On Carter’s Calvinism

carterI am grateful to my colleague, Prof. Craig Carter, for his thoughtful critique of my demonstration against Calvinism. I have learned much from reading his “In Defense of Calvinism” (The Bayview Review, December 16, 2011). Here are just a few points by way of reply.

 A Little Stage Setting

In my “Demonstration Against Calvinism,” I argued that while indeed

(1)  It is permissible that G


(2)  It is permissible that W

are both true (where G = ‘God gives irresistible grace to the elect’, and W = ‘God withholds irresistible grace from the non-elect), it doesn’t follow logically that

(3)  It is permissible that (G & W)

This is because an argument from (1) and (2) to (3) depends on an invalid deontic argument form. Thus if (3) is true, it will have to be defended in some other way. I then went on to propose a dilemma for those who affirm (3).

Now despite the fact that Dr. Carter’s article is entitled “In Defense of Calvinism,” he doesn’t actually give us any positive defense for (3). It’s simply presupposed. What we have, instead, is more like an effort to undercut certain premises in my argument, coupled with an attempt to show that my denial of (3) commits me to other things—things which presumably create these “further problems that drive Arminians toward liberal theology.” Strictly speaking, however, (3) itself isn’t defended at all.1

[NB: it’s  not clear to me whether this talk of driving “toward liberal theology” is a claim about what follows historically, psychologically, or logically from the denial of (3). Dr. Carter doesn’t say. Certainly, nothing I explicitly said logically entails any proposition that even remotely resembles a deliverance of liberal theology. And surely I can’t be held responsible for historical or psychological slippery slopes.]

“Consequently” What?

Dr. Carter’s first point is something of a red herring. That is to say, it doesn’t engage any premise in my argument, and even if it were correct (I don’t think it is), it wouldn’t have any bearing on the dilemma I posed. Just by way of stage setting (i.e., prior to the argument proper), I had remarked that the non-elect fail to receive irresistible grace; they are passed over as it were. “Consequently,” I said, “they are damned for all eternity.” Prof. Carter then observes:

Note the word, ‘Consequently’, in the last sentence. In this context it appears to mean: ‘they are damned because they did not receive prevenient grace’. But surely this is not what Scripture teaches.

He goes on to point out that God punishes sinners because they sin, that everyone does sin, that sin involves breaking God’s law, and that sin is the reason why people end up in hell. These things are all true of course. But it’s important to see that my “consequently” remark doesn’t entail the denial of any of them. Notice how Prof. Carter prefaces the matter: “In this context [Davis’ remark] appears to mean… .” So the denials of these theological points follow (at best) only on the way things appear to Prof. Carter. Now how do they appear to him? He interprets my “consequently” as meaning this: “they are damned because they did not receive prevenient grace.”

Two quick points. First, what I actually said was that the non-elect are damned because they don’t receive irresistible grace (hereafter, ‘IG’). On my view, as I say at the end of my article, everyone receives prevenient grace. Secondly, to say that the non-elect are damned because they don’t receive IG doesn’t in any way imply that sin isn’t the reason the non-elect are judged and condemned. This is a non sequitur.

Here it is important to distinguish between causes and conditions. To say that the damnation (D) of the non-elect is a consequence of God’s withholding ( W ) of IG does not mean that W is the proximate cause of D. What it means, rather, is only that W is a sufficient condition for D. If God refrains from bestowing IG on the non-elect, then (as R. C. Sproul says) God “abandons them to their own desires” (Chosen by God, p. 147 [link]), in which case they are lost. To be sure, their desires are what cause them to reject Christ (at least on the Calvinist picture). But of course this is a consequence of God’s not favoring them with irresistible grace. Hence my “consequently.”

In any event, the important thing to see in all this is that a person can be held accountable for her refrainings when they are sufficient for (forseen) bad states of affairs–states of affairs that could have been prevented by refraining from refraining (i.e., by doing something). One thinks here of the Levite’s response to the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho (cf. Luke 10:30-37). The application to Calvin’s deity, who passes by the terrible plight of the non-elect, is patent.

Differential Treatment

My central concern, as Prof. Carter notes, is not with either (1) or (2) but rather (3)—the differential treatment of elect and non-elect when there is no spiritually or morally relevant difference between them. I laid out two equivalent versions of what I called the ‘Leviticus Principle’—LP1 and LP2—and I showed by way of scriptural and everyday examples, which Prof. Carter isn’t inclined to deny, that this principle is extremely plausible. (It can hardly be demoted on the grounds that it is secular or worldly.) Prof. Carter responds:

This is a common line of argument put forward by liberals who reject eternal punishment altogether.  God is unjust to save some and leave some in hell.  But this argument misunderstands both justice and grace.  Justice is giving someone what he deserves.  Grace is giving someone what he does not deserve.  Now, Dr. Davis is arguing that if one person receives Divine grace then all people deserve Divine grace.  But this is a false argument which depends on confusing justice with grace.

Here, I believe, there is misunderstanding. I didn’t in fact argue this way. In particular, I didn’t claim

(4)  If one person receives IG, then all people deserve IG.

As I say, the elect and non-elect are spiritually and morally identical; they’re all dead in sin and none deserves anything but punishment. So what I explicitly said implies that (4)’s consequent is false. That means that I am actually committed to the falsity of (4), since I also grant arguendo that at least one person has received IG. Now what I did say—or at least tried to say—was this:

(5)  If there is no spiritually or morally relevant difference between the elect and the non-elect, then given LP1 it is unjust or unfair to favor only the elect with IG.

And again, (5) does not imply that justice isn’t giving someone what he deserves, or that grace is giving someone what he does not deserve. So there is no confusion of justice and grace here at all. What would be fair in this case, however, is treating these two groups similarly.

Prof. Carter’s financial/foreign aid examples are really quite interesting. But they don’t secure his point. Suppose two needy students drop by my office. Their circumstances are identical. Both need a ride to the bus, so that they can attend the same important meeting. The consequence of not attending (or being late) is that they will be evicted from their apartments. They will only make it if I give them a ride. Now as it happens, I drive a six-seat Toyota Sienna; I’ve got plenty of room, and it just so happens that I’m going their way. They stand before me side-by-side and ask for a ride. There is scarcely a basis for my treating them differently, is there? I then tell the students: “Jack, you’re more than welcome to to catch a ride with me. I know this is an important meeting for you. I don’t want you to lose your apartment. Jill, listen, I’m very sorry. I don’t owe you a ride, and your merely wanting one doesn’t constrain me to give it. You’re going to have to walk. The favor I’m showing Jack (but not yourself) depends solely on my will.” LP1 says that there’s something deeply wrong with this picture. But it’s the Calvinist picture.

Finally, Prof. Carter accuses me of a “little rhetorical ploy” in that my overall argument smuggles my conclusion into my premises. That would indeed be rather sneaky. But why think I did that? Because, he says, “If you start from a definition of partiality that makes God giving grace to some unjust, then guess what the conclusion is bound to be!” Here it’s important to make clear that I didn’t just “load” my conclusion into my definition, and then declare victory afterward upon “unloading” it. I began with a general principle, derived from scripture, and squaring nicely with ordinary common sense. (Don’t forget my ‘on the ground’ examples.) It’s not an arbitrarily invented, bald definition; it’s a intuitively sensible, derived proposition. At any rate, it is no strike against an argument that it has a particular conclusion that validly follows from a universal premise(s). That’s just the way deduction goes sometimes. (One need only think of the DARII and FERIO syllogisms in Aristotle’s logic.)

Salvation Apart from Christ?

Prof. Carter’s final thrust has to do with those who haven’t heard, and is presumably one of these alleged ‘slippery slope’ problems he mentions that “drive Arminians toward liberal theology.” Here I face a dilemma of my own, he says:

I’m afraid that, to accept Dr. Davis’ argument against Calvinism is to land oneself in this pickle: either one accepts that those who never hear the name of Christ are definitely lost, which means that Arminianism teaches that God is partial, just as Calvinism purportedly does, or else we must imagine people all over the world following conscience, living good lives and being saved with the help of God’s prevenient grace.

But I’m afraid the dilemma fails; for the first horn isn’t necessarily true. Those who never hear, as I’m sure Prof. Carter agrees, aren’t judged on the basis of what they haven’t heard. They’re judged on the basis of the revelation they did possess—e.g., in nature and conscience (cf. Roman 1-2). And on that basis, they are “without excuse” Paul says. Paul never even slyly suggests that general revelation is a basis for salvation. But then doesn’t that mean there’s still partiality: some hear, some don’t? Well, it’s only a case of partiality if we know that those who don’t hear the gospel are such that they would have responded to it if they had heard. However, as William Lane Craig (himself no Calvinist) has argued, we can count on the fact that since God is perfectly knowledgeable, loving and just, he will have “so arranged the world that anyone who would receive Christ has the opportunity to do so” (“No Other Name,” p. 186), and those who never hear are such that they wouldn’t have repented even if they had heard. A defense of these claims is well beyond the scope of this short reply. (You can consult Bill Craig’s many fine works on this subject for further details.) Suffice it to say that if this line of reasoning is in order (and I think it is), the appearance of partiality vanishes.

In conclusion, I must say how delighted I am to have had the opportunity to interact with my colleague Prof. Carter. So we haven’t come to agreement. It seems to me more or less obvious that all of the complaints he raises are either not to the point, based on misunderstandings of the argument, or presuppose slippery slopes to liberalism that plainly don’t obtain. No doubt there remains much more to be said from both sides.


If there is anything like an argument for (3) in the neighborhood, it’s implicit and goes like this. Grace is giving someone what they don’t deserve, and that’s what the elect get. Hence (1) is true. Justice is giving someone what they do deserve, and that’s what the non-elect get. Hence (2) is true. Therefore, (3) follows and so it’s true as well. But of course this is just to reiterate what I already showed to be an invalid denotic argument. It goes without saying that you can’t defend an invalid argument by propounding it a second time. Not only is that (still) invalid, it’s also question begging.


William Lane Craig, “‘No Other Name’: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation Through Christ,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989): 172-188.

Note: This article has been reposted by the ‘Society of Evangelical Arminians‘ (December 7, 2015) here.



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