Explaining a Calvinist Worldview to a Latter-day Saint
The idea that human beings have free will plays a critical role in Latter-day Saint thought. The importance of free will pervades the Grand Council narrative and Latter-day Saint beliefs concerning grace and salvation. Free will, or Agency, typically informs LDS philosopher’s views on God’s omniscience and foreknowledge. In my experience, the counter-cult movement tends to be heavily populated with Calvinists, and one puzzling irony is that Calvinists who interact with Mormons on a regular basis hold a radically different understanding of human free will.
While some Latter-day Saints reject such a notion on moral grounds, I’ve been frustrated with the notion because I’ve experienced it as a barrier to interreligious dialogue. I address this issue in What is Bad Apologetics?, an actual exchange rendered into a Socratic dialogue. In this dialogue, the Socratic inquiry into the nature of apologetics is terminated because the interlocutor holds the view that whether a person employs “good” apologetics or “bad” apologetics is ultimately determined by divine fiat and therefore an apologist is not responsible for his or her actions.
Seeing as how one’s view of human free will greatly influences the calibration of one’s theology, I believe it is important for Evangelicals to attempt to discuss this view with Mormons. I’ve passionately advocated such a position in the past, but I suspect it has had little effect.
It is with this background that I’ve eagerly followed the recent exchange between Geoff Johnston and Aaron Shafovaloff. This is not the first time Geoff and Aaron have explored the topic of free will. On July 18, 2007, Geoff authored “The advantages of bad theology” and discussion between Geoff and Aaron culminated in an three part podcast (audio) (July 20, 2007, running time 2.5 hours). This discussion covered a larger range of topics other than Calvinism. (Personally, I found the 2007 podcast a better exchange and recommend this one as having more explanatory value).
After a two-year hiatus, from May 6-9, 2009, Geoff and Aaron once again discussed Calvinism in the form of an initial post, an hour long podcast (audio) entitled “A Hearty Conversation about Calvinism and Mormonism,” and a follow up post. In this exchange, Geoff asks Aaron to help him understand how it is that missionary work towards Latter-day Saints makes sense given a worldview where “God predestines all souls to heaven or hell before He even creates them.”
While many listeners elsewhere have commented on the actual content of the dialogue and offered critiques of Calvinism, I would like to bracket my critique of the details of their discussion. Rather, I would like to take a macro look at this exchange, a meta-analysis if you will, and offer five observations.
First, dialogue allows individuals to develop or begin to develop a relationship and this in turn leads to a higher quality exchange of ideas.
In Geoff’s follow up post at New Cool Thang, he writes:
God didn’t tell us to love horrendously bad theology like Calvinism but he did tell us to love one another. In this case, even though I think Aaron’s theology stinks, I find Aaron the person amiable. So please refrain from attacking him personally in the comments.
I appreciate this attitude of focusing dialogue towards the critique of ideas rather than participants. Without trust and a relationship too much communication ends up in ad hominem. Dialogue can sometimes allow parties to get past personal attacks to focus on the matters at hand. I believe that the quality of dialogue increases as individuals have a higher degree of trust. Often, without trust, the information one is willing to give to others, especially those they perceive as critics is typically limited or superficial (see also Geoff and Aaron 2007 Podcast, Part 3, audio marker: 9:20).
Second, I can’t point out enough that this discussion ultimately served the function of boundary maintenance more than any other method I’ve ever witnessed.
Those in the counter-cult ministry have a strong desire to point out all the ways that Mormonism is different from classical Christian orthodoxy. The typical method is to compare and contrast some bible verse or passage with a statement by an LDS leader. However, after witnessing the reaction by Mormons at New Cool Thang, I have to say that I’ve never seen Latter-day Saints more willing to emphatically declare that they absolutely do not believe in the same God as described by Aaron’s Calvinist theology. All it took was for Aaron to take the time to explain his views on the nature of God and salvation. Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals who worry that interfaith dialogue blurs the dividing lines between Mormons and Evangelicals have absolutely nothing to fear. I have to say that such fear is unequivocally unwarranted given what I’ve just witnessed.
Third, through this dialogue, I believe more Latter-day Saints were exposed to Calvinist theology than they ever would have been with traditional Evangelical outreach strategies.
More Latter-day Saints were exposed to Christian belief from an Evangelical point of view, more than any other method employed by critics. Evangelicals who wish Mormons would become more aware of biblical theology as they understand it need do little more than simply explain their worldview in order to achieve this purpose. I believe New Cool Thang has a large readership and Latter-day Saints who visit the site have learned more about Calvinist Evangelical views and for many it was their first exposure to the topic. Those with goals of sharing their beliefs and worldview with others would do well to learn from this example.
Fourth, I hope that more Evangelicals will devote time and resources to finding the most effective and winsome methods to explain their worldview.
I’m very appreciative of Aaron’s explanations of Calvinism, the two wills of God and other issues. However, I was deeply impressed that such views are extremely unpalatable to Latter-day Saints. I was puzzled how it could be the case that after all these years Evangelicals studying Mormonism have not been successful at developing more winsome and attractive means by which to explain Calvinist theology to a Latter-day Saint audience (to the extent that they are Calvinist and I note that not all Evangelicals are). Especially as how this seems to be at the root of several never-ending tensions between Mormons and Evangelicals who often (but not always) share Calvinist leanings. I appreciated Aaron’s attempt to explain such views. I also appreciated the attempt that Geoff made to restate Aaron’s views accurately and to seek clarification.
Fifth, Evangelicals attempting to communicate with Latter-day Saint populations would benefit from becoming more conversant with Latter-day Saint narratives.
For example, the Grand Council Narrative referred to in the introduction of this post is a narrative of God siting in council with the Sons of God before the creation of the world, contemplating the creation and the salvation of man. In the narrative, Lucifer, a member of the council, proposes that he should be sent as the Savior and that he would redeem all mankind. Latter-day Saints understand Lucifer’s proposal to entail a complete destruction of human free will, or agency, in order to achieve the goal of saving all men, as all men would be coerced to do God’s will. Lucifer rebelled against God and was hurled from the council, thrust down, becoming the devil.
The great irony here is that the God of Calvinism ends up even more horrific than Lucifer since at least Lucifer planned to save all mankind, whereas the God of Calvinism not only chooses to create a world where mankind ultimately cannot act contrary to God’s will, but then inexplicably chooses to redeem only a portion of mankind created. Latter-day Saints listening to Calvinist explanations will be evaluating and understanding Calvinism through the lens of this narrative. Those who are attempting to reach Mormons, may do well take into account Latter-day Saint narratives in seeking to convey their beliefs in the most effective means possible.
This topic seems to be somewhat of departure from the typical posts at New Cool Thang, and I want to thank Geoff and Aaron for participating in such an exchange and making it available. I found it animated if not feisty, while relatively respectful, and I believe this is a good example of how dialogue has the potential to increase mutual understanding.