business if (1) there is a surplus of damnation, or (2) there is a surplus of salvation, or (3) the sum totals of the damned and the saved break even. That is relativism on hard steroids. I repeat, in case there were any doubt, that under the seven-point Calvinist scarcity model of God’s grace, it’s impossible to say anything objective or fixed whatsoever about the divine glory as it pertains to final judgement. This makes a mockery of the entire enterprise of theological thinking.
Is my characterisation of seven-point Calvinism as the perfect instantiation of Brueggemann’s scarcity model unfair? It’s impossible to draw a production possibility frontier like the graph above without the concept of scarcity, and so a scarcity model inevitably results from setting God’s grace in tension with two mutually exclusive yet equally — so the seven-point Calvinist argues — indispensable outcomes. God’s glory becomes contingent upon human calculations, dragging both divine grace the divine glory down into the realms of linear algebra.
Surely this is a heresy, this theology that circumscribes what we’re prepared to allow God to do as long as we can plot it as a point somewhere between A and B on a straight line graph. Is this what systematic theology has come to? This is not an oversimplification of seven-point Calvinism, yet this bogus theology carries huge influence in the contemporary church. Take another look at the graph above; that’s a visual rendering of how massive swathes of Christian leaders understand the grace and glory of God. Here’s a tip: if you can use GCSE level maths to explain the grandest mysteries of the universe, you’ve made God far too small.
It’s time for a theology to rise that can transcend the scarcity model of grace, that isn’t reducible to high-school algebra, within which ‘everything finds its proper place’ (Col. 1: 19, MSG). ‘In the kingdom of God,’ writes John Caputo, God’s grace ‘disrupts our sense of economic equilibrium.’ If something can be sketched on a flip chart at the front of a corporate boardroom, it isn’t the grace of God. If a metaphysics demands a trade-off, it is utterly dependent on the concept of scarcity and has failed as an ultimate solution to the human plight in leaving the basic problem of economics unresolved (indeed, aiding and abetting it in this very failure).
St. Anselm of Canterbury is well known for invoking the imagination in his famous thought-experiment: if good or grace can be imagined (and it can), an ultimate good can be imagined, and that ultimate good is God. Imagination is a wonderful thing. Rev. Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian, when interviewed on the Left Side Up podcast, memorably remarked that without imagination there can be no grace; in order to bring about a reality in which grace — not scarcity — is the golden rule, we must first learn to imagine such a world.
God’s glory will reign more fully as our collective imagination is captured by grace. And the rain will descend, and the floods will come, and the winds will blow, and beat upon that house of seven-point Calvinism; and great will be the fall of it, for it was built upon the sinking sand of scarcity.
Matthew Allen is a regular contributor to Left Side Up on theology and the arts here in NI. He studies Liberal Arts at Queens University Belfast.