Tim Keller’s Defense of Reprobation

Tim Keller is a very influential figure in American Christianity. He has gained a reputation as an apologetic sage after publishing two books on apologetics: The Reason for God and Making Sense. These are great popular apologetic resources, which I’d recommend, even though I think he sometimes concedes too much to critics. Keller is also aligned with the movement known as the “New Calvinism”, which I’ve described more fully in this post about John Piper’s Calvinism. It is a loosely affiliated network of churches and prominent pastors who believe strongly in Calvinism but are more flexible on matters of liturgy and the Charismata. The Gospel Coalition is probably a sort of “papacy” for this movement, where many of these new Calvinists gather each year for a conference. Keller, even though he is a founding member of the Gospel Coalition, seems to be a more moderate Calvinist than his fellow new Calvinists and TULIP theology does not seem to feature much in his sermons. I’ve also not been able to find a place where he defends Limited Atonement, which the other members of this movement usually do defend. However, he does seem to hold to traditional Calvinist beliefs, like the belief in reprobation, an implication of the doctrine of Double Predestination, which means that God wills that certain people will not be saved. He defends double predestination in a Gospel Coalition article called 3 Objections to the Doctrine of Election.

One of the objections that Keller addresses is the following: “If you believe in election, doesn’t that leave you with the problem of why God doesn’t choose to save everyone?”

Keller responds:

“Yes, but the same is true for Christians who don’t believe in election. Election doesn’t create the problem, it only leads us to think about it. To deny the doctrine of election does not help you escape the issue. All Christians have this problem, and so we cannot object to election by appealing to it. A person who doesn’t believe in election faces this dilemma:

(a) God wants everybody saved.

(b) God could save everyone.

(c) God does not.

The question, though, still remains: Why not? That is the ultimate mystery, but abandoning the doctrine of election does not answer it.”

So Keller’s first response is to say that the same is a problem for Christians who don’t believe in election. He says that every Christian must explain why God doesn’t save everyone. But this is false. A Christian who doesn’t believe in election  does not face the dilemma he sketches. He says that even Christians who don’t believe in election must explain that God wants everyone to be saved, God could save everyone, and God does not. But this ascribes a number of beliefs to non-Calvinists that they do not necessarily hold. First, non-Calvinists do not necessarily believe that God could save everyone if he wanted to, probably because that would violate other things that God himself has established. Could God save people against their freely chosen refusal to follow him? We are not given any pronouncements on that question in the Bible, which means that our answer to that question must be “I don’t know.” Perhaps he could, but not without changing them into something other than human. Perhaps he could only by changing things so radically that it is no longer meaningful to say that he “could have.” If having free will is an essential characteristic of humanity, and if “being saved” is defined as “freely” choosing to follow God ( which is a Biblical way to define it), then God would not be able to save people against their will, because that would require him to perform a contradiction ( to predetermine people to freely choose him). Also, non-Calvinists do not believe that “God does not” save people, rather that they refuse to be saved. So Keller is here constructing a straw man of the theological opposition, by ascribing beliefs to them which they do not hold. Keller’s dilemma assumes that God is responsible for the entire process of salvation, when the Bible clearly indicates, throughout the prophets and the New Testament, that there is a responsibility of the human being to respond to the call of salvation.

Also, it seems that Keller changes the real issue with Calvinist election. The issue with the Calvinist doctrine of election is not that God does not save people, but that God wills that people be damned and also does so without any justification in the way they’ve behaved or in the fact that they’ve refused to follow him. This is unbiblical, because in the prophets and the New Testament, ( and everywhere else in the Bible) Divine judgment is always a consequence of refusing to obey God’s call, or refusing to repent when the need for repentance is declared by a prophet. That is the real issue with Calvinistic election: not that God does not save certain people, but that he wants that certain people be damned. Non-Calvinists do not believe that God wills some people to be damned but that he “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” ( 1 Timothy 2:4). We believe in the God of John 3:16 who so loves the world, not just some people in the world, but the whole world and who came to die for humanity as a whole. The character of this God is one who desires all to be saved, but will judge those who refuse to be saved. There is no incompatibility here. It is possible for God to judge people without wanting them to be judged, by giving them many opportunities to turn from their course. Election is not the problem. Every theological system conceives of election in some way. The problem is with the Calvinist way of conceiving of election, which says that God wants people to be damned, which is inconsistent with the Bible. It is inconsistent with a God portrayed in the Bible who gives people every opportunity to repent and who sends prophets and discipline to invite their repentance. If God really does want certain people to be damned, this behaviour of God throughout the Bible does not fit that theory. Election is conditional, not unconditional.

To put it more succinctly, in the framework that Keller has already provided for us, the Calvinist dilemma comes down to an outright contradiction. The non-Calvinist faces (at most) the following dilemma: 1)God wants to save all. 2) God could save all. 3) God does not. We’ve already covered why non-Calvinists do not necessarily hold to 2. But let’s assume they do. The Calvinist dilemma, as a result of double predestination, is more like the following:1) God wants to save all, 2) God could save all 3) God wants to damn some. Clearly 1 and 3 explicitly contradict each other, although anyone who believes in double predestination cannot avoid 3, which is why Calvinists almost always reject 1 ( that God wants all to be saved). The problem for the Calvinist is in the original will of God, what he wants to happen before the foundation of the world, not simply what he does, and would prefer not to do, after his grace and mercy is continually rejected.

Ironically, by saying that there is no difference, in this respect, between the Calvinist doctrine of election and other Non-Calvinist views, Keller essentially removes any reason for being a Calvinist rather than an Arminian. If Arminianism and Molinism also imply reprobation or double predestination, then what is distinctive about the Calvinist doctrine of election? Why then be a Calvinist?


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