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Debunking the Myth That Calvinism Justifies Domestic Abuse

Recently there has been some “buzz” in public and “around the watercoolers” that Calvinism justifies domestic violence and abuse.

Because I am one of Calvinism’s best-known critics, I feel the need to wade into this controversy and nip it in the bud, so far as possible, early – before it gets to the point of people accusing Calvinists (people) of justifying domestic violence and abuse.

No serious Calvinist I have ever known justified domestic violence or abuse unless one considers mere corporal punishment as that.

And those Calvinists would not be alone; many Arminians and others also justify corporal punishment of children that does not leave bruises or scars – when they are out of control. But corporal punishment is a subject for another day; do not respond to that.

Again, no serious Christian Calvinist (and what other kind might there be) justifies domestic violence or abuse on the basis of their Calvinist theology. At least, I have never met one or even heard of one.

So, given the possibility that some knuckleheaded Calvinist does use Calvinism to justify domestic violence or abuse, let me say no Calvinist theologian I have ever met would justify domestic violence or abuse.

However, one approach to defending the thesis that Calvinism (not Calvinists) justifies domestic violence and abuse is that, even if no Calvinist uses Calvinism to justify it, the ideology or theological system of staunch, consistent Calvinism provides a justification for it.

Here is how that argument would go. According to staunch, consistent Calvinism (based on Calvin’s own doctrine of divine providence as spelled out in “Institutes of the Christian Religion”) God designs, foreordained, and renders certain everything that happens – without exception.

Calvin gives an illustration of a merchant who foolishly wanders away from his traveling comrades into a forest and is set upon and murdered by thieves.

Calvin argues that, although the murder seems “fortuitous” (accidental), a Christian will view it as planned and foreordained by God. In that case, Calvin specifically rejects appeal to mere divine foreknowledge.

Now, let’s be clear about something: Not all who call themselves Calvinists or who belong to Calvinist churches or groups agree with Calvin about everything.

So, when talking about “Calvinism” we have to look to historical-theological prototypes beginning with Calvin (and perhaps Zwingli before him) and later theologians who agreed with Calvin about major points of doctrine.

Back to the hypothetical argument. Because Calvinists from Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to Charles Hodge to John Piper have held strongly to meticulous providence in the sense that whatever happens, nothing excluded, is part of God’s great plan and design and rendered certain by God (Hodge’s language but agreed to by all consistent Calvinists), even domestic violence and abuse must be willed by God.

However, that argument would overlook the common Calvinist distinction between God’s two wills – decretive and prescriptive.

According to Calvin and all consistent Calvinists, there is a difference between what God decrees shall happen and what God commands that people do and not do.

Christian ethics, for Calvinists, depends not on God’s decrees but on God’s commands.

Let’s go back to Calvin’s illustration of the merchant’s murder. God decreed it and rendered it certain – for a greater good (that we may never know or understand).

But God has condemned murder, so the murdering thieves are guilty before God for murdering the merchant.

Of course, this is a head-scratcher for many non-Calvinists. And it is also for some Calvinists.

I have heard John Piper admit publicly that he cannot explain how a sinner is responsible for committing a sin when the sin itself was designed, ordained and governed by God.

But Piper said both are taught in the Bible, and he is comfortable with the mystery of it all.

So, given the common divine command approach to ethics taken by Calvinists, a Calvinist can and usually will condemn domestic violence and abuse as contrary to God’s prescriptive will – even while holding that it is decreed by God.

Of course, as an Arminian, I have to spell out the alternative approach. There are two distinct wills of God, but they are not decretive and prescriptive; they are antecedent and consequent. Domestic violence and abuse are contrary to God’s will in both.

But that’s not my main purpose here in this blog post. My main purpose here is to argue that true, historical-theological Calvinism does not support or justify domestic violence or abuse and that those saying so have not studied Calvinism enough.

Unless what they are saying is that the deep logic of Calvinism has a hidden justification for domestic violence and abuse that Calvinists have not recognized as such. But the same could be said about any and every evil.

But, commonly, Calvinists will reject that “deep logic of Calvinism” argument as wrong-headed.

In ethics, they will say, we pay attention to God’s prescriptive will, not God’s decretive will, even if that lands them in appeal to mystery. Every theology appeals to mystery somewhere.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Olson’s blog. It is used with permission.

Roger Olson

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”